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So, what the fuck is burning man? Before I participated in it, I thought I knew what it was... then I actually saw it, and this is my take.

Because of the 11th principle of buring man, Consent, I'm gonna try to communicate this while avoiding photos that contain people.

The first thing I didn't realize about BM is how much is actually about cars.


We arrived about 2pm, and didn't get to our allocated camp site until dark at around 8pm.

Here is a photo I took later in the week, from "the skybar", which is a scaffolding tower, 5 floors high.


Yeah, so basically burning man is a refugee camp in the desert. 70,000 refugees from the default world drive here in their RVs, pickup trucks, cars, etc. Then leave them parked with the engine idling (to drive the AC) and have a massive party. It's called Burning Man, and man, there is a lot of burning stuff here.

One day, I rode a bike out to the depot, here is one photo of it.


This is the not a party section of burning man. I wasn't really ment to be here. As you can see, there is a chain link fence and signs that say "no party", and yeah, trucks full of burnable dinosaur.

Running Burning man takes some serious infrastructure. Somewhere there is a burning man high command and they need to know what is actually going on. This is also at the depot:


Anthropology is based on the idea of Participant Observation, aka, Deep Hanging Out. I started probing the general social structures of burning man. Black Rock City is the whole thing, and that is divided into villages and camps. The villages basically organize themselves however they want. There is a huge diversity of organizational principles. I saw one camp that had it's own mess hall with benches lined up. We stayed in hushville - where the basic idea is to be quite, and no generators! next door was kidsville (where they are trying to raise 2nd generation burners)

One of the most amazing things about burning man, is that while it's an enormous out of control party, everyone picks up out of themselves. This is called "leave no trace" and is taken very seriously. What you call "rubbish" BM calls "MOOP" - Matter Out Of Place. Everyone trains everyone to not drop moop.

After everyone goes home, a team from the DPW (department of public works) goes over all the camps with rakes and records how much moop they find.

Here is their map from 2006


The moop map is one of the few aspects where coearsion is applied to the BM social structures. Moopyness is one of the factors that the placement committee considers when giving out areas for villages. If you are bad, you might get moved from your preferred location, or worse, not allowed to return next year (the worse punishment!)

Here is the map from 2016, which shows the system works! far more green, also note the map is a lot more detailed


The leave-no-trace principle is one of the things that makes burning man possible, because it's a condition negioated with the BLM (Bureau Of Land Management, i.e. the actual US federal government). It's essential that everyone cleans up after themselves so the government allows it to continue.

I spoke to a BLM agent, he was wearing a uniform and had an actual gun on his belt. Their camp had a CCTV camera... and the best map.

There was a map given out to participants, it was generally useless - not much detail, and many things missing. Eventually I discovered the DPW map, which actually had all the camps labled (including infrastructure which participants don't need to know about) and the BLM had their own copy of this map which also had their own colour coding system on top of the DPW map.


I took photos of the map they had on display and then used that. It's laid out like a clock, times out from The Man in the center, with cross streets A-L around that.

Speaking of guns, on 4 days, there was a fighter jet fly by. It was nevada, so there is military stuff nearby (area 51, right?) but it didn't just happen to fly near, it flew very purpously, very low, very loud, right down the 6:00 main street, then turned very sharply. As if to remind everyone that the default world exists and who is in control of it.

It occured to me that BM is large enough to have millitary implications. You can certainly see it from space. One consequence of all the requirements of moop, and surviving the heat, is that BM actually has to be organised, so there is 70k people who can work together, outside of the default system, and do it well enough that spending a week in the desert is actually fun.

The thing I liked least about burning man is how wasteful it is. We basically trucked in a large amout of capalitistic surplus and burnt it. Burning Man is not economically or energetically sustainable. It's socially sustainable, because it has inspired a huge number of people to come every year. That was another striking thing - the range of ages there is very wide! There where a lot of people with grey hair! I'm 34, which is probably in the middle.


Just down the road from the depot is the airport. It's a real airport with a real airport code (88NV) many people fly their own planes in (and then camp next to them) but there are also commercial flights. There is a boarding lounge tent with seats in rows and check in counters and a security check and boarding gates, sufficiently compliant with federal aviation regulations.


Control Tower, with steamroller for smoothing the runway.


A commercial flight boarding


When I got to the airport I realized there where a bunch of people waiting to go up in planes. You can just come and have a ride over BRC! I spoke to someone who was about to get on a plane, and they said they had been queuing since 4am. it was about 9ish by now. I would have considered waiting for a flight too, but I hadn't had breakfast yet.

Okay, that is one angle on BM, more later.


I went in '99, '07 and '08...there was quite a bit of change over that period of time that I saw. These photos are saddening to me, as I don't remember any sort of infrastructure like this, and law enforcement was undercover and pretty much non-existent. There was more of a sense of anarchy. My first year everyone complained that it had gotten too large, and they had to forgo the "drive-by shooting range".

I hope you saw some artwork that blew your mind. They still do artwork, right?! I have fond memories of coming across pieces when the environment was just right and being shaken to my core.

One such instance was a bicycle powered zoetrope with monkeys swinging around a spinning tower, although from a distance I couldn't quite understand the mechanics of it. I, at first, thought that it was acrobats in gorilla costumes, and I couldn't wrap my head around how they could swing in such a synchronized fashion without risk of falling. The piece transformed for me little by little as I approached it, new pieces of information being absorbed as I got closer. My mind reeled at being unable to explain what it was seeing, and I couldn't blame it on drugs. Even as I figured out that the motion that I had perceived from a distance was only a trick of flashing lights, I was amazed by new details that I had not seen from a distance. The whole tower's lights and motion was being powered by people pedaling bikes. It really was a thing of beauty, with no real purpose but to tantalize.

I tried to find videos of it on youtube, but none capture the effect well, so I will just leave it to your imagination.

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haha, yes of course all the stuff is still there! I just didn't photograph it! plenty of other people did look at it and even photograph it. I just like to look at the parts that other people don't look at. I talked to one BLM guy, but apart from that no visible law enforcement.

There is something for everyone at buring man. The experience that I had and what I looked at probably would not seem fun to many other people - that is radical self expression (5th principle) - I met someone who was part of a team that wrote a daily newspaper for BM (a huge amount of work, they said) there is a volentare postal service.

You can walk past a thousand people having a great time, and not want to go to that party. I could care less about big things with shiny flashing lights like the Mayan Warrior. BM is big enough to have it's own main stream and it's own alternative culture inside of it.

At one point, I saw this massive fiberglass tree with glowing LED leaves, it really bummed me out. It was too perfect, but still not as good as an ordinary tree. It just seemed like a waste of time and effort (and money) but then I got on a ramshackle pirate ship art car and someone was nice to me and then I was having a great time again! (more on the social structures inherent and evident in art cars later!)

2 months ago
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Great information, thanks for sharing.

In my opinion, albeit as someone who has not been to burning man, the culture is dying as privileged white kids come and launch fashion labels on instagram from the playa.

I have met a number of the Burningman originators, long term burners and current management. It seems there is about to be a major split at burningman.

We also have a couple of friends with goals to run festivals of similar size and original ethos..

Talk more when I see you

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@serapath re:ledgers that is actually a lot like what I was thinking with e-land... though, it's not so much about an ideal system, but rather about what I think might work in a given context. Though, after attending burningman I'd encourage members to form subgroups (theme camps) that did their own self governance, including coming up with their own rules if they liked. It's hard to get people to agree so if you design for needing less agreement, it'll be easier to find people who agree with you.

If it was at Bir Tawil it would be different again.

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