No Spectators: A Guide to Participation at Burning Man

Article by: Graham Berry|@Festival_Writer

Wed August 15, 2018 | 16:00 PM

At pretty much all festivals you buy a ticket and walk about from stage to stage. At good ones, you’ll find rabbit holes to stumble into between stages, but at Burning Man the experience is altogether different. During a festival showing up with money in your pocket and some good walking shoes is enough to fully enjoy just about all the event has to offer, but at Burning Man things aren’t so simple. The sanctuary of safe and separate viewing areas is surrendered all to be a part of a social experiment guided by an ethos with 10 principles. Also, every art sculpture, dome, and mutant vehicle zipping around Black Rock City was created as a gift by someone else who came the same way. Somehow every road, camp and open bit of playa in the sprawling city is another part of the same stage. One experience leads directly into another and virtually none are created without someone (who bought a ticket to attend) rolling up their sleeves to build it. It’s this a collection of gifts that make Burning Man the special place that it is.

YOU are Burning Man, so participation isn’t really an option.

According to the Burning Man Journal, Burning Man’s official blog, “No matter how big and crazy our temporary city gets, it’s always going to be a community. And it’s always going to attract awesome people who find their own ways to participate." It’s this characteristic that leads some Burners (this author included) to suggest on occasion that Burning Man has broken the festival mold, since there are no ‘festivals’ that are born this way. Even the Smithsonian and MIT have recently recognized the ingenuity of participants from Burning Man with exhibits and research studies, respectively.

Participation: Defined

Participation   Photo By Scott LondonPhoto by: Scott London

If we were to define ‘participation’ or the purposes of this discussion, we coułd say that it’s an act in service to the shared experience, a contributing expression of intent to enrich the state of being for others. Examples of participation in Black Rock City can include: volunteering for the Department of Power and Water (DPW), you can join a fire concave, become a greeter, build an otherworldly art installation, or take part in a theme camp.

In the vastness of the city, there’s no shortage of opportunities to apply a skill you already have or to learn an entirely new one that interests you. Here are just some of the most rewarding avenues for participation available to the citizens of Black Rock City.

Volunteer for Department of Public Works (DPW)

Dpw At Work   Photo By John CurleyPhoto by: John Curley

If your cape is a toolbelt, then you’ll probably be right at home in the Department of Public Works (DPW). These are the do-ers. The people who put the ‘city’ in Black Rock City. They set it all up and tear it all down. Then they drag and sift what’s left to hold the city true to the principle of Leave No Trace. Getting involved is easy, especially if you have experience building logical roads, street signage, building shade structures, placing spires, wiring city lighting… You get the idea. To join in the dusty fun, all you need to do is fill out the General Volunteer Questionnaire and email with a note to describe your skills and expertise.

Audition for the Fire Conclave

Chow In The Fire Conclave   Photo By Graham BerryPhoto by: Graham Berry

For those who like their dust with a hint of danger, the Fire Conclave is just the ticket. Members of the Conclave practice in troupes for months in advance of the event to construct a safe choreography routine incorporating the use of fire. They send in audition tapes for their group performance to ‘the Fire Council’, which includes Tabasco, Little Dragon and Crimson Rose. Those who are approved earn a space to perform around the man during the namesake ceremony that sends him off in flames. Throughout the rest of the event these daring “flow artists” showcase their craft day and night.

Become a Greeter

Greeter   Photo By Jo Ann Latvaitis

Photo by: JoAnn Latvaitis

Got an iron smile? How about enough snark to lasso a sparkle pony? A few days as a Greeter is not a role for the faint of heart, but it’s truly one of the most important when people come to Burning Man without knowledge of the 10 Principles. At the frontlines, these dust-covered troopers are both the welcoming committee and the first chance to educate newcomers who through no fault of their own may be ignorant to the ethos of Black Rock City. With a frontline of greeters at the ready to explain concepts like matter out of place (MOOP), leave no trace, and radical self-reliance, Burning Man replants the seeds of community and reaffirms itself as a ‘home’ to many.

Build an Art Installation or a Mutant Vehicle

Light House Art Project   Photo By Scott LondonPhoto by: Scott London

Burning Man is full of thought-provoking sculptures and massive mutant vehicles, and they all tell a different story. Through the Black Rock City Honoraria Program artists from all over apply to participate with the gift of art. Some are selected to be showcased on the esplanade but everyone is invited to participate. For engineers and designers, who draw endless inspiration from Playa art are some of the most celebrated creators in the city. In recent years art and art cars have included stained glass, arduino controlled light systems, some of the most elegant metal fabrication ever seen and, of course, some sculptures incorporate fire into the design or in rare cases, they elect to burn it entirely. Big and small, to make great art at Burning Man you don’t need a lot of money or even a ton of knowledge. Just ask any experienced Burner, all you really need is the guts to go for it!

Join in a Theme Camp

Theme Camp   Photo By Tony EdwardsPhoto by: Tony Edwards

The most common way of becoming involved at Burning Man is by way of theme camp. They’re essentially the DNA of the Burning Man community. Outside the crucial infrastructure, every experience that happens at Burning Man is created in some way, shape, or form by Theme Camps. The camp you choose will become an important part of your identity at Burning Man. They will be the ones (usually) to give you a ‘Playa Name’. They will show you all the tips and tricks that make surviving in the desert a little easier. And, if you’ve got a really solid group of Burners in your camp, you’ll have a new family before the dust settles too.

The culture of mandatory participation is perhaps the most redeeming quality to some in a wasteland of alkaline dust that conspires to kill you. Some will see it as a journey of self-discovery wrapped in a first-hand test of survival where a deepening involvement is the key to getting out alive, others will view it as an opportunity to dig deep, to test the limits of what you can do in service of others. However you choose to see it, it’s your participation in Burning Man that will pave the path for its evolution and (at least, to my knowledge) there really is no other event where everyone there can have a hand in creating the weirdness and wonder that makes it what it is. Perhaps that’s why Burners glow with pride when they talk about Black Rock City.

They built it!