What is Burning Man?

Burning Man is humanity’s middle finger to an uncaring universe.


Burning Man takes place in the Nevada dessert. Its extremely hot and bright during the day, and can become bitterly cold and completely dark at night. It is almost completely inhospitable. The term dusty is an understatement as the entire surface is an old alkali flat. High winds can create dust devils that completely obscure vision and can tear up a poorly staked tent. Overall, its a place no human was ever meant to be.

Yet, Humanity appears to take this as a dare, as a challenge. Black Rock City is made up of roughly seventy thousand souls that are trying to bring light and color to the darkness; music and noise to the silence; art and life to a desolate place where none has the right to be. The universe has marked the desert to be empty and void, and humanity in it’s arrogant beauty simply responds, “No.”

Humanity decided to put vibrant art, loud music and teeming life in the middle of a desert wasteland. They decided to fold a huge origami crane and set it beside a giant Victrola. Lights and music swirl and combine with fire as the participants themselves create a unique, singular and utterly fascinating moment in time. Where there is no right to be laughter or grief, Black Rock City decides to nourish it. Humanity creates a week of laughter and joy and sadness; it marks a week of celebration and mourning as well. Ultimately, Burning Man is a microcosm of human experience shoved into one short week in the middle of a timeless, uncaring desert.

What is the human experience? Well, it is the joy of a giant swing set, the despair of remembering lost loved ones. It is the discomfort and vulnerability that forces us let our guards down and truly be ourselves. And in that moment, it is social encouragement to revel in that authentic expression. Almost immediately, those individuals quickly grow and swell into a horde armed with water bottles, EL-wire and LEDs shouting, screaming, singing and whispering “Why not?” and “Why not now?”

And ultimately, when the event nears its end. The city disappears into the dust. Some of the art is burned. The titular wooden man is incinerated, along with the temple. The scores of souls make their way back to the “real” world. This highlights the ephemeral nature of our humanity and the real need for immediacy in our lives. We too often live in the past or in the future, and never really live, enjoy, or suffer the now.

Overall, this is why when people ask me about Burning Man, I rely on that simple explanation. Burning Man is large enough that you can make it whatever you want. People can focus on the absurdist theater; they can focus on the music and the dance, the people and the art, the friends and family that fill the desert for a week out of every year. They can focus on the chaos and the noise. But, for me, personally, the only summary that truly encompasses the unique event is that Burning Man is humanity’s middle finger to an uncaring universe.

  • March 5, 2018