Burning Man is a story field

From high above, you’d think Burning Man was just a bunch of objects.

You take the vast, blank field of the Black Rock Desert, place items and humans in a C-shaped formation, and you have yourself a Burning Man.

Now that Black Rock City has found its shape, it looks more or less the same from orbit year over year, although it scoots around the playa a little bit. Our festival of spontaneity begins to look pretty repetitive from high up.

How much more Cargo Cult does it get? We build our city of cars and altar of sticks, we burn the altar, we demolish the city, and then we do it again. We keep having this festival to blow up reality or whatever we’re doing, but reality keeps on being real, and we keep building this C-shaped pile of objects over and over again. Does this not meet the definition of insanity?

This all sounds silly to anyone who’s ever seen Burning Man up close more than once. We know it’s never the same. When you’re back in the City again after a year of anticipation, your memories of Cities past shimmer all around you, but the twists and turns aren’t quite right. Things are on the wrong side of the street. This camp is a little closer to that camp and a little farther from the other camp. It’s like dreaming of a city; you know it’s the right place, but it’s eerily — sometimes utterly — unfamiliar.

That’s the feeling that reveals the secret: What makes it Burning Man isn’t the objects, their positions, or our positions in relation to them. It’s the fields of meaning we create between them. Let’s call them stories. The people and objects shift around, disappear, and reappear, but the stories stay.

Burning Man is a container. We empty it and fill it every year. We fill it with stuff, and we fill it with ourselves. The rituals, the customs, the outward husks that get shown in the media, that’s all Cargo Cult stuff. The stories are the part we take away, keep, and share, and those are never the same twice. That’s why we keep coming back.

I think that’s something all Burning Man artists/architects should keep in mind. A giant elephant statue is one out of a hundred huge things people see during their week at Burning Man. There are multiple huge explosions every night.

But the people who sang to the elephant in the dust storm made something singular happen. The people who started kissing the instant before the huge explosion across the playa will never forget that moment because of the incredibly tiny odds.

So don’t make objects. Make story fields. Make places where things will happen once and never again.

Do you have any of those unbelievable stories from Burning Man? Submit them to Tales From the Playa at reflections@burningman․com here: reflections (at) burningman.com, and I’ll be the lucky guy who gets to help you publish them.

All photos by the inestimable Scott London.

About the author: Jon Mitchell

I'm the managing editor at Burning Man. I wrote this book and this record. I co-wrote a big story about spending 24 hours at the Temple of Juno in 2012, which lives at templestories.com. I've been a Burner since 2008.

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