12/16/2013

Why isn't Burning Man a festival?

burning man center camp portal art
building of the center camp keyhole sculpture
For some reason it seems that the culture of burning man is averse to the idea of it being a festival.

The organizers of burning man sometimes call it The Project, sometimes it's The Event, and sometimes it's That Thing In The Desert. Rarely ever is it a festival, or the festival. Some burners on social media, and elsewhere, even speak out against anyone calling it a festival in a reaction that one can tell makes them cringe inside. But, why the aversion to calling this thing a festival? Is someone calling burning man a festival truly misunderstanding what it is?


The organizers of burning man might like to say that it isn't a festival because participation is encouraged. Some attendees might feel that it isn't a festival because there's no Official Stage for musical acts, or that there are no vending booths. But, festivals have been around far longer than the ones they seem to refer to. While perhaps among some of the most well attended and highly visible, commercialized big dollar concert festivals are hardly representative of the word, or the history of festivals.

With evidence for festivals, of some type, stretching back well over 3000 years the shock that some feel when burning man is called one seems odd. If anything it would seem that the culture that makes up burning man, which often draws from spiritual, mystical, and ritualistic references, would embrace the idea of burning man as a Festival with a capital F.

Many of the festivals that we see to this day, and throughout history, are ones that one might argue are in-line with what the organizers of burning man espouse. Festivals that are representative of cultural traditions throughout the world are often non-commercial events. They are things which call upon either locals, or people from all over a region to come together and share, to be together to celebrate, or to mourn, or both. Whether they be festivals of religious import, non-secular festivals that mark the passing of seasons or a harvest, or ones that celebrate a historical event the pattern in traditional festivals remains that they are largely acts of communal participation and not of commercial enterprise. 

Do burners feel that not calling it a festival isolates it from the world of westernized commercial summer concert festivals that their friends or family might be attending? Is that a way to better describe the experience in a world where traditional non-commercial festivals aren't extant? While the experience of burning man is surely different from a 2 or 3 day concert, and there may be no easy way to describe what burning man actually is to one who hasn't been, many of the same things are surely at festivals of some type.
lamplighters doing their nightly rounds

An outsider might have trouble seeing the difference between an Official Stage at a dance music festival and a large stage at one of the big Dance Camps at burning man. An outsider might have trouble seeing the difference between the nightly performance and ritual of The Lamplighters at burning man and the traditional festivals of Japan, where costumed individuals often perform. An outsider might have trouble seeing the difference between the camping areas of burning man and the camping at festivals in Europe. An outsider may have trouble seeing the difference between the ritual burning of The Man and many fire festivals throughout the world.

Whatever the why, or the how, it seems that in some way people feel that burning man is different. But, it seems that in trying to disconnect it from thousands of years of history, removing it from a continuum and insisting it's an 'experiment in community' and not a festival, it removes it from a rich tradition from which it could learn from and expand upon. If burning man is to truly expand across the globe and fulfill cultures of all types it will eventually hit up against this cultural aversion to being seen as a festival. As it creeps into smaller corners of the world and further outside of the United States people might find that it resembles, more and more, what people in some far-away-from-Nevada region may see as a traditional festival. And it will probably be OK.