.Social Capital Burns Bright

Playa life connects people in ‘default’

When the temporary metropolis of Burning Man is disassembled without a trace on the playa, the participants in Burning Man, known as Burners, head back to “default,” another word for everywhere else. 

Behind the founding of Burning Man nearly 40 years ago was the intention to create and spread new ways of living. What is it that Burning Man brings to the rest of us, out here in default?

To answer this question, one need not look far from home. The North Bay is one of the places that has attracted a concentration of talent from Burning Man. 

Longtime Burners with deep roots in the area even attract the deal flow to support artists from farther afield. Sometimes such a deal looks like studio space to support an art grant, like the case of Erin Douglas, assembling her piece “Black, Ase!” at the Marco Cochrane Studio on First Street. This was covered in the Bohemian profile of Aug. 17 on the artist’s work to improve racial inclusion at Burning Man.

Living in Black Rock City is very much about getting beyond the use of money as the dominant means of exchange. Since decommodification is one of the principles of the Burning Man movement, let us explore some of the other ways that Burning Man creates value out here in default.

The fact that we use words like capital and value to describe the impact of an anti-capitalist endeavor shows the power that the current economic paradigm has over how we think. 

Social Innovation

“Rather than talk about social capital, I think, ‘What is the benefit for all of society from Burning Man?’ is the better way to judge what’s really going on.” That was the response to my question from Ed Fletcher, a Burner since 2009, lead of a theme camp and the president of Sacramento Valley Spark, a nonprofit that hosts year-round Burning Man community centered events. 

Fletcher is also a volunteer coordinator in the Sacramento region for the Burning Man organization. “Which basically means I go to meetings,” he said in an emailed interview. “And I do get a free ticket to Burning Man.” 

These widely distributed events subsequent to the desert gathering are essential to the intended impact of the Burning Man movement.

“The late founder Larry Harvey truly believed that Burning Man could change the world by impacting the relatively small population that comes and then, through networks of affiliated organizations and people, creating events and experiences of the same mindset,” explained Fletcher.

That mindset is one of alternative modes of living and a radical idea of the value of self-expression. 

“People who attend use [Burning Man] as an opportunity to express themselves in new and creative ways. This creates a lot of spontaneous interactions that they never would have had,” said John Stayton, a Sebastopol-based sustainability leader, co-founder of the GreenMBA and a specialist in organizational innovation.

“There is a reason why the founders of Google and Elon Musk and all those folks go to Burning Man,” said Stayton. “They recognize that this is where social innovation is happening, and they want to be a part of it.” 

The basic structure of Burning Man fosters innovation, according to Stayon. The basic unit of Black Rock City is the theme camp, which camp teams build and live in during the Burn. “These camps are organized in a huge variety of ways, so there’s a lot of innovation that happens and gets spread [out through] people” at the event, he explained.

Sachi Denison is the leader and mayor of the theme camp Unicorner. 

“Black Rock City couldn’t exist without this network of people who are living and working together in a really harsh environment to collectively create a community with a vast array of experiences,” she said via email as she prepared to head out the desert with her camp partner and husband, Russel Woods.   

“Many of the connections I make with other Burners lead to more opportunities to collaborate and create. So many things we’ve created happened because we knew the right folks with the right combination of skill sets to make some magic,” she said.  

Burning Man itself gives one of the biggests clues to how it can impact the rest of the world, according to Denison. “It’s such a do-ocracy,” she said. “1600+ theme camps are there via the blood, sweat, tears and funds of the people who organize them in order to gift an experience to others.”

And it’s true. There are two things that define lifelong Burners: They are building community, and doing crazy shit.

Impact at Home

On the phone, Woods was busy with preparations to head out to the desert. He said with a strained voice, “I’m reaching deep inside my RV right now.”

“Thank you for that graphic image. That really brings it home,” said I.

“Hey, I mean, you’re gonna write about it; you got to hear about it,” he said with a laugh.

Woods is the Unicamp’s head of erection, meaning he leads the build of the camp over 50,000 square feet of playa, including a 20 foot by 24 foot public lounge, a 16 foot dome with a unicorn horn and crow’s nest on top. “There’s a whole kids’ games area… with stuffy launchers” built with his son, Orion. It was a pivotal moment for his family when they moved from North Carolina to northern California to be closer to the year-round Burner community here.

A recent exhibition at the Petaluma Arts Center called “Afterburn” explored the benefits and meaning of a year-round Burning Man community.

Local artist and activist Drake Cummingham was one of the organizers for that event. “I am very much into engaging other artists with the Burners, having them be, you know, more part of the community, not just the art community but especially the whole community,” said Cummingham.

“I do believe that public art is important for communities,” said Denison. “It elevates and inspires us and hopefully bridges connections and increases communications. And it’s awesome to see so much of the big art of Burning Man making it out to where more people can enjoy it and hopefully learn from it. If all of that can encourage more art, more community, more togetherness, then I think that holds immense worth.”

“More and more cities will come to understand that Burners can create a lot of good in their community and that they are artists at heart,” Fletcher said.


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