What Is Burning Man?

Burning Man is a celebration of self-expression.  That makes descriptions of the Festival problematical since it leaves a unique impression on each of the 40,000 attendees (or citizens, as we were called).  For me, it first seemed mostly about the art.  But eventually it became an adventure in risk-taking and stepping outside of my comfort zone.

It’s called the Burning Man Festival because the highlight event is the burning of a giant wooden effigy on the Saturday night prior to Labor Day.  The burn is said to symbolize letting go of something – anger, bad habits, memories that have held you back – it’s up to the individual.

The art was impressive – towering wire mesh statues, flaming serpents, unicorns rising from the Playa.  Art cars (powered vehicles dressed up as ships, trains, flying carpets, flowers, cupcakes and more) roamed the open desert day and night offering visual entertainment, music and rides to nowhere.

Burning Man couture is an art form in itself.  Some attendees are costumed as birds, superheroes, outer space aliens or famous characters from film or literature.  One mixed-gender group roamed the Playa dressed as The Stepford Wives and passed out muffins.  A set of “bug people” in lab coats warned that only cockroaches will survive the nuclear age.  Many burners wear little or nothing at all, which was a shock at first.  But the shock quickly evaporated into the heat and dust of the desert.

The citizens of Black Rock City represent a cross section of ages, types and background.  Anyone who believes the Festival is just for aging hippies or the young may be surprised to find that attendees include highly-placed corporate executives, aggressive sales people, mechanics, artists, writers and even the occasional drop out.  But for one week in the desert, this rabble becomes a true and trusting community.  Violence?  I never saw any.  Danger?  Even on the darkest of Burning Man’s dimly lit streets felt – and were – safe.  Pickpockets?  What would be the reason – there’s no money to spend so none is carried.  Burning Man is the quintessential hug-fest where everyone seeks ways to be friendly and caring toward each other for seven summer days.

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Alan Markow, president of AM Communications, has worked in marketing, public relations and corporate communications for more than 30 years. His experience includes senior management positions in communications and Investor Relations at companies as diverse as National Semiconductor, GTE (now Verizon), Praxair, VLSI Technology, C-Cube Microsystems and JPMorgan Chase. He is now a free-lance writer for newspapers and magazines, and a blog writer on politics and other issues. Prior to starting his corporate career, he had been a broadcaster, journalist, advertising and PR copywriter and speechwriter. He served as a Navy journalist and broadcaster during the Vietnam era, where he was television and radio news director for the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service station in Keflavik, Iceland.