This was my fifth Burn – that is, if you count only the big event in Nevada, and not the regional events in other locations. I certainly would not say that this makes me a veteran. Many of my friends here have been coming for more years than it takes both hands to count. Others have been volunteering for the appropriately nick-named Org, as though it were some kind of seven-headed beast from the book of Revelation, which I suppose it could be.
I came the first time to determine how one could get involved with Burning Man in a significant manner. I came the second and third times to build interactive art projects with a team of friends. I came the fourth time to make a trial run on the concept of satire as prophetic annunciation – I am still working on that idea.
It has been three years since I was last there. My plans for this year did not work out as anticipated. I was supposed to be camping at Gigsville, one of the original “Villages” at Burning Man, but in my travels across the U.K., those plans got lost in the tent and motorhome shuffle. So, I put out an APB on Facebook, and my friends from Sacramento, Brian and Amber Barger responded with something like, “We’d love to have you at Ludus Symposium.” And suddenly, I was going to be camping closer to the middle of everything at Burning Man than I had ever been. I was going to be at 5:45 and Awe! Of course, if you haven’t been to Burning Man, that doesn’t mean anything to you. What it meant to me was that we were going to be situated about as close to Center Camp as possible, and equal striking distance from everything at the event.
Brian and Amber and my new friends at Ludus Symposium created the most hospitable setting in that desperately inhospitable environment that is the Black Rock Desert. Paul Dodos and I were the second campers to arrive. Indy (or Dr. Blackheart as he is known of in the Steampunk world) had arrived shortly before us, and was looking for our little piece of dust mapped out on the desert floor by tiny blue flags. Four days before the event began, Indy, Paul, Amasian (David) and I set up camp on the space that would become Ludus Symposium and waited for the team and the trailer with the supplies to arrive. Until then, we sat around and debated the existence of God, tried to get involved in helping other groups with projects they were building, or went on excursions to find friends and discover the art emerging on the playa.
Spirit Dream is a camp doing dream interpretation and serving coffee in their espresso dome. They have been there for nearly 15 years. Paul and I stopped to say hello. This was the first camp I stayed with at Burning Man in 2010, and I forgot how many friends and acquaintances I have among. Each time I return to visit it feels like a bit of a reunion.
Paul and volunteered one evening to wire hand-blown glass bowls onto the outside of 20’ tall metal dome. This would later become the head of giant jellyfish just outside Center Camp. I scaled the outside of the dome and wired the glass bowls onto the frame, while Paul sat on the scaffolding on the inside and held the bowls in place. Occasionally, it was a bit precarious when I had to stretch my body horizontally across the side of dome to reach out and wire the glass on the frame, but when it was all done and the jellyfish head was mounted on the top of the sculpture with a crane, I could point up three stories and say, “I put some of those on.”
When our camp mates finally arrived on Friday afternoon, it was a frenzy of work to put camp together. We built a small bar and movie screening area. Added a eating location for the camp, complete with a swamp cooler, and positioned everyone in their camp locations. This was three days of work with lights, and shade tents, and signs, and bike racks, and seating; and we were doing this in what must have been record heat for the festival. It was well over 100˚ every day of the event, and by mid-afternoon we would have to take a break, and restart our set up as the sun moved toward the mountains.
This year’s Burning Man was more of a preparation for next year than anything else. I am hoping to be part of building a project, which at this point is still in the consideration and planning stage. But planning does not mean that action does not take place. This was a year of making new friends, connecting with old friends, playing music and performing, encouraging a small group of my rebel missionary Christian friends who are among the denominationally incompatible (as my friends in the U.K. call it), and discussing spirituality with assorted people across the event.
As much as ever, I am convinced that the festivals and “transformational” events like Burning Man hold an anchoring point in reconnecting Christianity to a place of relevancy in a post-modern world. These are the places where people are running to experience inspiration, and new ideas. These events are influencing social action, business, art, and philosophical and theological frameworks all around us. Elon Musk of PayPal, Tesla Motors and Space X says that Burning Man and Silicon Valley are one and the same and that, “If you haven’t been you just don’t get it.” Larry Page from Google, Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook and a host of other tech-celebrities are regular participants in the event, and draw inspiration from its open economy and wild creativity. To be a transformational agent within the transformational events of this world is at the heart of my passion for investing time and labor into world of festivals.
Burning Man was my second Burn of this year. The first was Burning Nest in Cornwall, UK in May. This was also the tenth festival I attended over the last four months. Some might think that I am living a leisurely dream-life, but the fact is that I have not worked so hard in years. I arrive before the partiers arrive, and leave after they have gone home. I set up and take down, and move onto the next festival as soon as the last is finished. During the events, I stay up late into the night talking with people about God, and life, and spirituality; and often am one of the last to bed and among the first rise. My late nights move into the early morning, because these are often the times when people are open and talking and reconsidering their life’s path. These are the moments that don’t frequently occur at home in our frenetic work-a-day lives.
The festivals have also become a connection to the subculture transient world of travelers. People who do not have an address are among the invisible in our society. Nations do not know how to establish connection to the nomads among us, and they quickly dissolve into persona non-grata. Many of these nomads are found in the festivals. In the last couple years of festival work I have connected with UK travelers, Roma, hippies, homeless traveling war Vets, and the “Dirty Kids” (mostly middle class kids in the US who have left home and are traveling the rails or hitchhiking across the nation). This becomes another critical reason for developing a robust engagement with the world of festivals.
I am not alone in this passion. There are heroes of the Christian world who have been doing this kind of work for a long time. Glyn and Emma Moreton travel to about 40 festivals a year in the UK and make Steampunk wear. They transitioned from working as missionaries overseas to working in mission at home, but once they embedded themselves into the world of the festivals, the church no longer understood their mission, and has accused them of compromise and heresy. Steve Hollinghurst has been training people to work in New Age settings in the UK for years. Diana Dingles Greenfield is a Goth Vicar in the town of Glastonbury, England and has been a chaplain to the club scene and to the famous Glastonbury festival. Papy Fisher in North Carolina has developed a group called Desanka, which ministers in a number of festival settings, and helps transform every environment they touch. Jamie and Tim from the Love Project in Maine have been coming to help us in Salem for years, and now are reaching other places such as The Fringe in Edinburgh, Scotland and Witchfest in Brighton, England. Cate and Joshua have been working in Rainbow Gatherings for over 20 years. There are too many people to mention, but in face of a world running to carnivals and festivals and concerts for their inspiration, the number of people ministering and loving people in the festivals are too few. We are in need of planting, what I have been calling, micro-churches in festivals all around the world. As one simple example: I joined the Iona Community at the 250,000 attendee Glastonbury Music Festival this year. They were among three Christian groups in the festival. How many cities of 250,000 people do you know with only three churches? This example shows the dearth of positive Christian influence in the world of festivals. Of course, the operative phrase here is “positive Christian influence.” Too often Christianity has been a negative influence to the counter-cultures among us. This is unfortunate, especially considering that Christianity was the greatest expression of an emerging counter-culture our world has ever seen. It is time to return to our radical, revolutionary, counter-culture roots.
Next up: Salem, MA and a month of Halloween. This will be year number 18, and I am looking forward to being back to the place I call home for a couple months.
This has been the first 4 months of my first year of doing this full time, and it has not sunk in that I am a nomadic traveler. This probably won’t sink in until mid-November, when I leave Salem, MA for the winter and travel south with Priscilla, the new-to-me ’91 Winnebago.