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A Burner Lexicon: Participation

Posted in A Burner Lexicon, Burning Man, and Guest Bloggers

Participation encourages Burners to experience live fuller, more free, and more satisfying lives. Black Rock City, 2009. Photo by Jim Scripps / Reno Tahoe.

Participation, Our culture encourages consumption of passive entertainment. Even when we escape the home, we attend events where everything is guided for us — we are either audience or performer, spectator or creator. We pay money to passively watch music events, theater, movies, and so on, always knowing the limits of our role. At other festivals, paid entertainers play while others consume, not only limiting the creativity of most attendees but also setting a value on involvement, whereby some people are ‘official’ or ‘professional’ and others strictly amateur.

When speaking of an attendee of an event in the Burn community, one does not refer to a visitor, ticket holder, viewer, audience or spectator but of a Participant. A Burn is part concert, part dance party, part fashion show, and part art gallery but these things happen because of the efforts of those who attend. A Burner fashion show typically consists not of outside models, but of individual Burners showing off their finest outfits, often acquired freely through the gift economy. Though there are art grants, they often require addirtional fundraising by artists and the creations themselves are often participatory, encouraging viewers to push buttons, turn levers, write, draw or otherwise interact. Musicians perform not because they are paid, but because they made their own way to the event (or were paid to come by the fundraising efforts of other participants).

Though That Thing in the Desert has a limited number of year-round, paid employees, all events are almost entirely run by volunteer labor. Though the BMORG (or its local equivalent) may deal with the hurdles of ticketing and permitting, it is participants who build the temporary city, from its airport and post office to its nightclubs and pancake camps. Participation breaks through the filters that keep people separate and plunges the one into the many and the immediacy of the experience. Participants look at Burn events as a chance to push boundaries, try new things, and expand personal horizons through experience.

Greeters often ask new arrivals what they plan to give; No Spectators is one of the community’s rallying cries. Many have experienced the rush of looking around at the wild debauchery of Burn Night and realizing they helped create that moment through their hard work. Some can afford to volunteer year-round for their community, others give much less. The Burnier-than-thou often judge other Burners on the degree of their involvement, overlooking the many kinds of participation — a concert is just a private jam session without an audience and a DJ is pointless without people to listen or dance.

Virgins are often discouraged from volunteering too heavily for many reasons, but one is the important lesson it teaches in the myriad ways we can give — at the lexicographer’s first Burn, he felt as though he was not contributing enough until he realized the true value of cooking a hot, filling meal for his more involved campmates.

The Lexicographer has been soliciting opinions from other thoughtful Burners on the Ten Principles. Below you will find two opinions, but more are still welcomed. Use the contact information at the top to send yours.

For more entries in A Burner Lexicon, visit

RANGER BEAUTY, a long time Black Rock Ranger, opined:

If you want to just watch Burning Man, go to You Tube.

BRANDON is the writer behind the Burning Log, a source of often sarcastic Burner opinion. He wrote:

No matter how you dress or what you do or how crazy you behave at Burning Man, there’s bound to be someone who will dub you a tourist. I have a term for these people: “assholes.”