‘The Man’ and Burning Man

David Gunn writes:

Each year has its personal symbols, the few things that you might recall 5, 10 or 20 years later. For me, 2010 will be probably be remembered as the year i eventually went to Burning Man festival.

I first came across the festival during a Henley Centre project for Arts Council England back in 2003. We were looking into alternative organisational models for the creative sector, and Burning Man was an intriguing case. Nominally a festival amongst many others, it is far more than this. A temporary city of 50,000 people that appears for one week in the Nevada desert, and disappears without a trace. A “gift economy”, where things aren’t bought or even exchanged, but offered freely by all. Temporary encampments and neon motorcades, dust storms and sociological debate, bicycles and all-night dancing.

Seven years later, I eventually got to visit in person. What struck  me was that all the things you hear about don’t really matter. The gift economy, the imposing artworks, the harsh environment of the desert playa, all of these are little more than “necessary pretexts” – ways to access a certain quality of experience, a sense of playful freedom. We started most days with little idea about what would happen, and any plans we did make would inevitably fail, overshadowed by the joys of random discovery – cycling in solitude, playful conversations with strangers, getting lost in the dust and wind.

As everywhere else, brands are finding ways to inch in. As we arrived, i watched two undercover executives from an alcoholic beverage company arrive in an RV filled with crates of alcohol to “gift” to fellow travellers. Not surprisingly, this kind of activity is frowned upon throughout the event, and some actively oppose it. But more broadly, it is a classic case of brands being unable to respect a different type of community, a type of experience that they simply cannot (and should not try to) co-opt.

That’s not to say companies can’t learn something from an experience like Burning Man. But rather than trying to take a product out to Burning Man, they might do better to bring a little bit of it back into their own organisations. Organisations tend to think that their success pivots on the ability to answer consumer needs. But in an increasingly stable and controlled world, events like Burning Man demonstrate people’s appetite to  be outside their comfort-zone, to be challenged and renewed. And it may be a little late in January to be pushing for resolutions, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more companies skip the worn-out promises, and actively engage people in questions, disruptions, challenges. They might just thank you for it.

This is a guest post by David Gunn. He now runs the specialist cross-disciplinary creative organisation, Incidental. The pinhole photographs, also by David Gunn, are published here under this Creative Commons licence.

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