Ties That Bind, Ties That Burn: Burning Man in the Age of Coronavirus

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Photo by Marcin Frej

This post was originally published in the Burning Man Journal on March 20, 2020, and is authored by Burning Man Project CEO Marian Goodell.

Like you, we’ve been watching with alarm and growing dread as the coronavirus has spread around the globe. And this week, it hit home hard for all of us at our San Francisco office, as residents of California were ordered to shelter in place for at least three weeks.

It might not surprise you though to learn that for many of us, sheltering in place wasn’t that hard of a mental reach — we already know and practice how to provide for ourselves and others. So we dusted off our playa shopping lists, hung up some blinky light strings, and got set to be home for a while.

Our extended community has in a very real way been practicing for this moment for years — how to provide for ourselves in a difficult environment, and then how to take care of each other and those in need. Just like on the playa, once you’ve provided for your own basic needs, the impulse we’re seeing so many have next is, “Who can I help? How can I contribute?”

A case in point right here in the Bay Area — Burners are RIGHT NOW organizing the collection of unused N95 masks to be donated to front-line medical workers in need, and in just a couple hours have already found dozens squirreled away in their playa bins. Got some to donate? Email tomwprice@gmail.com to arrange safe pickup and delivery. Live outside the Bay Area? Burners Without Borders is helping you with resources to reach out to your community and organize a collection on your own. Don’t wait for someone else to lead — remember we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Things like this can happen in our community because Black Rock City is a place where when someone has a bold idea, people don’t respond by saying, “Here’s why it won’t work,” but rather, “Here’s how I can help.”

The power and impact of that community-centric way of thinking is really needed right now. Many members of our community are artists, makers, and small business owners, who have watched their income evaporate overnight. They may be physically safe, but financially and otherwise are in precarious places. We urge you to reach out into your community, find those in need, and then find out “here’s how I can help,” and then we ask you to share your stories here.

We’d also love to hear about how you’re staying connected during what can certainly feel like an isolating time. How are you coming together to stay apart? This piece from the one-and-only Caveat has some great thoughts on bridging the physical gap and staying connected.

In moments like this, it can be hard to imagine a better time, one where this experience is a memory. Hard too to imagine packing up and heading out to the desert in August. And yet, we know that with enough work, we will all get through this.

Right now, countries like China and South Korea have successfully begun to “flatten the curve,” and some have suggested that here in the US this crisis will peak in the next few months, and then begin to subside. Many canceled springtime events are already re-booked for this fall, some of which are now set to happen shortly after Labor Day. The truth is, we don’t know — no one does. And yet the calendar marches on, and with it our need to plan ahead. So, until we learn otherwise, we are going to proceed thoughtfully and mindfully with preparing for Black Rock City 2020. This means we are continuing with the Theme Camp Symposium on March 28, which will be online of course, and in early April we will be distributing art grants to the artists who have been awarded honorarium. Main Sale tickets are scheduled to begin registration on April 1. This will possibly be delayed, and exact details will be forthcoming.

Information changes daily, and the spread and extent of the virus and how it could affect our gathering in the Nevada desert is largely unknown. The event is scheduled to happen in five months. But a lot can happen between then and now, so please know we will be coming back to you often as we learn more and our decision making firms up.

As for how Burning Man events might change, as always that is for us to decide together. The nature of what we co-create is a special gift in a moment like this; as a temporary community built entirely by its participants, Black Rock City is a place we collectively get to reimagine and remake literally from the ground up every year. Which means if and when we do decide to proceed, we’ll be able to examine what and how we do it, and then re-engineer our camps and art and interactions to make them as safe and responsible as possible.

To that end, over the next several months, we’ll be rolling out a series of updates, suggestions, and new tools, for how we will safely and responsibly come together at the end of this summer. (If someone has a design for a DIY foot pump hand-wash station, for example, we’d love to see it.)

Some have asked what if anything this means for our long-term sustainability plans. The short answer is we need to walk and chew gum at the same time. Climate change threatens the same scale of broad, deep impacts as the coronavirus, albeit over a longer time scale, and also offers similar choices to each of us as to how we acknowledge, and accept personal responsibility, for our role as a member of our global community to help solve that crisis as well.

We intend to make the annual event and global community an ever-evolving laboratory of innovation and experimentation, where the best ideas can be tried, refined, and shared in an open and collaborative way.

As members of the year-round Burning Man community, we’ve all had the experience of making a profound connection with someone, without knowing their background or bank account, often without even knowing their name. Yes, the art is amazing and the music is great and the experience is often overwhelming, but at its core, Burning Man is a year-round community of people united by shared values and a commitment to creating something better, together.

Those kinds of connections, our capacity to share with strangers and make moments of magic together, are the heart of what the Burning Man community is all about. And they are the exact same skills and mindset that will help us all get through the storm that is COVID-19.

You don’t need to be on the playa or at a Regional Event to have those moments of magic, of synchronicity, of wonder. We can build those moments wherever we are, when we let our guard down, open our hearts, and ask what can be. We look forward to joining you in co-creating that future.

For more information about Burning Man, Black Rock City 2020, and COVID-19, please see this related post.

Burning Man is not a festival! It is a global cultural movement rooted in the 10 Principles, with a vibrant network of events and communities around the world. Burning Man Project is the nonprofit organization that supports that culture. Get the latest news from Burning Man Project in the Burning Man Journal, follow us on your social network of choice, and be sure to sign up for our email newsletter, The Jackrabbit Speaks.

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