Q&A – Can You Explain Burning Man to Someone Who’s Only Been to Electric Forest? – Burning Man vs Electric Forest Part 1
Posted February 12, 2018
This question came up a few months ago in a discussion regarding the Mechan-9 art piece at Electric Forest in Michigan. Mechan-9 was one of many pieces that was once found in the deep playa at Burning Man, but found it’s way to Sherwood Forest. This connection brought up questions regarding Burning Man, and how the experience compares to Electric Forest.
Q: I was looking at Burning Man info all day to see what I thought of checking it out next year. Kinda seems like Forest, except rather than relaxation and comfort, it’s about trying to have fun despite huge annoyances. The way they act on their subreddit didn’t really inspire me either. Anyone here done both?
A: I’ve done both, and although each are very different, they are both special in their own way. I’ve done three years at Electric Forest, three burns in Black Rock City, and one regional burn, with plans for three more burns and one Forest this year.
Burning Man is absolutely amazing in a very unique way. It’s not a “festival” in the way you’re used to. There’s no artist lineup. No schedule or set times. No curation. It’s not an event where you just buy a ticket and attend to see who’s playing and what attractions are new this year. “Burning Man” itself doesn’t create the event for you in the way Electric Forest does.
Burning Man is an event that everyone there puts on together. For each other.
In defense of the subreddit (where I’m, admittedly, an active member) – Burning Man has a tradition of pranks and tricks that a lot of newbies don’t pick up on right away. It’s not just a subreddit thing, it applies to the entire burn. That part of the culture usually reflects poorly to those who don’t understand it. People will troll you if you ask questions that show you haven’t done basic research (such as reading the Survival Guide…), but no harm is meant by it. There are a LOT of inside jokes. Misleading people is all part of the fun. Do your research, ask smart questions, and show that you’re willing to put in the work to contribute (and stay alive), get involved, and treat it as more than just a party being thrown for you, and people will be happy to help. You should consider the subreddit a warm-up, because you’re 100% getting relentlessly trolled IRL while you’re there. That being said – some people on the sub take it a step too far. Those people are not an accurate representation of the community.
As far as the event itself, it certainly isn’t easy. If you’re looking for a trip that’s “relaxing” or “comfortable”, this is not the place for you. Burning Man is held in one of the most inhospitable locations in the world. The days are oppressively hot, the nights are frigid, and you’re constantly coated in a layer of corrosive dust that ruins everything it touches (including your skin). The wind can gust out of nowhere and toss a 200lb steel carport 50 feet in the air with no warning, if the carport hasn’t been properly anchored with two foot long rebar, pounded in with a sledgehammer and reinforced with ratchet straps. Your EZ up and Walmart tent that made it through four Forests isn’t going to make it out of the burn in the same state – it’ll be irreversibly touched by the playa. There are many hours of research to be done about what you need to get through the week, and plenty of chores to do while you’re there. The environment makes it extremely uncomfortable, and you’re probably going have a bad time because of it… at least for a little bit. It’s a pain in the ass just to survive.
Once you’re set up, you’ve pounded your tent stakes 18″ deep and have a shelter that won’t crumple at the first gust of wind, you have to live there. The conditions make day-to-day life significantly more challenging than in a lush green forest. There’s nowhere on the playa to buy food, nowhere to get water, no specified place for showers, no hotels, and no garbage drop off. You’re expected to bring everything you need to survive 10 days, as though you’re alone in the desert; that includes, food, water, shelter, transportation, first aid, protection from the wind, dust, and sun, and any comforts you need. There is no garbage pickup, and leaving trash behind is prohibited – you’re expected to pack out every bit of trash you create, right down to the seeds in your watermelon, the sequins that fell off your outfit, and every baby wipe used to clean your playa-cracked hands. The same goes for water – it can’t even touch the ground unless it’s perfectly clean. No dumping out the remains of your warm, dusty drink on the ground, or tossing the water from the end of your ramen noodles like you would at Forest. Want a shower in the 10 days you’re there? Not only do you need your own water and your own shower, you need to ensure any used water doesn’t touch the ground. Yep, that means designing a system to collect it and store it, and haul it out – just for a shower. Sure, you may find a camp nice enough to offer you a shower, but that’s just a gift – not something you can count on.
On top of dealing with your own survival, you’re also expected to contribute to the community through volunteering, gifting, and creating art. But it’s so, absolutely, over the top, mind-blowingly worth it.
How does this all compare to Electric Forest?
There are many ways that Electric Forest and Burning Man are similar, but in the end they are completely different types events. Electric Forest is an absolute vacation compared to Burning Man. If you’ve got a few bucks, everything you need is available and plentiful. Amazing food can be found at every corner, and clean filtered drinking water is free. Showers are a few bucks if you feel the need to get clean, and if that’s not good enough, there’s an entire waterpark to hang out in. You don’t have to do much of anything to prepare aside from buying a ticket and packing your tent – a few dollars can buy the time you’d lose to planning. Merch is plentiful, the entertainment is provided, and anything you need can easily be found or purchased. You don’t even need to bring a tent if you can afford it. The whole thing is designed to be as easy as possible – hell, you can even buy a ride back to your tent if you don’t feel like walking. Yeah, the days get hot and the nights get chilly, but there is plenty of shade and grass where you can relax. Everything is simple.
On the opposite end of the scale, Burning Man assists with only the bare minimum to get you through the event alive. Almost nothing is provided aside from porta-potties and ice sales; the environment is harsh and unforgiving, and money won’t help you if you run out of water or forget something important to you. You’re expected to plan as though you’ll spend the week alone in the desert, relying only on what you carry in with you. Now I’m not saying that people won’t help you, but the things you need to live come only from your only planning, and anyone who chooses to help you out. There’s no food court or shakedown street if you underestimate your pre-entry grocery run and need to find something to eat. Poor planning means you’ll need to either find someone who’s willing to share their resources with you… or leave. And no, bartering is not cool. It’s a gross misunderstanding that Burning Man works on a bartering system. Even speaking the word “barter” or “trade” will get you dirty looks from some people. Remember how I mentioned you’ll get trolled mercilessly if you do something that shows you haven’t done your research? This would be one of those things.
Burning Man is NOT a bartering system, it’s a gifting economy. If you’re in need of food, you might find someone who’s gifting food that day, but they’re under no obligation to do so. That’s where participation comes in, because the community wouldn’t be what it is if all you do is take – you’re expected to provide your own gifts, too. Cooking food or providing drinks for others, building art, providing services like bike repair, putting on performances and workshops, or volunteering with city services are all great ways to participate and help create a full-functioning community. The people there definitely aren’t heartless, and are usually more than willing to help you out as best they can as soon as there are signs of trouble. Most people would jump at the opportunity to get someone out of a bind.
Although it’s often ignored, survival and self-care is an important part of Burning Man…. but let’s move on to good stuff. There’s a reason people attend every year, and it isn’t because it sucks.
The venue itself is divided into the city where people set up camp, and the playa, the wide open area where you’ll often find art and roaming mutant vehicles. The term “playa” means dry lake bed; the entire Black Rock Desert is a dry playa left over from Lake Lahontan. Just to make things confusing, the word is used interchangeably at the event and can sometimes refer to the dust itself (“my lunch is covered in playa!”, “I got playa in my eye!”), or to the open portion of the venue outside of the semi-arc shaped city streets. This open area is further divided into “inner playa”, and “outer playa” or “deep playa”. Oh, and it’s pronounced “ply-uh”, not “play-ah”.
The playa is expansive, and there are an incomprehensible number of amazing and unique things and people to explore and discover, both in the city, and out on the playa. Most of the activity in the event takes place in the city, with it’s hundreds of unique camps; the deep playa is probably what you’ve seen in pictures, because although it’s inhospitable, it’s breathtakingly beautiful. Unlike Forest, with a fence and security check dividing the campsite and the venue, you’re free to roam between the city and the playa at any time. Art and music are everywhere in an absolute sensory overload experience. There is no schedule; immediacy is one of Burning Man’s 10 Principles – it’s very likely that you’ll only attend things that you stumbled on by coincidence.
I had some friends come to their first Burning Man this year after three Forests together. I’ll explain the playa to you like I explained to them.
Imagine a night in Sherwood Forest. It’s 11pm, everyone’s excited. It’s dark, and there are lights and distractions everywhere. You have no real destination other than adventure.
As you wander through the trees, you notice some lights, or a little bit of art out of the corner of your eye. You run over and check it out. Sometimes there’s so much to look at that you get overwhelmed. There are so many things happening that you can’t decide which way to go. You hop from one thing to the next, running wildly through the forest, never stumbling on the same place twice. You hear music nearby and the sound takes over your mind, so you start walking towards it… but half way there your ears fill with another sound and you change course. On the way to that new thing you run into more art, actors, brief interactions with amazing people, and mysteries. You may not ever get to where you were going, or even remember where you started; you stop to see whatever you’re drawn to along the way, with no real destination. It’s incredible, right?
Now, lets move on to Burning Man. Instead of being in a small Forest where the next thing to distract you is 30 feet away, put it all into a MASSIVE SPRAWLING DESERT where the next thing to see is a 3 minute bike ride away, or 10 minutes on foot. It’s far enough that you can barely see what’s ahead of you. You can’t just take 10 seconds to run and check it out, you’ve gotta be committed to making the trip without really knowing what’ll be waiting when you get there. Getting split up from your friends to see something else doesn’t mean you’re a few feet away and can just yell to find them; it means they’re totally gone. The entire city is something like 3 MILES from end to end.
Imagine now that you’re in the desert. You load up your pack with food, and water (because you might be gone for hours or days), a mask and goggles in case of dust storms, and a coat for the frigid night because you have no idea when you’re coming back. You hop on your bike to try to find some interesting art thing you heard about in the deep playa. Maybe it’s Mechan-9, even. You’re not really sure exactly where is, and you can’t see it, but you know it’s a 10 minute bike ride from your camp, straight out into the desert – at 11 o’clock and 5,200 feet. Locations in the deep playa are listed as a only a distance and hour (as though the map were the face of a clock), there’s no other point of reference. There’s nowhere to stop for shade on the way, it’s just open desert and dust in every direction. It’s easy to get turned around and lost, or end up in a very different place than you intended.
Lets say you get lucky, and you find your way to the robot on the first try, with no distractions. As you approach, a dust storm kicks up – suddenly there’s nothing around you and Mechan-9 but a 50 foot tall wall of dust. All it takes is one moment of distraction while you try to decipher the robot’s secret language, and you lose track of which direction you came from or how to get home. You’re a mile from the edge of the city, and even further from your camp. You quickly dig your goggles and dust mask out of your bag as your hair and lungs fill with dust.
Shortly, a few other people appear out of the dust and join you on this 30-foot robot, which has become an oasis in the white-out. They’ve been out all day and have no idea where they are either, they just needed somewhere to take a break. Now you have a choice – you can try to wait out the dust with these strangers, hoping it settles enough for you to get your bearings without too much of a wait… or you can accept that you’re lost and adventure on into the dusty abyss with only the supplies in your pack. You prepared for this and have a backpack full of everything you need to keep yourself alive for at least a day. There’s so much else to see – filled with adrenaline and adventure, you decide to hop on your bike, pick a direction at random, and you just *go*. You have no idea where you’re going, or what you’re going to find, but you’re ready to find out.
On your bike, you drift through the dust. You have no idea where you are, but you’ve been riding for quite some time. How haven’t you hit the trash fence yet? You start to wonder if you’be accidentally left the confines of Black Rock City and are truly lost. You become incredibly aware of how isolated you are, as the dust forms a wall that slowly closes in around you. You try to remember the last time you experienced such profound emptiness.
Just as you start to wonder if you’re riding in circles or have lost your mind, the dust settles for a split second, and off in the distance you see a lighthouse. It’s seems like it’s quite some distance, and you’re not even really sure it’s there; bits and pieces of odd things are fading in and out of your vision in all directions. The dust kicks back up again, and you can’t see it any more, it disintegrates back into the clouds, but you definitely saw something that you’re mostly, almost completely sure is real. But what the hell, it’s Burning Man, what else are you going to do with your time? You head in that direction anyways. It’s a complete white out and you can’t see 10 feet in front of your face, you’re only hoping that you’ll catch a glimpse of it again through the dust before you accidentally pass it. You’re riding straight into the wind – the dust feels soft and powdery on your skin, but your legs are on fire. You’re thankful you remembered your goggles this time.
You never actually find the lighthouse (was it really there at all or was your mind just playing tricks on you?), instead you find something much better. First it’s just a little glimpse of a neon light; and then the sound of thumping bass. As you get closer, it materializes, and next thing you know, you’re standing face to face with a giant, glowing, futuristic sheep, crawling through the abyss. This sheep is three stories tall, made of some luminescent material, and it has lazers for eyes. Thumping beats rumble through the clouds and you’re sure you’ve found something real; you’re happy to have an anchor to the known world. You found like you’ve just found civilization again after crawling out of a cave.
The sheep points it’s eyes at you, and you stop in your tracks. What does it want? Are you not supposed to be there? Is this some sort of battle cry?
Over the thunder of the bass, you hear cheers, and become aware that the eyes are meant to welcome you. With a megaphone, a stranger wearing neon pink shorts tells you to get on board and join them. You’re just happy to have found real people. You hop off your bike and hang it from the rack mounted on the sheep’s back end, run for the stairs and hop on board. They have a massive sound system akin to most world-class clubs, and there’s a DJ in goggles spinning a set. You’re sure this music sounds familiar; with relief coursing through your veins, you let it take over. You’ve never heard something so infectious.
Someone hands you an icy cold beer, and you’re finally able to relax. You decide to take a minute to make your way up the stairs and see who’s in the booth. You weren’t expecting to recognize anyone here, but much to your surprise, you’re standing 15 feet away from one of your idols, Carl Cox. He never mentioned online that he was playing here today, he just took the opportunity and went for it, a special surprise for anyone lucky enough to stumble on it. Think of it as a private set for you and the 25 other people on board your sheep oasis spaceship. You know your friends back at camp would LOVE to see this, but there’s no signal on your phone, and you don’t even know where you are, or how long he’s playing, or where you’re going. Your friends might not even be at camp, they could be on an adventure of their own. You decide to just enjoy for what it is, and absorb every moment of bliss, because it’s happening right now, and you’re the one that gets to experience it.
For the next hour, you stay on the sheep; chatting with amazing people from all over the world as they climb on board, every one of them there for a different reason, with a different story to tell. Some have been attending for years and are a part of massive camps; others had no idea what they were getting into until they were gifted tickets the week prior. One is from the neighboring city, while others have flown half way around the world for this. You’re oddly intimidated by how interesting the lives are of each person you meet. Eventually, it starts to get dark and the dust settles down, and the art car stops at a huge hanging structure made of stairs and rope, twisted into a three-dimensional maze. It reminds you of an M.C Escher drawing come to life. Everyone excitedly hops off the sheep, and starts climbing all over the structure, hanging upside down, occasionally falling to the ground. You feel like you’re on a third grade field trip and have just stopped at your favourite playground. The sheep uses it’s lazer eyes to light up the structure like a dance floor.
Someone ignites a set of fire poi nearby and puts on a performance for those around; everyone stops to watch while hanging off the rope at all kind of impossible angles. You have to wonder how some of these people are so physically fit. A cute little ladybug car rolls up, a nice older couple get out of the back. They’re look to be in their 70s and could be your grandparents, but they here for their 15th burn. They live for this shit. They tap you on the shoulder and offer you a sno-cone filled with booze, as though they could sense you’ve had a long day and could use a treat. At this point you’ve been gone for hours. You’re in the middle of a toasty hot desert, you’re completely filthy, your hair thick with dust, and utterly exhausted… and all you can do is feel thrilled by the fact that you’re now eating a sno-cone at some 4-dimensional staircase made of rope while Carl Cox serenades you from a giant mutant sheep with lazer eyes. What is even happening right now? Is this real life?
Despite all the excitement, eventually you become aware of your exhaustion and decide it’s your time to move on. You look around, dreading the long journey home, expecting only to see a few pieces of hazy art off in the distance, preparing for the ordeal. But, now that the dust has settled and it’s dark, you realize you can see for miles. You quickly forget about going back to camp. The city came to life while you were busy eating your sno-cone. There are lights, and fire, vehicles, stages, and bikes going in every direction; the horizon is nothing but densely-packed lights. You don’t know which way the city is and which way the playa is, because it’s all just lights and chaos no matter where you look. Are you really in the same world you were in earlier today, when you were questioning if you’d lost civilization?
You spent the day on your sheep oasis, but there are 900 other art cars cruising the playa. There are 500 pieces of large-scale art where you can go to climb, explore, relax, and get lost. There are 1,200 camps, each and every one offering music, food, drinks, games, crafts, workshops, orgies, lounges, cuddle puddles, pillow fights, gyms, showers, yoga, clay-making, Nickleback, movies, and literally anything else you can imagine, along with a plethora of things you can’t. And you spent your day on exactly three of those.
And it’s not a “small” gathering either. Half the art cars rolling around have PK and Funktion-One sound systems that blow away anything you’ve heard in a club. The production level is off the charts. There are multi-level stages with ziplines, trampolines, hanging nests full of pillows. You can see Infected Mushroom while you swing on a set of swings hanging 30 feet in the air from a scissor lift. There’s endless things to climb and place to play ways to push your boundaries. Next door there’s a zip line from a bar on top of an 50 foot tower. Down the street you find a skate park, right next to a roller rink. On the next block over you pass a huge wheel that holds you by the feet and flips you upside-down. Is this even safe? YOU’RE responsible for your own safety. And as far as music, you don’t even know what DJs or bands or independent artists are playing, but there are 100 different options in any direction at any given time to suite even the most unique of tastes. Even if you carefully read the guide and research every camp and know exactly who’s supposed to play tonight, the art car they’re on could be anywhere. So you just ride around and find something you like and roll with it.
But as hard as I try, Burning Man is something that’s impossible to describe. It’s impossible to convey the intense feelings; the scale, the adrenaline, and the excess of unique options for things to do. I could write forever about it; the positive, the negative, and all the other emotions in between, and I would never do any of it justice. It’s something you truly have to experience for yourself.
If you’d like to read more, check out my earlier post on EDC to Burning Man and watch for Part Two coming soon!
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