“Omnia mutantur, nihil interit”
(Everything changes, nothing perishes)
― Ovid, Metamorphoses
“Energy can be transformed from one form to another,
but can be neither created nor destroyed.”
― 1st Law of Thermodynamics
Two thousand years before Kafka’s Gregor Samsa woke up as a cockroach, Ovid, the literary bad boy of First Century Rome, was writing about metamorphoses dire and diverse. In a world caught between human folly and godly whims, his luckless heroes find themselves transformed into birds and beasts, trees and mountains, even constellations of stars. In some cases metamorphosis is meted out as reward, in others as divine punishment. And looming over every verse is the specter of death, the final transformation, a terminal point at which change is irreversibly arrested. To read these stories is a potent reminder that life is by its nature a transformative journey, where fate and character interact in unpredictable ways.
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
― Franz Kafka
Burning Man is routinely described as transformative. At the personal level, a transformative experience. At the group level, a transformative event or culture. What does that really mean?
From “It changed my life” to “it’s changing the world,” Burning Man is a million stories, and the through-line across them all is change. Mutability. A tempering or annealing, like metal in a forge or glass in a kiln. Shedding the dross, revealing the true nature within. A crucible of souls.
We look at ourselves and think: I want to change. My surroundings, my community, my company, my city, my country. Innovation, modification, diversification. Evolution and revolution. But how much of this is will, and how much destiny? Do our true selves lie within, like the form inside the sculptor’s marble, waiting to emerge? Or must we find some north star, set a course, and lash ourselves to the wheel? In a world of manufactured desire and alluring spectacle, can we trust our own instincts?
“When the butterfly takes wing, nothing of the caterpillar remains.”
― Alejandro Jodorowsky
As much as the personal journey of change may consume us, it takes place in a broader context, a tapestry of interrelated transformations of which ours is but one thread. Looking beyond the horizon of the self, we are surrounded by and inseparable from a world in constant transition. The political landscape and the physical landscape, our planet, in a cascade of tipping points. Do we have the power to influence these changes rather than just lament them, to bend the arc of history? And if we don’t have that power, does anyone?
This year’s theme is a celebration of change, and an exploration of uncertainty. As such it invites a consideration of time; not its circular nature, or its attendant ritual, but in this case the relentless flight of time’s arrow, and an embrace of the elusive now. Memory is fickle, and the future is uncertain. None of us knows what he or she will become, but we can seek to understand where we are at this point in our transformative trajectory, this fleeting chord on the strings of existence.
Transformation happens whether we believe in it or not; but if we have learned anything in our Burning Man experience it is that we do have a say in our own futures, that agency is ours if we choose to pursue it. While we may never know the ultimate outcome, there is a shared belief that our dreams matter, and that together and as individuals we have the power to shape our own stories and transform ourselves in positive ways.
“That’s why [Burning Man] has spread so contagiously, and caused people to take it back with them, and apply it to ordinary life: because it has engineered a change in who they really are.”
― Larry Harvey
Alchemists have long sought to master the art of metamorphosis through esoteric means, transmuting base metals to gold and breathing life into the inanimate, thereby hoping to achieve transcendence over the material world and challenge the dominion of gods and kings. This year’s theme is an invitation to explore new forms of alchemy, reliant not on some elusive Philosopher’s Stone but on the limitless powers of the heart.