Burning Man is Not a Place
People all around the world create annual events that align in principle. Some have over 10,000 participants like events in Israel and South Africa. Some have under 20 participants, like “Melting Man” in Fargo, North Dakota. They are collaborative art experiences, celebrations, healing rituals, mutual aid, and fun for a good cause. For 2 decades our global community has been bringing people together.
Andie Grace and Michael Vav talk with Iris Yee, Head of the Burning Man Regional Network, about how various groups activated during these strange times, and what they’re creating next. Here we are re-reminded that it’s not about how many or how far, it’s about the culture, the collaboration, and the conversation. This is the What Where When of thriving.
2020 Regional Highlights (Burning Man Journal)
2021 Regional Network Forum: Emerging, Wayfinding, Igniting (youtube)
2021 Regional Network Forum / Kindling
Burning Man Project’s Radical Inclusion, Diversity & Equity Anti-Racism Pledge (medium)
A Love Letter to Smaller Events (youtube)
Colorado Burner Community: Temple of Tranquility
Iris Yee is Head of the Regional Network at Burning Man Project. Living and traveling in 16 countries has ignited Iris’ appreciation for diverse and ingenious ways of collaboration and creative self-expression. She believes in the power of community to create a positive social impact and is passionate about empowering people to realize their goals. Trained as a sociologist, she worked in communications and event production and brings all that to Burning Man.
Iris first set foot in Black Rock City in 2008, fueling her curiosity about innovative and diverse creative communities across the world.
ANDIE: Hello. Welcome back to Burning Man Live. This is Andie Grace, your host for today. I’m joined by my cohost Michael Vav.
VAV: Hello, Andie.
ANDIE: I am excited about today’s conversation because I have been back with Burning Man for a few years now, helping to host the podcast and also working on other production and publishing projects. But, my original stint with Burning Man began long, long ago, and one of the most memorable moments in my career was in fact when Marian Goodell wrote me in the year 2000 and said, “This is the year I really want to focus on the Regionals,” and I didn’t even know what that was yet.
Long story short, for the early 12 years of my career with Burning Man the Regional Network developed into this amazing program of worldwide impact that is now… It’s so impossible to describe without talking to an expert. And so, Vav, I was hoping that you would help me talk to today’s guest.
VAV: Today’s guest is Iris Yee, Head of the Regional Network for Burning Man Project. She has been, at least two years now, cultivating the community around the globe. Hi, Iris. How are you doing?
IRIS: Hello Andie and Vav. I’m doing well, especially during these crazy times. And I am really glad to have an opportunity to return to Burning Man Live and check in about the global community.
ANDIE: You’ve been actually with the Regional Network in many capacities for a lot longer than just two years, since 2013, right?
IRIS: This is true. I started, gosh, even before then, volunteering to support New York Decompression, in 2008, and had various different roles with the Regional Network and stepped in the role as a member of the Regional Network staff team that year.
I’ve done things from working on the production of large convenings for the regional contact community, to doing what I do now as Head of the Regional Network, which is such a funny title to say, the head of anything at Burning Man. It feels so weird.
VAV: Because it’s a communal effort?
IRIS: It’s a communal effort, and I feel like the nature of some community members to say that there’s a head of anything just feels I think a little awkward at times. It’s just an easy way of just saying that I, and with the support of my amazing team in San Francisco and Reno and other places around the world, are basically responsible for what we think of as the care of our amazing volunteers and people who are really passionate about supporting the Burning Man cultural experience beyond the borders of Black Rock City.
I think of myself as everything from a cheerleader, to a supportive listener, to facilitator, sometimes coach, and a little bit of the network glue that connects some of the people to each other, in the global sort of constellation of different Regional Network communities around the world.
ANDIE: That word choice question has been a part of the evolution of the network in the first place. Like what is a “Regional contact”? What is a “Regional”? “Local leaders” has been in use before. And what is a leader in something where we are supposed to be collaborating, like you said, and everybody brings whatever they bring to the table?
And in some cases I guess there are some really unstructured systems to how people govern and self-organize. That must be really interesting in the last couple of years. Has it changed how Burning Man is supporting regional groups right now?
IRIS: Sure. And nomenclature in the language is so important.And I think Andie, you described the organic way the Regional Network has developed, and it’s come from my point of view a long way from its ignition 20 – gosh – 24 years ago – in 1997. Back then there were, I think, three regional contacts in three regions in the world, and now there’s over 250 around the world, which is sorta crazy.
VAV: Yeah. Who are these 250 people?
IRIS: They are volunteers in your cities, in your towns, who are really deeply invested in nurturing Burning Man culture through activities and projects locally, and also act as like a multi-nodal communications – sort of networking person within the community – connecting people to each other and to resources and projects that could inspire and excite them. In a normal year, we’ve had 108 official regional events around the world.
VAV: And that’s what I love about the Regional Network. Burning Man is not Black Rock City, it is events in so many countries. It’s alive.
IRIS: And they’ve done really great work in sense that they have been able to grant, I think back in 2019, like $1.1 million US dollars in art grants, which is really cool to see how that those funds, generated through those community events, go back to artist communities that are creating these community art projects.
VAV: And yet so much has changed since 2019.
When we checked in in May, 2020, we were, what, two months in the pandemic? I don’t think we would have foreseen how the normal ways that community members connect or engage would be totally upended.
What I’m really happy to hear is how some communities have reacted, and while physically apart, are experimenting with different ways to connect with each other and foster Burning Man culture in their towns.
ANDIE: What’s a favorite example that you can name from last year?
IRIS: Oh. Gosh. I think one of my favorite examples are socially distanced art experiences where people who have art – it could be art that was intended for a regional event or another place and is being stored in your garage or other place – people are motivated to put it in their front yards or in a parking space and create a sort of like mobile art tour or experience. There are different cities that have done something like this, in public spaces in Austin and Seattle, they have different names. Seattle called their first art tour experience “SMART – Seattle Multiverse ACTUAL Reality Trek!” The acronym.
ANDIE: And that was art in people’s yards, right?
IRIS: Yeah. It’s not just art, it’s also folks who create theme camps, consider creating a theme camp experience in your front yard? That concept has been extended to other times of the year. I think there was a Halloween themed one. There’s some photos circulating on the internet, variations of what you’ve probably seen, like the socially distanced candy chute.
ANDIE: At the Regional Summit last year, which we’ll talk about in a minute, we actually heard from Tara from Seattle telling us a little bit about the SMART art tour.
VAV: I’ll play that clip now.
TARA: Seattle chose to take our inspiration from the Burner art Safari in Austin, and create a guided city tour, a self-guided city tour of art music games, and ultimately baked goods, which really stole the show. We were trying to find a way to make the process as inclusive as possible, not just for participation on the final product, of course, but also in the creation.
There was an amazing mix of art and performance that happened. We had a minimum safety criteria and people just did amazing things with the criteria that we established. It was really an interesting project because we didn’t know what people were going to come up with in that space. We just wanted to create a canvas for people to be able to paint with their own particular colors.
We also wanted it to be a sort of choose your own adventure for everyone who was involved – not only for our Burner community to feel like they had a space to go and be with each other in a safe way, but also for our non-Burner neighbors. This event turned out to be an incredible community outreach project that none of us really foresaw happening in that way. Many neighbors who didn’t know what Burning Man was, didn’t really know the folks who lived on their street quite as well, really came out in force to be part of this. And that was an even more amazing piece of this.
VAV: I love this because it shows familiar art, art that we’re used to seeing on the playa, even art built for the harsh environment of the desert, but now juxtaposed against backyards and fences and trees and houses. It’s like bringing the magic of the big events to my own little community corner.
IRIS: I love that it’s an invitation, but it’s way more accessible as far as it’s being in your local town and could possibly be where pass where you walk. I love that spirit and I hope that that type of project or experience will continue even as the challenges of the pandemic are lifted.
It’s just a great way to be able to offer that Burning Man cultural experience to folks who might be Burner curious. I know in my front yard (and Vav you’ve been to my house so you’ve seen it) I’ve got a musical contraption that my husband built called The Gamelanagong, which is a homemade gamelan
VAV: Yeah, it has a xylophone and big metal pipes and some hammers to play them, and a gong.
IRIS: And we put on an aluminum cart, and we’ve tooled it and lugged it around Black Rock City several years. And now it lives basically parked in our front driveway for folks to bang on and play.
ANDIE: That’s so fun. And it reminds me of hearing about a session that you did last year with the Regionals called “A Love Letter to Smaller Events.” I think a lot of people who hear about the Regional Network or Regionals associate it with multi-day camp outs, the kind of thing that most of us in the world haven’t been able to do for a couple of years (with some exceptions; we’ll get back to those in a minute). But there is this sort of spirit of just wanting to share something in your community at a time when people’s hearts have been hurting so much, and not being able to be together. And it doesn’t have to be that you’re throwing a party. It can be that you’re putting this piece of art in your front yard and it makes people smile.
And then somebody can organize a map around that, you know. I heard like Sacramento Spark, they did a big formal thing, I suppose, where they used a parkway. And I think it was 400 volunteers that collaborated to make something like that happen. It was another drive-through event, but that’s a lot of people being able to get together and do something fun and participate in community at a time when we can’t necessarily just gather for events in the way we used to.
IRIS: Yeah. Sacramento Spark really was very thoughtful about how they could bring a COVID-safe experience to people, and constructed sort of like a drive-through experience, with fire and sculpture on all sides of the vehicles. They worked closely with their city in order to make this possible, which was a really cool partnership.
ANDIE: Yeah. And it’s so much more accessible, like you said, for some people who aren’t going to pack their bags and go to a three-day campout, but they’re “Burner curious” (as has been said for awhile) and it’s fascinating to watch as, whatever scale that plays out on, for your city, for however many people you have the capacity to build something like that with.
But it wasn’t something that Burning Man cooked up as, like “here’s something that Regional Network should do,” it’s just about people being in contact with each other, through this network that inspires them, right? You’re seeing it play out all over the world.
IRIS: Yeah. And even in non-pandemic years, I think sometimes when people who know about Burning Man regional events, they think about the big ones that boast the splashiest photos and videos that might be captured by participants. The scale of the art is huge, and the scale of the camps are huge. But some regional events or experiences are quite small and intimate and really beautiful. I think the smallest regional event is an event in Fargo, North Dakota called Melting Man. You can imagine what that might be like with like a small 20 person group getting together to have this experience, and I love hearing that it’s in a very different environment than let’s say Black Rock City or MidBurn which is an Israel, or AfrikaBurn which is South Africa. I love that there’s an opportunity to experience Burning Man at both ends of the scale.
ANDIE: You don’t even have to have that much organization. It can just be, I mean, the requirement isn’t that you throw an event, it’s that you get people together face to face once a year in some capacity. For some towns that’s been a lot of volunteerism to improve their local community, not just celebrate, but to collaborate on volunteerism, for example. That’s been a thread through the network and now a lot of groups are participating a lot with Burners Without Borders, and/or making their events benefit such programs.
IRIS: This is true. A lot of groups are thinking deeply about how they can create experiences or projects that can benefit a group that’s larger than Burning Man community members directly. There is a group I believe in Los Angeles, they held a vampire-themed blood drive as a way to like give a fun costumed sort of theme to a very real need: blood donation.
There’s also an initiative called MOOP Your City, where people MOOP – which is to basically clean up Matter Out Of Place (some people might call it trash) in different parts of their region. In Tahoe they did that in costume, which is like, you know, it gives you a reason. Why not collect MOOP or trash in costume?
ANDIE: Probably nobody even had to tell them to. They’re just Burners, that’s what they do, right?
IRIS: Likely. But yeah, I think there are different ways that people are trying to experiment with sharing experience and culture, and also creating that component of being able to channel their energy in communities that are larger than themselves, larger than just specifically Burning Man.
ANDIE: And a lot of what Burning Man Project does to support them is just keeping them connected to one another, right? Like the summits and the mailing lists and the collaborative spaces and the trainings that they’ve shared all these years. It must’ve intensified with the time apart. So, we played a clip from the Regional Summit. How have they stayed connected to each other through this time?
IRIS: Our team has offered a number, an increased number, of online summits to gather our volunteers, our regional contacts, official regional event producers, anyone who identifies as wanting to do something regarding Burning Man culture, out beyond the borders of Black Rock City.
The Regional Network Forum that we produced, I know that some of our regional contacts in different parts of the world continue to convene their local community leaders online. So far, no one has been able to fully gather in person.
And there’s an event in Australia called BONZA. It’s called Burners Of New Zealand and Australia. And it’s been going on, it had a different name a few years ago, but they’re gathering regional contacts and event producers and community leaders from
Australia and New Zealand to be able to share with each other what they’ve been doing and also learnings.
There’s also another leadership event that’s produced by regional contacts in Sacramento, and Tahoe and Reno, called the Multi-Regional Summit. And they held a series of online convenings that culminated in a very, very small outdoor, COVID-safe campout.
ANDIE: I was gonna say, I thought I heard that they did a little bit of gathering in person to see how that might go.
IRIS: They had a small gathering in Nevada as a culmination of their series of leadership convenings, to test out what it would be like. This event is normally, before the pandemic, a rather sizable campout and I went. I was invited in 2015 and went when I was seven months pregnant.
ANDIE: Oh, wow.
IRIS: I remember driving myself from San Francisco (It’s very close to Reno.) and thinking “Is this the wisest decision, really? To go to the leadership campout driving by myself?”
VAV: Many hours, on a mountain range.
IRIS: Okay. Well, we’ll just stick this out.
VAV: Speaking of summits, over the hills, through the mountains.
IRIS: Over the hills, yeah.
ANDIE: Your kid can tell that story forever now.
IRIS: Yeah, this is true.
VAV: I’m already drawn to find more about the regionals happening. You’ve mentioned some of the smaller ones, and some of the big ones that get a lot of attention. And I’m also seeing a Lithuanian burn and something in Japan, the Kairan Burn.
ANDIE: Well, Lithuania was an in-person thing. And Kairan Burn was more like a distanced project, right?
IRIS: Yeah, Lithuania Amber Burn actually happened in person. In 2021, we had 38 official regional events, which is almost double what it was in 2020. It’s still not 108 official regional events, pre-pandemic, but there are groups who are trying to see if it’s possible to gather safely in person, and Lithuanian Burning Man community is one of them with Amber Burn. It’s relatively small. Attendance was kept to 500 and they made sure to exceed all local COVID-19 precautions and regulations, in order to create that environment for people to experience that in person.
ANDIE: Which is probably easier the smaller the group is, and like you said, there are a few events that are experimenting with how they can make that safe, and probably requires their adherence to whatever local statutes are and whatever the local experience is of this pandemic.
IRIS: Absolutely. And events have done a variety of things, including installing health checks to be able to have people share knowledge that they meet certain health criteria.
I look at that number of regional events, 38 last year, with hope that things are possible and I approach, for example, what some regional community members called the Big Burn, Black Rock City, I’m very hopeful about that gathering.
VAV: Me too.
ANDIE: And there are some of the sort of bigger events unfolding. I understand that Love Burn in Miami is returning.
IRIS: Love Burn is in mid-February. It’s in Southern Florida, in Miami. It’s one of the first events in the US to return in person. It is on a public park, on a beach. As you can imagine for folks on the US East Coast, especially if you’re from a cold and wintry and snowy environment, it’s quite a draw. There’s a considerable number of people who don’t live immediately in Southern Florida, who make the effort to travel and bring their art or experiences to Love Burn.
The Love Burn community and organizers have also made some contributions to the park to leave it cleaner than it was every year. If you scroll through some pictures you might see online, there’s a very large heart sculpture that’s in that park and it lives there all year round. It’s grown to be one of the larger official regional events with over 4,000 people, and it’s quite a meeting point of different people from the Regional Network community.
ANDIE: It seems like it, and maybe it’s the setting, maybe like you said, it’s the warmth, but it looks to me like some of the pent up demand of the last couple of years. There’s a lot of theme camps. There’s so much art that’s going. There’s big projects that may also be seen on the playa that I think are bringing at least some components down there. So it’s exciting to see that the artists are able to start moving around with what they do as well, and theme camps.
IRIS: Yeah. And, if you go to some regional events and perhaps go to Black Rock City you might see similar or same art projects pop up. And I think it’s a good way to maybe debut your piece, or maybe test the durability of a piece in a Burn environment.
VAV: Or maybe test your grit.
ANDIE: Practice with your team…
IRIS: Practice with your team, something like that. There’s a number of in-person regional events coming up. I mentioned some of the smaller events, like Melting Man in Fargo. There’s also similarly another Burn event that’s not in the desert or warm and sunny place called Frostburn, and that’s held in Western Virginia. That’s typically in late February. So instead of dry and hot, it’s cold and wet instead; very different. There is an event in Russia also in late February called Kholodok, which is organized by the Russian Burner community. There’s an event called Blazing Swan, which is in Perth, Australia that also will be happening in person.
And AfrikaBurn is gathering all its community members to make a return on their new land in Quaggafontein, which is a move from their previous years’. And that’s super exciting because I think from my point of view in the past few years they’ve really done some very thoughtful, deep work and thinking about how they can use their land. They’ve been offered access to this land, I think it’s a 99 year access point. They have an opportunity to develop a really deep relationship with how they use the land, that many events I don’t think necessarily have. They’ve held what they’ve called “eco trips” where they invite AfrikaBurn community members to come, do some work on the land, and learn with them about how they can best use the land in environmentally sustainable ways, which I think is a really great way to sort of invite that deep thinking, and how to best be stewards of that new land. And their event is in late April, early May.
VAV: Stuart Mangrum spoke with Matt Sundquist of Fly Ranch, Northern Nevada, talking about some of the very ambitious goals that Burning Man Project has put out for ecology, for sustainability, for being carbon negative by 2030, and to have it be better for the climate that Burning Man exists than if it doesn’t. One thing that Matt Sundquist had said was yes, big events like Black Rock City are great testbeds for civic iteration and community experimentation around alternate energy sources and composting and things like that. But also the Regional Network can take the ideas and experiment with them in their own right. It sounds like this is an example, AfrikaBurn taking stewardship over its land and bringing in eco-thinking.
IRIS: Yeah. Not every Regional event group or local community has this great opportunity to develop this super deep relationship that Afrikaburn is embarking on, but I know that there’s more attention paid to the space and desire to be able to learn more. For example, the event that usually typically is a first regional event of the year happens in New Zealand called Kiwi Burn, sadly was canceled due to the shifting landscape of COVID and following regulations about holding gatherings of a certain size, in that part of New Zealand.
But their community was preparing to embark on doing some deep work around sustainability, using that event to launch some of their projects and initiatives. And that they were working in collaboration with the Burning Man Project Sustainability work group in order to do that. So while it’s not happening this year, they have done some deep work.
ANDIE: Yeah. This break from production has afforded Burning Man a lot of time to get really into the nitty gritty on working on that internally and setting those goals. And, I’m sure that’s playing out with a lot of groups taking the time to really plan as carefully as possible.
We’ve also used some of this production break time… I keep calling it that because we haven’t had to make Black Rock City. We’ve certainly produced things online and in-person, as we can as well. But the break from having to produce annual events has given room for that kind of conversation. And another one that’s come up for Burning Man has been the radical inclusion, diversity, equity question. We’ve really done a lot of deep internal work, I think, on how we can expand the availability of our culture in a thoughtful way.
How are you seeing regional contacts and local leadership talk about radical inclusion and diversity and equity?
IRIS: Definitely there’s more conversation regarding radical inclusion, diversity and equity, and what it means in their local Burner community. What does it mean in a structure of gathering, of creating Burner spaces and places, and projects, and I want to also acknowledge that there have been regional communities that have been doing this work way longer than perhaps Burning Man Project has.
ANDIE: True point.
IRIS: At least from where I sit, we can learn from communities like AfrikaBurn that has done a lot of thoughtful work regarding constructing their events, and also working with communities outside of their events regarding inclusion and equity.
ANDIE, I think you’re referencing the pledge that Burning Man Project had released, the Radical Inclusion, Diversity & Equity Anti-Racism Pledge. I definitely see a lot more discussion in the past few months about, “what does this mean for my community?” And I’ve heard from some communities who have taken stances to explore this, including creating work groups within their event teams to explore what does it mean for their official regional event.
And it’s interesting speaking to different regional contacts and regional event producers, and learning that diversity and inclusion may mean different things, depending on where you are in the world, and how communities think about who are the marginalized groups, as far as like where you live or perhaps where your event is which brings up interesting questions, like what’s the framework for that?
I know that some official regional event groups have folks who are specifically designed to reach out to indigenous population because their event is held on indigenous land. So they’ve built into their leadership structure that sort of framework to be able to do that thinking.
ANDIE: And sometimes their fundraising structures as well, and the profits from the events that they make, if there are any, many do contribute to local communities, indigenous communities, and that kind of betterment.
IRIS: What excites me about R.I.D.E. (Radical Inclusion, Diversity & Equity) as something that community members, whether they identify as members of the Regional Network or Black Rock City, is that I feel like it’s a way to truly live the values of Burning Man culture, and also a prompt for people to question: What does inclusivity mean?
Sometimes I hear comments from folks, “Well, I think regional event X or or Black Rock City, maybe, I don’t feel this. I don’t feel like there are people who are excluded or not welcome into the experience.” And I think the tension, at least from Burning Man Project and my team in highlighting, or trying to center, voices that might not be part of that conversation, brings up interesting questions about what does radical inclusion mean?
And I know that Burning Man Project has been trying to offer and create resources and tools to be able to empower people to have these conversations. And, I don’t know if you’ve spoken to the Education Team on Burning Man Live lately, but they’ve recently unveiled some new courses on a learning platform called Burning Man Hive which helps, I believe, empower folks who are interested in doing this work to deepen the understanding; everything from Intro to Anti-Racism, to Implicit Bias 101, and their online course is self-paced and free and open to anyone.
VAV: Awesome. I’ll make sure to put those in the show notes.
IRIS: And I also think there’s been folks who’ve been doing a lot of deep thinking about, what does it mean to them personally, as an individual, as a Burner in the world? And, some of those folks shared some of the reflections in the past Regional Network forum, about what it means to them.
ANDIE: Yeah, what makes them want to share it is a really interesting question because these are people who come to that event and then they go home and, or they may never have been to Burning Man in Black Rock City at all, but they come to these events and they get lit on fire. Marlon Williams actually talked about that at the Burner Summit in, in a, what was it a breakout group?
IRIS: It was a panel, a panel discussion of where we asked Marlon and other folks from different parts of the Burning Man community, “What does it mean to be a Burner right now?”
VAV: Let’s play that clip from Marlon in conversation with David Koren.
MARLON: Literally that concept, we go, we will go, or we went to that place to set ourselves on fire, but now we’re living in a world where all the world’s on fire, and that’s this great opportunity to burn down and let go of things that didn’t serve us and also to step into things because of the urgency of the moment and the need for connection. Because the trauma of the experience of COVID is about disconnection, to figure out how we actually reconnect again, both with each other and with ourselves.
We talked a little bit about like what does it mean to think about being political, and in my training around racial equity work, I really think about political, as an exercise and power to shape the reality that you want. And going to Burning Man, going to Black Rock City, what we do there is we go and like create this alternative world of play and delight and amusement.
I always found it silly that we would think that once we crossed that line, that we can only do it there. Right? And so for me, Burning Man actually starts when you leave Burning Man. It’s about getting ignited there, but you actually walk back into the world on fire and you want to create art. You want to get more deeply connected with people. You want to figure out ways in which you can create play and moments of spontaneity and joy. And that’s actually how I’ve really thought about this time when the Burn in Black Rock City has been canceled, how do I actually spark opportunities for joy and connection, and particularly among communities of color?
DAVID: Because once you understand it, once you go to the desert or go to your event and internalize that experience, and it becomes part of you, you take it with you. And then as you act in the world, you’re acting from that place. You’re able to touch that place inside yourself and then act in the world.
MARLON: Yeah, Burning Man is not a place, it’s actually a community, and it’s a way of thinking about how we can be in conversation together. When we think about the fact that we have these principles, it’s about trying to create a collective governance that works in the desert, but also lasts outside.
What I found really beautiful is that we think that the principles of Burning Man are like unique and special unicorn, but they actually have existed within communities all over the world for forever. And it’s really about, a refinding. I love Toni Morrison’s idea of rememory, of how we are always constantly remembering things we used to know. And for me, the principles of Burning Man are a rememory. It’s a Re-remembering that community and interdependence are really key values that have allowed all people across time and place to connect and thrive together.
DAVID: Somehow it’s inherent in us and we’re finding it, we’re finding a space inside ourselves that already exists.
IRIS: I’m so glad you played that audio clip from Marlon Williams. He’s an amazing community member based in New York City who’s also a member of Burning Man’s Radical Inclusion, Diversity & Equity advisory group. I love, I just loved getting that reminder about what lights people up in the joy, why people are inspired to share it in different ways.
ANDIE: Yes. And David Koren too, himself a long time contributor to the Regional Network, and who started the figment event in New York which has always been a very public-facing, free, let’s celebrate the Burning Man culture and share it with the world in a bigger way. It’s great to hear that, people don’t just think of it as a Black Rock City thing. It’s an experience and it’s a way of looking at life. And that’s what’s so fun about getting to do what you do, Iris. I mean, you must be inspired every day, by the way that this hits for people around the world, especially now.
IRIS: Yeah. I’m very aware every day that I’m super fortunate, and so is everyone on the Regional Network team, to be able to do what we do. I feel like we’re not doing the thing, it’s the people like you just mentioned Marlon Williams, and David, and other folks that you’ve been hearing about who are doing all these amazing projects to share the culture. I feel very fortunate and lucky to be able to support them in ways that I can.
ANDIE: What’s the hardest thing about it for you?
IRIS: The hardest thing about it is, the Regional Network has grown organically. Anything organic is beautiful and wonderful and happens naturally, but because it wasn’t necessarily architected from beginning to end, it can get a little messy. So what sometimes is a little challenging is sort of like sorting out and making sense of this organic beauty of the Regional Network. 24 years in, you know, it’s fair to say we’re in a stage of trying to be able to reflect and try to make sense out of it, in order to make everyone who wants to be a part of it and engage in it, their part easier, more clear, hopefully more joyous. I love that word.
ANDIE: Me too. There are Regionals that… You know, we have our 10 principles, but there are some who have added different additional principles. And I think that that joy and celebration is an unstated principle for so many of these gatherings and these efforts that people are trying to do together, they’re trying to have more fun being alive with each other.
IRIS: Yeah, I think internally within the offices, haven’t we joked about “Radical Self-enFUNment” as another principle that perhaps should be considered. There’s variations that different groups have added, including “each one, teach one,” which was adopted by AfrikaBurn. That phrase predates the existence of the event, but, yeah. It’s beautiful.
ANDIE: It’s interesting to me that when you talk about sustainability, the resilience that people really need right now out of community, isn’t just celebration. It’s also about how to reemerge from this global pandemic and how to support one another, probably more strongly than we ever have in our communities.
We have a quote from, I guess he goes by “StuntHubbie,” his name’s Kevin. He was a disaster relief and recovery worker who spoke also at the Regional Network Forum last summer. Let’s hear that clip.
KEVIN: All of the confluence of these influencing factors in my own head has led to this, you know, “So what else is there? How do we leverage the power of gathering to weave an architecture of social resilience so that when the inevitable catastrophes strike, either nationally or regionally or hyper locally, there is that ability to recover from them?”
And I think this is where a lot of amazing things have come out of the past year. I mean, I just, I’m sure that actually probably everyone who’s listening and participating today has stories of community coming together in a positive way. We call this “mutual aid” in many instances. There’s like more formal relationships of it, and then there are less formal things. You know, when your neighbor’s house catches on fire and you grab a bucket of water and go try to help put it out; that is also mutual aid. It’s a lot of what we do on the playa when we find people who are in harm. It’s a big factor in what we would call integrative harm reduction, inclusive of psych social support services.
It’s in this conversation about what the regional Burns mean, and then how we bring and sort of weave these pieces together with a little more consciousness, because it is effort to produce an event, its effort to make things. And so a question myself and others are asking is: Can we use this year to leave a trace for good?
ANDIE: That stood out for me because, that’s another thing that seems to me that predates us officially ever trying to nurture it, is people using the experience of Black Rock City to learn to be more mutually helpful of one another in their communities when the chips are down. And the weather and the global situation has made that ever more present, I think, for a lot of communities. I think of how Austin Burners banded together to help each other out during the freezes of last year.
IRIS: I love what Kevin was saying about how there’s a certain resiliency, and he uses this term ‘mutual aid’ and the formalness and unformalness, and what I hear from regional contacts is there’s definitely a desire of people stepping forth in order to help other members of their community. And whether it’s informal, as far as someone posts in their local Facebook Burner group that they are seeking help, can another person take that on?; to sort of like fun and playful ways.
I think about a project that happened early in the pandemic initiated by a group in Argentina. It was called Mission Veleta, like ‘secret mission,’ where people posted online, this group, like a secret mission for someone to do something, and then someone took it on. It was just a fun, playful way to sort of have maybe a need met, or something happens.
VAV: Oh, yes. Mission Veleta, inviting those sheltering in place to post a wish that others could “adopt” to make that wish come true. Adoptable wishes included everything from singing a comforting song, to delivering a favorite food. Burners also made phone calls to elderly people living alone, breaking the isolation with support and friendly conversation.
Organized by Fuego Austral, where you post a wish and someone takes the challenge to make it come true. Wishes range from objects (like a box of mystery surprises) to experiences (being sung a song). This is great.
IRIS: Yeah, I think that there’s an informalness that is happening regarding this type of community-building and community interaction and engagement that I hope will continue even as more attention shifts towards creating regional events in person again.
VAV: How can people find out where they can participate or actually co-create?
IRIS: Well, I’m so glad you asked. You can find out more about how you can engage in your local Burning Man community by logging on to regionals.burningman.org. And you’ll find a directory where you can find more information about local Burning Man community near where you live.
There’s other channels, like if you’re interested in connecting with Burning Man community members around the world, perhaps to be inspired, there’s also a learning platform we mentioned earlier called Burning Man Hive that points you in different directions and points you to people who have common interests, wherever you are in the world. There’s an opportunity to collaborate on projects and events.
VAV: I have recently heard two different people saying they met someone on a call through a Burning Man Hive event. So I love that it’s not just a static social media platform. It’s dynamic, teaching, coursework, and calls, and all kinds of ways to engage.
ANDIE: Yeah, based around common interests and you can kind of plugin and start having those conversations with people. And then, as with so many things in the network, organically relationships will start to ensue, but not just around proximity, but around shared interests. I think that’s really cool. I’m glad you brought Hive up.
VAV: Iris, What else would you like to speak about?
IRIS: Hmm, that’s a great question. Oh, one thing that I do want to talk about: A regional group that I think is doing something really exciting and different is the Burners, the Burning Man community members in Colorado, specifically Boulder and Denver and areas around that, they are collaborating to create a project outside of the official regional event sort of framework. They’re creating a temple called the Temple of Tranquility that will be built in a public space in Boulder. The intention of the temple is to offer a place of healing and reflection following the tragedy that happened there in 2021 where there was a shooting. So they wanted to offer this space for healing and reflection. And that’s a thing I thought was a really beautiful project that has been germinating the past few months with the support of regional contacts in those cities and surrounding areas. And the hope is to have that realized and built I believe sometime this year.
ANDIE: Yeah, I hadn’t heard about that one yet.
IRIS: Yeah. They’re in a stage to really sort of try to take that wider and get more community support.
VAV: I’m finding some fascinating information online.
ANDIE: We can include it in the show notes.
VAV: I am adding it all to the show notes.
IRIS: Oh wow, ok. That’s excellent.
VAV: Alright, now I have a better idea of the various ways that Regional Contacts and Regional event producers and groups get together, large events, small events, non-events, drive-thrus and random public art placement. I think this is a great way for all of us to re-engage after this strange time away.
ANDIE: Then is a time when people are tuning back into this thought process, and they’re deciding if they’re going to try to go. As this starts to unspool there will be people who will say, “Am I ready to go to a giant event?” Maybe hearing about some of the smaller possibilities for getting involved will be a way that they, if they haven’t heard about this before, and they’re new around here, or they’re just not ready to return to Black Rock City, they’ll look into some of these things that you’ve talked about and maybe they’ll step their toe in a little. So, glad to take a moment for that.
VAV: Yeah. What I wanted the world to know about the Regional events is that in a normal year there’s over a hundred events around the world, all around the world. But I’m seeing now it’s not so much about global diversity, as it is about this idea: Burning Man is not a place, it’s a culture, it’s a call to action, it’s expression, wherever you are, whoever you’re with.
ANDIE: Yeah. Decoupling that for people all these years has been part of the struggle. It’s like, no Regionals doesn’t mean you throw a big party locally. It can. Celebration is great, but there’s just so much more to it that people are bringing to it spontaneously. And that’s always my hope when we have an episode like this, that people will hear more of that. And I just love that you’ve brought to us.
IRIS: Well, thanks for the opportunity.
VAV: All right. Well, Iris, thank you so much for joining us and giving us a deeper insight into how the Regional Network expresses itself in one of its many facets through you.
IRIS: Well, thank you again for the invitation. And I’ll see you guys, I when I see you.
ANDIE: Soon, we hope.
IRIS: Soon. In-person.
That is our show. Burning Man Live is a production of the Philosophical Center of Burning Man Project made possible by generous donations – some of them large and anonymous, many of them small and specific, and I thank you for each one of them. Find out more at donate.burningman.org.
Write us. We’ll write back. LIVE@BurningMan.org
I’m Michael Vav. Thanks to our story producer Andie Grace. Thanks to our Executive Producer Stuart Mangrum. Thanks to our Angel from the North, kBot. Thanks to the joyful toil of DJ Toil. Thanks to KJ aka OMG for voicing our introduction for this one. And thanks, Larry.