E54
Burning Man Live | Episode 54 | 06|22|2022

(Remember) How to Burning Man: Steven Raspa

Guests: $teven Ra$pa, kbot

For 25 years now $teven Ra$pa has directed discussions for Black Rock City and Regional communities. Hear him and kbot explore why this Burning Man thing is so important for humanity and the world.

BRC is a city of imagination, a social experiment, organically cultivated and running on pure encouragement.

They discuss the inspired interactions that allow for reinvention big and small for one and all.

Burning Man Journal: Raspa

 

Our guests

Steven Raspa is Associate Director of Community Events for Burning Man and a founding member of the Regional Network Committee and Regional Events Committee. He is an artist, passionate arts advocate, community organizer and lover of cities.

$teven Ra$pa is an arts and nightlife advocate for the Burning Man Project. He speaks on issues affecting culture and urban planning and supports a global network of 300 community organizers and 100 regional events around the world. As part of Burning Man’s leadership team, he advises and works with cities on arts and cultural programs.

Transcript

KBOT: Greetings dusty friends. I’m kbot. Do you feel it? If you’re playa-bound this year, you’re likely starting to feel the pull… toward our favorite dusty city. There’s anticipation, excitement, maybe overwhelm… but also that “What if I forgot how to Burning Man?” feeling. Surely, it’s like riding a bicycle, right? One that’s covered in fake fur and has fat playa tires.

Or maybe this is your first time going to Black Rock City. And, well, we’re gonna try to help you too.

Welcome to the first episode of our “(Remember) How to Burning Man” series. This is mostly a Burning Man Journal series — with a couple Burning Man Live episodes in the mix — that will roll out throughout the summer. It’s intended to be a little primer with advice, tips, tricks, and nuggets of wisdom to help anyone — virgin, veteran, re-born Burner, or whatever you are — who’s getting ready to return to our favorite dusty city. 

I feel so lucky to be kicking off this series with Steven Raspa. Dive in, dear listener, to hear about his hopes, dreams, and imaginings for Black Rock City 2022; and bask in his philosophical musings on why this thing we do called Burning Man is so important for humanity and the world.

RASPA: Let’s just go.

KBOT: Alright. Mr Raspa. Who are you and what do you do?

RASPA: My name is Steven Raspa. I am Associate Director of Community Events, but what I really do is help support our global Regional Network. I’m a member of the Regional Network Committee and also the Regional Events Committee. And, at this point, I’m the longest standing member of both of those committees and have had the pleasure of really watching our culture evolve from what started as a local Bay Area, to then a national gathering, to really a international multicultural happening everywhere kind of culture. And, yeah.

KBOT: What drew you to Burning Man? How did you get into this culture? 

RASPA: I had just moved to San Francisco in 1996. I’d heard about Burning Man a few years before, when I was living in New York. I went by myself and was thrilled by the culture. I felt that it tied into some of the things that I loved about the creative scene in New York in the lower east side in the 80s, except it was a different dialect of creative expression in a way. I hadn’t seen fire performance, fire art. I knew about large-scale machine art, but hadn’t seen that in person. But what I really related to were the underlying values of art as community, art as experience, art as social bond rather than art as product. That’s what really always inspired me as an artist and why I got into art in the first place. 

I love all kinds of human expression. But what I feel most committed to supporting as a person honestly, is that deeper function that art can play in the world: to bring us together, to get us working together. I love seeing art that provokes people to think about what is the value they offer as people.

You know, I also love the sense of humor in our community, the play. That’s something that I think is really distinctive about a Burner approach to expression to social interaction to even social challenges. We do it with play, with a sense of humor, with sarcasm often. In our effort to sort of analyze: where are we coming from, and what’s worth potentially tweaking, changing, doing more of, not doing? I think we approach it through the lens of playful experimentation. Those are some of the things that when I see it in action, my heart just lights up.

KBOT: These are human to human interactions that you’re referring to as art, in many cases, like a parade or performance art, interaction with installations. Is that what you’re referring to?

RASPA: Well, yes. and it’s shared and living, but I don’t want to define or limit it to one form over another. The nice thing is we have a full range of human expression going on in Black Rock City and all of it is welcome. Painting, sculpture, dance, theater. There are parades and processions and things that people can join. There’s ritualistic processions that different people create. 

There’s every kind of possible music out there. I’d like to see a return of more weird and quirky stuff that’s completely difficult to categorize, but it’s out there, and it will be out there again this year. I’m definitely excited to see what people bring this year to Black Rock City. 

KBOT: What do you imagine might be new and different this year? What are you hoping for? 

RASPA: I’m hoping we give ourselves the permission to bring all of the experiences we have been through. We’ve all been changed in some way by experiences in the last three years: the pandemic, which both shattered the illusion of separation and for many of us was also a painful experience of isolation, economic loss, and most profoundly loss of life and social relationships.

We’ve had to take a deeper look at inequities in society, in policing and biases baked into the fabric of our laws, social norms and behaviors. Global warming and our race to quickly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels is certainly a thing. The war in Ukraine and the incredible suffering and displacement that that has caused and added to the displacement of people caused by violence in other parts of the world.

After three years, I expect that all of us have lost someone, and will be remembering them in the Temple. I think we carry both a tremendous excitement for the possibilities that Black Rock City represents as this fabulous temporary city of sort of infinite human expression and hacking society and everything, and we also carry a kind of collective grief as humankind over what we’ve been through.

So we’re not as we were. And Black Rock City should also evolve and be a place to bring those ingredients, and to share them together in a heightened state of being.

Questions that are on my mind are: how do we re-enter the Playa and greet one another again, in a way that is meaningful after what we’ve all been going through? While we’re at it, how can we also make Black Rock City even more welcoming, environmentally responsible, imaginative — you know, worth doing in every way. A worthwhile social experiment. Cause it’s always been a social experiment, so bring it on. 

KBOT: What’s your advice for someone who is planning their very first trip to Black Rock City this year? 

RASPA: Bring your most authentic self to this experience. Bring something that you love to share with others. And if you’re coming back, then you know what it was, you know what it could be — and help bridge that gap. And if you don’t know the answer, try stuff out.

KBOT: That’s an opportunity for experimentation. And a lot of people, I think, are going to be coming back as different people with new needs, and it may be surprising to them how they end up burning.

RASPA: Yeah, I think so. Look, it’s always been a social dynamic. There’s a balance between Radical Self-reliance and Communal Effort and Civic Responsibility. You come as an individual, but the magic in a way comes from the social interrelationships that we have in Black Rock City. When we allow ourselves to be together in a more human way, then perhaps in daily life.

KBOT: In many ways, although the pandemic was devastating, continues to be, and there are so many other things that are disrupting our lives right now, we’ve all had our lives shaken up a little bit like an Etch-a-Sketch, and we can come back and redraw our adventures out there. Or start fresh. 

RASPA: This is going to be a very fertile year in every way in Black Rock City. I expect that it will be a fantastic art year because we have three years of ideas of human expression that has been pent up. It has shown up in other parts of the world, which has been great. I can talk to you a lot about, I think all the benefits that sometimes this kind of shared hardship brings, and how, in terms of our own culture, it’s helped our culture spill over into other forms that had never would have had before. That’s quite healthy, honestly. 

It shouldn’t just be about Black Rock City at all. But Black Rock City is a wonderful forum, and all of our official Regional Events around the world offer this as well; to take different aspects of society, play with them in a blank slate that can be a cauldron for social experimentation, and hopefully come out of that experience more deeply motivated to make the personal changes that lead to larger changes in society. 

KBOT: So, what would that inner process look like — when someone goes to Black Rock City and slowly begins to change in ways that are positive for themselves and the bigger world out there?

RASPA: Burning Man provides a forum for you to decide “What should you do? What can you do? What will you do? Who are you? Who do you want to be? What’s a better possible version of yourself?” 

And along with that, when you extrapolate that out, and everyone is playing that game: how can we create better versions of society? How can we affect the social norms, the laws that we agree to abide by? How do we change our behaviors in a way that have real and lasting impact on environmental challenges that we need to address? How can we just be kinder, better, more amazing, expressive, loving, encouraging people every day of the year? 

Black Rock City is just a proof of concept in some ways that that is possible. People go out there, and then they get a little taste of what it might be like if people were a little bit more expressive, joyful, supportive, loving, silly, smart, committed. You know, I get fed up sometimes when the culture gets reduced to spectacle. 

The real profound meaning of Radical Self-expression has very little to do with spectacle. It has much more to do with authenticity and people being their most vulnerable selves, and sharing that with others. That’s another thing that I just love, love, love about people that embody the culture year-round. And I love seeing kids that have grown up in this culture. You know, I’m old enough now to have seen whole and complete human beings formed out of this culture, and the love and support that they are held in by members of our community.

Black Rock City can be a culture of cultures, a place where creative people and free thinkers from around the world come, have an amazing shared experience that is deeply affirming, then go back out in the world and influence day-to-day reality from that place of shared experience.

And again, that also happens at Regional events. But in some ways Black Rock City is a kind of Mecca that some people will only go to once in their lives, and many others will experience its impact tangential. But it is making an impact in the world. Is it the most important thing? No, but the damn thing works, and it keeps working, and it does create ripples in social reality every time it happens. And we all bring something worth bringing into that social experiment soup, if you will, that spills over into the cauldron of the larger world afterwards every year.

That’s a little bit of the social alchemy magic that happens that’s difficult in a way to explain factually, but you know, things spill over.

KBOT: Yeah, there’s the Burning Man template that people who maybe haven’t experienced the culture before, imagine it is and burning men project creates a space or, and the community creates a space where, where this social experiment can happen.

And you may come into that with an idea of what you’re going to do and what you’re going to experience and how it’s going to change you. And there’s always the, “I went to Burning Man and it changed my life story,” but the reality of it is completely different. 

If you let go of that template and have that vulnerability that you’re talking about and just open yourself up to what could be, we don’t even know what that’s going to be. I mean, we can tell Burners, “Come in and, let’s have all of these great ideas and these principles that are going to guide your experience, but ultimately to come in and let the experience be you.”

RASPA: Very well put. You know, I think that’s where immediacy comes in. You come prepared, bring everything that you need to survive in a harsh and brutal environment in the desert. And some people might’ve forgotten that it’s harsh and brutal. So remember that part people, you got to bring your water, food, warm clothing for when it’s potentially very, very cold and you want the warmest thing possible. You have to bring the lightest possible thing that you can imagine wearing. You have to bring the things to be healthy and whole.

And given that you are self-reliant, and you have what you need, then out of that, actually you can feel more confident in expressing who you are and stepping outside of just being merely prepared, to being expressive, joyful, and then even abundant. It’s always nice to bring a little extra, though let’s not be wasteful. So, yes. Come prepared. Bring what you love, bring who you are, think about your impact on the environment, on other people. How can you bring joy into the city? How can you bring something that you’re really good at and share that with others?

It’s not about stuff. It’s about sharing who you are authentically and bringing all of our various versions of that together, which leads to a culture of abundance, honestly. You know, that’s why I love gifting. And the deeper meaning of gifting is not just about, “Here’s the thing.” Really, it’s listening deeply to yourself, to others, to the world around you, to the opportunities that allow what you have to offer to meet a need with a sense of delight and generosity. And that, in a way, has nothing to do with stuff. The stuff is just a prop for that deeper state of generosity and being that we can give to one another.

Now, if it helps to have the right social conditions to do that: people that approach you with curiosity and not with judgment; people that approach you with encouragement, and want to be encouraged, and change the game in a way, from a restriction to encouragement and abundance. I’m excited about the possibilities of after everything we have been through, how much more meaningful can we make this shared experience and what can that lead to?

KBOT: It’s a huge release valve that we’re going to be getting back together again, but it’s also just this huge opportunity to reimagine. 

The first time I went to Black Rock City, I was kind of overwhelmed by the physical abundance of the space: the art, the people, the cars, I just wasn’t emotionally prepared at all for the scale of that. But as you’re speaking, I mean, what that really is the emotional abundance of people. The human element. People can easily get drawn into the blinky lights and the big speakers and the costumes and the physicality of the space, but that’s just the sort of external presentation of something much deeper, and much more ultimately meaningful to an individual.

RASPA: Yes. You might even be referring to, in some ways, a collective soul of a city. Every great city has its own unique flavor and soul, if you will. The traditions that have become materialized show up in that city in tangible forms. And in our temporary city, you have a full range of physical manifestations of that collective soul or creativity, that imagination. I mean, we are a city of imagination, for goodness sakes. 

Physical shapes that imagination takes vary and evolve over time. When I first was going and things were a little bit more gathering around fire, electric guitars, industrial, machine, hobbled together. And over the years as new technologies arise — LEDs, programmable technologies, for example — then the materiality of that imagination takes on new forms. When people come up with glow fabric, for example, then all of a sudden they’re incorporating that into installations as well as wearables, and they’re using it to express themselves. All just props. All just grabbing something to express ideas, who we are, and even human potential. 

And it should and does evolve over time. Although sometimes I think that too many people fall back on the concept of needing to buy the latest technology to be clever. What I’m really interested in is the deeper, more profound applications that people walk away from for themselves in their daily lives. Black Rock City allows us an opportunity to hack society itself; to take different aspects of society, place it under a microscope, look at it, then blow it up to impossible proportions, look at it again, and then tweak it a little bit here, and there and come up with potentially better versions of it. 

Another thing: It is a city of extremes. It’s a meeting place of extremes. We have people from the extreme right, the extreme left, and everything in between. And I think about here, how, when tectonic plates meet, that’s where the nutrients are, movement is, and those tend to be the most fertile areas for growth of new species even. It’s in those places where there’s lots of diversity of conditions that new forms can emerge. 

KBOT: One thing that really is interesting is that people live there for nine days, which means you don’t just come up with radical ideas that you can explore, you can actually live them as well. Living in a city that’s built from imagination, you don’t just imagine and create new possibilities, you actually have the time and freedom to explore them, deepen into them, and bring them to fruition in different ways. And I know this just doesn’t happen in Black Rock City, but it just intensifies. That’s why what comes out of Black Rock City is sometimes much more robust. It’s like having a seedling, and the seedling is under a hot house where it doesn’t just poke above ground, it actually has an opportunity to grow a little bit and then you can transplant that somewhere else.

RASPA: I love that metaphor. Yes, the seedlings grow with much more confidence and faster in Black Rock City, than under normal conditions. There’s sort of a wonderful fertile environment for new seedlings of all kinds to grow. 

And you’re right to mention again, the importance of lived and shared experience. That for me, is also where you get a proof of concept that it really is possible to act and be in relationship to one another in different ways than you see every day on the street. 

It’s not a totally different galaxy, but sometimes it feels like another planet. One of the simplest things is just when you take money out of the equation and people have to rely on their faculties and their imaginations and social relationships to solve problems. That both brings things completely back to basics, and also reminds us that money was a social invention to begin with. And that it’s not the point. It’s a tool. And there are other tools, and we relied too heavily often on the commercial tools in society to get things done. For me, gifting is probably my favorite principle because I think it is the most subversive in the world, the commercial world in which we live.

KBOT: It’s really difficult for people to wrap their heads around the idea that gifting does not require a return. People are so used to a transactional environment that so many people I’m sure you’ve spoken with too, who think that we trade in Burning Man culture, and that’s not it at all.

RASPA: Right. Giving without expecting something in return. It’s not a new idea. It’s actually a very ancient idea. It’s you know, it’s something that you do in tribes. It’s something that you do in your family. You share what you have for the benefit of others. Really gifting, grew out of sharing, and that’s how it really showed up first, I think, in our culture was, you know, the beach burn back in San Francisco in 1986 through ‘90 was really like a big family picnic, first between two families and then between the creative family, and among creative families.

And people, you know, shared what they had. You came to the beach and you shared your picnic, you shared your wine, you shared the experience. You cleaned up and you went home, and then you did it again. That sharing is such a huge part of any creative community; it shows up though, in all kinds of communities, really. 

In the early years, when we moved to the Playa, there was both some bartering going on and this sharing, and even better gifting. Not just to pass the plate, but to make it a point of celebration. When Larry wrote the principle, he wrote it down as gifting because even though barter had shown up, the more powerful, and as I said earlier subversive thing, is to practice giving without expectation of something in return, and then to have faith in the system that somehow overall there’ll be enough for everyone if we help one another. The principal was written down as gifting to encourage what was the better part of the social experiment that had emerged. 

Bartering can be fun in a, you know, Mad Max Bartertown kind of way when it’s a social engagement in the same way that a Souk, you haggle, you have tea, you have a social experience, and if you do buy something in a Souk marketplace, you’ve already had a social experience, and what you purchase now means something to you because you know its history, you know where it came from, you had a whole experience around it.

So it’s not that bartering is a bad thing. It’s just that in Black Rock City we have chosen to encourage gifting and generosity without expecting something in return because that was the icing on the cake and the better part of the culture that had emerged out of this social experience of moving to the desert, this barren place where if you forgot something, you had to figure out, well, how am I going to put my tent in if I don’t have any stakes? And then to your delight someone might come up and say, “I have extra stakes. Would you like them?” “Oh my goodness. That would be so wonderful. I was just going to have to figure out how I was going to turn parts of my car into tent stakes.”

It’s good to get back to basics sometimes as people.

KBOT: And the gifting gets so exponential. I love thinking of it as a family picnic. And I think it was Larry who said “You don’t sell things to people at a family picnic, you give them.” If you take that family picnic concept, once you’ve covered the basics of your survival, what kinds of exponentially wild and wonderful gifts can you create together? And you get these marvels and follies of wonder.

RASPA: And let’s make it delightful, and let’s make it accessible to other people. In fact, let’s involve them in it. Let’s invite them to make it with us. Let’s invite them to operate it with us. Let’s invite them to clean up after all of our activities and leave the Black Rock Desert completely clean without a trace and wherever possible in better condition, if possible.

KBOT: And then let’s empower them to make their own weird and wonderful imagination things. Make them realize that they can figure out how to bring something even more wonderful that fulfills their Radical Self-expression. 

RASPA: Yes, yes, yes. And it is, I think, a culture of ‘yes’ and encouragement. It might’ve been Will Chase that mentioned that he thought that Burning Man was a kind of permission engine. That’s very true. I don’t like the metaphor ‘engine’ because it’s so mechanistic. I think we’re more humanist in sort of our values and experience, so I feel like it’s a social soup that encourages more ingredients. 

KBOT: Permission soup? Permission circus? 

RASPA: I don’t know what the right metaphor is, but sometimes I struggle with the word ‘engine’ be cause it’s just so mechanistic and what we do is so much more about a social organism

KBOT: Permission ecosystem.

RASPA: Yes. That feels really good. I do think it’s a permission ecosystem, but even the word permission isn’t strong enough for me either. It is a great encourager. You know, it is a great encourager, and it increases all kinds of improbable probabilities.

KBOT: And it can be anything. I mean, okay, it can’t be commercial and it can’t hurt people unless they want to be hurt, but you could take that in any direction, right? It could be art. It could be basket weaving. It could be skydiving. It could be something completely random and abstract and weird. There are as many imaginative expressions of that permission engine as there are people.

RASPA: Absolutely. Whether it’s cooking and sharing your love of culinary arts, whether it’s fixing things, and there’s lots of people that just enjoy being helpful in solving problems. 

KBOT: Spreadsheets.

RASPA: Whether it’s delivering mail. I mean our post offices deliver mail on playa to one another is a gift that someone decided to bring. 

KBOT: I always imagined it’s some guy who always wanted to be a postal worker, and lo and behold, now they can do it at Burning Man, and it’s even more fun than doing it in real life.

RASPA: Well, or it could also be that every city needs certain civic functions, and delivering messages to one another is one of those things that we value in our city because it’s about social connectivity. So of course we need ways to deliver messages to and from loved ones and people that you want to socially engage with. 

It’s interesting to me to see what we replicate in Black Rock City and what we don’t. I think our version of the Department of Motor Vehicles, coming up with the Department of Mutant Vehicles, is a good example of something that serves a practical function, but we did it our way, and in a way that reflects the creativity and playfulness of our culture. 

It was interesting to see the temple of course that started out just as an art project one year, and now has become an institution that is open to anyone regardless of their faith, or even if there are atheists that just believe in the power of art. Everyone is welcome to that space.

There are mobile book libraries. I keep waiting in some ways for there to be like a grander version of that. I think, you know, I think of the Library of Alexandria, for example, as a place that holds institutional knowledge across many cultures. Maybe the playa is the wrong place to do that, but it will happen in other ways through this same culture that there’s a kind of living knowledge exchange that happens. 

KBOT: Maybe through the makerspace. Maybe a world of Burner inspired makerspaces is our Alexandria. 

RASPA: Which is out there. And, you know, we both fit nicely into the make our movement and have inspired it to greater extremes. And I think all of that comes in some ways from our constant encouragement for Radical Self-reliance and self-expression and the DIY Do It Yourself attitude, and even a punk rock sensibility that many of us value and love. You know the scrappiness of the culture is what I think encourages maker spaces and the maker movement. Burning Man was even cited as a great influence on maker culture, and we were invited to go to the white house as part of the conference of Makerspaces there in Washington DC. 

Whenever people say, “Well, what is it about? Are you a maker thing or are you an art thing, or are you a, you know, a social activist thing or are you whatever?” I mean, we’re a city that encourages people to bring what they love and to experiment on it. But we are also a culture of cultures, and a year-round culture. And this little experiment and temporary community has become a global year-round community of communities, that continues to encourage the evolution of not only imagination, but perhaps consciousness itself.

KBOT: It’s really reinventing or re-establishing the importance of community as well. At least that’s what I’m experiencing in the Global Network. People are rediscovering what it means to live in creative and interdependent nodes.

RASPA: Well, you’re absolutely right, the joke is if you want to get drunk fast, just drink every time someone says the word community. Because it comes up a lot. And it comes up a lot  for exactly the reasons that you bring up. 

We used to describe ourselves as an experiment in temporary community. But we moved well beyond that now. Black Rock City is still an experiment in a temporary community, but over many years of repetition, people have gotten to know one another and relationships have been formed, so those relationships come back to Black Rock City. We’re not starting from scratch every year. But there’s always wonderful new people to add to the equation who bring fresh eyes and fresh perspective and help the whole social experiment to evolve. 

But as I mentioned earlier, things have spilled over into daily reality. In a normal year, back in 2019 there were 108 official Regional gatherings around the world, but thousands of unofficial events and gatherings related to it. And we watched as the culture has pushed beyond events to placing public art, to encouraging memes and things like parklets, increasing green space and social surface areas in cities, and expressive social space, especially.

So the forms need to evolve. I look forward to the day when our events, in some ways, are mere reunions to the larger cultural impact, and new forms that our community of communities experiments into being, and end up being maybe better versions of what we’ve got going on. And that has applications for urban planning, as well as for governance.

KBOT: Have you seen any interesting mutations or evolutions happen within the global community over the last two years?

RASPA: I think a return to ‘small’ is beautiful and effective. There have been backyard gatherings. There have been front porch theme camps where neighbors have met one another. I love that somehow the form of a theme camp as this third space where people can gather and socialize and do things, that started in Black Rock City and Regional events has in the last couple of years, spilled over into social spaces and people’s front yards. 

KBOT: They brought it home. 

RASPA: Yes. Art being placed on front lawns and then art maps being created for people to go and move through their cities and experience the art. Roving experiences through public spaces. Micro Burns, where the gatherings became smaller, and in some ways people went back to the roots of things. All of those I think are very healthy and will lead to a more resilient root structure throughout the world in a way. 

KBOT: Offshoots, yeah. 

RASPA: Yeah. And there’s models of that already. Whether it’s temporary art pads, which was a concept that Burning Man helped to propagate, which is a permanent place for art that changes periodically, which allows you to show more art, usually by artists living in that city, in relationship with people that are there, and every time there’s an opening or closing, closing, or a gathering, there’s a social opportunity for relationships to be formed. That’s very different than the normal monumental approach to art, in which you installed something and it stays there as a point of reference in time and space, but it doesn’t necessarily evolve and serve a social function. There can be a place for both, but it’s quite interesting to have seen this reaction against monuments to the past that no longer reflect the values of people living in those cities, or reflect an uneven power structure. 

So I’m very, very, proud and believe in this contribution that Burners have made to think less about art as an object and more about: How do we create many spaces throughout cities where there are these expressive opportunities for art and experiences to evolve and live in relationship to their cities?

I feel like this is turning into an urban planning conversation, but that’s my bias. I really care about how to bring the principles and the conditions from Black Rock City into daily cities. But, you know, so much of our spaces in cities have become products. And the value of space has unwittingly turned our to cities into real estate products. 

And many of our cities are losing their social function, which is why I think people love coming to Black Rock City because it’s a city all about expressive and social functionality. It’s a breath of fresh air compared to the priced and fixed square footage that many of us have to live through. 

What I love and believe in about our temporary cities and towns, whether that’s Black Rock City or Tankwa Town at AfrikaBurn, or Mysteria which is at Transformus. You know, all of our temporary cities around the world, that members of the community create, are healthy social experiments that I think really make our year round cities more expressive, and operate a little bit better in terms of social functionality.

I love that so many Burners are becoming part of – first they became part of their arts commissions. And others have stepped into other positions in ot her parts of government, and brought a little bit of what they have found is helpful into their jobs.

KBOT: Well, once you learn how to effect change, and once you feel empowered, and you can see what’s possible, it seems like a natural progression to start doing that wherever you happen to live.

RASPA: Absolutely. We started this thread going off in this direction with the word community. But I think we have to focus on conditions that allow individuals to thrive and to bloom because if you don’t have healthy individuals, you don’t have a healthy society. And it’s the relationships between healthy, encouraged, thriving individuals, that leads to healthy social relationships, and to healthy societies. 

One of the wonderful things about Black Rock City is that you can go there and you can try on different possible versions of yourself, or you can turn up an aspect of your identity that maybe you didn’t feel safe to do normally. And through that iterative process, you fundamentally become more yourself and the person that you want to be. And hopefully you’re aligned with your purpose and your passions. That, in a way, without saying what the social change exactly needs to be, you end up with positive social change just because of that process.

KBOT: Yeah. What I love about it is that it’s organic over time. It’s not like someone says “I’m going to change and become a good citizen.” They just start doing, and it sort of just picks up on its own and people get involved and it happens on its own.

RASPA: Yes. When they have their own needs met in a way, and when they feel fulfilled and, best of all, joyful in who they are, then they can’t help but be pulled out of themselves and into the relationships with others and into society. They begin to show up in the world in a way that was impossible before. A little encouragement can go a long way.

KBOT: Bam. Yes. I’m going to change gears a little bit, cause I think we just came full circle in such a really nice way. Can you share your favorite Black Rock City story?

RASPA: My favorite Black Rock City story. 

KBOT: I mean, you must have so many…

RASPA: Yes. There are many, oh my goodness. One that stays with me — and this really speaks to I think the importance of always welcoming new people and not having a closed system. 

One year after the Man burned, I looked back at the city, which was buzzing and just electric with everybody sort of celebrating and joyful. And I turned around and looked to the open playa, and it was quieter and there were a few things in the distance and I said, “I’m going that way.” And I walked out, to just go walk and to think about everything that we had all collectively done. And what does it mean? I was feeling very calm, but I suppose in a way searching, and just wanting a little quiet time out in the desert, which is just such a wonderful place to find yourself. And I walked out, to really avoid people and just go out into nature. The stars were beautiful above.

And after a while I saw something in the distance, a little light that caught my eye. And so I began to walk towards it and it turns out it was some people’s head lamps, and they were up in a piece of art that was sort of like a nest. To this day I don’t know what piece of art it was because it was sort of that magical time in which, you know, you’re just not sure what things are because everything is fluid and energetic and beautiful and you’ve just had this incredible euphoric, shared experience that the Man Burn can be. Anyway, I walk upon this sculpture and there’s some people in it. As I get close to it, they say, “Hello, come on over.” And so I began walking towards it and I climbed up and I found three people sitting in the sculpture and I said, “Well, hello there. And how are you doing?” And they’re like, “Oh, we’re doing great. And this has been amazing.” We started talking, and it turns out that they were all newbies; this was their first Burn. And I said, “So tell me. How was your Burn?” 

One of the people said, “It was very, very hard.” 

And I jumped in and I said, “Well, I know we had a lot of wind and a lot of dust this year, and part of the experience is being humbled by nature.” 

And they said, “No, no, no. We came prepared for the harsh environment. What we didn’t come prepared for was how encouraging everyone would be, how nice they would be, that people don’t care who you are, so you can be whoever you want to be. And that raises the question, ‘Who am I?’ It was the existential challenge that was the hard part. If people will accept you for whoever you are, then who are you and who do you want to be?”

I threw my hands up in the air and I said, “Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. You just won Burning Man!” 

I will always remember that chance encounter because that comes back to those fundamental questions of self, that in some ways open the locks, and the doors, and the windows, to everything else that is possible when we are in relationship with one another and in society.

KBOT: Wow. They won Burning Man.

RASPA: They did. 

KBOT: I love that. 

RASPA: And everybody gets to win it in their own way. I know we didn’t talk as much about Black Rock City as I think we were meaning to, about coming back to Black Rock City, but in some ways the thing I look forward to most is the relationship between Black Rock City and the rest of the year and the rest of the world.

KBOT: That’s super important. 

RASPA: And I feel like the little droplet that gets dropped into the Black Rock Desert creates this marvelous ripple outward in all directions, in a multitude of ways that we’ll never know, we’ll never fully know. I have faith in our community and I have faith in the social experiment that continues to evolve. This year won’t be like previous years. It will be different. It should be different. I’m excited to see what comes out of sharing this experience again. And again, it’s not just happening in Black Rock City, it’s happening gradually at Regional gatherings around the world as those also cautiously step back into being. 

So it’ll be interesting, but I also know there’ll be a lot of wonderful hugging in Black Rock City again, as people will be so joyful and happy to just be with one another again, and to have that little bit of proof, that little bit of proof, that we can do better as people all year long.

KBOT: Amazing. Thank you, Mr Raspa. Is there anything you want to say, add, ask?

RASPA: I would just encourage anybody that is coming to Black Rock City for the first time to just really think about what it is that they love and want to experience and share with others. And it doesn’t need to be complicated. And it doesn’t need to cost you a dime. 

And my friends and family that are coming back to Black Rock City, I’m excited to see you. And for those of you that can’t get to Black Rock City, I love you even more for helping make it spill over into daily life. Bring it, bring it home with you and make it happen wherever you are. Yeah.

KBOT: Magnificent. Thank you. 

Thanks for bringing your ears to this conversation. 

Burning Man Live is a production of the Philosophical Center of Burning Man Project, made possible by generous donations from Burners who believe in what we’re doing. Support us at donate.burningman.org. You can email us at live@burningman.org. 

I’m kbot, a friendly interloper from Burning Man Project’s Communications team. Thank you to Story Producer Andie Grace, Executive Producer Stuart Mangrum, Story Editor and Technical Producer Michael Vav. And a huge thank you to DJ Toil for all the things you do. Thank you to the robots for voicing this episode’s introduction. And greetings to the Burnerverse. Keep Burning Man weird.

Thanks, Larry.


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