Notes from the Burning Man Project Symposium

Notes from the Burning Man Project Symposium

December 18, 2016

This past month I attended the Burning Man Creative Communities Symposium at Esalen Institute. I went as a panelist and I left, deeply humbled, inspired and touched by the visionary leadership the organizers of this community are bringing to the world. Of course, as with all human endeavours this project has its shadows and shortcomings, to focus solely on the imperfection misses the point of this 30-year-old emergent phenomenon of human experience and civic exploration. 

In retrospect, I really didn't anticipate the depth, nor the critical importance of the lessons that I would learn during this week. It now comes as no surprise the event was held at Esalen, ground zero of the human potential movement. This being said, here go my main takeaways:

Intersectionality and Changemaking

There is a tremendous untapped potential in the collaboration between artists and social change agents to offer society experiences of unimaginable visionary economic, political and social systems that allow us to live and be pulled into the emergent tapestry of collaboration, commons and whole-being. Rather than to think, act or push one’s way into problem solving the creative fringes serve as a cornerstone of connection. Participatory and civic art transcends that which our human language often fails to express. It is the calling up of love, the calling up of empathy that allows for the healing of ecological and social crisis.  No ‘intervention’ can heal trauma, only connection can do that:

  • Connection to self
  • Connection to place
  • Connection to goodness
  • Connection to useful work
  • Connection to people we like
  • Connection to something bigger than ourselves

Only from a starting point of true connection are we able to stitch the hand written stories of the collaborative climate and collaborative wisdom we so vibrantly need at this time.

Creativity and Play as the Antidote to Destruction

“Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.” ― Tom Robbins

In passing conversation during this symposium I heard Burning Man Project described as the world’s best leadership and project management school. At first I was perplexed with this idea, yet soon remembered personal breakthrough moments that happened in this dusty dreamworld. After thoughtful consideration and more than a few curious questions of the leadership and founding team, I wholeheartedly agree with the remark. Innumerable essential design strategies and economic theories take cues from play and from nature rather than from business. The Burning Man Project, was born out of the cacophony society with its joking, artistic and prankster attitude. Vital lessons learned during these early years were further stretched as the project moved into the vast-blank-canvas desert, now known as Black Rock City. With no monetary exchange and strong fundamental principles, a space has been created that bends the status quo and requires people to innovate. 

“Existence, the physical universe, is basically playful. There is no necessity for it whatsoever. It isn’t going anywhere. It doesn’t have a destination that it ought to arrive it. But it is best understood by analogy with music, because music, as an art form, is essentially playful.” - Alan Watts

Story-after-story emerged in our time together of world changing ideas born out of a moment of unruly and outlandish being-ness. By placing play (and dance) at the heart of innovation, I myself feel more free; knowing there just may be nothing found within the written lines of protocol and manuscript of where we are heading as a society and as a culture. So we might as well take ourselves a bit less serious from time-to-time and source inspiration from foolishness, magic and humor.

Care-taking of Imagination: Creating space to create

The intent of ‘creating space to create’ may be the most powerful lesson the Burning Man Project offers to the world. 

Few places remain in which humanity is given a blank canvas for what needs to emerge. Few places remain with the deep safety needed for dreaming at the edges of possibility. The burning Man Project’s yearly event in Black Rock City along with the exponential growth in global Regional Burn events is evidence to what emerges when there is no set-in-stone, linear agenda but rather strong guiding principles (10 principles) and ample space for creative emergence.     

Forward thinking government officials as well as leaders in business and economy the world over are arriving at the gates of this imaginal threshold learning from these living laboratories by participating in real time. The Project’s recent acquisition of Fly Ranch, 3,800 acres serves as a inspiring example of this emergent leadership seated in the “care-taking of imagination”. This space is but the last gem in the ongoing, 30-year old, prank; no strategy, no set plan, no limitations, just a blank canvas and a listening for what needs to emerge. No surprise that this multi-million acquisition was facilitated by unconditional gifts of a few core members of the community; And so it would seem, resilient communities create together.    

In conclusion, the space we create reflects the values we hold. In an era of uncertainty, strong principles and the holding of love and accountability simultaneously makes room for the creative possibility we so greatly need at this time. When sharing admiration for their trajectory with one of the founders, he replied "It's only the start!”. With this I am excited to write with you all the next chapters, reinventing our world… Remembering all the while, it is often easier to do the impossible than the reasonable. 

Welcome home.

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