Every now and then I am walking around the city – wait, who am I kidding?, I never walk – I am cycling, cycling around the city -, and I get struck by this feeling that we are all so disconnected from each other. Which is ironical given the fact that we are also living crammed to each other and yet emotionally so far apart, always busy, never really paying attention to what’s happening around us. Then I can’t avoid my mind to wander to a place where it all was different, where connecting was the rule and not the exception. Where everyone smiled at each other, where people acknowledge each other’s presence, where interactions with other human beings were easy, simple, and free. This description might sound like a mere utopia to most of us. But the cool thing is that there are places like this in the world: not many, that’s true, but they exist.
Where the Sheep Sleep is one of those. Burning Man Netherlands organises it. Burning Man is not a festival. It’s a catalyst for creative culture in the world, you read on their website. The Dutch 2017’s edition took place at the park Berg en Bos, in Apeldoorn. If you are acquainted with the whole Burning Man concept, you immediately know what I’m referring to.
I recall the moment when we were hailed Welcome home! and hugged as if we were old friends, upon our arrival to the festival’s main gate. The greeting team, responsible for welcoming all the participants, was composed of a man in a tutu, a girl with angel wings on her back, someone else in a rainbow one-piece and feathers on. How are you doing? Is this your first time? Technically it was our first time so we stood there listening to the review of the ten guidelines for the following four days we would spend in the middle of nature. I was home indeed.
I am walking with a friend, barefoot, across the green field. Two other humans are coming in our direction. We don’t avoid eye-contact. Once we get close, we smile, we say hello, we stop, we engage in a conversation for no particular reason. I remember that there was nothing to their looks nor anything in their appearance to which I especially related to, not even a sort of energy to which I felt drawn. We had stopped to converse with those strangers just for the sake of it. We were not in a rush, and there was nowhere we had to be, so we just were. The openness of the people at the event had been contagious. There’s something really magical about being able to connect with so many different creatures, of all shapes and sizes, different ages, and backgrounds, including children and people old enough to be your grandparents. We naturally found ourselves talking to folks we wouldn’t talk to in a regular everyday life situation. In this general climate of friendliness people just don’t engage in division or separation. At Burning Man everyone is a weirdo anyway, and those weirdo-impulses are expressed in plentifully diverse ways, so there’s no way you are going to feel like separating. I mean, you might just have yourself a pair of horns on. The principle of radical inclusion leads us to:
A Burning Man event is a haven where I allow myself to dance as if nobody could see me. This free-dancing was a revelation to me, back in 2012, at my first Baby Burn. That’s when I learned about radical self-expression. Now I allow myself to be spontaneous in the way I interact with others and in my possible artistic contributions to the Burning Man community. And then there are the costumes. Welcome fake tattoos, and flowers in my hair, a thousand necklaces and other relatively unuseful objects which I carry around for the sole reason they bring me joy. So yeah, people will be walking around in all sorts of garments, from the most common ones to the most bizarre. Sometimes they will be naked of half-naked, and that’s alright as well – especially if there’s an improvised pool where you can soak up your limbs, as exemplified below.
The leprechaun man sat next to us and opened the box he was carrying: tattoos! He had brought endless sheets of fake tattoos of all colours and sorts to share with everyone. I decorated the whole front part of my legs. The Finish couple we had met while walking to the campsite gave a live concert at the central stage. Our Swedish neighbours cooked tacos for lunch one of the days, and fed the entire crew. Our Dutch neighbours were the DJs on service for our campsite, with the sound-system they had brought with them. The Indian guy living in Germany kept us hydrated with his potions of youth. There was no hipster cafe for me to get my fix but I managed to have a coffee every day. And this guardian angel was walking around at night with a rolling kitchen, feeding poffertjes to the night owls. Poflove!
There is no money involved in this festival, by the way. You cannot buy anything, nor sell. There will be no interference of sponsorships, advertisement, nor your wallet for that matter. You are just going to gift and be gifted. It is not about a transaction, gifting means giving without expecting anything in return.
I didn’t wash my hair for four days. I also didn’t shower for four days (there were no showers). I used wet wipes to take care of the strange odours our bodies tend to produce, and I felt great. I also walked barefoot most of the time, including when it rained. That felt truly awesome. If this sound like impossible new-age talk, just try it sometime. I became a fan of barefoot walking this summer for the effect it had on me feeling grounded again. Decommodification is a remarkable thing to experience, and it has the surprising power to connect us to nature and the present moment. When deprived of luxuries one tends to value the simple things again, while focusing on what’s essential to the whole experience.
There is no government or organisation on the event to who you can go demand they put up a shower. There’s no waiting for others to provide you shelter and food. You need to be able to do those things yourself and provide for your survival. Sure, people will help you when in need but you are a capable being, – and it is refreshing to test that once again, in a context that has nothing to do with the comforts of our daily lives. Welcome to radical self-reliance, a place where you trust your capabilities, as opposed to waiting for a greater force to provide for you. Oh well, I did rely on the greater force of this friend of mine who put up our tent. But then again I contributed to ‘our household’ by taking care of our meals #oldfashionedhippies
At a Burning Man event, there are no spectators, only participants. It’s not about consuming a product, it’s about participation, involvement and communal effort. No famous artists are playing for you: you might be the one who’s is playing, or your neighbour. You take an active part in everything that is going on. It is about co-operation, working together for the common good. It’s about the whole. The whole of the crowd there and you: that’s the festival. You are the festival.
Each one of us is committed to the well-being of the tribe. Civic responsibility implies an awareness of the fact that you are not alone in this and the whole thing works only if we all collaborate and engage in the activities that are necessary at any given moment. Organizers and volunteers also agree that they have a responsibility in highlighting the values of the community.
The wet wipes, you know? I kept them all in a plastic bag I took with me when leaving the festival site. Leaving no trace means that you assume responsibility for your trash. Also, the festival is put up from scratch by volunteers. After the four days, a passer-by will have no idea that an event took place at that site. It’s not that we are a secret society, but a festival like this can take its toll on the surroundings, so we make sure our fun time doesn’t translate into damage to others or the natural environment which hosts us.
Between these two tents, a sign read: ADVICE. I do need your advice, I said bluntly, in a slightly ironic tone. The two men looked at each other, then at me. They were a bit puzzled. I was invited to sit with them, and as they looked me in the eye, I drop my irony. We talked.
On my turn, I hadn’t had a chance to prepare. I had just arrived from a one-month-travel the day before. But I shared carrots, wine, and liqueur with my fellow burners. I also became a professional fake-tattoo artist. With the arsenal of tattoos brought by the leprechaun man, I decorated the bodies of a bunch of people. We helped others putting up their shelters, and a lot of us volunteered for all sorts of activities, from patrolling the festival area to decorating the communal spaces, from cooking to helping newcomers find their way. Participation is all burners’ middle name.
Oh, and the advice? I am not sure of the wording anymore but I was told to own it. I was told to go for it without underestimating my capacities. I was also given a very specific tip for when I am applying for jobs. Dear advice-men: I have been putting it to practice.
The first thing I noticed at WTSS was that nobody was avoiding eye-contact. Just the opposite, in fact. People were seeking for each other. After the first moments of slight un-comfort, I realised I was thirsty for that sort of spontaneous interaction, which is, for me, the starting point of the idea of immediacy. There might be moments in which you start dancing with a total stranger if you let yourself go. Or even putting up a performance that none of you agreed beforehand. You might even have a public who comes and pays attention to what you’re doing (otherwise you perform to the birds, and that’s great as well). Or you might make a friend while waiting in line for the toilet. And when it starts raining in the middle of a concert, people might just decide to stay where they are and dance in the rain (true stories).
Back to my reality in the city of Amsterdam, I find myself daydreaming about and longing for all these flashes. The Welcome home! keeps on echoing in my mind. How could I make my everyday life feel more like my idea of home? I guess the thing is taking the Burning Man spirit back home with me, and trying to incorporate these values into my everyday life, as much as I can. So if a stranger randomly smiles at you in the middle of the street in Amsterdam, that someone might be me. In any case, I encourage you not to avoid the interaction and return the smile. That’s where all the magic starts.
Dear fellow burner Hans Spijer aka The Oracle took all these photos, except for that one of the 4 girls in the bathtub which was captured by Wouter Breukers. A kind stranger whose name I don’t know made the polaroid photo. Thank you so all much. All of the participants who managed to make of WTSS ’17 a unique experience: this blog post is for you ❤