Derek Beres

Why Burning Man Inspires Me

Undoubtedly one of the greatest modern American legacies, Burning Man boasted 60,900 attendees this year for a week in the Nevada Desert.

Since its inception in 1986, where a few dozen friends set fire to a 9-foot effigy on San Francisco's Baker Beach during the summer solstice, Burning Man has become an annual gathering of art, music and mythology unparalleled in our cultural history -- nothing brings together this many people save college football games and Radiohead concerts.

This year was my second visit to Black Rock Desert. Like my first trip in 2007, I left feeling reinvigorated and inspired -- no small feat after a week in an unpredictable desert sleeping in a tent filled with Playa dust. (The 'Playa' is the art-centric center of the camp.) One night it rained, another it was hot, the next night it was in the 50s.

Yet the difficult conditions are part of the journey. What's really important is the human creativity and imagination Burning Man engenders, both of which are on full display at a festival defined by mutant vehicles, larger-than-life sculptures, and some of the best DJs in the world playing on megaclub sound systems fueled by tarp-covered generators.

So what makes Burning Man so uniquely inspirational? Here's my take.

1. Ritual

Human beings have engaged in rituals for as long as we've been able to write down our folk stories -- and probably for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years before. And gathering around fire is one of our oldest rituals.

While there are numerous reasons everyone attends Burning Man, uniting in the middle of the Playa on Saturday night to watch "the burn" -- when a dazzling pyrotechnic display destroys the central statue of the man -- feeds our psychological need for connection and celebration.

Throughout time, various societies have created their own rituals, from corn goddess rites in Mexico to all-night Gnawa ceremonies in Morocco. America has been rather lax in creating its own in the past century; that's why Burning Man has become an important gathering for "radical self-expression."

2. Art

The level of craftsmanship that exists on the Playa is astounding. Building size sculptures, intricately carved temples and cruise line-sized boats set on tractor trailer rigs speeding around camp blaring a fog horn are but a few of the incredible acts of human ingenuity you'll find in the desert.

Much of the art created there ends up in public parks and galleries, and some of it is burned at the end of the week -- a symbolic representation of the idea of impermanence.

To see how much time and care people put into something they will bring into the desert for a week points to our inherent need for creativity. I love taking photos of it all to commemorate the passion the artists put into their installations.

3. Music

This was the first time I got to DJ at one of the camps, and it was an honor, given the level of musicianship throughout the festival. Some of the best sets occur at sunrise, after everyone's been out dancing all night. (Sleep happens occasionally.) Being able to walk from camp to camp and hear dozens of styles of electronic music along with a few live bands is inspiring in its own right. Throw in the fact that no one is paid -- money is basically illegal at Burning Man, save Center Camp, which sells coffee, chai, yerba mate and ice -- and you realize that everyone is there for the love of music, not the commoditization of it.

Of course, as someone whose career partly revolves around music, I'm not against being paid for what I do; Burning Man is simply a wonderful reminder that we do what we do for love more than anything else.

4. Each Other

It's refreshing being in an environment where everyone says hello to one another without any motive behind it. Finding yourself in random conversations over a piece of art, DJ or costume someone is wearing is a refreshing change from the two big cities I've lived in (New York and now Los Angeles), where you generally put your head down and avoid personal contact. Any opportunity to gather and share and create is a good one, and nothing like Burning Man currently exists elsewhere in this country.

So pack up your RV or throw a tent in your knapsack and consider making the pilgrimage yourself next August.