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renea roberts
Gifting at the Burning Man Festival

The Burning Man Festival is an annual event that takes place in the week leading up to and over the Labour Day Holiday in September, in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. The festival creates an experimental community that encourages partici- pants to express themselves and as a result of it’s remote location also challenges participants to a degree that is not normally encountered in one’s day-to-day life” (see www.burningman.com to learn more). The festival’s humble origins date back to 1986 when Larry Harvey set out to burn a wooden stick sculpture in the figure of a man at Baker Beach in San Francisco. At the instant the eight- foot figure was ignited, others who were also on the beach that evening drew close to witness the burning. Strangers in a circle with fire-lit faces, they began to introduce themselves to one another and shared gifts of songs and stories. As they stood there in this circle with newfound friends, they were inspired to repeat the event the following year. That first year there were about 20 people present. Four years later, in 1990, the crowd attending the burn had grown so much that the organizers, Larry Harvey and Jerry James, decided to move the gathering out to the Nevada desert. As the number of people participating in the desert festival grew, so did the art installations, costumes, community services, theme camps and even villages organized by the participants for the participants. This festival, with its radical self-expression and radical self-reliance in a forbidding environment has grown to over 40,000 participants in 2006.

What I would like to share with you in this paper is what I consider to be the heart of the festival. While participants pay an entrance fee which offsets administrative expenses and the fees charged by the Federal Bureau of Land Management (the largest fee charged to anyone in the U.S.), organizers prohibit vending and any form of advertising and have rejected all offers of sponsorship. With no emphasis at all on buying or selling anything, the participants in the festival must rely on themselves and each other to fulfill needs whether for food or water, protection from the sun, or for help of any kind.

I first heard about the Burning Man Festival in a Wired Magazine article when I was finishing graduate school in Atlanta in 1998. I had completed a degree in community psychology and was interested in exploring the idea of alternative communities and the article had made an impression upon me. It wasn’t until two years later though that two friends and I drove for 20 hours straight to spend two days and two nights at the Burning Man Festival. I was overwhelmed by everything: the art, the people, the conversations (the best gift!), the organiza- tion, the beauty, the laughter, the tears, and the striking contradiction to our consumerized world. I carried a camera with me but I never took a single picture that year and because my time there was so short, I wasn’t able make a lot of deep connections. But I saw enough to know that something different, something very positive, was going on. I just didn’t know what it was. Where did that magic and peacefulness with radical self-expression arise from? It was only in hindsight that I realized that the fruits of a gift giving culture, and the community these gifts sustain, were the very core of this event.

I had attended other alternative events, like the Rainbow Gathering, but none had the level of expression, freedom, creativity, and community that I glimpsed at Burning Man. I watched other documentaries after having gone that first year and felt none of them addressed the aspect that peaked my interest. Most cover- age was sensational in nature. I wanted to produce something authentic to this community.

So I sent a proposal to Burning Man, explaining my desire to make a film that focused on the community aspects of the event, looking for patterns of contributions, and to explore what I considered then to be their barter system. My proposal was very well-received by the organizers who wrote back, “sounds like you’re interested in the gift economy.” That was the first time I had ever heard those words.

I was off to the desert with my camera, a one-woman film crew, to make my first film. I knew I would ask the people there about community, expression, and gifting, but I didn’t know what I would find or what patterns would emerge.

From the moment I arrived, I was witness to unending acts of gifting. Some I caught on camera, most I did not. Everywhere I turned some sort of gifting was taking place and it wasn’t just in the fabulous and engaging art that surrounds you at every turn. Neighbours greeted us our first morning with fresh brewed coffee. An artist explained his struggle to figure out how to fix a key aspect of his sculpture, which had just broken, when a stranger walking heard part of the story and happened to have the knowledge and the tools to help out. A shade structure was given to a camp that wasn’t prepared for effect of 118 degree weather by another camp two blocks away, and it goes on and on. One year a participant came deliberately with nothing and called himself “the nothing camp.” No tent, no sleeping bag, no clothes, no food, no water. As the days passed, he was given all the articles he needed to survive along with the non-material gifts that really make the heart of the festival.

It wasn’t until that second year that I was truly able to see all the gifts that were unfolding every moment, and the enormity of the event I had witnessed became clearer as I began filming and later reviewing the footage.

Oddly, on my way out to the desert I worried about using the term gift economy, wondering if anyone would understand what I was referring to. But not once did I have to explain these words at Burning Man.

After I got back and began editing the film, people would ask me what I was working on and over and over again I had to explain the concept of gift economy and work through people’s preconceived notions and confusion with the barter system, as well as explain just how magical gifting can be. Spending day after day and month after month with the footage, a strong pattern emerged in the film confirming that a vital foundation of the power of the festival was the absence of commercialism and the ethics of a gift giving culture.

In 2002, I finished my documentary on the Burning Man Festival, which I called Gifting It: A Burning Embrace of Gift Economy.1 It is a meditative piece that explores how a host of social elements are affected in an experimental community that embraces a gift giving culture. Burning Man allows a unique opportunity to experience the fruits of a gift giving culture as they happen within a particular time and space. And the documentary suggests that this altered reality may extend far beyond the festival’s boundaries, and, in fact, it may be the hope arising out of its ashes that our world desperately needs.

Renea Roberts believes in an intimate approach when creating Feature length docu- mentaries and shorts. She’s also passionate about alternative energies, permaculture, and learning to garden organically in the high deserts of New Mexico. See www. giftingit.com for more information.


A two-minute trailer that will give you a feel for the documentary can be found at www.r3productions.net.

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