What can giant fire-breathing art, mutant vehicles and a wooden man engorged in flames teach you about life? A lot, if you’re willing to step into the world of Burning Man.
Every year Burning Man sees thousands of people from around the world congregate to the dusty flats of Black Rock Desert, Nevada. The abandoned basin is transformed into a makeshift metropolis dedicated to art and community then returned to its original state at the end of the week.
In Calgary, Burning Man has spawned an eclectic community known simply as Alberta Burners. The group began 11 years ago with Freezer Burn, Alberta’s regional Burning Man celebration. What started as a small gathering in the Prairies expanded to sharing the culture and 10 principles of Burning Man with Calgarians.
One of their main events is A Taste of That Thing in the Desert, which takes place downtown during Beakerhead in September. The night not only showcases the community’s talents but also teaches Calgarians Burning Man’s core values.
Remi Sauve, producer for the event, says many of Beakerhead’s well-known art pieces are made by Burners. El Pulpo, the giant flaming octopus, and Hippo Love Car, for example, are based on Burning Man’s art cars, which are registered at the DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles).
“A lot of other events kind of get stale because they just have a recipe, and it’s always the same,” Sauve says. “For Freezer Burn and other Burner events, everything is always different every year, so I think it gets better because the people who keep coming back make bigger and better things that people can see and get inspired by.”
In addition to featuring performances and art pieces this year on Sept. 21, Sauve’s aims to give a real glimpse into what Burning Man is and debunk common misconceptions.
“I think people have the wrong view when they think, 'Burning Man, isn't that just some big drug, orgy festival or something like that?’ There are a lot of principles that are super important and very transferrable to everyday life.”
Sauve added two things to make the event better reflect Burning Man: An effigy burn and free food.
“To the unsuspecting person walking by it could have been just a free party with DJs and cool art. When you have a burn and free food it's like, 'What is really going on here?'”
The effigy burn is the climax of the night as seen in previous years when an eight-foot-tall wooden man was set on fire in downtown Calgary.
William Hosier, a Burning Man veteran and media manager for Freezer Burn, says the ritualistic burn is symbolic of living in the here and now.
“The whole concept of the burn itself is the fact that experiences are fleeting and they are now. You need to capitalize on what's happening now because you can't come back to the same experience.”
A Taste of That Thing in the Desert also demonstrates Burning Man’s ethos by giving away free food. Last year, they handed out 300 pulled pork sliders made by April Lee Baker, a finalist of Masterchef Canada. As people lined up with money in their hands, Sauve took the opportunity to explain the principles of giving and decommodification.
“If they can even learn one of those principles and introduce those into their daily lives, I think to me that's the biggest benefit of our event and to our local community,” Sauve says.
Other principles Alberta Burners carry out throughout the year are communal effort, participation and radical inclusion.
Stacey Scriven, a member of the art group Blazin’ Lily Gals and a Freezer Burn participant for 10 years, says a community aspect is what sets Alberta Burners apart from other groups.
“Coming from B.C., I found that everybody in Alberta was so much more friendly and approachable, and the Alberta Burning Man community really embodies that,” Scriven says.
“We are responsible for ourselves but we also take care of each other, and we look out for each other.”
On their social media platforms, members often reply to posts for help, whether it’s for setting up art pieces or buying and selling used furniture. The community also operates a group called Burners without Borders where they volunteer with local groups such as the Calgary's women emergency shelter.
“They're so creative here in Alberta, but they're also a real group of doers. They’re out there doing all sorts of really cool stuff, from helping the homeless and cleaning up garbage to making this wild crazy big art,” Scriven says.
According to Sauve, Burners come from all walks of life. From businessmen to motorcyclists to grandparents, there is no single description of someone in the Burner community, and everyone is welcome to participate.
“A Burner is anyone who goes to these events and tries to follow the principles, and that could be anyone,” Sauve says. “Because it’s radically inclusive, there’s not really a stereotype or box you can put everyone in. The only way we describe it is we’re burners.”
- By Andrea Wong