The 10 Principles: Decommodification (?!)

When the Burning Man leadership team was hammering out the 10 Principles, they must have tripped all over themselves trying to describe a culture that rejects the heavy commercialism that is typical of the default world.  What they came up with was the term “decommodification,” a genuine mouthful and a conversation stopper.

But what the principle entails is something that I personally value greatly – escape from an environment in which everything seems sponsored by a commercial entity.  Driving on Wal-Mart Way, attending a basketball game at the Sleep Train Arena or watching baseball at AT&T Field, wearing a ski resort logo hat with an automobile’s name on the back, seeing constant ads on facebook and gmail.  It’s numbing and causes us to forget what a truly commercial-free environment feels like. 

At Burning Man, there are no ads (except whimsical parodies), and no sort of branding outside of Burning Man centric activities.  (It’s probably a subject for another blog post how Burning Man camps and events market themselves both on and off the playa). 

Nonetheless, this attempt at a brand-free world is what the organization means by decommodification.  Some people take it very seriously and block out or subtly change brand names on their vehicles.  A “Ford” truck becomes a “Food” truck, or a Buick automobile is somehow recreated as a Fuck-mobile.

Spoofing brand names is part of decommodification - one of the 10 Principles of Burning Man

Spoofing brand names is part of “Decommodification” – one of the 10 Principles of Burning Man

It’s a relief to get away from all the commercialism of the modern world, and to see ubiquitous brands like Wal-Mart or Bank of America turned into spoofs of themselves (Mal-Mart and Bank of UnAmerica), because in the default world, even when we’re not buying things we’re surrounded by commercial imagery.

Decommodification is only tangentially related to the commerce free concept of “gifting,” which minimizes or eliminates product sales at Burning Man.  Off-playa, free stuff is often just a means of promoting brands and products, whereas gifting at Burning Man comes with absolutely zero expectation of a vis-à-vis payoff.  The nature of decommodification means our gifts should not only be free, but also have no marketing purposes whatsoever.

Corporate identities sometime sneak their way onto the playa.  I recall a number of commercial products being given away, including Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.  If we are honest with the way life works on the playa, we’d acknowledge that Ben & Jerry’s is an acceptable brand on-playa because of its corporate reputation for loving kindness and liberal politics, while other corporate entities such as BP or Nike might be perceived politically as more corrosive to society. 

But overall, corporate intrusions on the playa are few and far between, and therefore our lives feel more untethered from commercialism during the week of Burning Man.  I’ve always viewed the Burn as “the world turned on its head for one week in the desert,” and the principle of Decommodification helps create this environment and helps delineate life on the playa from life in the real world.

Spark Sparkles with the Art and Joy of Burning Man

Trying to describe Burning Man to someone who’s never been is like trying to describe New York City without the help of photos or picture postcards.  Try as I might, I’ve never been able to depict the scope and vitality of the Burn in a satisfactory manner. 

Good news: there’s now a solution.

The new feature-length documentary “Spark: A Burning Man Story,” captures the Burning Man experience to near perfection.  Shot mainly at Burning Man 2012, but including footage from as far back as the original Burn at Baker Beach in San Francisco, Spark recounts the history of the event, and brings viewers face-to-face with the Burn’s glorious sound and imagery.

Spark takes an unsparing look at the phenomenon of Burning Man, introduces you to the key players in the creation and development of the Festival, and follows a small group of artists as they go through the trials and tribulations of creating major pieces of art and getting them out to the Playa. 

Produced and directed by the creative team of Steve Brown and Jessie Deeter, the film has been shown at numerous film festivals, including SxSW in Austin and is making its way to select cities where it’s screened to raise funds for various Burning Man art projects.  We saw it in Sacramento on June 11, with funds going to the Playa Queen art project, which has been accepted as one of the regional CORE installations to be placed around the man at the 2013 Burn.

I had a chance to congratulate Deeter at the screening and she told me that copies will be made available on DVD at some point in the near future so we can eventually share this extraordinary production with friends and family.

Spark conveys the creativity of Burning Man by following three artists through their wrenching route to the desert, and also digs into the Burning Man organization’s own struggles as it copes with the festival’s prodigious growth.  The film relates a key turning point in 1996 when the size of the crowds and the out of control environment almost destroyed the event and required a more structured approach, which was anathema to some early Burners. The film also spares nothing in capturing 2012’s ticket fiasco and the struggle to get back the organization’s Playa mojo.

Fire and Metal sculpture by the Flaming Lotus Girls.

Fire and Metal sculpture by the Flaming Lotus Girls.

But it’s mostly about the whimsy and joy, which keeps Judie and me coming back to Burning Man year-after-year.  Nothing I’ve seen has shown Playa bliss more clearly than Spark.

One of the amazing aspects of the film is its soundtrack, which includes music written especially for the documentary.  Deeter told me that the producers will consider packaging a soundtrack CD as a bonus with the home version of the film.

You can learn more about Spark: A Burning Man Story on the film’s website, where you’ll also see a trailer and the film’s performance schedule.  If it’s coming to a town near you, go see it.  If you have a major Burning Man project that needs a fundraising boost, contact the producers about bringing Spark to your locale for a benefit screening.

Why Go to Burning Man Redux

Every now and then I like to reiterate the reasons that I go to Burning Man and why I think it’s a particularly great event for people over 50.


It all started in 2004 when my then 20 year-old son asked me (age 60) to go with him to Burning Man.  Who could have said no to a son 40 years your junior?  The opportunity to spend quality time with him was simply too great to pass up.  Additionally, I had heard about Burning Man for years and knew that the festival was – at least in part – about art.


So why hadn’t I previously gone myself?  Like most people, I was put off by the harsh environment and the onerous requirements involved in radical self-reliance.  So it took the serendipitous opportunity created by my son to get me out to the desert.


What I discovered was that art was only one of a number of extraordinary aspects of Burning Man that made it worthwhile for me.  Upon my return, I discovered something else extraordinary.  I felt, looked and acted younger – and not just a little younger.  I felt 20 years younger.


My wife of nearly 40 years came with me the following year and loved Burning Man as much, maybe even more, than I did.  It has become a part of our lives and a true enhancement to our relationship.


The art turned out to be only one part of Burning Man’s secret sauce.  There was also the fun – the whimsy that pervades the playa.  Crazy art cars that look like dragons or magic carpets or gigantic boats or ducks; signage that made you laugh (my favorite was at the Black Rock City post office and said, “There’s no Team in Fuck You”); amazing costumes (one of my favorite movie characters, Leelu from “The 5th Element” came to life); and parties that had nothing in common with the typical quiet little backyard events of my age group.  It was all about the freedom to be whoever you wanted to be for a week without judgments or repercussions.

Eroticism is everywhere at Burning Man.

Eroticism is everywhere at Burning Man.

All of it made me feel younger.  But there was also the erotically-charged atmosphere of Burning Man.  Between the naked or semi-naked bodies, the many camps devoted to some pursuit of sexual pleasure and the totally open attitude toward sexuality, there was a pervasive erotic attitude that had its impact on me.  I realized looking back that the life enhancing power of eroticism was one of the most important reasons I felt so much younger when I got home.


My wife and I both sense it and respond to it in ways that rekindle our physical and emotional relationship year after year.  Who wouldn’t want to go when, nearing 70 years old, you find yourself feeling renewed about your own sexuality and renewed in your love and appreciation of each other?


Those are the reasons we love Burning Man, we continue to go (this year will be the eighth Burn for both of us), and we encourage others our age to give it a try.  

Plus,each year there are surprises that bring new pleasures as well, and our anticipation of what this year will bring grows as the days to Burning Man count down.


If you haven’t gone, join us.  We’ll be parked in Lamplighters Camp.  Ask for Perky and Lashes.


Playa Cuisine: What to Bring; Plus New Comments

By now, those of you planning to go to Burning Man are probably working out the details of your trip.  One of those details should be what you’ll bring to sustain yourself, eating-wise – after all, you are responsible for your own food and drink.  There’s not even a water fountain in Black Rock City (at least, not one I’ve ever seen).

If you’re camping on your own, you’ll need to pack food for every meal during your stay.  Of course, there are plenty of freebies around; one could theoretically find free food all day (and night) at Burning Man – everything from morning pancakes to evening hot dogs to midnight fries.  But you won’t want to depend on gifts alone as your main source of nutrition. The camps serving up freebies are notably irregular on their schedules and the amount of available food; plus, a diet of only what you can bum off of other camps will not provide an haute cuisine experience (or a healthful one, for that matter).

So what should you bring?  I’m not an expert, but I can tell you what we bring to the Playa to eat and drink.  Since Lamplighters (our camp) serves dinner most evenings (we all contribute the food, and camp members do the food preparation as their assigned duties in lieu of lamplighting), we largely concern ourselves with breakfast and lunch – but what we bring could serve for all three meals.

Some of the great non-perishables we bring include cans of soup, tuna, peanut butter, cereal and boxed milk.  For greens, we bring cans of green beans or peas and usually eat them cold.  We find that a loaf of bread will last the week.  Bring some just ripening fruit and it might also make it for the entirety of Burning Man.  We’ve found that oranges keep best in the desert. 

By the way, we heat up soup by putting the can outside in the sun.  If we place it there in the morning, the soup is usually hot by lunchtime.  Opening cans will be a problem if you forget a manual can opener, although many canned foods are now packaged in self-opening containers.

Oh, and don’t forget utensils.  We all like to get dirty in the desert, but slurping up soup without a spoon takes it a bit far for me.

Your range of food will be more limited if you don’t have refrigeration.  Many people bring 7-day coolers and replenish the ice as needed from the Arctica camps at located near Center Camp and at the 3 and 9 o’clock plazas.  The ice is one of the few things that’s not “gifted,” but instead is sold by Burning Man (similarly, the Center Camp Café sells coffee, tea and a few other drinks 24 hours a day).  Earnings from sales of both ice and drinks go to local schools in the towns that border the Black Rock Desert.

Lamplighters heading out to light Black Rock City -- a nightly event.

Lamplighters heading out to light Black Rock City — a nightly event.

For those with refrigeration, you might try bringing one of our favorite meals:  Chinese Chicken Salad from Costco.  But don’t forget the lettuce – which doesn’t come in the “kit.”  A cooler of some sort will allow you to bring such goodies as guacamole and salsa to go with the ever-popular tortilla or pita chips.  After all, munchies can become a critical need at Burning Man.  Refrigeration also allows you to bring items such as hard-boiled eggs – a fast and easy way to stem your hunger.

The Survival Guide provides recommendations on how much water you’ll need, but we often bring as much Gatorade (or some other form of sports drink) as water.  It quenches your thirst and provides the electrolytes needed to withstand the desert heat.  You’ll definitely want to carry a drink with you on your treks across the desert – it’s thirsty work touring Black Rock City.  I usually carry my Camelback for a ready supply of water.  I also have a belt-mounted holster that can carry a bottle of Gatorade, and we have carriers on our bikes for extra water and pick-me-ups.  Cliff Bars and similar quick energy snacks can come in handy while you’re away from your BRC home.

There are plenty of other possible foods that you could consider as you plan your stay.  Just keep in mind the environment of the desert as well as the environment you’re creating for yourself in your tent, trailer or RV as you’re planning your food and drink.  And keep in mind that alcoholic drinks do not provide much in the way of hydration.  You need water in the desert, and ice in your cup full of scotch will not be enough.

There’s no place better than Burning Man to “eat, drink and be merry,” but you’ll need to make certain that you have the required supplies on board for the best possible experience.

We received a number of comments and suggestions on Reddit that I found so worthwhile (or amusing) that I wanted to share them with our readers.  Here they are:

Make a bunch of breakfast burritos before hand. Best decision of the burn last year. –74NK

Corned Beef Hash & Grilled Cheeses at 2am. – djotter

Plan out everything you want to eat ahead of time. Work up the menu at home.  Then cut the entire list by 75% and you will be close to what you will actually end up eating. Even then, you will have some food left over.  My personal choice for stuff out there: Stuffed Grape Leaves. Absolutely the best when its hot.  – SutekhRising

sounds very elementary but chilled fruit snacks are the best during the day.  — sheRex

I had Gushers and PBR for breakfast. — skyhawkecks

Much less than you think.

Bacon in tortillas is at least 50% of my playa calories. And single-serve-pack deli meat wrapped in tortillas.

Keep an eye on your salt intake. If you’re drinking a lot of water (like you should) you’ll need to eat a lot of salt. I drank only vitamin water (no sodium) my second year and crashed on day 3 because I forgot that rule.  – MayTheTorqueBeWithU

We brought a case of avocados last year. I had my doubts but they were soooooo good and easy to eat no matter when or how. — gypsymonkey

Take a soy sauce packet, pour it into a half with the skin still on, grab a spoon and prepare for awesome.  – dapete

Thanks for this Ive been looking for ideas for food on the playa 🙂 – Minnie_Mau5_1991

I bring a Coscto box of those frozen Jimmy Dean biscuit sands. They thaw over the week but they’re already fully cooked so they’re still good. They’re also individually wrapped and so immune to cooler water. Heat them up for about 20 minutes on the hood of a car. Again, keep them in the bag so they don’t get dirty. Don’t forget the hot sauce.

Tasty Bites right out of the bag with some bread is a great quick meal too.

I’ve found that an extra cooler that doesn’t have ice helps keep fruits and veggies a bit longer. Keep it ajar when it’s cool and then close it in the afternoon heat/dust storms. – dapete

You are supposed to eat out there? — Earptastic