The New Utopias

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It all started with the words, “Let’s burn a man.” On a summer solstice evening 30 years ago, a bohemian drifter named Larry Harvey spoke those words to about a dozen friends, torched an effigy of a man, and watched it go up in flames on San Francisco’s Baker Beach. 

The rest, as they say, is history. In 2015, Burning Man attracted almost 70,000 participants, some of whom camp out and live in complete freedom for more than a week in the Nevada desert. The only rules are based on the festival’s 10 Principles, which include “radical self-reliance,” “radical inclusion,” “leaving no trace,” and “decommodification.” 

Festivals are no longer just about listening to live music and celebrating the seasons. The influence of Burning Man and other alternative festivals has helped spawn an almost spiritual movement of ideas and culture across the globe, particularly in areas where the influence of organized religion is on the wane. It also taps into a growing community of lifestyle travelers who, in a time of increased mobility and digital connectivity, are increasingly embracing a nomadic lifestyle that blurs the lines between life, work, and play.

What is it about Burning Man and like-minded festivals that inspires an almost religious fervor? When asked to describe what Burning Man is, Larry Harvey often defines it as an experience that is about “transcendence and connecting with something bigger than you are.” Brett Leve, one of the five founders of Summit, a series of festival-like conferences about ideas, which have taken place in Tulum, Utah, and on a ship en route from Miami to the Bahamas, says that most of us in the Western world have “lost all our rites of passage. My bar mitzvah was not a rite of passage. There is no related understanding of self or adversity or pilgrimage involved.” He points to Burning Man, or the Camino de Santiago, a network of ancient pilgrim routes across Europe that come together at the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain, as a communal ritual that fills the void. “Burning Man is like a modern rite of passage. You travel to a remote place, set yourself in a harsh climate and then have to be self-reliant for at least 36 hours.”

To get to the Ezera Skanas festival in rural Latvia, most people leave Riga at midnight and drive more than 100 kilometers, mostly through forest, to the remote Kala Lake. Small groups start arriving around 2 a.m. Silence and solitude are encouraged, especially once people get into small boats (their own or rentals) and push them out on the dark water, the bright stars above their only source of light.

“Entering the water in the dark is such a dramatic event that it changes one’s state of attention,” said one of the three founders, Reinis Spaile. “People are disoriented. It’s like entering a dream.” Bobbing in the darkness, eventually the sky lightens and you can see the shadows of other surrounding boats. Music starts to play and as the sun rises, it peaks. You can finally see the musicians that are performing on floating stages. “You wake up communally to a new day and a new place,” described Spaile. “It is like a modern ritual.”

The preceding is excerpted from an article by Gisela Williams that appears in the 2017 edition of Directions, the travel magazine by Design Hotels™. Buy the latest edition here for €10 or get a complimentary copy when you order the 2018 Design Hotels™ Book

Friday, February 17th, 2017