As far as insightful conversations go, the below interview would be one of the best we’ve had with any interviewee. At ADE Mumbai, we got to talking to Megan Miller, the director of communications of the biggest ‘free-expression’ event in the year i.e. Burning Man. During our chat, we learned of the challenges and ideals of the event, and why Burning Man can never be lumped in together with other ‘music festivals’ taking place today. To know more about the creative process, the art and the general feel of Black Rock City, read on…
Burning Man is one of the biggest, and most artsy events in the world, and credits go to the people behind the mega celebration in the desert! One of them is Megan Miller, who has been a part of Burning Man since 2012. She’s the director of communications for the festival, and before she came on board, she spent close to ten years in the public and non-profit sectors working for environmental protection, HIV/AIDS prevention, and the United States Senate. Megan was recently part of a panel at ADE Mumbai that talked about the future of electronic music festivals.
Hey Megan, we’re a festival and culture website that has been following Burning Man quite closely for the past few years. We understand that categorizing BM as a music festival or a festival is deemed a faux pas. If you had to define it at all, in your own special words, how would you?
You’ll know the word ‘festival’ is not on the posters or titles at all; we intentionally try to stay away from it. I can understand why people compare it to festivals, but we call it an event. We call the event in Black Rock City the main event, but there are 65 other smaller events around the world. So taken it all together, I think it’s a global cultural event.
(Image : ADE Facebook/ Studio Zero Facebook )
As a community-driven congregation, what are the event’s biggest challenges when it comes to setting up BM every year?
There are many and it takes a lot more work than people think, when I first got to Burning Man it seemed like magic, like something that just happened. But I no idea how much time, money, energy and planning that goes into making it happen. And now that I’m part of the team, I obviously see all of that. Sometimes we call it ‘meeting man’ or ‘spreadsheet man’ (laughs), because we’ve gone all year long talking about what works, what didn’t work, what we want to change for the next year, how we can set that up for the next. Even just setting up bathrooms for 70,000 people in the middle of nowhere is a huge logistical challenge. We spend over a million dollars every year, just for the port-a-potties, and they’re not even fancy, they’re just the basic ones. There’s always new challenges every year – the weather can be a challenge, working with the local authorities can also be one although we’ve since developed working relationships with them.
(Instagram : @burningman)
The ideals of community + free spirited expression are the backbone of Burning Man. How has this impacted your life + personal growth?
Tremendously! I mean, I went to Burning Man as a staff member for Congress, we were working for the federal government, and we had a relationship with Burning Man as the event takes place on federal land. And when I went out there, I can’t exactly pinpoint what exactly happened (laughs). But I know I felt a sense freedom and authentic expression. This encouraged me to express myself freely and creatively, in a way that I never did before. And so it just changed my ideals, like I never thought of myself as an artist or associate myself with musicians and other creative people. But Burning Man allows anyone to be an artist, anyone can make music and anyone can participate and it definitely opened up a new world of possibilities for me.
When did you join the Burning Man family?
My first time was 2009 and in 2012 I became part of the organization. I’ve attended all the Burning Mans after. Seven times in Nevada, one time in Japan and one time in Argentina.
Here in India, we don’t have a Burning Man, but we do have a Kumbh Mela. Have you heard of it? It’s this spiritual congregation of Bhakts and sages (who’ve given up worldly possessions +live in the hills) of the lord Shiva who come together and take a dip in a holy river. When you actually study the festival and why people come together, for a sort of spiritual cleansing…it’s quite similar to what Burning Man is. Is that something that you would like the Burning Man community to explore?
There are many people who would describe Burning Man as a spiritual experience, although we don’t say that as an organization because we want people to explore or find their own meaning, and maybe for some people that is not what it is. But we have a temple every year at the event, that burns the night after The Man, and for me it’s the most important part of the week. It’s a place of reflection, it’s a place of processing grief, it’s a place for the community to come together and recognize whatever spiritual path works for them. So I think that is a key part of what Burning Man is, much beyond the parties. It is a community of some spiritual meaning.
There are Burning Man events all over the world, from America to Israel, Africa to Australia…as of now how fast is this unique community growing?
Every year we’re adding new events, I would say it could go faster, but we are intentionally going slower, so to maintain quality over quantity. We have 285 official regional contacts. These contacts are sort of like ambassadors of Burning Man, who have a relationship with the BM organization, who come to an annual conference every year where they share ideas and learn from other people who are producing Burning Man events around the world. They have a number of other responsibilities, so right now there are no regional contacts in India, but maybe that should be rectified.
Does that mean you see a potential BM in India?
It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to come here because I’ve never been to India and my whole life I have wanted to visit. I’ve always felt, like the festival spirit and culture and from what I hear and know about this country, feels like Burning Man will be a natural fit.
Let’s talk about the BM art, which is phenomenal. How do you guys, choose between all the talents? If you had to give advice to an aspiring artist, what does it take to feature your work at a place like Burning Man?
Anyone can bring their art; there is no barrier, unlike a gallery or whatever. One of the things I love about Burning Man is that anyone can participate. Now having the permission and actually being able to pull it off are two different things. It requires tremendous amount of resources which is hard, it’s in the middle of nowhere. SO creating your art and getting it there could be the biggest challenge, with the organization not standing in the way. We do have a grant process, so every year we contribute to selected artists work in terms of financial support. I think the biggest piece of advice I can give artists is to find friends who will help you with your idea, because every piece of art at Burning Man is a collaborative effort. And sometimes the experience of BM is being part of an art project, because you spend all year building it with your friends and then you get to put it out there and watch 70000 people interactive with it. I’ve actually never done that, I dream of one day being part of an art project, as I think it’s a great way to experience the event.
On an average, how many applications do you get?
That’s a really good question, we distributed 1.3 million dollars this year, and the numbers are definitely in the hundreds, not thousands. Don’t know the exact numbers, I would have to check.
We hear that Burning Man works with a lot of charitable organizations, non-profits and such…what are some milestones that the Burning Man community is immensely proud of?
There are several non-profits that have been inspired by Burning Man; the one that is really compelling for me is ‘Burners without Borders’. BWB started in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina the US, and it happened during Burning Man that year…so while people were at Burning Man there wasn’t any news, people weren’t connected by the internet or phones…and news started filtering in as the event was ended…and people were shocked and saddened, asking themselves what they could do to help. They collected something like 45000 dollars in cash, more importantly they basically left Burning Man and drove to the coast bringing heavy machinery used at Burning Man to help rebuild some places that were badly hit. And not in the way that the government would come in and rebuild houses, but in a way we called ‘cultural responders’ which is to build a fire and have people stand around it at night, to make wood out of what was being turned down and burn it in ceremony, to create a cultural experience of healing while recovering from a disaster. BWB has been around for 11 years doing projects in Haiti and Peru, and I think that’s the one I’m most proud of.
Lastly, out of all your Burning Man experiences, which one has been your most favourite and why?
That’s such a hard question. (Laughs). I will say going to Burning Man with my family was the important. Last year my father, my mother, my brother and my aunt came along and to experience that community with my family was very moving and powerful because I think it’s a multi-generational thing. I grew up as a raver in the 90’s, I loved EDM, I partied hard…but that was not an experience I was going to share with my family and now I have a community where that’s a piece of it, which my family can also enjoy. It’s all about shared experiences.
While in India, where do you plan on going, exploring? Do tell us! 🙂
I have to go back tomorrow, but I am coming back for Christmas for like five weeks. I definitely want to go to Rishikesh in the north; I was just talking to some people who do Magnetic Fields Festival, and then Goa of course.