Finding Meaning at Burning Man

Aug 26, 2013

Please note: This interview originally aired on July 10, 2013.

For a week every year, tens of thousands of people descend on a usually vacant spot in the Nevada desert for a festival that is equal parts performance art, philosophy, and party.

The Burning Man effigy
Credit Aaron Logan/Flickr

The Burning Man Festival was founded more than twenty years ago and now runs for a week each year at the end of August - the 2013 festival begins today. It culminates with the immolation of a huge wicker man, after which the desert goes back to its previous state.

"Sixty thousand people come to the middle of the desert; they build this huge city - art, buildings - burn it all down and leave without a trace," filmmaker Julie Pifher says. "It's symbolic of life."

For Pifher, a Milwaukee native, the festival seemed like a perfect place to ask the age-old philosophical question: What is the meaning of life?

So the director and producer headed into the desert last year to answer the query, and the result is the film, Burning Man and the Meaning of Life.

Pifher set out to document what makes this ephemeral gathering place so different from the outside world. She explores how festival-goers create essentially a temple in the middle of the grounds for the 50-foot sculpture - and what that "temple" means to each participant.

"People come away feeling transformed and changed and changed and touched," she says.

Filmmaker Julie Pifher in Lake Effect's Studio B
Credit Mitch Teich

To explore these deeper ideas, she set up a private, soundproof,  interview photo booth. It was set up to record people without the pressure of an interviewer present and the freedom to do whatever they felt; the results varied from confessionals to public sex.

But what about her initial question about the meaning of life? Pifher says the most popular response she got from those at Burning Man was one word: love.

She also shows how the festival operates under a unique "leave nothing behind policy," which states that attendants take everything they brought in right back out with them when they leave. Participants also don't exchange money, but use bartering as a significant source of acquiring things, and in the few cases that money is used, like for ice, it's donated to charities.

Burning Man 2013 gets underway today