Attendees of the annual art festival known as Burning Man need to bring a lot of essentials to Nevada's Black Rock Desert — equipment, shelter, food, costumes — but there's one thing they don't need: money. The temporary city, which runs from August 26 through September 4, operates as a cashless society.
But the exchanges happening at Burning Man aren't considered bartering or trading; the concept is closer to gifting. "Gifting means providing something of value to others, without any expectation of benefit to yourself," says Leon Feingold, who's been going to Burning Man for the past seven years. "It could be food or drink, it could be an experience or art, it could be a lesson, or something to wear."
Individual brings their expertise to the table: Chefs make meals, writers gift personalized poems, dancers teach you a move. "The idea is that everyone contributes as they can, and it is all a fair exchange at the end," says fashion designer Stephanie Sartori.
Sartori, a three-year Burner, sets up a sewing station she calls called "Sew Fun," where she and her partner, Soyoung Kim, design, fabricate, and gift costumes to fellow attendees. They expect nothing in return, but some Burners offer them refreshments, scented oils and other gifts as tokens of appreciation.
Decommodification is one of the ten guiding principles of Burning Man, and participants say it feels extremely liberating. Citizens of Black Rock City are not valued for their job, bank account or designer clothes, but rather their talent and enthusiasm. "Because no one wears 'normal' clothing, you don't know if the person dancing next to you is homeless or a millionaire. And it doesn't matter," Feingold explains.
This economy fosters a sense of community unique to this event, where you're surrounded by upwards of 60,000 people who have all (temporarily) abandoned the rat race of daily life for the freedom of community. Just bringing a smile to someone's face can be a gift at Burning Man.