Burning Man, the annual late-summer celebration in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, has inspired a string of off-shoots since the first wooden man was set ablaze in San Francisco Beach in 1986.
Thirty-three years later, the event draws tens of thousands of people, some of whom go on to host regional “burns” everywhere from Israel’s Negev desert to Wilmington, N.C. On March 28, a group of Charlestonians, assisted by “burners” from around the Southeast, will import the event’s disinhibited ethos to the Holy City.
Like Burning Man itself, the Charleston event, Emergence, defies description.
“It’s not anything that most people have experienced,” said Renée Orth, 44, the lead organizer. “There’s a deep reverence that happens at these events, for life and for nature.”
The Charleston gathering will share tenets of the Nevada burn. Among them are “radical inclusion” (everyone is welcome), “leave no trace” (clean up after yourself), and “decommodification” (after your ticket, nothing at the event can be bought with money).
Emergence is set to span four days at Charleston Woodlands, a 6,000-acre private preserve near Middleton Place about a half-hour from downtown.
“When I heard about their event, it just really resonated with the spirit that we’re looking for out there,” said Woodlands owner Holland Duell, 48, who has committed to keeping the property undeveloped. “People who are interested in it appreciate nature and celebrating the location.”
The festival is just one way to sustain that vision.
“Ultimately, we want to be an example for other landowners that can find ways to generate income while benefiting wildlife,” he said.
With no line-ups or schedules, burns are entirely dependent on participant contributions. Some may choose to set up performances, while others focus on massage workshops, dancing, or rituals that add a spiritual aspect to the days-long reverie.
Orth started going to Burning Man after what she calls a “transition phase.” Her marriage of 13 years had broken down, and she was about to turn 40. Her new partner had already attended the event a couple times when she decided to join him and his friends.
“I decided, I’m gonna go to Burning Man this year,” she said.
Orth and her partner traded Los Angeles for Charleston three years ago when he was offered a job at MUSC, but that hasn’t stopped them from trekking back to the West Coast every summer.
“You just really don’t know what you’re gonna find,” Orth said.
The DIY expectation, combined with the residential proximity of those in attendance, could also set the stage for collaboration.
“There are so many people here doing amazing things,” she said of Charleston. “They’re community-minded, but they don’t necessarily know each other.”
As of Jan. 13, Orth says 100 people had ponied up $119 each for tickets. The money will go toward venue and insurance costs, along with grants for local artists. (The application for grants will go live on Feb. 1.)
In a closed Facebook group, one prospective burner sought collaborators for a “sex magick / orgy tent.”
That element has been well-documented in reports about Burning Man.
“It’s available to people who want to participate in it. You’re not going to be exposed to something you didn’t consent to being part of,” Orth said, referring to the event’s eleventh principle: consent.
“I’d call them sex-positive camps,” she added. “People who are trying to help people transcend the puritanical idea of what sex should be and how you should feel about your body in particular.”
Asked whether the tent would be skirting any puritanical South Carolina laws, SLED spokesman Thom Berry answered, “I have no information on that.”
But penetrating the tight-knit, protective atmosphere could prove difficult for a first-time burner — or at least one who’s also a curious reporter. One member of the Facebook group dismissed a general solicitation for comment from the City Paper.
“Nothing to see here.”
Emergence runs from March 28 to March 31 at the Charleston Woodlands. Tickets start at $119. Low-income tickets are available for $60 with application. For more information, visit www.emergenceburn.org