(Continuing our series interviewing pre-eminent Burners on the East Coast, I was privileged to talk to Rocket, one of the central members to the NYC Polyamory scene. He gave me a moment of his time in between organizing Poly cocktails, a great monthly meet-up event for people of that persuasion, and everything else he’s working on. Enjoy the read!)
By Terry Gotham
1. Where did you first hear of Burning Man & how did you become involved with the community?
Origin story! I first heard of Burning Man through architecture magazines. It essentially exists as this place where you can build as high or as crazy as you like b/c there are no building codes! Months later, I was reintroduced to it via NYC’s polyamorous community. At one of my first poly meets, I showed someone a very elaborate and well done jester Halloween costume I had made for myself and was then told, if you like costumes you should check out this group named Kostume Kult. I, days later attended a Kostume Kult meet and greet. At the time, I had just graduated from architecture school and was excited to be free. The members of KK and I immediately connected and they essentially told me… you’re fun, you can build, you like running around in costumes…you’re coming to Burning Man with US! Right away I started helping to build KK events, and they took me to my first burn in 2010.
2. Why have you not been back to Burning Man since 2011?
The reason I have not gone back to BM since my 2nd burn has been mostly monetary and about expression. The first 2 times I went, it was with the support of many wonderful people who wanted to see me go. And still to this day, I couldn’t be more grateful. Each year, I had a great experience, but I saw so many amazing ways to express oneself via interesting materials, lights, crazy costumes, etc… and I knew that when I returned for a 3rd time , it would be in a way where I would be able to express myself via the means that truly represented and resonated with who I am. My support and service to the community has not ceased, so I’m always connected to BM, its principles, and its people. Fortunately I’m at a place where making BM happen for me next year is very likely in the stars.
3. What did you do to raise funds for the cross-country journey?
I put a lot of service into the NYC burner community from day 1 volunteering to help build art, parties, fundraisers, etc. For my support to my camp, my camp dues were waived. My first ticket to the burn was gifted to me by my older brother as a graduation present. The rest was supplied by doing an assortment of freelance gigs.
My contribution to the community continued year round, and for my second burn the following year, I was gifted a ticket and camp dues by a really good friend who knew I worked very hard, but didn’t have the funds completely in order. Love you Matt! Now, I can finance my own trips currently serving as a project manager within the architecture and construction industry.
4. You’re also a pretty crucial member of the NYC Polyamorous community, can you tell us a little bit about that?
For many people, their journey of radical expression begins in burner world – they learn more about themselves, and then find themselves in poly world. For me, the story is slightly reversed. I entered the poly world after studying it on my own during college. From there I began to support the polyamorous community via helping to produce NYC’s Poly Pride weekend.
My selected task was to produce the Super Massive Cuddle Party and Workshop, a fundraiser for Poly Pride weekend. Through those efforts, I ended up hosting the largest official cuddle party in NYC 2 years in a row. After the 2nd event (2010), burner world and my professional architectural career started to align so I gave that my full attention.
Within the last year I resurfaced into poly world and was invited to be one of five hosts of the largest social polyamorous event in NYC, Poly Cocktails. I now serve as a warm welcome and resource to anyone new to navigating the world of polyamory.
5. Do you think that Burning Man is a cut above the rest when it comes to supporting sexual minorities?
Articles on BM in the recent years tend to focus on the 1% and the rise in the visibility of its affluent participants. However Burning Man and its culture will never cease to be inclusive. You need only throw on a creative costume, or volunteer to help an event, or to build something, and you are in. When it comes to minorities of any type, the rules are the same. Being helpful and respectful is what matters foremost. When it comes to sexuality, burner world is unique in that everyone is allowed to shine (sometimes all you literally need is glitter or LEDS to do so). Showcase who you are creatively while being respectful and helpful, and you will receive warmer welcomes and embraces than you can imagine.
6. Does it get easier or harder to attend Burning Man every year?
Both! It is easier b/c now I can afford to go! Win! Harder, because now I have to pay for everything! Time has the highest premium.
7. Besides Burning Man, are there any other intentional communities, regional burns or other non-commercialized events that you’ve been to that you particularly enjoyed?
I’m a big fan of FIGMENT which happens on Governors Island (NYC) each year. Burning Man is a social experiment – what would it look like if you took its 10 principles and expressed its lessons in the “default world”? FIGMENT is an excellent response to that question. It’s essentially the 100% family friendly version of BM and a wonderful event. I served as a Project Manager for the event (2011- 2013), helping to bridge the traditional architecture and engineering fields with our participatory ethos, resulting in an environmentally conscious centerpiece structure known as the “City of Dreams Pavilion”.
Everyone’s favorite event including my own, the PEX Summer Fest, I have attended 4 times including this year. The Freeform Festival held in or near New Jersey, I love it as well and have attended it for the 2nd time. I always joke that PEX is where the extra beautiful burners play, Freeform is where the grungy burners play… and you absolutely need both in your life. I also attended Gratitude Migration 2015, which was in its first year and held on an actual beach! Very fun.
8. Did you have any thoughts on what Larry Harvey said about people of color attending Burning Man?
In Larry Harvey’s words “Black folks don’t like to camp as much as white folks”. That’s a very stark way to put things. I would rather say… many minority groups (esp those who are black identified) do not know that they like to camp. This is obviously a much larger discussion that merits as many forums as necessary, but my short take on the subject is… I believe the reason that Burning Man is reported to being 87% white and 1.3% black is foremost and mostly monetary. While my statistics are limited, many minorities/ people of color, especially in New York City are still lower income or slightly above. When you have very limited amounts of money, you can spend it only so many ways. In many of those communities, there is also a huge culture of expressing one’s taste or “that you’ve got some money” via very immediate fashion and material items. Less emphasis is placed on grand experiential acquisitions such as trips to exotic locations and items to support such trips ie: ski gear, scuba diving equipment, wind proof shade structures. When you combine this trend with the insular quality of growing up closest with people who are just like you with the same/similar cultures and same/similar incomes, your focus is limited to mainly that which you know and are familiar with…and you are familiar with that which you can afford. Camping isn’t something that every minority group can readily afford, and the money that you do have goes to other places (dinners out, technology, fashion). Unless all of your friends are talking about it (which they are not, b/c they are just like you), there isn’t a demand to allocate money towards it.
As I went deeper into the Burning Man community and participated more, everyone talks about the burn and how are you getting there? Who are you camping with? What are you going to wear? haha. Very quickly it went on the high demand list, and all I wanted to do was go and experience this amazing thing with all my dozens upon dozens of new burner friends. There were no issues of fear of the unknown, or fear of “white people”, or even fear or resistance from my family – everyone I met was swayed by my excitement, thus excited for me to go, and my family helped me meet ends to get there. I only wish that everyone else, esp minority groups, received the same amount of excitement and support that I did. I think if they focused on the excitement (easily shared by other burners) and let their nearest burner community guide them, they’ll see nothing but the overwhelming support coming their way.
9. Where do you go from here? What’s on tap for 2016?
Currently I am happy to serve as an admin on the Jobs For Burners, and Jobs For Burners Discussion groups on Facebook created by Wabi Sabi, Adam Fierros (of Gemini & Scorpio), and I. We realized that there was not a specific outlet for paying jobs within the burner community, so we created that outlet. Thank you to the people who have joined the group thus far. We encourage as many people as possible to funnel jobs through the group. Monetarily paying jobs/gigs/etc ONLY please, otherwise post elsewhere. As admins, we monitor the group closely and are nazis about that.
I have a great time serving as a Poly Cocktails host, so I certainly plan on continuing my contribution to that. The event serves as an intersection not only to poly enthusiasts of every level of experience, but also to burners and members of an assortment of other overlapping communities… so I get to meet everyone!
I miss the desert adventures and definitely hope to be at Burning Man 2016 with stronger confidence, savvy, and muscles.
Favorite Burning Man moment? There are dozens, but I’ll mention this one.
In 2011, I had what I call a “tri-campership”, meaning I camped with 3 camps! To add flame to the fire, 2 of the camps were directly across playa, one being on Esplanade at 8:00, and the other being at2:00 on G or something far. On the good side, I had a tent on both sides, so it was like having a house on the east coast, and on the west coast. Or having a home in one place, while I summered at the other haha, but it was a lot of work. I had arrived early, and one day during burn week, I realized that I felt empty. After some contemplation, I realized that I had passed the Man dozens of times going back and forth on errands, but not once had I stopped to experience it. I realized that I had also done that with practically ALL of the art. That day, I knew I had to take more “me time” and experience as many works of art as I could. It was at the Charon installation, while pulling the ropes to make to the skeletons row into their 3D effect that only functioned with the participation of other people, that the spirit of Burning Man and its participatory nature got back to me and I felt whole and invigorated again.