Burning Man’s Principles in Romania: A Conversation with Gabriel Muscalu

Words & Photo: Andrea Dimofte
August 2023

Burning Man: a music festival? No. A party in a desert? Maybe. A temporary city? Yes. Many cannot fully describe this experience which is best understood by participating in it. Burning Man is a cultural movement, a human gathering. Gabriel Muscalu attended his first burn in 2018 and, like others, was immediately struck by its power to change his perspective on life. Everything – from the dust, the art installations, the night lights, the creative mindsets and the focus on community building – inspired him to bring its principles to his home country: Romania. 

Burning Man started on a beach in San Francisco, U.S., in 1986, after Larry Harvey and his friend Jerry James brought a wooden man they built to burn. A small, curious crowd quickly formed around the fire, and a community was created, built on 10 principles still practiced today. These principles include radical inclusion and civic responsibility, amongst others. In short, Burning Man encourages acts of gifting, not exchanges, aiming to create social environments unspoiled by commercial transactions, while encouraging participants to rely on their inner resources. Today, Burning Man takes place in the Black Rock Desert (BRC), in Nevada, U.S., attracting nearly 80,000 people annually. Participating can be a lot of work: preparation, organization, and shared responsibility. It builds a large community based on creative collaboration and growth, while respecting the environment by leaving no physical trace behind. It is made up of thousands of social networks (colloquially called “camps”), each varying in size, each expressing its own identity, each offering different experiences to its members and guests. You will find camps dedicated to the circus, live music shows, hammocks, or even simply giving hugs. Camps are also where you sleep, eat and shower (sometimes!). They can also have art installations, varying in sizes, designs, and concepts. The many art installations in the desert create a sense of magic – some are even on wheels, changing locations daily.

While Burning Man’s evolution over the past three decades has been a hot topic for many years – precisely because of its transformation from a low-key hippie gathering to a mainstream counterculture event, it is important to shed light on the positive impact regional burns can have on other countries. The Burning Man Project has affiliations throughout the U.S. and over 35 countries called “regional burns.” And Romania is now one of them, thanks to Gabriel. 

In 2019, after meeting Marian Goodell, CEO of the Burning Man Project, Gabriel made Romania part of the burn’s official regional networks. With friends, he created the Burner’s Hub in Bucharest, and started organizing yearly burns throughout the country: RoBurn. Many believe that Burning Man’s principles are needed in Romania, a country still confronted with conservative mindsets by western standards. Gabriel and other hub members are pushing for a change in discourse. They organize local workshops and events to encourage creativity, critical thinking and push for a less judgmental society. “I think everyone is an artist – but great artists have their own style,” he said as we chatted about the thrills and challenges in bringing the principles to Romania. Gabriel is also involved in international projects. He participates in building Vampire Empire, a camp at Burning Man themed around vampires and minimal techno. He is also involved in building a school for underprivileged children in Colombia, dedicating quite some time on the ground there. 

Burning Man has become a considerable part of your life. What did you learn from your first burn? 

You learn that you can share what you already have. It doesn’t need to be huge, even just offering a glass of water can go a long way. You understand that you can truly create something out of nothing. You realize you can replicate the same model of gifting and self-expression wherever you go.

Burning Man can sometimes get complicated, especially since everyone involved is a volunteer, but this is the magic of the process. It teaches you how to build something from scratch in the middle of nowhere, in one of the harshest conditions on Earth, with the sole mission of giving. It’s incredible because you can then take the things you learned there and spread it wherever you go. I am now helping to build a school in Colombia and so many of the same things apply. Burning Man is like a good virus that spreads a new way of thinking. 

What would you say are the biggest misconceptions or stereotypes about Burning Man?

Sadly, social media is filled with posers. Some people go to Burning Man to take photos for fashion/influencer purposes. So, if you’ve never been there before, it is easy to assume that costumes are expected. But when you arrive, – you quickly realize that comfort is the most important thing. People reach for their pajamas. People get naked. 

And when I first heard that no money is used at Burning Man, I was skeptical. I thought it was one of those American marketing things. But it’s for real. Nearly 80,000 people really do get along without any money. For instance, in many countries, going to a party and being “cool” still means showing how much money you spend: going to a club, booking a table etc. This concept still attracts people, like flies to honey. But at Burning Man it is all about being a good human being. 

Another misconception about Burning Man is that it is a music festival. Well, it is and it isn’t. Many people run straight to Mayan Warrior and the other big art cars, trying to catch all the DJs, but that’s not what it is really about. 

In many ways, Burning Man is about self-expression and creativity. How do you express yourself creatively?  

I think everyone is an artist – but great artists have their own styles. I create with my head and hands. I play music. I play minimal techno and I love it, because I can enjoy it for 3 days straight. Most types of music use a lot of hi hats, an essential part of a drum set, which I find can tire you in time. Minimal techno doesn’t. I also think that music tends to be all about excitement, especially when you are young. But as you get older, you look for something else, for something deeper. Minimal techno is not about the excitement, it’s about the voyage. But music is subjective and often relates to how you feel at a particular moment. 

Last year at Burning Man, I was surprised and disappointed to see just how many people used sync when playing. I think sync takes a lot of the flavor and creativity out of the sets. It makes things easier if you are playing high, but so much gets lost. In many ways, it is like living in fear. I kept nagging my friends about it since I was the stage manager at our camp – and I kept saying: “We are Burning Man! Don’t be afraid, just play what is inside your soul – who cares about the rest.” 

Tell me a bit about Vampire Empire, your camp at Burning Man. 

In 2019, we were just a small camp – if we can even call it that. Though we had placement, we were just 5 RVs with a shade structure, without any events. Placement is essentially when the Burning Man Project gives you the green light, and location, to set up a camp, after filling out an application. But even if our camp was small, I realized how difficult it was to create it. Last year, in 2022, we had a lot more structure. We had a proper camp. We were 65 people, of which only 10 were Romanians, with the rest from other nations, mainly from the U.S. But it’s not easy. I would say that in the last months running up to it, it had become a full-time job. You need a lot of time and dedicated people, and I didn’t have the time I would have liked, since I was also setting up RoBurn. So, my Romanian friend Diana actually orchestrated Vampire Empire at the main burn. 

Why the name?

We decided to name it Vampire Empire because we all love vampires and, of course, because of Transylvania. We had everything to do with vampires: a coffin, two organ instruments, and bloody marys. The decoration was filled with vintage stuff. We kept away from the stereotypical Disney vampire themes. We were the real vampires! We even had a torture booth. I also have a funeral business in Romania, which played an inspiring role. 

You brought a regional burn here – how was the process? 

It took me 6 years to get to Burning Man from the moment I first heard of it. In time, I realized that many Romanians were in the same position as me – who wanted to go but did not because of high costs, or because they were unsure of how to start or simply because of the distance. Burning Man’s website is massive, which can overwhelm you if you don’t know much about it. To truly understand Burning Man, you need to feel it. So, I just thought: “Why not bring their philosophy here, back home?” 

Our first gathering was in Bucharest, in December 2019. We had a small budget, and did not have the necessary knowledge, or the volunteers. I talked to Steven Raspa, a founding member of the regional network committee, who encouraged me to start small. And he was right. The Burning Man Project capped the first RoBurn event at 400 people. We rented the ground floor of a building used as an artist hub, one of those that doesn’t market itself, where artists can sleep too. We thought it was perfect. And it was a lot of fun. We burned the wooden structure behind the building, and were lucky enough that the firefighters didn’t show up. I met many people there who are now helping me grow it. 

Of course, this was all happening right before the pandemic. In the summer of 2020, with lockdown restrictions present but a strong desire to keep the small community alive, we kept putting on low-key events for those who wanted to participate. 

In the summer of 2022, RoBurn was in the middle of nowhere, on a mountain near Craiova (in the southwest of the country). My grandfather lives in the area, so he put in a good word for us. And the most incredible thing happened: a policeman, the mayor, and neighboring villagers all embraced our community and welcomed us. We had homemade wine and bread brought to us. Gifting happened naturally. I guess they were friendly towards us because many suffer from loneliness, since the area is experiencing an exodus of people and doesn’t receive many tourists. They were also happy and surprised that we didn’t leave any trash behind. 

This summer, 2023, we had around 150 participants. Although many came for the first time, more people understood the principles and arrived better prepared. Our youngest participant was four years old, and our eldest was 78. I think this was the best RoBurn yet.

Does the Burning Man Project help you in any way?

They only give us advice, but we manage to be self-sufficient. We manage to have money for art projects for the following year. Everything is done with private money. 

How big is your community here in Romania? Do you have many expats who are involved locally too? 

We have around 200-300 people coming to RoBurn. Though mostly Romanians, we have a few foreigners, the first being my Mexican friend Javi.

How did you get to meet Marian Goodell, CEO of the Burning Man Project?

She was invited to Bucharest in 2018 to give a speech at a marketing conference. At that time, I had already created a Facebook page called “Burning Man Romania” – to find other Romanians who wanted to go to the burn. Only afterwards did I realize I was not allowed to use their official name for my personal use. When she came, she took notice of the page and, funnily enough, left me a comment on it. “I’m coming to Budapest” she wrote, adding that she would like to meet. I didn’t realize who she was. I answered saying if she meant Bucharest, then of course, but Budapest would be trickier! We set up to meet. But, for some reason, she didn’t show up because of an issue with her phone. And so, I went back to Facebook – and told her off! I think she enjoyed that. Finally, we ended up at the same dinner with a few more people. She has this flawless way of talking, which mesmerized all of us. She didn’t even mention who she was. It was only after dinner that I realized by googling her. 

After the conference, she extended her trip and traveled north of Romania, truly falling in love with it. We remained in contact, and she decided to help me out to make Romania part of their official regional burns. She thought, maybe: “Let’s help these bastards; they’re onto something.” 

We met again at the official burn in BRC, in 2019. She waited for my friends and I with a vișinata, a traditional sour cherry liqueur from Romania. She blew my mind. She had even kept it in the original bottle – one of those crappy plastic ones that has nothing to do with the drink. The ones that our grandparents use for their homemade visinata – a carrot juice or plastic water bottle. She had kept that for an entire year so that we would drink it together out in the desert. That’s the kind of person she is. 

Tell me about the Burners Hub; what was its purpose and why did you have to close it down?

The Hub was a fantastic project in Bucharest – a space where people came to create and party. Sadly, we had to close it because I went to Colombia temporarily to help build a school, and nobody else could agree on how to continue running it. Rent had also become an issue. But the Hub 2.0 will happen in the future in another location. I’d love to buy a piece of land in the countryside where it can permanently exist, with a house with proper insulation, where we can hold events. 

Given Romania’s relatively recent history with communism, under which self-expression was not encouraged, do you face any challenges in explaining the concept to people?  

I see this as an opportunity. The challenges lie more with the older generation; we have yet to interact much with them. But we haven’t had any challenges with the generation who grew up at the end or after the Romanian revolution. We only struggle when explaining that we are not a festival. Romania has only experienced music festivals so far, so it just takes time to clarify why people need to work even though they purchased a ticket. The money funds everything from the toilets, the generators, the gasoline, and the cables, but we are all volunteers. 

People also expect to know the artists’ lineup in advance, so we also explain that though there will be music, it will happen organically, depending on who is there. While I can tell them what programming we will have in our camp, I do not know what will happen in other camps.

But people need to experience it to understand. We are not rushing the process and are enjoying every step. Even with the work involved, it is a lot of fun and we are proud of what we have accomplished so far. 

Why do you think it is important for other countries to be part of the Burning Man network, and how can society benefit from its exposure? 

Most countries, Romania included, measure their success based on Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but this system has failed us. Burning Man shows us an alternative way to move forward, away from consumerism. The 10 principles are simple to follow, though it takes time for people to adopt them.

In many ways, Burning Man helps you understand the cycle of life. If you build a camp from scratch, you see it come to life. You deal with all the emotions that come with it – whether it makes you or breaks you, or both. You then pack everything up in a box, moving forward with important personal lessons learned.