Midburn, a Temporary Playground for Adults in the Israeli Negev

The third local iteration of Burning Man brought over 8,000 people to a pop-up city in the desert where cooperation and creativity rule and ice is the only thing money can buy.

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Midburn 2016. A couple of the effigies that give the Burning Man events their name are silhouetted against the sky.
Midburn 2016. A couple of the effigies that give the Burning Man events their name.Credit: Liat Yoffe
Liat Yoffe

Anyone who’s ever been to any city can easily picture what other cities basically look like. They all have restaurants, cafes, roads, sidewalks, cars. But enter Midburn, the temporary city erected in southern Israel near Sde Boker, and everything you might have imagined from the comfort of your air-conditioned home will pale in comparison to the spectacular sight before you.

Massive art installations are spread over several kilometers of desert in a city that was built from scratch to house five days of an alternative reality. It comprises 70 different camps offering a variety of attractions for visitors, from a cool and refreshing malabi pudding, to a nice place to spread out for an afternoon nap, to a drag show – all at the Israeli version of Burning Man.

The original American festival draws over 70,000 people to Nevada each summer. Midburn, now in its third year, is the third-largest burn event of its kind in the world. Burning Man is named for the wooden effigies that are ceremonially set alight during the festivals; “Midburn” is a portmanteau of midbar, Hebrew for desert, and burn.

About 8,200 Israelis and foreign tourists visited the temporary city this year. Thousands of them had worked for months, most of them as volunteers, to build Midburn. Their handiwork is evident in the stunning art installations all around.

“Noah’s Ark” is an enormous wooden ship, docked in sand. Visitors – or “burners” – are invited to come inside and hear recorded animal sounds (to evoke the biblical story), and you can also go up on deck and look out over the entire city. There was also a pirate ship that was used as the setting for a big techno dance party, as well as a giant rabbit’s-head sculpture onto which video art was projected. The lucky ones who came at the right hours also got tips on technique from street-mural artist Rami Meiri outside the maze installation, or could “rest in peace” inside a fake casket.

Midburn 2016.Credit: Liat Yoffe

The main axis of Midburn, which is built in a circle, is called Playa (“beach” in Spanish), and the typical burner activity is to stroll among the different camps and installations which are also ever-changing. The thousands of hands that spent thousands of hours building the installations belong to all kinds of people from every walk of life. It’s hard to point to any one common denominator, leaving aside their readiness to spend five days in the broiling sun breathing the dusty air of the Playa.

“Midburn is like a playground for grown-ups, and there are a lot of people here who love to play,” says Amir Shalem, a leader of the Fugara Arts Group that is active at Midburn and other art events, like the Light Festival in Jerusalem.

“We work year-round and we try to focus on new technologies and artistic ideas that interest us. Our ‘game’ this time is a 40-square-meter installation that’s almost 8 meters high. Everybody is invited to climb all over it as they wish,” Shalem says.

All citizens of Midburn live by the 10 Principles of the international Burning Man community, and “decommodification” is one of the most important. At Midburn nothing is sold for money (except ice) and the consumer culture that is so much a part of our normal daily lives is quickly swept away here along the dusty Playa. It’s a marvelous way to put the status of money in our lives in proportion, but getting to take part in the experience is far from free.

“I planned to spend up to 1,500 shekels ($387), and I exceeded that long ago,” an old friend from high school tells me. Tickets cost between 580 shekels and 750 shekels each for the general public, and that’s before you add in the costs of food and other provisions.

Midburn 2016.Credit: Ofir Karlstadt

In the cashless world of Midburn, gift-giving – often to strangers – is a popular pastime. A small hand places a blinking smiley-face light in mine and declares “Gifting!,” in English. The gifter is Ella from Ramat Gan, who is nearly 7. This is her third Midburn. She joins a group of young burners spraying cool water on passersby. Children seem to intuitively grasp the community’s principles. They all seem totally relaxed and at home.

What's the worst that could happen?

Last year the police gave the organizers a hard talk, and there was a lot of speculation over how much nudity there would be. A father of two from Ramat Hasharon doesn’t sound too worried about any negative effect on the kids. “What’s that worst that could happen? That they’ll see somebody naked? Kids don’t even notice that stuff, it doesn’t grab their attention. They’re not conditioned by so many conventions yet.”

As it turned out, the police were not too worked up. “It’s a little wild for my taste, but there weren’t any special incidents. Looks like your 10 principles really work,” one police officer remarked to someone enjoying the Playa. At Midburn, the goal is to let everyone express himself as he wishes, which results in a dazzling array of creative costumes and, at night, an extraordinary scene of bright colorful lights.

Key elements like gifting, volunteerism and cooperation have a natural effect on the general atmosphere, so that someone who doesn’t know his upstairs neighbors’ names back in the city can easily find himself deep in conversation here with total strangers.

Midburn, June 2016. About 8,200 Israelis and foreign tourists took part. Credit: Ofir Karlstadt

Leaving the foam party to play God

After two intensive days here, it’s hard to imagine going back to a life without some of these strangers, not to mention all the acquaintances I happened to run into as well – such as a guy I once had a date with. We took a short hike, where we soon got to talking about the meaning of life, before making our way to a foam party – until he had to leave to play God at one of the installations.

“The whole idea is to create a parallel world to the world outside,” says a guy wearing a vest and a conical hat who was part of the volunteer building team.

A friend of his insists, “There’s no one single way to describe Midburn, but one of the nice things is the pace at which things happen. You keep wanting to have different experiences, you don’t want to stay in the same moment for too long.”

Indeed, I found myself strolling for hours, with friends or alone, stopping for lemonade and dancing here and to lounge with a giant teddy bear there.

Erez Segal, another volunteer member of the building crew, offered to help people who were having trouble making decisions where to go and what to do.

“Generation Y is often said to be very self-centered, but the Midburn spirit is all about an experience of ‘together’ and of community.

“When kibbutzniks come here, they get it right away,” says Odin Shedmi, who was leading a tour for kibbutz members, adding, “They’re used to thinking about consciously shaping the way one lives.”

From the evidence here, it seems that when you devote time and thought and bring ideas to life, the result is an outburst of creativity and surprises and a place for everyone. Sound utopian? Well the thousands of dusty cars that headed home across the country can serve as a reminder of our ability as a society to just decide to do things better.

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