Burning Flipside: The Burning Man of Texas

Burning Flipside: The Burning Man of Texas
Photo by Vanessa Elise

Outsiders call Burning Flipside an art festival; people who actually go there call it a burn.

Set in the hill country around Central Austin, Burning Flipside is the Texas take on the Burning Man global phenomenon. Every May, thousands hike into the woods to live in what is essentially a small, constructed city where conservation is a core tenet, and no one is allowed to sell t-shirts. When it’s all over, they burn an effigy. People bring art, music, experiences, and more esoteric social contributions in a radical divergence from typical capitalist society.

“This ain't no raver daycare, music festival, or commercial vending space,” says Charles Hueter, Communications Area Facilitator. “You have to come prepared to live and leave no trace for a long weekend. You pack everything in, and everything out. It isn't easy, so we have a Survival Guide to help make better decisions. Some come for the challenge. Some want to really live our principles of Self-Expression, Cooperation, and Accountability. And some just want to see propane boosh cannons on wheels.”

Burners (as they’re called) are pretty media shy, thanks to many outlets treating the gatherings like a freak show. Talking with people generally involved having several other sources vouch for me. There are no press passes to attend, and roving camera crews are not appreciated.

It’s easy to see why. The original Burning Man launched in the 1980s with distinctly pagan trappings as a solstice celebration. By the time Flipside was founded in 1999, burning gatherings exemplified a rejection of many social norms and practices. Its existence is a commentary on the way we live our lives, even as the main Burning Man descends into a venue for social media influencers. 

Flipside only sees about 3,000 visitors, most of whom bring art installations and gifts for the long weekend. One of those is Vanessa Elise of Cosmic Creatures, founded in Houston in 2022. They construct a “Cosmic Zone” at the site during the Memorial Day Event. The installation is a triangular dome roughly 60 feet in diameter full of intricate light shows and other colorful decorations.

Another member brings portable pools, something much loved in the increasingly hot Texas summers. These include custom designed filtration systems to keep the water as clear as a spring. Elise goes every year, and is amazed by the sense of camaraderie there.

“The most beautiful part is the community,” she says. “It was born of creation, and wanting to express you authentic self is a form of creation as well. Every year is more magical. And Flipside is the best burn I’ve been to. The accessibility here is better than any other burn. It’s a place where kindness and sustainability persist.”

Kindness is the driving force behind another group, loving called Dad Camp. Technically, one could call what they do performance art or freelance unlicensed counseling. The group stake out a small part of the site with astroturf and pink flamingos, don Hawaiian shirts, grill burgers, and tell dad jokes. When someone walks by, they scream “I love you, and I am so proud of you!”

Corny? Yeah, but it’s also moving. Rachel Forster is one of the dads (she reminds the world that dads come in all genders, sizes, shapes, and backgrounds). When they started doing Dad Camp, people would often start pouring out their life experiences to the ersatz fathers, trauma dumping about their own parents. 

“That spawned the Dad Baggage Station,” she says. “We bring pencils and stationery so people can write down their Dad Baggage. Then we place it in a suitcase and load it into the effigy to be burnt at the end of the festival. We love making this wholesome place to relax and be loved.”

There’s no doubt some burns can have toxic people, but Flipside has managed to stay small and guided enough to maintain the moral ideals of Burning Man. The old Tolkien quote goes: if more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. Flipside and the burners who attend every May at least aspires to that world and try to make it a reality, even for just a short while. 

“We are not just a party in the woods,” says Hueter. “The children of Flipside burners have grown up and become the next generation of unorthodox thinkers, goofballs, and ‘wouldn't it be cool if...’ engineers. Burners take this energy and help clean up beaches, respond to natural disasters, and bridge cultural divides. We jokingly call everything outside the event the Default World. But when you're at Flipside and see how people can collaborate peacefully to create a special experience, it begins to set in. We need these breaks from the routine. There is a better way, and we see it every time participants’ faces light up job hearing the magic words upon arrival.”