Burning Man: Incubator for Community

Postmodern solutions to community building through ritual participation in the Burning Man festival

Does the cash-free Burning Man festival seek to subvert capitalism or is it a product of it? Why has it endured and grown for so long, and why do tens of thousands of people make the trek each year to camp in a desolate, inhospitable desert together? Is it a serious cultural experiment or just a huge party, and what is its relationship to quotidian culture? This study was written by me in 2001, while earning a degree in cultural anthropology at the University of California.

“For the past twelve years I have directed Burning Man — a project dedicated to discovering those optimal forms of community which will produce human culture in the conditions of our post-modern mass society. Within a desert wilderness we build a city, a model world composed of people who attend our event from all over the globe… Both Burning Man and the internet make it possible to regather the tribe of mankind, to talk to millions of dispersed individuals in the great diaspora of our mass society. Living as we do, without sustaining traditions in time and shared experience of place, it is yet possible to transcend these deficiencies. We must use technology to create space stations here on planet Earth, islands of intense and living contact. It is time to come home.”

- Larry Harvey, (1997 a), founder of Burning Man.

As its founder’s explanation suggests, Burning Man was created as an experiment seeking to establish a lasting form of human community in a society “whose economic and technological dynamic attrits and intrudes upon the integrity of the cultural process” (Harvey 1997 b). Burning Man organizers intentionally create in Burning Man a utopic community space where ritual and play take place. Intrinsic within the design of the event is not just a critique of our normative society, but alternative solutions to its perceived ills.

Every year around the time of the summer solstice, thousands of people make the journey to the Black Rock desert in Nevada to take place in this experiment in temporary community. There, on an ancient dried lakebed, an entire functioning city is built, then erased within a month. Black Rock City, as it is called, is transformed into a “temporary autonomous zone,” a “free enclave” where the participants practice “radical self-expression and radical self-reliance”. This remote and occluded expanse forms a liminal zone where societal ideas and structures are overturned, and new ones created. Participants take part in ritual giving and creative expression for one week. This expression is manifest as spectacular performance art and megalithic art pieces, including the three-story wooden man which is burned on the sixth night.

The event started in San Francisco amongst an intimate group of friends. When San Franciscan landscaper Larry Harvey burned an eight-foot-tall effigy on Baker Beach one night in 1985 in San Francisco, he did not intend to start a massive ritual. However, when he and a small group of friends set fire to the wooden man, suddenly everyone on the beach came running. They spontaneously began to dance sing and perform. “What we had created was instant community” (Harvey, 1997 b). While at first consisting of an intimate gathering of like-minded artists, over the next four years, this annual event drew an increasing number of spectators and trouble from police. At the suggestion of friends, Harvey moved the wooden effigy to a space dedicated solely to the enjoyment of the participants, (and a place where burning could take place without fire hazard). With few rules and possibilities infinite, the Nevada desert provided a space where total free expression was possible. However, Harvey wanted to keep the event “participants only,” knowing that this was the key to creating the desired communita. In order to maintain Burning Man a participatory event, he instituted a single rule: no spectators.

Combining efficient organization and volunteer labor from groups like the San Francisco Cacophony Society, the pyromaniacal, anarchic event soon earned fame in artistic circles as a wild carnival of free expression. Striving to maintain it as an “underground” phenomenon, Burning Man’s organizers have always relied almost exclusively on word of mouth and other alternative networks for the dissemination of information and coordination. When the event started appearing on the internet, Bay Area digerati caught wind of it and “something clicked”. Constructing creative worlds of imagination in the expansive nothingness of Black Rock is often described as an “analog of the Internet” or a physical manifestation of cyberspace. The event also shares the Internet hardcore’s utopian, anarchistic, expressive ethos. Like computer networks, its organization is also decentralized, interactive, uncensored and communal. The event professes itself to be a populist phenomenon, and attracts all sorts of people who want to leave behind their identities and symbols of conspicuous consumption for a week, and take on worlds of their own creation. In the last ten years, the event has exploded in popularity. For several years it doubled in attendance, reaching 30,000 people in year 2000. As Harvey claims, the event appears to be filling a need for freedom of self-expression that is not met in everyday society. Or at least, in middle class, white, San Franciscan society[i].

WORK, SHARED INTENT, AND COMMUNITY

The extreme environment at Burning Man is part of a carefully structured experience designed to create community. Harvey remarks, “All real communities grow out of a shared confrontation with survival. Communities are not produced by sentiment or mere goodwill. They grow out of a shared struggle. Our situation in the desert is an incubator for community” (1994). Many participants at the 2001 festival expressed to me how the challenging desert environment inspired a sense of caring and responsibility. People “help each other out,” because they are “surviving together”. “Chaos Barbie,” a five-year participant and Black Rock Ranger explained to me that “people are totally free at Burning Man, but it’s a responsible kind of freedom. They always take care of each other”. When interviewing Lisa Mekkis, who has attended Burning Man for four years and lives in Oakland, she expressed the conviction that if she were in some sort of danger at the event, she would be “totally supported” and protected by the community around her.

Lisa also spoke of the importance of “shared intent” in forming communities. “People normally go through life really isolated on their own little tracks. It’s the shared intent of living together that creates community. Surviving out there, people have to work together. It takes a huge amount of energy and money to do this — people put together whole clubs in a few days!” Burning Man becomes a common project and intent that communitas form around. “You’ve made society from the experience of work” (Harvey, 1994).

Burning Man organizers believe that uniting people around the construction of a ritual play space is the recipe for instant community. “The impact of the Burning Man experience has been so profound that a culture has formed around it…(people attempt to rekindle) that magic feeling that only the feeling of being a part of this community can provide” (Burning Man Homepage). Turner calls the experience of spontaneous community that forms during liminoid ritual spontaneous communitas. These are the immediate and direct way that individuals see, understand and act towards one another during the momentary flash of unity in a liminal experience. However, because liminoid expression is temporary, so too are communitas. They “cannot be legislated or normalized, since it is the exception, not the law, the miracle, not the regularity” (Turner, 49). Though Burning Man takes place annually and is planned, its communita escapes the death of permanence by having no ideology. Organizers claim that it is “Ritual without Dogma,” and officially completely meaningless. “We’d never assign meaning to Burning Man. By the time we got through we were so invested in this thing it didn’t need to represent anything. It was us. Burning Man has always been about immediacy” (Harvey, 1997 b).

FREEDOM AND SELF-EXPRESSION AT THE THRESHOLD

One of the core goals of Burning Man is to provide a space where people can feel free to express their inner selves. Lisa related to me the great need she saw demonstrated at Burning Man for basic human expression in its most “silly” form. She differentiated this expression from high art, which is commodified, and reserved for those who earn money from creating it. In contrast, the art and performance at Burning Man are given freely and without the intent of earning money. It is decommodified, becoming therefore “generous”; made simply for the sake of expression, of giving. Lisa believes that most people in our culture are raised to become part of economic society, to become Homo economicus. “Self-expression for is own sake is not valued in our society. But human beings need to be self-expressed.” Creative expression is part of who we are, she believes, and it is for that reason that people come to Burning Man.

The temporary community of Black Rock City provides a liminal space, another world occluded from quotidian life. In this space, ritual and play take place, allowing for a reflection upon societal order, a reordering of symbols. “In liminality people ‘play’ with the elements of the familiar and defamiliarize them” (Turner, 28). Such a process plays a critical role in the production and maintenance of human culture. In tribal society, Turner says, this inversion allows a deeper understanding of the culture and serves to justify and validate it, therefore maintaining cultural integrity and solidarity. In industrial and post-industrial society, Liminoid activity has evolved as a result of the moral elevation of work and subsequent split from play. It is a less ritualized, more individualized and playful activity from which innovation and social transformation can grow (53). Leisure time becomes a liminoid space, “an independent domain of creative activity” which can “generate and store a plurality of alternative models for living” (33). Instead of validating normative society, the liminoid expresses discontent and has the power to subvert existing structural norms by providing alternatives to them.

A SPACE FOR RITUAL AND PLAY

For Turner, human experience is never complete until it has found expression through symbolic action, or ritual. Ritual provides humans a means of self-reflexivity, through which balance in social structures may be maintained. In order to attain a perspective from which to see society, initiates must create a ‘sacred’ space occluded from ‘profane’ society. A separation from society “demarcates sacred space and time” (Turner, 24). Within ritual space an inversion of normal symbols takes place that allows the initiate to reassess and symbolically reorder societal structure. Harvey has attempted to create such a ritual space at Burning Man, because he believes that “we need a ritual culture”.

Johan Huizinga asserts that ludic behavior, or play, is also an eternal source of civilization and culture. Quotidian society is dependent upon it for new forms, and the two worlds act reciprocally between each other. Play is important to humans, because “it is in fact freedom” (Huizinga, 8). According to Huizinga, play is distinct from “ordinary” or “real” life. It is a suspension of normal activity, a wold with its own rules, its own processes and internal structure. In play, a person or group is freed from the schedule and norms of the “real” world. Within that brief window of time, people are transported to “a second poetic world” (4). This is a world temporarily perfected, ordered and harmonized. When reading his interviews, it seems that Larry Harvey has read Turner and Huizinga, and consciously crafted the event to promote both play and ritual.

Another way we’ve evolved (to constitute ritual and culture) is play. If you think about it, play is very similar to ritual. The gameboard, the playground is a space set apart form the ordinary world that is governed by peculiar rules…It involves the same suspension of disbelief. — Larry Harvey, (1994)

THE BLACKROCK DESERT: “Welcome to Nowhere”

Both Turner and Huizinga stress the importance of demarcating somehow an occluded, separate space for ritual and play. “…there is no distinction whatever between marking out a space for a sacred purpose and marking it out for purposes of sheer play. The turf, the tennis-court, the chessboard and pavement-hopscotch cannot be formally distinguished from the temple or the magic circle” (Huizinga, 20)[ii]. This space is created, reinforced and demarcated in a number of ways upon entering Black Rock City. Its maintenance as a space inverted, totally separate from ordinary life is crucial to the experience of ritual and play.

The geographic remoteness and climactic harshness of the Black Rock desert form a sacred, removed space because it is distinct from our “normal” world. Just the act of surviving there emphasizes that Burning Man is a different kind of experience. The journey to the event takes at least eighteen hours for most people, and is often likened to a pilgrimage. Says Harvey, “we evoke something tantamount to a megalithic temple complex. It involves a pilgrimage to a remote place, an initiation. The focus of our whole ritual is sanctified in the sense that it’s removed entirely from the world. The Black Rock Desert is about as far apart from ordinary experience as you could get” (1994).

Upon arriving, the Black Rock Gazette greets participants by proclaiming mysteriously, “Welcome to the unknown: the Zone of the here, and the Zone of the now. Welcome to nowhere”. We are told that this place is a “blank slate,” which is “left open to the imagination” (Black Rock Gazette, 1). In this way, participants are introduced to the giant playground of Burning Man called the Playa. They are expected to behave in a different new way, and “play along” with the Playa customs. Hardcore Burning Man participants take on a whole new persona upon entering Black Rock City, even renaming themselves. Chaos Barbie explained to me that “Names are part of demarcating the space when you get there. It’s about being who you want to be, unique. You go by a different name to show that you’re here for a special, different experience. You leave you inhibitions at the door, like taking off your shoes when you come in the door.” By taking on a new name, participants assert their freedom to be themselves.

The Playa customs are posted, printed in various publications, and repeated and enforced ubiquitously among participants. The two most important rules are “No Spectators,” and “No Vending”. These customs are meant to encourage people to participate and contribute to the experience, and to decommodify interactions between people. They may also be analyzed as a critique of society.

A CRITIQUE OF CONSUMERISM

Within the liminal play-space created on the Playa, Larry Harvey carries on his social experiment in creating culture. “People are culture-bearing beings, but culture is not going to break out where people are anonymous and thrown together in a mass. Cultural activities could disappear because they have been siphoned off to mass culture” (Albery). This ‘mass culture’ is believed by the organizers of Burning Man and many participants to be responsible for passivity, anonymity, and alienation in our culture. The event has been organized to oppose the ‘mindless consumption’ that is believed to plague our society. Ostensibly, corporate forces of marketing and mass-culture create worthless products and images to sell us (Harvey calls these “The Ghost of your Own Desire”, 1998) which consumers are tricked into thinking will make them happy. “So we spend all our time now, consuming stuff, consuming these dream images that nourish us spiritually like styrofoam pellets” (ibid). Corporations are seen as parasitic entities seeking to sap our creative juices, leaving us as spiritually hollow spectators. The objective of Burning Man is to free people from passively consuming mass-market, popular culture and to help them create their own. Through active participation, initiates are freed from their passive consumption and redirected towards self-expression and community.

NO SPECTATORS: Disneyland in reverse

Burning Man is a reclamation and expression of human creativity against forces that would seek to capture or capitalize upon it. The intent of the “no spectators” rule is to foster creativity and participation. Harvey has called Burning Man “Disneyland in reverse” because it is a festival where the experience is created by the participants, instead of it being a “spectacle” that is passively consumed. By inviting people to create the Burning Man experience themselves, it becomes an exercise in giving, in anti-consumerism.

Encouraging attendees to participate is an effort to create a community that everyone takes part in, and everyone is “in it together”. Coming just to watch would be missing the point of the experience, not playing the game. At least half of the people I interviewed remarked that participation was important because “the more you give into the experience, the more you get out of it”.

Abolishment of spectators is also an effort to protect the intimate, safe space of creation, where communitas form. It is supposed to be an autonomous zone, free of regulations and judgments of our daily life, where people can freely express themselves. Informant Lisa Mekkis told me, “At Burning Man people have the freedom to be totally absurd and expressive without becoming a spectacle. In normal society if you act really absurd, people will all look at you as if you are abnormal or different. Suddenly you’re not someone to be related to, you’re something to look at.”

Many participants feel that the act of casting the “tourist’s gaze” at Burning Man violates the sacred space created there. “All play has rules” Huizinga asserts, (11) and they are crucial for the play to continue. “Indeed, as soon as the rules are transgressed the whole play-world collapses. The game is over…The player who trespasses against the rules…robs the play of its illusion” (ibid). As soon as someone is gazed at with a consuming gaze, they become the object of consumption instead of an active participant, and relations of the Black Rock community are re-inverted to their mundane geometry.

NO VENDING: a gifting culture; creating communities by making exchange personal

The rule prohibiting commerce within Black Rock City was not instated out of a desire to subvert capitalism. After all, tickets at the gate cost over two hundred dollars. Organizers of Burning Man have intentionally banished commerce in order to create a (privileged) zone of creation and gift economy, and to decommodify relations between participants. A different exchange system also works to further emphasize the separation of Burning Man from quotidian life.

Charles Piot explains the difference between commerce and gifting. “The distinction between gifts and commodities manifests itself as a difference between the exchange relation established: gift-exchange establishes a relation between the transactors, while commodity-exchange establishes a relation between the objects transacted” (55). Gifting forces people to relate to each other, and is a more personal experience. As Marcel Mauss explains in The Gift, “by giving one is giving oneself” (46). By decommodifying the interaction between them, people are able to form a more personal connection.

Morgan, a 22 year old college student living in Berkley believes that “The ‘no vending’ keeps (the event) from becoming an obviously commercial thing. If there was money, it would become like any other touristy place. At Burning Man, it’s about how you can benefit someone.” Morgan explained that if people were vending at Burning Man, they would be trying to “get something out of” others. Instead, this “getting” is reversed. Burning Man’s culture seems to be one of informed altruism, in which everyone’s needs are met by people doing things for each other.

This altruistic gifting is designed to create an instant sense of community. Lisa related to me her daily ritual around gifting. “Every morning I go around and ask people if they would like some melon, and I tell them who we are, and where our camp is. Then they’ll stop by to see us and hang out…that’s what (the community) is about.” In her example, Lisa consciously uses gifts to elicit trust and social bonding. By giving gifts, others become people to be related to, not transacted with, and participants temporarily overcome the isolation of our commerce-oriented culture.

AN AGENT FOR SOCIAL CHANGE?

Is Burning Man a form of resistance to normative society? By gathering people’s efforts outside of consumerist society and directing them away from it, does it attempt to topple such structures and undermine their domination? If the Black Rock enclave is a liminal, or liminoid space, then it serves as an inverse and critique of normative society, a space free of its regulations. Its structures are composed of and a reference to life on the outside. Burning Man only exists in relation to society, and depends upon it to inform its study of cultural symbols. After all, what would ‘Cross-Dress for Less’ be without Ross Dress for Less, and societal phobias regarding cross-dressers? For many people, this exercise in behaving in a radically different way is a vacation from societal norms, but they will happily return later to their corporate jobs. The festival then is certainly not seeking to destroy capitalism or other structures of dominant society, because without them, it would cease to have meaning or exist.

However, as a ritual, liminal zone, Burning Man fosters the critique and reformulation that Turner tells us is necessary for the integrity of culture. Black Rock intends to be an autonomous zone of creativity and free expression, occluded and sheltered from “predatory” corporations and other forces of normative regulation. The event forms a space where like-minded groups interested in alternative living can cross paths and have a chance to meet in ‘real time’, network and collaborate. “I think a lot of people attend who are looking for alternative ways for living. There aren’t many examples out there, but Burning Man is one of them” says Lisa. While Burning Man is not directly resistant to society, the forms of community rising out of it that have the potential to effect change.

Communities formed through Burning man meet all year outside of the event to plan the art performed there. These communities have grown in size, organizing around various projects committed to Burning Man-type ethos. They are populist groups, formed around things like performance art, culture jamming, and pirate radio. Their projects typically deal with anti-consumerism, freedom of expression and community building. Most are based on the Burning Man ethic non-censorship of the popular community. These projects can take more or less political tones. For instance, one group of performance artists in Santa Cruz who met through Burning Man have planned a “terrorist attack” for January 1st, 2002. If the attack is successful, at twelve o’clock noon, self-proclaimed terrorist cells all over the world will take to the streets, committing acts of subversive performance art. This is a type of culture jamming, protesting the recent testimony of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s definition of terrorism on September 24, 2001. They believe this definition restricts freedom of speech by allowing for groups of performance artists speaking out against the government to be classified as terrorists and giving the police the right to censor them[iii]. As a cultural critique, this kind of activity is crucial to the health of normative society.

While for some people Burning Man is a Mecca for revolution-minded movements, the event has certainly become more and more mainstream and accepted. Some artists can no longer afford the entrance fee, and complain that the event has lost its original spirit. They harken back to the days when the event was free, and claim that it has become nothing more than a “status symbol” for “slumming yuppies” and “new age hippies”. Long-term attendees I met at the event often felt obliged to inform me how Burning Man is “not what it used to be back when and things were real”[iv]. Still, the event has become a common symbol of status and symbolic capital in the Bay Area community. Many dot-com companies in San Francisco make allowances for the week that Burning Man takes place, accepting that many of their employees will be away at the event and even sponsoring art installations there.

The Burning Man event itself has become an increasingly well-known icon in mainstream culture, even appearing on the cover of National Geographic. Although Larry Harvey has spurned several offers for corporate sponsorship of Burning Man, many of the clubs and other individual venues at Burning Man are corporate-funded. Chaos Barbie asserted that many prominent deejays in the San Francisco music scene consider it crucial to perform at Burning Man for the publicity that it brings. Their name will be circulated at the event through masses of paying clubbers and partyers who can hear their music for free. While many deejays surely perform for the love of their art, setting up a club at Burning Man is a huge financial and energetic investment, and surely the substantial publicity benefits are taken into consideration.

Whether promoting underground networks committed to free speech, or providing symbolic capital for clubbers, Burning Man is a well-recognized icon for people who have attended, or who know about it. Morgan believes that Burning Man provides an “instant connection so you can cut through the blank anonymity of humanity” ostensibly plaguing our society. It appears to be the catalyst for real social movements that a growing number of people are aware of and involved in. Innumerable “Burning Man decompression parties” take place in San Francisco, and spin-off festivals have been started all over the world in addition to the networks that form to plan these and other events. Larry Harvey is even preparing a manual explaining how to set up an event modeled after Burning Man. He wants his “bonfire party” to be “Rome for the colonies”, and start a movement of such festivals. He states, “I’d like to change the…world, and I think we’ve got a good shot at it” (Stein, 76).

Most people I interviewed on the matter said that Burning Man changed them, and that they came away inspired to change their lives. Some even describe it as a “space of hope”. The act of becoming who they really are, or really want to be for a week, proves to participants that they are able to live differently. With the help of the communities formed around Burning Man, perhaps they will even create new ways to cure the “passivity, anonymity, and alienation” of our culture. Twenty-four thousand people returning to society every year inspired to change it for the better is a very powerful force.

ENDNOTES

[i] Author Malderor states in a daily Black Rock newspaper (Piss Clear, Aug. 29, 2002), “Every other person here drove over the hill from the City by the Bay. If you want something ‘global’, try the Rainbow Gathering.[i]” The majority of the participants are employed in technological or professional vocations, and between the ages of 25 and 50. Wired Magazine has called Burning Man the “holiday of choice for the digerati”. While its organizers call Burning Man a social movement, it is obviously not an uprising of the lower class. But for those who can afford the (often over two hundred-dollar) entrance fee, it is a chance to live in a radically different way and make one’s renegade fantasies come to life.

[ii] Huizinga argues play and ritual to be formally indistinguishable (Huizinga, 20).

[iii] See discussion, “Nothing has Changed, Therefore Everything Must Change” at Not Bored. http://www.notbored.org/change.html, and also “Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Testimony Before the House Committee on the Judiciary September 24, 2001” at http://www.usdoj.gov/ag/agcrisisremarks9_42.htm

[iv] Stephen Elliott (jokingly?) asserts in Piss Clear, August 31, 2001 that “This year’s Burning Man is not as good as last year’s Burning Man. The real Burning Man, the one that’s really cool, the one that people will be talking about five years from now as “the good old days” is taking place at a secret location under a different name in another state. And you need a password to get in.” This is an allusion to the elusive and hidden nature of “real” underground movements. For this author, Burning Man is no longer as “real” as it used to be. In underground movements, there is always some other more authentic phenomenon, taking place far from the debasing influences of mainstream culture.

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