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University of California Press
Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man / Edition 1

Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man / Edition 1

by Lee Gilmore
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Every summer, thousands gather from around the world in the blistering heat of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for the seven-day celebration of art, community, and fire known as Burning Man. Culminating in the spectacular incineration of a wooden effigy, this festival is grand-scale theater for self-expression, personal transformation, eclectic spirituality, communal bonding, and cultural renewal. In this engrossing ethnography of the Burning Man phenomenon, Lee Gilmore explores why “burners” come in vast numbers to transform a temporary gathering of strangers into an enduring community. Accompanied by a DVD, which provides panoramic views of events, individuals, artworks, and, of course, the climactic final night, the book delves into the varieties of spirituality, ritual, and performance conducted within the festival space.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520260887
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/08/2010
Edition description: First Edition, Includes DVD
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 980,559
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Lee Gilmore is a Lecturer in Religious Studies and Anthropology at California State University, Northridge. She is coeditor of After-Burn: Reflections on the Burning Man Festival.

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Theater in a Crowded Fire

Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man

By Lee Gilmore


Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94553-1


Into the Zone

By the time I first got to Burning Man in 1996—which turned out to be a pivotal year for the event—it had already changed dramatically from its humble beginnings a decade before. On summer solstice eve in 1986, a man named Larry Harvey and his friend Jerry James decided, for no premeditated reason, to host an impromptu gathering on San Francisco's Baker Beach, where they constructed a primitive wooden effigy and burned it. Having invited just a handful of friends to join them, they were delighted to discover that as they set flame to the eight-foot-high sculpture, the spectacle attracted onlookers from up and down the beach. As Harvey tells the often-repeated tale, someone began to strum a guitar, others began to dance and interact with the figure, and a spontaneous feeling of community and connectedness came upon those gathered—friends and strangers alike (see DVD, chap. 1). Flushed with the unanticipated success of the gathering, Harvey and James soon decided to hold it again the next year; with each subsequent iteration, both the crowd and the sculpture grew substantially.

Numerous legends have accumulated around the birth of the festival and—as is often the case with largely oral traditions—the elements of the narrative have shifted with each retelling, as some aspects have been emphasized and others lost in the dust. For his part, Harvey insists that he had no consciously preconceived ideas about the meaning of the Burning Man, let alone about starting a global movement. But this has not prevented observers and participants from ascribing a fanciful array of intentions and interpretations to the event's origins.

Over the many years that I have been studying the event I have noticed that most longtime Burners know the story of its origins and subsequent developments, but many recent attendees do not seem to have been introduced to this lore. Still others—both participants and interested observers—have heard half-truths, misrepresentations, and other distortions that have been propagated through popular culture and the media. It therefore seems helpful at the outset to lay the groundwork for the remainder of this work by putting the event in context. In so doing, I explain how Burning Man evolved into its present form and provide brief accounts of other festivals to which Burning Man can be compared, as well as an overview of the current state and organization of the event. This history also begins to illuminate some of the themes and issues that have most prominently shaped the event—spirituality, ritual, transformation, symbolic and artistic expression, countercultural resistance, and the challenges and opportunities of the desert setting—that are explored in the chapters that follow.


One of the most widely circulated legends surrounding the festival's inception contends that Larry Harvey was motivated by the demise of an important romantic relationship, a tale that has become a frequently repeated and occasionally distorted media myth: Larry was burning his ex-girlfriend; Larry was burning his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend; Larry was burning his ex-girlfriend's lawyer; and so on. While Harvey characteristically shrugs off such notions, he admits that prior to the inception of what was to become Burning Man he had attended a number of "spontaneous art-party happenings" with his girlfriend. At these happenings (staged by an artist named Mary Graubarger) attendees were invited to build small sculptures out of driftwood and scrap and burn them at Baker Beach on the summer solstice. Harvey has stated that the memory of these visits to the beach with his now-lost love were on his mind that first year, but he insists that this was not the cause or, more important, the meaning of the Man's creation and destruction. He instead credits his inspiration for the event simply to a spontaneous desire to have fun. This absence of conscious intention or specified significance became a cornerstone of Burning Man's guiding philosophy from the outset. As Harvey stated many years later, "The Burning Man's famous for our never having attributed meaning to him, and that's done on purpose. He is a blank. His face is literally a blank shoji-like screen, and the idea, of course, is that you have to project your own meaning onto him. You're responsible for the spectacle." (See fig. 1.) With the Man remaining a blank canvas—an open signifier devoid of explicit or fixed meaning—the amorphous image continues to be available for multiple interpretations, as individuals are invited to transfer their own impressions and feelings onto it.

What started as a small gathering of friends in 1986 proceeded to grow phenomenally in size over the next few years, as word of the event spread through San Francisco's art and alternative culture scenes. By 1988 roughly 150 to 200 people joined in and the figure, now thirty feet high, was officially dubbed "the Burning Man." By 1990 there were approximately 800 in attendance when the local Park Police stepped in to prevent the combustion of the Man, by this time forty feet high. As the crowd grew restless and unruly, it became clear that the event was no longer sustainable as a free-for-all beach party. Undaunted, Harvey teamed up with a group called the San Francisco Cacophony Society—a loose-knit confederation of self-proclaimed "free spirits" and "pranksters" who orchestrated absurd public performance happenings and theatrical private parties. Members of the Cacophony Society had already been attending and helping to spread the word about Burning Man for a couple of years, and with the organizational support of these Cacophonists—in particular, John Law and Michael Michael—it was determined to take the Man out to Nevada's Black Rock Desert to meet its fiery destiny. James (who withdrew from the event after 1991) and other Cacophonists had gathered there a year before for a wind-sculpture exhibition. For his part, Law had also been thinking about organizing an as yet unspecified Cacophony event in the Black Rock Desert. Thus various forces serendipitously converged, and a plan was hatched to orchestrate a collective pilgrimage to Nevada on the next Labor Day holiday, the first weekend of September.

The stark setting of the Black Rock Desert has significantly influenced how the event has unfolded over the decade and a half since this fateful decision. Located approximately a hundred miles northeast of Reno, it is dominated by a four-hundred-square-mile prehistoric lakebed, or playa. Ringed by distant mountains, this expanse of hardpan alkali clay is completely flat, bone dry, utterly empty, and devoid of vegetation and animal life. (See DVD, chap. 1.) The weather is extreme, as temperatures in late summer typically range from below 40 to well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and fierce dust storms with winds sometimes exceeding seventy-five miles per hour are not uncommon. The winds vigorously assault all in their path, easily taking down tents and shade structures that are not adequately secured with guy wires and rebar stakes, and even then they can wreak havoc on participants' temporary homes. Dehydration is also a constant threat, as the intensely arid environment inexorably wicks the moisture out of one's body, such that all participants need to be constantly drinking water. And then there is the dust. Though the surface of the playa is baked hard after the winter rains—which temporarily return this expanse, once home to prehistoric Lake Lahontan, to a shallow lakebed—the sudden influx of thousands of people breaks up the encrusted plain into a fine alkali powder that coats everything within moments. The high-powered winds capture this particulate matter, thereby fomenting dust storms that can create whiteout conditions and that have been known (albeit on rare occasions) to last for days.

This dramatic landscape can seem like the surface of an alien planet and presents numerous physical challenges. In its seemingly endless expanse and otherworldly terrain, the Black Rock playa evokes feelings of both fantastic and limitless possibility, and the austerity of the desert stirs up the themes of hardship, sacrifice, mystery, and boundlessness that are deeply ingrained in the Western cultural imagination. It is not without significance that deserts have a long history as loci of transformative possibilities—from Moses to Muhammed and from Christ to Carlos Castaneda—and Burning Man plays to these ideational sensibilities. Participants today often speak of being "on the playa" in a way that references this sense of environmental and cognitive otherness, helping to set the stage for transformative experiences.

Also significant has been the festival's relationship with the nearby towns of Gerlach and Empire and the surrounding counties of Washoe and Pershing. Perhaps one of the reasons Burning Man was able to thrive in this location during the early years is the fact that there was a certain sympathy (and a shared enthusiasm for recreational firearms) between the eccentric and reclusive residents of this remote high desert and the aging punks and pranksters of the Cacophony Society, both groups identifying themselves as cultural outsiders. Like every other aspect of this event, the relationship between Burners and locals became more complex as the years wore on, but by and large Burning Man continues to be tolerated by local residents, supported in no small part by local businessmen who profit directly from the annual influx of thousands of people in need of gasoline and other last-minute supplies, as well as by the organizers' conscientious efforts to participate in and give back to the local community.

Fewer than one hundred individuals made the trek out to Black Rock for Burning Man's first desert adventure in 1990, which was dubbed a "Zone Trip," as Cacophonists called their practice of occasionally taking events on the road. (See DVD, chap. 4.) These trips were conceived as adventures of both the imagination and the body, as participants traveled to a conceptual otherworld of space and time. The Zone could just as easily be an ordinary American suburb—approached with a nonordinary gaze—as a remote desert, although the playa lends itself well to a sense of the surreal and mysterious. The original announcement in the Cacophony Society's monthly newsletter, Rough Draft, read:

An established Cacophony tradition, the Zone Trip is an extended event that takes place outside of our local area of time and place. On this particular expedition, we shall travel to a vast, desolate white expanse stretching onward to the horizon in all directions.... A place where you could gain nothing or lose everything and no one would ever know. A place well beyond that which you think you understand. We will be accompanied by the Burning Man, a 40-foot-tall wooden icon which will travel with us into the Zone and there meet with destiny. This excursion is an opportunity to leave your old self and be reborn through the cleansing fires of the trackless, pure desert.

This invitation to seek transformation in and through the heat and emptiness of the desert, coupled with the sacrificial notes sounded by the Man itself, already evoked the event's central, symbolically resonant elements. As one of the original travelers later described the experience:

Did we know what we were doing? Probably not. Did we care? Yeah! We knew that whatever we were doing, it would be different. If only for that weekend, we were going to put some meaning into a special experience, recreating an ancient pagan ritual that was actually 1000s of years old. In Cacophony, we called these adventures a "Zone Trip." The Zone was some other dimensional place, it could be the past, the future, something weird, it didn't matter. We were going there, and we would challenge it and be better for it.... We all got out of our cars as one member drew a long line on the desert floor creating what we accepted as a "Zone gateway." This was one of our Cacophony rituals, for the zone as we defined it took on many forms, it could be a weird house, a particularly strange neighborhood (like Covina, CA), or a desolate, deserted warehouse. Today it was the base of a mountain range in Northern Nevada. We crossed the line and knew we were definitely not in Kansas anymore.

As these intrepid adventurers literally stepped across a threshold from one Zone into another, they performed a ritual passage into what Turner and van Gennep termed a liminal realm—a conceptual zone "betwixt and between" the everyday and the extraordinary, the sacred and the mundane, where transformation and the unexpected can occur. Participants would eventually turn to another Zone metaphor, specifically, the concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone (or TAZ), proposed by the cultural critic Hakim Bey: "The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to reform elsewhere/elsewhen before the State can crush it. Because the State is concerned primarily with Simulation rather than substance, the TAZ can 'occupy' these areas clandestinely and carry on its festal purposes for quite a while in relative peace." First published in the early 1990s, just as Burning Man was itself beginning to take off, this concept quickly caught on among Burners, despite Bey's original intention that "the TAZ be taken more as an essay ('attempt'), a suggestion, almost a poetic fantasy," rather than a specifically instituted (and institutionalized) reality such as Burning Man has become. Yet this concept seemed to appropriately capture the "ontological anarchism" inherent in the Burning Man spirit, especially in its earlier, more anarchistic permutations, and continues to be an ideal among Burners and other countercultural denizens.

A somewhat similar concept in this regard is that of the heterotopia—a term coined by the philosopher Michel Foucault to contrast with the literal "no place" of a utopia. Heterotopias are instead taken to be "places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society—which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted [and which is] capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible." As Burning Man grew into a site resounding with the strains of multiplicity, difference, paradox, and countercultural ideology, this would serve as an increasingly apt description.

The marriage of these elements—a voyage through the desert into an otherworldly and heterotopic zone to meet oneself in the guise of a burning effigy—readily forms a compelling symbolic stew that has remained central to the Burning Man mythos throughout its evolution, shaping its trajectory and persisting as a foundational narrative to this day. Despite its clear symbolic references to ancient transformative rites, the festival remains explicitly unaffiliated with any religious movement—Pagan or otherwise. Instead, both participants and organizers consistently reject any one fixed meaning for the event, locating it outside the realm of doctrine and dogma. But these refusals of canonical significance notwithstanding, neither the Burning Man festival nor the effigy for which it is named emerged out of a vacuum. The Man conveys allusions to a wide range of mythological and prehistoric rites of sacrifice and regeneration that can be traced to ancient sacrificial bonfires, carnivals, festivals, and other similar cultural acts.


Excerpted from Theater in a Crowded Fire by Lee Gilmore. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

List of Tables xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction 1

1 Into the Zone 17

2 "Spiritual, but Not Religious"? 45

3 Ritual without Dogma 68

4 Desert Pilgrimage 103

5 Media Mecca 127

6 Burn-a-lujah! 154

Appendix 1 Demography: The Face of the Festival 169

Appendix 2 On-Line Survey 177

Appendix 3 Burning Man Organization Mission Statement 181

Notes 183

Bibliography 211

DVD Contents 221

Credits 223

Index 225

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Gimore simply nails it. . . the book is a model of academic writing—intelligent, concise and readable. I'll recommend this book to anyone who wants a deeper understanding of what the hell they're doing up there on the desert on Labor Day weekend."—Reno News & Review

"A valuable piece of original research."—Anglican Theological Review

"A very engaging work."—Journal Royal Anthro

"Containing rich descriptions of Burning Man, the book provides a clearer image of the ritual and spiritual aspect of the event."—Oxford Journal

"Worthwhile. . . . Honest"—Psycinfo/ Psyccritiques (3)

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