Critical Media Analysis





Burning Man: An experiment in redefining culture and capital







                                                  May 16, 2004 (edited Aug 21, 2004)



Burning Man: An experiment in redefining culture and capital


Every year in late August, people from around the globe embark on a pilgrimage to Black Rock City –a vast, empty and extreme wasteland located about one and one half hours northeast of Reno, Nevada— to temporarily take part in an annual ritual known as Burning Man. Without a doubt, all come to Black Rock City for the seven day party.  Nearly all of them also come to experience the art.  The majority even help create the art.  Regardless of where one falls on this artist-spectator spectrum, when the 40 foot tall statue referred to as “the Man” burns at the end of the week, all will have taken part in a greater social experiment in redefining culture and capital, and all will have witnessed the rise and fall of a temporary community, from dust to dust, in the span of one short week.  For all this to happen, thoughtful planning of physical conditions, rules, ideologies, symbols, and ritual are applied by borrowing from the basic principles for successful societies from the past, while considering current trends in community and cultural theory.

In a nutshell, Burning Man transforms artistic expression and the need to survive into catalysts for building community.  It succeeds in doing so (primarily) by twisting one key rule of the game; the banning of commerce within Black Rock City limits. Clearly it would be unreasonable to assume that merely banning commerce will always result in community and art.  The objective of community and medium of art were decided upon first; banning commerce came next after proving instrumental in achieving this objective.  This means the premeditated goal of Burning Man is community rather than profit, the by-product is art rather than pollution, and the mighty dollar is denied at the front gate.

Although the resulting art of Burning Man warrants extensive analysis all to itself, we will focus on exactly how this sense of community is created with stunning consistency year after year both culturally (through rules, principles, consent, and reinforcement) and aesthetically (through symbols, art, and  physical design).



            Although our pivotal rule banning commerce is of primary importance, the weight behind its influence is best conveyed when the environment is first clearly understood. To start with, the location plays a very unique role in shaping the analysis of Burning Man.  “The context of no context makes anything leap to the eye, as if its identity shines out of it.  In a primal way, it also makes people shine out of themselves” (Harvey, 2003, p1). It is this shared emptiness that summons the community to decorate their world and themselves.  This process of decoration through art makes this otherwise stark environment more than livable for the duration of the event, and is the personal motivating factor.  This empty canvas also enhances the fact that all meanings created in the community are man-made.

For the following sections on aesthetics, refer to Figure 1 below.





Figure 1:  Black Rock City layout

The city layout consists of 10 concentric outer rings (streets) arcing from what would be 2 o’clock through 10 o’clock on a clock face, with subdivisions at each ½ hour in-between.  The innermost circle is ½ mile across, and (besides its centerpiece) only consists of sparsely distributed art installations.

The center of Black Rock City marks the monumental location for our five story tall statue of Burning Man.  He stands facing towards 6 o’clock, and is visible from every intersection on the outer rings, and from anywhere within the innermost ring.  This design results in a navigation system that requires constant awareness of where one is in relation to the Man at the center.  This physically connects individuals with their community through a common shared symbol (the Man) in a very real and functional way.  It reinforces this unifying concept throughout its use during the course of the event.  In Harvey’s words, “the essential idea is that there is this final connecting point, that seems to connect you to yourself, connects you to the people around you, and ultimately connects you with the earth and the heavens” (Harvey, 1998).

This is much like the purposes served by pyramids, churches, the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the Ten Commandments (or George Carlin’s condensed version, The Two Commandments), the Holy Cross, the Koran, or even Hitler’s Mien Kempf.  It bears many similarities to Benedict Anderson’s definition of a nation as an, “imagined community by people in which a national identity is constructed through symbols and rituals . . .  thus, nations are all at once symbolic, socially constructed, and material” (Anderson, 1983, pp.15-16).  Each either continues to serve or served during its golden days of decadence the same purpose of uniting people under a common, shared symbol or set of symbols (material or ideological).


“Such complementary habits involve a community of shared meanings and thus a common culture or subculture. Often but not always, such a common culture also includes a standard language with a common grammar , syntax, and social reference group and institution, such a capital city, a ruling elite, a royal court, a respected academy or a widely recognized major work of literature or religion” (Deutsch, 1981, p56).


 Both Anderson and Deutsch’s statements help to emphasize this almost predictable recipe for Nationalism, Popular and especially High Culture, major world religions, political movements, revolutions, and genocides, and even on the smallest of scales; family rituals at a holiday dinner.

Anyone who comes from a family where rituals are practiced during holiday dinners, and later becomes the guest of a very different family’s holiday rituals has experienced the profound differences in a ritual’s specifics, even at granular levels such as the family. However, by the second or third different family one sits down with, all traditions start to become just a little tainted and begin to be seen not with the point of view you are raised with, but with one that is an equal distance from all of them, somehow making it impossible to return to any of them with conviction again.  This is because the religions alive today come from a world of isolated communities or oppressive conflicting communities.  As a result, these religions are designed mutually exclusive of one another.  They are incompatible, non-transferable and often in direct opposition of each other.  Once you have experienced a plural perspective, you cannot deny your experience, and this is what taints this personal family experience forever.

Burning Man simultaneously symbolizes all of these man-made relics, symbols, and the rituals that reinforce them, and does so without commitment to any. Burning Man’s greater symbolic meaning represents mankind’s natural inclination towards giving meaning to an otherwise meaningless world.  Burning Man may just be the trick of the Gods again as they laugh and amuse themselves at how easily the modern humans still cling to the big bright objects (or ideas) dangled in front of them.  After all, before we brought meaning with us to this empty desert, there was only dust from which to make Gods.  We have turned a mere collection of wood, nails, and electricity into a symbol bearing greater meaning, and for no better reason than because it is placed in our immediate line of site, it looks like us, and glows big and bright at night.

A distinguishing feature unique to Burning Man’s culture and symbols, which sharply contrasts with all common worldly relics mentioned above, is the principle and practice of burning the Man itself.  Through this ritual, Burning Man culture encourages us to let go of the meaning and symbols associated with Burning Man regularly, and to only bring back those symbols that benefit the immediate community.  This overlooked principle means that we do not have to pick a meaning and stick with it come Hell or high water.  What worked yesterday does not have to work tomorrow.  If Burning Man were Christianity, it would mean something like this, “2000 years ago we did not understand that homosexuality may not be a choice, but something determined at birth.  Now we know, and we accept everyone into our community, without exception.”  In the same spirit, a “Born again” Christian would burn the entire bible each year only to be re-written and “born again” for next year’s burning.  No doubt it would quickly condense to the bare essentials.

            We have extensively examined how the physical and symbolic orientation of the Burning Man statue contributes to the community, the last important element that aesthetically contributes to the community is the art.  Art contributes to the community of Burning Man in two ways.

            The first way art makes this contribution is not necessarily shared among other cultures, and is specifically influenced by the desire and funding of the Burning Man organization itself.  Burning Man sets aside a certain portion of its funds for materials and transportation to artists who provide a detailed, large scale, interactive art design idea that incorporates the following key elements:  it is interactive, it is original, and it requires the organization of 50 to 100 individuals over the course of a day or two to build.  The reasons are simple and direct.  Burning Man organizers want art that demands community effort and continues to be point of interaction during its life on the playa.  Although this could be expanded in great detail, the results of such analysis aren’t as interesting to the field of communications as the second method by which art contributes to the community discussed below.

            The second way the art contributes to the community is through theme camps.  Pre-planned theme camps dominate the innermost of the concentric rings shown in Figure 1 (above). Each year, Burning Man city planners allocate space for the most promising theme camp ideas submitted for the year.  Theme camps are always welcome at Burning Man whether planned or spontaneously created.  A blend of camps ranging from planned theme camps to just tents and cars reside on rings 2-9.  Burning Man can be thought of as a nation rooted in very real and material necessity—the real need to survive together for one week against harsh material elements. At a more granular level, this is often accomplished through the organization of theme camps. Theme camps are the middle tier of radical self-reliance.  Perhaps it can be viewed as the “safety in numbers” family-sized version of radical self-reliance.  Clearly, the event would not be as fun nor build a model society if we were expected to completely survive without help from others.

Theme camps are essentially various size groups with various levels of organization designed to both eliminate unnecessary redundancy in supplies such as food, tents, or transportation costs that all members need but can share, while making additional resources available in time, space, and human labor, and cumulative raw materials for artistic decoration.  The concept is simple. 20 people contributing to an organized plan stand a greater chance of achieving something more expressive and impressive in less time and often more functional than each could do individually.

Although there are clear differences, theme camps share some notable similarities to the golden age of craft gilds from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries as documented by Otto Von Gierke.  Although some of Gierke’s predecessors have discounted much of his later writings, his early writings on craft gilds during this era are more widely respected historical accounts of the era.  In Gierke’s account of (Germanic) craft gilds, he describes them as free associations and chronicles (loosely) their transformation from merely controlling the quality of a trade or craft, to including religious rituals, ceremonies, managing community capital, and even solving disputes and representing the interests of the gild and its members.  He even ironically mentions the dominant role of wine and beer within the craft gild social life (Girke, 1868, p48-52).  At Burning Man, theme camps have naturally created group names, rituals, daily proceedings, and the like.  Although I have not witnessed a feud between camps, certainly these subcultures would predictably align with their home camp or gild under the circumstances with few exceptions.  One of the primary reasons behind theme camp formation is the benefit of combining individual assets, which again bears similarities to craft gilds of the past.

Another unique phenomenon occasionally rises out of the dynamics of community.  When one of community elements rises in popularity, it often requires action on the part of the dominant center structure, such as recognition, forceful submission, elimination or incorporation to the center.  In this case we are only talking about art installations, and particularly the peaceful incorporation of the burning of the Temple of Honor (a structure second in size only to Burning Man itself). This annual tradition is now the official closing act, commencing on the final day of the event and symbolizing a tribute to those who are no longer with us. Eisenstadt historically accounts similar phenomenon when referring to ancient societies of the past.

“In these [Imperial-feudal] societies the centers typically attempted not only to extract resources from the periphery but also to permeate it, to reconstruct it symbolically, and structurally to mobilize it.  At the same time the potential existed for impingement of at least part of the periphery on the center (or centers)” (Eisenstadt, 1981, p96).


Accounts supporting this phenomenon occurred throughout U. S. history; abolition of slavery, the legalization and illegalization of abortion, to name a few.  Modern politics has become an amusing reflex game during Presidential campaigns as candidates race to satisfy the deciding vote of what they believe the periphery to be in relation to the current issue in question.  Citizens are left doubtful that candidates even have their own position on many issues.


Community through culture


Community is also achieved in Black Rock City through culture focused around two principles, two rules, the participants’ active and willing consent to all the rules and principles, and frequent transactions with consistent and rewarding results supporting the complete culture.


“Burning Man rests on the concepts of community and immediacy, which in turn are based on two principles . . ., radical self-expression and radical self-reliance” (Harvey, 2003, p1).


We have already touched on both of these principles in our discussion around theme camps in the previous section, so the scope will be somewhat limited here.

The principle of radical self-reliance is immediate and unavoidable due to the often unpredictable climate associated with Black Rock City’s remote geographical location. As previously mentioned, this creates the immediate need for folks to seek or come equipped with appropriate shelter and supplies to survive.  Usually within one hour of stopping the car upon arrival, people will already have been greeted by their neighbors.  This is often done as a friendly courtesy, but is also driven by need for communal safety and the desire to know you can trust your neighbors to look out for your camp if you are not around.

Secondly, this immediate need to survive also motivates people to seek out and solidify bonds before the event even occurs, during the event, and for the days following the event.  In this way, Burning Man begins to branch out from its temporary realm and into the realm of permanent community.  It is a natural next step in the progression of this experiment.

The second principle of radical self-expression sounds rather self-centric at first glance.  In practice, self-expression both binds participants together and resonates the community’s core values.  The manifestation (in the form of art and costume) becomes the conversation piece at the proverbial dinner table.  The outrageous costumes worn by some (or complete lack thereof) become the open doors to conversation; they become individual welcome mats to everyone’s person inside.


There are only two rules beyond city and state laws that apply to Burning Man; a “leave no trace” requirement and an explicit rule banning any form of commercial vending.

The “leave no trace” rule exists out of respect for other users of this land when Black Rock City lies dormant for 51 weeks out of the year.  That is an immediate requirement essential to the survival of the community over the long term, and part of the contract between Burning Man and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  It also serves a key role in the ideal community model that takes the by-products of consumerism very seriously.  The practice of tracking and hauling  your garbage back home with you serves as a firm reminder that back home, the trash we generate on a daily basis does not magically disappear once we get our garbage cans to the curb.  Garbage takes real, physical space.  By staring at our accumulation of trash over the course of a week, we realize what consumption looks like in the end.  Consideration of this fact will be critical to the success of mankind in years to come and belongs in the model of future communities.

The single distinguishing aspect of Burning Man from other large scale social events is the ban on commerce within Black Rock City.  This rule has a profound affect on the outcome, as it shifts the economy from one of consumption to one of gift giving, in the form of art and labor for the purpose of art.  We have already covered one example outlining the criteria and goal of artistic funding directly from Burning Man itself.  This builds community through the process of art creation.  It prevents money from single handedly being the source of art.  It requires human cooperation and communication.  It requires the artist to recruit community and create social context with its audience to help realize the artist’s vision, and enabling the audience to cross over into the realm of being the artist (although sometimes only vicariously), fulfilling the objectives of community and contributing to the artist’s radical self-expression by helping to make the vision into a real material product. 

In markets, the act of purchasing has become almost entirely impersonal.  Markets “…connect consumers with goods, [but] they disconnect people from each other” (Harvey, 2003, p2).  Often the seller and the buyer do not even look at each other or even speak.  They both only await the object (cash register) between them to display the conditions of the transaction, and exchange the difference. The register even supports this connectionless transaction by displaying the conditions on both sides of the register simultaneously so no sharing is required whatsoever.  In fact, the freedom and willingness to buy and sell becomes a necessity or expectation rather than mutual voluntary agreement.

By replacing commerce with a gift society, Burning Man brings back the communal aspects of gift exchange.  Within Black Rock City no one is obligated to supply or provide you with anything.  In this way, if you need something, you must invest attentive effort in finding out who can provide what you need, and then you must impress them or provide something they need in order to get it.  This results in memorable, shared, personal experiences.  It also limits our consumption to what only is most important to us.  In comparison, if the store clerk at your local convenient store would not sell you a soda unless you sang the chorus of, “Detroit Rock City” by Kiss on the street corner to his satisfaction, you might think twice about whether you really want that soda.


            To conclude, Burning Man creates a new model for community, rescues culture from the grasp of consumerism’s devouring appetite, and gives back to western culture the ancillary value of art.  It accomplishes this annually using a simple formula:  physically isolate a sample of western culture, and then replace their familiar ideologies, symbols and rituals supporting consumption with a set of ideologies, symbols and rituals supporting community through art. The formula simply and effectively changes the means of production.

The collection of Burning Man art can be thought of as the assets or capital of the community created by Burning Man. It is part of every day at Burning Man.  It is the fruit and pride of our labor.  It is by far the largest outdoor art gallery known in the world, and the art is priceless, both financially and literally.  It is well known that famous artists lurk in disguise at Burning Man, and the quality and quantity of art would certainly suggest that not all art is middle work as some critics have pointed out.  This means the capital is very material, although the dollar value could only be speculated.  The fact that artists destroy their capital rather than sell it for profit (or survival) sends the message that we can change the role money plays in society.  Society has the power to redefine capital and change the means of production without war, pain, and hardship.

The art, theme camps, physical design, principles, strategic use of symbols and most importantly, the participants, all contribute to building community at Burning Man.  These are all magnified by their varied, but constant reinforcement at the event and even during the 51 weeks outside the event.  The culture spectrum represented by the art of Burning Man is pluralistic. It speaks to many religions, to many races, in many places all at once.  It also has a unique message of its own.  Ultimately, it serves to remind us that we created our own symbols and the rules of engagement, and we have the power to replace, rearrange, or destroy them as we see fit.





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