Critical Media Analysis
Every year in late August, people from around the globe
embark on a pilgrimage to
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
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).
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
For the following sections on aesthetics, refer to Figure 1 below.
The city layout consists of 10 concentric outer rings (streets) arcing from what would be through 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
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).
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
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.
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
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
Although there are clear differences, theme camps share some notable similarities to the golden age of craft gilds from the teenth 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
“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
Community through culture
Community is also achieved in
“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
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
The single distinguishing aspect of
Burning Man from other large scale social events is the ban on commerce within
In markets, the act of purchasing
has become almost entirely impersonal. Markets
“…connect consumers with goods, [but] they disconnect people from each other” (
By replacing commerce with a gift
society, Burning Man brings back the communal aspects of gift exchange. Within
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
The art, theme camps, physical design, principles, strategic
use of symbols and most importantly, the participants, all contribute to
building community at
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