Burning Man

From Academic Kids

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A large wooden sculpture of a man is burned, giving the festival its name

Burning Man is a week-long festival with international draw, held annually on the week prior to and including Labor Day weekend in the United States. Its current location is on the playa of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, 120 miles north of Reno. The temporary city (housing 35,000 residents in 2004) is put forth as an experiment in community, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance. The culmination of the event is the burning of a large wooden sculpture of a man on Saturday night, the sixth night of the event.


Primary focus of the festival

Participation. Burning Man is held to be a "spectator-free" zone -- i.e., only participants are allowed. As such, all attendees are ostensibly expected to contribute to the community, but the nature of this participation is left up to each individual, and in reality a large number of spectators are present with cameras in hand. The concept of radical inclusion ("include yourself, include others") is the consensus-reality unwritten law that purportedly governs this Burning Man social principle.

Leave No Trace, an ecological concept. Burning Man takes place in the middle of a normally uninhabited desert environment known as a playa, which is deep in the middle of a large, prehistoric dry lake bed. Participants are told to be very careful not to contaminate the playa with litter (commonly known as MOOP, or "matter out of place"). In addition, while fire is a primary component of many art exhibits and events, materials must be burned on burn platforms. At one time, burning was allowed to take place directly on the ground of the playa, but the formation of burn scars was observed. The Bureau of Land Management, which maintains the desert, has very strict requirements for the festival. Weeks after the festival has ended, a team of volunteers remain in the desert, cleaning up after the temporary city and making sure that no evidence of the festival remains. A similar mantra heard at Burning Man is, "Don't Let It Hit The Ground."

Commerce-free event. No cash transactions are allowed at Burning Man. The participants instead rely on a gift economy. Since the earliest days of the event, an underground barter economy has also existed, in which Burners exchange material goods and/or favors with each other; however, this is largely discouraged by the event organizers. The only commerce that has been allowed are sales of coffee and ice at Center Camp, which benefit the local Gerlach-Empire school system. Additionally, the powers that be at Burning Man contract with Green Tortoise to provide a fee-based shuttle service that provides round trip bus rides into the nearby town of Gerlach, Nevada.

Arts and crafts are featured, particularly outsider art and visionary art. Creative expression through the arts is encouraged at Burning Man. Large-scale art installations, theme camps, music, performance, and guerilla street theatre are amongst the most common art forms shared at Burning Man. Sculptures and interactive installations are generally placed on the playa, in the open space surrounding the Man. Many are along specific art-walk pathways that lead to and from the central Burning Man complex, while others are scattered throughout the open playa. The largest and most active public theme camps are generally clustered on the Esplanade, Black Rock City's inner circle "main street." The Burning Man Opera was a significant interactive community performance that ran for over four consecutive years. Most recently, the ritual burning of David Best's temple projects have rivalled the burning of the central Burning Man complex in community significance and popularity. The ornately designed, three story high temple buildings borrow from Southeast Asian and Balinese architecture, and are used as repositories for the memories of deceased loved ones. A few years ago, local law enforcement objected to a gay-themed art installation called "Jiffy Lube." The art was removed, giving rise to charges of censorship and homophobia from a number of quarters. [1] (

Black Rock City

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A neon-tubed Man, from the festival, 1999

Black Rock City, often abbreviated to BRC, is the name of the temporary urban phenomenon created by Burning Man. The city is arranged in a large semicircle (resembling the layout of Poverty Point) with the Burning Man complex at the very center. Avenues extend radially from the Man to the outermost circle. In most years, these avenues are given a clock name (e.g., "3:00"), presenting the city as a clock in which the Man is the center of the clock. Occasionally, the avenues have been identified as the degrees of a circle (e.g., "300 degrees"); however, this has proven unpopular with Burners. Surrounding the central complex and extending out toward the back of the playa is an area of empty space reserved for art installations. Within the semicircle of the city, arranged in concentric arcs around the Man, are the streets and villages where the participants camp out. The names of the streets change each year to coincide with the overall theme of the burn. For example, the theme for 2004 was "The Vault of Heaven," and the streets were named after the planets of the solar system.

The innermost circles tend to be the busiest and are usually reserved for theme camps or large villages. Theme camps are designed with a specific theme in mind. Some well-known camps that have been at Burning Man for quite some time include Thunderdome, where contestants battle in a large geodesic dome inspired by the film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome; Eggchair, a camp with a stereo-equipped Eggchair for passers-by to sit in and watch the world go by; and IHOP, the Intergalactic House of Pancakes, which serves pancakes to all comers. BRC also is host to a growing number of Burners who experiment and innovate with the use of Alternative Energy. Both within and without of the official theme village, the Alternative Energy Zone, there are burners who still play hard and have the luxuries of home such as amplified music, lights and vehicles, but use no petroleum while in Black Rock City to enjoy these ammenities. Villages such as Shangri La Village, Gigsville, and Hushville are perennial staples of BRC.

Center Camp is located along the midline of BRC, facing the Man (i.e., at the intersection of the Esplanade and 6:00), and serves as a central meeting place for the entire city. Various services, such as first aid and Playa Info, are found at Center Camp. Similar services can be found at the intersections of the Esplanade located at 3:00 and 9:00. Center Camp also contains art installations, a large comfortable seating area, and performance spaces available to Burners.

BRC is patrolled by various local and state law enforcement agencies as well as the Bureau of Land Management Rangers. Burners refer to these people collectively as LEOs (Law Enforcement Officers). Burning Man also has its own in-house group of volunteers, the Black Rock Rangers, who act as informal mediators when disputes arise between Burners. When the occasional eviction of a Burner from BRC becomes necessary, volunteer rangers typically enlist the assistance of LEOs.

BRC has, in recent years, been designated a motor vehicle free zone, with the exception of extensively decorated art cars that have been licensed by BRC's "Department of Mutant Vehicles."


Burning Man participants often call themselves "Burners." Although this usage may vary with region, a "Burner" is an annual denizen of Black Rock City, and anyone who embraces Burning Man as an expression in synch with their own identity is a Burner. In general, the term's use is only practical in contexts outside of the event itself. A Burner is usually someone who has been to the event and aspires to return, even if only in spirit. The concept also implies the sentiments and values inspired by the event itself, including a high regard for creativity, especially radical self-expression, and willingness to participate in a gift-based economy. Some Burners adopt (or are given) a playa name, a personal nickname a Burner may use while socializing with other Burners.

A Burning Man "virgin" is someone who is attending Burning Man for the first time or is planning to attend Burning Man in the future. "Yahoo" or "tourist" are pejorative terms used to refer to people who come to Burning Man to spectate rather then participate in the event, often arriving not long before the Burning Man ritual. As the stated purpose of Burning Man is to form community and to promote radical self-expression, non-participants are strongly frowned upon by many participants. This does not prevent spectators from attending the event, however; and in recent years, as attendance has swelled with growing awareness of Burning Man among the general public, friction between participants and spectators has been on the rise.

Public nudity is common at BRC, giving rise to a reputation of rampant hedonism, including casual and public sex acts and recreational drug use throughout BRC. However, LEOs who are present at the event are ready, willing, and able to cite and/or arrest Burners who flout laws prohibiting the possession and use of illegal drugs.

Health and safety

The desert environment the event takes place in requires special attention to personal health. A wide-ranging survival guide, available on the Burning Man web site, is intended to help participants survive the harsh conditions of the desert. Issues addressed range from physical health issues such as ensuring adequate hydration, protection from the sun, and managing temperature extremes to social issues such as finding friends, in and out policy, and dealing with LEOs.


The annual event now known as Burning Man began on the summer solstice in 1986 when Larry Harvey, Jerry James, and a few friends met on Baker Beach in San Francisco and burned an eight foot tall wooden man as well as a smaller wooden dog. The inspiration for burning these effigy figures has been shrouded in mystery by Harvey, who described it as "a spontaneous act of radical self-expression." However, sculptor Mary Grauberger, a friend of Harvey's girlfriend Janet Lohr, had held spontaneous art-party gatherings on Baker Beach on or about the summer solstice for several years prior to 1986, and the burning of sculpture was a central theme. In addition to the burning of sculpture, a key ingredient to the pre-Burning Man gatherings was the fact that Baker Beach is a cove area frequented by nudists.

Harvey attended some of the pre-Burning Man gatherings on Baker Beach, and when Grauberger stopped holding her parties, Harvey picked up the torch and ran with it, so to speak. Harvey asked Jerry James to build the first eight foot wooden effigy, which was much smaller and less artsy than the neon figure featured in the current ritual. In 1987, the effigy had grown to almost fifteen feet tall, and in 1988 it grew to around forty feet.

The name Burning Man came to Harvey when he was watching a video of the 1986 ritual. A member of the crowd watching the event shouted out "Wicker Man!", suggesting that the burning of the wooden effigy was somehow related to The Wicker Man, a movie that was released in 1973. Harvey was the son of a Freemason, and (for Harvey) the use of wood in building the man had symbolic significance and was a critical part of the ritual; also, according to him, he did not see the movie until many years later and so it played no part in his inspiration. Accordingly, rather than allow the name Wicker Man to become the name of the ritual, he started using the name Burning Man.

John Law, as well as other members of the Cacophony Society, have been heavily involved in Burning Man since 1989. The event grew quickly, moving from Baker Beach in San Francisco to the Black Rock Desert of Nevada in 1990 after the burn scheduled for the summer solstice was shut down by police. After striking a deal to raise the Man but not to burn it on the beach, event organizers disassembled the effigy and returned it to a vacant lot where it had been stored. Shortly thereafter, the Man disappeared when the lot was unexpectedly paved over and converted into a parking lot. The effigy was then reconstructed by John Law, a member of the Cacophony Society who spearheaded the effort to move Burning Man to the Black Rock Desert.

As the event has grown, one of the challenges faced by the organizers has been balancing the freedom of participants with the requirements of various land management and law enforcement groups. Over the years, numerous restrictions have been put in place, such as bans on fireworks, firearms, dogs, and driving non-art cars. A notable restriction to attendees is the trash fence that bounds the pentagon of land used by the event on the southern edge of the Black Rock playa. Land beyond this fence is not available to burners. Some artists and early attendees believe the underlying freedoms and concepts of the Burning Man event have been reduced or eliminated by these restrictions, leading to criticism of the current event as being too structured and controlled. Additionally, some believe the event's rapid growth and arid location (where the natural healing effect of the winter rains is not as effective) has caused environmental degradation of the Black Rock Desert.

The event has changed considerably as it grew from a small handful of people on a beach in San Francisco to over 35,000 people attending the festival in 2004. The scale of the event has increased enormously, and the Black Rock City LLC has in turn become more structured. In 1997 a group of people began a much smaller festival both as an alternative to and as a parody of Burning Man. The so-called Burning Shithead Festival takes place in Joshua Tree National Park every year at the same time as Burning Man. An Anti-BurningMan also formed with an emphasis on fewer restrictions, occurring just before Burning Man such that the less-ironic could still attend both. It is unclear what has become of it.

Regional Events

The popularity of Burning Man has encouraged other groups and organizations to hold festivals similar to Burning Man, such as Fuego de los Muertos in San Diego, Playa del Fuego and X-Day on the East Coast, or the July weekend-long Phoenix Festival in Washington State. And in recent years, burners wishing to experience Burning Man more frequently than once per year have banded together to create local regional events. These events are typically much smaller than Burning Man itself, often consisting of no more than a few hundred participants. Some of the events are officially affiliated with the Burning Man organization via the Burning Man Regional Network, while others are organized and created by burners independent of the LLC. A good example of the latter is InterFuse in Missouri.

One type of event is popular with those that find returning to the "default world" to be a little jarring after having enjoyed the experiences of the burn. To relieve this culture shock, burners may participate in decompression parties. These events seek to recapture the spirit of the main event.

Other regional events have been established that connect and grow localized communities of burners. These events build upon the cultural bond of Burning Man, yet add a particular unique flavor of their own. Most regional events last a few days, occur annually, and are much less formal than Burning Man itself.

This list notes many of the regional events. New events are being established continually.

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