Burning Man as a Postmodern Utopia – Humanities Essay
Burning Man is an event that takes place annually on the Nevada desert floor. What began as a modern version of a summer solstice ritual has morphed into a full-blown artistic counter-culture phenomenon. Burning
Man is a postmodern remix. It samples concepts and ideas and combines elements that are evocative of ancient cultural and religious ritual with modern ideals of a utopian society. Burning Man is politically and artistically situated as a remix of the ancient idea of Utopia. Can this postmodern artistic idea continue to thrive or has this experiment fallen victim due to intense commercial pressures?
As Ulf Poschardt says in his 1998 book DJ Culture, “Postmodernism is generally seen as the sphere of unlimited possibilities. Anti-dogmatic, free, liberal, hoping for every narrative fragment after the end of the great narratives and prepared to accept everything” (Poschardt, 393). Burning Man started as an event in such a sphere of open ended possibilities according to founder Larry Harvey in his lecture LA VIE BOHÉME A History of Burning Man. The event was conceived from the notion that bohemians ”have a kind of erotic sense of property. They share with one another. They cooperate with one another. They collaborate with one another. What Bohemia’s reflect is the natural life of artists, how they behave in their authentic environment. And these were the principles we followed” (Harvey, lecture). This reflects Poschardt’s postmodernist concepts. The idea that anything goes and that there is no absolute truth lies at the bottom of both the postmodern and the bohemian ideals that Harvey speaks to. He went on to state,
We have become a nation of posers. It’s not a life that’s lived or shared, but an imitation of life, a kind of commercial for self. We need some deep and drastic therapy to break this spell. We need to reestablish contact with our inner selves. We need to reinvent a public world…this is where my work and the experiment called Burning Man comes in. (Harvey).
Harvey’s deconstruction and proposal for a new state of living reflects the ideals of utopian states. This is a powerful postmodern strategy, upending familiar tropes of western society.
Burning Man enacts a magical ritualistic effigy burning as opposed to the political effigy burnings of despised leader (e.g., George Bush in Iraq). Burning Man samples from a long line of effigy burning rituals. Doan Ngu, is celebrated on the summer solstice in Vietnam where offerings are made to spirits and ghosts and to “the god of death” to stave off epidemic. Offerings of human effigies made of grasses are burned, providing souls to staff the army of the God of Death. Carnival Aruba, in Martinique and Guadalupe is a 3-day festival that ends on Ash Wednesday with the burning of an effigy of the King. The King’s effigy is paraded through the streets for all to see, and then set alight in the main plaza of the city or town. In Venezuela there is the Burning of Judas, an effigy dressed as a known public figure in the community, This Judas effigy is also paraded through the town before being burned. The participants slap, punch and kick the effigy before lighting it on fire. In Hinduism there is the burning of the effigy of Ravanna marks the tenth day of the celebration of Divali. The statue of the 10 headed demon Ravanna is made of wood and hay with fireworks inside. The celebrations begin around sunset, families and friends gather, and the statue is set on fire. People shoot arrows into the effigy; it burns along with a huge display of fireworks. These rituals, and many more, are all rituals that bring the community together (Henderson, Thompson, 118-156-189).
Burning Man takes place during the seven days before Labour Day weekend in Black Rock City, Nevada. Burning Man started in San Francisco in 1986 as a summer solstice ritual. In 1986 Jerry James, a builder, and Larry Harvey, a landscaper, decided to construct a life-size human effigy made largely of junk wood. They took it to Baker Beach, a mile long stretch of sand just west of the Golden Gate Bridge, with a handful of friends and set it on fire. They burned along with it tokens and mementoes of things they wanted to rid themselves of. It was an act of cleansing for a handful of people. They were so moved by the experience they decided to make it an annual ritual (Doherty).
Aided by the San Francisco Cacophony Society, word spread and by 1990 the crowd had increased to 800 and the man had morphed into a 40 foot structure. At this point the San Francisco police stepped in, stopping the ceremonies on the grounds that it was unsafe to torch such a large object on a public beach. One of the Cacophonists, John Law had the idea of moving the ritual to Black Rock desert, an evocative, barren lakebed which dries up for a few months of each year. This was a place where they would not have a problem burning a large structure. A few weeks later, on Labour Day weekend, a group of 100 made the long trek out to the Nevada Desert. Burning Man had found its home (Doherty).
Burning Man has grown significantly. It is estimated to be doubling in size every year. Last year there were over 30,000 participants. Although Burning Man has grown beyond anyone’s wildest estimate, it remains true to its core idea: everyone who is there is invited to partake in the ritual of putting items inside the man before the burning. Not surprisingly these items vary as much as the people themselves.
Although Burning Man is a temporary community, it is a strong community that ties people together. Larry Harvey described his vision in his LA VIE BOHÉME lecture:
Imagine you are put upon a desert plain, a space that is so vast and blank that only your initiative can make of it a place. Imagine it is swept by fearsome winds and scorching temperatures, and only by your effort can you make of it a home. Imagine you’re surrounded by thousands of other people, that together you form a city, and that within this teeming city there is nothing that’s for sale…This novel use of nothingness elicits a superabundant production of spectacle. But it is spectacle with a difference. We have, in fact, reversed the process of spectation by inviting every citizen to create a vision and contribute it to a public environment. We call this process radical self-expression. What makes this self-expression truly radical is its reintegration of the private and personal back into a shared public domain.
Burning Man has evolved into an event for artists from all over the world to meet, create and ultimately burn their work. This iconoclastic practice indexes the early conceptual art movement, for example Allan Kaprow, Jim Dine, and even Ana Mendieta’s ‘burning women’. Conceptual art came to fruition in the mid Twentieth Century bohemian subcultures and avant-garde modernist movements. Previously modernism evolved as a resistance against the disenfranchising forces of early technology and industrialization. Those involved in this lineage of this new perspective of the world, were looking to transform culture and creative self realization in art
Burning Man is a “happening” where spectacle and ritual meet on the desert floor, and where the role of participant and spectator blurs. Burning Man is a massive show of art that is not for sale– much of the art created is burned throughout the event. These events at Burning Man demonstrate that the contrast can lessen between the individual and communal in our postmodern world. Burning Man represents a collective desire to participate in long lost communal rituals. Many have a desire for collective input; even in our postmodern times there is a need for a sense of community. This is fulfilled, albeit briefly, by Burning Man.
Utopia refers to the ancient longing for a place of happiness and freedom, a paradise on earth. Utopia is defined as an “imagined perfect state or place of things”(Oxford). The word Utopia coined by Thomas Moore in the Sixteenth Century passed through the English language and has been appropriated by most of the world’s languages. California of course, has a rich history of Utopian societies. In his book California’s Utopian Colonies Robert V. Hine states, “A utopian colony, thus, consists of a group of people who are attempting to establish a new social pattern based upon a vision of the ideal society…”(Hine, 5). Larry Harvey has tried to create just this, a new social pattern based upon his vision of the ideal society, a place where nothing is for sale and where everyone is at the same time audience and participant. Larry Harvey has sampled from the old ideals to bring us a new utopian vision for our time, a place where all people are equal and everything is exchanged through barter.
Martin Buber’s reference to Israeli Kibbutz in his book Paths in Utopia could be referring to Burning Man: “Nowhere else in the history of communal settlements is there this tireless groping for the form of community-life best suited to this particular human group, nowhere else this continual trying and trying again, this going to it and getting down to it, this critical awareness, this sprouting of new branches from the same stem and out of the same formative impulse”(Buber. 141-142).
BURNING BURNING MAN
Harvey’s intention to alter the form of spectacle was admirable. At the beginning he wanted all the participants to be spectators and vise versa. All contributing to the artistic nature of the event But Burning Man’s popularity has proven to be its undoing. In 1994, the year Harvey started a website, the media discovered the event, encouraging people to flock to Burning Man in greater numbers every year. By 1997 media at the event included CNN, ABC, NBC, ZDF (Germany) as well as Time, The Washington Post and publications from Brazil England, France, and Japan. The media has enabled millions to simulate participation virtually, but in reality they remain only spectators. In this Mephistophelean bargain the media has brought with it the commercialization of Burning Man.
Harvey’s chief ideal has always been “nothing is for sale”. This refrain is no longer valid. Along the way Burning Man started charging admission to attend. To take part in Burning Man it now costs from $165.00 to $250.00 for advance tickets. It seems that the refrain should be almost nothing is for sale. In addition to the admission there is now a Burning Man Café, which sells (not barters or trades) its beverages.
Yes things change. Burning Man is no exception to this rule. As Fredric Jameson, a postmodern Marxist theorist says (quoted by Posehardt in his book DJ Culture), “In Postmodern culture, ‘culture’ has become a product in it’s own right; the market has become a substitute for itself and fully as much a commodity as any of its items it includes within itself: modernism was still minimally and tendentially the critique of the commodity and the effort to make it transcendent itself. Postmodernism is the consumption of sheer commodification as a process” (Poschardt, 393). The history of Burning Man exemplifies the commodification aspects of postmodernism. One can almost expect to see Burning Man franchises ‘coming soon to a dry lakebed near you’.
Harvey’s second most important ideal was that there are “only ten official rules. That was enough for Moses, and that’s enough for us”(Harvey). These original rules have expanded into an 11-page document. For instance, a “no dogs allowed” rule was added in 2003. Arguably Burning Man has had to add rules and guidelines because it has expanded beyond its original scale.
Ironically Burning Man’s utopian quality has diminished in the postmodern commodification possess. Anti-consumerism lies at the heart of Harvey’s ideals, but is this practical in our capitalist world? Alicia Ludena states In Search of the Postmodern, “Postmodern theorists, however, claim that in the contemporary high tech media society, emergent processes of change and transformation are producing a new postmodern society”(Ludena). Larry Harvey’s Burning Man sprung out of his desire to create a new postmodern ritual. It was a postmodern idea that took the old construct of burning an effigy and transformed it into a contemporary art event. It altered even more when it became a commercial event. Burning Man as a Utopia was fundamentally flawed, because it was essentially atavistic. Burning Man stepped over the line and became just another commodity, perfectly postmodern but hardly utopian.
Buber, Martin. Paths in Utopia. First Syracuse University Press Edition, 1996. 9-141-142
Doherty, Brian. “Burning Man Grows Up”http://reason.com/0002/fe.bd.burning.shtml
Harvey, Larry, LA VIE BOHÉME — A History of Burning Man February 24, 2000.
Henderson, Helene, Thompson, Sue Ellen.Holidays, Festivals and Celebrations of the World
Dictionary. 2nd Ed, Omnigraphics, Inc. Penobscot Building, Detroit, Mi 48226.1996. 118-156-189
Hine, Robert V, California’s Utopian Colonies. Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery,
SanMarino, California. 1953. 5
Ludena, Alicia In Search of the Postmodern http://mural.uv.es/alulla/charact.html
Oxford Dictionary of Current English.Oxford University Press. Great Claredon Street. Oxford
OX2 6DP , revised edition 1998
Poschardt, Ulf. DJ Culture. Trans. Shaun Whiteside. London: Quartet Books Ltd. 1998. 393