• Rachel Bowditch “Republic of the Imagination: Burning Man, Utopia, and the Culture of Radical Self-Expression”, 2019

Detail: Rabid Transit, 2017, Oil on canvas, 230 x 300 cm / 91 x 118 in

Sitting amongst the embers of the Man, feeling the heat and energy radiating out of the earth at dawn and watching the blood-orange sunrise over the playa, the expanse of the desert feels infinite, with no end in sight. “Deep playa,” as it is called among Burners, extends into the horizon, with the boundary fence imperceptible. A golden-pink light floods the desert landscape, illuminating thousands of Burners still roaming the desert after a long night of intense revelry as sky divers float into the city. Each person is adorned as their own desert avatar—faux fur, horns, feathers, goggles, platform shoes, furry hot pants, worn leather and every other imaginable alternative—and shrouded in a thin veil of white playa dust, weathered and chalky, as if they had been roaming the desert for a thousand years. The thumping bass of techno at Robot Heart or Mayan Warrior, drums, bells and sitar still pulse through the morning air as people wander, meditate, dance, chant, sleep or awaken to welcome the rising sun. Turning in 360-degree rotation reveals a panorama of people, larger-thanlife art installations, and art cars in every direction, as far as the eye can see. There is no beginning, middle or end—just a vast sea of space and bodies. The night before, thousands of participants gathered in concentric circles to watch the Man burn. Welcome to Burning Man!


Since its humble beginnings in 1986, Burning Man has evolved from Larry Harvey’s (1948–2018) personal healing ritual with twenty participants on Baker Beach in San Francisco into a contemporary cultural phenomenon, in which ritual, religion, visual art, and performance collide on an epic scale. During the week before Labor Day, approximately 70,000 people gravitate towards the ancient lakebed of Lake Lahontan in the Black Rock Desert of northwest Nevada to build their own separate world: “Black Rock City”. This playa, or beach, entirely devoid of vegetation, is one of the largest in the United States. Black Rock City is a simulation of a real city, replete with street signs, roads, theme-camps, villages, hundreds of huge interactive art installations, a temple, hundreds of art cars, an airport and hundreds of planned and spontaneous performances.

A forty-foot wooden effigy of a Man stands on an altar at the center of Black Rock City as the axis mundi of the Burning Man community, around which art, performance, and community revolve. The Man stands at the end of a monumental avenue lined with wooden spires, its linear streets evenly arranged like a clock-face from two o’clock to ten o’clock around the figure, replicating the shape of an enormous sundial. The entire event culminates on Saturday night in the ritual burning of the Man, followed on Sunday night by the burning of a wooden temple.

Just as abruptly as it appears, Black Rock City, with a lifespan of one very intense week, vanishes. An important coda is the total cleaning and restoration of the desert, erasing all evidence of the City’s evanescent presence. Black Rock City remains only as traces left in photographs, videos, writings, oral histories and memories. During the months of Black Rock City’s nonexistence, the Burning Man community endures across the US and the world via an elaborate network called the “Burning Man Regional Network”. ¹
In the 2017 Black Rock Census, the 9,168 out of 69,493 participants responding indicated that the demographics of Burning Man were approximately 58% male, 40.4% female and 1.6% gender fluid, with 43.3% holding a Bachelor’s degree and 30.3% having obtained a Master’s degree. Of the responding population, 66.6% identified as heterosexual, 11% as bi-curious, 10% as bisexual, 8.5% as gay/lesbian, 0.8% as transgender or transsexual, 2.7% as genderqueer, 4.4% as gender nonconforming, and 1.6% as gender questioning. The median age was thirty-four, with participants as young as six months to eighty years old and the median income between $60,700– $90,000. The event is predominantly white at 77.1%, with 9.3% mixed race, 5.6% Asian, 4.9% Latino or Hispanic, 1% African- American, and 0.5% Native American people attending. ² A striking shift in the last decade has been the presence of international participants hailing from all around the world— Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Holland, France, Russia, China, Canada, Brazil, Chile, Peru and South Africa indicating the global reach of the event worldwide.

Culture Jamming

As a countercultural phenomenon that emerged out of the San Francisco Bay Area in California, Burning Man is a generative space for the rehearsal of alternative lifestyles and identities. ³ As Keith Melville noted in Communes in the Counter-Culture (1972), small pockets have, for some time, been forging a new mode of existence outside of the mainstream, a trend that indicates a desire to move towards simplification, decommodification, recycling culture through pastiche, collage, and assemblage— what is known as “culture jamming” (Melville 1972:10). In the late 1980s, prior to the Black Rock Desert, a group known as the Cacophony Society—an underground culture-jamming group based in San Francisco—encountered Burning Man and would have a significant impact on its development, culture and future trajectory as a space for radical self-expression and subcultural experimentation. Michael Mikel of the Cacophony Society joined forces with Larry Harvey and remains one of Burning Man’s founding board members to this day. Burning Man revives avant-garde ideals of the 1960s and 70s—ideals of community, democracy and collaborative creation—while reinventing these goals and processes, fusing them with a savvy, twenty-first century technological edge. As a social experiment in community, Burning Man continues, yet profoundly revises and challenges, the historical continuum of the practices pioneered by Black Mountain College, Fluxus, Happenings, Environmental Theatre, Land Art and the Judson Dance Theatre, and, while not directly associated with these movements and institutions, it forges new directions for performance and interactive installation art, pushing the limits of what is possible in terms of scale, scope, ambition, participation, and innovation. Technology at Burning Man Michael Mikel came to Burning Man from a long career in the tech industry, paving the way for Silicon Valley finance and innovation to seep into the fabric of the event as early as 1995. To this day, we can see this influence in the hi-tech sound and light installations, projections, and use of LED lights and lasers throughout the playa—especially at night. Artists spend months and thousands of dollars constructing elaborate, highly designed installations using state-of-the-art equipment and technology —3D laser cuts, computer programs and innovative materials —to be assembled in the desert and often burned. Burning Man is changing how artists conceptualize and construct their work, inviting them to make large-scale works created to be experienced and interacted with, walked through and pushed against—often, again, to be burned. Many artist grants are available making the Burning Man organization one of the largest arts funders in California.

Night in Black Rock City

There is nothing like night in Black Rock City—a circus of LED, neon lights and lasers combined with the fiery delight of many fire installations and performances. It is a threedimensional, visual tapestry of color in every direction, as far as the eye can see. As one of the largest venues for fire arts in the world, Burning Man has become the principal destination for fire artists—fire installations, fire breathing, fire dancing and fire eating—an incubator for artists experimenting with risky work not viable in a more conventional setting. Crimson Rose, one of Burning Man’s founding board members and cultural ambassadors, coordinates all fire-related aspects of the event, including the burning of the Man and the Temple as well as the Fire Conclave, the largest group of fire performers in the world, who perform around the Man before he is ignited. The paintings of Römer+Römer capture the transcendent quality of night at Burning Man in 2017—the illumination and fusion of fire and artificial light as community is being forged.

Communitas, Carnival, and Flow

A cardinal rule governing Black Rock City is the mandate to participate—investing time and energy to create a fertile space for creativity and play—in an environment where everyone is involved and each participant is a player. The boundaries between participant, performer and spectator blur and open up possibilities for interaction, participation and personal transformation. Crossing the threshold into Black Rock City, one enters into a modern-day incarnation of carnival as theorized by Bakhtin— a multidimensional world that temporarily transforms and inverts the normative social world. The two-world condition of carnival serves as a social pressure valve, allowing participants to negotiate and redefine their freedoms, and to act upon their wildest fantasies by reinventing themselves and designing new personas. In the case of Burning Man, a full year of preparation and planning transforms a barren desert into bustling city streets, plazas and performance spaces for seven days. The oceanic experience of total participation and belonging to the second world results in what Victor Turner called “spontaneous communitas” (1969), in which participants experience what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” a necessary condition for communitas (1975: 42). Black Rock City provides the backdrop for a variety of transcendental activities that allow both the experience of flow and a sense of communitas to flourish.

On the Edge of Utopia

The series of large-scale paintings by Römer+Römer featured in this book, inspired by Burning Man, captures the utopian spirit and carnivalesque essence of the desert festival—moments of communitas in which participants come together in a flow of community and transformation. This utopian quality in the paintings of Römer+Römer reflects what Jill Dolan calls the “utopian performative” moment illuminating Black Rock City as an enormous utopian canvas. During moments of communitas, a community moves towards feelings of possibility, hope, and political agency (Dolan 2005: 477). It is in these charged moments of performative encounters that the possibility of a better world takes shape. In Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre, Dolan does not propose a “real” utopia ⁴ but rather how utopia might be “imagined or experienced affectively, through feelings, in small incremental moments that performance can provide” (ibid.: 459–460). She argues that utopia is not something that is sustainable but occurs in fragmentary “utopian moments” often found embedded within performance. This theory allows us to see festivals—in this case, Burning Man—as brief, fleeting utopian encounters in which a community performs its ideal world. As a momentary utopic landscape, Black Rock City provides a potent space where new forms of economic and political possibilities are rehearsed and enacted.

The Gift Economy

The governing principle of the gift economy—banning any type of vending, advertising, buying, or selling of anything within Black Rock City aside from ice and coffee at Center Camp—exemplifies the utopian ideal of a commerce-free world. Harvey, who died on April 28, 2018, drew his philosophy of the gift economy from Lewis Hyde’s The Gift (1983), which distinguishes between a gift and a commodity exchange. ⁵ According to Hyde, a gift establishes a permanent bond between two people, while the sale of a commodity does not necessarily leave a connection (ibid.: 56). A gift, when given without the promise of anything in return, creates a communal bond, which Hyde likens to a river (ibid.: 4). Should the flow of the gift halt, the chain of the gift economy is broken. Harvey believes gifting is the tissue that holds the Burning Man community together (Van Rhey 2002).

Burning Man does not pretend to be self-sustaining and in fact celebrates its ephemerality and disappearance as a radical act. Perhaps it is its inherent ephemerality that makes this experiment such a success. For Harvey, Burning Man has already moved beyond the desert into the “default” world, creating and transforming communities in significant ways through art and a renewed understanding of artistic community, collaboration and civic responsibility. Burning Man rehearses and stages an alternative model of how the world “should” be within the limitations of the actual world. In 1999, Larry Harvey proclaimed, “Burning Man is not just an event. This has become a movement.”


1 For more about the history and evolution of Burning Man, see Chapter 1 in On the Edge of Utopia: Performance and Ritual at Burning Man (2010) by Rachel Bowditch.

2 All these statistics were gleaned from the Black Rock City Census Population Analysis 2017.

3 “Counterculture” as a concept was first introduced in 1969 by Theodore Roszak in The Making of a Counter-Culture as both against the dominant culture and an active alternative to it.

4 The term “utopia” was coined in 1516 by Sir Thomas More in Utopia, blending two Greek words “topos,” or place, and “u,” which means “no” or “not.” Thus, “utopia” can be translated as “noplace” or “nowhere”. Since the 1680s, the United States has been the site for the founding of hundreds of utopian communities, both religious and secular. The West Coast, in particular, has been rich in such experiments since the 1850s, and Burning Man, originating on Baker Beach in San Francisco (and moving to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada in 1990), is a quintessential example of a Californian utopian community. American literary historian Louis Parrington points out that many of the men who have been called “utopians” might more accurately be called social planners (Parrington 1964: 4–5). Burning Man’s founder Larry Harvey could be considered a social planner, a community architect with a vision of a new model for society. Harvey wants participants to return home with the confidence that they can radically change the “real” world by extending Burning Man’s ten core values into the everyday—radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, M.M. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.
Bowditch, Rachel. On the Edge of Utopia: Performance and Ritual at Burning Man. London: Seagull Books, 2010.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1975.
DeVaul, D.L., Beaulieu-Prévost, D., Heller, S.M., and the 2017 Census Lab. (2017). Black Rock City Census: 2013–2017 Population Analysis. Black Rock City Census. Copyright © 2018 DeVaul et al. Date accessed: October 2nd, 2018.
Dolan, Jill. 2005. Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.
Harvey, Larry. “Desert Civilization”. Burning Man Summer Newsletter, 1999.
Harvey, Larry. Interview with author. Black Rock City, Nevada. 31 August, 2004.
Hyde, Lewis. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Random House, 1983.
Melville, Keith. Communes in the Counter Culture; Origins, Theories, Styles of Life. New York: Morrow, 1972.
Parrington, Vernon Louis. American Dreams: A Study of American Utopias. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964.
Roszak, Theodore. The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and its Youthful Opposition. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969.
Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (The Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures) New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1969.
Van Rhey, Darryl. 2002. “An Economy of Gifts: Interview with Larry Harvey.” What is Burning Man?


Rachel Bowditch (Ph.D.), author of On the Edge of Utopia: Performance and Ritual at Burning Man, is a theatre director, an Associate Professor, and Director of Graduate Studies in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University and has been attending and researching Burning Man since 2001.

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