A sculpture composed of mud and chicken wire and dedicated to the Vedic god Rudra burned spectacularly in the Nevada night sky on Labor Day weekend 1998. The ﬁre sacriﬁce to Rudra consisted of a two-hour-long “opera,” during which professional opera singers and classically trained musicians, as well as dozens of costumed dancers and drummers, paid homage to the god, while thousands of participants at the Burning Man festival sat watching in a circle on the prehistoric lake bed of Black Rock Desert. And this was only a warm-up for the festival’s main event the following night, when a forty-foot-tall wooden eﬃgy-“the Man”—also went up in ﬂames to the drumming and cheers of 10,000 festival-goers. As I left behind the burning remains of the man and walked toward the lights of our temporary city of 10,000, I saw artists torching sculptures that I had wandered by many times over the past several days. Then suddenly, along the distant horizon, a galloping horse (a bicycle cleverly covered with electroluminescent strips) appeared, followed by a huge dragonﬂy with ﬂashing wings.1 A feast for the senses, Burning Man merges the enchantment and playfulness of children’s worlds with adult content, and it is this mix of elements that draws participants of all ages from across the country, from New York to nearby Reno. As many commentators note, Burning Man started in 1986 as a small
gathering of friends on a San Francisco beach. When it became too large and wild to escape the attention of city police, it moved to the desert (see Gilmore and Van Proyen 2005). Larry Harvey burnt a wooden eﬃgy at the end of a relationship, and the “Burning Man” soon became an important rallying point for a small community of artists, musicians, and interested onlookers. Burning Man ﬁrst came to the Black Rock Desert in 1990. Every year the festival attracted more participants, and as this happened, the organizers began to describe their vision for this event and established a few rules, such as “leave no trace.” By 1997, the ﬁrst year I attended Burning Man, it had become a week-long festival involving weeks of advance preparation and cleanup afterward, mostly done by volunteer crews. A “Public Works” crew creates “streets” that mark out the half-moon-shaped
city-“Black Rock City”—that comes to life as festival-goers arrive with camping gear, pavilions, art installations, and a range of temporary desert homes. The city borders the “playa” as a real city might develop along a lakefront. Out on the playa are large sculptures, including the Man himself, and installations, but no campers. Concerts, performance art, and other events are scheduled every day and night of the festival, but most festivalgoers spend their hours wandering around the temporary city looking at art and visiting “theme camps,” which are a blend of campsite and interactive art installation. The ﬁrst year I attended, the festival attracted around 10,000 men and women, but in 2008 attendance had grown to 48,000. Many, but by no means all, participants were white, middle-class, “twentysomething ravers, ﬁftysomething hippies and thirtysomething computer whizzes” (Lelyveld 1998). Seeking their dispersed community on the Burning Man internet bulletin
board several days after the festival was over and they had returned home, participants mourned the end of Burning Man and discussed its impact on their lives: “It was life-changing and the most spiritual experience I’ve ever had,” wrote Shannon (b.b., September 2, 1997).2 And another message promised, “In the dust I found my family, In the dust I found my clan, In the dust I found hope for us all. Until we burn again I will hold my screams inside, I will keep the ashes burning until again I join my tribe” (Kaosangel, b.b., September 2, 1997). Peri agrees that Burning Man is a place of belonging: “In the Black Rock Desert, I’ve found a new hometown, where my imagination can sail without limits and bounds … where the aliens and the child-adults ﬁnd common ground” (b.b., September 28, 1998). Another bulletin board participant called Burning Man “the enactment of the city of the heart” (September 2, 1997). In the Black Rock Gazette, Burning Man’s oﬃcial newspaper, artist Charlie Gadeken said: “Sometimes I feel like my real life exists for 10 days a year and the rest is a bad dream.”3 In his poetic tribute to the festival, I Shambat declares: “When life returns to the desert Humanity is rejuvenated/with dew on our lips and paint on our bodies we enter the kingdom of god” (b.b., September 11, 1998). This charged language contrasts sharply with journalists’ accounts of the
festival. While participants focused on the sacred or life-changing experiences that they brought home, U.S. News and World Report called it “the anarchist’s holiday of choice” (Marks 1997); Life reported it as “the largest weinie roast ever” (Dowling 1997); Wired editor Kevin Kelly, writing in Time, designated Burning Man a “meaningless but mesmerizing ritual” (Kelly 1997); Print called it a “preapocalypse party” (Kabat and Ivinski 1997); and the San Francisco Chronicle described it as an “eccentric six-day art festival in the Nevada desert” (Whiting 1997). News stories tended to focus on the art and elements of debauchery: “measured in terms of artistic and sexual freedom, there is no place else like Black Rock City,” Sam Whiting wrote in his San Francisco Chronicle article. However, what most
intrigued me about the festival was that, for many participants, Burning Man was an event of religious signiﬁcance, characterized by powerful ritual, myth, and symbol; experiences of transcendence or ritual ecstasy; experiences of personal transformation; a sense of shared community; relationship to deity/divine power; and, perhaps most important, sacred space. Burning Man is open to anyone who will pay the gate price (from $160 for
those with a low income to $300 in 2009) and follow a few rules, such as “Do Not Drive Your Car in Camp” and “All Participants Are Required to Remove Their Own Trash and Garbage.” It provides a locus where cultural problems, and especially problems of ultimate meaning, are expressed, analyzed, and played with. This festival is an important cultural and religious site that exempliﬁes the migration of religious meaning-making activities out of American temples and churches into other spaces. Scholars of American religion have judged the decline in church attendance to signal a disestablishment (Hammond 1992), or the increasing personalization of religion (Bellah et al. 1985; Roof 1993), while others have noted the shift from mainline churches to conservative, experiential forms of Protestantism such as Pentecostalism and independent evangelical churches (Cox 1995). I want to ﬁrst situate the festival in its historical context on the American religious scene, and then explore the ways in which festival participants create the sacred space that makes transformative and intense experiences possible. Finally, I will explore the ways in which Burning Man reveals crucial tensions in contemporary American life that emerge because of the unique space that the festival creates. In so doing, I want to suggest that popular religious sites like the Burning Man festival are essential to an understanding of contemporary issues and future trends in American cultural and religious life.