Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man

Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man

Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man

Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man

Synopsis

Every summer, thousands gather from around the world in the blistering heat of Nevada's Black Rock Desert for the seven-day celebration of art, community, and fire known as Burning Man. Culminating in the spectacular incineration of a wooden effigy, this festival is grand-scale theater for self-expression, personal transformation, eclectic spirituality, communal bonding, and cultural renewal. In this engrossing ethnography of the Burning Man phenomenon, Lee Gilmore explores why "burners" come in vast numbers to transform a temporary gathering of strangers into an enduring community. Accompanied by a DVD, which provides panoramic views of events, individuals, artworks, and, of course, the climactic final night, the book delves into the varieties of spirituality, ritual, and performance conducted within the festival space.

Excerpt

Every summer during the week leading up to Labor Day weekend, tens of thousands of people from around the globe descend on the Black Rock Desert, a desolate and otherwise obscure corner of northwestern Nevada whose principal feature is an ancient and absolutely barren plain of crackled clay known as the playa. Their destination is a colorful and eclectic arts celebration known as Burning Man. For a brief time Black Rock City—or brc, as this settlement is sometimes called—becomes the fifth largest metropolis in the state of Nevada as participants—collectively referred to as “Burners”—design, construct, and dwell in thousands of makeshift shelters and tents. Laid out along a carefully surveyed system of streets forming an arch of concentric semicircles, brc stretches over two miles from end to end, surrounding a large central open space within which an extraordinary assortment of interactive and often monumental art installations are created (see chart 1, pages 36–37). Many of those in attendance don fanciful costumes as they carouse in this carnivalesque setting, making merry and making themselves at home in the desert’s harsh and alien environment.

At the center of it all stands a forty-foot sculpture called the Burning Man—a towering wooden latticework figure perched atop a fanciful platform, lit with multicolored shafts of neon, and filled with explosives designed to detonate in a carefully orchestrated sequence when the figure meets its fiery demise at the festival’s climax. Ostensibly genderless and void of any specifically stated meaning, this effigy—affectionately called “the Man”—retains the same general humanoid shape and appearance from year to year and is ultimately offered up in blazing sacrifice with . . .

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