Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Paradoxical Black Rock City: All Cities Are Mad

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Paradoxical Black Rock City: All Cities Are Mad

Article excerpt

At the core of the dream was the hope for a special relationship with nature. A passion for beautiful California filled the souls of the artists and intellectuals.

Nature, that awesome setting for the California dream! Heroic, eternal, overwhelming, it proved a glory, and a problem. It promised a profusion of gifts: beauty, life, health, abundance, and, perhaps most important of all, a challenging correlative to inner aspiration.

--Kevin Starr, 1973

Burning Man, begun in 1986, is now an internationally significant year-round creative community anchored by its annual ritual burn in the northern Nevada desert (Figure 1). With art, community, and city as organizational tenets, it remains all but impossible to lay down universal or penetrating definitions of the event because the participants go in search of diverse, and often contradictory, experiences (Davis in Gilmore and Van Proyen 2005). Unlike ticketed festivals, Burning Man offers no bandstand or stage. Instead it provides an ephemeral place for participants, referred to as "Burners," to live out and perform, presenting what many regard as their true selves (Foucault 1961, 171; L. Harvey 2000). The making of art, whether in performance or built as structures or artcars, is noncommercial; nothing is for sale, nor is it subject to judgment. Art is, for a few short days, the central feature of a Burner's life (Culpper 2007; Kristen 2007). For many participants the experience serves as a meaningful preferred reality, recollected and longed-for, during the remaining fifty-one weeks of each year (Morehead 2009).

Burning Man is a California event in conception and execution, even if every Labor Day since 1990 it has played out its city-building and art expressions on the desert playa of the Black Rock country, about 110 miles north of Reno, Nevada (Goin and Starrs 2005). For an initial half-decade, Burning Man was solely a San Francisco reality, illicitly set on that city's Baker Beach, and today's Burners owe much to Larry Harvey and Jerry James, whose nimble minds birthed a fertile concept. While the originality of the founders and the endurance of a ritual burn for nearly thirty years is nothing anyone would contest, it bears remembering that the burning of cares and solstice celebrations are, by no conceivable stretch of the imagination, something created on the West Coast of the United States as humanity careened toward a wrap-up of the twentieth century. The roots of the ritual are instead as old and profound as time.

Early on, unsurprisingly, Larry Harvey was among the first to tip his hat toward Burning Man's well-aged ties in a 1993 interview with Matt Wray, and since then his entrepreneurial outreach has stretched ever-further across global speaking circuits, proving him still more worldly and outspoken in casting Burning Man as an intellectualized utopia:

In practice, what we do has historic parallels. In the ancient world, half the world's great religion came out of the desert or mountains, with the idea that you were in contact with powerful natural forces ... But we're not feather fathers, we're not druids (although many come here to pretend to be), but we are laying the infrastructure of a temporary civilization. It's a laboratory to consider how perhaps society can be constructed and how we can critique it.

(L. Harvey in Wray 1995)

The roots of ritual plunge as deep as anyone could wish to pursue them: from ancient ritual to the Classical Age, by one reckoning--extending across a dozen distinct cultures, religions, and societies (Elliott 1960). A critical and even contrarian view of ruling society was unmistakable: "The theme of Saturnalia is reversal--reversal of values, of social roles, of social norms," the literary philosopher Robert C. Elliott wrote, explaining the social underpinnings of Carnival and Mardi Gras (Elliott 1970, 11).

Revelry at the Bohemian Grove near the Russian River in 1881 included a ceremony for the Cremation of Care as part of the elite rituals (exclusively male) of the San Francisco gentry, according to a 1908 write-up by Porter Garnett (1908), who, as a producer of Bohemian Club grove plays, was in a position to know (Brechin 2006). …

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