Sacred Iconography in Secular Space:
Altars, Alters, and Alterity at the Burning
John F. Sherry, Jr. and Robert V. Kozinets
Historically and etymologically, altars harness and liberate some of the most potent forces of consumer behavior that late capitalism has struggled to marketize and commodify: sacred and profane, gift giving and sacrifice, utterance and ineffability, immanence and transcendence, public and private, self and other, material and ethereal, agency and community, order and chaos. As mediating vehicles between realms of experience, altars invite the exploration of antinomies, and encourage the probing of relationships. As metaphoric high places of supplication, altars comprise both a metaphysical fulcrum and catechetical crucible, on and within which materiality is transmuted into quintessence. Altars are the sites of creative destruction and destructive creation. Altars reify what people deify, and reify what people deify.
In this chapter, we describe and theorize altars at Burning Man. Burning Man, or the Burning Man Project, is a weeklong festal gathering that takes place every year in the desolate Black Rock Desert of central Nevada, which is one of the most lifeless places on earth. From the Black Rock Desert—a barren Pleistocene lake bed, engulfed in alkali dust—arises Black Rock City, a techno-shamanic city of art, Blake's Golgonooza. It is a place of imagination built to disappear in a blazing no-when of immediacy. It is a love offering to the world wherein process trumps product and evanescence proves essential. In Burning Man's temporary community, diversity is de rigueur, everyday life is an incessant series of celebratory moments, spectacle is continuously created in universal performance rather than passive observation, and otherness is the common bond among residents.
The event began in 1985 when two friends, accompanied that year by a group of friends and range of attracted onlookers, decided to burn an 8–foot wooden effigy of a man on San Francisco's Baker Beach. The psychic energy released by the burning of the man was an epiphany for its originators. Holding the event every