The Man Base: Where Function Meets Artistry

[This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

As Burning Man is, if nothing else, a crucible for radical and avante garde self-expression, it’s no wonder that the city’s functional and infrastructural elements are so often imbued with creative artistry as well. And when base necessity meets with artistic inspiration, banal functionality is elevated beyond its original purpose, taking on altogether new forms.

La Contessa Mutant Vehicle, 2005
La Contessa Mutant Vehicle, 2005

Public transportation takes the form of the magnificent roving sculptures that are Mutant Vehicles. Personal transportation (bicycles) are transformed into rolling exhibitions of personal inventiveness. Illuminating the city at night with kerosene lanterns becomes a deeply-ritualized activity. The city itself is a work of functional art, designed such that one can see the Man from every street corner. Even the street signs are meticulously hand-crafted to mirror the given year’s art theme.

In the following essay, originally published on the Burning Man website, Rod Garrett explains how the Man Base (the pedestal upon which the Man stands) evolved from basic functional need to an elevated work of interactive art.

The Man and the Plinth

Standing at the geometric apex of Black Rock City is the collective icon of The Man. This figure represents nothing expressed or explicable, yet is a physical and ethical guidepost for fifty thousand people during at least one week of the year.

The Man, 1993
The Man, 1993

In the beginning, the Man stood and was burned directly on the playa. Nearing the millennium, we began to see increasingly greater assemblies at the “Burn” – marking the end of the event. Concerned that the ever-larger assembly was blocking full view of the “Man” for many, we employed a stopgap measure of mounting the figure on stacked hay bales. However, as the pyre was consumed in flame, bits of charred straw were lifted, showering the open playa. This made our “Leave No Trace” policy quite problematic, so that practice ended.


Theater in a Crowded Fire

As the Burning Blog’s occasional religion and spirituality blogger, I would be remiss if I failed to mention a couple recent posts about Burning Man on other blogs and online mags. However, in this case, I must admit that my task also falls into the category of (cough) blatant self promotion, as I am the author of the interview and guest post in questions (and, coughs again, the book+dvd that inspired them).

The first interview was featured in an excellent online magazine called Religion Dispatches, which seeks to engage diverse, progressive, and academic perspectives on religion in an accessible public forum. My piece (which the editors titled Burning Man: Religious Event or Sheer Hedonism) set out to summarize some of the key ideas in my book–namely, why does Burning Man (sometimes) smell like religion? And, then what does that say about some of the directions that religion seems to be evolving these days? Broadly, I encourage folks to reconsider the concepts of “religion” and “spirituality” as defined less by matters of institution, doctrine, and belief and more by questions of ritual, practice, and experience. From this perspective, Burning Man can be seen as an exemplar of the extent to which spiritual feelings and desires often emerge in settings not traditionally defined as “religious,” and I argue that this should cause us to stop and think about what we mean by the terms “religion,” “ritual,” and “spirituality” in the first place. Cross-culturally speaking, I think the ideas and experiences which we attempt to describe with such language are much larger and more complicated than is popularly understood.

The other essay was a recent guest post on one of my favorite blogs, The Wild Hunt, which is widely considered to be among the best sources for news and commentary on contemporary Paganism. Here, I dig down a bit deeper on a related set of questions about the relationships between Burning Man and NeoPaganism. In this context, I like to distinguish between uppercase Paganism (as a specific family of religious traditions) and lowercase paganism (as an underlying, primal “root religion” that underlies all global religions and that also pops up in festive ritualistic events like Burning Man.)

Finally, I was also interviewed last week by writer and longtime Burner Erik Davis on his Expanding Mind podcast. Along with his co-host Maja D’Aoust, we had a delightful conversation about (you guessed it) Burning Man and its religious elements.

The book itself is the product of over 10 years of participating in and observing Burning Man and its surrounding culture–including numerous interviews and an online survey. (And who knows, maybe some readers here contributed to this research?) I wrote the book because I wanted to tell the story of Burning Man (or, at least, my version of that story), and because I think the event has something important to teach people about the nature of spiritual expression and experience in late modernity.

Finally, since I suspect some readers may wonder if I am abusing Burning Man’s anti-commodification ethos by linking to commercial websites and, well, pitching my project, please believe me when I state that academic publishing typically runs at a loss and academic authors make very little money. Since I’m a big nerd for religion and anthropology, I see this book (and DVD) as my particular art form and as my way of participating in this community. I’m honored to have the venue of this blog to tell folks about it. And should you want more info about me or my project, I’ve put together a simple page here.

Coming soon: a brief recap of other recently published books that cast scholarly eyes on Burning Man.

Clock Town

[Tony “Coyote” Perez first set foot in Black Rock City in 1996, where he immediately went to work, ultimately becoming the Department of Public Works’ Site Manager. He is renowned amongst the staff as Burning Man’s Poet Laureate, as well as being an accomplished saxophonist with his band “Second Hand Smoke.” This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

Our twin boys turned two this spring. How much do they see already…? I’m carrying one boy down the hallway of bedtime and he points to a newly hung Black Rock City plan on the wall from years past. “CLOCK!,” he says. Wow, I’ve lived in that clock for so many years that it took a two-year old to remind me that it was a clock. It was always a clock, wasn’t it…?

Skydiver Over Black Rock City, 1996
Skydiver Over Black Rock City, 1996

When I showed up in ’96, that “communal geometry” was just starting to congeal. On the advice of my buddy/guide that was schooling me on how to “play” this thing – this Burning Man place – we showed up early to help set the “thing” up. (Early meaning about three days early…) No fence, no gate, no DPW, no commissary, no wrist bands, no lammies, no cops…. no clock. But it had form. It had a definite form. Looking back, it was like looking at an embryo. One could just start to detect the spine and budding limbs of hazy districts. They showed all the promise to one day be streets and neighborhoods. And toward the mid part of the camps, maybe the beginnings of grey matter – and maybe a brain stem.

And at the center, the translucent squirming of its beating heart – an icon doomed to be burned.

The Man Through the Camera Obscura, 1996
The Man As Seen Through the Camera Obscura, 1996

I had been artificially awake for three days and had just made a scattered and hectic launch from the city’s gravity. I would have been finding the inner meaning of bus tires at this point…

And to then be out there for the first time.

I was a snowflake in hell.

“Let’s stake down here with Will and Crimson at Check Point Station. Then we’ll be in on the tip! Hurry and set up your tent – they need our help putting up these spire lamps that are going to line this road that’s going to lead out to the Man. Pretty cool!”

“Yea – sure – whatever you say – our gallon of water is getting low. I’m not hungry but I guess we should eat.” I was feeling overdosed, badly frayed, and washed out. My brain was a thrown-off hub cap in a b-grade chase scene. “I think I see sharks in the distance.” Hunter S. Thompson was coming to mind.

Tom Kennedy's Shark Car, 1998
Tom Kennedy's Shark Car, 1998

We now have full fleets of trucks, semis, fork lifts, cranes, heavy equipment, ranch and crew, and the fortitude of powerful armies, but back then… I remember Will putting around on a mini bike, carrying form stakes from quadrant to quadrant as Crimson picked them up and paced them out on what would be the three radial roads. And intersecting these roads was to be an inner ring road. Even then it was already a clock. Just no numbers on the dial yet. I woke the next day to the amazement of cruise traffic! The roads were working. It was the slow low parade of a raw and raunchy BRC in the rough, sharks and all! It was a blood stream of madness brought right to your camp. It was the ticking second hand of Clock Town.

Hunter S. Thompson would have liked it, I’ll bet…!

Peace, Love and Ice Cream

I’m riding my bike drunk as a skunk during burning man 2009 somewhere around 7:30 and C streets during the middle of the week not quite part of the problem, but nowhere near a solution to anything…and I think to myself, “god I could use something to eat!”

At that moment an angel stops me on the street. I thought I was hallucinating, but indeed a participant was dressed as an angel and asks me, “would you like something to eat?” OMG! There is an old saying…”the playa provides” and well here was my need met.

I was taken into a tent and this nice girl in her 20s (2nd burn for her it turns out) and her boyfriend (his first burn) hand me a quesadilla hot out of the oven and a shot of tequila. I wanted to adopt all of these angels right about then.

I say to them “this is amazing…you have no idea how great this is for me right now!” And the girl says, “thank you, but this is nothing. When I was here in 2006 and went by center camp one day there was this ice cream social going on, and I thought it was a mirage, but no it was real. I had a cup of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream right here in the middle of black rock city. That act of kindness inspired me to do this quesadilla/tequila stand with my boyfriend this year.”

At that point I was stunned at the complete circle of life. I said, “you’re welcome. I’m the guy that did the ice cream social in 2006 during my first burn. We gave away 12k scoops and obviously your scoop was the most important to me now. It’s nice to see you again.”

Peace, Love and Ice Cream,

Ranger Frisco


Burning Man 2010 Desert Arts Preview – Annual Artist Lecture Series

Thursday, June 24, 2010
6:00pm-11pm; Talks begin at 7pm
Mission Rock Cafe
817 Terry a Francois Boulevard
San Francisco, CA 94158-2209

The Cauldron by Kiki Pettit - photo Camera Girl 2004
The Cauldron by Kiki Pettit – photo Camera Girl 2004

ALL AGES welcome before 9pm
FREE! But if you wish to make a donation, any proceeds will support the
Black Rock Arts Foundation artist grant program. No host bar and food
service. Limited seating, so COME EARLY to ensure your seat and not miss any

This is our very popular annual artist lecture series, where you get a sneak
preview of some of notable art projects in progress right now for Burning
Man 2010. You’ll hear directly from artists who are creating revolutionary
works of art, often in radically collaborative ways. Some have been doing
work on the playa for many years and will be sharing humorous war stories
associated with creating art under extreme conditions. This is also a great
opportunity to learn how YOU can get involved and support these and other

If you can’t make it, look up their projects at the link below and directly
contact these and other artists/projects you feel inspired to help and
participate in. Get involved and help make the art you wish to see in the

Speaker Schedule:

7:00-7:15    Welcome & Overview of Burning Man 2010 Theme and  Artist Grants
by Beth Scarborough

7:20-7:30    Bryan Tedrick – Minaret

7:35-7:45    Lawrence Burton – Kinetic Cab Company

7:50-8:00    Matt Ganucheau — Subway

8:05-8:15    Kiwi Chris — Megatropolis

8:20-8:30    Bliss Dance

8:35-8:55    Intermission

9:00 -9:10    Tomas McCabe – Black Rock Arts Foundation

9:15-9:25    Morley John — Syzygryd

9:30-9:40    Michael Christian — Home

9:45-9:55    Jess Hobbs, PK Kimmelman and Rebecca Anders – Temple  of Flux

10:00-10:20    Questions and Answers

Lamplighting: Function Becomes Ritual

[Steve Mobia was amongst the original Cacophony Society members who went on the “zone trip” to immolate the Burning Man on the Black Rock Desert in 1990.  In Burning Man’s early years, he helped create desert fashion shows, large format photographs, and the first pirate radio station – hosting a program of experimental music called “Mobia’s Trip”. He was the first Lamplighter, organizing and running the Lamplighters from 1994-1999. His flaming helmet is now part of Burning Man’s historical archives. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

For those who have just started attending Burning Man, you may not even notice the many hanging lanterns that dot the major streets in Black Rock City.  At one time these lanterns (along with the lit neon on the Man) were the main navigation on dark nights in the desert.  Though the increasing presence of generated electric light has made the hung lamps less necessary along the city streets, the ritual of Lamplighting continues and is one of our oldest traditions at the event.  The lanterns are most visible along the promenades leading to the Man and beyond to the Temple.

Lamplighter Procession, 2006
Lamplighter Procession, 2006

The Lamplighting ritual at Burning Man is a quiet yet essential part of the communal desert experience.  It creates a sense of a real city with street lamps and invokes an old tradition of lamplighting that contrasts nicely with the technical innovations of today.

I was the original Lamplighter and ran Lamplighter Camp until the year 2000 when Brien Burroughs and later others applied their energy and ideas to the task.  I’m hoping that the denizens and luminaries of today’s Lamplighter Village expound on the monumental operation they’ve been running since the turn of the century.


Burning Man Video Acculturation Series Launches!! Submit Your Flicks!!

Burning Man is looking for videos that acculturate or educate the larger world about the 10 Principles of Burning Man and/or that teach Survival Guide basics, Burning Man history, and/or other important aspects of Burning Man culture.

So dust off those cameras and old-school Burning Man footage, or grab your friends and let the tape roll! Just create and send in your short films and video, being careful to adhere to the requirements listed on the Burning Man Video Acculturation Series Webpage. The contest will accept rolling submissions, and the first deadline is August 1, 2010.

Consider yourself invited to participate!

Possible Film Topics Include:

+ Acculturation: What do you wish you had known before you got to BRC?
+ Ten Principles: Illustrate or teach others about one or any of our principles!
+ History: Got a classic piece of video that illustrates a special piece of art, theme camp, or performance and why it matters to you?
+ “We Are Everywhere”: Burning Man happens every day, all over the world. How can you explain what Burning Man is beyond the week in the desert?

Visit the Burning Man Video Acculturation Series Webpage for more INFO and the requirements.


FIGMENT – Governors Island This Weekend


Last Week we told you FIGMENT was coming to Boston, well now we are here to tell you it is coming BIG this weekend on Governors Island in New York.

FIGMENT is an annual arts event on Governors Island in New York, with artwork in every medium, from installation to performance to music to games and many things in between.

When the founders of FIGMENT began the event in 2007, their inspiration was to marry [BM]‐style do-ocracy, volunteerism, and the 10 principles with the prolific New York arts scene, and to build a new community for the participatory arts.  In 2010, the vast majority of the FIGMENT artists, and a growing number of FIGMENT volunteers, have never been to Burning Man, and there is a groundswell of enthusiasm for an increasing number of season long projects on the island.

This year’s FIGMENT includes a 2010 [BRAF] grant recipient 1000 Pieces, so check out the video and then go see the ART!