Researching the Burning Man Diaspora

[This guest post is from Dr. Graham St John, who is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, where he is working in collaboration with Prof Dr. Francois Gauthier in the Department of Social Science researching the global Burning Man movement as a religion beyond religion. His website is www.edgecentral.net.]

Lithuanian Burner Jurgita Vanagaite, 2013 (photo by Paulius Musteikis)
Lithuanian Burner Jurgita Vanagaite on playa, 2013 (photo by Paulius Musteikis)

After my first encounter with Burning Man in 2003, I grew enthused by its global reach over the subsequent decade. This trend is reflected in the 2012 Black Rock City Census results (BRC Census 2012) in which we learn that 24% of the population of Black Rock City are reported to be non-US residents (about 10% European). There is no reason to believe that this global gravitation to the quintessential do-ocracy in the desert will abate any time soon. While this trend is fascinating in itself, of corollary interest is the stimulus that descending upon the Man is having back in the world. By 2014, pilgrimage to the world’s largest temporary city has triggered a global diaspora, with regional developments worldwide, stoked and nurtured by the Burning Man Project. Across the planet, official Regional Events (adopting the Ten Principles), as well as other event-communities, art initiatives and “transformational festivals” are being influenced, if not directly inspired, by Burning Man and its ethos.

While the Burning Man Regional Network in North America has been growing steadily since the 1990s, the global regional network builds apace. In February 2014, adopting successful procedures, along with skilled facilitators, from the annual Burning Man Global Leadership Conference format, the first European Leadership Summit was held in Berlin, with participants from 25 countries. Larry Harvey, Marian Goodell and James Hanusa were among the speakers, and Meghan Rutigliano a most capable coordinator. As an Australian, I was myself fortunate to be among the EuroBurner participants converging in Berlin. I’ve rarely had the privilege of sharing a room with such an ensemble of activated individuals, who while representing various regions, initiatives and projects, were united by their experience and challenges transposing Burning Man to regions across Europe. Like bright-eyed and barefoot ambassadors, each participant appeared to me a condensate of good will conveyed from those regions to join their spirit to the flame. There is great potential for this Summit to evolve into a fully fledged annual Conference.

In Berlin, I was given the opportunity to introduce Burning Progeny: The European Efflorescence of Burning Man, a cultural research project supported by the University of Fribourg and the Swiss National Science Foundation, designed to gauge the evolution of the Ten Principles in the European Burning Man movement. This project, in which I am collaborating with my Burner-colleague Prof Dr Francois Gauthier in the Dept of Social Science at UniFribourg, involves a survey of EuroBurners developed partly in collaboration with the Black Rock City Census team, and projected to expand into a comparative ethnographic phase of European Regional Events. The Burning Progeny survey can be accessed here (the survey closes on March 7).

Among the difficulties undertaking this kind of research is that, as far as I know, there has been no comparable study of the Burning Man movement, including in the US, where the regional development is prolific. It is somewhat alarming that, despite its flourishing in North America and elsewhere around the world, and per contra to the annual growth of media profiles (see the up-to-date aggregator of Burning Man news reports and blogs over at Vox Ignis), the movement has attracted comparatively little interest among social and cultural researchers—at least compared with the mammoth blinking mirage in the desert, which of course continues to attract student researchers like flies to a carcass.

"Lithuanian Birds", Lithuanian CORE Project at Burning Man 2013 (photo by Paulius Musteikis)
“Lithuanian Birds”, Lithuanian CORE Project at Burning Man 2013 (photo by Paulius Musteikis)

Black Rock City should clearly remain an object of study, year after year. And, in my view such studies will ideally be informed by auto-ethnographic methods driving the continual evaluation of one’s self, or indeed one’s other self, in the desert of the surreal. Such approaches are preferable to, say, documenting an event history already raked over 1001 times, or revisiting the very same theoretical model applied with a similar conclusion by another graduate student a few years ago, begging questions about the value and usefulness of the research …. or whether playa theory was better last year.

Now, I don’t want to be taken the wrong way here. I’m familiar with the confrontational, and even overwhelming, conditions faced by those committing to document, datamine, excavate Black Rock City and its populations during their moment under the sun. But Burning Man is a Bermuda Triangle of Research (BTR). Anthropology graduates brandishing golden passes to the ethnographic Wonkaland, data creeps, Syntheists on radical sabbatical, surveyors of burnoir couture, purveyors of occult mathematics, have disappeared in heavy whiteouts, never to be seen again. And that’s to say nothing of the missional evangelist last sighted busting moves out at DISTRIKT, the embedded Deleuzian who deterritorialised in the deep, or the would-be novelist who haunts every camp on the playa (you know who you are). Every one a victim of the BTR.

I’m being deliberately facetious here, since there have in fact been numerous quality researches telegraphed back from “the front” in Nevada, with true grit accumulating at the coalface converted into various books on, and indeed films depicting, Burning Man. But as Burning Man has evolved into a movement that has long extended its reach beyond the Black Rock Desert and its temporary metropolis, actual research commitments (if measured by research publications, for example) are strongly disproportionate to the growth of the global regional network and its mushrooming diaspora. Researchers have turned their attentions to the outward expansion of Burning Man and its flourishing ethos in the default world. And yet while details are emerging on the dissemination of Burning Man’s inclusive community logic in collectivities beyond its geographic and temporal boundaries (Chen 2011); quality and innovation experts figure how the Ten Principles can catalyse radical innovation in organizations, especially higher education (Radziwill and Benton 2013); sociologists celebrate the impact of a “living model of commons-based peer production” on the San Francisco Bay Area’s new media industries like Google (Turner 2009); journalists field reports on the status of Burner “neotribalism” flowing between San Francisco and Black Rock City (Jones 2011), little if any research on the proliferation of the Burning Man movement and its founding principles, either in North America or globally, has been undertaken.

There are probably a host of reasons for this silence, including highly competitive academic funding environments preventing the turnover of otherwise feasible projects. Perhaps its simply a matter of motivation. Burner researchers are Burners first and foremost, and who wants to spend their time inside the trash fence of Black Rock City or Burn-inspired events “doing research”? I guess some of us just can’t help ourselves. And some might rightly ask what’s in it for Burning Man? What is the usefulness of research to the Burning Man community? These are good questions at a time when The Burning Man Project is promoting its pedagogies of practice and seeking philosophical exchanges in ever widening circles.

In a recent article in the 10 Principles Blog Series, Larry Harvey (2013) has written that “the Ten Principles have proven to be useful, durable and productive; they have enabled us to think and communicate, they have enabled us to act, and they have helped us to project our culture into the world. However, this could cease to happen unless we remain ready to constantly exercise and examine them.” As a study of the translation, adaptation and mutation of the Burning Man ethos abroad, Burning Progeny is a project responsive to this endeavour. And in this way, while remaining independent, it aims to be in service of the Burning Man community.

References

BRC Census. “Results from the 2012 Black Rock City Census”.
Chen, Katherine K. 2011. “Lessons for Creative Cities from Burning Man: How Organizations can Sustain and Disseminate a Creative Context.” City, Culture and Society 2(2): 93–100.
Harvey, Larry. 2013. “Introduction: The Philosophical Center”. Nov 12.
Jones, Steven T. 2011. The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert Is Shaping the New American Counterculture. CCC Publishing.
Radziwill, Nicole M., and Morgan C. Benton. 2013. “Burning Man: Quality and Innovation in the Spirit of Deming.” Journal for Quality and Participation. 36(1): 7–11.
Turner, Fred. 2009. “Burning Man at Google: A Cultural Infrastructure for New Media Production.” New Media and Society 11(1–2): 73–94.

If you are a EuroBurner, please participate in our survey: Burning Progeny: The European Efflorescence of Burning Man, which is integral to a cultural research project supported by the University of Fribourg and the Swiss National Science Foundation. The survey is open until March 7.

About the author: Will Chase

Will Chase first attended Burning Man 2001. He volunteered as the Operations Manager for the ARTery (Black Rock City’s art headquarters) and was on the Burning Man Art Council from 2003-2008. He was Web Team Project Manager and Webmaster from 2004-2009, then transitioned to the Communications Department in 2009 to become Minister of Propaganda, working on global communications strategy. He's the editor-in-chief for the Jackrabbit Speaks newsletter and the Voices of Burning Man blog, and content manager for Burning Man’s websites. He also manages the ePlaya BBS and Burning Man’s social networking efforts.

14 thoughts on “Researching the Burning Man Diaspora

  • I find this title and specifically the word “diaspora” offensive in relationship to Euroburners. First because BRC is a temporary city and therefore no communities have their cultural roots set here over several generations. By making this distinction of international burners moving their cultural practices in the spirit of burning man as if a form a diaspora; it is a ridiculous comparison that makes light out of the peoples who have had to move their cultural practices because of the threat of violence and overall oppression both in current times and throughout history. This is a community of people that behold the privilege to travel internationally and spend a week camping in a desert, which is in direct contrast to historical events of diaspora where entire geographic groups were forced to ship away from their home on slave boats. This is only a single example of the repeatedly horrifying events of the oppression of large groups of people (historically enforced by Europeans!) resulting in diaspora. Please reconsider the use of the word diaspora in your article, because I am not the only one to find it profoundly offensive.

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  • @Kali
    In common use today, the term diaspora has most definitely been expanded past it’s original use in the context of forced exile.

    Consider Professor Rogers Brubaker’s redefinition, as outlined in this paper: http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/soc/faculty/brubaker/Publications/29_Diaspora_diaspora_ERS.pdf

    And correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be interpreting Will’s use of diaspora as the people traveling from their homeland towards Burning Man. But I read it as a diaspora of Burning Man attendees outward away from the event back to other parts of the world, bringing the culture and ethos of BM along with them.

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  • In an academic frame of mind, I cite Wikipedia (a super-legit source of academic information, not at all being sarcastic):
    “A diaspora is a scattered population with a common origin in a smaller geographic area. The word can also refer to the movement of the population from its original homeland. The word has come to refer particularly to historical mass dispersions of an involuntary nature, such as the expulsion of Jews from Europe, the African Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the southern Chinese during the coolie slave trade, or the century-long exile of the Messenians under Spartan rule.”

    Given the original definition, I think it’s safe to say it applies in the first context, diaspora meaning those of us who live outside of San Francisco (as a non SF-er with a camp largely based in an around SF, trust me when I say there is a difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’ in terms of burner culture year round, even though I live in a North American community that has a decent regional group). *shrugs* Having said that, some people get offended by things that others don’t and although I’m all for a ‘fuck-yer-burn’ attitude, I would say Kali’s point is valid.

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  • Diaspora is being used as a metaphor, just as is the word “home”. There is an obvious correspondence. What other single word should the writer use to speak of a “people” living outside their “home(land)”. Gee, the one that actually fits by definition?? It is a legitimate poetic license. It speaks of a longing for their (our) true home. I can’t believe this is having to be explained. Name a single word that conveys the very same meaning, and I may concede that there might have been a more accurate word.

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  • I’ll be traveling “home” come August to once again celebrate and enjoy the beauty and ecstasy of humanity and its best and most raw…

    I welcome your scientific excursions. May your findings shed light on all of us. We need a workable playa theory.

    Let’s dance and play! All in the name of science, of course. Just don’t poke and prod to deeply.

    Wait a minute… Maybe a deep poke will reveal some great data!

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  • I’ll be traveling “home” come August to once again celebrate and enjoy the beauty and ecstasy of humanity and its best and most raw…

    I welcome your scientific excursions. May your findings shed light on all of us. We need a workable playa theory.

    Let’s dance and play! All in the name of science, of course. Just don’t poke and prod too deeply.

    Wait a minute… Maybe a deep poke will reveal some great data!

    Report comment

  • See the following at http://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/diaspora:
    “The term diaspora comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “to scatter about.” And that’s exactly what the people of a diaspora do — they scatter from their homeland to places across the globe, spreading their culture as they go. The Bible refers to the Diaspora of Jews exiled from Israel by the Babylonians. But the word is now also used more generally to describe any large migration of refugees, language, or culture.”

    You’d be entitled to be offended, and perhaps even profoundly offended, if the word “diaspora” was defined exclusively according to the Book of Kali. But “diaspora” is not exclusively defined as such.

    My usage is generally in the context of a “countercultural diaspora”, a phrase I think appropriate in the study of the history of Burning Man itself, how it came to be, why it takes place where it does, the populations who have gravitated there (and call it *home*), the cultural and political forces with which it has contended and against which it has survived, the *generations* of experimentalists who have built Black Rock City, and those who have dispersed to form “regional events” and enduring communities, first in North America, and then worldwide, including Europe, and Israel.

    I take some cues from Anthony D’Andrea’s Global Nomads, where he documents the movement of a privileged, experimental, hypermobile, and yes largely European (though not exclusively), “freak diaspora”. In this “negative diaspora”, rather than ethnicity, faith, and racial oppression, dispersion is characterised by “a fellowship of counter-hegemonic practice and lifestyle. Other than making one’s soul the Promised Land, expressive individualism opposes diaspora as a basis of personal identity” (ibid., 13–14). Perhaps the Burning Man movement is similarly an anti-diaspora diaspora… So this does take us quite some distance from historical diasporas such as the Jewish Diaspora, but, in my use at least, the former does not seek to expropriate from the latter.

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