Fire and Swine

[Christa Sperry has been involved in the Burning Man community since 2005. She is a mentor and Youth Minister at FreedomHill in Maryland, always trying to encourage the beautiful and absurd in the future leaders of the world. During the summer months, she throws locally grown produce at the urbanites for a fair price. When in Black Rock City, you can find her at BMIR 94.5 coordinating events, talking smack, and spilling drinks.]

This past March at FreedomHill, the Sudbury model school where I work, some of the kids were asking me about Burning Man:

What is it?

Where is it?

Can kids go?

What do you do there?

I attempted to answer these questions as best I could with a little help from one of the 9 year old boys who went for his first time in 2009. We told them about the interactive art aspect, how everything there happens because people want it to happen (not because someone is telling them to do it), community building, self-reliance, and burning things to the ground. This idea was really not very foreign to them as it is pretty much how they spend their days at FreedomHill (well, minus burning things to the ground) so they were immediately intrigued. At that point the conversation naturally led to the question, “Wouldn’t that be cool if there was a Burning Man just for kids?”. Wouldn’t it? Why not?

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Fire in the Heart of Black Rock City

[MachineGun Lily (aka Lily Rasel) works on Burning Man’s Government Relations, Legal Affairs and External Relations Teams, and (because Burners are nothing if not versatile) lays out the Black Rock City plan in CAD. An accomplished fire performer, she publishes Kindle Magazine, and will attend UC Berkeley’s Boalt Law School in the Fall of 2010. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

With the ability to control and harness its energy, both physical and spiritual, humans see fire differently than the rest of the animal kingdom.  We do not run away from it, but often gravitate towards and congregate around it.  We use it as a tool, and some of us like to use it as a toy.  We see it as both dangerous and comforting, painful and powerful.  But what is it that draws us to flames like moths to a lantern?  What is it that makes us, as Burners, surround ourselves with it, play with it, and revere it as we do in Black Rock City?

The truth is, humans have had a close relationship with fire for many hundreds of thousands of years, over a million years by the count of some scientists.  Some even speculate that harnessing fire and using it to cook food may have been key to our evolution.  Not only were we able to eat a wider variety of foods made softer and safer after cooking and potentially gain more rich protein from cooked meat, we had more time to spend together as people, preparing meals and eating them around the warm fire.

As our earlier selves sat around the protective flames in the dark night, we began to share ideas, stories, and art.  We drew on caves and invented language to communicate the burning complex ideas trapped in our brains, all while enjoying the warmth of what we once feared and fled from like the rest of the animal kingdom.  We began to ritualize the use of fire, like the forests around us, in cycles of life, death, and rebirth.  Fire is a primal element of our nature as humans, and perhaps that is one of the reasons it is so celebrated in Black Rock City.

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Live Debris – Portland Oregon

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We don’t usually tell you about local events but we thought this was so new and exciting you had to know about it!  A [BRAF] 2009 Grant Recipient, Live Debris 2009 is a series of international events sharing reuse traditions as a means of reducing stigmas around garbage, poverty and street culture. Live Debris has taken place in Beirut, Lebanon, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and now Portland, Oregon.

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Brrrrrrrr: The Evolution Of Fake Fur

When we think of the Black Rock City we tend to think of the insufferable heat and unbearable sun. It can be hotter than Hades up on that playa and refuge is fleeting — perhaps some shade and a cold drink, or a sprint behind the water truck, will cool you off. But like everything at Burning Man it lasts only for the moment.

The first year I went to Burning Man it was scorching during the day and balmy at night. I made due with a tiny sweatshirt that I donned late in the evening. The next year I headed to BRC loaded down with hot pants, an electric fan and a secret stash of Cherry Garcia on dry ice. And I froze my ass off.

I was not prepared for the wind and cold of Burning Man 1999. At night I wore every article of clothing I’d packed, topped with an ugly grey hoodie. The 2000 event was downright blustery, even colder and wetter. But in 2000 I was prepared! That was the year the fashion tide turned to fur, when our collective unconscious zeroed in on form and function.

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Rathskellar Cultivates a Culture of Participation

Rathskellar wants you to get out of their camp.

Get out of their camp and do something, that is. The organizers of Rathskellar, a new theme camp “risen from the ashes of Spike’s Vampire Bar“, are asking all of their members to volunteer with at least one other group at Burning Man.

As Rathskellar co-founder Chris “BoyChaos” Bishop says, “Many of us already choose to work with other groups for the growth and benefit of our city. Making this a requirement to join our camp was a good way to encourage more people to do the same, and to show them the value of such participation.”

Diter building a table at Black Rock Station

Their experiment is already bearing great results. At two recent DPW volunteer work weekends, the Rathskellar crew showed up in force, contributing their sweat, blood and beers to the many tasks needed to prepare Black Rock Station – Burning Man’s Nevada work ranch and permanent staging area – for this year’s event. The Black Rock Desert also benefitted from their efforts, with Rathskellar volunteers helping to clean the playa of nails and other MOOP (Matter-Out-Of-Place) which is sometimes brought to the surface by heavy Winter rains.

“These work weekends play a vital role in delivering on Burning Man’s promise to Leave No Trace,” says Chris, noting that “They’re a lot of work, but they’re also a whole lot of fun.”

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DIY Spirituality

My bio on this fine site says I’m going to blog on my “mainstay obsessions — culture, ritual, and spirituality,” and it is time to roll up my sleeves and get started. But first, I want to say a little more about how I come at all this.

I’m a big nerd, of the genus “academic minor” to be specific. My training is in the fields of religious studies and anthropology — neither of which are necessarily what you think they are anymore. (My two favorite online reads on these topics are the blog savageminds.org and the zine religiondispatches.org, but I digress). What this means is that from the minute I first stepped onto the playa back in 1996, I started taking mental notes for my ethnographic magnum opus on Burning Man. That work will finally be out in about a year’s time (academic publishing can be sluggish, especially when you have a toddler and a move to LA to deal with — more on that another time).

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what I call “DIY (do-it-yourself) Spirituality” and how it connects to something called “Convergence Culture.” I think Burning Man exemplifies this par excellence. Now, I suspect some of you are probably grousing — “I ain’t no navel gazing, crystal waving, woowoo chanting hippy. That’s not what Burning Man means to me!” But maybe you do go there to express your truest sense of self and to feel connected something larger than that self. And a lot of you create, perform, ritualize, and play with this sense — freely pillaging from a global treasure trove of cultural and religious symbols as you do. I’ve got a long, carefully nuanced argument about this that I’ll spare you all for now, but basically that’s what I mean by “DIY Spirituality.”

As to “Convergence Culture” — that’s a nifty concept coined by another nerd (of the genus “aca-fan major”), Henry Jenkins. His argument is also long and nuanced, but he neatly sums it up as being about: “media convergence, participatory culture, and collective intelligence.” It is “where old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways.” (See Convergence Culture.)

There are some handy ideas here. For one, that bit about “participatory culture” might sound kinda familiar, no? (To my knowledge, Jenkins has never been to Burning Man, but — to paraphrase the Cacophony Society — I think he may already be a member.)

Convergence of another sort can be seen across the history of religions through what has been called “syncretism” or “hybridity.” Traditionalists have seen such processes rather less generously (or hopefully) than I do, but it is indisputable that diverse religions and cultures inevitably tend to borrow from and occasionally merge into one another whenever they come into contact. While not even I would consider Burning Man to be a “religious tradition,” its hyper-symbolic mash-ups playfully appropriate religious motifs from a vast global well of symbolic resources. Crosses, devils, labyrinths, buddhas, goddesses, gods, and ‘hello kitties’ — the list is potentially endless.

Finally, social media tools have recently made it ever more possible to see how individuals are locating both traditionally religious and DIY spiritualities in new communities and participatory cultures online. I’ve got several illustrations of what I’m talking about — both from Burning Man and elsewhere — up my sleeve. But these will have to wait for another day, lest I take up more than my fair share of pixels on my first post.

For now, I’ll stop to ask — what do you think? Is Burning Man a space for DIY Spiritualities? What does Burning Man mean to you?

The Xara Learning Village Charter School

Anthony Petersen/Burningman.com Image Gallery

On April 19, 2008, Burning Man’s Communications Manager, Andie Grace, received the email below from Mark Hinkley, a Burning Man acquaintance. Mark is the former Regional Contact for San Diego; he also organized both the Xara theme camp at Burning Man, and then later, in 2003, a Southern California art/music/creativity and mythology festival called Xara Dulzara, which grew from 200 people to 1100 in 2006.

In the years since, Mark has remained on the Regional Contacts discussion list as an emeritus member, and has kept in touch with Andie Grace about his latest projects. From time to time, he’d send an email to fill us in on his latest ideas about Burning Man or Xara. This April 19 email was titled “A spring update from Mark.”

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What IS a Burner, anyway?

Here’s a word that’s been on our minds a lot lately – “Burner.”

No, that’s not sarcasm…lately, we wonder a lot about this nomenclature and how it’s applied all throughout the Burning Man community in different ways. In fact, there was a tiny flap a few weeks ago when the JRS referred to folks attending regional burns as “Burners (and wanna-be Burners)…” We meant to refer to people who hadn’t yet had the opportunity to attend a burn (either BRC, or a Regional event), but alas – it ruffled the feathers of a small group of our “I’m-happy-at-my-regional-and-I-ain’t-ever-goin’-to-Nevada” friends who took it to mean, “People who hadn’t been to Burning Man, but want to, and won’t be ‘Burners’ until they have. ” And in retrospect we could see why they’d read it that way, really. It just wasn’t what we meant.

But it got us to thinkin’…who “really” is a Burner? (more…)