From Radical to Routine Chapter 4 – Burning Man From Transgressive to Traditional

Following is the third chapter of my Masters of Cultural Sustainability Thesis, presented to Goucher College in January 2016. It’s probably a good idea to read chapter 1 , chapter 2 and chapter 3 too. Subsequent chapters will be published to this site each week.

Chapter 4

Burning Man: From Transgressive to Traditionalized

Heresy is a fundamental premise of western civilization. – Rory Turner [1]

Burning Man as a cultural event is an open stage for its self-selected community to express itself. The cultural agenda or implied cultural policies of Burning Man are not to dictate, program or appraise culture, but to allow for its organically authentic expression, communication and progression on the stages the event makes available for public use. However, cultures are defined and expressed by traditions and common characteristics, and despite being born of an impetus to experiment and innovate, the enactment of tradition has been a part of Burning Man since the start; the central event of burning the effigy being an obvious example. This conflict between the event’s Dadaist philosophical underpinnings and the common process of cultural formation and evolution is the crux of this work.

In 2007, the interpretation of what was traditional to the culture of Burning Man was debated via direct action. Paul Addis, a San Francisco artist and performer who had been a part of the Burning Man community since 1995, set the event’s effigy on fire on Monday, the first night of the event. (The effigy had always burned on Saturday night.) Though there was no acceptance of destroying someone else’s property or art in the Cacophony Society or Burning Man, Addis referred to the radical and transgressive roots of the event and claimed to be acting in the ‘true spirit’ of Burning Man. Many others, including the Burning Man organization’s board, considered Addis’ actions an affront to the community, and its traditions and safety. Filing arson charges resulted in Addis’ two year stay in prison, and some would argue, his suicide in 2012.

The definition and concept of ‘tradition’ is made up of necessarily dichotomous demands; to reflect and define a community through recognized definitions, and to also be a consistently reinterpreted performance of that culture within its contemporary circumstances. The 2007 incident and the Burning Man organization’s response highlights the apparent boundary between transgression and tradition, while also questioning how transgression may function as a form of tradition at the Burning Man event.


2005: The Petition

Addis was not alone in his frustration with the way the ideals of Burning Man were  being played out in the production of the event. In 2005, two years prior to Addis’ radical action, discontent with the way the Burning Man organization was running the event was expressed by Bay Area artists. Frustrated that the budget allocated to support artists’ contributions to the ticketed event had never exceeded 5% of total ticket sales, Rinaldi and Jim Mason lead a charge of artists to stage a strike.[2]

“We [the artists] have no control; we have no say. It’s like you’re saying to us, ‘We have it all figured out, don’t worry about it, just come and have fun at the party,’” Rinaldi told Bonin. [3]

“One of the complaints was that it [Burning Man] was becoming a big party and [that it] wasn’t meant to be a big group hug or new age love fest, but an experiment of a particular type of civic formation… but the tool, the secret sauce that made that work was the creative work,” Mason professed.[4] “It [Burning Man] needs to have a new grand experiment within the grand experiment of Burning Man,” Mason is quoted as saying in a 2005 San Francisco Bay Guardian article regarding the artists’ revolt.[5]

So Mason and Rinaldi came up with an experiment, an artists’ strike that aimed to pull the event back to radical art. Titled the “We Have a Dream” petition, Rinaldi placed a full-page ad in the Bay Guardian, which issued a demand upon the Burning Man organization and Harvey in particular: “Give us our event back or we leave,”[6] read the statement signed by hundreds of Bay Area artists. ‘The Petition’ as it came to be known, sought a renewal of the event’s art scene and emphasizing art over the party or the community by increasing the funding for arts to 10 percent of the event’s total take, democratizing the art selection process, and rotating guest curators drawn from the Burning Man art community.[7]

“What they [the artists] are really afraid of is that the event will become inauthentic,” Harvey told Jones in response to The Petition. Harvey questioned, “Can you maintain a sense of community at that magnitude?”[8] Seemingly missing the point. That was exactly the reason for the challenge; the pervading sense that ‘community’ was more important than awe inspiring art.

“People go for the art festival, not for the ‘community’ festival,” Rinaldi said, dripping disdain on the last two words. “If it [Burning Man] is to survive, it’s going to be for one reason, and that’s because of its artists, not because we’re a community,” he continued.[9]

The divergence of aims, objectives and opinions among leaders and participants in the Burning Man cultural group demonstrates the heterogeneity of communities and highlights the difficulties associated with sustaining a movement (that at least initially was) based on individuality of expression and commonality through collective responsibility through massive growth. Mason and Rinaldi’s challenge was a failure as far as raising their goal amount of money to fund art themselves while also  revolutionizing the organizational structure of Burning Man, but a success in that it amplified the growing discontent with the way the structuralization of the event was occurring and how the Burning Man organization was defining what and who Burning Man is for.


2007: The Man Burns Early

In a world where reality is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false. – Guy Debord [10]

The festival’s expressive mode could be called post-pop surrealist, pushed to the point where irony cannibalizes itself and disappears, leaving a sincere and seamless merging of the profound and the profane.

According to Harvey,the event’s central effigy, “Is pegged at the center of Black Rock City for a reason; it’s the ritual axis.”[11] This makes sense, it is a large landmark that assists navigation of the vibrant city. However Harvey then goes on to say, “That’s [the effigy] the thing you can depend upon, in a world that’s always changing.”[12] Harvey cannot be referring to a something that the effigy is a symbol of, since there is no shared mythology to be found. So, this pseudo-savior characterization of a structure that stands for only one week per year seems misplaced. “Worshipping the central symbol is distasteful in the supreme. Even having the processional promenade and the architectural focus on this central point is antithetical to what I believe the event really was about,”[13] comments Law. One can only hope that the suggested reverence for the empty symbol of the effigy is an extreme demonstration of the twisting of Davis’ “authenticity and irony into a Möbius strip that never lets you know what side you’re on, that is intrinsic to the Burning Man experience.” [14] That said, Bonin narrates that “The Man is a symbol of what’s happened to the event, he’s become arrogant, and untouchable, and above everyone else.”[15]

The actions Addis took to undermine (what he perceived to be) the social structures of oppression evident in the Burning Man organization came from a shared sentiment of wanting the party to be pranked. A push to amplify the absurdity of the event has been a part of the desert party since its beginning. Scott Beale is a longstanding Burning Man participant and the founder of Laughing Squid, a blog and web-hosting organization with many links to the San Francisco absurdist-art scene. Commenting on 2007’s early burn Beale says, “For years the joke on the playa was to set the man on fire early and in the mid 90’s Bigrig Industries used to hand out match packs printed with the words ‘Burn The Man Early’.”[16]And though the date of capture is unclear,[17] it is interesting to note the call for dissonance and disturbance in long-time Burning Man participant and artist, James Stauffer’s comments that, “[Burning Man] is a little too satisfied with itself and a giant prank could be the best thing you could do at Burning Man. Burning the man three or four days early could be a good thing – get it out of the way.”[18] Like the symbolic challenge of Smiley in 1996, Addis’ actions challenged the controls the Burning Man organization exercised and the aftermath of his defiant act forced collective questioning of the effects these controls had on the identity of the event and its participants.


Around 3am on Tuesday, August 28, a spectacular lunar eclipse captured the attention and awe of most of the inhabitants of Black Rock City. And the effigy at the center of the city, which is usually set ablaze in spectacular fashion on Saturday, was set on fire. “The best burn ever was in 2007, when someone burned the Man a week early… all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Is the Man on fire?!’ It was spontaneous. It was exciting. It was everything that the burn hadn’t been in years,” describes Roberts.[19]

Veteran Burning Man author, Doherty reports that Harvey was watching the eclipse when he noticed the fire. When he could see that the situation was under control and not dangerous, “[Harvey’s] immediate reaction was laughter,” noting that the effigy was “‘nothing but a wooden doll,’ and that the event is really about the joint effort of attendees… It will turn this year’s Burning Man into a ‘narrative of community and redemption’ as the attendees get to see or assist in the public rebuilding of the statue.”[20] This sentiment echoes what Law has to say about the event too; “What still makes it worthwhile is the individual efforts of different people and their creative efforts… what initially brought people into the idea of Burning Man was working together to perform a task.”[21]

Recorded accounts demonstrate that other Burning Man organization board members largely found the incident amusing at the time, or even a welcome divergence from routine, too. “Seeing the Man burn early, I thought it was kind of funny,” Mikel told Bonin.[22]

“I was definitely secretly happy… that something was challenging us on its value. When I think we’re dangerously close to behaving like a religion or a cult or over emphasizing it’s [the effigy’s] importance,” remarked Goodell.[23] Goodell goes on to say, “I think it’s good that it burned down, it’s variety. I’ve been screaming for years, let’s have some variety here, let’s change the plan of the city, let’s change schedule, let’s do something different. This form is exhausting and Larry won’t let the form be changed.”[24]

However, it is understandable that the organization had to contend with the legal and liability processes and procedures that Addis’ act triggered; it can easily be assumed that the regulatory bodies the Burning Man organization seeks to maintain good relations with in order to secure the event’s annual permit would not be amenable to authorizing an event that appears to be hospitable to felony crime (e.g. arson).


In the afterword for his book, This is Burning Man, Doherty chronicles his experience of 2007’s early burn event. “The crowd’s mood was split, with some adopting a premature Burn Night attitude, shouting, ‘Burn the Man’,” and the same could be said for the Burning Man community’s attitude towards the incident now.[25] According to Doherty, Johnny Dwork, a Burning Man attendee since 1996, “saw the early burn as a chance for Burners to rethink their attachment to the central icon of the event and get to ‘live the myth of the phoenix.’”[26] Whereas in a personal interview, Price said, “I think it was the action of a very disturbed person that was incredibly selfish. Like really, ‘You? You’re going to decide that you are going to be arbiter of what should and shouldn’t be allowed?’ What an asshole… many of us worked for ten months to create an experience that no one got to experience because of it [the early burn], so I’m highly biased.”[27]

A friend of Addis’, Rinaldi decries, “They didn’t have to make it a felony! Addis was not well, and the [Burning Man] board [members] knew that. They sent their sick friend to prison, for what? No one got hurt. He burned firewood—wood that was intended to be burned. And it was funny. It was like going back to the beach. And yet [Will] Roger showed up in court with every receipt he could find to make sure it amounted to a felony.”[28]

Burning Man board member, Will Roger, was the organization’s representative in the prosecution proceedings against Addis. He stated, “I was not amused. There’s a difference between doing a prank and arson. It cost us thousands of dollars to build a new Man in just a few days. We took him to court over the damages.”[29]

The event’s leaders demonstrated their commitment to the sustainability and traditionalization of the event in their response to the Man being set alight earlier than planned for. The 2007 event’s theme was ‘Green Man’ and in line with that premise, Tom Price, a long-time Burning Man participant who would go on to found Burners without Borders, was a part of an effort that collected timber from Burning Man camps to donate to Habitat for Humanity. In his own words, this endeavor was “overwhelmed with tones of wood,”[30] so the need to spend as much as Roger reports was spent on the replacement effigy seems unjustified. Besides, if the opportunity for the incident to be a “narrative of community and redemption” (as Harvey called it) was fully played out, it could have resulted in a lot of alternative outcomes other than simply repeating the effigy build and installation exercise. In fact, Mikel said, “If I had made the decision I think I would have not rebuilt the Man. From my point of view, there’s so much more going on, there’s so many other burns going on, it’s all a part of Burning Man.”[31]

This rift in routine could have resulted in an awe-inspiring and art-generating experiment in collective creation. (In contrast, consider the story of the KiwiBurn 2013 effigy, pg 59.) Despite Goodell, Harvey and Mikel’s expressed sentiments that seem to recognize that cooperation and active collective efforts are what make Burning Man events happen, the Burning Man organization’s unimaginative and repetitive response can be read as a testament to the unnecessarily serious significance the leadership then attributed to the emerging culture’s purposefully hollow symbology.


Reflecting the revolutionary potential of the beginnings of Burning Man (and echoing Easy Rider’s Captain America), Addis is quoted as saying, “Burning Man in the period of 1996-1997 was the right place at the right time with the right minds. We had a great opportunity to put all of our hands on the wheel and really affect social evolution. We had a bunch of gifted people who had the chance to break the mold on a lot of things.”[32]

Addis bemoaned “the event’s supposed degeneration from its former edgy dangerousness and total freedom,”[33] and “felt the event had betrayed its possibilities… he thought the early burn of the man was a vivid action-prank to demonstrate this. ‘One, [burning the Man early] was a reality check. Two, it was a history lesson. It was, “This is why this started. Why are you here?”’ [34]

In an online dispatch posted on Thursday, August 30, two days after the early burn, Addis speaks. After explaining various precautions and distractionary techniques he and his crew allegedly actioned to ensure the operation did not harm any bystanders, Addis unashamedly declares:

We could give a fuck less what you all think of us for doing this. Most of you are newbies who have been drawn in by the semi-religious nature of the event, or maybe just the easy drugs and easier sex. You have nothing to offer the event other than your fucking money and obedience. You spend the rest of your lives in mortal fear of everything that insurance companies tell you to fear, and pretend that you’re free and clear because you spend four days at a desert bacchanal where spinelessness is not only encouraged but genetically replicated for implementation in successive generations. In short, you are the swine of which Thompson spoke. Get over yourselves.

Some of us live quite well without fear. Doing so requires the ultimate in what Burning Man used to represent: personal responsibility and individual liberty. That’s all been lost in the last decade of Burning Man’s history. Consider this operation a history lesson that was desperately needed.[35]


Apparently the similarity of sentiment was strong enough to attract commentary from Smiley himself. On Friday, August 31, Beale posted the following on Laughing Squid:[36]

We were sent an anonymous email from the people behind the Neon Smiley Face. The message is directed to Paul Addis, the person accused with lighting the man on fire early…

Attn: Paul Addis

Greetings Paul,

Word travels fast around here. I see by my Daily Albatross Dispatch you torched that infernal stick figure. Jolly good show man. I don’t get much action these days so it was quite refreshing, your stunt. Reminded me of the early days, back when premature immolation was considered a prank. Although I’m sure Steve Heck would disagree.

I think you’ve done a valuable service to human kind; the old boy was getting a bit passé anyway. Wanton destruction is so twentieth century don’t you think? Perhaps now the hoards will come up with a way to make fun without atomizing tremendous amounts of fossil fuel, petrochemicals and timber. Perhaps create something to be used more than once, something with purpose. And maybe they’ll stop following that silly hat around, there’s nothing behind it you know.

So good on ya man, thanks for the dust up. I hope UuberManCorp heLLC don’t throw the book at you. That would surely reveal lack of grace and loss of good humor.

Thanks again, you provide much needed perspective my boy.

I’m off to cook some tofu dogs in my solar oven with no tell-tale sign of smoke to give me away.

Happy Trails Ya’ll,

Your Friend,



Anarchist and Situationist Analysis

A carnival or carnivalesque situation is that in which the social mores, roles and rules are turned upside down in a sort of social pressure release valve; so that by releasing the pressure to conform and be an ideal version of humanity (that we just never are) if for just a brief time, we may return to the game of society to play another round. As a carnivalesque, and probably liminal or luminoid experience, Burning Man is “a time and place of withdrawal from normal modes of social action… potentially a period of scrutinization of the central values and axioms of the culture in which it occurs,” as defined by Victor Turner.[38] However, the Situationist pamphlet states, “Static ideologies, however true they may be, tend, like everything else in capitalist society, to rigidify and become fetishized, just one more thing to passively consume.”[39]

The “nonofficial nature” of Rabelaisian carnivals was obvious within the early culture of Burning Man; “No dogma, no authoritarianism, no narrow-minded seriousness can coexist with Rabelaisian images; these images are opposed to all that is finished and polished, to all pomposity, to every ready-made solution in the sphere of thought and world outlook.”[40] And as Davis said, “By setting our bullshit detectors on high alert, Burners ward off pretension, self-consciousness, and all of the pre-packaged “experiences” that have come to define late capitalist subjectivity. On the playa, we are united in our evasion of significance.”[41] However this vigilance may be questioned today, and it may just be a prevalence of unwanted significance that Addis was staging a revolt against.


Critical social psychologist Dennis Fox states that “Utopian” speculation in general, and anarchist political analysis in particular, are “necessary correctives to misplaced attempts to merely rearrange the elements of the status quo, rather than to radically alter it in a direction more in keeping with both survival and human dignity.”[42] This reference to the process of cultural incorporation, or the removal of threatening elements of an emerging cultural movement and the retention of the zeitgeist’s superficial elements, seems to be in line with what Addis, Rinaldi and Mason criticized about the enactment of the Burning Man experiment as they saw it.

Following Fox’s injection of anarchist political analysis, I came to discover the concepts of Poetic Terrorism and Art Sabotage, which seem to describe and perhaps even explain, the unique need and space for protests of cultural incorporation. Acts of Poetic Terrorism and Art Sabotage are rifts in routine that disrupt traditions to create situations, and the Situationist concept of détournement, turning the offensive or overbearing force’s tools against itself, can be interpreted from Addis’ ‘early burn arson performance.’ Hakim Bey’s description of the Poetic Terrorist (PT) in the first sections of his book, T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone reads like how some described Addis’ actions that Monday night:

The PTerrorist behaves like a confidence-trickster whose aim is not money but CHANGE… Don’t do PT for other artists, do it for people who will not realize [at least for a few moments] that what you have done is art, don’t stick around to argue, don’t be sentimental; be ruthless, take risks, vandalize only what must be defaced, do something children will remember all their lives… Dress up. Leave a false name. Be legendary. The best PT is against the law, but don’t get caught. Art as crime; crime as art.[43]


The notion that Addis’ actions may be seen as ‘art’ is echoed by Bonin in his acknowledgements of the artwork included in Dust and Illusions, where he has listed “early burn arson performance 2007 by Paul Addis” as one of them.[44] However, the crucial point that ideologically separates Addis’ actions from his claim to have been maintaining the radical tradition of Burning Man is that he caused destruction of artwork and property that was not his to do so with. Bey’s Art Sabotage discussion addresses this.

Bey defines Art Sabotage (A-S) as, “the dark side of Poetic Terrorism — creation-through-destruction,” and much of the expanded definition that follows seems applicable to the 2007 early burn.[45] Bey states that, “A-S goes beyond paranoia, beyond deconstruction — the ultimate criticism — physical attack on offensive art — aesthetic jihad… A-S seeks to damage institutions which use art to diminish consciousness & profit by delusion. This or that poet or painter cannot be condemned for lack of vision — but malign Ideas can be assaulted through the artifacts they generate,” [46]  and in so doing, describes Addis’ take on what he considered to be needless veneration of the symbology and routine ritual of the effigy that had developed at the Burning Man event. Bey goes on to say, “If certain galleries & museums deserve an occasional brick through their windows — not destruction, but a jolt to complacency — Don’t picket — vandalize. Don’t protest — deface… Smash the symbols of the Empire in the name of nothing but the heart’s longing for grace.”[47]  Which seems to support Addis’ actions if they can be understood to have been taken as an affront to the Burning Man organization in order to release what he felt was inappropriately concentrated power.


The Dynamic Nature of Tradition

Tradition may be “less about preservations than about transformative practice and the selective symbolization of continuity.”– James Clifford [48]

Recognizing the personal, as well as the political, components of identity and tradition, it should be understood that both Addis ( and his renegade rebellion) and those who admonish his disruption of the routine of the 2007 Burning Man event, represent authentic expressions of the same culture.

In Taking Identity Politics Seriously: ‘The Contradictory, Stony Ground…’, James Clifford asserts that, “Articulations of tradition, never simply backward-looking, are thus generative components of peoplehood, ways of belonging to a discrete social time and place.”[49] And according to Charles Briggs, “Affirming the authenticity of traditions, or their distinctiveness from other cultural forms, thus places scholars in the same camp as nationalists,” because, “cultural forms that derive their authority from a perceived connection with the past are ‘invented,’ ‘imagined,’ ‘constructed,’ or ‘made.’”[50] Therefore the practice of Cultural Sustainability as an active and lived practice, that must include room for cultural evolution, as opposed to cultural restraint, static preservation and practices of cultural curation. For as Hymes states, “intact tradition is not so much a matter of preservation, as it is a matter of re-creation, by successive persons and generations, and in individual performances.”[51] This consideration of the performative and evolving nature of tradition is exemplified by the role Addis’ “early burn arson performance” played in the 2007 Burning Man event, and also explains why members of the Burning Man community are still so divided in their opinions of the situation. The ‘selected symbol of continuity’ for this group is not clear – radicalization for some, a reliable and respectable event schedule for others. To that end, Addis may have believed he was acting within the early Burning Man tradition of transgression and defiantly radical art, and fighting the hybridity of consumptive culture that he had come to perceive at Burning Man. In this scenario, it is clear that cultures and traditions are dynamic and responsive social entities.

On the other hand, it could be argued that Addis was not recognizing or appreciating the necessary transformation of Burning Man culture that is its natural process due to the re-creation and performance of the selective symbology. This question highlights the fundamental subjectivity of cultural considerations and the practice of Cultural Sustainability. As Clifford concludes, “This is answered with limitations that are political (what does it take to convince ourselves and others) rather than empirical (how much) or moral (is this real).”[52]

In the end, this episode in the history of the culture of Burning Man demonstrates the culture’s movement away from radicalism and towards routinization; defining what had endured, or what was chosen as the ‘symbol of continuity’ for the community by the Burning Man organization, and that was the tradition of burning the Man in a safe, ceremonious and scripted manner.

However, in order to maintain a culture of radical social experimentation, renegade art, immediate experienced community (communitas), we must question the use and function of that which becomes routine. Reenactments of liminoid experiences may be inauthentic, and more to the point, ineffective, invoking nostalgia and the traditionalization of temporal circumstances rather than replicating the fundamental challenging of reality and resulting revelations of these transformational movements.

Hymes states that, “Short of preservation in the form of boxed storage in locked vaults, our efforts to preserve tradition through record, description, interpretation, find their natural end in presentation, that is, in communication. The re-creative aspect is both inevitable and desirable. The issue, then, is simply the character of the re-creative effort, in terms of fidelity, insight, and taste.”[53] Thus, from within their institutional entanglements of commonly-held community values and public policy structures, cultures must adapt and evolve in order to survive. It can be said that cultures ostensibly require rule breakers to innovate and improve ways of life. And therefore the definition of what enactments are deemed to be either ‘traditional’ or ‘transgressive’, is a curatorial assessment that is inherently subjective.


–     –     –     –     –

“Every social movement shaves off its sharp edges as it becomes something to be consumed by more and more people,”[54] comments Price, who worked for nearly a year on a display that was at the base of the effigy and therefore damaged and only opened for presentation for one day due to Addis’ actions. Price seems to suggest that the defiant character of Burning Man that Addis was enacting was something that the event necessarily needed to shed as a result of its growth. But it was exactly this sanitization and growth that Addis was protesting.

Alison Green reviews Miwon Kwon’s One Place After Another, a critical history of site-specific art since the late 1960s, and summarizes to say, “The transgressive and subversive gestures which were the domain of the avant-garde in the early part of the twentieth century have become mere glosses, patinas of radicality that cover what is essentially conservative work, fully-assimilated into political agendas, but rarely truly effective as community projects or as artistic ones.”[55]

My 2013 Burning Man field work included the observation of an innocuous carnivalesque tradition that incorporates transgressive behavior into a relatively controlled cultural tradition.

For my third year at Burning Man (2013), I joined the Centre Camp Lighting and Illumination Team (CCLIT) and worked for 10-days pre-event to set up the lighting for Black Rock City’s central public space. This gave me need and access to be on the playa earlier than I had been in previous years, and in these pre-event days I discovered a lot about the subculture of the crews that create the city. The week leading up to the main event is in itself its own event, with traditions, events and celebrations that mirror the imminent more public events. Indicating the constant, engulfing and kind of messy nature of field work, in this time I wrote the word ‘tradition’ on my arm with a sharpie on two separate occasions.[56]

Contemplation of the word emblazoned on my forearm elicited Hymes’ consideration of tradition as one of his ‘five key notions’ of folklore for me. Though according to Hymes, “our present world may seem increasingly a world of technology and mongrelization of culture in which the traditional has less and less a place, the traditional is a functional prerequisite of social life,” as all individuals and groups seem to share a “universal need” to form and identify traditions.[57] It was witnessing this need come to life that led to the second scrawling on my forearm (the first time, was as an answer to my self-questioning of what underpins belonging); my ethnographer lens and super early-entry pass enabled me to take notice of the prevalence and importance of traditions within the often irreverent and intentionally contrary and confusing cultures of the 4Burning Man build crews.


The 4:20 Spire

Black Rock City is laid out on the bare playa with spikes, flags and spires set out with intensely specific measurements. The Golden Spike is the first spike set in the playa and it is used to demarcate where the Man will stand to mark the center of the city. From there, precise measurements and angles are used to mark out the circular streets and set locations for art, camps and infrastructure. Now a known tradition, on the day the Golden Spike is set, images and general excitement for the year’s gathering spread throughout the Burning Man community online, as this marks the official start of the building of Black Rock City.

From the initial spikes, the city is laid out and areas marked with colored flags to demarcate specifically assigned properties, the central thoroughfares of the city, the Esplanade (the most central street of the concentrically designed city) and the paths from the Esplanade and 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock and 9 o’clock axes to the Man and the Temple. These central axes are also marked with spires that act as lamp posts. Throughout the event a team of volunteers form the Lamplighters, who each day at dusk and sunrise don ceremonial white robes and walk the length of these corridors to install and uninstall lit lamps, a tribute to the earliest cities and their civil servants. Each year, at 4:20pm on the Thursday before the main event, the last of these spires is raised at 4:20 and Esplanade, indicating the end of the build period.

I was running late for the 2013 event, so when the flare gun was shot to start the time allowed for the build crew teams to leave their mark on the spire, a fellow explorer who knew too well of my obsession with documenting tradition started taking notes for me. On a coke can. In James Cross’ words, the event kicked off with a “flurry of activity” with “each group of [the] culture represented.”[58] It was entertaining and amusing as the “de-serious”, “anti-organized” and “janky implementation” of each team was on display.[59] James also notes the obvious “love” that is on display, [60] as it is the connection to work, each other and the event that drives them to work, and now play, so hard. And finally, the topsy-turvy nature of participants purposefully doing the most wasteful and useless job possible of the self-selected duty they take great pride in, reveals a sort of “re-reverence,” or taking the joke seriously.[61] This is a theme of the performance of culture that is Burning Man; with no strong mission or clear cultural definition to refer to, the absurdity and cultural questioning that is at the core of the event’s beginnings results in a dance of meaning and nihilism, and of the sacred and the profane.

The 4:20 spire event is a classically carnivalesque celebratory tradition; a brief socially sanctioned opportunity to recognize and play with social norms before putting them squarely back in their places. All of the teams that have been on playa preparing the city for its public gather together and celebrate their efforts by performing their duties in the most ridiculous, wasteful, useless and ass-backwards ways possible. There’s more going on than is possible to make out. The Heavy Machinery team drives in a boom lift carrying a crushed car for spectator seating, Department of Public Works crew members use screw guns to attach zip-ties and attempt to hammer screws, the Communications team installs a broken satellite dish with “Cats and Porn” scrawled on it, my CCLIT team hangs a broken par can with zip-ties that are knotted together, and the Lamplighters install a crushed and barely recognizable lamp onto the post.

Team membership markers of swag and logos are markers of pride in this internal community of Burning Man crew members. There are about 200 people gathered to watch the shit-show and most are in Burning Man crew emblazoned attire. The authorized unofficiality of the gathering is noted; Harvey is there in his signature Stetson, as is Burning Man build photo-documentarian, John Curley (there will be a handful of stunning storytelling shots on the Burning Blog by morning). The spire ends up a mess that will stay up as an apparent monument to absurdity with no explanation made for the 70,000 other participants who will fill the city when the gates open in a few days’ time. A fun and frivolous celebration of the serious hard work that goes into building Black Rock City, the tradition of the 4:20 Spire install is not a rebellious or defiant scene, but essentially a school muck-up day for the pre-event work crews; a performance of the brat-punk attitude, that could be said to have been part of Addis’ 2007 actions, reinterpreted to suit the structured and coordinated scene of Burning Man. The 4:20 Spire ritual indicates that it is understood that a space for unruly behavior is necessary, and can be catered for to a certain extent.


Folklore activism

Debora Kodish’s Envisioning Folklore Activism, celebrates and calls for a more active recognition of her field’s unique ability to support cultural sustainability as a force for cultural evolution.

Kodish refers to Bakhtin’s exploration of the carnivalesque to say, “Bakhtin, in other oppressive times, told us where and how to read between the lines, listen to the silences, [and] use festival laughter and transgression,” suggesting that these festive and ‘transgressive’ spaces can be used for activism (which is what some may say is what Addis did at the 2007 event).[62] Goodell commented that she was at least partially glad for the rift in the routinization of the event that Addis’ early burn caused. This demonstrates Kodish’s statement that, “This [folklore activism] is about learning to recognize, hear, and sing freedom out of what has long been named trouble,” and suggests that perhaps the organization benefited from having a forced and dramatic cultural inquiry.[63] However, rather than engaging with the cultural debate that Addis’ arson invited, the Burning Man organization took clear steps towards a controlled and directed form of cultural sustainability to stamp out the insurgent influence by unimaginatively repeating the now ‘traditional’ effigy routine without curiosity or conversation with the community members.

Considering Paul Addis’ rebellious burning of the 2007 effigy as a performance of culture and of protest, as cultural sustainability professionals we should be concerned with how the profession justifies the choices of which cultural expressions to sustain, demonstrate, celebrate or consciously evolve and which to define as anti-social. Looking at the Burning Man organization’s actions in relation to this incident that seemed to be in protection of community traditions, it is apparent that a process of cultural curation is at work. But can Burning Man as an institution embody both innovation and tradition? In many ways, the intensely dynamic nature of the Burning Man event from year to year strongly demonstrates the changing nature of tradition; which necessarily changes over time through enactments, and groups may incorporate innovations into the consistently evolving definition of tradition. Innovation and tradition are not necessarily dichotomous. However, it seems that some things have become sacrosanct and off-limits within the culture of Burning Man. Which of course, in an event that attracts transgressives, begs the question, how can a culture of innovation and liminality be sustained? And what role does disruption and disturbance play in Burning Man’s offerings to dominant culture today?

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Next in Chapter 5… Burning Man: Still Subversive or Sold Out?

Many in the community complain about the increasingly apparent class divide in Black Rock City, and some, including Harvey, see it as simple “jealousy” of those who can afford to have these luxuries as part of their ‘radical’ Burning Man experience.* This faction suggests that there have always been all kinds of people at Burning Man, doing all kinds of things their own way, and that the growing reality of class on the playa should not be a big deal; “Just because somewhere there’s this wall of trailers with rich people, if you’re there to criticize and judge how other people are doing Burning Man, you’re missing it,” says Doherty.**

However, others point to the effect this dilution of communal experience has on the transformative potential of the experience; which is essentially the weakening of communitas.

Bob Putnam volunteered and worked to clean up Pearlington, MS after Hurricane Katrina January – April 2006 with Burners without Borders, a group of self-organized disaster relief workers that was born out of their shared experiences with having been to Burning Man. Regarding the turn key camps he says, “From my perspective of it anyway, the majority of the experience is to go out there and survive with no rules among a whole group of people… originally when it started you did the sweat equity, y’know that means you appreciated it. But now all of these people want to go in their RVs, with their personal cooks and everything else, and I can see how it can take away from someone [else]’s experience,” says Putnam.*** These comments made me realize that it is not just the ‘tourist’ that is affected by this participation via consumption, but that even though I can choose to ignore, or may not even notice, the experiences of exclusion or elitism on the playa, the fact that it is there at all erodes our shared sense that we are all in this together; having others not playing along diminishes communitas.

* Larry Harvey, Personal Conversation, A Night at Burning Man event, 23 July 2013
** Doherty, Personal Interview
*** Putnam, Personal Interview.

References and notes:

[1] Rory Turner, Week Three

[2] Dust and Illusions

[3] Dust and Illusions

[4] Dust and Illusions.

[5] Dust and Illusions.

[6] Steven T. Jones, “State of the Art: As Burning Man approaches its 20th year, Bay Area artists are staging a revolt that goes to the soul of the mega-event.” San Francisco Bay Guardian. 8 December 2005. Accessed 15 August 2012.

[7] Jones, “State of the Art:.

[8] Jones, “State of the Art:.

[9] Jones, “State of the Art:.

[10] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (1967)

[11] Dust and Illusions

[12] Dust and Illusions.

[13] Dust and Illusions

[14] Davis, Beyond Belief, 17

[15] Davis, Beyond Belief, 17.

[16] Beale, The Neon Smiley Face

[17] Dust and Illusions was released in 2009, but made 2005-2009

[18] Dust and Illusions

[19] Wieners, Hot Mess

[20] Brian Doherty, This Is Burning Man (2014 electronic edition)

[21] Dust and Illusions

[22] Dust and Illusions.

[23] Dust and Illusions.

[24] Dust and Illusions

[25] Doherty, This Is Burning Man

[26] Doherty, This Is Burning Man.

[27] Tom Price, Personal Interview 13 March 2015.

[28] Wieners, Hot Mess

[29] Wieners, Hot Mess.

[30] Price, Personal Interview

[31] Dust and Illusions

[32] Miyoko Ohtake, “A Fiery Q&A with the Prankster Accused of Burning the Man”,  30 August 2007. Accessed 15 March 2015.

[33] Brian Doherty, “The Burn Will Go On (Again); Disgruntled Burner in Custody”, 28 August 2007. Accessed 15 March 2015.

[34] Ohtake, A Fiery Q&A

[35] Omgoleus, “Paul Addis’s statement on burning the Man”, DoseNation. 30 August 2007) Accessed 15 March 2015.

[36] The original post included the quotations about Smiley which have been included in the section Burning Man: From Chaos to Community

[37] Beale, The Neon Smiley Face

[38] Turner, Ritual, 167

[39], Situationists

[40] McIver, WaveShapeConversion, 167

[41] Davis, Beyond Belief

[42] Fox, Psychology, Ideology, Utopia, and the Commons.

[43] Hakim Bey, T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, (1985). Accessed 15 March 2015.

[44] Dust and Illusions

[45] Bey, T.A.Z

[46] Bey, T.A.Z.

[47] Bey, T.A.Z.

[48] Clifford, Taking Identity Politics Seriously, 100

[49] Clifford, Taking Identity Politics Seriously, 97

[50] Charles L. Briggs, “The Politics of Discursive Authority” in Research on the Invention of Tradition. Cultural Anthropology Volume 11 (1996), 435

[51] Dell Hymes Folklore’s Nature and the Sun’s Myth (1975), 355

[52] Clifford, Taking Identity Politics Seriously, 100

[53] Hymes Folklore’s Nature, 356

[54] Price, Personal Interview

[55] Alison Green quoted in Eve S. Mosher, “Artists as Agent of Social Change – or Agent of Government?”. (10 September 2008). Accessed 15 March 2015.

[56] Practicing participant observation at Burning Man results in unique note taking practices. I have notes on a plastic bag and a coke can too.

[57] Hymes Folklore’s Nature, 353

[58] James Cross. Coke Can field notes. 2013

[59] Cross. Coke Can

[60] Cross. Coke Can

[61] Cross. Coke Can

[62] Kodish, Envisioning Folklore Activism, 39

[63] Kodish, Envisioning Folklore Activism, 38


  1. The illuminated man is an important landmark for navigation at night. The man s shape is instantly recognizable. I love having the man on a base because I can see the heart of burning man from any location in burning man, but this structure will now be indistinguishable from the rest of the art at burning man. I don t like having the man hidden, please free the man. “We are among the first peoples in human history who do not broadly inherit religious identity as a given, a matter of kin and tribe, like hair color and hometown. But the very fluidity of this—the possibility of choice that arises, the ability to craft and discern one’s own spiritual bearings—is not leading to the decline of spiritual life but its revival.” ?Krista Tippet

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