Ross

Burning Man: An Interactive Environment

(Ross Murray 11263391)

‘ – a project dedicated to discovering those optimal forms of community which will produce human culture in the conditions of post-modern mass society … Burning Man, then, is a compelling physical analogue of cyberspace … we have attracted people who regard the experience as the equivalent of cyber-based reality.’

 –Larry Harvey Co-Founder of Burning Man, January 1997

The Internet allows people to immerse themselves into alternative dimensions, take the persona of fictional characters, to interact with people from different countries, cultures, ethnic backgrounds etc. The World Wide Web has allowed humans to interact with each other on a scale that is beyond the possibilities of the environment in which we exist. But what if you could?

Burning Man gives you the opportunity to create your own character, a username, to physically experience an environment beyond this realm, a three dimensional experience. To be able to interact in a blank space with people from all over the world that share the same values as you, Burning Man.

  • The Setting

Every year in late August the remote vacant space of desert in the State of Nevada transforms itself into a temporary community based upon values of radical self-expression, creativity, and survival. Black Rock Desert (about 180 km from Reno, Nevada) covers nearly 2,600 square kilometres (Named ‘The Playa’) and provides the setting for over 50,000 ‘Burners’ (name given to residents of Black Rock City) to migrate from around the world as they are welcomed by a sign that simply reads, ‘Welcome Home!’. The celebration lasts only one week erecting buildings, houses, sculptures, and art installations as the surrounding city and its patrons pay homage to a 40-Foot wooden effigy, appropriately name ‘The Man’. The week climaxes as The Man is set on fire in a spectacle of performances and fire deomstrations, as participants dance around the man chanting, ‘Let the Man burn!’.

Photo By Rick Loomis.

The festival originated from the mind of San Francisco locals Larry Harvey, Michael Mikel, and John Law. While many conceptions about how the festival originated are widely recognised these rumours have yet to be confirmed by any of the Festivals founders. The most widely accepted speculation originates from a break up between Harvey and his girlfriend in the late 1980’s. Traumatized by the break up Harvey meandered in a drunken state down to local Baker Beach in San Francisco. He took with him a 2.4 metre sculpture of a man and his dog that he and friend Mary Grauberger had been working on as an art piece for a local gallery. In a wave of passionate hatred, Harvey set the wooden effigy on fire as he sat an watched in a state of ecstasy. Ritually every year Harvey, Mikel and Law made the trip to Baker Beach with friends to celebrate the burning of a statue. They considered the ritual a cleansing symbol of all negative aspects in their life, as to burn the past in a radical self-expressionist manner. Over time the festival grew in popularity by word of mouth as the beachfront became too crowded for those wanting to express themselves in a manner that was not widely accepted by the Californian Police Department. As a result in 1990, the cultural festival migrated to Black Rock City, Nevada
  • The Principles

While Burning Man does not impose any rules on its participants, it outlines specific principles and an ideology that it encourages and reminds Burners the reason behind the celebration.

Inclusion and Interaction – The community bases itself on interactivity and inclusion as the overriding contribution that fuels the entire city. From its performance art to its commerce and trade, the festival is an art piece to be experience rather then viewed. Burners are not spectators as everyone contributes to the overall community.

  • Inclusion and Interaction – The community bases itself on interactivity and inclusion as the overriding contribution that fuels the entire city. From its performance art to its commerce and trade, the festival is an art piece to be experience rather then viewed. Burners are not spectators as everyone contributes to the overall community.
  • Decommodification and Gifting – Once the ticket for the festival has been purchased the use of money on the Playa is strictly prohibited. Burners are encouraged to promote the act of giving and receiving. Be it an object or a selfless act, the community relies on the generosity of others and promotes the act of ‘gifting’. While this extremist ideology for commence could never be adopted in ‘real life’ the concept is an exciting insight into how the prospective opportunities of commerce, if it were not for the greed and profiteering nature of human kind.
  • Self-reliance and self-expression – This principles tie in with the inclusion and interaction of Burners in the festival. People are encouraged to express themselves and include themselves in every aspect of the community, teach a yoga class, start a parade, or transgress into another life in a medium life regression seminar.
  • Leave No Trace – The festival prides itself on its ability to use the desert as a canvas, blank and sterile. This emphasises the point that the interactivity of the Burners create the festival and is not exploited or aided by the environment. Therefore, at the conclusion of the event, no trace of existence should be found as the desert returns to its natural state as if no one had been present.
  • Interactive Art

Burning Man was traditionally an expressive celebration of art. Over the longer term it has evolved into something else, almost a physical representation of  Cyberspace. The festival has the unfortunate reputation for being a place for hippies and drug users. This dismisses the genuine creative energy that emerges through the interactive art installations.

Photo By Laughlin Elkind.

Art at Burning Man comes in the strangest forms in the most peculiar of circumstances, but its creative energy is refreshing and mesmerizing. It is a movement away from a dialogue between an individual artists and a sophisticated audience and towards collaboration amongst a wild, free and diverse community. The traditional static gallery art, in a way, is brought to life as it transforms itself into a site-specific installation and performance. Burning Man Art Curator Christine Kristen expresses that the interactive art that is on display brings people together and its interactive quality brings the work to life through participation with its audience. The artwork ‘Advice’ has been present at the festival for a number of years and is simply a banner with two chairs and a sign that reads ‘Advice’.

The artwork allows passers by to take a seat and interact with other Burners if they are in need of exactly that, advice. Similarly, one of my personal favourite was an artwork by Dave Glenmuse. Two phone booths were erected at two different locations around the city. Above the booth read, ‘Talk To God’, both participants oblivious to the situation but would speak to each other in the anticipation that they were God.

David Glenmuses Talk to God. Photo By Ross Murray.

Perhaps the most distinctive quality of the art at Burning Man is its interactivity. In most cases the artists encourage the audience to touch, feel, climb and use. In 1999, Antenna Theater Group  based in San Francisco installed an interactive walk through based on the 15 billion year history of the Universe titled, ‘Sands of Time’. The installation consisted of 800 objects sculpted from Playa mud and arranged in a linear pattern. Burners were given headphones to listen to music, voices and sound effects as they walked through this performative work.
In 2009/2010, ‘Mirror Wheel’ created an unusual experience for its participants. Using a spinning wheel made from a mirror, two slices of the mirror had been taken out to show a window of what was on the opposing side. Two participants would stand either side and spin the wheel to show a mixture of both their own reflection and through the window. The experience replicates that of a real life film edit as the participants vision jumps between their own reflection and that of the other Burner
  • Summary

The cyberspace environment that Harvey speaks of is the closest representation of how the event works. Everyday participants experience the reality of hyperlinks, as you roam the streets a moment of interest arises as you explore the unfamiliar in the same way you would as your surfing the Internet. While cyberspace promotes a spectator friendly environment, the only way to experience Burning Man is through involvement and inclusion, the art, sounds, music are all reliant on the participation and interaction of its audience.

It is my belief that the festival should not be taken as a literal comment on what the world should become. Rather, its an avenue to explore possibilities. The Internet has created an environment that allows people to create amazing work and to express themselves in a way that we sometimes fail to see in the ‘real’ world. If people would use the creativity they express in the Cyberworld, in the ‘real’ world the possibilities would be endless but unless you go to Burning Man … you can only imagine.

References

Duffy, P. G. (1997). Larry Harvey’s 1997 Speech. Burning Man. Viewed 2nd April 2011. URL: http://www.burningman.com/whatisburningman/1997/97_speech_1.html

Kristen, C. (2003). The Outsider Art of Burning Man. MIT Press Journal. Volume 36 (Number 5.) Pages 343 – 348.

Logothetis, L. (September 11, 2009). The Burning Man Experience. Intelligent Traveller. Viewed 2nd April 2011. URL: http://blogs.nationalgeographic.com/blogs/intelligenttravel/2009/09/burning-man.html

May, M. (2008). Burning Man Evolves. SFGate Article Collections. Viewed 6th April 2011. URL: < http://articles.sfgate.com/2008-08-31/bay-area/17125022_1_black-rock-city-burning-wooden-man>

Mickelson, J. (2008). The Truth About Burning Man. HuffPost Living. Viewed 3rd April 2011. URL: < http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jay-michaelson/the-truth-about-burning-m_b_279464.html>

Miskell, B. (2005). Burning Man. New York Times Travel. Viewed 2nd April 2011. URL: < http://travel.nytimes.com/2005/09/02/travel/escapes/02scene.html?_r=1&ref=burningmanfestival>

Salliant, C. (2010). Burning Man Becomes a Hot Academic Topic. Los Angeles Times Article Collection. Viewed 4th April 2011. URL: < http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jay-michaelson/the-truth-about-burning-m_b_279464.html>

Sterling, B. (2009). Greetings From Burning Man. On Newstands Now. Viewed 4th April. URL: < http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.11/burningman.html>


Comments
  1. claire0106fu says:

    Thank you Ross. This is such an interesting and informative research report. The analysis on the Burning Man’s characteristic, advantage and limits is sufficient and convincing. The description “Burning Man gives you the opportunity to create your own character, a username, to physically experience an environment beyond this realm, a three dimensional experience” is clear and attractive; the observations like “it is almost a physical representation of the Internet’” or “’They considered the ritual a cleansing symbol of all negative aspects in their life, as to burn the past in a radical self-expressionist manner” is quite sharp and hit the point of this cultural event. Your report alights my mind to see this interactive art form as both a cultural event and a cultural transition phenomenon. I will see this “Burning Man” as a return to the original admiration of ‘Fire Totem’; also the definition of “experience the reality of hyperlinks” implicates the human’s urge to rebuild the relations with nature as well as with each other. I think this is what as you point out as ‘the reason behind the celebration’. Last but not least, I totally agree with you on that “Burning Man is a celebration of self-expression; a festival of interactive art piece; it is a stimulation of human’s creativity; and most importantly, I think it is indeed a celebration of the ideology of ‘the act of giving and receiving.’

    This is what I observed from your work. Good job.
    Claire

  2. purpledray says:

    Oooh I’ve heard about the Burning Man fest before!!! I’ve always thought it was just a hippie festival in the desert, based on what people say, but your report proves that myth wrong. Interesting what one person can do that will turn out to be an annual celebration of a collaborative crowd that is both artistic and spiritual.

    Your report is well-written, and well researched.

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