Monday, September 20, 2004

Christ on the Playa

Well, I'm back with the next installment in my series on Burning Man -- a couple of weeks later than planned.  Blame work and trying to keep up with a class that I'm in -- both good ideas but the post just kept slipping.  Well, onward.

There's never been much question that some find Burning Man a deeply spiritual experience.  Don Thompson of the Las Vegas Sun (thanks to Religion News Blog for this) talked with some of them:

Jacques Rossouw of San Francisco sat in another niche playing haunting reverberating music on a didgeridoo, an instrument he learned living with an aboriginal family.

"I find Burning Man is spirituality without the church, without all the religious practices," he said. "It doesn't come with any of the traditional strings attached."
The role of spirituality at the Burn has been noticed by others, according to Thompson:
"The people who are going to Burning Man - Boomers and Xers - are the most educated generations in history. They're trained to question," said Jerome P. Baggett, who teaches religion and society at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, Calif.

They're more likely to see religion as a lifelong search for meaning, and to look beyond a single traditional faith, he said. For a week, they can experience mass rituals that can mean everything, or nothing at all.
Other Christians have their doubts, to say the least, about the festival. One thread on Philip Greenspun's LUSENET web bbs titled "A Believer in Christ" details a wide variety of responses to one poster's equation of Burning Man with idolatry. I can understand both the concern of this poster, as well as the reactions of some of the responders. Other responders I simply could not understand.

Randy Bohlender has a different perspective on the festival. He's a pastor in Kansas City who has been to Burning Man several times, with a team of Christians handing out thousands of bottles of water to show the other participants a different side of Christianity. The first experience in 2000 redefined his idea of weird:
After spending those days in the desert, discussing philosophy with a man wearing nothing but a rubber chicken, and watching a group called "The Sacred and Propane" fire off huge propane bombs, things I would have stared at before no longer get my attention. A few days after leaving Burning Man, I gathered with some friends in Washington, DC. In the 100 degree heat and high humidity, we watched a man walk down The Mall in a white tuxedo and a top hat. My friend said "Isn’t that the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen?" I had to tell him no. That was pretty mild compared to what we’d witnessed in the desert.

Conversely, things about the church that would have never garnered a second glance from me before Burning Man now grab my attention. More then once in the past few weeks I’ve thought about some of church in respect to Burning Man and muttered "THAT is weird!" In that sense, Burning Man drew me back to scripture.

Lamentations 3:40: Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.

Failure to examine ourselves will lead to the fostering of our own peculiarities. The church is full of such idiosyncrasies that, when viewed from an objective point, seem much more weird than the rubber chicken-wearing philosopher.
In the article quoted from above, as well as his essay Why I go to Burning Man and entries on his weblog, Randy does not spend his time judging Burning Man, rather, he reflects on his experiences and what they imply about himself and his faith.  And while I will summarize and exerpt some of his comments, you really do need to go and read these essays -- it's rather good stuff and Randy has been quite gracious in letting me use some of his writings here.

He finds it weird that the church strives to convenience people when people really thrive on challenge, and the church world appears to have been made from a cookie cutter. While he no longer finds it wierd that people will go to great lengths to escape their reality, Randy finds it weird that so many Christians are satisfied with their present reality.

In explaining why he still goes to Burning Man, he explains that "the playa puts me in my place", that God uses the desert to show him that he is more than what he owns or consumes, to strip away what is peripheral.  He goes back because creativity points to a creator, and gifting looks a lot like God's idea. He returns  because the church has spent too many years at the trailing edge of society, a point I will return to in the next installment of this series.  And Randy goes to Burning Man because he has something to offer:
It didn't take me long to acquire the burner's innate disdain towards spectators. Consuming social capital while contributing nothing to the greater good of the whole, they are societal parasites. We received an incredible variety of things on the playa. Our neighbors made us homemade ice cream. A flamenco guitar player named Tao favored us with a song. Three hilarious young men located somewhere above 255 entertained us with a tag team story telling session that remains so vivid an experience that I laugh out loud when they appear on our video tape. It seems everyone had something to offer, and my 'something to offer' is what brings me the Black Rock City. My gift, though taking the form of a bottle of water, is really much more than that. I come to present hope...a bite sized morsel of grace that people can take home to chew on for themselves.

Towards the end of the week, one young man approached me and said "can you confirm a couple of rumors I've been hearing?"

"Sure" I said.

"Word on the playa is that you guys are all from a church." The way he said 'church' led me to believe he probably didn't believe the rumor.

"Yep," I said, "We are."

His eyes grew wide. "And I also heard that you are a pastor."

"Again, confirmed."

He then moved in for the kill. "And I heard you came out here to convert us all."

I looked both ways as if to see if we were being spied on, leaned forward and asked "Do you own your own home?"

He seemed a little stunned. "Yeah. Bought it last year." "How long did you look for a house?" I continued.

This line of questioning was not what he expected. "I don't know - maybe six months."

I smiled. "Okay, so it took you six months to find a place to live. That's not unusual. Some people look for a year or more and no's a huge decision. If it seems normal to look for a house that long, don't you think it would be arrogant for us to anticipate that you would make a major religious paradigm shift out here in the desert in just one or two short conversations?"

"Uh, yea" he said. By this time, he was more puzzled than he had been when he walked in.

"We're not so arrogant as to expect that you're going to change everything about what you believe just because we told you...but we do think that if you walk away from this experience thinking a little differently about God or the people who claim to serve Him, that's a good thing. Drink our water. Hang out. Be our friend. Then go home and make your own decision about the God that motivates us."

I go to Burning Man because I have something to offer...a fresh perspective of an old institution. An image of the church rising from the ashes of hypocrisy to prove itself relevant to the image of a church made of servants, in the model of Jesus, caring for people and loving God.

And that's why I go to the Burn.
This leads directly into the next, and probably last segment of this series, which is my own reactions to all of this.  It's been a a documentary up to this point, pretty much,  putting together a piece from here and a link from there to try to paint a picture of an event that I think may be significant, but that I have not attended myself.  I want to discuss the deep needs that the Burning Man experience seems to disclose, why those needs are not being met, and what in the festival may, in some way, adresss those needs.  In particular, I want to dive into why the Church may not be meeting those needs, and a first couple of guesses on what might change that.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Postmodern Man

Ok, so the seventh largest city in Nevada (it's true, the four after Las Vegas and Reno aren't huge) is the provisional week long annual settlement, Black Rock City, the site for the Burning Man festival.  This the third piece in a series of posts about BM, and it's time move from the history of the event, to the underlying rationale (if you want to call it that) for the whole shindig.  This will include two fair sized excerpts of interviews of the co-founder of the festival, to provide some insight into what has guided the development of Burning Man up to this point, and presumably will guide it into the future.

Larry Harvey started BM with some friends on a San Francisco beach 15 years ago, To provide an escape from what he calls (in this exceprt from an interview by Darry Van Rhey) the postmodern situation

Postmodern means that in our time there exist many different types of "now". Nearly every style and every idea that has ever existed now has its adherents. We live in an eclectic age. There's no defining paradigm, no single idea to unite us. Historically modernism meant progress, science, rationalism; the extension of our conscious control of the world. To be modern meant that one had shed myth and superstition, all the unreasoned traditions of the past. The race had reached adulthood. As moderns we would order things differently. We would no longer blindly serve the past, but work to construct a new future that was based on rational principles. The unconscious would be analyzed, houses would become "machines for living", the form of everything would be designed to follow a rational function. Aided by science, we could completely control our destiny. But people no longer believe this is so.

DVR: Why? What has happened to destroy our confidence?

LH: Two World Wars, for one thing. Suddenly science was perceived to be doing these monstrous things. Science, we realized, was only a tool; a means, not an end. It couldn't produce any ultimate values; rational mind reached the end of it's tether. The final horror of the Nazi death camps lies in the realization that such evil results were arrived at by thoroughly rationalized methods. Sure, other historic atrocities match this in scale, but the Nazi's ran factories -- marvels of applied science. And, of course, there's the Bomb. Suicide and scientific reason strolling hand in hand. People still believe that science can command the world-- more so than ever, I think. But our faith in reasoned progress has been shattered. And there are other factors as well. The world has expanded, gone global. We live now in the midst of many voices, many competing traditions. We've become very self-conscious. We now question assumptioms. We've lost the assurance that once made forthright action possible.

DVR: So what faith are we left with? Are things simply falling apart?

LH: Nothing so dismal as that. The good side of postmodernism is that we're so free and sophisticated. We can choose from the past. Today in America every idea or creed or lifestyle that has ever existed is laid out before us, as if spread on a giant buffet, a never-ending post-graduate course. Never in the entire history of mankind has such freedom existed. Never before have individuals been so empowered to shape their ends.
This is a better description of postmodernism than I have found in many more formal treatments. I am not nearly so sanguine about the result, but I must accept that we do live in a truly postmodern world, dealing with broken myths and broken symbols.

In this 1994 interview (interviewer not identified) Harvey discussed the need for ritual, the lack of true ritual in modern society, and how the creation of ritual plays a key part in Burning Man.
L - . . .We encourage people to invent ritual, to invent games. Every year someone will devise some kind of performance art. You can call it performance art, you can call it ritual. I think performance art is basically an attempt to recreate ritual, for the most part, at least that's the impulse behind it. Last year suddenly this giant hand appeared next to the Man with a mysterious circle in the center. Nobody new what it meant. It got burned, I have no idea who did it. It was enormously expressive. Every year things get invented. If something delights everyone and there seems to be an instant consensus, if this was indeed an expressive and meaningful thing, whatever it might mean, as long as it strikes a chord, we tend to find out who did it, encourage them to continue, or adopt it and somehow incorporate it into the things we consciously plan from year to year. And by that means we acquire a measure of received tradition. We're building a body of that. It's all a result of spontaneous contributions on the part of people.

R - This is a growing tradition, I mean some of the traditions are kind of, have been fixed. You're definitely in the realm of what is traditionally considered religion and that area, you're on the same kind of ground.

L - We're definitely on the same kind of ground.

R - Most religions don't encourage the creation of a new ritual. (Laughter)

L - No they don't.

R - It's kind of like this is the way it is.

L - Well that's distinctly what divides us from religion. Historically religions have pretty uniformly derived from some kind of primary mystic experience. The charismatic figure goes out in the desert, comes back with this wonderful visionary message for their fellows, and that vision then gets translated into a religious observance . We take people to the threshold of religion. Our aim is to induce immediate experience that is beyond the odd, beyond the strange, and beyond the weird. It verges on the wholly other. It contemplates a realm of profoundly irrational experience. I think that kind of experience is the fountainhead for all religions. Essentially what happens to religions is that a priestly class intrudes in the process and stations itself between the believers and the immediate, the overwhelming the unfathomable, the irrational the transcendental experience that inspired the religion in the first place. They become the keepers of the mystery . They place themselves between the communicants of the religion, and the immediate experience. And then they dictate the terms on which you can have contact with this wonderful mystery. We don't dictate those terms. We create a mystery alright, and we encourage others to create a mystery. But we don't propagate any doctrine; we don't insist on any metaphysical interpretation. We just invite people to the experience itself. If you look at what we're doing, it's on the pattern of stone age ritual, you know. Using pretty slender means, we evoke something tantamount to a megalithic temple complex. It involves a pilgrimage to a remote place, an initiation. The focus of our whole ritual is sanctified in the sense that it's removed entirely from the world. Put in a place profoundly apart from ordinary experience. The Black Rock Desert is about as far apart from ordinary experience as you could get. It involves meditation on an extraordinary object, which in it's setting seems to be incomparable to anything else, to be almost not subject to the normal rules of our perception. It culminates at last in a act of sacrifice. It's all done on a cosmic scale. This is plainly the stagecraft of religion. That's what we practice, yeah.
I quoted these two passages at some length, both to make sure that there was some context, and becaise there is a lot to learn from both. Summarizing from the various posts, Burning Man has grown from a group of friends on a beach to a emporary experimental society of thousands, based on powerful common experiences that fulfill the human need for ritual, for pilgrimage, for mysterious beauty in a postmodern society even though the participants do not share common beliefs. The next post will review what a pastor has written about his experiences at Burning Man.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Growth of the Man

OK, you have a fair sized town that comes into being for one week a year, in the middle of a desert, then dissapears without a trace.  It's not Brigadoon, it's Black Rock City, and this is the second segment in a series on Burning Man, which is going on right now.  Haveing looked at what BM has become, the question is, how did it develop?

The history of Burning Man can be split up roughtly into three periods:

  • the early years on a San Francisco beach (1986-89)
  • the years as a largely "underground" event in the Nevada desert (1990-1996)
  • Burning Man as an established event with major public impact (1997-?)
It started on Baker Beach in the Presidio of San Francisco in 1986 with Larry Harvey, Jerry James and maybe 20 friends (from this interview):
That was one thing, I don't know, you know, it was done on an impulse, I just thought, suddenly, that it'd be a great thing to build a large wooden man and burn him. You know the more I think about it, the farther back I can trace, in a sense, I've always been fascinated by religious ritual, by sacred architecture, by monumentality. ...  And clearly, when we went to the beach so casually, and burnt figure that was only 8 feet tall, slightly taller than us, we weren't quite prepared for the experience. Suddenly, poised against the flat horizon of the ocean, he seemed prodigiously bigger than us. And when soaked with gasoline, he incandesced! Gasoline was the wrong fuel to use; it's very volatile. We're lucky we didn't blow ourselves up. He just turned into this wonderful ball of fire instantly . And we were thrilled, we were transfixed by it . It turned out to be a more moving image than I had guessed it would be, and instantly drew what few people were on the beach to it. People are fascinated by fire, and when you combine fire with the human form, I think it has a certain significance that certainly transcended our intent. So we just came back and did it the next year.
From the beginning, powerful common experiences, such as the Burn or life on the playa, drove the development of the festival.  These experiences created community in the midst of radically diverse expression, gave people a new perspective on their lives, and were good reason to come back each year.  But over time, two key interrelated tensions seem to have developed. The first is between the need for autonomy and the need to manage the effect of the festival on the communities around it.  The other is between the sometimes anarchic past and what Burning Man is becoming.

The burn on the beach was repeated for three more years, until the local authorities started to have a problem with a party burning objects on a public beach.  This is the start of the first essential dilemma of BM: how do you create and maintain that autonomy from the surrounding "real" world that makes powerful self expression and the key common experiences possible, while managing the effect, if not damage, that the festival causes to that surrounding world.  The threat of not being able to hold BM next year has been a constant part of the history of the festival, and seems to have been a supporting cause for some core values of BM, such as Leave No Trace.

Instead of using a beach the next year (1990) Harvey and 100 others headed east to Black Rock Desert in Nevada and burned a 40 foot high man.  For the next several years, the festival grew and developed many of the characteristics is it is best known for, but it stayed an underground event, largely known only in the Bay Area.   By 1996, though 10,000 were attending the event, and media attention arrived as well.  Possibly the best piece on it was by cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling in Wired (which I quoted from in a previous post). Brian Tierney has some pictures of BM from the early 90's (most of the very early BM web sites are now dust).

The next year (1997) it had started to become a media event, especially on the web, and BM's roots in the Bay Area in the mid to late 90's meant that it would get maximun coverage on the web, and later, in the general media.  Burning Man now finds itrself in the position of being famous -- and that causes problems.  There is now a formal organization staging BM, Black Rock City LLC, which organizes activies year round in several locations, and contributes to art organizations.  BRC LLC continues to try to find the balance that will allow the festival to grow and thrive.

Lessley Anderson's article Burning Spin in the SF Weekly outlined the strict control that the BM organization exerts to influence how the festival is seen, to keep it stricly non-commercial, and to protect the privacy of participants.  It's a matter of survival:
For Burning Man organizers, not wanting the event to be widely portrayed as a rave or Mardi Gras is hardly a matter of aesthetics; stories that paint Burning Man as a big party scene jeopardize its hard-won, cordial relationship with local Nevada government and law enforcement officials -- and, therefore, its very existence. Though Burning Man brings cash into Reno and the tiny towns of Gerlach and Empire that sit on the edge of the Black Rock Desert, the festival is still viewed suspiciously by many locals.

"These people, they look different. The onus is on them to, you know, they're going to be scrutinized," says Joanne Bond, a county commissioner for Washoe County, through which participants drive and shop on their way to Burning Man. "You can't have purple hair and not stand out."

"I have people make comments all the time about Burning Man, and their perception is driven by media coverage," says Sheriff Ron Skinner of Pershing County, where the event is held. "I think the media has focused on the party atmosphere of Burning Man rather than the art aspects of it. And I think that those people looking to that type of atmosphere have flocked to Burning Man."
Anderson outlines one news report of widespread drug problems that, while inaccurate, caused a crackdown by local law enforcement.
It is exactly the kind of public misperception created by an inaccurate and simplistic wire report that Burning Man's organizers seek to avoid via hard-edged media relations tactics -- and simple repetition. "Burning Man is a celebration of self-expression," says Goodell. "It's not a giant party."


At first glance, Burning Man's media policies may seem draconian. In the abstract, it is easy to hold that Burning Man intrudes too far on journalists' right to report the news, and on documentary-makers' ability to express themselves through their art. But when you remove Burning Man from the world of abstraction, and look at it in the context of the real world and real-world media practices, you can see that the event's press-relations strategy is necessary for survival. Without spin control, Burning Man could spin right out of the organizers' hands into an environment controlled by people who fear, suspect, or simply dislike the event's essential messiness, and its aims.
Not everybody is happy with BRC LLC.  As time has gone by, the list of rules that will be enforced has grown.  For example, dogs are now forbidden, and local police are much more numerous on the playa with a change in attitude -- they will make arrests for activities such as selling drugs.  And that leads to the second dilemma -- the conflict between the past and the future.  Google the term "BMorg" and you will find a sizeable set of complaints about the effect that the growing BM organization has on the once anarchic playa.  These complaints run the gamut from decrying the influence of some people close to founder Larry Harvey have, to the amount of time it takes to get a permit for using their flame thrower.  (It is Burning Man after all, and fire art remains a big thing.)  Sone of the posts read like the normal nose-out-of-joint complaints you find in any smal town or nonprofit organization.  Others, in my opinion, are expressions of nostalgia for the anarchists summer camp that the early Black Rock festivals reportedly were, when Burning Man was flying under the radar of just about everybody.  That won't work now, when Black Rock City is for one week, reportedly the seventh largest city in Nevada.  The early days are gone, and can't be brought back, so for some of the pioneers, the Burning Man is dead.

Changes continue at BRC -- The SF Chrionicle has a good story about efforts to better handle the growing number of families with children at the Burn, and a some of the artists that would be at the festival this year were part of the protest activities at the Republican convention this week.

The two essential dillemas are still visible in the latest development -- the possibility of a permanent home for the festival.  The existence of Burning Man each year is dependent on how well the federal Bureau of Land Managment feels the festival met their commitments the previous year.  As part of the effort to make Burning Man a year round organization, BRC LLC is looking for a place of thier own, according to the SF Chronicle:
Founder Larry Harvey envisions a place where affiliated nonprofit organizations could gather -- perhaps with a conference center, a park for the event's trademark huge outdoor exhibits, and facilities for creating interactive artworks that could be transported to gatherings nationwide.  "That's going to be a huge leap, and it's going to take some fund-raising," Harvey said. The most likely location is in Nevada or nearby, relatively close to the festival 120 miles north of Reno.

But some participants at this year's event said the thought of permanence is contrary to the Burning Man experience.

"This is about leave no trace and that includes the art," said Colleen Wynn, 35, of Seattle. "It's temporary art for a temporary audience. That's what's so unique -- people spend thousands and thousands of dollars for something that goes away. Forming a permanent collection, I think, would take away from the original spirit,"
A permanent home would probably mark a fourth and different age in the future life of the Burning Man. That future will rely on how well Larry Harvey and the BM organization find that balace between the festival and the outside world, and between their own past and future.

We've taken a look at the festival, and how it got here.  Next, Larry Harvey's opinons on why Burning Man exists, and what may keep it going.