Streetnotes 20: URBAN FEEL. Spring  2010


Rachel Bowditch

The Somatic City:
Rehearsing Utopia
at the Burning Man Festival

 Map of Black Rock City, 2005. (Courtesy of the Burning Man Organization.)
Figure 1. Map of Black Rock City, 2005. (Courtesy of the Burning Man Organization).

Imagine you are put upon a desert plain, a space that is so vast and blank that only your initiative can make of it a place. Imagine it is swept by fearsome winds and scorching temperatures, and only by your effort can you make of it a home. Imagine you’re surrounded by thousands of other people, that together you form a city, and that within this teeming city there is nothing that’s for sale. The Black Rock desert is an empty void. Not a bird or bush or bump disturb its surface. It is a place that is no place at all apart from what we choose to make of it. The playa is like an enormous blank canvas. The desert is a blank slate. It is empty when Burning Man begins and it is cleaned up, it is empty again at the end, as if it never happened. —Burning Man founder, Larry Harvey (2000).

Live performance provides a place where people come together, embodied and passionate, to share experiences of meaning making and imagination that can describe or capture fleeting intimations of a better world. —Jill Dolan (2).

Arriving at Black Rock City

In the distance I discern the vague outline of a city emerging like a mirage in the desert. Coming up on the right is a handmade sign: “Burning Man: Vault of Heaven.” I turn off the paved highway onto a dirt road full of jagged rocks and craters. About a mile later, I arrive at the gate around noon, the hottest part of the day. The road is marked off with barriers and a small side road for “will-call” where one can pick up or purchase tickets. I had already bought mine the day they went on sale in January 2004 for $165.

A large topless man in a black shirt meets me at the first checkpoint. His job is to search the car for anyone trying to sneak into the event. Once the trunk and the rest of the car is thoroughly checked, I am given the run down of Burning Man policies such as “leave no trace,” “pack it in, pack it out,” “no M.O.O.P. in the poop,” (Matter Out of Place in the porta-potties) and “drive 5 miles an hour.” Then, a second man greets me in a magenta fairy dress, who hands me my ticket—which reads in capital letters, “PARTICIPATE!”—and he tells me, “Welcome Home!”

I progress to the second checkpoint where a third greeter approaches me, a woman in a fuchsia dress with black hair, now gray from the playa dust. She asks if I am a Burning Man virgin and I happily say “No.” (My first year at Burning Man I said, “Yes” and was asked to get out of the car and do a humiliating dance such as turning in circles and rolling in the dust. Burning Man virgins are required to perform a number of initiation tasks at the discretion of the greeter). She proudly tells me that this is her first year as a “greeter” and hands me a map of Black Rock City and a “What, When, Where” program of events, offering, like the other greeters, a hearty “Welcome Home!” This is the procedure each person entering Black Rock City must go through.

Ahead I see the forty-foot wooden Man looming on the horizon like an omnipotent demi-god elevated on his forty-foot altar. The road is roped off with signs that read “5 miles an hour.” Crawling along at the prescribed speed so as to not kick up the fine playa dust, I reach a fork, the road on the left bypassing the city from six to ten o’clock, the other to the right from six to two o’clock. I turn left onto Sedna (the names of the streets change each year based on the annual theme), the furthest circle of this city of semicircles. Finally, I reach seven o’clock where I make a right and head down to Mercury. I enter a sea of tents, caravans, tipis, geodesic domes, rental trucks, and makeshift structures. There is a frenzied energy as everyone is busy setting up the theme camps and villages. Here is Asylum Village, located at seven o’clock and Esplanade, one of the New York City villages at Burning Man with over 150 members. I have arrived in Black Rock City.

Rehearsing Utopia

Historically, utopias have been inherently ambiguous, impossible, impractical, and unrealistic. The annual Burning Man festival, while not a utopia per se, rehearses a utopian ideology. For one week before Labor Day, approximately 49,000 people gravitate towards the ancient lakebed (or playa) of Lake Lahontan in the Black Rock Desert in northwest Nevada to build a second world -- “Black Rock City.” Black Rock City is a simulation of a real city replete with street signs, roads, theme camps, art villages, hundreds of mammoth interactive art installations, an eighty-foot high temple, hundreds of art cars, a post office, four daily newspapers, an airport, and hundreds of planned and spontaneous performances. At the end of the week, a forty-foot wooden effigy of a Man, which stands as the axis mundi at the center of the city, is ceremonially burned. Black Rock City is a detailed and complex simulation of a real city—one on the cusp of perpetual disappearance. It manifests itself for a week, and then transfers into an on-line virtual community via email, blogs, websites, chat rooms, and Second Life known as “Burning Life” where participants’ recreate Black Rock City in virtual reality.

American literary historian Vernon Louis Parrington points out that many of the men who have been called “utopians” might more accurately be called social planners (Parrington 4-5). According to Parrington’s definition, Burning Man’s founder Larry Harvey could be considered a social planner, a community architect with a vision of a new model for society and community living. Harvey wants participants to return home with the confidence that they can radically change the “real” world by extending Burning Man’s ten core values into the everyday—radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy.

The term “utopia” was coined in 1516 by Sir Thomas More in Utopia, blending two Greek words “topos,” or place, and “u,” that means “no” or “not.” Thus, “utopia” can be translated as “noplace” or “nowhere.” The first model for utopia is laid out in Plato’s Republic, written between 390 and 370 BCE. Plato set the stage for many utopian experiments appearing in a myriad of forms and styles including St. Augustine’s City of God (426), More’s Utopia (1516), Johann Valentin Andreae’s Christianopolis (1619), Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1623), Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1624), and Karl Marx’s Socialist utopia in Das Kapital (1867). More’s Utopia, a commentary on the social ills of sixteenth century England, was published only 24 years after Columbus “discovered” America.

In American Dreams: A Study of American Utopias, Parrington states that, “from the very beginning, Americans have dreamt of a different, and usually of a better world. America is a Utopia” (vii). As Archibald MacLeish in America was Promises similarly stated, “America was built on promises […] From the first voyage and the first ship there were promises”(vvi). Indeed, since the 1680s, the United States has been the site for the founding of hundreds of utopian communities, both religious and secular, among which Brook Farm (1841–1847), Joyful (1880–1890), Winters Island (1890–1900), and Fountain Grove (1875–1900 (Hine 132-157). The West Coast, in particular, has been rich with such experiments, since the 1850s. Burning Man, originating on Baker Beach in San Francisco (and moving to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada in 1990) is a quintessential example of one such Californian utopian community.
    The formation of a temporary festival community like Burning Man becomes a fertile site for the occurrence of what Jill Dolan calls “utopian performatives” (Dolan 2). Dolan expands upon J.L. Austin’s performative utterance, the speech act, in which words become action such as “I do” in a wedding ceremony, which performs the act of marriage. Utopian performatives, according to Dolan, are small but profound moments that occur during a performance when the audience collectively is lifted out of and above everyday life and experiences the emotionally charged sensation of a better world (5). These utopian moments promote a sense of communitas, civic participation, and emotional well being, which together create an opportunity for imagining new models of how the world could be (10). It is in these charged moments of performative encounters that the possibility of a better world takes place. And the organizers certainly “charge” participants for such a promise of collective transformation: in 2009, tickets for Burning Man ranged from $240-$300.

    But while utopia at Burning Man exists as collectively experienced albeit momentary flashes, Black Rock City, for one week each year, becomes a physical plan for a utopian community, present in real space and real time. In it, multiple spaces, lifestyles, and social groups collide and overlap, to form what Michel Foucault calls a “heterotopia.” Heterotopias juxtapose in a “single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible” (Foucault 24), i.e., the desert place and time, with the place and time of the performance; the culture of the event with the many sub-cultures participating in it, side by side, hippie, punk, hardcore grunge, techno-raver, techno pagan, information technology geeks, circus performers, fire performers, intellectuals, journalists. Festivals, according to Foucault, are temporal and topological heterotopias that exist on the margins of civic life, a break from traditional time and place, simultaneously representing, contesting, and inverting the everyday. Like Burning Man, they are not easily accessible and crossing the threshold into them is like a rite of passage.

The Ideal City

Man on Aztec Pyramid, 2003. Photo by Roth Hall.
Figure 2. The Man on Aztec pyramid, 2003. Photo by Roth Hall.

Street Signs at Esplanade and 7:00, 2005. Photo by John Tzelepis.
Figure 3. Street Signs at Esplanade and 7:00, 2005.
Photo by John Tzelepis.

The concept of the “ideal city” has been a part of utopian thought since Plato’s Republic. Concrete plans for ideal cities have existed from the Middle Ages to the present. In the twentieth century, architects and visionaries such as Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminister Fuller, and Paolo Soleri thought of themselves as utopians. But while many architects produce utopian plans, few are actually built. Black Rock City is a rare exception. The semi-circular shape of Black Rock City echoes several well-known utopian as well as sacred architectural patterns such as Hygeia (Tod and Wheeler 124), Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City (1902), Leonard A. Cooke’s 1915 plan for the city of Llano (Hayden 298), the legendary city of Atlantis, and Campanella’s City of the Sun (Negley and Patrick 318).

The shape of Black Rock City parallels two other historic architectural models: Thomas More’s utopian island Abraxa and Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (1787), both semi-circles with a central focal point. In Utopia (1516), More describes the island Abraxa as a circular island shaped like a crescent moon. As Louis Marin notes, Abraxa is a complete city, with “streets, recreational areas, squares, and esplanades. They are arranged from the perspective of seeing all possible routes and circuits at once. […] It is everywhere and nowhere simultaneously” (Marin 103,104 and 207). Marin’s description of Abraxa almost word for word describes the map and layout of Black Rock City. If one places More’s 1516 sketch of Abraxa next to the 2001 blueprint of Black Rock City, one can see that the two are practically interchangeable. The small internal square on the map of Abraxa pinpoints the exact location of Black Rock City’s Central Café, the social hub of the city.

Comparing Abraxa to Bentham’s notorious panopticon for the prison system, where a single guard, in a centrally elevated tower, can keep the prisoners, occupying cells facing the tower in a semi-circle, under perpetual surveillance, and then to Black Rock City, reveals the range and degree of freedom allowed at Burning Man and realized through the spatial arrangement, from total utopic freedom to unfettered surveillance. On the one hand, Burning Man is a second world of unlicensed freedoms, much like the apparent free-for-all world of carnival. On the other hand, it is a highly monitored site, with multiple levels of surveillance from its own peace keeping entity, The Black Rock Rangers, to the Pershing County Sheriff. Thus the symbolic design of Black Rock City is suspended between these two conflicting ideas, at once set up to facilitate both utopian ideals of freedom and perpetual surveillance.

For instance, before entering Black Rock City, each person is given a list of rules and regulations, which are printed on the back of the ticket. By purchasing a nonrefundable ticket, you voluntarily assume the risk of serious injury or even death, and release the Burning Man organization from any claim arising from this risk. You are advised to bring enough food, water, shelter, and first aid to survive for one week in the harsh desert conditions, and commercial vending of any kind and the use of firearms or explosives are prohibited. The ticket is a legally binding contract between the buyer and the Burning Man organization, and the use of the ticket is in essence your signature. By entering Black Rock City you enter at your own risk and cannot legally hold the organization responsible for anything that occurs within the city limits. Although Burning Man is a society based on play and is, as such, a break from everyday like, like in any other city, laws and regulations must be abided by or law enforcement will step in.

Topography of the Somatic City

To begin to understand the complex cultural landscape of the Burning Man community, it is necessary to walk through Black Rock City, a feast for the senses. The flaneur is a term introduced by Charles Baudelaire and expanded by Walter Benjamin to describe a person who walks through the city in order to experience it, a product of modern life. By becoming a “flaneur,” tracing more or less random movements carefully on a map and moving by impulse and inspiration, one can gain a somatic understanding of the micro-shifts in the urban desert society. The overall design of Black Rock City organizes bodies socially and spatially, creating a complex choreography of bodies in space and encouraging the random flow of movement.

De Certeau distinguishes between the “voyeur” and the “walker,” each having its own spatial vantage point. The voyeur is the Man, elevated high above the city, capable of witnessing the urban desert below as an omniscient god. De Certeau’s walker/wanderer embodies the thick and thin of an urban landscape without being able to read it. Networks of bodies moving through space compose a complex story in which each participant plays a single role in the epic narrative. The city becomes a readable text only when one experiences it on the ground, with footsteps as well as a tactile and kinesthetic awareness (De Certeau 92). According to de Certeau, pedestrian movements form a system of flows that makes up the city. He points out that the operation of walking or wandering locates points that draw a concrete and reversible line on a map (197). The act of passing by is marked by a series of encounters in which pedestrians discover stories that accumulate, creating a “metaphorical” city. In practice, the movements of bodies in space weave spatial narratives that transform space into place (117).

The organic ebb and flow of bodies through the desert landscape forms the elementary experience of the pedestrian city. The physical contact with the desert floor and the paths through space transform the blank canvas into a written, multivalent narrative. If we understand this movement as a text, we can read it as a universe that is constantly exploding with the possibility of encounter. For his part, Harvey’s metaphor for Black Rock City is the ocean, seemingly the opposite of its desert reality. Harvey’s ocean is an apt metaphor for Black Rock City—a city that never stands still; a city that never sleeps. The energy of Black Rock City is also a series of hot and cold pulses: a pulse of energy occurs, there is an encounter, a crowd forms, experiences something, than dissipates “cooly” until the next encounter. These rhizomatic pulses occur simultaneously throughout the urban landscape like waves in the ocean, or the shifting sands of a desert.

Person sitting on sculpture, 2001. Photo by Rick Egan.
Figure 4. Person sitting on sculpture, 2001. Photo by Rick Egan.

Costumed participants dancing on the playa, 2001. Photo by Rick Egan.
Figure 5. Costumed participants dancing on the playa, 2001.
Photo by Rick Egan.

Costumed stilters walking the streets of Black Rock City, 2004. Photo by Anthony Peterson.
Figure 6. Costumed stilters walking the streets of Black Rock City, 2004.
Photo by Scott London.

The rhythm of these pulses changes over the course of each day and throughout the week. Monday begins with a slow pulse, which gradually builds momentum as the week progresses, reaching a new height on Friday night and finally climaxing on Saturday night with the burning of the Man. While each day has its own unique rhythm and flow, people’s individual daily rhythms vary drastically: some party all night and sleep all day, others wake up early, enjoy the day, and go to sleep early. But mornings in Black Rock City are generally peaceful. People linger at their campsites in sleeping gear that is as creative and funky as the outfits seen throughout the day: eccentric and colorful bathrobes or lingerie, combat boots and dust goggles, sarongs, flip-flops, and long johns. The crisp, cool desert morning light streaks down the avenues and boulevards. Colorfully decorated bicycles weave in and out through groups of pedestrians—everything moving at a calm, languid pace. Some people are just getting up, others just going to bed.

People are sprawled out in their geodesic domes, others are preparing breakfast: some camps dedicate their gift giving to morning coffee and pancakes. There is usually a line at the port-a-potties and people socialize while waiting. Other people stroll into Center Camp Café to get their morning coffee or chai or listen to mellow sitar music wafting through the camp. Morning is also the best time to get ice from Camp Arctica. The lines are short and the day is still cool. By 2:00 P.M. over a hundred people are in line waiting in the hot sun for a half hour or more for ice. By midday, Center Camp is bustling and the energy picks up as people emerge in new and ever more exciting costumes. The pace becomes increasingly frantic as bicycles and art cars dodge pedestrians on route to a myriad of destinations—everyone is going somewhere. The pulse quickens as people meet up with friends, attend workshops, and explore the art. Others retreat from the heat to the calm of shade structures.

Around twilight, another shift occurs: the energy dissipates as people return to their camps to change into warm clothing for the chilly desert evenings when the temperature can drop into the 40s. Participants eat dinner, often communally, and prepare for the evening. As night falls, the city begins to twinkle with electroluminescent lights and fires. Night is when Black Rock City is most energized. The Esplanade is bustling with activity and pedestrians making their way from one event to another. People’s costumes, theme camps, and art cars transform into black light spectacles for the nighttime festivities. Sculptures are set on fire, and fire performers of all types emerge. The majority of the large-scale spectacular performances occur at night, avoiding the daytime heat.

The rave/techno camps such as Lush Camp, Xara, or House of Lotus placed at the edges of the city at 2:00 and 10:00, quiet during the day, burst into action, drawing huge crowds. The pulse is strongest at night, when, for example, a huge fire installation spouts fifty-foot flames, and hundreds of people converge instantly from all directions to watch the performance. After the show, the crowd is drawn to the next fiery spectacle. This rhythmic pattern of gathering and dispersing gains momentum through the night, often lasting until sunrise, when the cycle begins all over again. This cycle builds in intensity until the Burn on Saturday night.

The Final Act: Rings of Spectatorship

As you travel through Black Rock City, you notice the absence of something that is the main focus of any other festival, a “main stage.” The only time a “main stage” effect occurs is on Saturday night when the Man burns. All day, Black Rock City is buzzing with anticipation and excitement. Participants often reserve their most elaborate costumes for this special night. The gates are closed and the population of Black Rock City stabilizes—at least in terms of numbers. All theme camps, art installations, and performances have been completed by this time. Saturday is officially a day off for everyone except the Black Rock Rangers, the Man Crew, and the Fire Conclave—the team needed for the burn. During the day, the Man, Base, and Pyro crews are busy loading the Man with fireworks and the rangers are placed around the base of the Man for safety reasons.

As soon as the sun sinks behind the mountain range, participants begin to fill the first ring of the Great Circle. The best view of the whole event would be from above looking down: 49,000 spectators creating a series of concentric rings surrounding the Man. The entire city converges around the Man, waiting for the burn and release. At 8:00 P.M., when night falls, the Man’s neon is turned on by the Neon Crew. People yell, “Burn Him!” At approximately 9:00pm, the Man Crew raises the man’s arms above his head using a pulley system, signaling the beginning of the ceremony. The crowd goes wild, screaming and cheering. The Fire Conclave consisting of 650 fire performers gets into position. Poi, fire fingers, fire rope, stilt walkers with fire wings, fire hula-hoops, fire swords, and fire staffs dance furiously in the dark, creating a kaleidoscope of light. The dancers wear the playa on their bodies; traces of the week mark their skin. The dancing and drumming escalate toward a Dionysian frenzy.

There is a roar from the crowd and thunderous applause.  Before the applause dies down, fireworks burst out of the Man’s head, causing the crowd to go wild and scream even louder. Whistles and cheers thunder through the desert air. This is the moment everyone has been waiting for. Flames begin to lick up the sides of the “Observatory”—the geodesic dome supporting the Man—as more fireworks explode. His right arm is the first to fall and bringing resounding cheers. Then the left arm drops, followed by more fireworks. Fire begins to consume the Man, licking up his legs and body towards his face, devouring the entire bold silhouette. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he collapses directly into the flames, swallowed whole. The crowd lets out their most ecstatic scream yet.

The Final Burn, 2004. Photo by John Tzelepis.The Final Burn, 2004. Photo by John Tzelepis.
Figure 7 and 8. - The Final Burn, 2004. Photos by John Tzelepis.

As soon as the Man falls, people surge toward the fire, like moths to light. Chaos and Dionysian frenzy prevail, yet no one was trampled or burned. After approximately 15 minutes many people remain around the subsiding fire while others slowly drift back to other parts of the city. What used to be the Man is now a huge bonfire that burns until dawn. Throughout the night people dance and drum around the pyre.

With the Man gone the city loses its central point of navigation. Beyond the beehive surrounding what remained of the Man, I watch as the city opens up to a vast sea of people dispersing in every direction. Although the Man is gone and the crowd disperses, the unifying state of communitas and flow persists: the feeling of belonging, ecstasy, and total participation stays as participants move back to various destinations across Black Rock City. After the Burn the rest of the city slowly comes back to life and after-burn parties sprout up everywhere. People dance and celebrate until dawn.
As the sun rises, the sound of the base drum still pulses through the crisp morning desert air. The playa is bathed in a golden light. The center where the Man had stood is at last cool, leveled to ashes. Only a small wisp of smoke remains as a reminder. By the time the sun is visible above the horizon, most of Black Rock City is asleep, except for a few still staggering through the streets. The catharsis is complete after a seven-day pilgrimage to the desert. The ritual is over—until next year.

William Morris in News from Nowhere (1890) argues that utopian concepts are bound to be failures because of their “lack of perception” about economic reality. Burning Man does not pretend to be self-sustaining and in fact celebrates its ephemerality and disappearance as a radical, political act. Perhaps it is its inherent ephemerality that makes this experiment such a success. In Utopian Lights (1989), Bronislaw Baczko writes, “When utopian dreams light up the horizon, a horizon of expectations and collective or individual hopes, they shed new light on the social landscape. […] Caught in the light of utopia, glances are turned toward visions of an alternative society, contrasting with the existing society” (preface). Burning Man rehearses and stages an alternative model of how the world “should” be within the limitations of the actual world. Burning Man is a radical, political, and timely intervention that creates an alternative vision for being in the world.

Works Cited

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Foucault, Michel. "Of Other Spaces." Diacritics 16 (1986): 24.

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Harvey, Larry. Interview with author. Black Rock City, Nevada, 31 August, 2004.

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Turner, Victor. "Liminality and Communitas,"  Readings in Ritual Studies. Ed. Ronald L. Grimes. Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996. 511-518.


(c)Rachel Bowditch