Theater in a Crowded Fire

Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man, Includes DVD

Lee Gilmore
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Pages: 256
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1ppdct
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  • Book Info
    Theater in a Crowded Fire
    Book Description:

    Every summer, thousands gather from around the world in the blistering heat of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for the seven-day celebration of art, community, and fire known as Burning Man. Culminating in the spectacular incineration of a wooden effigy, this festival is grand-scale theater for self-expression, personal transformation, eclectic spirituality, communal bonding, and cultural renewal. In this engrossing ethnography of the Burning Man phenomenon, Lee Gilmore explores why “burners” come in vast numbers to transform a temporary gathering of strangers into an enduring community. Accompanied by a DVD, which provides panoramic views of events, individuals, artworks, and, of course, the climactic final night, the book delves into the varieties of spirituality, ritual, and performance conducted within the festival space.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94553-1
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    Every summer during the week leading up to Labor Day weekend, tens of thousands of people from around the globe descend on the Black Rock Desert, a desolate and otherwise obscure corner of northwestern Nevada whose principal feature is an ancient and absolutely barren plain of crackled clay known as the playa. Their destination is a colorful and eclectic arts celebration known as Burning Man. For a brief time Black Rock City—or BRC, as this settlement is sometimes called—becomes the fifth largest metropolis in the state of Nevada as participants—collectively referred to as “Burners”—design, construct, and...

  7. CHAPTER 1 Into the Zone
    (pp. 17-44)

    By the time I first got to Burning Man in 1996—which turned out to be a pivotal year for the event—it had already changed dramatically from its humble beginnings a decade before. On summer solstice eve in 1986, a man named Larry Harvey and his friend Jerry James decided, for no premeditated reason, to host an impromptu gathering on San Francisco’s Baker Beach, where they constructed a primitive wooden effigy and burned it. Having invited just a handful of friends to join them, they were delighted to discover that as they set flame to the eight-foot-high sculpture, the...

  8. CHAPTER 2 “Spiritual, but Not Religious”?
    (pp. 45-67)

    Burning Man emerged at the crossroads of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and is an expression of the trends, circumstances, and desires arising at this juncture in contemporary American cultures. Its existence derives in part from a variety of cultural movements that include but are certainly not limited to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century camp revivals, contemporary outdoor festivals, so-called New Age and other alternative spiritual movements, countercultural and utopian movements of the 1960s (and before), rebellious punk movements of the 1970s and 1980s, and the electronic music and dance scenes of the 1990s (and beyond). Going farther back, it is linked...

  9. CHAPTER 3 Ritual without Dogma
    (pp. 68-102)

    With its whimsical theme camps, quirky costumes, and interactive artwork, Burning Man teems with performance and ritual. For many participants, this profusion of artistic and creative expression is the heart and soul of the event. Numerous art installations are featured each year, often on a very large scale and with interactive elements that invite both individual and collective ritualizing. Specific ritual performances are carefully planned aspects of some artworks; others become locations for rites that are spontaneous and unpredictable. From the culminating spectacle of the Burn to intimate and personal rites created by individuals and campmates, the blank canvas of...

  10. CHAPTER 4 Desert Pilgrimage
    (pp. 103-126)

    Among the qualities of Burning Man that are shared by all (or nearly all) festival participants—the heat, the dust, the climactic rite of the Burn—there is one that is of necessity universal: the journey. Whether they join the thousands who trek over California’s Sierra Nevada range from the San Francisco Bay Area, wend their way through the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest, soar by plane from the East Coast and continents abroad, or simply make the twenty-minute drive from the nearby town of Gerlach, everyone must travel to the Black Rock Desert playa to join in the...

  11. CHAPTER 5 Media Mecca
    (pp. 127-153)

    Given its many visually and narratively compelling elements and high attendance, it is not surprising that Burning Man has been the subject of prodigious media attention. The event has been covered by large mainstream media organizations such as CNN, the Associated Press, and the BBC, as well as local news stations, newspapers, and dozens of other international outlets. It has also been visited by numerous aspiring documentary filmmakers, resulting in a few dozen completed films of differing length and quality. On occasion, parodies or other mentions of Burning Man have appeared on network sitcoms and other pop culture venues, and...

  12. CHAPTER 6 Burn-a-lujah!
    (pp. 154-168)

    Year after year, thousands of individuals seeking a temporary alternative to the mundane routines and norms of their ordinary lives make a journey to northwestern Nevada for the Burning Man festival, where a whimsical, opulent, and chaotic stage is set on the encrusted clay and dust of the Black Rock playa. What started as a small gathering around an impromptu beach bonfire has evolved into a substantial global movement that is continuing to expand its influence as a public happening. While evading specific correlations with innumerable historical antecedents and parallels, Burning Man derives much of its resonance from a wealth...

  13. APPENDIX 1 Demography: The Face of the Festival
    (pp. 169-176)
  14. APPENDIX 2 On-Line Survey
    (pp. 177-180)
  15. APPENDIX 3 Burning Man Organization Mission Statement
    (pp. 181-182)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 183-210)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 211-220)
  18. DVD Contents
    (pp. 221-222)
  19. Credits
    (pp. 223-224)
  20. Index
    (pp. 225-237)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 238-238)