[This guest post is from Dr. Graham St John, who is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, where he is working in collaboration with Prof Dr. Francois Gauthier in the Department of Social Science researching the global Burning Man movement as a religion beyond religion. His website is www.edgecentral.net.]
After my first encounter with Burning Man in 2003, I grew enthused by its global reach over the subsequent decade. This trend is reflected in the 2012 Black Rock City Census results (BRC Census 2012) in which we learn that 24% of the population of Black Rock City are reported to be non-US residents (about 10% European). There is no reason to believe that this global gravitation to the quintessential do-ocracy in the desert will abate any time soon. While this trend is fascinating in itself, of corollary interest is the stimulus that descending upon the Man is having back in the world. By 2014, pilgrimage to the world’s largest temporary city has triggered a global diaspora, with regional developments worldwide, stoked and nurtured by the Burning Man Project. Across the planet, official Regional Events (adopting the Ten Principles), as well as other event-communities, art initiatives and “transformational festivals” are being influenced, if not directly inspired, by Burning Man and its ethos.
While the Burning Man Regional Network in North America has been growing steadily since the 1990s, the global regional network builds apace. In February 2014, adopting successful procedures, along with skilled facilitators, from the annual Burning Man Global Leadership Conference format, the first European Leadership Summit was held in Berlin, with participants from 25 countries. Larry Harvey, Marian Goodell and James Hanusa were among the speakers, and Meghan Rutigliano a most capable coordinator. As an Australian, I was myself fortunate to be among the EuroBurner participants converging in Berlin. I’ve rarely had the privilege of sharing a room with such an ensemble of activated individuals, who while representing various regions, initiatives and projects, were united by their experience and challenges transposing Burning Man to regions across Europe. Like bright-eyed and barefoot ambassadors, each participant appeared to me a condensate of good will conveyed from those regions to join their spirit to the flame. There is great potential for this Summit to evolve into a fully fledged annual Conference.
In Berlin, I was given the opportunity to introduce Burning Progeny: The European Efflorescence of Burning Man, a cultural research project supported by the University of Fribourg and the Swiss National Science Foundation, designed to gauge the evolution of the Ten Principles in the European Burning Man movement. This project, in which I am collaborating with my Burner-colleague Prof Dr Francois Gauthier in the Dept of Social Science at UniFribourg, involves a survey of EuroBurners developed partly in collaboration with the Black Rock City Census team, and projected to expand into a comparative ethnographic phase of European Regional Events. The Burning Progeny survey can be accessed here (the survey closes on March 7).
Among the difficulties undertaking this kind of research is that, as far as I know, there has been no comparable study of the Burning Man movement, including in the US, where the regional development is prolific. It is somewhat alarming that, despite its flourishing in North America and elsewhere around the world, and per contra to the annual growth of media profiles (see the up-to-date aggregator of Burning Man news reports and blogs over at Vox Ignis), the movement has attracted comparatively little interest among social and cultural researchers—at least compared with the mammoth blinking mirage in the desert, which of course continues to attract student researchers like flies to a carcass.
Black Rock City should clearly remain an object of study, year after year. And, in my view such studies will ideally be informed by auto-ethnographic methods driving the continual evaluation of one’s self, or indeed one’s other self, in the desert of the surreal. Such approaches are preferable to, say, documenting an event history already raked over 1001 times, or revisiting the very same theoretical model applied with a similar conclusion by another graduate student a few years ago, begging questions about the value and usefulness of the research …. or whether playa theory was better last year.
Now, I don’t want to be taken the wrong way here. I’m familiar with the confrontational, and even overwhelming, conditions faced by those committing to document, datamine, excavate Black Rock City and its populations during their moment under the sun. But Burning Man is a Bermuda Triangle of Research (BTR). Anthropology graduates brandishing golden passes to the ethnographic Wonkaland, data creeps, Syntheists on radical sabbatical, surveyors of burnoir couture, purveyors of occult mathematics, have disappeared in heavy whiteouts, never to be seen again. And that’s to say nothing of the missional evangelist last sighted busting moves out at DISTRIKT, the embedded Deleuzian who deterritorialised in the deep, or the would-be novelist who haunts every camp on the playa (you know who you are). Every one a victim of the BTR.
I’m being deliberately facetious here, since there have in fact been numerous quality researches telegraphed back from “the front” in Nevada, with true grit accumulating at the coalface converted into various books on, and indeed films depicting, Burning Man. But as Burning Man has evolved into a movement that has long extended its reach beyond the Black Rock Desert and its temporary metropolis, actual research commitments (if measured by research publications, for example) are strongly disproportionate to the growth of the global regional network and its mushrooming diaspora. Researchers have turned their attentions to the outward expansion of Burning Man and its flourishing ethos in the default world. And yet while details are emerging on the dissemination of Burning Man’s inclusive community logic in collectivities beyond its geographic and temporal boundaries (Chen 2011); quality and innovation experts figure how the Ten Principles can catalyse radical innovation in organizations, especially higher education (Radziwill and Benton 2013); sociologists celebrate the impact of a “living model of commons-based peer production” on the San Francisco Bay Area’s new media industries like Google (Turner 2009); journalists field reports on the status of Burner “neotribalism” flowing between San Francisco and Black Rock City (Jones 2011), little if any research on the proliferation of the Burning Man movement and its founding principles, either in North America or globally, has been undertaken.
There are probably a host of reasons for this silence, including highly competitive academic funding environments preventing the turnover of otherwise feasible projects. Perhaps its simply a matter of motivation. Burner researchers are Burners first and foremost, and who wants to spend their time inside the trash fence of Black Rock City or Burn-inspired events “doing research”? I guess some of us just can’t help ourselves. And some might rightly ask what’s in it for Burning Man? What is the usefulness of research to the Burning Man community? These are good questions at a time when The Burning Man Project is promoting its pedagogies of practice and seeking philosophical exchanges in ever widening circles.
In a recent article in the 10 Principles Blog Series, Larry Harvey (2013) has written that “the Ten Principles have proven to be useful, durable and productive; they have enabled us to think and communicate, they have enabled us to act, and they have helped us to project our culture into the world. However, this could cease to happen unless we remain ready to constantly exercise and examine them.” As a study of the translation, adaptation and mutation of the Burning Man ethos abroad, Burning Progeny is a project responsive to this endeavour. And in this way, while remaining independent, it aims to be in service of the Burning Man community.
BRC Census. “Results from the 2012 Black Rock City Census”.
Chen, Katherine K. 2011. “Lessons for Creative Cities from Burning Man: How Organizations can Sustain and Disseminate a Creative Context.” City, Culture and Society 2(2): 93–100.
Harvey, Larry. 2013. “Introduction: The Philosophical Center”. Nov 12.
Jones, Steven T. 2011. The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert Is Shaping the New American Counterculture. CCC Publishing.
Radziwill, Nicole M., and Morgan C. Benton. 2013. “Burning Man: Quality and Innovation in the Spirit of Deming.” Journal for Quality and Participation. 36(1): 7–11.
Turner, Fred. 2009. “Burning Man at Google: A Cultural Infrastructure for New Media Production.” New Media and Society 11(1–2): 73–94.
If you are a EuroBurner, please participate in our survey: Burning Progeny: The European Efflorescence of Burning Man, which is integral to a cultural research project supported by the University of Fribourg and the Swiss National Science Foundation. The survey is open until March 7.