If you’re headed to that dusty place for Waking Dreams, keep an eye out for a giant brain making the rounds of Black Rock City. Created by early Burning Man co-conspirator Dan Miller, the Man’s Brain aims to spark Participation — and a little psychomagic — by encouraging YOU to jot down your thoughts and insert them right into the Brain of the Man.
In 2018 Burning Man’s founder, my close friend Larry Harvey, had a stroke. While he was in a coma in the hospital, by happenstance I found myself reintegrated with the Man build crew. While working on the Man, I thought a lot about Larry fighting to rewire his brain. In a cathartic release after the Man had been built, I used scrap cutouts from the Man’s ribs to make a brain for the Man.
With this art project, what coalesced was more than just a gut reaction to the plight of my friend; it spontaneously birthed a collective ritual that has the potential to reignite direct participant interaction with the Man.
Prior to the formation of the 10 Principles, there was one tenet at Burning Man: “No Spectators!” Before that one tenet, there were no spectators; for a time there was only one art piece, no theme camps… It’s hard to imagine now. If you were at Burning Man, you had a role to make it happen. If you hadn’t helped build the Man, you were necessary for the process of getting the Man vertical by pulling the rope to raise him. It took the combined weight of every-body present to lever the Man erect.
As Burning Man grew in population, other art grew around the Man, particularly because it only took so many people to build and raise the Man. Not wanting to stand around doing nothing, participants quickly began to create more art on their own. (Note: In 2004, the No Spectators tenet morphed into one of the current ten principles: Participation).
One conundrum this created was that the Man, the centerpiece of the newly named “Black Rock City,” had shifted from being a hands-on participatory experience to becoming a non-hands-on spectacle to many Black Rock citizens, surrounded by a sea of Participation.
As one of the early builders and collaborative designers of the Man, I had many conversations with Larry Harvey about how to regain that original connection. One of Larry’s solutions was to create a theme, and later adapt the Man Base each year to be interactive with the theme. The emergence of Fire Conclave’s Burn Night ceremony, and Crimson’s powerful fire ritual prior to releasing the Man also infuse the Man Burn with a participatory element.
As great as these are, participant interaction continues to be around the Man, not with the Man. The following night’s Temple Burn arose as a spiritually connected burn; throughout the week, the monumental Temple is massively poured over with deep, direct participant interaction.
Introducing the Man’s Brain…
In 2018, the first Brain was placed in the base beneath the Man. When I arrived on playa and found this out, a light went off in my head! I retrieved the Brain, mounted it on a bike trailer, and toured it around Black Rock City. I took it down back alleys and to small camps, introducing it and telling people that they could put a thought in it on a piece of paper; there was a slot at the top to fill up the hollow inside. The camps the Brain visited by serendipitous chance were more than pleased to host such a guest. The Brain was then returned to the Man Base that year for the Burn.
The spontaneous serendipity of this small addition — giving the Man a brain filled with participants’ thoughts — created a point of accessibility similar to what the Temple had. Each of our brains, which profoundly perceive the entire universe and allow us to share thoughts with each other — now included the Man!
With this new avenue of connection established, in 2019 I built another Brain. And once again I spent Burn Week toting it around on its bike trailer to collect participants’ thoughts. I estimate the first year it collected around 150 thoughts, and in 2019, about 1,500. That year the Brain was installed in the Man’s head the night before the Man Burn.
The Brain Returns for Waking Dreams
Regrouping after two years of stasis, the Brain Project experiment is back. We’re hoping, by announcing it here in advance, exponentially more Burners could feed their heartfelt thoughts to the Man’s Brain — re-establishing that lost link to the Man.
There are three ways to add your heartfelt thought (or Waking Dream) to the Man’s Brain:
- Visit the Temple of Thought at the 3:00 side of the inner playa.
- Meet the Brain by chance as it tours the city.
- Leave a note addressed to the “Man’s Brain” at one of BRC’s Post Offices.
My hope is that this art project will become an annual ritual, offering participants a heartfelt opportunity of connection to the Man. I encourage you to add a little psychomagic to your ritual by sharing the contents of your note with the living brains that happen to be gathered around. In previous years, this created a soul-lifting, experientially powerful human touch.
Cover image of Dan Miller with the Man’s Brain, 2019 (Photo by David Silverman)