Burning Down the Temple: Religion and Irony in Black Rock City

The “Man” burned this past weekend in the center of a temporary city of 50,000 people that was big enough to be seen from space by a European satellite.

As its detractors would have it, the Burning Man festival is a giant playground for bored middle-class adults. For some “Burners” the festival is a return to the past: to San Francisco’s Summer of Love for hippie wannabees or a primeval fire-sacrifice for neo-tribalists. Other Burners see Burning Man as the harbinger of a technology brightened future of wind-powered vehicles and personal robots. For many of the denizens of Burning Man’s Black Rock City, the festival is simply an occasion to don outrageous costumes, dance the night away, and encounter mind-blowing art and people.

But for those “Burners” who are true converts, it is a religious event on a massive scale. Casseopeia, a 28-year-old adjunct professor at a large state university told me that Burning Man is her only “religious holiday.” For true believers, mundane life pales in comparison to this annual Labor Day gathering in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

Often tagged as a countercultural festival, it is not really that at all. Burners are the culture, and among its most privileged members, with money and time to spend. Many of them hold down regular jobs in small businesses or corporate America: they are teachers and college students, massage therapists and social workers, lawyers and emergency room physicians. They staff what Burners have dubbed “the default world” and keep it running, even though they come to the desert to escape it.

Desert Pilgrimage

The main road to the Black Rock Desert is a seemingly endless two-lane highway running north from Interstate 80 just east of Reno and through the Pyramid Lake Reservation. Pilgrims to Burning Man must navigate hordes of other attendees in beat-up campers, renovated school buses, rented U-Hauls, and sleek tour buses; as well as the many businesses catering to Burners along the way. This year the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe welcomed weary travelers with a choice of at least three Indian taco stands. Another sixty miles north, roadside stands in the small town of Gerlach, Nevada, the last outpost before Burning Man, sold glow sticks, star-shaped lights, bicycles, and other supplies.

This year’s Burning Man theme was “Rites of Passage” and it turns out that the Burning Man organization is undergoing its own rite of passage. The “Borg,” as it is often referred to by Burners, was the topic of Jessica Bruder’s piece in the NY Times, “The Changing Face of the Burning Man Festival,” that ran on Burning Man’s opening day. It turns out that the Burning Man organization will be shifting from a for-profit company to a nonprofit. How much will the payout be to the six owners? Burners want to know.

Those who gripe about the degeneration of Burning Man into a consumer event could add this sale to a long list of complaints: rules and more rules, opaque finances, increasing law enforcement presence, and more “spectators” in RV comfort palaces running noisy generators. Burners are a suspicious lot and many of them believe the Borg has caved in to the very values of corporate America that it seeks to challenge.

Before entering the city I was reminded about why there is so much criticism of the organizers. Hundreds of us waited at the tightly controlled entrance gate as everyone’s vehicle was searched for stowaways, weapons, fireworks, pets, and other forbidden items. Security at the gate was particularly tough this year because of the “tickepocalypse”: for the first time ever, the event sold out. Scalpers hawked tickets for hundreds of dollars over their purchase price and artists who had been working feverishly to finish their projects but had put off purchasing tickets were left out in the cold.

It was a different scene in 1997 when I first came to Burning Man and only waited briefly at the entrance as a “Greeter” cast a cursory glance at my car. But the Greeters’ enthusiastic reception remained the same. These Greeters, a dusty naked couple, asked me to get out of my car and embraced me, shouting “Welcome Home!” I had crossed the threshold. Next step was to head for my campsite on “Liminal,” the outermost street of the semi-circular Black Rock City.

For many Burners, this pilgrimage to the desert is the closest they come to participating in anything like a religious community. They prepare for it all year, gathering costumes and camp decorations, assembling sculptures, planning meals with groups of friends, and scheduling shifts as lamplighters or temple guardians.

These are not desert fathers or renunciants seeking a wilderness away from civilization in which they suffer and travail to prove their faith. Burners revel in the pleasures of the world. They bring civilization with them and seek transformation in the midst of a wild and vibrant city teeming with life. Some Burners regularly attend a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque, but they are in a minority. Burners are more likely to engage in any number of alternatives to mainstream religion such as Neopaganism, Buddhist meditation, sacred dance, or yoga.

Many would agree with an artist from Oklahoma in the next tent over who confided to me, “nature is my god.”

Of Other Spaces

After crossing the threshold of the entrance and choosing a site, Burners quickly shed clothes and other vestiges of the world outside. The “playa” (a shorthand term for the area where the festival takes place) is intentionally opposed to the lives they have left behind. Burners play up the contrast by developing their playa fashion sense. Jan Loverin, curator of Clothing and Textiles at the Nevada State Museum, advised Burners looking to sport the latest trend: “boots are in; wings, stilts, crinolines, and ballet tutus are in; nudity and body paint are in; utili kilts are popular, as is wearing underwear as outerwear.”

At Burning Man, bodies become works of art alongside giant sculptures and temples adorned with repurposed objects. All of these visual cues work together to signal to Burners that they have entered a reality far removed from the one they left at home.

As unique as Burning Man might seem to participants, it has a historical context and an identifiable place on the contemporary American religious landscape. In his book The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape, journalist Erik Davis places Burning Man alongside other Golden State phenomena. Burning Man arose from the ashes of Haight-Ashbury and what Davis calls California’s “great polytheistic fusion of transplanted religions, nature mysticism, tools of transport, and creepy cults.” But nineteenth-century camp meetings and spiritualist conventions that upended traditional worship norms are its forbears as much as Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and the 1960s counterculture.

Burning Man exemplifies the movement of religious meaning-making to sites outside traditional religious institutions. It joins a host of other events around the world and especially here in the U.S. that function for participants as sacred destinations: the Super Bowl, Coachella and other large music festivals, Rainbow gatherings and Neopagan festivals, to name a few. Burning Man offers a bit of everything available at other large festivals: New Age lifestyle tools and goddess worship; music of all kinds day and night; community kitchens and mind-enhancing drugs; a game of golf, a roller rink and other games and sports; and religious pilgrimage.

Time and space are said to be different in Black Rock City. No one was talking on cell phones, clocks were largely invisible, and the city’s layout reoriented participants with its semi-circular streets running from A to L. This year the letters marked various rites of passage: Anniversary, Birthday, Coming Out, Divorce, Engagement, Funeral, Graduation, Hajj, Initiation, Journey, Kindergarten, and Liminal. Bisecting the rites of passage streets were cross streets running like spokes from 2:00 at one end of the city to 10:00 at the other.

12:00 was at the apex of the open playa where sculptures appeared out of nowhere and art cars roamed, a late-night cinema screened films, and the mobile Dust City Diner served breakfast in the wee hours of the morning.

Burning Man’s Ironic Religion

In her recent book, Theatre in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man, religious studies scholar Lee Gilmore argues that Burning Man is a quintessential case of Americans who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” Most Burners would probably agree with her, yet many of the activities that take place during Burning Man are explicitly religious.

In Burning Man’s guide to events, “What, Where, When,” hundreds of religiously themed workshops and rituals were listed, including “A Taste of Kabbalah,” “Cosmic Kirtan/Bhajans,” “Qijong,” “Channeling Voices from Other Dimensions,” “Animal Totem Meditations,” “Guided Soul Journey,” “Shamanic Dance,” “Vipassana Morning Meditation,” several weddings and a bat-mizvah. Rituals, sacred spaces, and shrines appeared throughout the city this year, as did artwork addressing rites of passage such as San Francisco based artist Peter Hudson’s Charon: a three-dimensional stroboscopic zoetrope of life-sized skeletons rowing across the river Styx.

Just to make sure Burners don’t take any beliefs they brought with them too seriously, Burning Man abounds with parodies of organized religion. Although it is billed as an art festival, it is also a lively site of religious criticism. Burning Man may be a week-long rave for some or a chance to bar-hop for others, but for those with a penchant for questioning authority this is the land of ironic religious play.

Parodies of the Catholic Church, New Age channellers, and UFO believers are all to be found on the streets of Black Rock City right alongside sincere followers of world religions and new religious movements. The “Tunnel of Questionable Enlightenment” invited passers by to enter and enjoy its lights, then emerge to share their “questionable enlightenment with the community.” Not far from the Tunnel an unrelated installation called Pillars of the Saints listed Ten Tenets, including: “Do not covet world peace or any other conclusion. Life is alive with infinite possibilities and infinite worlds that are yet to come.”

On a back street in the city, I came across “The Twistine Chapel for Bad Catholics” which offered Burners an opportunity to pray to ”Our Lady of Questionable Virginity.” For “bad Catholics” and other backsliding Burners, confession is a popular practice, promoted this year at the Shame Project, a piece by Alissa Mortenson, which proclaimed “I am not a sinner. I don’t need to be saved and neither do you.”

A City of Porous Boundaries

It is easy to dismiss the privileged spiritual yearnings of successful middle-class Westerners who come out to the desert to blow stuff up as inconsequential, and yet Burning Man offers a glimpse of a world that could be. Burners start up their own arts ventures, host Burning Man-style events in their communities year-round, change their jobs and their lives, marry each other and raise Burner kids, and help others by living the “no spectators” ideology outside the borders of Black Rock City.

After Hurricane Katrina hit, Burners left the festival and travelled to New Orleans to help, later forming “Burners without Borders,” a disaster relief organization. Burners try to manifest their ideals on the playa: a community based on gifting; a leave-no-trace policy that models sustainability; financial support for art and artists who are arguably the members of this community with the highest status; and LGBTIQ friendly neighborhoods and streets.

Of course the outer world is not absent here. The “default reality” intrudes at every moment. Rampant consumerism occurs before the event and trash bags are tossed on the roadside on the way out. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rangers patrol incessantly through the city and Burners bring their addictions and troubles with them. In 2009, five cases of domestic abuse and five cases of sexual assault were recorded while twenty people were taken by ambulance to Reno hospitals, according to the Black Rock Gazette.

The Temple of Transition

The “Man,” an abstract and genderless figure, may be the spatial center of the event, but there is no doubt that “the Temple” is its heart and soul. Every year since 2001, when San Francisco Bay area artist David Best constructed the first large-scale temple out of leftover pieces from a dinosaur puzzle factory, the temples have been a focal point for collective ritualizing at Burning Man.

Dismounting my bicycle, I approached this year’s Temple of Transitions. Part medieval cathedral, part 24-hour desert sanctuary, the temple was epic in scale with stained glass windows on its upper story and misshapen gargoyles hovering under its upper arches. A young man wearing a gold-sequined blouse, safari hat, and sarong circled around the inner temple smudging people with a bundle of sage, “to bring in good spirits.” A chandelier made of glass pieces dangled over our heads and weeping could be heard between the chiming of bells on Taylor Kuffner’s computerized sound art piece, “The Soul of the Temple.”

Hundreds of temple visitors were reading and writing stories of abuse and suffering or messages to the dead for others to read: a best friend who suffered from a heart attack brought about by years of bulimia; a letter to a brother who committed suicide; a goodbye to a 24-year-old who was struck by lightning while camping; photos of two teenagers who died together in a scuba diving accident; and thousands of tributes to grandparents.

The temple was full of memorials brought from home and assembled on site. Thousands of messages were written on every inch of the temple walls, doorways, stairs, and railings. Many of us recorded the letters, altar pieces, collages, and beautifully arranged mementos in photographs, disregarding their impermanence.

The temple has also come to reflect a growing national trend: pet memorials. Burners left loving memories of dogs, cats, snakes, birds, and a turtle. Two huskies stared out of an elaborately carved wooden frame; a photo collage was titled “R. I. P. Boomer,” and a life-size cut-out of a dog was dedicated to “Borealis: friend to all, great and small.” Every year since the first temple in which they were largely absent, memorials to pets have increased and become more elaborate, resting alongside collages of old lovers and messages from parents to their dead children.

If there is any communal rite of passage at Burning Man, it is the Temple Burn on Sunday night, the event’s finale. Not everyone comes out for this event; some would rather dance to techno music or chat up a neighbor on the next bar stool instead of joining tens of thousands of Burners sitting on the ground quietly waiting for the temple to burn down, taking all their messages and their pain—they hope—with it.

As thousands of us sat in silent anticipation of what was to come, laser pointers danced over the steeple where workers were placing fuel to accelerate the temple’s demise. “Turn off the laser pointers please,” yelled a temple guardian. “Newbies” someone mumbled when the laser lights returned and a testy back and forth ensued until the lighting of the temple began and everyone became transfixed by the fire.

Each year I find the temple and its fiery demise the most moving experience on the playa; even if someone is hollering obnoxiously or playing with a laser pointer. If every other playa site invites irreverence and irony, this is still the one that takes meaning most seriously. It is a site of both voyeurism and participation, where our deepest fears and most painful losses are aired publicly and work together to create Burning Man’s largest collective piece of art.