Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textiles as Cultural Expressions: Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–27, 2008, Honolulu, Hawaii


Copyright 2008 by the author.


What is Burning Man?

Burning Man organizers assert that “trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind.” Such enigmatic and authenticating discourse permeates the Burning Man website, as it seeks to affirm itself as a mythical, enchanted, and fantastical Bohemian space. Quite simply, the Burning Man Project is an annual festal gathering in the desert, where people come together from across the globe to form a community known as Black Rock City. The annual eight-day gathering has been described by Burning Man Organizers as “dedicated to self-expression, self-reliance and art as the center of community.” As a participant in the Burning Man Project, individuals are encouraged to step out of their “comfort zones” and to reject the passivity of the “default world” by fully expressing themselves through artistic media and face-to-face interactions with strangers. Thus, the formation of communities at Burning Man through non-normative interactions with strangers allows individuals to “practice” new ways of engaging with their social worlds.

Burning Man as it is known today spawned from a spontaneous event on Baker Beach in San Francisco, California in 1985, where a wooden effigy of “the man” was set afire. With attendance increasing substantially each passing year, the event relocated from Baker Beach to its current location in the Black Rock Desert in Northwestern Nevada in 1990. Since 1990, the event has grown both in population (from a few hundred to nearly 50,000 individuals this past August), and in duration (from one night to eight days). According to the last tabulated Black Rock City census report in 2004, the population comprised of fifty-seven per cent men, forty-one per cent women, one per cent transgender, and one per cent not reporting, with almost sixty per cent of the population between twenty-one and forty years of age.

The physical location of Burning Man is significant in that it has a profound effect on the individuals attending. As for myself, I had never been in a place so devoid of life. Larry Harvey, one of the founders of Burning Man, has described the location as a “clean slate.” This metaphor carries over into the concept of the project itself, as an experiment in spontaneous community where people come together and build community atop a blank canvas. Thus, people arrive to the image of the “clean slate,” and participants are encouraged to embrace this metaphor for their own identities, as well. The idea is to reject all social rules, parameters, and expectations that have limited self-expression. This is in accordance with Elizabeth Wilson’s analysis of Bohemia’s of the past, which “despite the exaggerated individualism of its citizens…