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Burning Man becomes a hot academic topic

A growing number of sociologists, business professors and theologians view the event's mix of hipsters, artisans, zany theme camps and outdoor art gallery as more than a party. They see fertile ground for research.

October 20, 2010|By Catherine Saillant, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from the Black Rock Desert, Nev. — Thousands of bare-chested women are riding bikes across the barren landscape of the Black Rock Desert outside Reno. They are being cheered on by crowds of enthusiastic, mostly male supporters.

"You're beautiful!" shouts a tall, dreadlocked man in a pink tutu to Neko, a 21-year-old political science student from San Diego. "Be strong!" yells another, wearing a camera around his neck. For Neko, it's the empowering highlight of her trip to Burning Man, the annual arts-and-fire festival that celebrated its 25th year this summer.

"It was women celebrating being women," said the petite brunette, who like others here prefers to use her Burning Man nickname during the festival. "It was amazing."

Where some see feminist freedom in the topless bike ride, researcher Wendy Clupper saw a dissertation. Watching the same parade eight years earlier, she couldn't help noticing the dichotomy between female empowerment and male lust.

Her paper, "The Performance Culture of Burning Man," earned Clupper a doctoral degree in performance arts from the University of Maryland. Since then her essays on Burning Man have been reprinted in two books, including an analysis of the bike ride that Neko found so exhilarating.

That puts Clupper among a growing list of sociologists, business professors, theologians and other scholars who view the event's mix of hipsters, artisans, zany theme camps and outdoor art gallery as more than a party. They see fertile ground for research.

When she started her dissertation in 2002, Clupper could find only six other scholarly works focusing on Burning Man. Today there are dozens, including an expanding roster of analytical books.

Not since Woodstock's "3 days of peace and music" in 1969 has a festival captured the attention of so many in U.S. academia. Just as they did decades ago, scholars are asking whether Burning Man is a window to a new kind of community or a Utopian dream destined to crash and burn.

Stanford business professor James Phills is preparing a mini- documentary exploring the values that prompt festival-goers to spend small fortunes creating art and building villages that they share freely with strangers.

Harvard-trained sociologist Katherine K. Chen wrote the book "Enabling Creative Chaos," along with several academic papers, detailing the event's evolution from a weekend camping trip on a San Francisco beach into an unconventional corporation with a $10-million budget and 2,000 volunteers.

For Cal State Northridge religion and anthropology teacher Lee Gilmore, the draw was the spiritual nature of the festival. In her new book, "Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man," Gilmore explores the rituals, elaborate costumes, temples and fires of Burning Man and asks why the festival sometimes "smells like religion."

Other books include "AfterBurn: Reflections on Burning Man," a compilation of academic essays published by the University of New Mexico Press in 2005; "Festivalising!: Theatrical Events, Politics and Culture," published in 2007; and "Political Performances: Theory and Practice," published last year.

Clupper's decision to use Burning Man for her studies was easy, she said.

"You'd never see this much art in a gallery. You'd be hard-pressed to find this many artisans in any performance space in the world," said Clupper, who runs an avant-garde theater in San Francisco. "And yet you can come to one place and be inundated by it for one week."

Larry Harvey, one of the founders, mused about the festival's growing influence during first-ever "academic cocktails" held at this year's event. "I don't think anyone's offering a degree in Burning Man yet," he said, dragging on a cigarette. "But it's shooting its flames all over the place."

Festival-goers are encouraged to be "radically self-reliant," bringing in everything needed to survive the harsh desert climate and then leaving without a trace. They observe a "gift economy," sharing food, cocktails, back rubs, even solar showers. Commerce is not allowed, except sales of ice and coffee. There's no advertising, and admission is $300, whether for a day or a week.

Academics who have immersed themselves in Burning Man culture year after year are finding that there may be something unusual going on with all of this. People freed from the conventions of the mainstream art world can create works of staggering beauty. Passion for a cause inspires hard work, volunteerism and community.

One professor concluded that Burning Man is an "organizational mutant," not quite a business or a nonprofit, that has found a way to stage an anything-goes festival that is both highly organized and financially self-sustaining.

Phills, the Stanford professor, was only vaguely aware of Burning Man when a college friend, an investment banker, asked him to attend.

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