On the Edge of Utopia: Performance and Ritual at Burning Man (review)
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On the Edge of Utopia: Performance and Ritual at Burning Man. By Rachel Bowditch. London: Seagull Books, 2010; pp. 364.

The week before Labor Day, approximately 50,000 people journey to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada to create the annual week-long event known as Burning Man. There, participants build, inhabit, and deconstruct the temporary Black Rock City, which is dedicated to cultivating the community's values of self-reliance, radical social inclusion, participation, de-commodification, immediate experience, environmental responsibility, radical self-expression, art, and gifting. Inspired by Lewis Hyde's claim that a permanent bond is created between the giver and receiver, Burning Man's notion of gifting is that participants bring gifts for the community and expect nothing in return. Many participants work year-round to create large-scale art installations, mutant vehicles (extreme art cars), theme camps, sound art, burnable art, live performances, and public-service camps, such as functioning medical stations, a fire department, peacekeeping ranger stations, a post office, an airport, a bus station, radio stations, an information center, a newspaper, and a recycling center. The city symbolically emanates from The Man—a forty-foot wooden effigy that is ceremoniously burned on Saturday night as the culmination of the event. Having captured the attention of scholars from a wide spectrum of fields (including sociology, anthropology, religious studies, American studies, art history, and even marketing), the Burning Man Project is also the subject of Rachel Bowditch's well-researched and provocative book On the Edge of Utopia: Performance and Ritual at Burning Man. While a few articles are available, Bowditch's is the first book to explore the event through a performance studies lens.

For Bowditch, Burning Man is an "ambivalent second world" (320) where participants rehearse utopian futures through everyday performance and carnivalesque play, while simultaneously complying with normative society's legal regulations. Participants can thus explore new notions of self and community that may be implemented into their real-world lives. Bowditch provides a historical account of the event, now entering its twenty-sixth year, drawing upon an archive that includes the print record, her own attendance, and a hundred personal interviews. Combining her auto-ethnography of the event's annual manifestations from 2001 to 2008 with an academic analysis that draws on performance theory, utopian theory, and critical discourses on festival, carnival, and pilgrimage, Bowditch guides the reader through seven chapters divided among three parts.

Part 1, "Blueprint of Black Rock City," examines early influences on and narratives of the event. It then explores how the Burning Man community both practices and disrupts the utopian ideology it professes. Chapter 1, "Seeds of a Movement: From Chaos to Order," recounts the official story of Burning Man's origins as told by the organizers, rooting it both in the personal healing ritual of purported founder Larry Harvey and in the first pilgrimage to the Black Rock Desert, which was one of the "zone trips" created by the San Francisco Cacophony Society. Bowditch chronicles the event's growth as it moved from San Francisco to Black Rock, became an LLC (limited liability company), and dramatically evolved into a countercultural movement. She acknowledges the ambiguities of memory and the mythology of the event's founding by including the alternative historical narrative of long-time "burner" Chicken John, whose account significantly diminishes Harvey's involvement. In chapter 2, "Rehearsing Utopia," Bowditch describes Burning Man as a Foucauldian heterotopia and a site for realizing Jill Dolan's notion of the utopian performative, but [End Page 667] she also exposes the community's common illusion that it exists in a space free of rules by revealing its struggle to implement a utopian ideology within a capitalist economy.

Part 2, "Realms of Performance," analyzes various performances that occur at Burning Man. Chapter 3, "Spontaneous Acts: From Performances of Everyday Life to the Carnivalesque," consists of short sections that look at the Burning Man event through different lenses: as environmental theatre, modern-day happening, modern-day saturnalia, playground, and place for performative self-transformation. Chapter 4, "Dark Carnival: The New American Alternative Circus," highlights five troupes that were either born at or shaped by the event...


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