In Dust We Trust: A Narrative Journey into the Communal Heart of Public Art at the Burning Man Festival

Abstract: The Burning Man Festival, a free-spirited yet highly sophisticated social experiment celebrating “radical self expression and radical self reliance” is well-known for its large-scale and high interactive public art installations.

For twenty-five years, Burners (as festival participants are called) have been creating and displaying amazing works of art for the annual event, which currently takes place in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. In the desert, Burners build a temporary city, appropriate the open space to serve as their “tabula rasa” or “black canvas,” and unleash their creative potential in the name of “active participation” and social civility. In the process, they produce public art on a scale unprecedented in United States history. This dissertation, a visual and narrative ethnography, explores the layers of aesthetic and social meanings Burners associate with public art. Told in narrative form, this project utilizes “in situ” field notes, photographic field notes, rhetorical analyses of art installations, thematic analysis of Burner storytelling, and writing as a method of inquiry as means for investigating and understanding more fully the way Burners create, display, and consume public art. Findings for this project indicate Burners value public art beyond its material presentation. Preparing for, building, celebrating, and experiencing aesthetic transformation through the engagement of public art all are viewed as valuable “art” experiences at Burning Man. Working in tandem, these experiences also produce profound feelings of connection and collaboration in the community, suggesting Burning Man’s methods for producing public art could serve as model to follow, or points for reflection, for other groups wishing to use public art and other forms of material expression to bring their members closer together.

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