art installations sectional graphic

Spirituality and Community

The Process and Intention of bringing a Temple to Black Rock City

By John Mosbaugh aka Moze

Structure of passage and hierophany of Black Rock City

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Burning Man is known as one of the biggest parties on earth. It is also well known as one of the pre-eminent places for public art, large sculptures, art cars, participatory experience and alternative culture. However Burning Man is not just an art gallery, a rave, a camping trip or a place to discover something new about yourself. It is not just a hopeful phenomenon or some incarnation of a Dionysian festival. It is the sum of all these, and many other things. There was a time when Burning Man was just a weeklong event in the desert, but that is no longer the case. It's now something that exists throughout the world, appearing in many different iterations with different purposes as organizations such as Black Rock Arts Foundation, Burners Without Borders, Black Rock Solar, the Burning Man Project or in the Regionals. These entities all share a common ethos and shared community values, even if we are a diverse bunch.

What we have in Black Rock City is a microcosm of humanity. Within this microcosm is what M. Eliade called a profane or mundane world; meaning that which is not sacred. In our realm of Black Rock City, we have plenty of cacophony, satires of every known aspect of the world we live in, fantastical art, a critical mass of events espousing our shared concern and curiosity, and a community all living together for that week to cross pollinate each other with our ideas, aspirations and evolutionary inclinations.

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The theory goes that as societies mature, and their intellect develops, mythologies are created to explain the human condition. Larry mentioned this in his Viva Las Vegas speech as we've "learned that we need myths and stories that can tell us who we are. [We've] learned that we need unities of time and place, a coherent theatre in which to act out life's drama: a place you can belong to. The prospect of such things, this idea of a greater home on earth, is extremely attractive to human beings." [8] From myths that we create springs Eliade's concept of hierophany [9]; the creation of sacred spaces. Alexei Lidov [10] further suggests that the creation of sacred spaces at first happens because of what he calls "heirotopy" the "creation of sacred spaces regarded as a special form of creativity," Lidov's idea is that the hand of man creates, influences and brings into existence a place where "Every sacred space implies a hierophany, an eruption of the sacred that results in detaching a territory from the surrounding cosmic milieu and making it qualitatively different".

In the sphere of Black Rock City, the Temple delineates the profane or mundane from the sacred and that juxtaposition provides a framework for Burning Man to have a deeper significance than if it were just a weeklong festival in the desert.

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With this in mind, I asked David Best if he thought that the Temple would have come into existence eventually if he and Jack Haye hadn't built that first Temple. I've mentioned before that David Best can be quite a charming man, with blue piercing eyes that look into you when you're speaking. He listens intently to people who come to him and there is an endless stream of people who want to talk with him. When I asked that question he told me a story.

"Do I think it would have come? Well gee, that's a vanity question you've asked me." He laughed and sarcastically replied, "Don't know where I'll go with that. Y'no, I'm the greatest guy in the world." Then he continued,

"I went down and talked to [a large computer company] and they call their place a campus. They have a barber shop, you can get a haircut. There were three different restaurants, at their campus. I forget how many people are there, 2,000, 3,000 people. If you feed that information into a computer, for 2,000 people, at least three of them are going to have lost a family member. And they don't have any place in their campus to address [that] and they want to profess that they're building a family yet they don't have a place to address the loss of a family member."

"It's like, when Burning Man built up that population, we all of the sudden needed that. It was just an obvious absence. There was a void that no one really noticed. They got the porta potties, they've got the police station, they've got the medical and they've got the Man. They just didn't have a place for grief. And the Man kind of did grief for a while, but it was a mixture of so much celebration that it was hard to really have a quiet place."

"So in all truthfulness, it would have happened sometime. The fact that I was lucky enough to do one is a lucky punch."[11]

The Process of Building a Temple

There is a lot of empty space to fill up in Black Rock City.

People interested in building the Temple each year submit proposals to the Burning Man organization to basically do what Larry has said is one of the main purposes of Burning Man, "To blend life and art so you can't tell the difference."

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I spoke with a lot of people when I was researching what it took to build a Temple. Obviously, if you think you have the skills and resources to build a Temple at Burning Man, you've successfully built large scale art installations out there before and you're well aware of the challenges you face. You understand how to keep a team productive and cohesive. You have tools and access to places to prebuild the Temple. You can build something that is safe, accessible, finished, and that won't require last minute fixes just to get it standing and safe enough for Burning Man. You understand what "dust days" are and how to incorporate them into a project timeline. You have a group of people with mad sets of skills and a drive to try to pull off something as difficult as building something at Burning Man that everyone will notice and have an opinion on how you did.

Every person I spoke with told me that a Temple build is something so important to the community that there's a lot of pressure to get it done on time and to have it ready for when Black Rock City citizens begin arriving on Sunday. The Temple isn't an art installation that can be in the process of going up throughout the week. It isn't the kind of installation that can be bailed out on playa at the last minute. It is something that only those who have proven they can handle a large scale installation should even think about attempting.

Everyone has their own style of getting it done. The most important thing is that it gets done and I was fortunate enough to talk to some of the people who have done that.

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Bill Codding who's worked on several of David's Temple told me their crew has a flat structure, with David running the show and all the volunteers taking direction from him. They have a head framer and people with skill sets in routing, carpentry and who can train the volunteers, but everyone has the ability to work on what they want to with David orchestrating everything. They have about 300 people on the Temple crew who have worked on various Temples over the years and Bill has a list of people he can call on, but getting volunteers isn't an issue, as there are plenty of people who always want to work on the Temple.

At the work site in 2012, weeks before the Temple was opened, Chunk, aka Richard told me that about 1/3rd of their crew are skilled laborers and "There's lots of on the job training and I'm working with David for the artistic and community experience. You don't get that in everyday life. Seeing people enjoy it. The overall creation is a thing of beauty in the flames. It has a phoenix affect and is catharsis for so many people. We're all contributing to Black Rock City's Temple as a place of grieving. It's a sacred space, not a disco."[12]

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I also spoke with Jess Hobbs who in 2010, along with Rebecca Anders and Peter Kimelman designed and headed up the building of the Temple of Flux. Their group had an existing infrastructure of people who had worked together on a bunch of projects and they came at it with all their combined knowledge. They put together a team that included structural engineers and experienced carpenters. They also included novices because a big part of their organization's passion is having people learn new skills by building collaborative art. Jess stressed that a project as large as the Temple also needs to have an extensive Administration team to handle Finance, Fundraising and to organize resources and volunteers. They were able to successfully utilize the Burning Man social network and effectively advertise their fundraising efforts at mainstream publications like CNN and Fast Company.

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Jess also mentioned that past Temple builders were helpful when they had questions, notably David Umlas and Marrilee Ratcliffe who had built Fire of Fires Temple the year before in 2009 and Tuk Tuk and Shrine who built 2008's Basura Sagrada Temple. The Burning Man artist community is a dynamic one where collaboration and knowledge sharing is paramount and the sum total of Temple building knowledge is accessible for the most part.

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I was talking with Jack Haye about how things developed with the first Temples. How did elements of the Temple come about? He was the original Construction co-ordinator and continues to consult with David when he is building the Temple. Jack explained how the original Temple was a project built by their camp. He talked about the organic spontaneity of things that became part of the Temple; the original dinosaur cutouts they discovered that were recycled to create the ornate decorations, the found wooden blocks on the property David and Jack had their studios on in Northern California, that became pieces of wood where people inscribed names of their loved ones to be burned. He told me how there was an evolution of elements such as the central structure (an altar, or with the Temple of Juno, the chandelier) being a remembrance to people who took their own lives.

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Each time a new artist takes on the Temple, they re-imagine it, but bring elements of what has become a structural definition along with them. The Temple of Flux was probably one of the biggest departures from previous Temple designs and they intentionally refashioned the conventional idea of the Temple, but even then they created a space and in that space had "caves" for memorials. They also kept one of these caves as a remembrance place for suicides. Basura Sagrada, headed by Shrine and Tuk Tuk conceptualized the Temple as their "Sacred Trash" concept with the goal of making "something amazing and exotic out of materials deemed unworthy, the stuff we throw away every day. And while it is obvious that making something beautiful out of refuse is a political act, the question we hope to answer with this project is whether it can also be a spiritual act. We believe that it can." [13] Mark Grieve built two Temples with the Temple Crew, 2005's Temples of Dreams that utilized space in a village of shrines, pagodas and spires around a central Temple and the Temple of Hope in 2006 that featured a grand central stupah. In 2011, Chris "Kiwi" Hankins, Diarmaid "Irish" Horkan and Ian "Beave" Beaverstock and the International Arts Mega Crew (IAM) set out to build the largest Temple ever brought to the playa using "49,360 lineal feet of Sustainable Forestry Initiative certified lumber" [14] The Temple of Transition was massive, with five towers connected to the main tower by arching walkways.

Jess Hobbs put it really well when she told me "Burning Man is an experiment and the Temple should also be an experiment."[15]

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footnotes

[8] Larry Harvey, Viva Las Vegas, Speech at Cooper Union, New York City, http://www.burningman.com/whatisburningman/lectures/viva2.html 2002.
[9] Op. cit. Mircea Eliade, p. 26
[10] Alexei Lidov, Hierotopy. The Creation of Sacred Spaces as a Form of Creativity and Subject of Cultural History http://www.imk.msu.ru/Publications/lidov/01-Lidov-eng.pdf (Progress-tradition, Moscow) 2006, p 33-58.
[11] Moze, Interview with David Best, (Black Rock City 2012)
[13] Basura Sagrada: The 2008 Burning Man Temple, http://playajoy.org/?p=108 (2008)
[14] Temple of Transition - The tallest temporary wooden structure in the world. http://www.greendiary.com/temple-transition-tallest-temporary-wooden-structure-world.html (2011)
[15] Moze, Interview with Jessica Hobbs, 2012