Documenting the Ephemeral: Burning Man | Archives Deep Dive

While it may seem counterintuitive for an event that asks participants to leave no trace to maintain an archive, the collection’s development grew out of Burning Man’s core principle of gifting. People have given artwork, photographs, and more to the archive, housed in the offices of the nonprofit Burning Man Project in San Francisco.

wall with Burning Man posters displayed
Annual ticket posters, on one of Burning Man Library walls

The Burning Man gathering started with two men, Larry Harvey and Jerry James, holding a solstice bonfire on Baker Beach in San Francisco in 1986. It would move to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert in 1990; 80,000 people now gather there in late August to camp, make art, and create community in the ephemeral Black Rock City, created entirely for the event and then demolished.

For nine days every year, people live in this makeshift city according to the 10 Principles of Burning Man, which include radical self-expression, radical inclusion, and radical self-reliance. It’s a place without traditional commerce; people can gift things to one another but money is not exchanged and reciprocity is not guaranteed. Participants create performances and art, explore the large-scale sculptures built for the event, and more.

On the seventh day, residents of the city gather to literally burn the man—an effigy that has grown to more than 100 feet tall in recent years. After the event is over, everyone goes home, ideally leaving the place pristine, and the Black Rock City is no more until next year.

While it may seem counterintuitive for an event that asks participants to leave no trace to maintain an archive, the collection’s development grew out of the event’s core principle of gifting. People have given artwork, photographs, and more to the archive, housed in the offices of the nonprofit Burning Man Project in San Francisco, California. And, of course, the archive happened organically, as one would expect from Burning Man.

The idea for the archive began with a 1996 Wired article about the event, said Christine Kristen, aka “LadyBee,” art collection manager/archivist of the Burning Man archive. “We quickly realized, ‘Okay, we’ve got to start saving up press,’” she recalled. Initially the archive was made up of physical copies of all the newspaper and magazine articles that mentioned the event, housed in a giant file cabinet. Now, as the sole archivist and curator, LadyBee subscribes to Meltwater News, an online news monitoring service that sends all mentions of Burning Man via email, and she reviews them every Monday. (This article will likely be included in the archive.) Around 2000, a material culture archive was created that includes jewelry, postcards, patches, and other items, since gifting is an important part of Burning Man culture.

Currently Burning Man Headquarters maintains six archives. Burning Man Print Production features all materials printed over the years, such as the annual Building Burning Man newsletter (1991–99); the Black Rock Gazette, a daily newspaper printed on site from 1992 to 2005; and Tip Sheets, which provide information to attendees about goings-on in Black Rock City. Most of the print archive is physical, although some items have been digitized. An archive dedicated to both digital and print photographs dates back to the first Burning Man in 1986. Regional Burning Man archives document the more than 100 Burning Man events that take place across the world in 36 U.S states and 32 countries. The library houses more than 200 print titles and academic papers featuring Burning Man content.



Despite its principle of “radical inclusion,” Burning Man has been criticized for cultural appropriation of dress and ritual, and low levels of participation from people of color, particularly those who are Black—a lack of racial diversity also reflected in the archives. According to the 2014 Black Rock City census, 87 percent of Burners self-identified as white, six percent as Hispanic, 6 percent as Asian, 2 percent as Native American, and 1.3 percent as Black.

In an article for the Guardian, Black Burner Steven W. Thrasher talked to other Burners of color about why Black people might not attend; they noted the overall whiteness of the event, not to mention prices that exclude many would-be participants—this year’s tickets start at $575; a Ticket Aid program offers 5,000 $225 tickets to those with qualifying applications.

In 2020, Burning Man created the R.I.D.E.: Radical Inclusion, Diversity and Equity initiative, which seeks to address and redress the event’s lack of diversity. According to the website, R.I.D.E.’s work includes “increasing BIPOC event access by making changes to our theme camp, artist, and mutant vehicle selection processes.” LadyBee hopes that by actively working to make Burning Man more inclusive in practice as well as slogan, the archives will gain more materials related to the experiences of BIPOC Burners.



display of Burning Man patches
2020–21 Burning Man patches

Maintaining an ongoing record of the event is important, says LadyBee, because with “any huge cultural movement, people in the future…want to know what it was, and they want to see videos and photos and articles and material culture.” The archive serves as “a record of something that has become a very important cultural phenomenon in America.”

Notable items in the collection include the 1987 poster for Burning Man—according to LadyBee the first visual imagery of anything Burning Man–related. LadyBee’s favorite piece is a photograph by Ales Prikryl, hung in the archives’ art-filled headquarters, of Mike Ross’s sculpture, Big Rig Jig, built at the 2007 Burning Man. She described the work as two deconstructed oil tanker trucks rebuilt into caterpillar-like creatures “as if to say. ‘[Screw] oil.’”

Material from the archives have been used for Burning Man exhibitions across the country. LadyBee coauthored Jewelry of Burning Man (2015) with Karen Christians and George Post, and curated the exhibition PlayaMade: Jewelry of Burning Man at the Fuller Craft Museum near Boston in 2017 and the Bellevue Arts Museum in Seattle in 2020. The Nevada Museum of Art also exhibited City of Dust: The Evolution of Burning Man in 2017–18.

In honor of Burning Man’s role in American culture, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), in Washington, DC, showcased Burning Man and its materials in a 2018–19 show, No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man. The exhibition later traveled to the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Oakland Museum of California in 2019 and 2020. LadyBee reported that Nora Atkinson, curator of the 2019 show, plans to acquire some of the featured jewelry to become a permanent part of the collection in SAAM’s new wing in 2024.

Academic researchers have also used the Burning Man archives to investigate topics such as performance and ritual, organization, sociology, communications, social media, and consumer culture. In On the Edge of Utopia: Performance and Ritual at Burning Man (Seagull Books, 2010), Rachel Bowditch, assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Theatre and Film, calls the event “a contemporary galaxy of happenings, a site for rehearsals of utopia, and a secular pilgrimage.”

Katherine K. Chen, professor and chair of the department of sociology at the City College of New York, wrote about organization and sociology at the event in several articles and the book Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event (University of Chicago Press, 2009). The online archive also includes census data of attendees at Black Rock City, which scholars Kateri McRae, S. Megan Heller, Oliver P. John, and James J. Gross used for their article “Context-Dependent Emotion Regulation: Suppression and Reappraisal at the Burning Man Festival” in Basic and Applied Social Psychology in 2011.

Many photo collections and memoirs about Burning Man have also used materials from the archives; Roxane Jessi’s Once Upon a Time in the Dust: Burning Man Around the World, published by the Burning Man Project, will be out on July 4.

LadyBee encourages people to donate to the archives and upload photos of gifted items. Physical material can be mailed to Burning Man headquarters (660 Alabama Street, San Francisco, CA 94110). The archives also accepts personal items from people who have attended Burning Man for many years; check with LadyBee (Ladybee[at] about which materials qualify.

Academics and researchers interested in using the archives and other materials can email or check Burning Man’s academic webpage for more information.

“We have a very creative and generous community,” LadyBee noted. “People like being in the archives. They’d like their stuff to be shared and seen.”

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