Two peer-reviewed articles on (1) artistic prosumption and (2) the development of several departments within the Burning Man organization now available

Two of my peer-reviewed journal articles about (1) the Burning Man organization and the arts and (2) the development of several Burning Man departments – the Black Rock Rangers, DPW, and the Tech Team – are now available in print and on-line.

You can also download some of my other academic and general publications and view links here. Please email me with a request if you or your institution does not have access to a particular article that is in print.

1. Chen, Katherine K. 2012. “Artistic Prosumption: Cocreative Destruction at Burning Man.” American Behavioral Scientist 56(4): 570-595.

Researchers have called for more studies of how organizations institutionalize the unfamiliar as taken for granted. This study answers this call by examining how an organization has advocated an unfamiliar activity, the prosumption of art. To show how particular means and ends become taken for granted, this research analyzes how the Burning Man organization has promoted a logic advocating the prosumption of art. Using an in-depth ethnographic study of the organization behind Burning Man, a weeklong gathering of 50,000 persons around a ceremonial bonfire of a 40-foot-tall sculpture in the Nevada Black Rock Desert, the author shows how the Burning Man organization codified and advocated what she identifies as an inclusive community logic, a set of beliefs and practices that promote artistic prosumption. Members sought to expand who may produce art by recasting producers and consumers as prosumers, what kind of art is produced by encouraging interactions via prosumption, and how art is consumed by imbuing prosumption with specific meaning via connection. However, conflicts about whether particular actions support or undercut the inclusive community logic have not only challenged the Burning Man organization’s authority to shape prosumption but also forced organizers to clarify the ambiguous contours between appropriate and inappropriate activities. This research makes three contributions: (a) It reveals how an organization can facilitate new conceptions of activities by promulgating a logic that highlights contrasts between not-yet-familiar and conventional means; (b) it delves into how an organization adjudicates among competing conceptions of appropriate activities, illuminating the promotion of prosumption specifically and the emergence of a logic generally; and (c) it synthesizes three separate literatures on the sociology of organizations, prosumption, and art.

2. Chen, Katherine K. 2012. “Laboring for the Man: Augmenting Authority in a Voluntary Association.” Research in the Sociology of Organizations 34:135-164.

Abstract: Drawing on Bourdieu’s field, habitus, and capital, I show how disparate experiences and “dispositions” shaped several departments’ development in the organization behind the annual Burning Man event. Observations and interviews with organizers and members indicated that in departments with hierarchical professional norms or total institution-like conditions, members privileged their capital over others’ capital to enhance their authority and departmental solidarity. For another department, the availability of multiple practices in their field fostered disagreement, forcing members to articulate stances. These comparisons uncover conditions that exacerbate conflicts over authority and show how members use different types of capital to augment their authority.

Today is a great day for learning something new: Burning Man regionals working on CORE (Circle of Regional Effigies)

One of the aspects that I enjoy about Burning Man is the opportunity to learn something new, such as a new skill, experience, or practice. Burning Man’s constant experimentation makes such learning opportunities possible. One such experiment this year is the “Circle of Regional Effigies,” otherwise known as CORE, in which regionals from across the US and around the world will build a representative effigy to burn around the Man. Some regionals, like Las Vegas, have even made websites where you can learn more about their projects’ efforts and progress. These projects are channeling local communities’ efforts into producing more collaborative, participatory art to be shared both locally and at Burning Man.

Yesterday, my partner and I spent several hours working with other volunteers sandpapering, gluing, and nailing cut wood for the “Tree of Heaven,” which is the NYC regional effigy. Jesse Green and “Kat” Fitzgerald designed this installation of a wooden tree surrounded by benches representing different boroughs’ bridges. In a scene reminiscent of the Hawthorne studies’ wiring experiments, as a group, we also cut and connected wiring to LED lights for the base of the installation, which reproduces a public transportation map of subway lines. Under the guidance of other volunteers, I learned how to cut wires down, which other volunteers then connected to LED strips representing the different MTA subway lines and the NJ PATH trains. As the designated “quality control” person, I also learned how to determine whether wires were properly connected to the LED strips by testing the leads on a power supply. While such hands-on work came as second nature to my partner, who earned a PhD working in a lab and had eagerly brought his own tools for this occasion, for me, this new experience demystified some of the nuts and bolts of putting together an art project.

Later on, at dinner, my fortune cookie summarized my experiences for the day: “Today is a great day for learning something new.” My partner got the fortune “Really great people make you feel that you too can become great,” which was also an appropriate testament to collaborative projects such as CORE.

Revitalizing cities through arts and cultural organizations

During the past several decades, the loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector have sapped the vitality of US cities. While a few cities such as New York City and San Francisco have been able to rebound, others have not. One revitalization approach calls for building amenities that will attract tourists and consumers; this approach supposedly creates jobs, initially in construction and then in the service sector, and is believed to bring in a revenue stream based on consumption. Sociologists John Logan and Harvey Molotch point out how a focus on increasing real estate values underpin this approach; political and corporate interests drive this urban growth machine. In practice, investments in venues such as sporting stadiums can be high-risk for residents, particularly when large projects worsen rather than improve a city’s fortunes, as this July 12th “A Stadium’s Costly Legacy Throws Taxpayers for a Loss” WSJ article outlines.

In his Rise of the Creative Class book, sociologist Richard Florida argues for another approach – that attracting creative professionals, such as artists and software programmers, is crucial to revitalizing cities. However, according to other researchers like geographer Julian Brash, this approach pits cities in a zero-sum game in which cities compete against each other for resources.

Others have since researched the roles that existing arts and cultural organizations and other collectivities play in revitalizing cities. For example, a new book by University of Michigan sociologist Frederick Wherry‘s The Philadelphia Barrio: The Arts, Branding, and Neighborhood Transformation (2011, UChicago Press) examines how local arts organizations and small businesses can take collective action to reinvigorate neighborhoods.

Similarly, in a forthcoming article, I explore how the Burning Man organization and off-shoots, such as the Burning Man regionals, local art projects, and Burners without Borders, establish a context that could stoke the creativity of a wider range of persons (i.e., not just trained professionals) at Black Rock City and other localities. “Lessons for Creative Cities from Burning Man: How organizations can sustain and disseminate a creative context” is in press at the peer-reviewed journal City, Culture and Society.

FIGMENT 2011 in NYC and elsewhere

Looking to enjoy collaborative art minus the desert dust? Like the idea of being able to pedal or rollerskate around between art installations? Want to contemplate the current state of affairs with a view of the Statue of Liberty? The annual arts event FIGMENT in NYC will take place, rain or shine, starting this Fri., June 10 through Sun., June 12 at Governors Island. FIGMENT is free and family friendly. (However, like Burning Man, furry friends have to chill at home). For information on hours and the free ferry that departs from downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn, go here.

Brush up on FIGMENT’s principles here.
Learn about FIGMENT’s organization here.

Not in NYC? Detroit will have its own FIGMENT on Aug. 6th. Click here for more info.

Get involved FIGMENT in Boston

Looking for Burning Manesque events in your community? Events like FIGMENT are looking for contributors and supporters. Please see the announcement below.

FIGMENT Boston, the interactive, non-commercial arts event happening on June 4th & 5th on the Rose Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston needs your help. FIGMENT relies entirely on donations and grants to put on its amazing events, with no sales or corporate sponsorships. You can help by donating to our IndieGoGo campaign or by participating in Finding FIGMENT, a public art scavenger hunt and party on April 3rd.

1. Support FIGMENT Boston on

Indiegogo is a crowd-sourced fundraiser that’s raised millions of dollars for creative projects of all kinds. Donations to FIGMENT Boston made through Indiegogo are tax deductible—and you can get some great gifts, including handwritten thank-you notes suitable for framing, entry into a drawing for a piece of art by a FIGMENT Boston artist, a private cocktail party with FIGMENT organizers, and even having the FIGMENT Boston team throw a party at your house!

Please help us spread the word by attaching the widget to your website, telling your friends about it, or sharing it on Facebook and Twitter. Also make sure to click on the Feature It link on the bottom right, to help FIGMENT Boston get promoted on the IndieGoGo homepage.

2. Finding FIGMENT: April 3, 2011

We’re bringing FIGMENT to some of Boston’s known (and lesser known) artistic treasures for an all-day journey into the creative mind. Join us for Finding FIGMENT on Sunday, April 3, 2011.

Starting at 1pm, Finding FIGMENT kicks off with an all-ages public art photo scavenger hunt throughout Boston. Teams will be judged on…imagination. (Make sure you bring a digital camera to take pictures.) Winning teams will receive cash and more when we…

Head to the Wonder Bar (134 Harvard Ave, Allston, 02134) at 7pm for an evening of auditory artistry with some of Boston’s most dynamic DJs and artists (21+). Check out the Finding FIGMENT page for the full line up.

Click Here for Scavenger Hunt Tickets: $25 per person. (Includes admission to the Wonder Bar after party)

Click Here for After Party Tickets: $15 in advance / $20 at door

For more about the event, visit the FIGMENT Boston website. For more information, please email

Be a part of FIGMENT Boston

Submit Art (deadline is April 15)


Explore More:
On the web:
On Facebook:
On Twitter: @FIGMENTBoston”

Fact-checking and researching Burning Man phenomena

Increasingly, I am contacted by the media or students to fact-check items or find information. Most recently, I was asked about the veracity of the claim that rap star dr. dre had started Burning Man. To my surprise, someone cited my book to refute the claim, which then lead to another report reproduced in the huffingtonpost and businessinsider blogs. My take on the dr. dre and Burning Man meme? Burners enjoy satirical pranks – for some, these are an art form.

Graduate and undergraduate students as well as practitioners are also interested in learning more about Burning Man and its organization for a course paper or setting up their own organizations. If you fall into that camp, I would highly recommend starting with the online AfterBurn reports, which are produced by the Burning Man organizers, staff, and volunteers. These are a treasure trove of information for those patient enough to read through the reports.

Maker Faire, NYC

This weekend, I finally got my chance to geek out at the Maker Faire, which was hosted at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, New York City. The fair was heavily attended by enthusiasts and families with children. Here are selected photos of the experience. Click on the photo for full size.

Helpful directions to various destinations (Biobus in the background)
The aftermath of Mark Perez's Mousetrap, which also appeared at Burning Man
Children and adults lined up at this table to sign safety waivers
Cyclists (and free-riders) pedal-power the Madagascar Institute's voodoo lily
I was delighted to see this inflatable kitty and his/her red kitty friend (not in photo), who also appeared in the Deitch Art Parade years ago
Everyone, including the medical tent workers, created something - see the yellow crocheted hat
Mayhem erupts at the chariot race as one duo resorts to the wheelbarrow strategy - note the unusual spectators in the back

The spread of interactive art to Governors Island, NYC

Two weekends ago, I biked to the free ferry that runs between Manhattan and Governors Island, the latter of which is open during the summer through early fall. My purpose: participate in FIGMENT, an interactive art exhibit organized by local artists and inspired by Burning Man principles. After stuffing my bike onto one of four bike racks lined up in the carport part of the ferry, I pedaled my way around the island, stopping at art exhibits (plus a distant view of the Statue of Liberty) and performances along the way. Even though FIGMENT is now gone, the mini-golf course and other installations remain through Oct. 2010. A bike isn’t necessary to explore Governors Island (you can rent a bike or a multi-person bike); you can also easily walk the island by foot.

Here are two examples of the 2010 FIGMENT art installations:

Cradle made from an oil drum and military attire (like Rosemary's Baby cradle)
Stryofoam packing material recycled - a totem to consumer goods?

Burning Man film festival in San Francisco, June 12-13, 2010

For those of you in San Francisco, you have the chance to celebrate Burning Man’s history via film. Films include a documentary about the artist David Best, who constructed the temple that appears on the cover of my book!

Please read the official press release below:

“Burning Man Film Festival-San Francisco: A Unique Two-Day Film Retrospective to Commemorate 25 Years of Burning

(San Francisco, May 26th, 2010)—The Official Burning Man Film Festival will showcase 20 short and feature length films when it takes place on June 12-13, 2010 in San Francisco. The Film Festival will offer theatergoers a unique look at Burning Man through the eyes of filmmakers who’ve documented various aspects of the Burning Man event and culture throughout the years. Saturday’s “Then” line-up will feature films shot between 1991 and 2004 and Sunday’s “Now” queue boasts an array of films shot from 2002 to 2010. The festival will be held at the Red Vic Movie House at 1727 Haight Street, SF, CA 94117.

“This festival is a rare and unique opportunity to see Burning Man from the beginning,” said festival co-producer David Marr. “[The Film Festival] is a chance to see how [Burning Man] was created and what effect it has on us today.”

Program highlights include a Midnight screening of Juicy Danger Meets Burning Man by David Vaisbord on Saturday evening with a cocktail party, roving performers, and a grand raffle. On Sunday, David Best, known for his elaborate temple structures at Burning Man will be available for a Q & A before the screening of The Temple Builder, a film by Dearbhla Glynn and April Blake that looks closely at David Best’s life and work.

To view the Burning Man Film Festival-San Francisco program, visit

The Burning Man Film Festival-San Francisco is one of several special events coming up in June to kickoff a year-long celebration of 25 years of Burning Man. For more information on upcoming events, please visit”

The Great Metropolis Face-off, Burning Man vs. the Big Apple, round 7: living the dream

The Big Apple, thanks to a rehabbed image (i.e., I heart NY), now inspires visitors and denizens to live the dream. Visitors avidly pursue a checklist of the hot restaurants, coffee shops, clubs, museums, shows, and parks that they should patronize, lest they miss out. Others imagine that their social and cultural lives will improve with a move to the big city. For those of us who live and work here, enjoying NYC’s amenities requires effort, particularly when coping with a demanding career and other responsibilities.

Recently, two Burner friends and their 1.5 year-old baby visited NYC. Normally, we only get to visit while living and volunteering at Black Rock City, so it was interesting to duplicate some activities with them in the Big Apple.

Getting together with a bunch of people in…
…the Big Apple: everyone arrived between 20 to 40 minutes late due to public transportation, work, etc.

…Black Rock City: everyone rolls in on playa time.

Enjoying participatory art in…
…the Big Apple: We visited the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) where the baby’s presence triggered interactions and reactions that even the notoriously “odd” sociologist Erving Goffman or performance artist Marina Abramovic’s participatory art could not provoke. One person immediately bestowed upon my friends an extra, free ticket that they couldn’t use. Several patrons smiled at the baby, including two young women who turned away from watching Abramovic at work to interact with the baby. Two different security guards, a man and woman, both cooed at the baby. However, a few patrons displayed or verbalized their displeasure within earshot of my friends when the baby let out a few complaining noises. To soothe the baby, my friend pushed her stroller around me and Abramovic’s vehicle; she counted off the circles, in homage to one of Abramovic’s performances.

…Black Rock City: lots and lots of art, small and large, that don’t involve climate control, guards, or a bag check.

Finding a bathroom in:
…Black Rock City: relatively easy, just look for the colorful banks of portable toilets and bring your own hand sanitizer.

…the Big Apple: not-so-easy, after a fruitless stop at a fast food restaurant, we had to go to a friend’s apartment.

Learning about art-making in:
…Black Rock City: easy, just walk up to the artist and ask. Maybe s/he will give you a lesson.

…the Big Apple: possible if friend whose apartment you need to visit for the bathroom happens to be a working artist.

Commuting in:
…Black Rock City: easy to walk, bike, or hitch a ride with an art car. Bicycling is a lot of fun under the starry sky.

…the Big Apple: involves lugging a baby carriage up and down the stairs because some subway stations don’t have working elevators, triggering a group effort. No stars, unless you pass by a movie set on the way.

Our friends have returned home after a whirlwind visit; hopefully, we will get to repeat our activities in Black Rock City.