While visiting Chicago recently, I borrowed the book The Devil and the White City, a book about the Columbian Exposition of 1893, and a serial murderer who stalked Chicago at the same time, H. H. Holmes.
Even growing up the better part of a century after the fair ended, as a Chicagoan it was always part of the collective unconsciousness, and fair factoids were part of my knowledge of the city’s history. But the book brought a lot of the small details and broader themes into clear relief for me. Some of those themes got me thinking that, at least in some ways, Burning Man carries on the principles the Columbian Exposition.
The World’s Fair of 1893 was conceived partly as a temporary utopian city, partly as a grand spectacle of the exotic, the titillating, and the audacious. All of these things, at least in the abstract, are true for Burning Man.
At the World’s Fair, the utopianism was material: it was called the White City partly because all the major architecture was that color, and partly because, unlike regular cities (Chicago at the time was described as “a gigantic peepshow of utter horror.”), it was very clean and manicured. It had pure drinking water and effective sewage. It was extensively wired for electricity, with hundreds of thousands of bulbs being lit—for some visitors, it was their first exposure to electric lighting. None of these things strike modern city-dwellers as miraculous, and indeed, it is perhaps partly the fair’s legacy that we can take them for granted. Accordingly, the utopianism that Burning Man represents is intangible: the gift economy, self-expression, volunteerism, and community-building. Indeed, at the material level, Burning Man is a harsh place demanding “radical self-reliance” that reminds participants not to take their everyday material comforts for granted.
Both Burning Man and the World’s Fair had their own urban infrastructure; at the Fair, the private police force was another aspect of the utopianism (Chicago’s regular police force at the time was apparently so bad that it never even occurred to anyone to contact them regarding the many women who went missing at the hands of Holmes); Burning Man doesn’t have its own police force per se, but it does have the Rangers, who are considered “community mediators.”
The World’s Fair had numerous spectacles. It would be hard to top the Ferris Wheel, which was invented for the Fair. That first one was a doozy—each carriage was the size of a train car accommodating 60 riders, and there were 36 cars. The whole thing reached a height of 250′, probably a higher altitude than any of the visitors had experienced without having a hill underneath them. The Midway of the fair (which has given its name to a part of every carnival since) introduced Americans to exotic foods and peoples from other countries. And for titillation, it was the occasion for the arrival of belly-dancing in this country. Burning Man has its share of the epic, the exotic, the marvelous, and the titillating as well.
The comparison between the fair and that thing in the desert was gradually forming in my mind as I read the book, but one passage really brought it home for me. The buildings of the fair were never designed or constructed to be permanent, and the question of how to dispose of them once the fair was over occupied many minds, who couldn’t bear the prospect of the White City fading out into disrepair. One of the architects involved in building the fair, Charles McKim, wrote “indeed it is the ambition of all concerned to have it swept away in the same magical manner in which it appeared, and with the utmost despatch. For economy, as well as for obvious reasons, it has been proposed that the most glorious way would be to blow up the buildings with dynamite. Another scheme is to destroy them with fire.”