Lamplighting: Function Becomes Ritual
Posted by Steve Mobia
[Steve Mobia was amongst the original Cacophony Society members who went on the “zone trip” to immolate the Burning Man on the Black Rock Desert in 1990. In Burning Man’s early years, he helped create desert fashion shows, large format photographs, and the first pirate radio station – hosting a program of experimental music called “Mobia’s Trip”. He was the first Lamplighter, organizing and running the Lamplighters from 1994-1999. His flaming helmet is now part of Burning Man’s historical archives. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]
For those who have just started attending Burning Man, you may not even notice the many hanging lanterns that dot the major streets in Black Rock City. At one time these lanterns (along with the lit neon on the Man) were the main navigation on dark nights in the desert. Though the increasing presence of generated electric light has made the hung lamps less necessary along the city streets, the ritual of Lamplighting continues and is one of our oldest traditions at the event. The lanterns are most visible along the promenades leading to the Man and beyond to the Temple.
The Lamplighting ritual at Burning Man is a quiet yet essential part of the communal desert experience. It creates a sense of a real city with street lamps and invokes an old tradition of lamplighting that contrasts nicely with the technical innovations of today.
I was the original Lamplighter and ran Lamplighter Camp until the year 2000 when Brien Burroughs and later others applied their energy and ideas to the task. I’m hoping that the denizens and luminaries of today’s Lamplighter Village expound on the monumental operation they’ve been running since the turn of the century.
A LITTLE HISTORY
Before electricity, lamplighting was an essential part of every town. Gas and oil lamps and candles marked the boulevards of the past. The style of kerosene lantern used at Burning Man dates back to 1868 when John Irwin created the “Hot Blast” design which was up to 4 times brighter than a single candle. The design recirculated the combusted hot air using side tubes which forced a hot draft back down through to the wick. Our current Dietz lanterns use an improved 1880 modification called the “Cold Blast” whereby cooler air not yet exposed to flame (and with more oxygen) is drawn through the side tubes promoting an even brighter whitish flame. First manufactured by Robert Dietz, the tubular design became the standard for lanterns everywhere. They were the flashlights of their day, but even more important as they provided a controlled flame that would last them all through the night. With kerosene becoming affordable, all manner of people used these lanterns, from farmers and miners to railroad engineers.
It’s the sense of the controlled flame that I find interesting in relation to the wild flames of the Burning Man festival. Though people are exuberant, even reckless at passionate times in their life, the controlled flame is what provides an ongoing source of comfort and inspiration. It is the fire of civilization. Though the lamps at Burning Man have a practical purpose they also act as objects of veneration as they are placed high on spires that, like the Man, reach upward from the desert floor. I think of the spires in fact as extensions of the Burning Man. While the Man stands out apart from the city, the spires are its emissaries that inhabit and illuminate the community. And of course, it is the spires and lamps that form the passage processional between the city and the Man.
Like much at Burning Man, the spires proved to be both symbolic and practical. Originally in 1993, lanterns were placed on the ground to form the processional to the Man. At the burn we all noticed horizontal lightning bolts 360 degrees around us. About 20 minutes after the Man fell we were hit by a wall of dust and wind followed later by a rain shower. It was the first time we had experienced weather so extreme out there. When the dust cleared, most of the lanterns had vanished. Larry Harvey designed the first spires in 1994 which both raised the lamps out of reach and made them more visible and useful as navigation markers. It is this spire design that continues to be used for the processional and gateways of the central circle — they are the “Greater” spires. Outlying areas use a modified simpler version of the design; the “Lesser “ spires. Greater and Lesser refer to the number of lanterns they hold (4 or 2).
The numbers of spires and lanterns grew exponentially with attendance. While only I and an assistant lit the first spires, the number of Lamplighters quickly grew. With this growth, new ideas for accomplishing the task were devised. Even so, the basic ceremony remains essentially the same as the early years, with robed lantern “carriers” and “lifters” who hoist the lantern bails to their high perch on the spires. Each of the hundreds of lanterns hung every night needs to be collected, wicks trimmed, glass cleaned, tanks filled and wicks carefully lit each dusk … and a high level of organization needs to be practiced.
Though today there is a certain mystique at being a Lamplighter, in the early years in was indeed tough to get volunteers involved in the labor-intensive process. I made the rounds every afternoon at BRC, cajoling everyone I met to help out. We were never short-handed but much effort was needed to get people on board. As time passed, Lamplighting became an entryway for people to participate in the Burning Man infrastructure itself. And now there’s the Lamplighter Village and Lounge with many social events and even a kitchen.
Back during my tenure as Head Lamplighter, I had been immeasurably assisted by those I’d worked with, particularly Kimric Smythe. He helped me build the first wagons, “carry” and “lift” poles (as well as suggesting that the lift poles be made from cheap conduit rather than more expensive extendible paint roller handles). Since he was a lantern collector himself, Kimric had a private interest in Lamplighting, though his duties as pyro expert for the Big Burn (which he did until 2001) kept him from actually participating as a Lamplighter.
Louise Jarmilowitz designed the first lamplighting robes out of wonderful gold and red fabric. However, as the number of Lamplighters reached ten, it was clear that the time and cost of more robes were beyond our resources. As an aside, the robe design was one of two considered. I was also thinking of something resembling band uniforms with gold tassels because I was worried loose robes or capes would easily catch fire if they blew against the lanterns. So a sash ties the robes at the waist, preventing some of the billowing problems. Steve White designed robes which could easily be made from sheets — sewn and painted by anyone. The flame pattern from the bottom of the early robes is carried forward in the white robes being worn today. The only thing not continued today (to my disappointment) is the gold helmet with a flaming burner on top that I wore to give the “invocation” every night before the ceremony.
That helmet did get me a true “burning man” experience in 1994 when the spires were first set up. In my folly, I assumed I could light each lantern by lowering it and by using a long wooden match, transfer the helmet flame to the lantern. The first evening with even a slight wind extinguished that fantasy. So, instead of lowering lanterns to light them, they were brought to my camp, lit, carried to the spires and raised. Once while looking up and raising the lantern to the spire, I felt my back become very hot. Quickly dropping the lift pole I ripped the robe from my shoulders — lit kerosene had run down from the helmet and started burning the robe. I continued to wear the flaming helmet, but better sealed the burner to prevent leakage.
A DAY’S AGENDA
After the first day of the festival, the lantern collection is done in the early morning with wagons or other vehicles. Unlike the hanging, this operation is done casually and at no particular time. Considerably less people are needed for this job. The lanterns are brought back to camp.
At a specified time in the late afternoon, Lamplighters gather to clean and prepare the lanterns. They do this on large tables under a shade-cloth canopy (the Temple). The glass globes are removed and cleaned while wicks are trimmed to remove crusty charred cotton (permitting a flame less likely to blow out in the wind). After cleaning, the glass is repositioned on the lantern and turkey basters are then used to fill the tanks with a specific number of kerosene squirts. After filling, the lamps are hung on “carry” poles that are balanced on saw horses. These lantern filled poles will be carried by Lamplighters over their shoulders to far reaching areas of Black Rock City during the procession.
Because BRC extends outward from the Center Circle, Lamplighters are divided up into groups that hang lamps in specific areas. These groups are organized by “Luminaries,” experienced Lamplighters who sign up members and lead the groups during the ceremony.
As the time for the procession nears, Lamplighters change into their robes and start lighting the lamps. As the lamps heat up, the flames grow or shrink and the lanterns need to be carefully watched, their wicks raised or lowered to insure a bright but stable flame without sooting up the glass.
Late afternoon is often a windy time at Black Rock. It has been a custom that the lamps go up even in rough weather. This is a trial of perseverance, especially for new Lamplighters who aren’t accustomed to dust storms. Lighting lamps during wind is also tricky for the glass globe must be raised and a long butane lighter applied to the wick without blowing out.
After the lanterns are lit, hung on the carry poles and the Lamplighters are “suited up,” the Luminaries organize their Carriers and Lifters and prepare for exiting the Temple. Support people help ready poles over the shoulders of the carriers as they walk forward in procession. A bell at the entrance is rung and the groups of robed Lamplighters walk forward to the fire cauldron in front of Center Camp Cafe. This caldron burns from the beginning of the festival until the lighting of the Man and so is an appropriate focus for the commencement of Lamplighting. The Lamplighters form a gigantic circle around the caldron with the Luminaries and Lifters in the center and the Carriers forming a ring of light around the perimeter. It’s a stunning sight for anyone in the area.
A spokesperson for the Lamplighters shouts the invocation before the individual groups break and go their various routes to hang the lamps. My invocation was fairly simple: “Lamplighters: we bring light to unite the boulevards of Black Rock City — the light of civilization, navigation and celebration! In honor of the immense desert and the immensity of our dreams and visions, we hang our lamps high. Hurry before the night is upon us!”
The processions move in a stately manner and are sometimes accompanied by drummers or other musicians. I think of the Lamplighters as existing in a parallel dimension to the other surrounding activities. Like the slow processes of daily time cycles, the Lamplighters make their routes solemnly progressing, solely focused on their task. The slow methodical walk has a practical purpose as well. If the lanterns swing too much they will fall from their hooks.
The actual hanging of the lamps is best taught by example and practice. The lift pole has a zig zag bend at the end that cradles the lantern bail, enabling the lifter to raise the lantern upward. The lantern bail must be brought over and past the wooden spire hook. Then the lift pole hook is slid carefully out and down through the bail, leaving the lantern behind. This is much easier to do before dark.
I have fond memories of Lamplighting and becoming obsessed with getting the flames adjusted right, even to going around afterward in the evening with a lift pole and lowering badly burning lanterns to readjust them. I can understand the pride many take as Lamplighters. Though a truck could be used to put them up quickly, it’s the ceremonial nature of hanging the lamps that’s its attraction. It’s what kept me going for years and I hope to future participants. And even today with all the flashy lighting brought to Burning Man, people still “make way for the Lamplighters!”