2015 Art Theme: Carnival of Mirrors

Theme and text by Larry Harvey and Stuart Mangrum. Animation by Hugh D’Andrade.


“The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation that is mediated by images.”

– Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

This year’s theme is about mirrors and masks, mazes and merger. It will be a kind of magic show that takes the form of an old-fashioned carnival. This Carnival of Mirrors asks three essential questions: within our media-saturated world, where products and people, consumption and communion morph into an endlessly diverting spectacle, who is the trickster, who is being tricked, and how might we discover who we really are?

Classic carnivals, as theaters of illusion, upheld a very strict dividing line that separated carnies, cast as showmen, from members of a naïve public who were labeled chumps and suckers, marks and rubes. Our carnival, however, will perform an even more subversive trick — its motto is Include the Rube. The wall dividing the observer from observed will disappear, as by an act of magic; through the alchemy of interaction, everyone at once can be the carny and the fool.

Photo by Franco Folini, original art by Nina Kempf
Photo by Franco Folini, original art by Nina Kempf


“If there is anything that can be said about dreams and longings, it is that they… are hard to express. It is difficult to transmit into words the oddness of an image, the comic-grotesque distortions of inner time and space, the weird amalgams of feeling that leave people perhaps a little more aware of their deepest responses to life and a little more unsure of the artifice with which they so often cover themselves.”

– Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius

The Midway

Old-fashioned carnivals were dominated by an all-pervading hucksterism; midways featured barkers, shills, rigged games of chance and skill, and not infrequently defrauded customers — “short change” is a carny term. They also featured titillating freak shows, geek acts and museums of the outré and forbidden. Our midway, on the other hand, will satirize deception while inviting all participants to summon up their inner geek, that secret freak who hides behind the mask of what is called normality. We will turn grifting into gifting; otherness becomes creative self-expression.

2015 Burning Man Carnival of Mirrors
Man base design by Larry Harvey and Andrew Johnstone. Illustration by Andrew Johnstone with Hugh D’Andrade.


The Funhouse

From the looking glass to the selfie, people seek answers to the riddle of identity in their own reflections. Yet even the most perfect mirror shows only the persona, not the person. This year a funhouse at the center of our carnival will contemplate the puzzle of self-consciousness. Many kinds of masks and mirrors will line the corridors and chambers of this interactive maze. Here people will confront a shuffled deck of selves: the me they want to be (but aren’t), the me they repudiate (but are), the me they can’t imagine (but might be).

At the heart of this disorienting maze, a final passage will reveal a courtyard that surrounds the Burning Man. Photo booths will here record the faces of participants, merging them into a swirling stream that will envelop the entire body of the Man. The brittle mirror and the occulting mask will melt away, and at this point there’ll be no gag, no swag, no souvenir of self; the show will be you.


In 2015 we will again invite our regional communities to help create an interactive space, a midway that will house a panoply of strange and enchanting wonders. Mind readers, fortune-tellers and vendors of patent medicines will vie with every form of all-too-human oddity for public attention; barkers will of course be everywhere. There will be room within the midway and the maze for many kinds of installations. We invite artists and builders to create unorthodox carnival attractions and interactive experiences, and we will fashion stages to host performance art.

As always, any work of art by anyone, regardless of our theme, is welcome at the Burning Man event. If you are planning to do fire art or wish to install a work of art on the open playa, in our midway or in the carnival’s funhouse, please see our Playa Art Guidelines for more information. To apply for a grant to fund the creation of artwork for Burning Man 2015, see Black Rock City Honoraria. Please note that a new process is in place for honoraria grants this year, and that candidates must submit a Letter of Intent by December 19, 2014. A separate proposal process for Regional Network participation will be announced before the end of the year; Regional groups are also welcome to apply for Honoraria grants. Check out the info on the Midway Stages if you’re interested in performing at the Man Pavilion.

(image credits)