For about 15 years, sociology professor Matt Wray spent about one week out of every year in the Nevada desert attending Burning Man, a weeklong arts festival.
Although he usually spends his semesters teaching at Main Campus, he is currently on sabbatical working on his current book in the middle of the woods in New Hampshire. His book is focused on the suicide rates of Las Vegas and the sociology behind the phenomena.
Wray was able to take a few minutes away from work to chat with The Temple News about a few interests that have shaped his studies and curriculum teachings at Temple.
The Temple News: How did you get involved with Burning Man?
Matt Wray: I got involved with Burning Man because I was working at Greenpeace in San Francisco and one day after Labor Day Weekend, our chief radio operator came in — and he was a tall guy, probably 6 feet 4 inches, and he had a big, bushy, black beard and black wavy hair — and it was completely dusted white, it was like he had gone completely gray over the weekend. And I was like, “My God, Dick, what happened to you?” And he was like, “I went out to the desert and did this thing called Burning Man.”
It was like Moses had come down the mountain with tablets — it was really dramatic. He explained to me what this event was like. He told me, “Well there’s this huge stick figure, and we fill it with like 500 pounds of diesel fuel and explosives and then they light it off in the middle of the desert, after spending a week of doing art and making installations and living communally in this incredibly harsh, unforgiving environment.” And I thought to myself, “Well, OK, I’m in.”
So, that was 1992 and I went every year for about 15 years after that. Well, I went for 14 consecutive years then I’ve been back a few times since.
TTN: Did you have a role at Burning Man?
MW: Early on it was very unstructured but I guess beginning in the late ‘90s, they introduced the idea of themed camps — which are groups of people who pull their resources and creative energies to create a kind of meaning-centered encampment and to provide services to other “burners” throughout the courses of the event, or to host parties and giveaway events.
It was just much more themed and our themes varied a lot over the years. Initially, we had a coffee tent and then Burning Man kind of centralized that idea and we had a brewery on site and brewed our own beer and served many different beers that were brewed ahead of time. There was a yoga camp one year.
You could always — and I always tried to — volunteer to do something with the main camp. Whether it was slinging ice, or helping with lighting lamps in the evenings or helping out the Danger Ranger crew which was the all-volunteer public safety force there, there were always things to do.
TTN: Why did you stop going?
MW: I stopped going in part because I moved away from the West Coast and getting back to Black Rock City, which is in the far, northwest corner of Nevada, proved logistically difficult and expensive. I had two young kids who came along — who, bless their little hearts — prevented me from realizing my Burning Man fix every year. And it happens every Labor Day Weekend, which is when each semester is starting up so it is a very difficult time of year to split and take off for 10 days. So those were some of the reasons. It wasn’t for lack of desire.
TTN: So, what are you up to now?
MW: I am here in the woods in [New Hampshire] writing. [The book I am working on now] is really an examination of a problem that I first discovered in 2001 when I took a job at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.
I was in town to interview for that job when I happened to be flipping through my [TV] in the hotel and I saw this show about suicide in Las Vegas and it was then that I found out that Las Vegas had an extremely high suicide rate.
That doesn’t necessarily surprise anyone when they think about it for a few minutes but it’s consistently high for decades and it’s not really explained.
The usual explanation that everyone leaps to, is that it must be involved with gambling and gambling losses.
It turns out to not really describe the problem very well. There’s actually a whole lot more that is going on. So then it became kind of an empirical puzzle that I wanted to solve. You know, if it’s not gambling, then what is it?
So I became very interested in the city, I became very interested in the kinds of lives people were living there and then started my research project really in earnest when I got funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a program called the Health and Society’s Scholars Program, specializing in population health and epidemiology. So I relocated my family and I spent two years in Boston where I tried to figure out the answers to the questions that I had posed to myself, that I really didn’t know how to answer. So this is the result of posing those questions, solving a problem from the top-down, looking at the problem statistically and looking at it through the path of sociology and epidemiology.
TTN: Where are you now and why are you there?
MW: Temple was very nice to give me sabbatical for the semester and I was very lucky to win a fellowship at a place here called the MacDowell Colony and they provide space for artists and writers, composers, playwrights and interdisciplinary artists to do their work in peace and quiet and with a tremendous amount of freedom to do and create what you want to create. So it’s pretty cool.
TTN: Do you have to pay them for occupying this space?
MW: They spend a lot of time every year raising money from foundations and from private donors who believe in the arts, believe in the creative process and believe in the mission of this organization. So they give us room and board and they are very nice studios. We have access to these studios 24 hours a day — every single one of them, each with a nice little fireplace.
TTN: How long are you allowed to stay in the studio and how long will you be there for?
MW: I think the maximum stay is about eight weeks. I’ll probably be there about that long.
TTN: Do you think you’ll be done writing the book by then?
MW: I believe I will have a very solid draft in hand. It is coming together very nicely, so I am excited.
TTN: Do you have a title for it yet?
MW: The working title is “Death in Vegas: Suicide and Self-Destruction in the Neon Metropolis.”
Nickee Plaksen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.