whatisburningman sectional graphic


Building Burning Man
The Official Journal of the Burning Man Project - Summer 1999 Newsletter

Editor: Larry Harvey
Production Manager: Marian Goodell
Asst. Production Manager: Miz Jewelz
Art Director: Ms. Rusty Blazenhoff
Contributing Writers: Maid Marian, Darryl Van Rhey
Proofreader: Darryl Ember
Printing: Scott Pratt & Curtiss Printing
Illustrations: Rod Garrett

A Desert Civilization
Burning Man is an experiment in temporary community. Each year we design a city to serve as a vessel of community and a model of civilization, and place it like a petri dish in the Black Rock Desert.

photo: Jonathan Wolfe
We study the result, note how culture thrives, survives and replicates itself within our test tube world, then wipe the sterile surface of the playa clean and start again.

Black Rock City began as a village of approximately 80 settlers, a ragged circle of tents and motor vehicles. Beyond this rudimentary nucleus stood Burning Man, a solitary figure marking the horizon of our world. During several intervening years this settlement has grown into a miniature metropolis. Our city is now a densely connected grid of streets, plazas, and public landmarks covering more than a square mile of desert terrain. Its thoroughfares are thronged with a cosmopolitan population drawn from around the world, and it is served by an array of public institutions: a fire department, a post office, a daily newspaper, an emergency medical service, a volunteer safety and security organization known as the Black Rock Rangers, a Department of Public Works and, at last count, 15 separate broadcast radio stations. Described by the London Observer as a "beautifully zoned tentopolis, designed with a precision of which the Renaissance city-state idealists or Haussmann would approve," it has become a model of high civilization.

As Black Rock City has expanded, we have encountered many of the challenges and problems that are incident to urban growth in our society at large. The following is a brief history of some of these challenges, the solutions we've crafted, and the lessons we've learned.

King Car
In 1996 Black Rock City approached critical mass. Increasing population had begun to overflow the simple circle which had formed its core. As campsite leaped beyond campsite, a vast ex-urban sprawl developed and within this zone of dispersal the automobile became king. Eyeing one another warily through dusty windshields, participants elected to commute between attractions. Social interaction gave way, replaced by a pattern of discreet consumer choices — the isolated intention to consume spectacles unrooted in anything around them.

In 1997 we responded to this problem by restricting cars to campsites, condensing our city within boundaries and creating a network of streets for bicycles and pedestrians. The result of this experimental change was immediately apparent to everyone. The increased density of our settlement multiplied spontaneous encounters. Neighbors now neighbored as never before and theme camps nearly quadrupled. The fabric of our city, thus enfolded on itself, yielded a hundredfold increase in interaction.

It's a Gift
The most radical feature of our desert civilization is our traditional ban on vending. The original settlement from which Black Rock City has grown was composed of people who knew one another. Within so intimate a circle it seemed inappropriate that anyone should sell goods for commercial gain. As our city population has increased, we have retained this ethic as a prohibition. Apart from the sale of ice, the profits from which are given to the nearby town of Gerlach, and the vending of juice and coffee at our cafe in central camp, nothing is for sale in Black Rock City.

The consequences of this prohibition are profound. Since little can be purchased in our city, participants are challenged to confront their own survival in a natural world that's sometimes harsh and always unpredictable. They must bring food, water, shelter — literally everything needed to sustain their lives in an extreme desert environment. This exercise in what we call "radical self-reliance" is intended as an antidote to the passivity created by consumer culture. In our normal lives we are accustomed to a world that is designed for marketplace convenience. All that is required of us when we purchase something is a sum of money and a willingness to spend it, and no demand is made upon our inner resources. The effort that's expended in preparing for the desert is a form of existential communion, a consideration of deeper needs and more immediate outer realities than our consumer society makes present to us.

Our ban on commercial activity has also affected the experience of Burning Man in another way. Anyone observing the incessant stream of traffic that enters our city can't help but be amazed at the surreal profusion of colorful props, costumes, construction materials and original artwork that passes through our gate. Each of these exotic burdens — bristling from car windows, laden on rooftops or crammed, at times, into entire fleets of trucks — represents a gift that is donated to our community. By disallowing market commerce we have created what is called a "gift economy" and we have elevated this practice into both an ethic and an esthetic. This "radical self-expression" is premised on the notion that everyone should participate in creating our city. You must come prepared to contribute some unique part of yourself to our shared experience. This might take the form of public service, as with the Black Rock Rangers, Greeters, Lamplighters or many other forms of volunteer service. It might mean hosting a theme camp, installing an artwork, convening a game or performance, or distributing tokens and gifts to your neighbors. At a minimum, it means decorating your campsite or creating and wearing a costume. In every case, the fundamental intention is always the same. As a participant in Burning Man you are invited to perform an act of introspection: to contemplate your inner self as if it were a vision or a gift, then make a role or a vocation of this gift by passing it along to other people.

This potlatch economy of Black Rock City results in an entirely novel urban experience. Beyond the immediate circle of our friends and family, we are accustomed to a public world that is primarily governed by impersonal commodity transactions. When we buy things in this marketplace we appropriate them for our exclusive use, and it has become possible, within the world of modern convenience culture, to satisfy all of our appetites and desires without reference to others. Consumption has replaced communion in our modern age. By way of vivid contrast, an exchange of gifts creates involvement with the lives of those around us. It forges an immediate emotional and moral bond with other people. In the words of author Lewis Hyde, "...when gifts circulate within a group, their commerce leaves a series of interconnected relationships in its wake, and a kind of decentralized cohesiveness emerges." Community can only begin when a part of the self is given away.

It Takes More Than a Village
The first village at Burning Man was Black Rock City itself. It was founded in 1990 when a small group of people accompanied Burning Man to the Black Rock Desert. Participants, prompted by a natural impulse, formed a circle surrounding a central shade structure, a single parachute and tent pole. This original nucleus has since become the civic core of our city.

"Le Boeuf Gras d'Or"
by Mystic Krewe of Satyrs
photo by GKHG(at)aol(dot)com
artists: Mary & Richard Valadle

As our settlement gradually expanded, four roads, aligned at right angles to one another, were extended outward from this rudimentary public plaza. Its inner perimeter was soon lined with lampposts and flagpoles. Today it is populated by a mixture of theme camps, art installations and city services; such as our public radio station and newspaper, our central bulletin board and information booth, a recycling station and the headquarters of our community lamplighters. After several incarnations, the crude shade structure that originally stood at the center of this circle has become the Cafe Temps Perdu, a large-scale coffee house and meeting place. This history marks the transformation of a casual communal space into a large-scale civic arena.

In 1997 a parallel attempt was made to establish formal "villages" in our city. Described as "micro-models of community within the macrocosmic whole of Burning Man", we intended them to be neighborhood gathering places. They appeared on our map as lesser circles, subordinate public spaces that imitated the form of our city's central plaza. This maiden effort yielded mixed results. One village, pressured by encroaching settlement, collapsed into a cramped ghetto of overcrowded camp sites. Another group preserved this open space, but chose to ring itself with cars, creating a formidable barrier to public access. In 1998, we tried again. We sited villages along the axes of public ways and marked their entrances with lampposts. Villagers were asked to maintain bulletin boards, surround their plazas with theme camps and locate interactive artwork near the center of each concourse, and many did — yet, again, our plans faltered. As friends flocked to join friends, the civic structure of some settlements collapsed. In one lamentable instance, the center village plaza devolved into an anonymous parking lot.

This struggle to create a village marks an underlying confusion concerning the nature of "civic" and "communal" life. Communal groupings are composed of people who we know. They are extensions of a familial and essentially private realm. Communal interactions occur on an intimate scale and have a tendency, over time, to seek a kind of closure that repels outsiders. Civility, on the other hand, is practiced with strangers. It relates us to a greater realm beyond the boundaries of our particular group. It calls us to a larger sense of public self.

As members of a society devoted to personal consumption, it has become increasingly difficult for us to enjoy a sense of public identity. We feel like particles within a mass, and so are tempted to seek narcissistic refuge in small circles -- to associate only with people who immediately mirror our personal tastes or lifestyle. However, we have learned that striving toward transcendent goals can inculcate a deeper sense of fellowship and pride within a group than is attainable through any clique or crowd. A public world expands our sense of who we are. This year we'll urge our villagers to focus their attention outward on the living body of our city as a whole. Villagers may still enjoy communal interactions in their group, but membership within a village will be predicated on a willingness to work together in creating an environment that functions as a home for other citizens. Only greater commerce with this wider world will forge the kind of bond that can hold Black Rock City's civilization together.

The Man
When the first settlers of Black Rock City arrived in the desert, there occurred a brief debate about the placement of the Man. The feeling that emerged was that the sculpture should be sited at a walking distance from our camp, and so he remains to this day beyond the limits of our city. Framed
photo: Dave Gross
at the end of a broad ceremonial avenue, the sculpture seems to hover at the center of an earthly void. He represents our ne plus ultra — an ultimate extension of our shared awareness of the vast, blank, unfathomable space that fronts our city. Viewed close at hand, high astride his pyramid, he looms larger than life — measuring a full five stories high against the desert's flat horizon. When glimpsed from afar, suffused in an eerie nimbus of neon light, he becomes the world's greatest night-light: a reassuring landmark and prime locator for thousands of people.

The Burning Man is also central to Black Rock City's basic plan. Weeks before the event, our Department of Public Works must undertake the task of surveying and marking our city. Confronted by a featureless environment, the vast tabula rasa of the empty playa, they must first establish the position of the Man, for it is from this viewpoint that our city is surveyed. The mile-wide arc of Black Rock City is literally inscribed in an orbit around Burning Man, and the avenues that divide this arc radiate directly out of him. It's much as if he were a central sun whose gravity and broadcast beams engender the existence of our city.

Intriguingly, these vast geometries and their relentless focus on a single ceremonial object are reminiscent a world of bygone cities of the ancient past. Across the globe, these first great urban centers arose near the dawn of recorded history. Unlike cities of today, these first civilized settlements did not exist for purposes of commerce, but grew and prospered as pilgrimage sites and ritual centers. Their cosmic geometries, towering temples, pyramids, ziggurats, and great processional ways derived from absolute cosmic orientations that linked them to the stars and the surrounding landscape, and their names — Teotihuacan, Chang'an, Chan Chan, Urik and legendary Ur — have descended to us as exemplars and primordial models of what any great civilization represents.

No one can reliably decipher what these sacred urban centers meant to their inhabitants. Their religious beliefs, along with the rituals and ceremonies that once animated these ancient temples and streets, are lost to history. Likewise, in our present day, no one has assigned a supernatural doctrine or belief to Burning Man. Throughout the years, beginning in 1986, thirteen successive Men have been built, raised and burned — but we have never sanctioned an interpretation of this act. This task, like so many others, is the responsibility of each participant. Perhaps, it is enough to say that citizens of Ur, Chang'an and Black Rock City have shared the same immediate experience. They have felt they were connected by a presence that exists beyond the circle of the world.