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Burning Man Journal
All The News That's Fit To Burn: 2001 Summer Newsletter

An Outpost in Cyberspace
The Internet and Burning Man

Black Rock City
photo by Gabe Kirchheimer
I want to talk to you today about the view from my backyard. I live in Black Rock City, Nevada. It is a town of nearly 30,000 people, but you won't find it on a map.

If you should look at a map, scan the northwestern quadrant of the state; there you will notice the Black Rock Desert. It is the largest flat expanse of land in North America, the alkaline remnant of a Pleistocene lakebed that forms a half-million acre Euclidean plane. National Geographic has called it the emptiest place in the 48 states. There's neither bird nor bush in this desolate wilderness. There is only the tip of your nose, the far mountains and, in between, a blankness so profound it swallows up the middle distance. It's an abstraction so immense that it is comparable to cyberspace.

Preferred mode of trasportation.
Photo by $teven Raspa — 2000

In my backyard there is an elevated deck that gives out onto this view, and during the two weeks preceding Labor Day each year, I am able to watch Black Rock City spontaneously assembling itself. It is a remarkable spectacle. At the distant shore of the playa I can see hundreds of vehicles exit the highway and pass in a long arc toward the gates of our city. They come in many shapes and sizes — semi-trucks, giant sharks, motorized living room suites, and cars laden to bursting with exotic props and paraphernalia — and each of these conveyances is like an information packet. Black Rock City has a daily newspaper, a vast network of streets and public gathering places, and it is filled with monumental works of art — but it is not composed of bricks and mortar. It is a visionary entity that's crafted from ideas.

Most folks who come to Black Rock City bring a bicycle — the streets of our city are thronged with them — and, as I look down on this spectacle, our participants seem to be circulating and connecting with the promiscuous freedom of email. They are cc'ing and bcc'ing everyone in their path: a crocodile girl stops in mid-career to trade tokens with a hairy ballerina; a motorized couch pauses to take on new passengers. At night, each bike becomes a bead of light, and I see hundreds, sometimes thousands, of such lights as they swarm through the darkness. They move toward interactive nodes — toward artworks and theme camps — and each of these stations is a virtual website. Black Rock City gives its citizens the freedom to express their private passions and their idiosyncratic visions within a public space that is shared by thousands of other participants.

This is the portrait of a pioneer society that grants enormous freedom to the individual. It is a world in which many of the social barriers that normally divide us — distinctions of class, age, race and income — begin to lose their authority. Black Rock City is a space like cyberspace, a world whose only context is created by its citizens. It borders on a far frontier, a great tabula rasa that invites invention and rewards initiative. Anyone, regardless of their status in the world outside this field of interaction, is a player.

Spiral Oasis.
Photo by Kirchheimer — 2000

What I really look upon from my backyard is the beginning of a new kind of society that is arising beyond the boundaries of Black Rock City. It is a world in which interactive networks have begun to dis-inter-mediate transactions and relationships — they remove the middle. E-bay and Amazon have leap-frogged over older centralized systems of production and distribution. MP3.com immediately connects artists to their audience, and Linux has originated a communal operating system that is based on the creative power of networking. Burning Man has merely taken this process a few steps further.

Tower of Plaster Torsos by Jonh Wormo.
Photo by al Wildey — 2000

We have removed the mediating world of television, the mediating world of advertising, and the entire middle ground of the consumer marketplace. With the exception of coffee and ice sales at our civic center, all commercial transactions are banned in our city. In place of a system that substitutes the consumption of goods and services for communion with our own capacities and the reality of other people, we have fashioned what is called a "gift economy", and this giving of gifts is hyper-connective. Circulating through a community, gifts produce intensely personal encounters, and these, in turn, engender hundreds of communal networks that produce Black Rock City's theme camps, create its artworks, and manage its civic infrastructure. Participants in Burning Man are not consumers of a spectacle that is a substitute for their immediate experience of life. By contributing a gift, they're co-creators of the world around them.

This reliance on immediate relationships represents a radical departure from the norm in our society — and I must confess that I have it in me to pity a tax official who attended our event last year. Hearing that our city was based on "barter" exchange, he attempted to claim the State's share. The first transaction he encountered occurred at a theme camp. One participant suggested that another strip naked in exchange for a game of miniature golf. Needless to say, the taxman was stumped. In our consumer society nearly every possible experience we might have within a public world has been pre-packaged and sold back to us as a commodity. But how do you value a thing like that? The middle ground had been completely pulled from under him. He wandered off, I'm told, and was never heard from again.

The Temple of the Mind by David Best
Photos by Mike Woolson — 2000
And yet, if Burning Man creates a living analogue of cyberspace, it is in one very significant way quite different from the Internet. Unlike many types of interaction in cyberspace, experience at Burning Man is not vicarious. I am reminded of an installation I once wanted to create in the desert. I meant to call it the World's Smallest Internet. Participants would enter a windowless room by either of two long hallways extending outward in opposite directions. This room would be soundproofed and divided by a wall preventing direct contact with the person on the other side of the partition. People situated in these chambers would be seated before monitors and invited to assume an alias and "email" one another. I don't wish to over-analyze this joke, but the point was to contrast the instantaneous immediacy of electronic communication and its ability to connect people through networks, with its potential to isolate them in a state of cloaked anonymity.

As a counterpoint, we've fashioned Black Rock City as a sort of floating platform in the world of cyberspace. It is a space station, an outpost in the midst of this frontier. It entices folks away from their computer screens and precipitates them into immediate contact with their own capacities, with one another, and with a greater world to which they can belong. This event reifies our experience of the Internet. It translates the interactive potential of this medium into a real time and real place: a living, breathing context where community can thrive.

Today, in 2001, almost all of our participants are connected to us through the Internet. Not only are they drawn to our city as a persuasive center of interaction, Burning Man participants are radiating outward from our event to create many regional centers. Burning Man, like other phenomena in cyberspace, is a movable feast, and our present mission reaches well beyond the geographic confines of our city. We have founded a non-profit in support of the arts whose scope of activity will extend nationwide. We are staging a live Web-linked road tour of our community that will span the continent, and we are organizing social networks through the Internet. We currently have more than fifty regional contacts, including groups in Europe, New Zealand, Australia and Japan, and in the future, we hope to match these communities with local non-profit arts organizations. Once these emerging networks coalesce, I think that many more people will come to feel as I do. Like me, they'll be thoroughly astonished by what they find in their backyards.

Larry Harvey
Photo by Kylie Howard/Platinum Studios — 2000
Larry Harvey is the founder and director of Burning Man.