Some people say it’s just a festival with a few thousand party people running around the desert in crazy costumes. For sure that is what some people do, but there is more. People step outside of the confines of their everyday routine and realize how much they are missing. It is about recognizing how differently humans can organize themselves, even if it is only for a week. It is a social experiment, it’s dissociation, it’s democratization, it’s a peer-to-peer society, and it is Silicon Valley’s playground. Here’s a report from the field.
Time to Build Something
It’s not exactly the ideal place to build a city: no water, little vegetation, limited animal life, and temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, dropping close to freezing at night. High winds kick up powder-fine dust into blinding storms. But once a year in late August, a city rises right here, in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. More than 60,000 people live here for a week, in what becomes the sixth-largest city in the state of Nevada, to celebrate the Burning Man Festival. We were there when the city was built.
The desert is prepared, permits from Nevada’s Bureau of Land Management paid, the streets drawn, the entrance marked, Porta Potties rented. Wi-Fi, medical, fire, and law enforcement services are in place. In the meantime, people in Nevada and California, as well as many other states and indeed all over the world are getting ready pre-building art and camps, loading their trucks, filling their water tanks, and making shopping lists that include lots of dust masks and sun cream.
Black Rock City provides only the most basic infrastructure. The rest is brought and created by the people who go to Burning Man. The program, the art, the entertainment, the music, the conferences, the beverages, the food, everything. Everything must be created, and so everything is possible. Importantly, there is no commercial activity at all. You can buy ice and coffee, and that’s it. You have to bring everything you need in with you, and you have to take everything back out when you leave. It’s a social experiment. It’s Utopia, but real. We are ready, we enter.
The Burning Man organization coordinates a festival for more than 60,000 people. Needless to say, that’s a complex task, even though all of the content is outsourced. Burning Man has 35 full-time employees with about 10 contractors working year-round from the office in San Francisco, coordinating and communicating with each of the planned projects happening at Burning Man. During the festival, 2,000 volunteers help build, maintain, and clean up the city. With a GPS, they drive out to the desert and pinpoint the location where we can build our art: The Third Space, Project Number 18430, Location 7.30 and 1700, Inner Playa. The CD indicating our assigned location is set.
Here we are
Here are our boxes. It’s Tuesday afternoon. We have five days until Burning Man opens the gates and 60,900 people arrive. I hope we have what we need. If you have forgotten a screw, you’re screwed. The closest real store is in Reno, and that’s a 3.5-hour drive. It’s a challenge as we are all so used to running to the shop, ordering online at the last minute, and just generally having access to the world’s goods 24/7.
A quarter Million Zip Ties in the desert
The piece we are setting up is called “The Third Space,” a spider web-like seating landscape built out of a quarter million zip ties. It was created by 52 students of the Academy of Arts in Munich and its two Swiss professors and designers, Carmen and Urs Greutmann-Bolzern, based in Zurich. swissnex San Francisco arranged to bring the project here and received generous funding from Burning Man and the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia to make it happen. Alexander Rehn, who had the initial idea for the Third Space, designed the desert version, and brought with him two of his fellow students, Bianca Keck and Alexander Deubl.
(1) Build your home
You need shade, a kitchen, a living room, a bed, a shower. You start from zero. Burning Man is not only a social experiment as a city, but also for your group, your camp. You build together, and you live, eat, and sleep together in one of the most inhospitable places in the world. Everybody reaches his or her limit here. If you survive as a group, you build a unique bond. We were 15 people, and many of us didn’t know each other before. But we did well: We are still friends.
(2) Build your home
Burning Man started with a group of friends in 1986 in San Francisco celebrating the summer solstice with a beach bonfire and the ritual burning of the figure of a man. In 1991 it happened for the first time in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada with 250 people, and since then the city has grown and grown each year. In its first decade, people would be living in tents, tepees, and handmade domes, but today you see a lot of air-conditioned motor homes and RVs. That comfort kills the simplicity of the experience. And when you look around, it sometimes sadly reminds you of a trailer park. But we are old school, poor and ready for the unfettered desert experience: heat, cold, and sand everywhere. Please.
The Artery: The Artist Office
At the Artery, you check in as artists, and here you get help. But you need time. Schedules, deadlines, order, and planning ahead are all necessary, but under these conditions, it’s hard to anticipate everything. Flexibility, patience, and creative problem solving are critical. Time runs differently here. That’s why there are sofas but no chairs and desks. It does not take long until you know the staff, and even faster you get used to the fact that people have names like Meat, Makeout Queen, and Awesome Sauce and that they wear masks when they talk to you. You stop judging and you realize you’re not the weirdest kid in the classroom.
When putting together your art piece or your camp, you’ll need heavy machinery. First, you have to know exactly what you need, flag it down, talk to the operators in person (phones and email only work in certain hot spots), and then wait. Planning ahead of time does not exist, but when the machines arrive, it is an impressive spectacle. In our case, we need 3-foot by 4-foot anchors drilled in the ground with a massive motorized screwdriver on wheels, run by a pixy-like girl who weighs no more than 80 pounds. The anchors will fix our wooden beams into the ground. We have to come up with a solid structure that supports our zip-tie installation and holds up against winds that blow as fast as 90 mph.
The structure is finally standing in place
and the zipping starts.
Working dusk and dawn
Our daily working hours are 6 a.m. until noon, and then 5 p.m. until midnight. In between the heat is just insufferable.
No chance. You can’t work. And when you are lucky, you get your daily sandstorm, a whiteout that makes you unable to see, breath, move, and you ask yourself silently, “Why am I doing this?” You forget. A quarter million zip ties, in the desert? Really? You will remember why soon.
Feed the artists
It is 11 p.m. You are tired. Your skin is so dry it is peeling off. Both hands hurt and you are hungry. Suddenly, there is music, and a white ship appears on the empty horizon, approaching. You hear, “Hey, are you hungry? We have veggie, meat, and fish tacos, rice, salads, and drinks. We are Feed the Artists. Yes—we are.” And believe me, you think you are dreaming. And there it is. The moment. No taco will ever taste so good again.
The desert is a wise old teacher. It teaches you to survive, to appreciate; it shows you what is important and brings everything back to focus. It teaches you self-reliance and teamwork. It sounds cheesy, I know, but it really does. Every team-building course should happen here.
Done. Have a look. It’s prettier than we imagined. The sand makes it even more fragile. Surreal. Unreal. The plastic ties that belong anywhere else but here suddenly become one with the sand, the desert, the sky. The beauty is that you can create something like that out of the most basic material: zip ties.
Beautiful Installation, Beautiful Visitors
There is probably no more rewarding place to show your art than at Burning Man. People enjoy, people love, people are grateful; people interact emotionally with you and the piece. You forget the efforts and the painful hours immediately. In a museum or gallery setting, you have to ask people to touch the piece, to sit down. Here you have to tell them not to climb, pull, hang, or add anything.
Burning Man is a playground and should stay a playground. Even if our hearts were bleeding each time we had to fix holes and we watched the piece slowly fall apart, we remind ourselves and each other of the idea of Burning Man. It’s about the moment. It’s fleeting. Nothing is for eternity. Enjoy it now.
Everything here is just built for the moment. Most of it will be burned by the end of the week. And the beauty of it is, nobody asks why, what’s the reason, the purpose, because there is none.
It does not make sense at all, and that’s what makes it so great. People do things just because they want to do them, and they create for others to appreciate. That’s it. That’s everything.
Not Documenta, but Burning Man
Burning Man is not on the calendar of the high-art world. They travel to Documenta, the 100-day exhibition of modern art in Kassel, Germany. But there is plenty of art to see at Burning Man, including technologically complex installations, ingenious crafts, and completely meaningless bricolage.
No galleries, no collectors, no curators, no money, no VIP previews, but sometimes champagne. For once everybody can make art. And it’s on you to look for the things you like.
The best moment for an art tour is a sandstorm. Put on your goggles and drive slowly. The natural scrim diffuser makes everything appear, disappear, and creates a surrealistic and unique aesthetic you find nowhere else.
That’s why it’s so important that most of the Burning Man art stays at Burning Man. There is just no other place for it. The Black Rock Art Foundation, a sister organization founded by several Burning Man partners, supports and promotes community, interactive art, and civic participation. Sometimes they bring art back from Burning Man to civilization, like Dandelion and Valiant, the two steel flower sculptures by Karen Cusolito at Market Street in San Francisco. Sometimes it works, and sometimes not at all.
And then there is, the Temple of Juno
Built by David Best, the temple builder himself. He is back after four years with the most detailed temple ever. Thousands of intricately cut wooden panels and shapes cover the courtyard, the interior space, and the altars. People come here to let go, to forget, and on Sunday, the last day of the festival, they let the whole temple go up in flames. More than 100 volunteers build the temple. David Best is managing them like a proud father.
He has a master plan, but he created the different pieces in a way that all the workers can play around, design, and place them individually, and be creative. It makes me think about management skills. That’s exactly the balance you need to find how to provide a framework and freedom at the same time.
Interview on the Playa
Each year you have journalists from all over the world reporting from and about Burning Man. Burning Man has a year-round press team that takes care of all the photographers, moviemakers, and journalists who want to capture the Burning Man story. To protect the freedom and anonymity of all the participants, and to protect the event from commoditization, Burning Man controls, and if necessary, limits image usage, as well as all the content that goes public. Funny that the city of freedom needs to use the same methods as a number of well-known dictatorships.
Facebook Party? Who cares.
And of course there are also parties. Some Facebook engineers are also very talented DJs. We just missed Mark Zuckerberg, who was here about half an hour ago. Oh well. Googlers, Applers, Facebookers, the whole Silicon Valley is here, but of course incognito and friendly with each other.
Everybody knows that Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were at Burning Man for many years and that the green bikes, which anyone can borrow for free, are provided by Google, but with no advertisements, and nobody ever mentions the name. And this party is great, because the music is great. Who cares how the musicians make their livings?
Everything that counts and rules our daily lives—time, money, virtual communication—becomes useless and meaningless. Your phone does not work, there is nothing to buy, and after a few days you don’t really care if it’s day or night. You just sleep when you are tired. And suddenly everything becomes very light and you have time for everything else.
I am convinced that more than one good idea started here. Burning Man teaches people how to work together to create great things without any commercial return. And then those amazing things disappear. Like an unsuccessful startup that rises out of nothing and then vanishes again. But Burning Man is about making things, not keeping things. The ideas and the culture radiates and motivates to start again. The point of it all is the involvement in an extraordinary creative process.
There was this whole city, with a daily newspaper, post offices, hospitals, yoga centers, clubs, several radio stations, a TEDx conference, hundreds of events and art pieces. And then it all disappears leaving no trace at all. Like it never happened. But it did happen, and it might have changed the world just a little bit.