Burning Man

burning man

Burning Man is a week-long annual event held in the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada. The event starts on the Monday before Labor Day, and ends on the holiday itself. It takes its name from the ritual burning of a large wooden effigy on Saturday evening. The event is described by many participants as an experiment in community, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance.

Burning Man is organized by Black Rock City, LLC. In 2010, 51,515 people attended Burning Man. In 2011, attendance was capped at 50,000 participants. In 2011, Larry Harvey announced that the Org had begun the process of transitioning management of the festival over to a new non-profit called the ‘Burningman Project.’

The annual event began as a bonfire ritual on the summer solstice in 1986 when Larry Harvey, Jerry James, and a few friends met on Baker Beach in San Francisco and burned a 9-foot (2.7-meter) wooden man as well as a smaller wooden dog. Harvey has described his inspiration for burning these effigies as a spontaneous act of ‘radical self-expression.’ The event did have earlier roots, though. Sculptor Mary Grauberger, a friend of Harvey’s girlfriend Janet Lohr, held solstice bonfire gatherings on Baker Beach for several years prior to 1986, some of which Harvey attended. When Grauberger stopped organizing it, Harvey ‘picked up the torch and ran with it,’ so to speak. He and Jerry James built an 8-foot (2.4-meter) wooden effigy for 1986, which was much smaller and more crudely made than the neon-lit figure featured in the current ritual. In 1987, the effigy grew to almost 15 feet (4.6 meters) tall, and by 1988, it had grown to around 40 feet (12 meters).

Harvey swears that he did not see the movie ‘The Wicker Man’ (which also features the burning of a giant effigy) until many years later, so it played no part in his inspiration. Accordingly, rather than allow the name ‘Wicker Man’ to become the name of the ritual, he started using the name ‘Burning Man.’

In 1990, a separate event was planned by Kevin Evans and John Law on the remote and largely unknown dry lake known as Black Rock Desert, about 110 miles north of Reno. Evans conceived it as a dadaist temporary autonomous zone with sculpture to be burned and situationist performance art. He asked John Law, who also had experience on the dry lake and was a defining founder of Cacophony Society, to take on central organizing functions. In the Cacophony Society’s newsletter, it was announced as ‘Zone Trip #4, A Bad Day at Black Rock’ (inspired by the movie of that name).  The Cacophony Society is a, ‘randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society.’

Eventually, the beach burn was interrupted by the park police for not having a permit. After striking a deal to raise the Man but not to burn it, event organizers disassembled the effigy and returned it to the vacant lot where it had been built. Shortly thereafter, the legs and torso of the Man were chain-sawed and the pieces removed when the lot was unexpectedly leased as a parking lot. The effigy was reconstructed, led by Dan Miller, Harvey’s then-housemate of many years, just in time to take it to Zone Trip #4.

Michael Mikel, another active Cacophonist, realized that a group unfamiliar with the environment of the dry lake would be helped by knowledgeable persons to ensure they did not get lost in the deep dry lake and risk dehydration and death. He took the name Danger Ranger and created the Black Rock Rangers, Burning Man’s volunteer police force, who act as informal mediators when disputes arise between participants and Federal, State, or local law enforcement.

Thus the seed of Black Rock City was germinated, organized by Law and Mikel, based on Evans’ idea, along with Harvey and James’ symbolic man. Since John Law worked in the sign business, he prepared custom neon tubes for the Man in 1991 so it could be seen as a beacon at night. The community grew by word of mouth alone. It consisted of participants only. There were no paid or scheduled performers or artists, no separation between art-space and living-space, no rules other than ‘Don’t interfere with anyone else’s immediate experience’ and ‘no guns in central camp.’

1991 was the first year that the event had a legal permit with the BLM (the Bureau of Land Management). 1996 was the first year a formal partnership was created to own the name and the last year that the event was held in the middle of the Black Rock Desert and had no fence around it. Serious accidents occurring with motorized vehicles that year and pressure from county law enforcement compelled the organizers to limit driving and to create a grid of roads for all subsequent events. Rod Garrett is credited with the concentric design that continues to be used today.

Also by 1996, the land-speed-record-holding open playa had hit a critical mass with 8,000 attendees and was deemed too dangerous to continue in the same way with unrestricted driving. To implement a ban on driving and re-create the event as a pedestrian/bicycle/art car-only event, it was decided to move to private gated property. Fly Ranch with the adjoining Hualapai mini dry lake-bed just east of the Black Rock desert was chosen. This brought Burning Man into the jurisdiction of Washoe County permitting, also circumventing issues with Pershing county and the BLM. To comply with the new permit requirements and to manage the increased liability load, the organizers formed Black Rock City, LLC (a limited liability company). With the success of the driving ban, having no vehicular incidents, 1998 saw a return to the Black Rock desert; along with a temporary perimeter fence. The event has remained there since.

As the population of Black Rock city grew, further rules were established in relation to its survival. Some critics of the event cite the addition of these rules as impinging on the original freedoms, altering the experience unacceptably, while others find the increased level of activity balances out the changes. Currently the rules include: gridded streets; 5 mph (8 km/h) speed limit; ban on driving, except for approved ‘mutant vehicles’ and service vehicles; burning your own art must be done on an approved burn platform; and a ban on fireworks, firearms, and dogs.

Another notable restriction to attendees is the 7-mile-(11 km) long temporary plastic fence that surrounds the event and defines the pentagon of land used by the event on the southern edge of the Black Rock dry lake. This 4-foot (1.2 meter) high barrier is known as the ‘trash fence’ because its initial use was to catch wind-blown debris that might escape from campsites during the event. Since 2002, the area beyond this fence has not been accessible to Burning Man participants during the week of the event.

At 1:25 AM on August 28, 2007, at the exact moment of the Total Lunar Eclipse, Paul Addis, a well known, longtime Burning Man participant and gadfly of BMorg (the Burning Man Organization), who had previously pranked the Man as early as 1997, set the Man on fire four days ahead of schedule. A replacement effigy was built on-site and installed in time to be burned on Saturday as planned. In June 2008, he pled guilty to the felony charge of destruction of property over $5,000 and was sentenced to 1–4 years in prison. Addis is reported to have been granted parole effective 2010.

In 2011, Larry Harvey announced that the LLC was beginning a three-year process to transfer ownership and control of the event over to a new non-profit organization called the ‘Burningman Project.’ The move towards becoming a non-profit organization was the result of ‘bitter infighting’ between members of the board. At one point it looked like all of the board members were going to hire lawyers. Corporate appraisers were brought in to determine how much the company was worth, which Larry Harvey found ‘abhorrent’ and against all of the values that Burning Man stood for.

An earlier agreement stated that each member of the LLC would only receive ‘sole compensation for many years of service, a golden parachute of $20,000.’ But the board members all agreed to an out of court settlement in which each member of the board would receive undisclosed sums.

Marian Goodell, board member and head of communication, addressed concerns about the lack of transparency with this statement: ‘When you’re in the middle of a storm, if you’re going to explain all of how you got there, and how you’re going to get out, it often sets more panic among the survivors than if you just sail the boat out of the darkness.’

Because of the variety of goals fostered by participatory attendees, known as ‘Burners,’ Burning Man does not have a single focus. Features of the event are subject to the participants and include community, artwork, absurdity, decommodification and revelry. Participation is encouraged.

The Burning Man event is governed by 10 principles, which are radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy. Radical inclusion means that anyone who can afford a ticket is gladly welcomed and there are no prerequisites to be part of Burning Man. All participants are expected to provide for their own basic needs and follow the minimal rules of the event.

Instead of cash, event participants are encouraged to rely on a gift economy, a sort of potlatch (a Native American gift giving ceremony). In the earliest days of the event, an underground barter economy also existed, in which burners exchanged ‘favors’ with each other. While this was originally supported by the Burning Man organization, this is now largely discouraged. Instead, burners are encouraged to give gifts to one another unconditionally.

Decommodification requires that no cash transactions are permitted between attendees of the event, which is in accordance with the principles of Burning Man. Cash can be used for a select few charity, fuel and sanitation vendors as follows: Café beverages such as coffee, chai, lemonade, etc., which are sold at Center Camp Café, operated by the organizers of the event; ice (sales benefit the local school system); tickets for the shuttle bus to the nearest town; re-entry wristband; airport use fee, payable at the airport upon first entry; diesel and biodiesel sold by third-party contractors; RV dump service and camp graywater disposal service; and private portable toilets and servicing, which can be arranged with the official contractor.

Radical self-reliance refers to the event’s harsh environment and remote location, in which participants are expected to be responsible for their own subsistence. Since the LLC forbids any commerce, participants must be prepared and bring all their own supplies with the exception of the items stated in Decommodification.

Participants are encouraged to express themselves in a number of ways through various art forms and projects. The event is clothing-optional and public nudity is common, though not practiced by the majority.

Participants are encouraged to work with and help fellow participants. Participants are encouraged to assume responsibility and be part of a civil society in which federal, state and local laws are obeyed and communicate this to other participants. Participants are committed to a ‘leave no trace’ event. They strive to leave the area around them in better condition than before their arrival to ensure that their participation does not have a long-term impact on the environment.

Burning Man is about participation, and participants are encouraged to become part of the event, to experience who and what is around them and to explore their inner selves and their relation to the event.

Art on the dry lake is assisted by the Artery, which helps artists place their art in the desert and ensures lighting (to prevent accidental collisions), burn-platform (to protect the integrity of the dry lake bed), and fire-safety requirements are met.

Since 1995, a different theme has been created, ostensibly by Larry Harvey, for each year’s event. For 2006, the theme was ‘Hope and Fear,’ and for 2007, it was ‘The Green Man.’ The 2011 theme was ‘Rites of Passage.’ It determines to some extent the design of the Man (although his design and construction, while evolutionary, has remained relatively unchanged) and especially the structure on which he stands (an Observatory for ‘Vault of Heaven,’ a Lighthouse for ‘The Floating World’). These themes also greatly affect the designs that participants employ in their artworks, costumes, camps and vehicles.

Burning Man primarily features outsider art and visionary art, though a great variety of art forms appear during the event. Creative expression through the arts and interactive art are encouraged at Burning Man. Numerous Theme Camps, registered and placed by the LLC, are created as event and residence centers by sizable sub-communities of participants and use extensive design and artistic elements to engage the greater community and meet the LLC’s interactivity requirements. Music, performance and guerrilla street theatre are art forms commonly presented within the camps and developed areas of the city. Adjacent to the city, the dry lake bed of Lake Lahontan serves as a tabula rasa for hundreds of isolated artworks, ranging from small to very large-scale art installations, often sculptures with kinetic, electronic and fire elements.

Artwork is generally viewed as a gift that the artist makes to the community, although art grants are available to participants from the LLC via a system of curation and oversight, with application deadlines early in the year. Grants are intended to help artists produce work beyond the scope of their own means, and are generally intended to cover only a portion of the costs associated with creation of the pieces, usually requiring considerable reliance on an artist’s community resources. Aggregate funding for all grants varies depending on the number and quality of the submissions (usually well over 100) but amounts to several percent (on the order of $500,000 in recent years) of the gross receipts from ticket sales. In 2006, 29 pieces were funded.

Various standards regarding the nature of the artworks eligible for grants are set by the Art Department of the LLC, but compliance with the theme and interactivity are important considerations. This funding has fostered artistic communities, most notably in the Bay Area of California, the region that has historically provided a majority of the event’s participants. There are active and successful outreach efforts to enlarge the regional scope of the event and the grant program. Among these is the Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF).

While BRAF does not fund any installations for the event itself, it relies on the donations from the LLC for a significant portion of its funding, and does facilitate presentation of work created for the event in outside venues as well as offering its own grants for artworks that typify interactivity and other principles and traditions the event.

Mutant Vehicles, often motorized, are purpose-built or creatively altered cars and trucks. Participants who wish to bring motorized mutant vehicles must submit their designs in advance to the event’s own DMV or ‘Department of Mutant Vehicles’ for approval and for physical inspection at the time of the event. Not all designs and proposals are accepted. The event organizers, and in turn the DMV, have set the bar higher for what it deems an acceptable MV each year, in effect capping the number of Mutant Vehicles. This is in response to constraints imposed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which grants permits to hold the event on federal property, and to participants who want to maintain a pedestrian-friendly environment.

Vehicles that are minimally altered, and/or whose primary function is to transport participants, are discouraged or rejected. One of the criteria the DMV employs to determine whether an application for a proposed Mutant Vehicle is approved is ‘can you recognize the base vehicle.’ For example, if a 1967 VW van covered with glitter, dolls’ heads and old cooking utensils can still be recognized as a VW van, it is considered to be ‘decorated not mutated’ and is less likely to be approved. This criterion led to the exclusion of some ‘Art Cars,’ which historically have been a staple of the event. There were over six hundred approved Mutant Vehicles at the event in 2010.

Bicycles and tricycles are extremely popular for getting around on the dry lake. Mountain bikes are generally preferred over road bikes for riding on the dried silt, which is normally hard but becomes loose with traffic. Participants often decorate their bikes to make them unique. Since lighting on the bikes is critically important for safety at night, many participants incorporate the lighting into their decorations, using electroluminescent wire (a thin, flexible tube that glows with a neon-like effect when energized with electricity) to create intricate patterns over the frame of the bike. Every night during the festival, thousands of bikes and art cars drive around, creating a visual display similar to Las Vegas at night, except that the lights are mobile.

Beginning in 2010, a series of short films selected from around the world screened as part of the Black Rock City International Film Festival, whose name was shortened to Black Rock Film Festival in 2011. 29 films were selected for the inaugural 2010 festival, which spanned four evenings. Ten films were selected to screen on the climactic evening of the burning of the Man.

In addition to the burning of the Man, the burning of a Temple has become an activity at the event. David Best’s temple projects were ritually burned from 2000 to 2004. In 2005, Best stepped aside to allow for another artist, Mark Grieve, to build his own interpretation of a Temple. Grieve’s temples were seen in both 2005 and 2006. However, in 2007 David Best took over the temple building duties for one last time. Best has stated that it is time to hand the Temple over to the community, and in 2008 the ‘Basura Sagrada’ Temple was a collaboration of Shrine and Tucker Teutsch 3.0, built with the extensive help of their friends and the greater Burning Man community.

In 2009, the ‘Fire of Fires’ Temple for Burning Man was built in Texas. In 2010, the ‘Temple of Flux’ was designed and orchestrated by artists Rebecca Anders, Jess Hobbs and Peter (pk.) Kimelman who formed the Flux Foundation (a non-profit group based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose main objective is to build community through the creation of large-scale public art). This group was notable for drawing from a broad section of the Burning Man community, including the large-scale sound camps and other existing BM art groups.

The Flux Foundation has since continued to make large-scale public art outside of Burning Man. The Temple of Flux broke from tradition and was highly abstract in nature, appearing as a series of landforms with canyon and cave-like spaces. The tradition of participants inscribing on the surfaces of the piece has continued though all of the iterations and are usually of a highly personal nature. The 2011 Temple was the first Temple built in Reno, Nevada. The International Arts Megacrew, helmed by Chris ‘Kiwi’ Hankins, Diarmaid ‘Irish’ Horkan and Ian ‘Beave’ Beaverstock returned to a more traditional style. ‘The Temple of Transition’ took the form of a 120-foot tiered, hexagonal central tower, surrounded by five 58-foot tiered, hexagonal towers. The towers were vaulted and lofty, cut with a profusion of gothic style arches.

Black Rock City, often abbreviated to BRC, is the name of the temporary city created by Burning Man participants. Much of the layout and general city infrastructure is constructed by Department of Public Works (DPW) volunteers who often reside in Black Rock City for several weeks before and after the event. The remainder of the city including theme camps, villages, art installations and individual camping are all created by participants.

The developed part of the city is currently arranged as a series of concentric streets in an arc composing, since 1999, two-thirds of a 1.5-mile (2.4-km) diameter circle with the Man Sculpture and his supporting complex at the very center). Radial streets, sometimes called Avenues, extend from the Man to the outermost circle. The outlines of these streets are visible on aerial photographs.

The innermost street is named the Esplanade, and the remaining streets are given names to coincide with the overall theme of the burn, and ordered in ways such as alphabetical order or stem to stern, to make them easier to recall. For example, in 1999, for the ‘Wheel of Time’ theme, and again in 2004 for ‘The Vault of Heaven’ theme, the streets were named after the planets of the solar system. The radial streets are usually given a clock designation, for example, 6:00 or 6:15, in which the Man is at the center of the clock face and 12:00 is in the middle of the third of the arc lacking streets (usually at a bearing of 60° true from the Man).

These avenues have been identified in other ways, notably in 2002, in accordance with ‘The Floating World’ theme, as the degrees of a compass, for example 175 degrees, and in 2003 as part of the ‘Beyond Belief’ theme as adjectives (‘Rational, Absurd’) that caused every intersection with a concentric street (named after concepts of belief such as ‘Authority, Creed’) to form a phrase such as ‘Absurd Authority’ or ‘Rational Creed.’ However, these proved unpopular with participants due to difficulty in navigating the city without the familiar clock layout.

The Black Rock City Airport is constructed adjacent to the city, typically on its southern side. The airport serves a variety of aviation traffic, including private airplanes, helicopters, hot air balloons, ultralights, gliders, and skydivers.

Center Camp is located along the mid line of Black Rock City, facing the Man at the 6:00 position on the Esplanade. This area serves as a central meeting place for the entire city as well as contains the Center Camp Cafe, Camp Arctica and a number of other city institutions.Villages and theme camps are located along the innermost streets of Black Rock City, often offering entertainment or services to participants. Theme camps are usually a collective of people representing themselves under a single identity. Villages are usually a collection of smaller theme camps which have banded together in order to share resources and vie for better placement. Theme camps and villages often form to create an atmosphere in Black Rock City that their group envisioned. As Burning Man grows every year it attracts an even more diverse crowd. Subcultures form around theme camps at Black Rock City similar to what can be found in other cities.

The Burning Man event is heavily dependent on a large number of volunteers. Black Rock City is patrolled by various local and state law enforcement agencies as well as the Bureau of Land Management Rangers. Burning Man also has its own in-house group of volunteers, the Black Rock Rangers, who act as informal mediators when disputes arise between participants and law enforcement.

Firefighting, emergency medical services (EMS), mental health, and communications support is provided by the volunteer Black Rock City Emergency Services Department (ESD). Three “M*A*S*H”-like stations are set up in the city: station 3, 6 and 9. Station 6 is staffed by physicians and nurses working with REMSA, the Reno based ambulance provider, while Stations 3 and 9 are staffed by Black Rock City ESD personnel. While Station 3 and 9 provide emergency services and Basic Life Support, the volunteers are generally doctors, nurses, EMTs/paramedics, and firefighters. Both station 3 and 9 have a small fire engine available in addition to a smaller four-wheel drive fire suppression unit and Quick response vehicle for medical emergencies.

Supporters of Burning Man point out that participants are encouraged to leave no trace (LNT) of their visit to Black Rock City (BRC) and not to contaminate the area with litter, commonly known as MOOP (Matter Out Of Place). Despite the BLM and LLC’s insistence on the practice of LNT, the amount of residual trash at the site has increased over the years.

At one time, burning was allowed to take place directly on the ground of the playa, but this practice allowed burn scars to form and was discontinued. Burn scars left from 1996 (numbering 250) were finally eradicated in 2000 due to pressure from BLM Winnemucca district director Terry Reid, who was alerted to scars remaining by two of the founders of the Friends of Black Rock / High Rock (Garth Elliott & Sue Weeks). Some believe burn scars (fired clay-like playa surface) could take thousands of years to weather away. On the last day, public shared burn areas are prepared for participants to use. While Burning Man does provide instructions on how to build a Burn Platform and what not to burn, there are concerns on whether some participants do not follow these instructions to the detriment of the environment and the participants.

Even water is not to be dumped on the playa, and used shower water must be captured and either evaporated off, or collected and carried home with each participant. Methods used for evaporating water normally include a plastic sheet with a wood frame. The playa dust often blows into these catch basins and some participants end up with a muddy mess to take home. Careful design of small scale evaporating ponds has become an engineering competition, to see what works best.

The Bureau of Land Management, which maintains the desert, has very strict requirements for the event. These stipulations include trash cleanup, removal of burn scars, dust abatement, and capture of fluid drippings from participant vehicles. For four weeks after the event has ended, the Black Rock City Department of Public Works (BRC – DPW) Playa Restoration Crew remains in the desert, cleaning up after the temporary city in an effort to make sure that no evidence of the event remains.

Burning Man’s carbon dioxide footprint is primarily from transportation to the remote area. The CoolingMan organization has estimated that the 2006 Burning Man was responsible for the generation of 27,000 tons of carbon dioxide, with 87% being from transportation to and from the remote location. The Sierra Club has criticized Burning Man for the ‘hundreds of thousands’ of plastic water bottles that end up in landfills, as well as ostentatious displays of flames and explosions. In 2007 Burning Man’s ‘Green Man’ theme received criticism for ‘Crude Awakening,’ the 99-foot oil derrick that consumed 900 gallons of jet fuel and 2,000 gallons of liquid propane to blast a mushroom cloud 300 feet high into the sky. In an attempt to offset some of the event’s carbon footprint, 30- and 50-kilowatt solar arrays were constructed in 2007 as permanent artifacts, providing an estimated annual carbon offset of 559 tons.

The terms of the Burning Man ticket require that participants wishing to use video-recording equipment (including, in practice, most digital cameras) sign over copyright in their images to Black Rock City, and forbid them from using their images for anything other than personal and private use. This has been criticized by many, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

A Burning Man spokeswoman replied that the policies are not new, were written by a former head of the EFF, were used when suing to block pornographic videos and ultimately arose from participant concerns: ‘We’re proud that Black Rock City (a private event held on public land) is widely acknowledged as a bastion of creative freedom. [B]ut that protection [of participants’ freedoms] does necessitate the acceptance of some general terms of engagement when it comes to cameras… EFF seems to think that anyone attending any event somehow has an absolute right to take photographs, and then to do whatever they want with those images without any effective restriction or manner of enforcement. While we believe that such rights do make sense for any of us taking pictures in purely public spaces, this is not true in the private space of Burning Man — if it were it would mean that Burning Man couldn’t protect participant privacy or prevent commercialization of imagery.’ The Burning Man organization has since worked with the EFF and with Creative Commons and other parties, and has revised and clarified the photography policies.

In recent years, burners wishing to experience Burning Man more frequently than once per year, without the need for travel to Nevada, or otherwise free from the specific restrictions of the Black Rock City event, have banded together to create local regional events such as SOAK in Oregon; Critical Massive near Seattle; InterFuse in Missouri; Lakes of Fire in Michigan; Element 11 in Utah, Xara Dulzura and Fuego de los Muertos in San Diego; Apogaea in Colorado; Playa del Fuego in Delaware; Firefly in New England; Burning Flipside in Texas; AuraMan in Indiana; Recompression near Vancouver, British Columbia; Kiwiburn in New Zealand; Burning Seed in Australia; Rebirth in Hawaii; ‘Source’ in Maui; Transformus in North Carolina; Alchemy in Georgia; Saguaro Man in Arizona; Freezer Burn between Edmonton and Calgary; AfrikaBurn in South Africa; and NoWhere near Zaragoza in Spain.

Some of the events are officially affiliated with the Burning Man organization via the Burning Man Regional Network. This official affiliation usually requires the event to conform to certain standards outlined by the Burning Man organization, and to be substantially coordinated by a ‘Burning Man Regional Contact,’ a volunteer organizer with an official relationship to the Burning Man Project via a legal Letter of Agreement. In exchange for conforming to these standards, the event is granted permission to officially advertise as a Burning Man Regional Event.

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