with Matt Wray, Benjamin Grant and Rod Garrett
Rock City lives only for one week in the middle of a desert, in Nevada
It offers a unique possibility to live for one week in a city which
is planned to host thousands people experiencing and making other people
experience a direct, alive relationship with art or anything which resembles
ROBERTO ZANCAN. Black Rock City offers much space for art installation and performance of any kind; it is impossible to find as much space in a traditional city. Why did you choose to do so?
Garrett is the architect of Black Rock City. With Larry Harvey,
Will Roger, Harley Dubois, and other staff members, he originates its
annual plan. Moreover, the tensometric structure that houses the central
café, the 2000's giant Laser Man and the 2001's Temple of Enlightenment
were devised by him.
GARRETT. Black Rock City is a grand celebration of creativity and the
arts. One need have no credentials or invitation. There are no competitions
or reviews. Featureless space can be your gallery or theater, the sun
and moon your lighting, and thousands of open minds as your audience.
It is another way to give an opportunity to find or extend the creative
spirit. Imagination is the only limit, and that seems nearly as vast
as the desert. Radical self-expression and self-reliance are key to
What are the difficulties and the opportunities of designing and building a city that lives only for one week per year?
It is a privilege: not often in this life one may design a city and see it built. The logistics of building and administering for thirty or forty thousand people in a vast desert far from urban sources –a place with extreme high temperatures and massive dust storms, even rain and mud– are challenging. This is further complicated by the financial and legal requirements of various local and national agencies.
How did you create the different areas for the art installation?
As our city has grown in size, we have learned how to differentiate and separate various special uses. Staff and volunteers mark out the various sites and place the appropriate people or works of art. Many large sculptures are placed in the central open zone far from any community areas. By this we mean to lure participants away from the settlement and into open space.
How much time and money does it take to build the city?
The process is a total of three months including the preparatory work, the actual construction and the final clean up, but it takes planning the year around to prepare for this. There are several full time employees who work year round on the construction aspect. About eighty paid staff and contractors working. Hundreds of volunteers also work in the construction and cleanup of Black Rock City. An argument could be made that all citizens of Black Rock City participate in its construction and cleanup. The overall budget for the entire project is now around 7 million dollars. The actual city construction is in the 2 million dollar range.
How do you create population densities to obtain more social interactions?
We are redefining our zoning to break the city down into smaller, more humanly scaled neighbourhoods. This becomes increasingly necessary as our population continues to grow while still using the old camp centric model. Populations, in their desire for that human scale, are driven to choose divisive ways to break the population into smaller units, resulting in grouping through the exclusion of others. By visually suggesting smaller areas, we can create divisions of a size the mind can wrap itself around. This should lead to the use of these more inclusive physical boundaries, rather than forcing people to create exclusive social boundaries. Such change is easily possible for us, as we must completely rebuild our city each year.
What are the fundamental criteria that have affected the conception of the city?
The lack of physical features in the desert, plus the heat and altitude combined with crowds and sometimes intoxicants, can create disorientation. Therefore, by placing the large figure of Burning Man at the apex of the city we created an omnipresent visual bearing. The radial streets each afford a clear vista of this hub, which also serves as a cohesive icon for the city. Around that, the plan's bilateral symmetry effects an optimum traffic distribution, moving people and goods efficiently. Black Rock City has a gift economy, wherein there is no money, no commerce, but only the gift of service or goods. Our population brings what it needs, and takes it away as well. Within a week of the event, staff and volunteers have erased almost all signs of our presence. Within two weeks it is virtually pristine – weather permitting. We have the largest "Leave No Trace" event in the USA, and perhaps in the world.
How are the minimum services decided (washrooms, irrigation trench, etc.)?
We supply only those things which cannot reasonably be brought by the participant. This consists primarily of medical assistance (including helicopter transport), law enforcement (our own Ranger staff is used for applying rules and settling disputes) and fire protection (we had a tent burn once), portable toilets, ice, and espresso (this is for Civilization).
Are there some "imposed" localization to the activities built by participants (for example places for discos, fire games, etc.)?
We found that we could accommodate large "Sound Art Installations" (Rave Camps) without overwhelming the city at all hours, by locating them at the two ends of our crescent city – with their huge speakers facing away from the interior. We also reserve a zone on the outer perimeter for "Walk-in Camping", for those who wish less congestion, and are willing to hand carry all their goods in. Additionally, we zone large areas for "Theme Camps". These are pre-registered displays of various arts and services. We provide "Burn Platforms" for participants to do large fire events having protection of the earth from being scorched. We provide Health Care and Ranger centers at the two Plazas (our secondary civic centers), and these services and many more at City Center – around the central Cafe.
Did the landscape with no edges or limits affect the project? Had the latter any relationship with the American desert imagery?
The city plan is crescent shaped, being purposely left open on one side. This inevitably causes one's attention to be pulled out of the settlement and into the vastness of the Black Rock Desert. This reminder of the infinite is meant to evoke a connection between the fathomless universe we live in and the small world we have created within it.
What is your relationship with these buildings and with the fact that they are destroyed at the end of Burning Man?
The 4,000 m2 Café structure consists primarily of polypropylene netting and steel cable, and was designed to withstand the extremes of sun and wind. Due to environmental concerns we would not consider burning it, instead it is taken down and reassembled each year. As with the event itself, this structure is transitory and can be the most beautiful and dynamic when creating massive whirlpools of smoke and flame. It was designed for that purpose, and we might consider whether it is truly destroyed while it still resides in memory.
Are there other hidden or manifested symbols in the form of the city and of its parts?
If here are some pleasing geometries and numbers in the plan, but they have resulted from more practical concerns; namely incorporating traditions, public safety issues, logistical needs, environmental conditions, politics, social ideals, etc. Indeed, any positive aesthetic result from a scheme became a prime indicator of the rightness of the practical solution – as in "form follows function". The Temple has developed into a construction directly related to the theme of the year's event, while the Café is purely functional, and the Burning Man more of a symbolic tradition than a representation of particular meaning.
What do you think the thin fencing around the city represents: a border between a possible utopia and reality, a technical device to prevent uncontrolled entries and contain garbage or a quite invisible screen?
The pentagon that marks our city's external boundary was dictated by our economic need to create one controllable entry point, as well as the need to limit our footprint in the surrounding environment (due to the concerns of other recreational land users), and also our need to protect our community from vehicles moving across the desert at high speed.
We had erected a small fence downwind to collect trash years before, but in 2000 we were required to make a complete boundary around the city. The most efficient and obvious solution was a circle, but that could not work as it lacked any straight lines of sight for security. A triangle or square, while requiring the minimum number of vantages for sight lines, both enclosed too much unutilized space in the corners and presented too large a perimeter. Six sides required too many security points, so the present shape became the sole option by default. The Utopia we provide is quite real. Although the event is temporary, the impressions and values appear to last, and this small fence does not constrain the human spirit.
How does the plan interact with the site?
The original '97 city concept was initiated as a scalable framework for future growth. The original Burning Man camp was like an Old West "circling of the wagons", with the figure of the Burning Man ancillary to it. Eventually the camp was made to open on one side in order to provide a visual connection to the Man, but still, the administration and services were located in "Camp Center" with the campers ringed around it.
Although the Man became the new locus of the city plan, the older Camp Center was incorporated into the middle of the surrounding arc as the primary zone for administration and services. As with many urban areas, our city's vestigial beginnings may still be found at its heart. Now, due to increased population and distances, we are in the process of creating secondary areas for the additional distribution of services.
Both the City Center and these satellite areas have the traditional fan shaped opening into the open space surrounding the Man. This space, in turn, fans out – opening into the greater Black Rock Desert.
We have purposely not completed the circle so that nature can intrude.
ROBERTO ZANCAN. Can the "Burning Man experience" be said to redefine in some way the private and the public sphere?
Wray is regularly present at Burning Man. He teach at Department
of Sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.in Las Vegas. and
actually is a Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar at Harvard
WRAY. The relation between public and private sphere is not so much
redefined as it is placed into a new symbolic context, where transgressions
of traditional boundaries—such as the ones that separate the public
and private spheres—are sanctioned and encouraged. Burning Man
is a zone of sanctioned transgression of social boundaries. This links
it more to the traditions of carnival and surrealism than to any narrative
about the deconstruction or remaking of modernity. Burning Man offers
a temporary space for the pleasures and dangers of crossing and blurring
the lines we draw around our personal and public identities.
Are there any clear reasons for the rupture with the conventional boundaries? Has it evolved through the different performances?
It is not a rupture as much as it is an intentional crossing or blurring of boundaries. The playa is full of countless acts of such transgressions—from the satirical mocking of mainstream political figures and concepts, to the elevation and ironic adoration of the stigmatized, the despised and the grotesque.
Why do so many people look for this peculiar situation where money is banned and trading is replaced by a "gift economy"?
In any given network of friends and acquaintances, gift exchange is a common, even necessary mechanism for effecting solidarity and the sense of "we-ness" that functions as a kind of social glue that holds our little communities together. But seldom is a gift economy the basic principle of interaction with strangers. At Burning Man, the gift economy has been enshrined as a basic moral principle governing social exchange. This is one of the most significant aspects of the event and what makes it different from any other event of its size on earth.
How do people interact with each other? What sort of social intercourse is there?
Interactions range from the utterly banal and ordinary (two strangers pass one another in the half-light of the moon. One says "hello." The other replies with "Hi." That is all that is said.) to the emotionally and sexually dramatic (a women high on Ecstasy pulls a man -a stranger to her- from the crowd and begins to perform oral sex on him in front of a cheering crowd of onlookers/voyeurs). The range of human interactions is considerably greater than one experiences in the off-playa world, as many participants are engaged in sustained performances of alternative identities.
How do people move in the site during the event?
Beginning in the late 1990s, the event banned all motor vehicles, except for a small number of "art-cars." Bikes and feet are now the only legal form of transportation for the vast majority of residents. And with "bikes" I do not mean just the ordinary two wheeled variety. Participants are extraordinarily creative and ingenious when it comes to their bikes. This was a brilliant innovation as it reduced both traffic related fatalities and accidents, which were growing in number and addressed concerns about environmental impacts and degradation that cars inevitably bring.
In the site some traditional laws of urban living have been removed (such as business trade, dressing, private property, public utilities) and replaced with new unwritten laws for a "leave no traces" settlement: is it possible that those new social rules are bringing that community (and the community in general) to a different type of living?
It was certainly the case in the early years of Burning Man that participants in the event eschewed conventional laws and morality, but such is hardly the case anymore. With massive population growth (from a few hundred participants in 1992 to 32,000 in 2002) has come a greater emphasis on safety and law and order. The pressures have been both internal (a settlement of this size must have order and public safety to help ensure physical survival of the participants) and external (the governmental agencies that oversee the annual permitting process place non-negotiable demands on event organizers to meet safety regulations and to promote adherence to local laws and community standards).
Actually, the laws of settlement are everywhere: on road signs, on the central camp bulletin boards, in many daily newspapers and 'zines, in the fifteen page survival guide distributed both in advance and at the gate. The rules are regularly broadcast by some of the camp's radio stations (and there are twelve of them, or more). Nowadays, even the tickets to the event are printed with the legal proscriptions about what is allowed and what is not on the playa. And the first rule which is worth repeating is: "By accepting this ticket you voluntarily assume the risk of injury or death". Despite this rather alarming language, burning Man has evolved, over the years, into something more like ordinary living. This is not a criticism on my part, nor it is nostalgia for a golden era of Burning Man. It is an empirical observation based on my 11 years of participation in the event. I am quite comfortable with how structured the event has become.
But is a creative urban culture is still alive there? Is it either a sign of a new authentic anti-urban movement or an unavoidable glorification of the urban virtues?
Even though Burning Man takes place in a remote rural county in northwest Nevada -with a population density of about 1 person per square mile- it would be a mistake to think of the event as anti-urban. In fact, Burning Man becomes for a short time each year the fourth or fifth largest city in the entire state of Nevada. The participants themselves are overwhelmingly from West Coast urban centers -Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles- and they have to a large extent tried to recreate on the playa what they like best about cities: cafes, bars, public art, museums of sorts—these are among the many diversions that the hundreds of "theme camps" -organized collectives of burners devoted to producing a unique experience for other burners- offer each year.
Traditionally, the city plan has reflected this intentional effort to celebrate urbanism by concentrating theme camps in the inner circle and around the esplanade -the camp's main thoroughfare separating the residential area from the wide open space surrounding the man. Here the camps share a common power grid and benefit from public illumination at night. This is the city center and its energies radiate out along the esplanade in each direction. In 2005, this traditional plan was altered to distribute these energies more widely throughout the entire city by extending theme camps deeper into the outer rings of settlement.
Nonetheless, center camp remains very much the focal point. Here we can see flanuers and flaneuses of all kinds -strolling through a cityscape that is at once familiar and strange. There are the little diversions and distractions of the city-arcade, but nothing –nothing- is for sale. Here is where Black Rock City is different from all other cities—there are no markets, save one. One can buy coffee and ice in the Central Camp, but nowhere will one find anything else for sale. If Burning Man is in any way anti-urban, it lies in this stunning, solitary fact. This is a space that is militantly set against the unbridled consumerism of the modern city. Granted, one must pay a steep gate fee (tickets are around $200 or more) to access this space of anti-consumerism, but such are the contradictions and ironies of attempting to construct and maintain such a recurring space within the limits of a consumer/capitalist society.
How is the Burning Man's utopian related to American desert imaginary? Can you explain to us the reasons of these relations?
As has often been noted by Burning Man enthusiasts, the world's deserts have given rise to the some of the world's great religions. Something about the desert seems to evoke monotheistic visions of the meaning of it all, they are fond of saying. In the modern era, the desert has been viewed by many Americans as just an empty place, a void, a negative space that has no intrinsic value, outside of whatever gems and precious metals it might yield. Black Rock Desert in particular was viewed by European Americans as a place to get through, a place to survive en route to the Garden of Eden that was California. Of course, the desert was never the empty lifeless void the Euro-Americans imagined it to be. For native inhabitants like the Shoshone, Utes, and Paiutes it was a place of dwelling, full of spiritual significance and life giving qualities.
In Burning Man we are witnessing a new group, comprised mostly of Euro-Americans, who are redefining the meanings of the desert as a place of spiritual significance and life affirming qualities.
I think what is attractive about the playa is that it accepts whatever meanings one projects onto it. In that sense, the desert is a natural corollary to the figure of the Man -both cry out for interpretation and both become the locus of personal and communal meaning making.
Is there a relation between the ephemeral and mobile character of Black Rock City and the West-Coast tradition of alternative constructions? And also can you find a relation between the Burning Man's installations and the utopian coast dream?
The sources of inspiration for structures and installations are vast and varied and no single tradition can be credited with providing the impetus for design. In our camp alone, we have had a tipi, a yurt, a Bedouin tent of jute and bamboo, with burlap sides, and several geodesic domes of various sizes, all of which were handmade and all of which survived the ferocious wind and dust storms of years past. We have reused these structures year after year with great success. There are temporary and ephemeral, but reusable and durable. They grow out of a nomadic consciousness.
Regarding Black Rock City, what may be of greatest interest is its openness, it vastness, the scale of its expansiveness, the way these combine to spark the architectural imagination. One wants to build. I have seen what are to me some of the most beautiful structures on earth created at Burning Man, but also some of the most hideous and pitiful. It is the range -from the sublime to the absurd, from the awe-inspiring to the comically ugly- that makes Burning Man both an architectural dream and a nightmare.
In some respects, Burning Man is just the latest in a long history of experimentation with utopian community in California and the West. In the late nineteenth century, intentional communities sprang up all over California as groups of Americans, large and small, disenchanted with the social changes brought on by early industrialism and urbanization, sought to establish alternative ways of living in the modern era. Invariably, in looking forward to a new, more perfect future society, these modernist utopians invariably looked backward. In the face of urbanization, utopian communitarians invariably reached back to pre-modern agrarian principles -these early back-to-the-landers sought refuge from the ills of city life in the salubrious work regimes of the collective farm. In the face of increasing bureaucratization of social life and the thorough going rationalization and scientific management of the workplace, these communitarians celebrated the arts and crafts and sought to rediscover primitive spiritual disciplines and to renew an ancient, mystical, pagan communion with nature. They were, in effect, the first American hippies and New Agers.
It seems to me that just as modernist utopians looked backward to move forward, so too do many of the participants in Burning Man. Only this time, many are looking back not to agrarianism and arts and crafts, but to modernity and monopoly capitalism. I'm thinking of the popularity of what I'll term "nostalgic industrialism" as an aesthetic form on the playa -the flaming robotic machines which serve little purpose other than to inspire terror and awe, the many fossil-fuel powered displays of raw steel energy, and other dinosaurs of the factory age. Or, in a campier vein, one encounters again and again the satirical treatment of 1950s aesthetics, in the form of Tiki lounges and other ironic statements on modern suburban life, all of these have been popular at past Burns and all exude a kind of nostalgic industrialism, albeit one laced with post-modern irony.
While it is possible for this pastiche of modernist elements to devolve into a rather hackneyed post-modern formalism, it is by no means the only or even the dominant aesthetic of Burning Man. For there are as well at every Burn those who turn to the pre-modern and pre-capitalist, ransacking the ancient rituals of pagan earth magic for their performances. For example, the atavistic, pagan, Wicker Man-like construction of the Man itself evokes for many an antediluvian era and provokes a primitive aura. In contrast, there are those who reach ahead to imagined futures, futures where bodies and technologies are no longer thought of as separate and antagonistic, but as beautiful cybernetic unities. This unusual and often jarring juxtaposition of different temporalities is one of the reasons that Burning Man is very hard to describe and why its aesthetics cannot be reduced to any simple form.
Are the youth attending Black Rock city aware that the burning man experience has become in some way ritualized or even institutionalized?
If by "ritualized" and institutionalized" one means to suggest that the event has lost something it once had -a spontaneity, a wildness, a creative spark- then I don't think those words are entirely accurate. But if by these words you are suggesting something positive and innovative, then they are apt.
First, let me say that it is difficult to imagine that those who are new to the event have any sense of how it has changed over the years. This question is important for it speaks to one of the difficulties of building community in a temporary built environment like Burning Man; namely, that one important aspect of community solidarity is a sense of shared history -a shared narrative and representation that tells us not only who we were, but who we are, and who we are becoming. How does one accomplish this with respect to an event that has grown precipitously over the last decade and is intentionally ephemeral, and that as a result of these two conditions, must assimilate, in one short week, thousands of new participants every year? The answer is that you develop rituals and institutions specifically geared to this task.
Anthropologists and sociologists hold a strong consensus that rituals and institutions are in any society the key mechanisms for socializing and acculturating new members and for allowing older generations to pass on their collective knowledge and memory to younger generations. Without some kinds of ritual and without key institutions, we have no way of building solidarity -no way of creating that sense of shared history, that can bind us, however, loosely, into a collective identity as "Burners."
There is no doubt that many participants in Burning Man feel that the dominant institutions and rituals of mainstream society are oppressive and distorting to the human spirit. Yet, ironically perhaps, the important institutions and rituals that we encounter at Burning Man are quite similar to the one we find in the off-playa world: religious sanctuaries; mass media; affinity and peer groups; games, sports, and ludic spaces; tribes and families; public safety and medical assistance, and so on. Burning Man is not about rejecting the idea of rituals and institutions -far from it. Instead, Burning Man provides a space for the celebration, subversive, reconfiguration and elaboration of common rituals and institutions and for the invention of new ones as well.
Do you think that the young people's participation in the Burning Man events can be interpreted less as an incipient critique to consumerism than as an embryonic realization of that new impossible society made of peace, solidarity, and abolition of private property (perhaps with some no-global undertones)?
Peace, solidarity, and a "No Logo" philosophy are no doubt part of the Burning Man ethos, but I doubt there are many who are seeking the abolition of private property. A gift economy does not suggest that private property is an evil -rather it affirms private property as a good, as long as any excess accumulation of private property is shared and redistributed. The gift economy, as I understand it, suggests that private property is only harmful to social relations when the excess "accursed share" is not ritually consumed. Of course, without the concept of private property, there would be no concept of a "gift." For if everyone owns everything, how would you even "give" something to someone? What is abolished at Burning Man is not private property, but profit and commodification. Nor is labor a commodity to be bought and sold -Burning Man temporarily abolishes profit and the commodification of waged labor.
When I first started to going to Burning Man in 1993, the event organizers imposed but one rule: "No Spectators!" That seemed radical and visionary in 1993, but now, a decade later, it seems to be the battle cry chiefly of marketers and corporate advertisers. A few years ago, Thomas Zengotita made this point quite forcefully in a Harper's magazine essay, "Attack of the Superzeroes." Young consumers today are being courted with images of themselves as active, involved, producers and participants in their own lives. From reality TV shows, where ordinary young people go from being watchers to being watched, to navel-gazing bloggers, to fan-based internet sites for every conceivable cultural commodity, we are increasingly in a cultural environment where, as Zengotita says, what unites us is "the celebration of people refusing to be spectators." Non-conformity is the new conformity.
No spectators indeed. Some Burners interpret the No Spectator! rule as an imperative to turn themselves into spectacles for others to consume. From my point of view, this is rather mindless and counterproductive, even though occasionally, while on the playa, i find i cannot resist the urge to make a spectacle of myself. Although Burning Man began as a seriously playful critique of consumer society, it now looks like an antiquated missionary outpost, where pioneers and cultural visionaries once hatched the plans to subdue the natives not with guns but with the force of their ideas.
The question for Burning Man is this: it appears the larger culture is moving on to something new. But are we?
ROBERTO ZANCAN. Could you describe, your activities and your displacements during a day in Rock City?
Grant is an urban designer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He
regularly attends Burning Man and has spoken about it at local and national
urban planning conferences. He is also founder and director of City/Space,
a new cultural institution that explores cities and urbanism through
art, design, and film, and cultural landscape research.
GRANT. Burning Man is a kind of festival of the flaneur, best enjoyed
while wandering through a series of chance encounters and happy accidents.
Black Rock City, like all cities, rewards exploration and is quite inexhaustible.
I am forever hearing about artworks or structures that I missed, and
it's fair to say that each of the 30,000 participants visits a different
I might wander the Esplanade absorbing the endless parade of characters. Someone is singing, someone giving advice in a booth, someone being whipped, five or six people are washing someone, head-to-toe. I begin playing a melodica along with a flamenco guitarist perched on a bus-cum-salon. He invites me up, and the bus drives off with twenty people on top. Through microphones, we serenade the city for half an hour, but then I'm due at home to make dinner for my 25 campmates.
If you take participation seriously, and many do, work is a major part of Burning Man, and it can be very difficult in that environment. My camp, Aguamala (mostly city planners) begins planning in May. It takes several days to assemble our camp geodesic dome, five shade structures, scaffolding tower, and art installation, in addition to the daily chores of cooking gourmet meals, tending our bar, and cleaning up. We could do things much more simply, but we take pleasure in the festival's ethos of competence and self-sufficiency -"radical self-reliance" as Larry Harvey puts it.
Out past the Temple, on a bike, the playa is pure, limitless horizontality. Art pieces are two hundred, three hundred meters apart. You can close your eyes and just ride. Pick a speck, something to investigate, ride off and finally pull up to see what it might be. A chess board, with a game in progress, two chairs, but no people. An arrow shows it's black's move. Study the pieces. Make a move. Move the arrow. Move on. Next a steel sculpture, with a few people perched on top. They toss you a camera to shoot their photo, point toward something cool. Ride over and it's a lunar lander, a shady room that someone's just leaving. Inside, historic NASA communications tapes play the sound of men working and playing on the moon. They are exhilarated, near tears…
Once I had a meeting at Center Camp that went much too long. I stepped outside with a friend, desperately hungry and irritable, needing to get home for lunch-now! Suddenly a dust storm blew up-total white-out. I was so frustrated, so desperate. Just then I heard my favorite hip-hop record. It was blasting from a 20-meter white worm on wheels that pulled up. Just as people started dancing, the curtains rolled up, "OK, who wants spaghetti?" and out came large cauldrons of steaming pasta. Salvation.
All this happy accident is of course interrupted by the mass ritual of burning the Man, which draws the entire city out like a medieval procession. It is a pageant, a gathering of the tribes, each in its regalia, gathered on and around their vehicles, acknowledging one another, waiting for one moment of singularity in all this multiplicity. After the burn, the crowd breaks again into a hundred mobile parties, off into the night.
How people evolves during the week?
For most people, it takes several days to adjust to the extremity of the environment, both built and natural, so it's nearly impossible for weekenders to participate as fully as those who are able to spend the week. Long days, unstructured but chock-full, make nine days feel like months of sleepless interplanetary summer-camp. It's long enough to forget about the "real" world and become immersed in Black Rock City's unique culture. Not only does the city develop over the course of the week, but the civic values do as well, so that by the time the hoards arrive for the final weekend, the culture of gifting, volunteerism, and participation is resilient and infectious enough to survive and embrace them.
Every day sees new activity, new structures, new events. With every outing, the city is more familiar, more complete.
Then suddenly the Man, which has provided the city's central visual landmark, is gone. The ensuing disorientation is tremendous, and as the biggest parties of the week thunder into the morning, the story becomes one of ecstatic destruction, decline, and entropy. Columns of black smoke rise throughout the city as artworks and other ephemera are burned. Columns of vehicles begin their exodus, looking like refugees, and it feels as if the city has been sacked.
For the past four years, Sunday night, the festival's last, has included the burning of David Best's Temple, an extraordinary work of memorial architecture. The ornate structure, often under construction until the day it is burned, is open throughout the festival, during which time visitors are invited to inscribe on the walls messages to loved ones they have lost, especially to suicide. Through this process, the space acquires an immense emotional gravity, moving many to tears. Perhaps ten thousand people watch it consumed by fire in spontaneous and total silence. For many die-hard burners, it has become the festival's most meaningful event, far eclipsing the more ecstatic burn of the previous night.
People tend to leave Burning Man with a quasi-religious glow that carries on for months. It is a transformative experience for many, a reaffirmation of values that draws them back year after year. Sure, it's an incredible party, but it's also a ritualized and deeply positive expression of resistance to the American mainstream-a moment of sanity in an insane world.
What are the characteristics of the Burning Man environment?
My favorite road sign on the way into the festival reads: "If you've been here before, no explanation is necessary, if you haven't, no explanation is possible." Another reads, simply: "Welcome home."
One of the most compelling aspects of Black Rock City is its relationship to the landscape. It is set on an ancient lakebed, a salt flat or "playa" of uncompromising Euclidian flatness. It is surrounded by rugged mountains, except to the north, where the playa opens out into a featureless desert some 40 miles across.
It is difficult to convey the extremity of the environment in the Black Rock Desert. It can easily top 100(F) during the day and drop into the 40s(F)at night. Staying comfortable and healthy is a difficult proposition. Loud clubs pump out music until well after dawn and the intense morning sun quickly makes sleep difficult. The fine alkaline dust eats away at hands and feet and blows up into white-out dust storms nearly every day. During these storms, visibility can approach zero. The ground and the city disappear. With the protection of goggles and a mask, these events can be extraordinarily beautiful. A strange quiet descends, and familiar landmarks drift in and out of view as in a mist.
Many of the most interesting artworks and structures at Burning Man engage this landscape in one way on another. Artworks often take advantage of the vast and empty playa as a canvas, a perfect setting for the surreal, the otherworldly, and the enormous.
The city's ephemeral architecture is also adapted to this landscape of relentless sun and wind. Banners and kites snap over elaborate tents and geodesic domes, while enormous cargo parachutes, deployed over shade structures undulate like immense jellyfish.
When the sun dips below the western mountains, a cheer erupts across the city, and as the long dusk takes hold, Black Rock City is switched on. A procession of robed lamplighters hangs lanterns along the major streets. Neon, strings of lights, torches and floodlights stitch together a skyline, and if you can get up onto a truck or a tower, you can see the chaos of the esplanade mapped in a curve of swirling, flashing light. Blasts of fire roar from propane cannons, snatching all eyes and ears into a moment of brilliant daylight.
A thousand sound systems blast electronic music into a maelstrom of noise, blending with voices and laughter, strange sound effects from cars and bikes, and amateur evangelists preaching nonsense through bullhorns. Hippies drum and chant while drunken crowds in leather scream blood-lust at Thunderdome gladiators. A three-level bus drives by with a live rock band aboard, emerging then receding from the mix. Every turn of the head, every gust of wind brings a new blend of sounds, but it's always there, throbbing you to sleep and to wake.
When it's finally too much, emptiness is close at hand. Stepping onto the playa on foot or bike, the city immediately recedes and a field of darkness dotted with lights, people and vehicles, sculptures and monuments scattered across the void. Out past the Man, in the vast night, the sounds of the city are reduced to a simmer, and looking back at this homemade Vegas on the horizon, you can start to fathom the sheer scale of the event. It is staggering, insane, impossible. But there it is.
Is Burning Man an alternative or an urban event?
Burning Man is best known as a theatre of the strange, but as an observer of cities, I am struck repeatedly by the familiarity of the urban phenomena I encounter there. The nudity, the outlandish costumes and behaviour, the wild cars and colliding sound systems -all are expressed in and through the essential elements of the city: the street, the buildings, the monumental and ceremonial spaces, the urban edge, parade, procession, and ritual, the passegiata, and of course, nightlife.
The great majority of activity, both day and night, takes place on the Esplanade, the curving, one-sided street that functions like a quay, on which major clubs, performance venues, and structures present a public face. It is forever abuzz with display -crowds of people, elaborately costumed of nude, wild vehicles, performers, and always some place to duck into and investigate-, dance a bit, or relax.
Step off the Esplanade onto the Playa, and the texture of experience widens immensely. The stretch of Playa mostly encircled by the city is like an immense plaza, three-quarters of a mile in diameter bisected by a monumental axis that includes the Man and the Temple. Its colossal scale and formal symmetry bring to mind Beijing, Brazilia, Teotihuacan.
Of course, despite its urban qualities, Black Rock city is not a city. It is a model, an experiment. One might think of it as an urban homunculus, expressing an exaggerated alternative to the American city, which (to generalize grossly) privileges commerce and impoverishes public life. At Black Rock City, commerce is withered to the barest vestige, while art, public life, celebration, and ritual are exaggerated far beyond what ordinary life could sustain.
|> FILES: ROBERTO ZANCAN. APPROPRIATE FOR FANTASIES|