Since 1986, the Burning Man festival has set the Black Rock desert in Nevada on fire. As this 30th edition begins on August 28, Makery investigated the place of makers within this dream of technophile utopists.
What if Burning Man were the ultimate meeting of makers? On August 28, this festival in the heart of the Nevada desert inaugurated its 30th edition with some 2,000 installations, mostly made of recycled materials, created by the 500 communities participating in the event.
Burning Man has a very “maker” way of working, observes photographer and writer NK Guy, author of Art of Burning Man, published by Taschen in 2015, representing 16 years of photography in the temporary Black Rock City. “Just as maker groups hold workshops and classes on learning about tools, techniques, and hacking methodology, so Burning Man artists teach others how to make art.”
At Burning Man, everyone is an active partipant—it’s one of the 10 principles of the festival. “Everything is interactive,” says Marie, aka P’tite Lutine, member of the French burner community and co-founder with Laurent Garcia of Playa Provides, an organization that connects artists to Burning Man. “The majority of the camps arrive at the beginning of the event, and everything must be built from there.” So those with art projects arrive on the playa early, looking for willing volunteers to integrate their team, she says.
Non-official map of camps at Burning Man 2016:
From fablab to playa
This year, burners are invited to build on Leonardo da Vinci. “There will be crazy mechanical installations that use wind and solar power,” Marie continues. One of the highlights is a project by the Big Imagination foundation to bring a Boeing 747 to the playa and transform it into a giant “art car”, the vehicles that populate Burning Man.
Following a post regarding the installation (initially planned for the 2015 edition), burner Jet Burns describes the making of this crazy installation: “There are over a hundred people that have come to work on this Burning Man 747 Project. Many of them have come to use tools, power tools, and other tools for the very first time. They have learned about safety procedures, how to disassemble and fabricate wood, steel, aluminum, wires, LEDs, and so much more, and again for the very first time.”
Also in preparation for this year’s edition: The Space Whale, a life-size whale and its baby made of glass; David Best’s temple made of reclaimed wood, which Marie and Laurent are helping to build. Since 2000, this will be eighth and last temple built on the sand of Black Rock City by the American sculptor. Most constructions are built in local fablabs before being disassembled and transported to the playa, says Laurent Garcia, who points out that a large number of fab managers are also burners: “Burners build devices for living on the playa, such as generators. Burners and makers are passionate about each other. Makers give Burning Man artists the tools and the workshops they need.”
In 2007, MIT’s mobile fablab came to the playa, and last year, David Best partnered with the Nerve Center fablab in Northern Irland to build a temple inspired by Burning Man, along with 20 volunteers.
But is Burning Man THE rendez-vous for makers? According to NK Guy, “In a way, aspects of Burning Man are a family-friendlier Survival Research Labs, and aspects of Maker Faire are a suburban-friendly Burning Man.” Will Chase also makes the connection between the festival and the annual meeting of makers. Now a member of the Make Magazine team after working at the festival for 13 years, he writes: “Maker Faire is the closest thing to Burning Man I’ve experienced, only with less dust and more pants.”
French burners début in Nantes
The two communities do have much in common—both were born in the San Francisco Bay Area, are tech-savvy and committed to recycling, clean energy, collaborative learning and do-it-together.
In France, it was at Maker Faire Nantes last July that makers and burners officially collaborated for the first time. Weaving in and out of the legs of Kumo, the giant spider of Les Machines de l’Île, were two mobile fire-breathing sculptures measuring over 15 meters long entitled The Serpent Twins, created in 2011 by desert lunatics Jon Sarriugarte and Kyrsten Mate. Pierre Orefice, director of Les Machines de l’Île, considers the link to be evident. First, because it’s the very same technical team—the infamous DPW (Department of Public Works)—that builds both the temporary city of Black Rock and Maker Faire San Francisco. Second, because “Both Burning Man and Maker Faire are about building, installing and disassembling. We were less interested in its rock’n’roll aspect than in building a city.”
In the U.S., these two communities have already been cohabiting for a long time. “Maker Faire Bay Area is particularly famous for exhibiting art installations that premiered at Burning Man,” says NK Guy, recalling Neverwas Haul, part steam train part Victorian house, and The Serpent Mother, a huge mechanical snake skeleton coiled around her egg, by Flaming Lotus Girl, a (mixed) artist collective working with kinetics, pyrotechnics, robotics and electronics. This year, the collective is presenting Pulse, a metal heart equiped with sensors in order to synchronize the reactions of the sculpture with the participants’ heartbeats.
In December 2015, in a passionate essay about this hotbed of “maker culture”, NK Guy wrote: “In a century’s time, when art historians look back at the complex legacy of this uniquely American event, I hope one thing will stand out. I hope it will be remembered as an event for doers and for makers.” By e-mail, he drives the point home: “Burning Man has become an incredibly rich place for social networking on art and maker themes, for beta testing new projects in a very unforgiving environment, for technofetishists to bond while partying in the desert. And just as importantly, the ‘How did they do that?’ sentiment changes quickly to an inspired ‘I can do that too!’ which, really, is what the maker movement is all about!”
Burners calling makers
As Burning Man celebrates its 30th anniversary, its directors are trying to normalize the relationships between the communities. Why only now? “We work in innovation, DIY culture, with start-ups. It was only a question of time before we sought out more information,” says Jenn Sander, in charge of innovation and initiatives at Burning Man. President Obama’s commitment in June 2014 to make the U.S. a “nation of makers” no doubt accelerated the movement, she adds.
Within the Burning Man organization, she continues, “more and more directors are trained to get involved with this community. When we visit a city, we now visit makers and burners.” As a further sign of this increasingly developing collaboration, in May 2016 she sent off a questionnaire to regional communities of burners worldwide in order to “understand and document” the relationships between makers and burners.
“If makers didn’t exist, Burning Man wouldn’t exist,” concludes French burner Laurent Garcia.