This year, the radically self-reliant Black Rock City in the Nevada desert will face a new challenge: top-down, tone-deaf intervention. Yet, passion still prevails in the voices of Burning Man past and present.
“Imagine you are put upon a desert plain, a space which is so vast and blank that only your initiative can make of it a place. Imagine it is swept by fearsome winds and scorching temperatures, and only by your effort can you make of it a home. Imagine you’re surrounded by thousands of other people, that together you form a city, and that within this teeming city there is nothing that’s for sale.”
These words were spoken by Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man who passed away last spring, “Chief Philosophical Officer” and author of the famous 10 Principles, which serve to define the spirit of the Black Rock community to this day.
For the past 28 years, the ephemeral Black Rock City has been a microcosm of what’s possible when a bunch of creative humans commit to surviving together in the middle of nowhere, if only for a week. For the most part, it has been successful. For better or for worse, it has radically included an increasing number of newbies, nuclear families, Silicon Valley millionaires, turnkey trailer fashionistas and jetsetting celebrities.
And the city’s population (featuring an especially high percentage of educated thirtysomethings from California) has grown exponentially, from 4,000 in 1995 to 35,000 in 2005 to 70,000 since 2013, plus thousands of staff and volunteers—all reunited in a remote desert for a dedicated experimental spell of making and sharing. In a way, Burning Man is the original, if not the most extreme, “feral lab” on our planet.
Bring Your Own Burn
Massimo Priviero’s first and only “burn” was in 2012, as a 30-year-old art student in San Francisco. A mutual friend had introduced him to the local Macchiarini jewellers, who were preparing their annual Dragon Smelter sculpture for Burning Man. As it turned out, they had an extra ticket, and they could use some help on the playa from someone who knew their way around a furnace. Massimo was already studying bronze sculpture in a foundry. He spent the next two months preparing for his nine days in the desert.
“I was so excited when I got there, I spent the first three days awake,” he says. He remembers the dust, the goggles, the boots, the sunscreen, the little gas stove, the sleeping bags, the tent, the violent winds and the life-saving water canteen. A whiteout sandstorm where you could barely see 3 meters in front of you. Waking up in the quiet morning to find everything white, covered in dust. Walking out into the deep playa and watching the sunrise with his girlfriend. Wearing a swimsuit by day, a fur coat by night. Rocks that would crack during the day, and shrink back at night.
“That’s the beauty—when you get to Burning Man you leave everything behind, there’s nothing. For some people it may be scary, for some inspiring, comforting, it depends. I found it very nice. In the city you’re surrounded by a concrete jungle all the time, then you get out there and you see the actual sunset on the horizon.”
Working on the dragon was fun too, he says. Covered in scales made from recycled steel, the 7-meter-tall fire-breathing sculpture housed in its belly a furnace that melted down empty aluminum cans collected on site. Massimo was in charge of pouring the liquid metal into a mold to create sheets, from which they punched out commemorative coins, based on that year’s theme of Fertility 2.0.
“I liked the concept of leave everything behind, and then leave no trace,” Massimo continues. “I liked the giveaway thing, the camps, so many teams, crews, families coming together, the positive energy going around and getting to know people. What I didn’t like was that somehow, the event is supposed to make you think about how fortunate you are, how very little you need in life to be happy. Seeing people getting there with big trailers, turnkey camps, fancy dresses, something that doesn’t really belong, kind of ruins it.”
“Commodification”—in the form of purchasable, pre-packaged, all-comfort VIP getaways or celebrity fashion shoots with hired sherpas and wifi access, for example—is an ongoing, if not increasing, problem in Black Rock City. But it’s certainly one, among others, that the nonprofit Burning Man organization has been making conscientious efforts to extinguish.
Berta Hodges, a.k.a. Mama Bear, 58, first made the trek from her home in Sonoma, California, to the Black Rock Desert in 2011, after her oldest son and his two French pals decided to bring les mamans to Burning Man. Every year since then, she has returned to the playa, together with her husband and their sons.
Berta now co-organizes the full-blown FAFA (Fucking Awesome French and Americans) theme camp, complete with 4 carports, 35 bicycles and 130 square meters of shade, which this year is hosted by 49 people from the USA, France, Morocco, Spain, Germany, UK and Canada. “Who we are, is just very Hospitable. I consider that to be very French, very European, more than American,” says Berta. “Come on over—we have a front porch, have some tea, have a glass of wine, get out of the sun, come sit with us.”
FAFA camp’s past “interactivities” have included pole dancing lessons, ’70s disco dance party, plaster mask-making, lighted labyrinth, glow-in-the-dark bocce ball, scaffolding art pieces, jellyfish drone, Moroccan tea ceremony, Muay Thai Monday with hula by Germans, Korean snail goo face mask mini spa, DIY remote-controlled Pony Expresso… and “show your pecker (or your peaches) for a pickle”.
Mamoun Ghallab, a.k.a. Zbilo, is a FAFA camp member since 2017 and the “zero-waste” founder of Zero Zbel in Morocco. Two years ago, he gave an energizing talk about how every individual can make meaningful choices to manage their consumption and waste more efficiently—even in Morocco, which has no official recycling infrastructure. This year, Mamoun will lead FAFA’s own “leave no trace” effort.
Rumble on the Playa
This year, after 28 years of learning and fine-tuning through both careful planning and trial and error how to build respectful community and safe infrastructure within Black Rock City, Burning Man now faces a new threat from without. More specifically, from its landlord: the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is the federal agency that administers public land, including the Black Rock Desert.
When the nonprofit Burning Man organization applied to renew its lease of the 14.5km2 pentagonal playa, the BLM retorted with a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) recommending “requirements [that] would fundamentally change the operational integrity and cultural fabric of Black Rock City, and would spell the end of the event as we know it”, according to the Burning Man Project.
Mandated “mitigations” to the ephemeral Black Rock City’s environmental impact, according to the EIS, include replacing the city’s temporary 14.5km-perimeter fence with a physical barrier, installing and maintaining dumpsters, imposing third-party searches of all vehicles and persons upon entry, monitoring illegal substance activity, shielding lights, reducing dust(!), “restoring playa contours”…
Vague, overreaching or simply unnecessary, given Burning Man’s proven track record of dealing with such issues more or less effectively and independently, the EIS recommendations fail to acknowledge the tireless efforts of Black Rock City’s dedicated Department of Public Works (DPW), a workforce of several hundred individuals who work in the desert 4 months out of the year planning, surveying, building and deconstructing the basic infrastructure of the city (installing the perimeter trash fence, building the power grid, airport, shade structures, watering down roads, managing fuel services, potable and grey water, porta-potties… and even public bicycles).
Furthermore, according to the Burning Man organization, barriers, dumpsters and searches in particular would all require significantly increased CO2-emitting transport and logistics, not to mention wasted time and prohibitive costs for burners and the organization, which already cooperates with BLM rangers patrolling the playa.
Meanwhile, the tone-deaf authors of the EIS evoke the risk of civil unrest. In the spirit of Radical Self-Expression, and because citizen feedback also happens to be a legal part of the process, the Burning Man Project invited all burners to submit substantive comments on the BLM’s draft EIS by April 29, 2019.
Berta and her husband were among many burners who submitted their own letter to the Burning Man organization’s carefully researched response. “Burning Man is taking a very professional approach,” she says. “The government’s approach is like with a lot of other things at this time due to the current leadership. Every year, the Department of the Interior tries to throw a wrench in it. Many of the allegations—light pollution, dust pollution—are ridiculous. A lot of it is not based on any fact. Burning Man has already mitigated many of these things to a higher degree than what is recommended by other agencies. If you think about what would happen in a regular city of 100,000 people in a period of 7 days, it would be a lot worse.”
Mind over MOOP
No doubt the most famous and most emulated of Burning Man’s 10 Principles is Leave No Trace. While the concept of garbage itself may be a myth, the removal of any and all MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) is taken very seriously, especially by the Department of Public Works’ dedicated task force. MOOP may range from cigarette butts to plastic glitter to grey water to pieces of wood (most common).
Of course, there are always a few bad burners who bring in illegal fireworks and neglect to clean up the ashes, throw their garbage bags out the window onto the side of the road, or are just sloppy about picking up and packing out. And the Burning Man organization does not hesitate to disinvite such repeat offenders.
The annual MOOP Map, created by the DPW’s Playa Restoration crew—some 125 volunteers and workers who remain on the playa two weeks after the event has concluded to finish up sweeping across the playa with fine-toothed rakes—identifies very specific locations (and camps) where the Resto crew’s final “mooping” was easy, moderate or difficult.
Every year since 1999, the BLM has imposed a Post-Event Site Inspection of the playa, which allows for no more than 1 square foot of MOOP per acre—in other words, no more than 0.002% of MOOP for the entire 3603 acres of Black Rock City. And every year since the inspection was introduced, Burning Man has passed. This near-impossible achievement has resulted from the active participation of all burners, in the spirit of Radical Self-Reliance and Civic Responsibility. Imagine a true Fab City in the making, dismantled and deconstructed.
As Dominic Tinio, a.k.a. D.A., Burning Man’s Playa Restoration Manager since 2005, writes: “Our Leaving No Trace principle is just the beginning, one small step toward a sustainable future. Because Burning Man is not a place. Burning Man is a culture, and we are worldwide.”
Nathan Altman, a.k.a. Mary Poppins, so-nicknamed after he originally volunteered to help build a small part of an art piece in 2015, having never been to Burning Man before, and ended up leading the build of the Temple. The following year, he was invited back to Black Rock City as the construction and utility superintendent of the Department of Public Works. And he has returned to the playa every year since.
After designing and leading the build of the Man with Larry Harvey in 2017, running for the U.S. Senate and participating in Burning Man as a volunteer in 2018, this year Nathan aims to bring a new art piece to the playa, on a monumental scale: The Inner Sun.
“For the past few years I’ve been trying to find ways to spread this beyond just one main event,” says Nathan. “The organization has done as well with regional networks and groups. The important part is that it inspires people to be their best selves, to try things, to experiment, to think differently. We need more of that in the world.”
Brains on fire
As the majority of burners come from California, where deadly and destructive wildfires have become an increasingly common occurrence, in addition to causing unprecendented air pollution across the state, it may also be time to weigh both the artistic and environmental impacts of Black Rock bonfires.
From her Sonoma home, Berta recalls: “Last year with my middle son, we said we have a different relationship with fire now. Our house didn’t burn, but we had to be evacuated from it. We live in an area of catastrophic fires two years ago. Honestly, I’m very conflicted about the celebratory nature of fire, but this is something very paganistic. Humans through the ages danced around fires, but for us it’s become more of a symbol of destruction in many ways.”
Which brings us back to the theme of Burning Man 2019—Metamorphoses: “This year’s theme is a celebration of change, and an exploration of uncertainty. As such it invites a consideration of time; not its circular nature, or its attendant ritual, but in this case the relentless flight of time’s arrow, and an embrace of the elusive now. Memory is fickle, and the future is uncertain.”
More information on Burning Man
Also on Makery: Burning Man: In the beginning, there were makers (2016)