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10 Provocative thoughts on the nature of Burning Man

10 Provocative thoughts on the nature of Burning Man

Here I question some fundamental traditions. Which is not to say I disagree with all of them entirely; many do have their value. It's just to say there are some questions worth asking.

Why is the city a circle?

Ok, there is tradition, and it has a certain aesthetic sense, but it has flaws from a logistic standpoint. The circular design creates outer ring streets that it almost never makes sense to use, unless you are going to somebody close to you on the same street. It's almost always shorter to go inward, often all the way to the Playa, then go back out, even to get to another location on your own street more than a few "hours" away.

Likewise the radials are of use only to those who live near them or are going near them. This is a shame for the many people who come to build elaborate theme camps hoping people will wander by. It's great for those on the Esplanade. The radials are far busier than the concentrics, though.

The ring road around center camp also is only lightly used, and while valued for being central and having power, is a bit deserted much of the time.

The "A" street, which is next closest to the playa and set out for pedestrians only, should be considered a main street with lots of interesting camps. Instead, it has become commonly used as a parking lot for the large esplanade camps. A large fraction of those camps just store their cars or RVs along it, with one small gap to let cars get in and out of camp. This is also true in many cases of the first block, from Esplanade to A, of the radial streets. You decide to head into the city from the bustling Esplanade and you just run a 400' gauntlet of parked cars and RVs.

Esplanade space is thus at a premium for many reasons. But in fact a circle is, by mathematical definition, the shape that encloses an area with the shortest perimeter. Any other shape enclosing the inner-playa would result in more Esplanade length! A triangle (open at the top) would be maximal. I have suggested something like Superman's symbol with the top removed as a gate to the outer playa.

Let's consider our goals:

  • We wish to enclose an "inner playa" which is close at hand to as many residents as possible. We want places where art will be seen by all.
  • We wish as much esplanade "prime street" as we can which can view this inner playa, be seen from it, and which residents can stroll to visit the most interesting camps and art.
  • We wish a wide connection to an "outer playa" which is more sparse and allows widely spaced art.
  • We wish to disperse the flow of traffic on inner city streets to improve capacity and have more people walk by more camps. Indeed, we would like to have some prime street areas and plazas within the city as locations for art, interesting camps and more.
  • We like visibility of The Man from within the city streets.

For example, to enclose 1 square mile of playa, you could use a 1 mile sided square, with 4 miles of perimeter, or a 3000' circle with 3.54 miles of perimeter. A 2/3 circle would have 2.36 miles of esplanade, an open square would have 3 miles, and one slightly closed at the top would have say 3.25 miles. That's 38% more Esplanade for the same sized playa! An open triangle (roughly what was used in 96) also has 3 miles of esplanade to enclose a square mile. Angling in again to match the current arc again could be set to add another half-mile, meaning almost 50% more esplanade.

On top of that, I would consider an "inner esplanade." This would be a wide parkway street, with an art installation lane down the middle, and 2 lanes each way for pedestrians and bikes/art-cars. Just doing this would more than triple the amount of "prime" real estate and thus remove the shortage.

The BMOrg has reportedly been considering this but has not yet decided to go to it. Instead, over time, attempts have been made to turn the 3, 4:30, 7:30 and 9 radials into main streets, with plazas (particularly at 3 and 9.) The first attempt at this failed, but more recent attempts with notches at the Esplanade have done better, in part making the Esplanade more fractal.

However, observation and 2 years camping at the 9 plaza indicates these streets quickly become ordinary radials. People do not hang out in the plazas or walk around them visiting the camps. In fact, they tend to just go right through, bypassing the camps around the circle, making them worse off for traffic.

Now the circle isn't without merits -- but it's also been done for 15 years now, and to me Burning Man is something that should not remain static. It should change because it should change.

Why is there a center camp?

Should the city have a center? Should one section be more important than another? I could see it if people made "shopping trips" to the center to get a coffee, some ice, send a letter and ask a question at playa info, but do they? Can they not encounter these things as they travel the city or make specific trips to them?

The efficiency of a power grid is one answer, more on that later. And of course the people who provide the services of center camp like to be central, and as close as they can be, on average to each part of the city. The plaza approach has distributed many of these services.

Why is there a cafe?

This is one of the hot button topics in the Burner community. Why have a starbucks-like (a harsh, but often cited claim) commercial operation in the center of the non-commercial city? I mean, is it that hard to find a free coffee or soft drink (or hard drink) at Burning Man? I've never had trouble. Every drink sold at the cafe is one that can't be gifted by people who are more than willing to gift them in order to participate. There are also many stages and places for art.

Now don't get me wrong, I think it's great for a community to have a center, a gathering place. But it should spring up from within the community, not be created by fiat.

I'm told that the Cafe is promoted as a place for virgins to come and meet, because they don't realize they can just walk into camps and make friends. We should work on making camps more inviting. Perhaps a signage system that camps can put out front and flip back and forth between "welcome new friends" and "private time."

Why a high price for RV dump service?

There are 13 forms of officially blessed commerce at Burning Man: Drinks, Ice, Gate tickets, Gerlach Bus, Diesel/Biodiesel Fuel, Aviation fuel, RV Dump, private potties, airport fee and fresh water refill. (Re-entry tickets might count as an 11th.) Which are needed?

Everybody that uses RV toilets removes load from the portable toilets, which the RV users paid for. The city should want to encourage anything that reduces loads (and MOOP) in the portables. (RVs do put more gray water in their black water of course, and the gray water dump in general is a complete addition, I will agree.) And one argument is that RV users are richer and should subsidize the portable toilets they don't use.

Why over Labour Day?

Long ago Labour day was the traditional end of summer, and the long weekend allowed people to get away long enough to go to the Black Rock Desert.

Today, almost nobody serious about the event comes only for that long weekend. Indeed, about half the city seems to leave on Sunday, so a weekender only sees Friday night and all day Saturday, and then a city in deconstruction. Sunday has stuff but Monday is effectively nothing for the short-term spectator. Everybody else has had to take time-off if they have a regular job, and while the holiday grants one extra day it's not a big issue.

Also in the old days, school started after Labour day. Now it often starts before, making it very difficult for parents (and some students) to come to Burning Man.

There are also downsides to the holiday. The holiday means more traffic to contend with during the exodus. More expensive rates at the Reno hotels for those who leave Sunday. It means rental houses are closed for those who rented gear in Reno and elsewhere and want to return it Monday. It means the pharmacy in Gerlach is closed over the busiest part of the event. It means overtime pay for various people.

I suggest an alternate timing that moves around August: the week closest to the full moon. While I love the dense stars of a dark playa sky, a new moon at Burning Man is dangerous, becuase too many virgins go around unlit in the night. Some art is unlit or lights fail. Art cars can only see as far as their headlights, which may of them don't really have.

Of course you can't have a full moon all week. After the full moon you won't have any moon after sunset for a bit. The ideal full moon would be on the Friday. If it falls on a Mon-Wed better to put it in the next week.

This of course can be predicted arbitrarily into the future, so the permit process is not an issue. But it might save lives.

We aren't Earth Guardians at all

I am fully behind the Earth Guardian camp in pushing leave-no-trace camping when it comes to the ground. But we should not pretend we are eco-friendly. I would guess we burn something approaching a million gallons of fuel in getting to Burning Man (28 gallons each), and we also burn fuel for generators and burn lots of art and a fair chunk of shouldn't-be-burned items. Of course if we all took road trips of similar length we would still burn the transport fuel.

We also drip oil on the Playa from leaky old vehicles and, as noted, generate electricity with small, low-efficiency generators. I've seen people run an RV generator to recharge an electric scooter, probably thinking they were being eco-friendly by being electric. Only the giant diesel generators that power center camp start moving closer to grid efficiency.

To fix this problem, there should be more effort at shared power. Camps that are going to have constant power should be strongly encouraged to consolidate and rent diesel generators and heavy duty power distribution cables.

On the center camp power grid, perhaps the Earth Guardians should operate a battery recharging service (with dolly carts to borrow) to get small-needs camps off of gasoline generators altogether.

Might some different commerce be good?

Instead of selling drinks, which everybody brings anyway, I would vote for commerce as a means of providing "backup" supplies for people. One of the great problems of doing things at Burning Man is that when something fails, if you don't have a backup, you have no way to fix it short of driving to Reno. Sometimes your neighbours can help, and that's good, and a bulletin board system where people can beg and offer such help would be a plus.

Still, when you pack for the playa, you often find yourself looking at each item and saying, "What would happen if this was broken or lost?" If the answer is "it would ruin my experience, or I wouldn't be able to build my art or my camp" you often bring a backup. Even so, you can't bring a backup for everything.

So the thing I would sell -- at a high price -- would be a backup service. A store stocked not to supply you when you get to the playa, but to be your backup on unusual items in case of failure. Yes, this is less radical self-reliance. But how many stories have you heard of people who forgot something, or broke something, and it severely diminished their week? PVC parts. Spare rebars. Hardware -- tools, nails, screws. Bike parts and spare bikes (not for those who didn't bring a bike but those who lost or destroyed one.) Tents. Plus, a paid shopper in Reno who takes orders for specialty items, gets them and bundles them up for volunteers willing to stop on their way to the Playa and bring them. Surcharged to assure this is not a way to buy stuff, but to be your backup.

Not water. Not food. Not sunscreen. Art and camp-building supplies. This is commerce that would improve the event by helping art get finished, helping people deal with emergencies that would ruin their week.

Crowd cooperation

As the event has grown, the big burns have gotten uglier. If everybody sits, then almost everybody has a good view. If everybody stands, far fewer get a good view. The best view is either front row, or the front row of standers, which encourages people to stand and ruin it for all. We've now seen people who will stand in a sea of sitters, refusing to listen to the scores who beg them not to.

With the new dynamics I personally was unable to see any of the Fire Conclave, nor the core of the Temple when it burned on a few recent occasions.

I suggest the word go out. From 6 through 12 (left side) should be reserved for all sitters. On the right side, people may sit, and are encouraged to do so in the front rows, but people may also stand and the boundary will be where it may. Of course, after the burning of the Man starts, standing (and revelry) is to be expected.

Of course, no bikes or other vehicles in the crowd (duh.)

I don't want to bring in lots of new rules, so tried to make this one as simple as possible. Rangers would need to ask people who insist on standing on the left side to move back or to the other side of the Man.

Consider retiring Thunderdome?

This is going to sound pretty harsh. The Deathguild folks work very hard, and they do have a vision. Who hasn't come to Burning Man and not thought of the Mad Max movies?

But there are two key reasons why I suggest retiring the Thunderdome. One is that almost all the other art installations at Burning Man are dynamic. They don't repeat, or if they repeat they change in some dramatic way. Thunderdome is cool, but it's the same cool every year. The Pyromid and Eggchair folks figured this out (spectacularly.) So did waterboy.

Secondly, Burning Man art is generally remarkably non-derivative. This amazes me and impresses me. For example, at the Science Fiction Worldcon, which also takes place normally at Labour day, there is tons of costuming, but most of it is based on movies and films, or if we're lucky, books. (Some, though a minority, is original.) Burning Man is 95% original. Except Thunderdome, which not only comes from a Mad Max movie, let's face it, it comes from the worst of the Mad Max movies.

Burning Man started with an ethos of burning your art to demonstrate its ephemeral nature. We do less and less of that as time goes on, but Thunderdome is the polar opposite.

Yes, one of my installations repeats every year, but it is significantly different each year. Nobody says, "I saw that last year, I don't need to look at it again." I try to change something every year in anything I am tempted to repeat.

And yes, the art cars also are an exception in that they tend to repeat each year, and many are derivative. But Thunderdome is the biggest example. And not that I don't understand, since it's work to build a big installation and you want to have a few years to pay out that work.

No don't get me wrong. I don't think it's my business to demand other people change or remove their art. It's just an expression of my own aesthetic opinion.

Become a permanent city?

It's often been talked about that Burning Man someday move to its own land, and even gain some permanence. Let's face it, rebuilding everything every year is expensive, polluting, and a lot of work. Having the roads and facilities and power grid and fence already in place would save a lot. There are many other temptations. Oregon Country Fair has its own land, and aside from what that gives them it lets them also not have uniformed police at the event unless they are called in. OCF security (3,000 strong!) deals with most problems.

But there is a big other hand to this. Often one of the first things I will tell somebody about Burning Man is that the city vanishes every year. It is cool. It is part of what we are. It makes it more intense. We could be Burning Man without it, but we would be different.

In 1997 Burning Man almost went broke staging the event on a private piece of playa at Halupai, just north of the Black Rock Desert. It's not easy to pull this off. Holding a giant event on private land still allows the police and other local officials to demand they play a role.

It's hard to find private land that's flat and desolate like the playa, where you can bike anywhere, drive anywhere and light large fires in complete safety. Converting regular land to that use would require a lot of grading or even paving, and maintenance. All wheeled travel would be limited to some defined paths and roads. If there's vegetation, even foot travel would end up sticking to paths.

There are many tempting things about permanence. It's a lot of work to build and remove the city, not to mention a lot of fuel burned. But permanence would also drive some stagnation. While many things are returned to Burning Man year after year, it's a conscious decision. It's almost as hard to bring the same thing back as to bring something new. In a permanent city the default would be to retain, it would be a special decision to be new.

Of course, people would also put more work and money into things that they knew could last over several years. At OCF, the stall owners put work into making their permanent stalls.

Permanent real estate assignment could also lead to stagnation. Some people would have the "central" locations and have them forever; indeed they might even own them. It would be hard for new people with new ideas not to have to start at the outskirts. Of course Burning Man today has a hierarchy, and central locations are assigned to those with "playa cred" from past efforts. But there is nothing physical pushing that, it's entirely a social thing.

In a permanent city, the event might spread out in time. It would take effort to compress it into an intense week.

Finally, other means would need to be found to make Burning Man "exclusive." Yes, it's exclusive. It has had to be to contain its growth. With no factors excluding people, it would be Woodstock sized or larger. Burning Man excludes those who can't handle the very harsh conditions, and the large cost in money and time to get there and get in. Those who can't handle building their camp and art from scratch. It does so deliberately. In a permanent city those rules would change.

On the positive side, a private event could, with work, avoid paying the $1 million per year in BLM fees that Burning Man pays. ($600,000 of that goes to pay for the police, that come in far greater numbers than the Burning Man community needs, considering its incidence rates for non-victimless crimes.) You can buy a lot for $1M a year if you are willing to accept land that's largely useless for other purposes.

I don't say it's impossible, but it would be much harder than people think.

There is a project called "permaburn" created by a man who bought a square mile of California land not too far from Gerlach. So far, he has found few supporters. His land is scrub, and not flat for bikable, which I think are two immediate strikes.