2004 AfterBurn Report

In 2004, we witnessed an evolutionary jump in the development of the grand experiment that is Burning Man. Every year, we experience new challenges. And every year, we rise to those challenges and grow from the experience. On all fronts, 2004 was a growing year. With 18 events under our collective belt, the Burning Man organizers and participants were able to draw upon their deep well of past experience to meet these challenges, every lesson learned adding surety and grace to the creation of Black Rock City.

The Burning Man staff renewed their diligent work after the conclusion of the 2003 event to prepare for 2004 and beyond. In our ongoing effort to incubate that fertile field of chaos that produces culture, the Burning Man Project is becoming impressively — indeed, formidably well organized. This transformation is vital for the future, since it’s fully dawning on us that we have an awful lot to do. Our mission has doubled and, in some ways, tripled. As administrators of organic anarchy, we are now helping to coordinate the efforts of nearly 90 Regional Contacts located as far afield as Florida, Washington state, and mainland China. Early in 2004, the Burning Man Project embarked on an ambitious expansion of its Regional Network. Designed to aid and enhance the independent efforts of our far-flung communities, the Network provides a means for regional groups to gather, collaborate, and interact all year long. As an example, the beautifully contemplative Pagoda of Infinite Reflection was the product of a collaborative effort by the South Bay (CA) Regional Group, who created a visually stunning example of the strength found in a connected community.

As part of this greater effort, our Regional Contacts, represented as both individuals and groups, have agreed to honor 10 basic principles that help to define our culture’s ethos:

1. Radical Inclusion
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.

2. Gifting
Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.

3. Decommodification
In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

4. Radical Self-reliance
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.

5. Radical Self-expression
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

6. Communal Effort
Our community promotes social interaction through collective acts of gifting. We value creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote, and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

7. Civic Responsibility
We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. Organizers must also assume responsibility for abiding by local, state, and federal laws.

8. Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better condition than when we found them.

9. Participation
Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation in experience. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.

10. Immediacy
Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, appreciation of the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.

Regional Burning Man communities are presently growing at the same geometric rate as did the Burning Man event in the first 10 years of its existence. Aided, in some cases, by grants distributed by the Black Rock Arts Foundation, regional communities are beginning to do more than create local retreats and burns; they are returning to the heart of mainstream society in order to transform what many call the default world. It is the Burning Man Project’s mission to help this growing movement to continue and expand.

In 2004, the Project also initiated changes at the Burning Man event. For example, our Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV) created new procedures. Responding to growing participant concerns, the DMV and Black Rock Rangers implemented new policies concerning mobile art that are intended to ensure the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as art car drivers and passengers. All art vehicle owners were asked to pre-register in order to obtain approval to drive during the event. Coupled with a plan for improving enforcement for driving violations, pre-registration was designed to cut down on reckless driving and ease the registration process overall.

Unfortunately, some veteran art car owners — perhaps expecting the process to be the same as in previous years — remained ignorant of the pre-registration requirement until the deadline was at hand. Others simply did not receive confirmation about their vehicles’ status in a timely fashion or received news of the rejection of their applications via unfriendly form letters, without specific information on why their vehicles had not been approved. The DMV staff responded by conducting a manual review of the outstanding applications, and a number of vehicles that had originally been rejected were approved. In 2004, DMV licensed 420 motor vehicles, down from 560 in 2003. Now that we have beta-tested this new process and created many improvements, we believe it will be possible for a record number of art cars to coexist with bicyclists and pedestrians. Imagine many hundreds of safely designed mobile artworks continuously moving at a stately pace of 5MPH on the open playa, like floating figures in a Miro painting!

Our community also spent much time in 2004 discussing the presence of children at the Burning Man event. Kids have long been a part of Burning Man. Since the very first burn on the Baker Beach in San Francisco, children have participated in our community. This year brought increased attention to the issue of free expression in the presence of children. Self-expression takes many forms at our event, and parents have always dealt adroitly, as in any city, with the personal challenge of ensuring that their children are not exposed to inappropriate experiences. In order to preempt potential problems in 2004, a very small number of theme camps were asked to take measures to prevent exposure of minors to adult content. These camps readily complied, only a handful of activities were affected, and no untoward incidents were reported. If nothing else, this dialogue about children as a part of community was a most spirited and interesting discussion. The Burning Man event will remain a multi-generational environment that presents a unique opportunity for adults and children to participate and marvel together at shared experiences.

In 2004, we spent a phenomenal amount in money on continued development of our Nevada properties, and this ongoing effort will progress further in 2005. Since 2003, when permit conflicts in Washoe County erupted, we have devoted considerable effort to improving the Project’s 200-acre Work Ranch in Nevada in order to bring this facility into compliance with local permit requirements. These efforts include clean-up, environmental restoration, and compliance with zoning and building codes. In 2004, the Washoe County Planning Commission issued several Special Use Permits, enabling the Project to legally use Black Rock Station as a staging and storage area for the event. Over this time, the Project has built a positive working relationship with several Washoe County planning departments and its County Commissioners, and produced a safe, legally compliant work facility where we can store and fabricate materials that create our city’s infrastructure.

Unlike previous years, our crews were not permitted to live during pre-production on our Work Ranch in 2004. Property permits issued to date do not provide for residential housing. Therefore, this year the early work crews occupied the “Gerlach Estates” trailer park, rented from Gerlach resident and owner Bruno Selmi. Black Rock City’s Department of Public Works leveraged its years of experience setting up and tearing down the city’s infrastructure, going about their work so skillfully that observers could almost overlook the unbelievable complexity of the endeavor. But as those who have seen it will attest, our city’s infrastructure is borne out of the mettle, talent, and hard work of many dedicated people who labor tirelessly on the playa so that others may play.

Our city’s perimeter fence was completed in a record 2 days, a major accomplishment for the hard-working, sledgehammer-swinging crew. The 271 spires for our city’s streetlamps were assembled at our Work Ranch, alongside the usual management of heavy machinery, shipping and storage containers, and other infrastructure processes. The electrical team completed an initial test installation of a biodiesel generator, located at the Greeters’ station. Another experiment was conducted on the Gate Road, where an environmentally friendly, biodegradable, sucrose-based dust palliative was tested for use in water trucks, and results proved beneficial to overall dust abatement in Black Rock City. An additional 3-mile long outer road (dubbed Sedna after a newly discovered planetoid in our solar system) was added to our city to accommodate a growing population, and 100 extra porta potties appeared on our streets.

The Man stood tall atop a geodesic dome, greeting participants as they arrived in Black Rock City. In homage to this year’s art theme, The Vault of Heaven, the pavilion beneath the Man housed an Observatory inside which visitors interacted with space-themed and scientific art, guided by a team of volunteer Mad Scientists. Around the outer perimeter of this structure, 10 small proscenium stages were created, each with a participant-submitted design meant to evoke a scene from an alternate universe. Prior to the event, an open call in the Jack Rabbit Speaks Internet newsletter invited groups to produce interactive performance events on these stages. All these elements combined to once again make the Man sculpture one of the largest interactive artworks in the world.

As in past years, hardworking volunteers helped to ensure the smooth functioning of our city. Continuously, 24 hours a day, Greeters welcomed every visitor to Black Rock City, filling 831 four-hour shifts. Lamplighters ceremoniously cleaned, lit, and hung an impressive 700 lanterns on the spires lining our city’s main streets and promenades. In Center Camp, volunteers served up hot coffee and beverages, many in participant-owned cups brought to the Café rather disposable paper, thanks to a new approval from the Nevada Health Department. From Media Mecca to Playa Info, from the Artery to the DPW Depot, dedicated souls participated by giving the gift of their time and effort.

As people, played danced, labored, and told stories, the playa handed us some of the most unpredictable weather patterns ever, from dust storms to rain, to blazing heat and back again. (The cleanup crew even worked with a view of snow on the mountaintops late in the season.) Following several years of relatively benign weather, participants learned the true meaning of radical self-reliance as we faced high winds and whiteouts. Burning Man creates a cosmopolitan city, but this experience reminded many that it is also a wilderness camping trip. Nature, volatile and awesome, remains in the house.

Out of over 35,000 participants, only a handful opted out and headed home early. The natural elements, it seems, had sorted wheat from chaff. The playa can be a challenge to even the experienced camper. But, during long lovely interludes of time throughout the event, the sun would shine and nighttime temperatures were comfortable. Participants enjoyed these many opportunities to explore their city in the desert, enjoying a plenitude of artworks and at least 500 theme camps, many celebrating the celestial and scientific art theme.

Fitful weather conditions also played havoc with artists, many of whom struggled to install their creations during dust storms. According to reports, around 40 registered art projects did not appear on the open playa, and many of them were erected in camps within the city, instead. The desert also reminded us that it does not always play well with electrical equipment, propane hoses, high wind-profile structures, and ambitious plans. Yet, whether or not every project succeeded, the effort of planning and building art is essential to the experience of Burning Man. Our heartfelt appreciation goes out to all of the artists who made this effort, as well as to the hundreds participants who succeeded in realizing their visions.

In 2004, many first-time participants found their way to Black Rock City. More and more curious adventurers eagerly heed the call of the event after learning of Burning Man through word of mouth as our culture spreads farther and wider each year. These participants often arrive at Burning Man eager to explore what they heard is “one of the best events on Earth.” While our print and digital publications endeavor to provide as much information as possible, some still arrive lacking an understanding of our community and its ethos. In the coming year, we will encourage every seasoned participant to help the Project educate and welcome newcomers.

It is our aim to preserve the unique social environment that we enjoy in the desert, and it is every participant’s responsibility to help share it with others in ways that engage and assist newcomers. Indeed, as our greater community continues to grow, more of its veteran members may elect to stay home in any given year in order to participate in local extensions of Burning Man’s culture. This trend, in fact, can be part of a success story. The Burning Man event is becoming an initiation, a Hajj, if you will, that may be undertaken intermittently. It is generating an ever-expanding diaspora that has begun to populate the wider world.

As Black Rock City’s population grows, we better realize how theme camps and larger villages act as fertile ground for the coalescence of micro-communities from which are born new forms of culture unmediated by conventional social constructs. This instills the spirit that is projecting our culture out into the world. In the end, all of these intricately evolved micro-communities join together in the center of the open playa near the end of event to encircle the Man, before dispatching the sculpture to its fiery end. Increasingly, the experience of Burning Man is not so much about “coming home,” but involves creating an even larger social network outside of Black Rock City. We look forward to whatever challenges face us in 2005, for they too will present further opportunities for future growth.

This report was prepared by Will Chase aka Playaquest and Andie Grace aka ActionGrrl.