Q& A

Post-event 2008, we opened up our Feedback Loop process, allowing participants to give us their thoughts and feedback about this year’s burn. Thanks to the over 450 participants who gave us input!

When it was possible, we replied directly to some inquiries, but given the volume it’s infeasible for us to reply to most questions individually, so as usual, we’ve compiled some of the most common questions to answer here.

Even if you don’t see your specific question answered below, or you submitted not a question but a comment, you can rest assured that every piece of feedback was read and considered by members of the Burning Man board, the Senior Staff, and members of the extended staff and volunteer teams, and it will be factored into our planning for 2009 and future years. Yes, we really do this!

Many questions are repeated every year; some BRC issues prove to be perennial. Rather than reproduce those repeats year after year, if you don’t see your burning question here, try checking out our previous years’ Q&A reports, starting with 2007 … it’s possible you’ll find illumination there.

With that, on with the questions!

Black Rock City

Q: Why was the city so big? Is it always going to be that size?

A: We increased the size of the city in 2008 to accommodate the burgeoning population of Black Rock City. We were squeezed in 2007; we anticipated some growth, and we wanted to give everybody a little more breathing room and make the city that much safer to move around in (for things like emergency service vehicles as well as for pedestrians).

Unfortunately, the new size, combined with poorly packed playa conditions certainly made travel difficult, and we believe that factored into a different kind of community vibe in BRC this year. Of course, your mileage may vary, and everybody’s experience is different, but by many reports, the city size and playa surface kept some people a little closer to their home camps – which can be both a positive and a negative, as smaller pockets of community seem to have formed as a result.

We are looking carefully at the size and dynamics of BRC, factoring in your feedback, and will determine the ideal city size based on our estimated incoming population … we will consider making the city a bit smaller again in 2009.

Q: What was up with the rough, soft playa surface? Will it be like that next year? Can we move to get away from that spot to smoother playa?

A: Yep, the playa surface this year was pretty brutal. We all saw lots of soft dunes that would catch bike tires and bog down mutant vehicles, combined with what are fondly known as “playa serpents,” harder bumps that, when hit at speed, might just vibrate the teeth out of your head. Can anything be done?

First off, we work with the Bureau of Land Management (our landlord, effectively) to determine the event site year to year, and our current permit constrains our location between two sites until 2010. This was our first time in this new location (known in the permit as “Site C”), which was the farthest north we’ve ever built Black Rock City. In 2009, our event site will be back where it was in 2007 (“Site B”).

Playa surface conditions depend largely on how cold it gets during the winter and for how long, together with the amount of rainfall received. More rainfall usually means more solid playa conditions, but even then, the effect varies with a number of environmental factors that are beyond any control. Weather being what it is, we never really know what it’s going to be like until we get out there, and ultimately we’re at the whim of the elements.

And no, we can’t pave the playa. Sorry.

Q: What was with the new layout of Center Camp? I got lost!

A: The Center Camp circle was expanded to incorporate more interactive theme camps, to accommodate service vehicles in the center camp roads, and to provide consolidated camping space for Burning Man staff and volunteers. When we increased the size, it thrust the center camp circle’s “bump” out more into the open playa where it meets the Esplanade. This caused some spatial and navigational confusion for people who were accustomed to the old layout, including some of the staff!

Did it work? All in all, the new Center Camp circle layout improved participant access to and interaction with the area’s theme camps (BRC Post Office, Black Rock Boutique, etc.) and better access to service camps (REMSA, Rangers, ARTery, BMIR, DMV, etc.). Plus, the staff was able to live and work together much more efficiently, while administrating the myriad functions of Black Rock City. Indeed, overall, the new design was a success.

But like any good BRC idea, the first year always has some glitches that have to be solved, and we work to sort those out the following year. We’ll be looking at better navigational guides to help orient participants more easily (and to avoid confusion for people who are coming off the 5:30 and 6:30 radial streets and find themselves suddenly dumped out onto the Esplanade).

We’ve seen year after year that a significant change creates a bit of confusion the first time we implement it. After a couple years, people get familiar with it, and it eventually becomes just part of the fabric of Black Rock City, until another innovation throws us all for a loop and the cycle begins anew. This “experimentation and perfection” process is part of the wonder of building a temporary, evolving city year after year!

Q: What was the final population of Black Rock City for 2008?

A: We peaked out at 49,599 people on Friday night. Yep, that’s a record. Thanks for coming … it was great to have you!

Q: Where was the DMV? I couldn’t quite see their sign … from outer space.

A: Yeah, that was a hella bright sign, wasn’t it? We loved the new DMV location on the Esplanade and the subsequent Mutant Vehicle “parade” as MV’s lined up for registration. Nice sign, guys … maybe next time you should make it a little bigger and brighter so we can find you. Hah.

American Dream

Q: What was with that American Dream art theme? Why the political overtones? Were you trying to be provocative?

A: There was much sound and fury about the 2008 art theme, “American Dream” — and that was in fact the desired effect: to initiate thought, consideration and discussion about America’s place in the world, and how we may re-craft our own version of the American Dream for modern times. Participants will note that the Man stood atop a monolith bedecked with flags of all nations, signifying that in truth, this dream is a global one.

Burning Man’s director, Larry Harvey, who diabolically devises our art themes, has an odd capacity for prescience, and this year was no different. Seeing the 2008 presidential election as a unique watershed event that would have significant global impact, and appreciating Black Rock City as the cultural “Petri dish” that it is, there was interest in bringing the moment and this culture into intellectual contact with each other to see what would bubble up. We hope that something interesting bubbled up for you, and the art, camps, costumes and other creativity we saw certainly indicates to us that the theme inspired plenty of deep introspection and thought.

Art themes aren’t meant to placate, they’re meant to inspire people to thought and action. And while Burning Man is a great escape, it’s also the launching point for many inspired people to go out into the world to create change.

If you’re still unconvinced, you may find consolation in 2009’s art theme, “Evolution”, which is thought provoking AND relatively innocuous … but as always, we remind you that the theme is merely an entirely optional suggestion for a unifying creative thread for the Burning Man experience each year. The greatest portion of our playa art “gallery” is devoted to art which may have nothing at all to do with the theme, and thematic participation is, as always, purely optional.

Black Rock City Infrastructure and Whatnot

Q: Why didn’t the on-playa WIFI work so well?

A: Well, you DO realize the playa is effectively the surface of the moon, right? OK, so now that we’ve established that, the Burning Man Project toils diligently to provide WIFI service to the playa, but that service is available solely for BRC administrative purposes. We do coordinate with one group of volunteer participants who seek to provide internet to the rest of BRC, and they do their best given the massively tall order. Their task is complicated by the fact that particularly innovative participants will repeat their WIFI signal, thus weakening its overall strength … and with nearly 50,000 people out there, that signal’s going to get sucked dry pretty fast.

All that said, we honestly think that Burning Man is the one place where you should just shove your laptop where the sun don’t shine (e.g. in the trunk of your car) and go out and experience something you can’t see the other 51 weeks of the year (but maybe that’s just us, although we’ve heard from our share of participants who say they agree). For that reason, Burning Man itself does not provide participant access to the ‘net. The volunteers who are kind enough to provide it for you get as much support as we can give them, and we applaud them for their generosity, and when it’s overloaded and goes down, remember: it was a gift in the first place.

Q: Why is there coffee for sale in Center Camp? Doesn’t that run against the whole “no commerce” principle? You guys are hypocrites, right?

A: We get this one regularly. And sometimes decaf. Just kidding. We sell coffee in Center Camp for several reasons:

First off, the proceeds from coffee sales go towards funding the construction of the Center Camp CafĂ© itself, which is a focal point for our community – the largest public structure in BRC, a place where all are welcome. Center Camp provides every participant an opportunity to meet and interact with other (caffeinated) random strangers and enjoy a shared and shaded civic experience.

Every civilization (or city) worth its salt has a community center, be it a plaza, a piazza, or a town square – a place to commune. We feel it’s culturally important for Black Rock City to have one as well, and the money you spend on coffee helps fund the creation of that space.

Second, we’re not against commerce, specifically … commerce is necessary for survival in a modern society and certainly necessary to come to Burning Man (after all, you must BUY a ticket to attend). Instead – and this is an important distinction – we stand against commercialization, and commodification of culture, wherein the individual is separated from immediacy of experience through a mediated transaction.

And so, we sell coffee in Center Camp, and will continue to do so in order to further and foster the immediacy of interaction between (caffeinated) human beings in our community gathering space. Plus, nothing beats an iced chai on the playa. Seriously.

For more on Commodification and Center Camp Coffee, please read Larry Harvey’s essay “Commerce and Community” from the 2006 Summer Newsletter.

Q: Why were no tickets sold at the gate? Will tickets be sold at the gate next year?

A: As we announced (repeatedly) pre-event, we chose not to sell tickets at the gate this year. This change was a direct response to participant feedback we’d heard for years; folks had long suggested that cutting off ticket sales at the gate entirely would have a positive impact on reducing the number of “last minute” visitors and weekender “looky loos” in Black Rock City.

This experiment proved to be very successful, completely changing the dynamic at the Box Office. We intend to continue the No Sales at the gate policy in 2009 and beyond, as we agree that the best-prepared Burners will have the foresight (and self-reliance) to have purchased tickets prior to arriving at the event.

Q: Is Burning Man still trying to be “green” in its operations, or was that just for the Green Man theme?

A: Absolutely. The Green Man (2007) simply reflected an amplification of our longstanding history of environmental consciousness, and our efforts continue apace. We remain extremely dedicated to the principle of Leave No Trace, and for us that extends beyond the playa itself; we will always endeavor to reduce our event’s overall environmental impact year after year. For detailed information about our environmental activities for 2008, please see the Environment report.

Law and Order: BRC

Q: How was law enforcement this year? Were there more citations and arrests?

A: There were the same number of law enforcement officers on playa as last year, but they issued fewer citations overall. That said, we received more complaints about the activities and behavior of law enforcement officers this year than ever before. Much of this can be attributed to some new officers not being familiar with the unique culture of Black Rock City. We work directly with Law Enforcement agencies throughout the year to encourage training of these officers to ensure they are acculturated, and react to incidents with the appropriate response. We will continue to work with them towards that end. For more information, see the Law Enforcement report.

Q: How did BRC do with regard to medical incidents in 2008? Did anybody die?

A: Overall, we saw a marked decrease in the number of reported medical incidents on playa in 2008. This can be attributed to people taking good care of themselves, being better prepared for the playa (e.g. less heat exhaustion and dehydration), and taking better care of their community (e.g. covering exposed rebar, securing unstable platforms on mutant vehicles). Or it could just be our collective dumb luck – in other words, keep on your toes for 2009 too, and be safe! Thankfully, there were no deaths on playa this year. For more information, see the Emergency Services Department report.

Culture and Community

Q: Why didn’t the fire spinners perform before the Man burned?

A: The extreme weather on the evening of the burn had us confronting a situation we hadn’t ever faced before: the dust storms continued to rage as we got closer to the scheduled burn time, and it’s not safe to burn such a large structure in such high winds and low visibility (we wouldn’t be able to see where embers were flying or monitor the scene for safety issues). However, it’s not particularly safe NOT to burn the Man once it’s loaded with pyrotechnics and fuel in preparation for the burn. Taking it apart in that state is too unsafe to really be an option; once the Man is packed with pyro, it really has to burn.

The weather forecast for Saturday evening predicted winds of up to 40 mph for the next 24 hours. That meant that the potential of canceling the burn entirely was a very real issue. We watched, and waited for a window of opportunity to light it. When that window finally came, we didn’t know how long it would stay clear and safe, and we made the agonizing decision to cancel the Fire Conclave performance, and simply burn the Man as quickly as we could before the weather kicked back up.

Our most heartfelt apologies go out to the wonderful fire performers who worked so hard to prepare for their time before the Man. We will find a way to make it up to you in 2009!

Q: Why is TV Free Burning Man at the event?

A: TV Free Burning Man is created and run by Current TV (not that you’d know that from looking at them, since there is no Current TV branding on the broadcasts). The producers and creators of Current TV are Burners, and have invested a lot of time, interest and resources into creating completely non-branded, participant-driven, and exceptionally well-produced video podcasts for the TV Free Burning Man project and sharing the story with the world.

Over the years they’ve been coming to the event, not only have they fully respected and adhered to the 10 Principles and the Burning Man ethos, they’ve lived them, and brought true interactivity into their efforts. They’re participants first, and they create some absolutely goose-bump worthy footage that captures the spirit of our event like few others have. What’s more, it was one element of their initial pitch to us that made us love them, a standard they’ve held themselves to ever since: Current TV airs no advertising during its TV Free Burning Man coverage, and the production airs without the network’s branding.

Burning Man has long welcomed the press, so long as they are willing to become members of the community; we think that the Burning Man story has something to share with the outside world. For more about the Media Team’s handling of press inquiries and applications, visit the Media Team report.

Q: What can be done about people who hog the community bikes?

A: We can handcuff them to the trash fence. Just kidding. People who hoard Burning Man’s community bikes (which are painted green and say “Yellow Bike” on them, by the way) are missing the point of community bikes. They are intended for one-time, one-way, catch-it-as-it-comes, lose-it-if-it-goes travel, not for hoarding (like in your theme camp) for personal use. This year, the number of bikes was increased, and each bike was tagged with instructions for use, which did seem to alleviate some of the bike hoarding we saw in the program’s earlier years.

What we can do is address this issue as a community. If you see somebody hoarding, locking, or otherwise misusing a community bike, politely bring it to their attention that those bikes are intended as a shared community resource. If the situation seems intractable, walk away and talk to a Black Rock Ranger about mediating the dispute … that’s what they’re trained to do.

Q: Where was all the art this year?

A: It was out there. Actually, there was only a slight decrease in the number of art installations on playa from 2007. The reality is that there weren’t as many monolithic pieces, the existing installations were largely swallowed up by the bigger playa, and it was harder to get to the ones in the outer playa due to the challenging (read: crappy) playa conditions. And for those who actually keep count, there were 240 pieces out there in 2008, as opposed to 256 in 2007. So no, people, the art sky is not falling.

Q: Why does Burning Man suck so much?

A: Because we forgot to turn this one dial. Sorry, our bad.

Thanks for reading! We hope this answered your burning questions.

Submitted by,
Will Chase