In 2004, we witnessed an evolutionary jump in the development of the grand experiment that is the Burning Man project. Every year, we experience new challenges. And every year, we rise to those challenges, and we grow from the experience. On all fronts, 2004 was a growing year, and one of new realities in our shared experience creating Burning Man. With 19 events under our collective belt, the Burning Man organizers and participants were able to draw upon their deep well of past experience to meet our challenges; every lesson learned adding surety and grace to the creation of Black Rock City.
The Burning Man staff worked diligently since the end of the 2003 event to prepare for 2004. In our ongoing endeavor to streamline efforts and “organize chaos” more smoothly, we developed some new processes for planning our city. As with most ideas on the playa, some excellent ideas ran into snags in their execution, and along the way we took careful note of how to improve them for next year. For example, the Department of Motor Vehicles responded to participant feedback in 2004 with a new policy for mutant vehicles, requiring all art vehicle users 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 unauthorized driving, and to ease the registration process overall. Unfortunately, some veteran art-car owners — perhaps expecting the process to be the same as in previous years — were uninformed of the pre-registration requirement until the deadline was at hand. Others simply did not receive confirmation about their vehicle in a timely fashion, or were sent a rejection via form letter, without specific information on why their vehicle had not been approved. The Burning Man staff responded by conducting a manual review of the outstanding applications, and a number of vehicles that had originally been rejected were approved or advised of how to become so, and glitches in the process were ironed out for the future. In 2004, there were 420 licensed motor vehicles, down from 560 in 2003.
Our community also spent a lot of time in 2004 discussing the presence of children at Burning Man. While kids have been present since the very first burn on the beach in San Francisco, and children are a vital part of any community, this year there was increased attention to the issue of free expression in the presence of children. Self-expression takes many forms at our event, across a spectrum of experiences, and parents at the event have always dealt readily with the personal challenge of ensuring that their children are not exposed to adult material. In order to pre-empt potentially problematic situations, theme camps were requested to take measures to insure that minors would not be exposed to adult content, but in the end, as in years past, only a handful of camps were affected, and there was very little cause for concern. If nothing else, the dialogue about children as a part of the community proved to be a most spirited and interesting discussion and one that will undoubtedly continue to be held.
We continued to develop our Nevada properties, which accommodate the work crews and construction/storage functions of the Project. Since the year 2002, when the property’s permit conflicts in Washoe County erupted, considerable effort has been made to bring the property into compliance with local permit requirements and the needs and desires of our desert neighbors, including debris clean-up, environmental restoration, and bringing buildings up to code. In 2004, the Washoe County Planning Commission issued several Special Use Permits, enabling us to legally use Black Rock Station as a staging and storage area for the event. The Project now boasts a positive working relationship with Washoe County, and a safe, legally compliant work facility where we can store materials and construct our city’s infrastructure.
Unlike previous years, our crews could not reside at Black Rock Station in 2004, because the property permits issued to date don’t include residential housing. Therefore, this year the early work crews resided in 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 it nearly masked the unbelievable complexity of the endeavor. But as those who have seen it will attest, our city’s infrastructure is borne 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 streetlights were assembled at our Depot, and in addition to the usual management of heavy machinery, shipping and storage containers, and other infrastructure processes, the Electrical team did its first test 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, which proved beneficial to overall dust abatement in Black Rock City. An additional 3-mile long outer road (dubbed “Sedna”) was added to our city to accommodate an expected swell in population, as were 100 porta-potties and, for the first time, urinal units.
The Man stood tall above our encampment, greeting us as we arrived through the gates of Black Rock City, arriving to our desert home, eager to explore our deepest levels of self-expression. In homage to this year’s art theme, Vault of Heaven, the Man was built at our city’s central axis point atop a geodesic dome, housing a stellar observatory. Inside the Observatory, visitors interacted with its space-themed and scientific art, guided by a team of volunteer “Mad Scientists”. Around its outside, ten “stages” were built, each with a participant-submitted design meant to evoke a scene in an “alternate universe”. Prior to the event, an open call in the Jack Rabbit Speaks internet newsletter invited groups to produce interactive performance in these stages. All these elements combined to once again make the Man sculpture one of the largest interactive artworks in the world.
Once again, hardworking volunteers helped keep the city running smoothly. Twenty-four 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 served for the first time in participant-owned cups rather than 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 with the gift of their time and effort, helping to keep Black Rock City running smoothly.
As we played, danced, labored, told stories and sang, the playa handed us some of her 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, whiteouts and frigid evening temperatures.
Of over thirty-five thousand participants, a handful of us opted out and headed home during the event. Some cited the extremes the weather threw at us that week — the playa can be a challenge to even the experienced camper. But in our moments when the weather did clear, participants enjoyed their opportunity to explore their city in the desert, enjoying over 220 art installations and 503 theme camps, many of which celebrated things celestial and scientific, as well as dozens of other participant-created camps, performances, and works.
The weather also played havoc with our dedicated artists who struggled to get their installations to the playa, forcing them to set up during relentless dust storms. According to reports, around 40 projects with registered either did not show up, or set their project up in their camps instead of on the playa, many citing weather as their reason for this decision. The playa reminded us that she does not always play well with electrical equipment, propane hoses, high wind-profile structures, and ambitious plans. Whether or not every project succeeded, the effort of planning and building them together is essential to the experience of Burning Man. Our heartfelt appreciation goes out to all of the artists who made the effort to realize their vision in the desert this year, and every year.
David Best’s Temple of Stars was a quarter-mile long edifice inspired by Japanese architectural influences, and was once again a source of meditative peace, reverence and emotional catharsis for those who enjoyed its sprawling walkways and towering spire. The Flaming Lotus Girls’ 7 Sisters Project was a delightful display of fire artistry, as were Nate Smith’s Singularity Machine, Charlie Smith’s Fire Cradles, and Jack Schroll’s El Diablo jet engine.
Early in 2004, the Burning Man Project launched the expansion of the Regional program, which created the Burning Man Regional Network. Further enhancing and supporting the efforts of our community’s Regional Contacts, the Network provides a means for regional groups to gather, collaborate and interact all year long. 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. That strength is one of the hallmarks of our regional groups, who enjoyed an infusion of new energy and directed purpose this year, cementing their role as the lifeblood of our extended global family.
This year more than ever before, new participants found their way to Black Rock City. More and more often, the curious eagerly heed the call of the event after learning of Burning Man through the mainstream media, where word of our culture spreads farther and wider each year. These participants often arrive at Burning Man curious to explore what they heard was “one of the best events on Earth.” While our print and digital publications endeavor to provide them with as much information as possible, some still arrive lacking information about our community and our culture. It is theorized that some of these visitors have not had the benefit of learning about the event from a friend, or someone who is able to show them the ropes of our customs and cultures before they arrive on the playa.
Of course it frequently rings true that these participants took a piece the Burning Man spirit home with them, and will return next year better-prepared to engage as participants in every sense of the word. We were reminded that one of the key elements to our ethos is radical inclusion, and that every citizen of Black Rock City must assist in the effort to both welcome and acculturate the newcomer. We all want 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 a way that engages them and assists their understanding of its culture.
As our population grows, we realize how theme camps and larger villages act as fertile ground for micro-communities, from which are borne the personal inter-connectivity — unmediated by “real world” social constructs — that acts as the glue of our culture.
And in the end, all those micro-communities joined together in the center of the open playa to encircle the Man, before dispatching it to its fiery end. With it went our pains, our frustrations, our fears, our remembrances, as it gave back to us our spirit reborn… one year older, one year wiser, one year stronger, one year better.
We look forward to whatever challenges face us in 2005, for they too will present opportunities for further growth.