2004 Art Theme Appendix: Off-Planet

Dear Aliens,

You may have read the following message in the Jackrabbit Speaks. If so, feel free to skip forward to the last paragraph of this section. Please allow me to begin this letter with a little history. Since the year 2001, the platform that supports the Burning Man has been a kind of stage set. Our theme in that year was called the Seven Ages, and the platform we constructed took the form of what I’m forced to call a quadrapedal pylon. More popularly, of course, most folks simply referred to it as a giant “A”. This great pedestal was designed to raise Burning Man high overhead. The greater elevation allowed increasing numbers of participants to witness the Burn.

This platform was only modestly interactive. It functioned as a monumental gateway to other attractions arranged on axis behind it. People could also congregate at the top of its base to gain a higher vantage point from which to enjoy a better view of the surrounding playa. A system ladders within it led upward into a windowed chamber immediately beneath the Man, but access to this passageway was limited. It formed a very narrow aperture when matched against the thousands of people who wanted to gain access to the topmost level. Safety and logistical concerns restricted the actual flow of participants to a trickle. In the following year, Rod Garret and I designed a lighthouse as a platform for the Burning Man. Although this was better integrated into the theme of 2002 — The Floating World — it was still subject to the same basic limitations.

In that year, as I was rummaging around in the base of the Lighthouse looking for some mislaid props, I could hear participants on the platform overhead. They were jumping up and down in unison (for lack, I couldn’t help feeling, of anything better to do). Rod and I had carefully designed the Lighthouse as a giant compass. Theoretically, participants could find their way around the playa by matching marks along the railing of the platform. They registered a full 360 degrees and corresponded to lines of latitude printed on our city’s map. Even the triangular benches at the base of this structure were designed to serve and look like compass pointers. It was a clever scheme, we thought, turning the Man’s platform into a giant navigational instrument. But now I realized it possessed a fatal flaw. It didn’t immediately invite people to participate. I’d guess that only one person in a hundred, at best, ever used it as we’d intended.

Instead, as I stood there in the semi-darkness of the platform’s basement, all I could hear was a continuous Thud… Thud… Thud. The deck overhead was vibrating like the tympanum of a drum. I knew the structure could withstand this, and I knew, of course, that folks were simply having fun with what we’d given them. But, quite frankly, I must confess this seemed to me, in that moment, a little like the behavior of animals pent up in a zoo. The words of the famous song by Peggy Lee popped into my mind: “Is that all there is? Is that all there is? Because, if that’s all there is, let’s go on dancing, bring on the booze…” I was aware that our event is the largest interactive art environment in the world, and I knew that the platform of the Man was its geographic and symbolic center. I decided, then and there, that we could do better.

Last year, as part of a theme I titled Beyond Belief, Rod and I designed an enormous Pre-Columbian pyramid. A very hardworking army of highly skilled workers led by Andrew Sano constructed this edifice. The pyramid allowed participants to mount a monumental stairway that took them directly to the chamber beneath the Burning Man, and the building now featured a much higher viewing platform. But, more importantly, arranged around its base, we had created eight ceremonial niches — shrines within which any participant could sit contemplatively — our theme related to the immediacy of spiritual experience — and thus self-sanctify themselves. We put the word out in advance that folks should be ready to assume an “otherworldly” appearance in order to make their separation from the outside world dramatically compelling. Nambla the Clown, our friend Ggreg Taylor, heroically stepped in at the last moment to serve as a stage manager, and he and his assistants managed to cosmetically transform many people right on the spot.

I kept flitting out to the Great Temple, as it was called, to see just how this process was unfolding. By day and night, I witnessed dozens of people sitting cross-legged in these cubicles, staring out into space as if they inhabited some sort of Nirvana. Perhaps even more interestingly, I witnessed many more participants gathered before each shrine. Encouraged in advance, they came with gifts to offer these mendicant holy ones, leaving them in special begging bowls placed in front of each shrine. Later, I talked to a friend who had participated. Following the simple premise we’d created, he installed himself within a niche with no other purpose than to exhibit himself, to quietly possess his being, enshrined by a frame of sacred architecture. After a while, he told me, one particular person, an utter stranger, materialized before him. For several minutes — he told me he’d lost track of time — they silently stared into one another’s eyes without a single word being exchanged. Then this person disappeared.

Afterwards, having completed his turn, my friend decided to stroll about the base of the Great Temple to see what other holy ones were faring. He saw what I had also seen. Very typically, some of the witnessing participants would become so engrossed by the illusion framed in front of them that they would actually begin to lean forward against the slanted base of the pyramid, drawn closer and closer by the prospect of an entity, an “other”, who appeared to effortlessly radiate spirit. Finally, when he stepped before a certain cubicle, he encountered the very person who had witnessed him a few moments before. There this person squatted, staring, with perfect equanimity, out into space. Within an instant, their eyes met. Then there occurred, my friend said, a startling and very intense frission of recognition — the ritual cycle was now made complete.

He lingered there in this way, silently gazing into the eyes of this stranger. Finally, after some indeterminate lapse of time, he quietly walked away and never looked back. Neither party knew the other’s name — but they had connected in a certain and very immediate way that many of us, even with our friends and lovers, might never quite achieve in so conscious a fashion. This story helped to make my day, maybe even my entire year, for I, along with hundreds of other creative collaborators, had worked for many months in order to produce such moments as this. We had succeeded in affecting many people; we had designed an interactive context with the power to transform experience.

I relate all of this because it leads up to our theme this year, Vault of Heaven, and an opportunity — available to everyone — to collaboratively participate in the creation of the most ambitious interactive art context that we have yet attempted. This year the so-called platform of the Man will be more than a platform — it will become a pavilion. It will be designed and built in the form of a classic observatory, with Burning Man atop the apex of its dome. However, the name of this impressive structure is almost a misnomer: within it and without, we will do more than observe. We’ll encounter ourselves engaged in a truly remarkable variety of connective and creative activities.

I hope the following plans and ideas will be helpful to you as Off-Planet theatre organizers. I also hope it is apparent that the rules and structures I invoke merely furnish you with a context in which to create your own world and do not dictate the content of what it might be. In the spirit of radical self-expression, that particular gift must come from all of you. Below are my suggestions concerning how you can participate with us in creating Off-Planet world.


Larry Harvey


The Plan View and perspective study (labeled Observatory Stage) and the Blow-out View that are pictured above show the basic dimensions and shape of one of our ten identical theatre spaces. The Plan View or overhead view at top left portrays both the stage of the theatre and its adjacent green room — a secure backstage preparation area. Bold lines represent walls, and other lighter lines represent the dimensions of 4-foot by 8-foot sheets of plywood employed in the construction of these modules. A doorway that leads from the inner chamber of the Observatory into the Green Room (please see the Vault of Heaven presentation on Burning Man’s website for an overall views of this building), and a doorway that leads from the Green Room to the Stage, are indicated by arcs that show the hinged movement of both doors.

The illustration labeled Observatory Stage, immediately beneath the Plan View, renders how this theatrical space will appear in perspective from a somewhat elevated point of view. A door leading onstage from the Green Room can be seen at the back right side of the stage. Additional vertical lines on the floor of the stage and at the middle of each wall, indicate the junctures of 4-foot by 8-foot sections of the plywood from which the floor and ceiling of each cubicle is constructed. Finally, the Blow-out View, below the Observatory Stage view, literally “ex-planes” the panels that define the stage space.

Basic Areas and Uses of an Off-Planet Theatre

Green Room is the traditional name given to off-stage preparation areas. These rooms are for the use of artist-participants. Each Green Room will be provided with a durable mirror, a table, and a horizontal pole from which costumes can be hung. Coat hangers will not be provided. Any participating group that takes responsibility for the upkeep and management of this space must supply all other conveniences. Doors will be securable. This little Green Room is a place in which to apply make-up, store props and other materials, and educate newcomers. These spaces will be lit at night. Participating groups may wish to bring additional battery powered lighting. Each little Green Room will also be supplied with a fire extinguisher. Groups who manage these spaces will be asked to post certain kinds of signage in each Green Room, and should come equipped to do this or perform any other alterations that may be necessary and agreed upon. Neither smoking nor any form of flame (including lanterns) can be allowed in these small and potentially flammable spaces. A Little Green Room, in summary, is that unglamorous space from which glamour, alien or otherwise, is spawned.


The stage area of each Off-Planet Theatre will feature concealed footlights and some form of overhead lighting hidden behind the cornice in front of the theatre’s ceiling (this feature is indicated by dashed lines in the perspective drawing above). The sidewalls, back wall, and ceiling of each stage will be covered by an illusionistic image that we will attach to these surfaces during the construction process. This space forms a kind of diorama — think of the verisimilitude of those scenes from nature that you have seen recreated behind glass in natural history museums. In this case, of course, we are not discussing our nature, but some other nature that abides by rules that aren’t necessarily subject to the natural laws of earth. The graphic designers who will create these backdrops will be encouraged to exploit the slanting sidewalls of each theatre to create a sense of forced perspective, and you, the aliens who inhabit this foreign environment, are also encouraged to do everything possible to render it a truly seamless illusion. Junctures and angles of construction should be concealed and blunted whenever possible. Background and foreground can be merged by the addition of scenery that seems to grow out of its surroundings.

The purpose of all this is to evoke a kind of mise en scêne — the suggestion of a living world beyond the flatness of backdrops and artificial scenery. Parts of greater things, subtly intruding into this picture, can be made to suggest some unseen whole; unexpected animations can evoke a sense of life that lurks beyond the limits of the stage. Though walls and ceilings will be papered with a landscape and some sort of sky, the floor of each theatre, less visible to the humans who peer slightly upward into your world, will be painted a color that blends in with the playa. However, your group may create some sort of alien ground, as long as doesn’t burn toxically or generate litter-producing MOOP (matter out of place). Finally, it should be mentioned that dust is ever present on the playa, and groups should come prepared to frequently refurbish their environment; cleaning, wiping, and otherwise removing dust from their planet as necessary. Alien housekeeping, unfortunately, is no less toilsome or tedious a chore as here on earth. Science tells this is mundane work throughout the universe.


The ultimate goal of all this adornment and scene setting is to produce improvisational theatre that leads to both human and alien interactions. Although our ultimate goal is to inspire spontaneity, improvisational theatre works best when premises frame it. Every world, like the earth itself, has its own immutable laws, and yours should be regulated by quirks and qualities that are inherent in yours. To express this in another way, all of parts, actions and details of your world should appear to belong to a greater whole. Since conditions may vary drastically throughout the universe, neither I or our Stage Manager are competent to tell you what these laws might be, though some of these exotic rules may be suggested by the image of the pre-existing world that you inhabit. These images will be displayed on our web site (www.burningman.com) in June. Whatever natural laws you choose to follow, however, must produce actions that lead to further interactions. As a practical rule, seven or so basic principles regarding your nature or the nature world that you inhabit will be sufficient. These may emerge against the background of a brief narrative or storyline.

It is very important that this content be succinct, direct, and easily remembered by performers. Long-winded narratives or complex rules requiring some sort of manual are very much discouraged. This is because this information must be easily communicated behind the scenes when inducting new participants. Managing groups will be asked to post a simple storyline or background narrative and a set of natural laws upon a wall of their little Green Room. These two sets instructions should be no longer than one page apiece. The object of Off-Planet theatre is not to operate a private playhouse, but to connect with people whom you do not know. This, at heart, is the natural secret of alien being: an urge to connect with the other. Our goal is to allow as many participants as possible to transform themselves by discovering their own inner alien. In order to achieve this, it will be necessary to also adopt some strategies of off-planet interaction and recruitment.

Let me share a secret with you. I am naturally shy, and during my career as a public lecturer, I’ve discovered that it is very difficult to speak to folks en masse. Instead, I’ve taught myself to find one person in an audience — it might be anyone — who seems especially thrilled by what I am trying to say. I have learned to take in a room with my gaze, so that everybody feels that I’m talking to them, but, when this circuit is complete, I will always allow my eyes to come to rest upon this one special audience member. This forms a personal bond that can embolden one to speak naturally and intimately to a large group of people.

Likewise, when performing in Off-Planet theatre, it might useful to look for that one special person. Again, it could be anyone: the one who leans forward and stares, ready to be swallowed and absorbed, or the one who stands off at the back of the crowd, half-fearful, half-fascinated, eyes never leaving the scene you create. Others of course, won’t be bashful. They’ll tell you right out: I want to be you! However these connections might announce themselves, it is important to remember to give everyone a chance, to structure your actions in ways that will draw people in. It is not necessary to be a carnival barker. The object is subtler: to finds ways that allow potential participants to invite themselves in. In that moment you can tell them: come around to door nine! (The door to each little Green Room will be labeled with a number, like an alien hotel).

This strategy, whereby many people are allowed to freely cycle through your world, is also very practical. Taking charge of an Off-Planet theatre, however fun and absurd it might be, is also a serious responsibility. Ideally, we hope to see every theatre functioning as often as possible, hopefully during most hours of the day and night. For any single group, however large or well organized, to achieve this is probably unrealistic. Theme camps, to their detriment, are too familiar with burn out. Alliances with other groups may be helpful, but it’s important to remember that your primary goal is to spontaneously involve passersby. From these ranks you’ll make friends. With discipline and pre-planned order, it is possible to delegate authority, to accept the help of strangers and transform your alien world into a self-perpetuating entity. This, indeed, is the answer to a very common question: how do aliens actually propagate? They do so by absorbing the other. If practiced rightly, with some help, perhaps, from the Alien Stage Manager and his/her/its assistants, it will be possible to create, organize and perpetuate your world, while still enjoying the event.

Ten Observatory dioramas will be selected for production in June, and posted on the website; please watch the JRS and for that announcement. You will then be able to select one to work in. Groups who prove themselves ready to take primary responsibility for an Off-Planet theatre are eligible to receive an honorarium of $300. Ten such honoraria will be awarded.