2010 Art Theme: Metropolis – Life of Cities

Illustration by "DA" Dominic Tinio
Illustration by “DA” Dominic Tinio

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” — Jane Jacobs

Every year a dense metropolis arises in the Black Rock Desert; every year it disappears without a trace. Tumult and change, churning cycles of invention and destruction — these forces generate the pulse of urban life. Great cities are organic, spontaneous, heterogeneous, and untidy. They are, like Burning Man, magnetic hubs of social interaction. This year’s theme will function as a micro and a macro-scope, an instrument through which we will inspect the daily course of city life and the future prospect of what we call civilization.

Lagos, Mumbai and Shenzhen — these places now are nearly household words. Throughout the developing world, a second Industrial Revolution is occurring. Rural hinterlands are emptying as millions stream toward smog enshrouded urban centers. In America, an exodus from central cities has begun to slacken and reverse. A world composed of six-lane highways, big box stores, and vast unpeopled parking lots no longer feels sustainable. Rising gas prices, submerging home loans and three-hour commutes have caused many to wonder: How can we make our cities livable?

Illustration by Rod Garrett
Illustration by Rod Garrett

“We ought to know how to assemble a human habitat of high quality that … gives children and old people equal access to society’s civic institutions, that produces safe neighborhoods for the well-off and the less well-off, that promotes a sense of belonging to community, that honors what is beautiful, and which does not destroy its rural and agricultural surroundings. This habitat comes down to us from history in the form of villages, towns and cities.” — James Howard Kunstler

Black Rock City’s grid, with its plazas, promenades and public monuments, was once described by the London Observer as a, “beautifully zoned tentopolis designed with a precision of which the Renaissance city state idealists or Haussmann would approve.” Furthermore, over a span of 20 years, we have innovated cultural solutions for specific urban problems. Cars are not allowed to dominate our city’s thoroughfares, and citizens are held responsible for managing their share of the consumption stream — they leave no trace.

Yet this is only half the story. If central planning furnishes a general social context, participants supply the substance and the soul of our community. Hundreds of theme camps and interactive artworks are contributed to Burning Man each year. These diverse, unpredictable and uniquely personal creations are gifts, available to every citizen of Black Rock City. They generate belonging on a civic scale. This is the ecumenical achievement of all great cities: They transcend the narrow bounds of tribe and caste, allowing us to glimpse the deep humanity in others.

 Pavilion of the Man - Rendering by Andrew Johnstone - Design by Rod Garrett and Larry Harvey
Pavilion of the Man – Rendering by Andrew Johnstone – Design by Rod Garrett and Larry Harvey


“Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Come-on come-on and dance all night
Despite the heat it will be all right
… In the summer, in the city
In the summer, in the city” — Lovin Spoonful

In 2010, we will convene a dialogue between participants and planners. Throughout the year, we will use Burning Man’s website and the Burning Blog to explore the history of Black Rock City, telling stories that explain the hundreds of decisions that have formed our modern-day metropolis. As part of this discussion, we’ll solicit public comment. It is our goal to form a feedback loop, a detailed discourse with participants that culminates in public meetings on the playa. Who is better qualified than our committed citizens to analyze what really happens in the streets?

Since Black Rock City models a wide range of urban phenomena, we intend to broaden this discussion. We will invite experts from around the world to join in a consideration of urban issues worldwide. We also cordially invite artists to express their particular visions of city life, whether these be burnt and gritty, or evoke a shining city upon a hill. To apply for a grant to fund the creation of artwork for Burning Man 2010, please see our art grant guidelines. As always, every art proposal, regardless of its subject matter, will be welcome.