Over a span of 18 years, the Burning Man Project has perfected the art of instantaneous city building. During this time, Black Rock City became the largest interactive art festival in the world, a world-renowned celebration of “radical self-expression,” and an annual ritual with deep spiritual resonance for thousands of people. You would think that success would be enough — but it isn’t. As we’ve mastered the logistics of constructing a city and planning an event, we’ve come to feel that continued development requires us to imbue what we do with greater meaning.
People say Burning Man has changed their lives. But the transformative power of this experience is predicated on two insights. Participants first discover that they need not accept the world as it is given to them, that they hold the power to reshape reality though creative action. Secondly, they make an even more important discovery when they realize that they cannot do this without the help of other people. In this way, they enter into a communal world of mutual aid and shared endeavor. Through this transition, they encounter an even larger prospect: a civic arena, a greater and a grander home that’s welcoming to strangers.
For many, raised on credit cards and shopping malls, on spectacles of simulation, this new experience of freedom and belonging comes as something of a revelation. They return to their homes suddenly emboldened by a desire to lead their lives in different ways. They too often discover, however, that without the sympathetic support of a community, their newfound aspirations are confounded. Any change or insight that remains isolated in the individual is not enough for this larger vision. We believe that what we do in the desert can realize its true promise in our lives and in the lives of participants only when the world outside of our event becomes altered to resemble Black Rock City. Very practically, this means that our organization must now master a second art, that of large-scale cultural propagation.
Toward this end, we are creating the Burning Man Network, a nationwide system of affiliated membership groups that will enable our community to organize as we have organized. A first step is a tool we call the Extranet. Earlier this year, we began trial runs of this system within our organization, and we will soon make it available to members of our community across the country. The innovative software we’ve developed will help people to share resources, organize events, and connect with other members — not only citizens of Black Rock City, but many people who may never have attended Burning Man — in order to begin to change their world. In tandem with this project, we also plan to extend the mission of the Black Rock Arts Foundation. We are beginning a fund-raising drive intended to build support for such local efforts. Any project undertaken by participants that fashions interactive art within a civic setting will be eligible for funding. Thus far, Black Rock City LLC has been the chief support of the foundation, but in the coming years we plan to reach out to a larger world in order to solicit a much higher level of support.
One factor that will help enable this development is Burning Man’s rising profile in the greater world. One example is our growing reputation as an arts festival. In 2003, several articles about the art of Burning Man are slated to appear in periodicals. These publications inform the art world of significant developments in culture. Rather than wait for this sort of recognition or aid, we have over the years directly supported the work of artists within our community, and the result, it would seem, speaks very eloquently for itself. Now that we’ve attracted this attention, we hope to teach the greater world a new way of making art that propagates community in the process. We are beginning to step onto a higher platform where we are no longer regarded as some ‘hippie party in the desert.’ We have found, instead, that the world is listening — listening intently — and we intend to use this new prestige to strengthen our community. Later this year, in June 2003, Larry Harvey will address the Oxford Union outside London. He has also recently spoken to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. We believe that we can use this new prestige to generate support for our foundation.
At the same time, we are also embarking on a program that will transform Black Rock Station, our 200-acre property near the event site in Nevada. We are now committed to a three-year plan that will lead to extensive improvements. Among these new developments will be a storage facility, long imagined, that will allow participating artists and theme camps to store what they’ve created for future use at Burning Man. In the longer term, we think that this location can become a year-round center for creative collaboration. In essence, we will be moving in two directions at once: toward an extension of Burning Man into the greater world simultaneously with a consolidation and convergence at its geographic center. Increasingly, we view Burning Man as a kind of incubator for a new spirit of cultural activism. Expanding this vision even further, we sometimes quietly confide in one another that the day may come when Burning Man, the ritual event, may no longer need to carry on its fitful life. It will have changed the world from which it once so drastically departed. It will live on more grandly than before, in the regular lives of many people who may never see the sun rise on the playa or seek shelter from its winds.