The Burning Man Network has seemed since the very beginning to have a life of its own. Burning Man participants have clearly shown that they want to stay connected year-round. The outgrowth of support for that connection has evolved around the globe, with many people stepping forward to take responsibility for the creation and organization of local Burning Man-related activity. This concept has grown in a notably organic fashion. Staff members have watched as discussions, problems, and ideas sprung up in several places at once, often in areas of relative isolation from one another.
The Burning Man Project has always approached its role in the evolution of this concept in the same way that the event in the desert is organized: Build a framework for civic involvement, and maintain its support; beyond that, let individual forms of expression define creative content. Policy and action have encouraged this kind of involvement while taking some basic (but occasionally quite complex) steps to maintain openness to all at local activities in the name of Burning Man, and to ensure observance of the philosophies expressed in the Ten Principles document. In this way, Burning Man has actively supported local organization.
Groups across the country and in far corners of the world come up with dozens of ways to keep local Burning Man participants connected and active, no matter how large or small the groups. In some cities, community members have opted to hold newbie orientations, inviting the curious to meet and interact with seasoned participants, who offer answers to pressing preparation questions. Classes, civic volunteerism, performances, and film screenings have brought people together in cities large and small. Roughly 30 groups chose to work together to create multiday Burn-centered events for art and expression, from woods near Columbia, Missouri, all the way to remote deserts in Spain.
Some regions have involved themselves with local art projects, with delightful results. For example, New York, Georgia, Texas, Washington, and California-based groups each worked with artists Charlie Smith and Jamie Ladet to create six metal fire sculptures, which ultimately converged on the playa to create the beautiful Synapses piece at the 2005 event. Several dozen amazingly talented Seattle burners pooled their highly diverse vocations and avocations to create The Machine, an enormous, multisensory sculpture on the playa. Regional groups all around the headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area shared a proud moment when Burning Man’s Black Rock Arts Foundation worked with local artists to facilitate the placement of several works of large-scale interactive art in several public spaces in San Francisco. Organizers deeply hope that the lessons and experiences gained with that process will serve as a model for BRAF’s interactions with many other regional groups to produce even more public art in other cities around the United States and across the globe. The Burning Man Network will play a large part in connecting BRAF to regional artists in these endeavors, and BRAF and Burning Man are eager to continue deepening the connection.
As regional groups mature, so do the particular challenges they face. Smaller, newer groups, for example, clamor to find other participants in their towns—not always easy when the ticket sales database doesn’t accurately reflect precisely who attended the event with the ticket purchased. Entire camps can sometimes develop in the same city without any knowledge of the existence of other pockets of participants just a few miles away. Larger groups face decisions on how to incorporate, create safe events, or protect themselves from exposure to liability as hosts of large and small events.
For groups of all sizes, the challenge of identifying resources and new ideas for bringing people together around Burning Man philosophies makes for lively dialogues on the regional discussion list. Legal issues surrounding volunteerism, finances, and incorporation keep Burning Man’s legal counsel actively participating in the Regionals Committee, a steering committee of Burning Man staffers (now six members strong and growing) who seek to nurture the network. Meeting weekly or bi-weekly throughout 2005, this group added even more staff from various departments than before to help support the activities of the Regional Network.
Even with extra staff, this group often felt as though they were running at top speed to catch up to the front of the parade, as has been the case every year since the Regionals program’s inception. For example, the long-awaited Film Festival in a Box still awaits wide-scale release, although some one-off “practice runs” of the fest contributed to regional events in 2005. Fits and starts of volunteer support kept the festival slow to get off the ground and hampered its release at the widest level. Unsatisfied with this project’s progress, staffers are seeking ways to dedicate focused attention to it this year, planning for completion by April and perhaps a run of the festival in San Francisco to kick off its release. Additionally, at the closing of the 2005 calendar year, more potential regional representatives waited on the interview list than the number of new regionals added in all of that year. The interview and intake process is one of the most challenging parts of the network’s operation, and one of the most vital. The addition of extra staff and a streamlining of that process are helping to alleviate the stress of what’s become a familiar, ongoing condition in the Regional Network: so many people want to participate that they overtax the few staff people available to serve their needs. Every year, resources and labor devoted to this effort expand, and 2006 is already gearing up to be another year of incredible growth. (Not every aspect of the network grows every year, though: A poll conducted in 2005 investigated how regional reps used and shared their copies of Black Top Gazette, a bi-annual off-playa edition of the Black Rock Gazette sent to every rep for local distribution. The results of the survey led Burning Man to opt out of the paper’s future runs.)
On the playa, the Regional Network demonstrated its evolution with the return of the 2004 innovation, the Regional Information Center (RIC) in Center Camp. Fittingly located between the Black Rock Arts Foundation and The Artery, it provided a place for Burning Man participants to learn more about what happens off-playa year-round, get website information about the regional nearest them, and join regional announce lists for the cities closest to their homes. A map of Black Rock City indicated where regional reps were camped, so participants could meet others from their areas, if they so chose. Staffed by regional reps, the RIC also functioned as a place for them to meet one another in person and share information about what they do to create community year-round. The center also hosted interviews of prospective new contacts.
Toward the end of the week, the RIC also functioned as the first Hurricane Katrina Information and Relief Center, providing a place for people from Louisiana and affected areas to gather, get information online, and sign a list for rides, further information, and other connections with others affected by Hurricane Katrina. The center signed up 60 new people for various regional lists, compared to 79 in 2004. Due to the effort required to set up a separate structure and staff it, plans for 2006 call for sharing a single structure with BRAF and combining resources—a logical move given that BRAF is dedicated to supporting year-round art and will rely heavily on the Regional Network to expand its mission.
The 200 or so attending the Regionals Party enjoyed clear weather in 2005 instead of the traditional duststorm. The group included Regional Contacts and other organizers along with members of their local groups. While the regional discussion list is one of the most vibrant on Burning Man’s servers, nothing can substitute for good, old-fashioned face-to-face connection. Many new relationships were made and old ones solidified at the event, held at First Camp.
The Burning Man staff continued the familiar commitment to visiting events and maintaining an active interest in the needs and evolution of local regional groups. In addition to the usual invitations to help out at some of the larger Decompression events in 2005, staffers also made visits to groups in Colorado, Hawaii, the Midwest, Michigan, and more. These organizers also met participants in multiple cities across Texas during a spring regional trip to the Houston Art Car Fest, where Larry Harvey had been invited to participate as a judge.
In fact, staffers from all echelons of the organization have visited regional events representing Burning Man and embodying the Project’s interest in and support for local endeavors. Whether answering high-level organizational questions, advising on gate setup or security, or helping to solve legal or financial conundrums, these staffers lent their unique backgrounds and expertise to the ever-expanding Regional Network. Black Rock Rangers, for example, travel hundreds of miles to demonstrate the art of Rangering at a regional burn, and locals who have volunteered with Greeters, the Department of Public Works, and many other teams have also stepped forward to offer their own skills and expertise. Burning Man’s own pyrotechnics expert was even seen lending a hand at Interfuse to help safely stuff the Midwestern participants’ effigy with remarkable explosive effects. More and more, staff and volunteers are encouraged to become involved at the local level, and the Project continues its exploration of how it can support this sharing of resources and volunteerism.
The future is bright for the Regional Network, with a deeper integration with BRAF on the horizon and the potential for more and more Burning Man-style art and expression making its way out of the desert, out of garages and storage spaces, and directly into the public eye. Burning Man, as has been said so many times, is more than just an event once a year. It is a way of life and of looking at the value of self-expression and one’s true connection to the outside world. The Regional Network continues to prove that this idea rings true, even when people are not thinking about, planning for, or participating in the desert event. Black Rock City has become a sort of doorway to these philosophies, and after just one visit, lives change as a result. Black Rock City residents learn that every moment is an opportunity to deeply participate in life, and as thousands of people around the world give their time and energy to local efforts year-round, heartening evidence continues to confirm the evolution and expansion of the philosophies of Burning Man into the greater world.