The Vanishing City

The Monaco Ship (the 2017 edition)
“Vision: Burning Man Project will bring experiences to people in grand, awe-inspiring and joyful ways that lift the human spirit, address social problems and inspire a sense of culture, community and personal engagement.”

I’ve never been to Burning Man festival, but throughout the years many people have told me stories of this unique festival. After carrying out my in-depth research, I found out that the ‘Burning Man phenomenon’ is a cross-sectorial wonder that touches upon urban planning, no-currency economics, self-governance, law and many other fields. I believe it is time to share here some of the most interesting findings about it.

Principle 1: Leaving no trace (“the vanishing act”)

Before & After (the 2014 edition)
“Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavour, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.”

Burning man is a great lesson in sustainability and resource management. Firstly, it teaches us to consider what an absolute lack of resources (water, electricity, housing, AC, transportation) looks like. This is what they call ‘radical self-reliance’. The closest city with a supermarket is a good 3 hours drive from the camp-site. Resources need to be conserved, shared, recycled, but, more importantly, disposed of on the last day. Everything needs to vanish.

MOOP Volunteers picking waste (the 2017 edition)

The zero-waste principle is a philosophy that is already applied by big cities such as Barcelona. The City Council adopted the strategy and pushes the idea of circular economy (including 3d printing) to achieve zero waste by 2050.

This concept of zero-impact is what is also used in architecture and energy sector: “A zero-energy building is a building with zero net energy consumption, meaning the total amount of energy used by the building is roughly equal to the amount of renewable energy created on the site, or by renewable energy sources elsewhere.”

Principle 2: Participation

Trojan Horse Pull (the 2011 edition)
“People who go to Burning Man are no mere “attendees” but rather active participants in every sense of the word: They create the city, the interaction, the art, the performance and ultimately the experience…Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play…”

Every year Black Rock City (the festival’s temporary town) becomes one of Nevada’s biggest cities, having had hosted about 70,000 people in 2018. The city needs to have buildings, art installations, WCs, showers, a hospital, a temple and these are built by people from scratch. In 2016 there was even an online contest for city designs and this is a great example of the openness to contributions and participation.

Snakes and Ladders Concept , by Sergio Bianchi, Simone Fracasso, Chiara Pellegrin (Italy)

Principle 3: Gifting

Free bananas
“Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.”

There is free food, free alcohol and all kinds of nice small tokens that people bring to the festival for gifting. One of the few thing that are sold at the festival are Ice & Coffee. People are usually assigned jobs or roles and some even choose to offer free services such as massages, classes & yoga.

Yoga session (the 2013 edition)

Even if they are cash-less on the inside, the tickets ($ 425) and other preparations (flight, food, tent, car) for the festivals can be pretty expensive. Each year, the city of Reno (120 miles away) is becoming overwhelmingly busy due to the festival visitors. The citizens are glad, because the festival has a huge month-long impact on their local economy.

There is a strong culture of donation and crowdsourcing around Burning Man. Each year, the project organisation opens up call for application for various art-installation grants and also organises workshops on crowdsourcing and fundraising for artists. Donations to the Burning Man Project in 2015 reached $1,329,325, and since then project is non-profit each year they upload their expense reports online.

Expense Report (the 2016 edition)

Principle 4: Civic responsibility

Colour-coded cleaning sectors (the 2017 edition)
“Community members who organise events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavour to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.”

An example of this are the Black Rock Rangers. Black Rock Rangers are participants who volunteer a portion of their time at Burning Man in service of the safety and well-being of the community. Rangers act as non-confrontational community mediators, providers of reliable information, facilitators of public safety. This is yet another example of great planning and logistics.

It is no easy task to organise some tens of thousands of people including volunteers and working-volunteers. Each of them needs to be assigned a role/job and all the ‘burners’ need to pass some basic instruction at the beginning. The camps and all structures’ building process must be monitored to see if they are safe. The MOOP volunteers need to be recruited and led (especially difficult after a 3-day rave). All of these responsibilities indicate a strong organisation behind with great managerial skills that is able at the same time to stick to the festival authenticity and anarchy-related principles.

Principle 5: Radical Self-expression

“Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others.”

In other words, be who you are or discover who you are during the festival days. Build things, dress up, wear googles, listen to great music …

… and of course, enjoy the burn

The Man (the 2013 edition)
Embrace (the 2014 edition)
Galaxia (the 2018 edition)
“In order for the ethnology to live, its object must die; by dying, the object takes its revenge for being “discovered” and with its death defies the science that wants to grasp it.” (Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard)

Thanks for reading!

P.S. Here is the 2018 After Movie