This piece is part of a series highlighting the work and stories of Makers across the U.S in the run up to National Week of Making, June 17–23, 2016
Imagine a temporary city that appears for one week each year, dreamed-up and built by its citizens, who can follow any whim they want to try. An experiment in living together that fosters self-reliance and expression, communal effort and participation, gifting and immediacy. A place where the process is more important than the outcome. Where what doesn’t go as expected is at least as instructive as what goes according to plan. A do-it-yourself community fueled by play and the love, triumph, fun and failure of creating the world you want to live in.
Burning Man started out organically in 1986 and has evolved into a city imagined and reinvented by its 70,000 participants each year. It’s a metropolis of creatives, makers, performers, explorers and inventors with its own post office, airport, radio stations, newspapers, volunteer rangers, a DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles) and a plethora of large-scale interactive art — with no branded content at all. It is a gift economy where nothing is bought or sold, so participants must be self-reliant and at the same time come together to learn, create and thrive. When the event is over, the whole thing vanishes without a trace. Black Rock City, the largest annual Burning Man gathering, is meticulously cleaned up and packed out by all of its participants at the end of the week.
In 2004, Larry Harvey, one of the organization’s Founders assembled Burning Man’s 10 Principles as a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture. In no way prescriptive, these patterns of behaviours serve as guidelines for the emergent activity of thousands of participants, theme camps, and art project teams to embrace as a framework.
In many ways, it’s this culture that provides the permission for dreams to become reality, social experiments to take place, and for society to be built and repaired. Burning Man is an art state, not a police state where you have the permission to play, make and explore, fostering innovation.
These principles are in tension with one another: the idea that we can be self-reliant and engage in communal effort; we can be radically self-expressive and inclusive. It’s this constant tension between collective governance, individual novelty, and emergent activity that is the scaffolding of Black Rock City as a Maker city.
“Out of nothing, we created everything,” Burning Man Founder, Larry Harvey
Burning Man shares DNA with the ideals known as the Maker Movement, which suggest that the world needs more people coming together to make and explore new ideas in hubs and maker spaces.
President Obama said in his National Week of Making Proclamation:
“Our country was built on the belief that with hard work and passion, progress is within our reach, and it is because of daring innovators and entrepreneurs who have taken risks and redefined what is possible that we have been able to realize this promise. Makers and builders and doers — of all ages and backgrounds — have pushed our country forward, developing creative solutions to important challenges and proving that ordinary Americans are capable of achieving the extraordinary when they have access to the resources they need.”
Somewhat different from typical cities, Burning Man events encourage art and civic engagement at the core of their design. There are no trash cans to encourage participants to clean up after themselves and no agency exists to ensure you have what you need to eat or drink, or that your shelter won’t blow away. There are streets for walking and biking built by volunteers, but there are no cars allowed. Instead, roving works of art hand-crafted by participants offer public transport around the inner ring of the city called the Esplanade and art is at the city’s centre. Every year, we see ambitious projects requiring ever greater feats of engineering to complete than the last.
Today, Burning Man has found its place on the cultural map as an inherently revolutionary movement reflexively prototyping, adjusting, tinkering, and reinventing itself in rapid succession. A reflection of the American spirit of innovation, Burning Man is a “permission engine” — as some have called it — built on trust and shared values that allows its constituents to make decisions. America and Burning Man alike encourage experimentation and reward risk.
“Since our earliest days in the desert, we have fostered a culture that values doing over being, creation over acquisition, and the innovative application of new tools and technologies to the unique challenges arising from the building and rebuilding of cities,” Larry Harvey. “We’ve seen how that effort starts with the maker spirit.”
The event has received much attention for being a petri dish for new technology and art fueling the Maker Movement. However, Burning Man culture is less about the artifacts and more about the mentality of being a maker and the values of participation, experimentation and play, with a point of view that is focused on the art first. Beauty and curiosity are put on the same level as functionality and creations are often burned at the end of the week.
Burning Man’s makers have a great deal in common with people you’d find in a Fab Lab or TechShop, but they are not as attached to the outcome of their creations. Additionally, instead of getting feedback from 40 or 50 people, they get it from 40 or 50 thousand, many of whom could be considered co-creators of the common experience of the project. Making art on this scale for people intended to be participants and collaborators rather than a passive audience, inspires continued effort, refinement, and ultimately success.
Once the event is over, its effects tend to linger long afterwards for participants. People take the immediacy and civic responsibility home with them. Building Burning Man gives people a sense of their own agency and makes it clear how radical self-expression and civic engagement ultimately leads to a better life.
It’s this civic pride — a more engaged form of citizenship not just in Black Rock City but in the real world — that underlies the global voluntary association and network of social trust known as the “Burner” community.
“ When we create together, we make something beyond what an individual can do, and that process of seeing your contribution to the whole connect to a mindfulness that opens us up to seeing greater possibilities. When people get pushed into this space, things loosen up, and radical change is possible, innovation is possible.” Jess Hobbs of Oakland-based large-scale art workshop Flux Foundation
As a newly formed nonprofit organization, the Burning Man Project has been able to focus on this role of offering artists a path to become agents of change and manifest new ideas in the world.
David Best, now famous for creating temporary temples across the globe, first created a temple structure at Burning Man in 2000. He never imagined that the people would embrace it as they did. Now, what began as an experiment in the desert has become a worldwide phenomenon.
At Burning Man, the Temple is a place to celebrate and remember those who have been lost in the past. Each iteration of the Temple is built by different guilds and collaborators internationally who submit proposals for what the new year’s Temple might be.
In 2015, in Derry, Northern Ireland, Burning Man collaborated with Artichoke Trust who enlisted David Best to build a temple where, just like in Black Rock City, hundreds of volunteers joined the California Temple Crew to build a 72-ft high structure that towered over the city, uniting the community to celebrate togetherness and help heal from Northern Ireland’s traumatic recent history.
The image below is the architectural rendering of a temple inspired by Best’s work, designed by Hippathy Valentine and built by the people of Christchurch, New Zealand in the wake of a devastating earthquake. The intent was to create a communal focus for grief and recovery. The design is based on the seismic readings of the earthquake itself.
Temples are just one example of the impact of Burning Man art, artists, and makers have in the world beyond the desert. The inspirational imperative people get from creating Burning Man art has helped drive the formation of numerous collectives that combine collaborative effort on large-scale art projects with active teaching and learning of craft.
“It is a hallmark of our community that in order to turn the fruits of one’s imagination into action in the world, new skills often need to be acquired.” Says Burning Man’s Director of Education, Stuart Mangrum
Groups like the Flaming Lotus Girls and Flux Foundation are as much about making artists as making art, but in the process amazing things get made. There are also are cooperative industrial studios and build spaces like NIMBY, American Steel, and The Generator, where the focus is on making rather than teaching, but where Burning Man artists exchange ideas and skills, wind up working on each other’s projects, and teaching newcomers. This is further reflected in the growing popularity of alternative, not-for-profit, Burner-flavored learning institutions like The Crucible and Gray Area.
Burners have also put their maker skills to uses far removed from art projects. Burners Without Borders (BWB) began as a response to Hurricane Katrina. Over the course of eight months, these volunteers provided over $1 million worth of reconstruction and debris removal to Mississippi residents, and put one community over three years ahead of government relief efforts in the region. BWB was founded when they decided to keep going and apply this model of relief, based in the skills needed to create collaborative art projects, to use in communities in need.
Their projects have since seen offshoots of their own. One shining example is Communitere, a dynamic and sustainable organization that provides Maker spaces to communities that have suffered from natural disasters. This allows people to create the relief efforts they need for themselves, tapping into their own skills and resiliency and applying their knowledge of what they their neighbours actually need right now. Communitere now operates in Haiti, Nepal and the Philippines, providing space to NGOs like Field Ready, who is pioneering the use of 3D printers in disaster areas.
Drawing on the Past, Building for the Future: Da Vinci’s Workshop.
Each year, Burning Man chooses a new theme, often with challenging social implications, as a focal point around which teams and projects self-organize and transform the blank desert canvas into thriving Black Rock City.
In realizing this year’s event theme, Da Vinci’s Workshop, Larry Harvey and the builders of Black Rock City are attempting what may be their most ambitious project to date: mounting the Man on a mechanism that will enable it to rotate on a vertical plane, and surrounding this human-powered contraption with a public square designed to evoke the terra-cotta and plastered-brick ambiance of a Renaissance piazza.
This year, Burning Man will call on artists, craftspeople, and tinkerers from across the Burning Man Global Network and beyond to help program four rows of Guild Workshops intended for the teaching, learning, and practical application of art and craft. For the first time ever, Burning Man Arts has set aside a portion of its Honorarium Art Grant budget to help bring these ideas to life inside these workshops. The emphasis within the workshop spaces will be on experiential learning through hands-on doing.
Burning Man is a kindred movement to the makers, animated and energized by many of the same impulses, and we are thrilled to see that relationship recognized.
Jenn Sander works on Global Innovation for Burning Man.