The Promised Sand
There’s one thing you know right away when you step out at night onto the Esplanade at Black Rock City for the first time: this ain’t no Carnival cruise.
The Esplanade is to Black Rock City what the Bund is to Shanghai or the Quai d’Orsay is to Paris: where you stand to gaze out at the illuminated tableau of an urban landscape. Unlike these other famed frontages, the Esplanade does not offer views of cathedrals, castles, and bridges, however. Instead, it offers a view of a black expanse traversed by moving lights and bursts of flame so intense and numerous that they merge almost seamlessly into the starscape above. Over the entire scene presides The Man: a colossal wooden stick figure situated exactly at the center of the semi-circular grid of streets that comprise the layout of Black Rock City.
This is Burning Man. Later, when you will tell people “I went to Burning Man,” some who have heard of this event in the Nevada desert will imagine that you ran naked through dust storms with aged hippies for a week; others, that you attended the world’s most poorly organized and ill-situated music festival. Few if any who have not been to Black Rock City will grasp something close to the truth of the matter: that you participated in a remarkable, if not unique, experiment in creating a temporary city.
“Going to Burning Man” is an experience without close analogues, but the closest is simply “going to New York” or to any other vibrant city full of possibilities.
There is no single pathway of experience at Black Rock City any more than there is a single pathway of experience in midtown Manhattan or central London. It is platform on which experiences are offered and in which discoveries and connections take place. Like any city, Black Rock City has a culture — with norms and expectations. What is distinct about Black Rock City is that it offers those experiences on the most reduced-form platform imaginable. Rather than a “festival” in any standard sense of the word, it is an annual experiment in which a social petri dish the size of downtown San Francisco is treated with a microbial growth medium that takes the shape of 10 principles and a semi-circular urban plan. A functioning city emerges. Artists experiment. Engineers create. The results filter out into the world. (The light design in the basement of the National Gallery of Art in Washington is one of a number of Burning Man experiments that has found its way into the world at large.)
It didn’t start this way. “One day in 1986 I called a friend and said, let’s build a man and burn him on the beach,” Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man, recalled in one of the countless talks and interviews he has given over time on the origins of the city. “I did this on impulse. There was really nothing on my mind. I’ve thought about it over the years, because [people] keep asking, and the best I can say is that some passionate prompting, some immediate vision just had to be embodied in the world.” The original burning of The Man on Baker Beach in San Francisco was more of an elaborate and inspired prank than it was a conscious effort to launch a social movement — much less to create a city. “We built our man from scraps of wood, then called some friends and took it to the beach. We saturated it with gasoline and put a match to it, and within minutes our numbers doubled. That’s actually when Burning Man began as an institution, you know. We were so moved by that we knew we had to do it again.”
After four years at Baker Beach, the gathering began to run into the sort of problems to be expected when a large-scale outpouring of anarchic expression takes place in a major metropolitan area. So Larry Harvey and a group of cofounders who had, by then, taken responsibility for the gathering decided to find another location. They settled on the Black Rock Desert.
For the following six years, according to one early participant, Burning Man consisted of “a few thousand jackasses going [crazy] across the desert floor … People were driving around shooting guns out of moving cars while dragging their friends from the bumper on tarps.” In 1992 the event became ticketed, with the price of admission set at $25. (In 2015 it was $390.) The city’s volunteer patrol, the Black Rock Rangers, came into existence the same year. That era of unrepressed and ungoverned mayhem flamed out in 1996 when one reveler drove through an occupied tent in the middle of the night, severely injuring all inside. The same year another participant on a motorcycle lost a game of chicken with a pickup truck, with fatal consequences. “We decided to build a vessel to contain the community. We realized we had to create a real city.”
When Burners (as participants in Burning Man call themselves) returned the following year, they found a city plan had been imposed. All tents and RVs were confined to a semicircular grid of streets, on which speed limits would be carefully enforced. Black Rock City was born.
“I’ve always been very interested in scenes, particularly avant-garde scenes. We started with a little scene in San Francisco,” Larry Harvey said to me when I had a chance to speak with him at Black Rock City in 2015. Avant-garde scenes act as “a crossroads for people doing radical things seeming unrelated to one another. People start to meet one another, and bounce off one another, and share ideas with one another. That could be the Beats in America. That could be the Bloomsbury Group in London. It could be older scenes even before that, around folks going back since forever. We are that.” Then Harvey pauses, not for effect but for reflection.
“Except we’re the first organization, I believe, that turned a Bohemian scene into a city,” he continues. “I don’t think anyone’s every done that. So now it’s a scene with 70,000 people. Usually scenes don’t do that.”
The evolution of Black Rock City is for urbanists what a real-life Jurassic Park would be for a paleontologist. We really have no idea what the human experience of living in humanity’s first cities might have been — whether Uruk in Mesopotamia or Çatalhöyük in Anatolia. But go to Burning Man and you will come away with a sense that Black Rock City is at least as much about the primal past as it is the techno-future.
To the denizens of Black Rock City, all that lies outside the city walls (actually, the trash fence that defines the perimeter of the space in which Burning Man takes place) is know as “default world.” An instructive irony is that in default world getaway destinations — hotels and motels — the two items one can count on getting for free are ice and coffee. At Black Rock City, the exact opposite holds: The only two items available for purchase are ice and coffee. The irony is instructive: The economy of Black Rock City is more or less the exact inverse of default world economy.
“We allow no vending, no advertising, no buying or selling of anything,” says Harvey. “We discourage bartering because even bartering is a commodity transaction. Instead, we’ve originated both an ethos and an economic system that is devoted to the giving of gifts. This is a radical departure from the marketplace that we’re accustomed to, because, of course, the marketplace invades every crack and corner of our lives today. A gift economy is founded on principles that are diametrically different from those that dominate our consumer culture.”
Yet Harvey draws an important distinction between what occurs within the “container” that is Black Rock City, and the manner in which the City interacts with the environment outside. “There’s this notion that this is a moneyless utopia,” he observed to a group of journalists gathered at Black Rock City.
“Where did all this stuff come from? It was purchased in the marketplace. Where did this tent come from? It wasn’t cobbled together in this environment that furnishes no material resources whatsoever … Most people didn’t knit their tent from wool, from shearing sheep.” This is the throughput of energy that allows Black Rock City — like any city — to survive.
What differentiates Black Rock City is its all-pervasive culture of participation. If Burning Man had a rule, it is “No Spectators.” As Harvey puts it of the resources that participants transport, at great cost and difficulty, to the Nevada desert: “The crucial question is what happens when they cross the city boundaries, and decide what to do with those resources. The meaning isn’t stamped into the goods at the factory or something. The meaning derives from what they do with those goods and how they use those goods to connect with everybody here. That’s the curious nature of the economy at Burning Man.”
Yet, for the singular nature of Black Rock City’s participatory culture, this aspect of the city also generalizes. All cities are fed with resources from the outside. And for all cities, meaning derives from what citizens do with the goods they draw from the outside, and how they use those goods to connect with everybody here.
So it is that having a lens to view the deep past of cities helps us to understand their future. Population size and GDP are to the vitality of a city what weight and metabolism are to vitality of a human being: imperfect indicators. What matters most to a city is not whether it is small or big, growing or shrinking. What matter most is that it is alive.
In the space of a few weeks in the Nevada desert, a city grows, and abruptly dies. Whether supermodels, movie stars, or tech moguls happen to visit the city while it exists is hardly the most interesting dimension of the reality that is Black Rock City. What is most interesting about Black Rock City is that — like all cities and indeed all forms of life — it came out of nothing, simply to be.