Burning Man is famously difficult to describe. It is so many different things to so many different people: a huge rave in the desert, a spiritual journey, a temporary community, the world’s biggest sculptural art exhibition, a survivalist gathering, a place to discover new parts of yourself, for grieving and letting go, for exploring, expressing and sharing.
It’s hard to summarize all of that for people who haven’t experienced it for themselves, hard to link your individual stories to this larger context, hard, in a way, for even an experienced burner to make sense of it all, the unique jumble of experiences, emotions, observations, visual stimulation and desert living. Every year I’ve gone I’ve aimed to write about my experience but every year I hit this wall and the gap since the festival grows and eventually I give up. But this year, as my camp-mate Elly would say, “I’m doing it!”, very late but sooner than never.
What Burning Man is, fundamentally, is festival 2.0. Just as web2.0 is a platform for user-generated content Burning Man is a platform for user-generated experiences. The Burning Man Organization ensures that the very most basic infrastructure exists for the event to take place: roads, medics, port-a-potties and, of course, the Man. But everything else that makes a festival a festival is created and provided by the participants themselves: the music, art, venues, workshops, performances. All of it. Some of the major art works get grants to assist them to create their pieces, but this rarely covers costs and never covers labour.
What’s more there’s no vendering at Burning Man. No commercial food stalls. No souvenir stands. You cannot even buy water, despite our location in the middle of a desert. Everything you and your camp need to survive you need to take in yourselves: water, food, structures, bikes. (You gotta have bikes. Burning Man is ten miles across, way too big to walk around.)
That’s not to say Burning Man doesn’t have bars, restaurants, café’s and food stands. It does. It has not only everything you’d find at any festival (music, art, food) but also the things you’d find in the coolest part of a city: venues, restaurants, art galleries, spa’s, mini golf, roller disco’s. These hundreds of venues, events, parades and happenings across the city are created by autonomous groups of participants and everything they provide is gifted. Just like web2.0 what makes Burning Man tick is generosity. And all of this takes place in one of the harshest places on earth, the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.
Truly, it is a miraculous, empowering and inspiring thing.
This year K and I and an amazing group of friends from around the world came together to create a first-time Burning Man theme camp: More Carrot. Theme camps are the official interactive zones of the city. To qualify as a theme camp you must have things at your camp for other people to participate in. If selected as an official theme camp you get placement in a prime location in the city (ours was amazing, only a block from Center Camp) and the right to arrive early to set up. You can read more about the our name and formation here.
In thinking about this year’s event, and its theme of Metropolis, we felt that an essential element to any great city was access to fresh, local, organic food. And because this is Burning Man we decided that we would create this ourselves. From Tuesday-Friday during the event we hosted the Black Rock City Farmers Market (Black Rock City is the name of the city formed by Burning Man. For the week it exists it’s the third-largest in Nevada). We distributed over $1,000 worth of fruit and vegetables, about 80% of which were sourced from local farmers in Nevada, most of it organic. In addition to the market the More Carrot camp featured a chill-out dome, dj set-up (including power), 20 ft tower, communal kitchen and extensive décor and shade. The front of our camp featured the Illuminatrix project, which invited anyone to submit animations which ran on a screen created by a 19×19 array of ping pong balls with multi-spectrum LEDs inside. Like so:
The 25 members of our camp flew in from six countries, convening in Reno where we had rented two houses in which we do the pre-construction for our camp including building the farmers market stall, the bike rack and two giant glowing carrots. There was storage and truck hire to organize. Hundreds of litres of water and hundreds of dollars of fruit and vegetables to pick up and get to the site and, in the case of the perishables, keep fresh for almost a week.
In other words: it’s a really significant undertaking. And coordinating all of this from multiple time zones required using all our skills in online collaboration and team-building. Starting in January we invited selected people into a Google Group which was used for brainstorming and getting to know each other. Teams were formed for each project, both infrastructural (transport, power, lounge, etc) and interactive (the Farmers Market, Countless Carrots March, gifts, etc). These teams developed their plans and made budget submissions to our Organizing Committee for approval. Total camp budget was $6,250 ($250 each) but many members of the camp showed generosity that went far beyond this, providing additional elements individually. The Organizing Committee used Basecamp and met fortnightly on Skype (at 2pm SF time, 5pm DC, 11pm London and 7am in Melbourne), moving to weekly for the final six weeks.
This level of organization was necessary to manifest our vision in the middle of a desert but also because 17 of the 25 members of our camp where first-time Burners. We invested so much time and effort in More Carrot because those of us who initiated the camp had a goal that was, in a way, bigger than any of our specific events: we wanted to create a camp which was a true community; where everyone was involved, respected and included; where no one was a spectator. Burning Man is a massive platform for individual experience and participation and it was really important to us that More Carrot also reflect the Burning Man principles of community, participation, self-expression and self-reliance. In a way, this was the real project, creating this community, and the specific projects simply means to this end. They were also, of course, a whole lot of fun; a chance to play and interact and contribute to the magic that is Burning Man.
And truly, magic things happen at Burning Man, things that could happen nowhere else. My favourite only-at-Burning-Man moment this year occurred on Wednesday. I noticed that two guys appears to be working on some sort of wooden sculpture in our camp’s front yard, right between our two carrots. Intrigued, I wandered up. “Hi”. They looked up: “Hi”. Went back to their work. “What are you guys up to?”. “We’re building an onion.” Said as if this were the most obvious thing in the world. And indeed, now I looked closer, it was an onion, and a bloody good one, created by folding thin slats of wood together. These guys had come to the farmers market on Tuesday and, impressed, promised to be back the next day to build us an onion. No-one took this seriously at the time but here they were, creating an amazing 7-foot tall onion sculpture for our camp. So now instead of simply two carrots we had the beginnings of a veggie garden. What an amazing gift.
If that’s not magical enough for you, on Monday afternoon, as the rush of people entering the event was beginning to slow down and our camp was almost finished there was an intense rainstorm, the like’s of which I’ve never seen at Burning Man. If this wasn’t surreal enough already when the rain finished there was an absolutely epic DOUBLE RAINBOW, truly the most vivid I have ever seen. Sobs and cries of “what does it mean?!” rang out across the city. Check this out:
And then there was my favourite artwork on the playa this year: Ein Hammer! Ein Hammer was a giant metal hammer emerging from the playa surface, capable of throwing fire out from its shaft and head. But it was more than just a great piece of fire art, it was a game! Similar to the iconic carnival strength test where you hit a target with a hammer to see how high you can make the bell go this required three players to strike sensor pads with sledgehammers, with the height of the subsequent flames the result of how in-sync you hit. If you succeed the fire makes it all the way to the top and bursts spectacularly out the head of the hammer as it spins around. And if this wasn’t enough it was more than just a great fire art game, it was a fully themed performance piece with a ringleader crying out in a German accent, cheesy 80’s music and screens embedded in the desert showing the workers toiling in the furnaces beneath the surface, shoveling coal into a great fire to sustain the hammer. I had a go, it was unreal. Crazy, magical, fun.
We tried to do a lot this year, perhaps too much. Bring 17 virgins to their first burn. Run a farmers market. Host two parties and a sock wresting championships at our camp. Organize three roving events including taking on the well-established Billion Bunny March with our own Countless Carrot March. Support a team spread out across the world to work together and get amazing things done.
And we did it! There were, of course, mistakes and hiccups. The early-entry crew discovered we were missing poles to erect the kitchen, and had to send people out of the festival to where they could get reception to send a message to the group still in Reno. Our power set-up can be improved and next year we’ll have a bigger kitchen. But this is all so minor compared to what we achieved. We were a part of building the most extraordinary city on earth, fueled by creativity and passion and community. And for carrots, of course. Gotta have your vitamin A, especially in a desert.
The response to the market, and to our other events was fantastic, and I’m super-excited to take who we learnt this year and apply it to next year’s camp.
Thank you to all my fellow carrots who made this experience so fulfilling and so much fun. Building our camp and our community with you was an amazing experience. I can’t wait to do it all again.