Burning Man Festival 28.02.12

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(image: Scott London)

Every summer 50,000 artists and revellers descend on Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for the Burning Man festival. The campsite they create is a model of urban planning and community organisation, but its architecture is defined by the event’s destructive driving force

Every summer 50,000 artists and revellers descend on Nevada's Black Rock Desert for the Burning Man festival. The campsite they create is a model of urban planning and community organisation, but its architecture is defined by the event's destructive driving force.

Campfires are not permitted at Burning Man. Fifty-thousand attendees burn a 40ft wooden effigy, but they don't roast marshmallows without a camp stove. The annual festival in Nevada's Black Rock Desert is where punk art meets the camper's ethic of Leave No Trace. Burning Man's website provides a friendly reminder that "anything not of the playa is considered Matter Out Of Place, folks" – such are the requirements of this ephemeral occupation of Nevada's ecologically sensitive desert basin. And yet, a lack of restraint, some say hedonism, is also encouraged. The event's raison d'etre is artistic self-expression and in the words of founder Larry Harvey: "You make your own show." It is this collision between asceticism and aestheticism that has created an extraordinary campfire architecture – and, in the process, transformed burning into building.

Burning Man started as an informal, anarchic event to burn "the Man" on California's Baker Beach in 1986. The ritual was then adopted by the Tarkovsky-inspired Cacophony Society's Zone Trip #4, which made the inaugural journey to the Black Rock Desert in 1990. And it has become a full-blown nomadic, though fenced, gated and pricey, city. It is not the largest annual event, but it is one of the best-known outdoor ones, with its week-long campsite and active year-round community on the web. Black Rock City, as the camp is known, is a two-thirds circle, more than one-and-a-half miles across, with 11 concentric semicircles in its interior. Clock-time and degree-based coordinates orient participants and determine the location of themed camps. Radial avenues occur at each half-hour interval from 2 o'clock around to 10 o'clock; at the centre of the concentric circles is an enormous bonfire. In late summer, as the festival approaches, site manager Tony Perez makes the first mark by driving a concrete stake into the playa's surface, setting up the camp's circular layout by locating the Man.

In spite of its expansive scale, Black Rock City's layout follows the most basic tenets of making camp, placing tent sites upwind of the fire site, framing scenic vistas and the glow of the rising sun. It is boy-scout pragmatism translated into an urban scale. Prevailing south-west winds – the same force that might be said to blow in avid participants travelling north-east from California's Bay area – shape the radial city's urban plan so that its north-east quadrant remains open to allow for the Burning Man's smoke to dissipate across the desert. This unsettled zone hosts the main communal space and remains as a kind of human-made playa within the natural playa, where burners can enjoy glittering sunrises and witness dust storms on the horizon. At Black Rock City, burning defines urban planning.


Lamplighters illuminate the city streets, flame-throwing automobiles (Black Rock City's "mutant vehicles") produce car-art traffic jams, fire-spinning activates the Fire Conclave Convergence theme camp. In this year's event 23 combustible projects cluster around the Man in the first annual Circle of Regional Effigies – sculptures created by Burning Man groups around the world that range from the constructivist to the anthropomorphic to the patently regionalist. Burning Man's theme camps provide the framework for a kind of method-acting as self-discovery, and organisers note that these camps should be participatory, interactive and visually stimulating, as well as providing the community spaces with "ambience". Camp themes have ranged from Camp Blank ("about potential and possibility") to Fat Frat Boy Camp, from Camp Katrina (home to the disaster-relief community of Burners without Borders) to 7 Sins Lounge, and from Couch Surfing Camp to Cult of the Levitating Plywood Camp.

With these varied activities, Burning Man has developed an architecture of the effigy. Burning the Man makes a statement, underscoring the event's marginality and its symbolically unauthorised free play. The Man's lattice framework and oversized scale also recall Celtic paganism's wicker man statues burnt as ritual sacrifices. The event's eponymous structure remains at the conceptual and formal centre of this architecture. The elevation of the Man on a platform, often doubling his effective height, extends the potency and visibility of this symbolism, but it also represents best practice. Burning Man's organisers have developed sophisticated guidelines to integrate burn shields and burn platforms to reflect heat and protect the playa from embers and ashes. At the end of each radial street, community burn platforms create a network of controlled burns that complement and reinforce the Man's central position.

Perhaps the most spectacular, and controversial, architectural effigy was the 2006 installation by a group of Belgian artists and numerous volunteers. Titled Uchronia – shifting utopia's "no place" to an ahistorical "no time" – the project required 100 miles of wooden sticks to reach its dimensions of 60m by 30m and 15m high. When this wicker-like structure – subtitled by its makers as "Message from the Future" but colloquially identified as the Belgian Waffle – flamed on the event's final day, participants expressed concern about the massive pyre's impact on the playa; but outrage soon replaced these concerns when post-event reports on the ePlaya (Burning Man's virtual camp for the rest of the year) observed that fragments of the installation had been used in a Lexus commercial. Burning Man prohibits commerce, and instead promotes a "gift economy", whereby goods and services are given without explicit agreement for recompense.

What's not burnt at Burning Man is also significant. Some 2,500 pieces of two-by-four wood were turned in during 2010's afterburn collection. This leftover building material joins the bricolage of everyday materials that 
is the event's DIY vernacular. Salvaged doors, traffic cones, bicycles, whales, domes, fractals, snowflakes, giant lawn chairs, tree roots, stilts, umbrellas, cupcakes, mazes, pinwheels, scratched 45s, hammocks, kites, parachutes, pickles and Ryder trucks all play a part in this built environment. Some remain as objects, some are transmuted to other uses such as coiled dryer vent pipes for an insulated wall, and many are put into motion. One of my favourite mutant vehicles at Burning Man is what looks to be a 1973 Chevy Impala Custom Coupé modified to support occupiable scaffolding that extends precariously beyond each bumper. This open-frame space for living and performing music supports two dome tents, along with a pirate flag and homemade palm trees. The structure is mobile – even at eight 
miles per gallon – but by deconstructing the typology of the recreational vehicle it also elevates the camping surface to an unlikely but fitting platform. The pyrotechnic spectacle manages to be both refined and spontaneous so that 
both the participants and the audience can explore the constructive potential of fire and feel good about doing so. Organisers say that burning things amounts to only 1 percent of the week's environmental impact. The website has encouraging messages for participants such as: "You, as the artist, have two choices in burning your art." The art of burning also conforms to Leave No Trace ethics: camping can be seen as an act of desert restoration. If the CIA can present its "burn after reading" policy as a sustainable practice to save energy and reduce environmental impact, 
then Burning Man can certainly continue exploring burning as building. Back at the post-event Black Rock City, sunburnt participants collect the Man's ashes in zip-lock baggies and cook over his still glowing embers.




Scott London



Charlie Hailey

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The Man's lattice frame and scale recalls wicker man statues burnt as ritual sacrifices

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