I often use this space to report on industry events I have attended and what I have learned at them. So, this article will be a slight, but not complete, departure from this. I am reporting on my experiences at Burning Man this year. For the unacquainted, Burning Man is a temporary city of around 70,000 people in a remote desert-like dry lake bed in Northern Nevada. The Black Rock Desert is a harsh environment with an arid climate where temperatures range from 32 to 104 during the event, and sometimes there are heavy winds and ubiquitous alkaline dust (not sand). The event is a week long and attendees need to pack in and pack out everything they need to survive, and hopefully luxuriate, in this environment. There are no shops, vendors, food stands, trash cans, nor water provided there.
Why, you might ask, do people come here? Back in my first years, starting in 2004, it was a place to get away from your routine, unplug and learn how people can create community and build participatory art. The event is filled with art and expression. There are large projects that are funded through grants, and small creations and activities undertaken by the participants. Yes, there are large parties, naked people and tons of noise. There is also a camp of sober AA members, sunrise yoga, a marathon run, and massive gifting of food, drink and whatever else people feel like contributing. I am sure you also have heard that many high tech luminaries attend, as well as the likes of Paris Hilton.
There are ten principles that attendees should follow to maintain the integrity of the event. More on the ten principles can be found on the Burning Man web site. Back in 2004 most people camped in tents, along with some in RV’s. The harshness kept out ‘weekenders’ and the music festival crowd. There is no “main stage”. The event is created by the attendees, not the organizers – who for their part primarily provide porta-potties and overall event organization.
However, these days there are many RV’s and so called “plug and play” camps, where people look to pay others to prepare things for their experience and often do not contribute to the event itself as was traditionally done. Despite the growth of these kinds of attendees, the event still carries with it a unique culture of openness and interaction.
Most interesting is how technology has become a larger part of the event. In the large open areas of the desert site there are big art projects. To help people cover the thousands of feet of flat desert, many people build and bring art cars which they then use to carry anyone who wants a ride. These art cars look nothing like cars. There have been dragons, sailing ships, yachts, flaming ducks, submarines, desert islands, an octopus made from scrap metal that shoots flame from its tentacles, a giant angler fish called Disco Fish, and so on.
Let’s talk about Disco Fish. It is built on a Chevy van and a trailer that are festooned with translucent ‘scales’ with thousands of addressable LED’s. It has a propane jet torch on top and a huge disco ball where a real angler fish would have its luminescent lure. The dorsal and tail fins are outlined with LED’s as well. The on-board computerized light controllers can make the LED’s shimmer and flash in a wide range of coordinated patterns and textures.
From a distance, it is easy to spot because of the amazing lighting. Inside it has Lidar and GPS to help it navigate. In fact, it can operate as an autonomous vehicle and is safe to operate even in this difficult environment. If it comes across a pedestrian or someone sitting on the ground enjoying the vivid surroundings, it will come to a complete stop – though it never travels more than 5 or 10 MPH. It is even possible to monitor its location using a web service connected to its navigation system. The irony is that the limited cell/internet service in this remote corner of Nevada is swamped and wiped out by the 70,000 people present. So probably only people who are not at Burning Man could have seen exactly where Disco Fish was at any time during the week.
We camped next to a group who brought the Island Art car. They spent days getting their new engine to work. The engine ECU had locked up and the fix required one person from this camp to make a 10 hour round trip drive to Reno get a replacement. However, they had it up and running mid-week. So in the evenings we enjoyed riding a desert island with multi colored LED palm trees across an arid desert in Nevada.
In my own set up, I have gone from buying ice (that and coffee are the only things for sale there) to keep my food cold, to building a 400 watt solar system to power a mini-fridge and lighting for our camp. Also, I built a number of uProcessor based circuits to add LED lighting accents to our bikes, camp and even back packs, which you always need to have with water for hydration and goggles and a dust mask for the frequent dust storms.
This year there was an impressive art project that looked almost exactly like a large oak tree, where every leaf contained 8 or so addressable LED’s. The effect of light patterns moving across this full size tree at night was mesmerizing. There was usually a crowd of hundreds quietly standing and sitting around it through the warms nights we had this year.
There was also an old favorite zoetrope created by Peter Hudson that features a full size skeleton ‘rowing across the river Styx’. This piece is titled Charon, after the mythological being that carried the dead to afterlife. At night, the vertical ring of individual skeletons would synchronize with a strobe light to create the eerie effect of a living moving skeleton. Of course, the electronics are computer controlled. To make the strobe sync with the rotating wheel, viewers have to interact with the art by pulling huge ropes to make the 25 foot wheel of wood move rapidly enough.
While technology is blunting the difficulty of attending Burning Man, making it easier for ‘spectators’ who are not participants to attend, it is also enhancing the sophistication of the art and structures that are built for the week.
At the end of the event all 70,000 people and their temporary homes are packed up and taken home. There is a leave no trace ethic that requires the desert be left pristine at the end of the week. While, not perfect, the people who go do an amazing job of removing debris as small as a nut shell, cigarette butt, dropped zip tie, food, carpet scraps, etc. There are no trash cans, so everyone is aware of their responsibility to pick up and carry away. In fact, returning to the Bay Area was difficult in part because you see how much trash there is along the freeway once you get back to the Bay Area.
It seriously takes a week or more to recover from the experience, and I often do not have the energy to even contemplate returning until sometime months later. But Burning Man has always affirmed my faith in the creativity and potential of people to come together to build something bigger and better than they can individually. It is also a somber reminder that all things are ephemeral. The city is built and disassembled each year. For now I’m cleaning and packing away my very dusty and well used gear and clothes. We’ll wait to talk about going next year until around April or March. Until then, I’ll enjoy reflecting on what has been an amazing and challenging adventure.