The Department of Mutant Vehicles

Pink Bunny Slipper Cars, 2002
Pink Bunny Slipper Cars, 2002

When Burning Man first moved to the Black Rock Desert in 1990, there was hardly any structure and certainly no roads like we know today. In fact, there were so few people on playa that driving wasn’t an issue. When our population grew to several thousand people all congregated together, though, driving became more dangerous. In 1996, there were a number of vehicle vs person accidents, including one with an intoxicated driver running over two occupied tents. Serious injuries resulted, and an already questionable situation was pushed over the edge. It became clear that free-for-all driving wasn’t compatible with a primarily bike- and pedestrian-oriented city. The city was also ready for some more organization that made driving less workable, and less needed.

Temple of Stars Bus, 2004
Temple of Stars Bus, 2004

“Art cars” had been a part of the Black Rock City (BRC) culture since the early years on the playa, and no one wanted to see that go away, even if most driving would. So starting in 1997 only art cars were allowed to drive the streets of BRC. At first, you could drive if you were driving an art car, and if you were driving something else, you were asked to stop. After a couple years of this, it became apparent that a little more organization and planning was needed, and the Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV), then a part of the Rangers organization, was formed.


Black Rock City, the TAZ and the Rise of Great Civilizations

[John Mosbaugh is a regular contributor to the Burning Blog, a former writer for Piss Clear, and author of the pamphlet “How to Get Laid at Burning Man”. A master of thoughtful stream-of-consciousness, and devoted connoisseur of Burning Man culture, some consider him the Jack Kerouac of Black Rock City. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

One year I was directed by a dear person for whom I have a great affinity to visit the Lunches in LUSH around 3 o’clock & Esplanade and bring tidings of the location of their nuptials-to-be. We were in Center Camp and a dust storm was fast approaching from the direction of the Man so I was offered the use of a scooter to hopefully beat the storm on my way.

Dust Storm 1998
Dust Storm 1998 - moze

With my goggles and respirator secured, I jumped on the scooter and zipped across the Esplanade towards the Man just as a playa wide wall of dust swallowed him whole and I soon found myself in that under dust world where visibility is reduced to no more than a few feet in any direction and I was like small fish in a fishbowl, swimming and making graceful curves “S” shaped on my way. We’ve all been inside that sea of fine particulate, where all you can see is the light powder moving in shifting columns about you. Where talc grit is sliding gently as an abrasive all pervasive never ending river flowing over your skin. It is like being underwater, but with oxygen and everything is swirling dust, a mask is a must and not to have one is preposterous. All was quiet and soft, sluicing over and past, pervading everything. It was beautiful, like swimming through a cloud. I knew I was near the Man, but I couldn’t see him. There is a dreamlike feeling one experiences as you move through a total white out, one that can easily turn on you if you don’t keep your wits about you, because there is absolutely no way to tell where you are. It was just then, as I was wondering exactly where I would end up, that a huge phantom shape materialized before me, slowly manifesting from the dust. (more…)

Public Art in a Fluid Space

[Leslie Pritchett was the first Executive Director of the Black Rock Arts Foundation. She now runs Leslie Pritchett Public Art Consulting, is a board member at The Crucible, and spearheads the Tiny House Project. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

If you think about it, Burning Man itself is a temporary work of public art designed by and for its participants. The ways in which Burning Man invites, inspires and fosters organic generation of participatory artwork is fascinating on many levels, and warrants comparison with how temporary public art projects come to life in other places … most specifically, San Francisco.

Parking Meter, 2002
Parking Meter, 2002

Public art at Burning Man follows a pattern commonly referred to as “self similarity”, which is to say it exhibits similar properties when viewed from both macro and micro perspectives. At a larger scale, the annual creation of the cityscape has a shape as a collective creative effort. As we take a closer look, zooming in through the layers of massive collaborative art endeavors until we arrive at a tiny, ephemeral work generated by someone on a whim on Tuesday afternoon, we see that each of these works requires a complex social consensus to bring it to fruition.

That consensus is that it is wholly worthwhile to serve and be served by our collective creative spirits. No one is trying to meet the unique needs of individual participants. No one is trying to create a piece that will change the shape of the public space it occupies for generations. No one is trying to create a permanent mark on the landscape. No one is trying to please everyone. Therefore, everyone accepts what they encounter as an ephemeral gift to be enjoyed, shared, digested or simply ignored. This particular kind of freedom for both artists and participants creates a wellspring of shared enthusiasm that has its own internal logic, and creates beautiful patterns.

Michael Christian's "Flock" at San Francisco City Hall (Photo by Scott Beale, Laughing Squid)
Michael Christian’s “Flock” at San Francisco City Hall (Photo by Scott Beale)

By contrast, in order for a work of art to be exhibited in San Francisco, even temporarily, it must be deemed to meet the needs of many different constituent groups. Public art projects are subject to public review and parochial opinion. At least one commission will have to like it. It will be weighed, measured, evaluated and questioned. It will have to squeeze through a narrow opening. An impressive amount of paperwork will have to be generated and signed, including provisions that say, for instance, “‘Sex’ shall mean the character of being male or female” and “liquidated damages of up to $5,000 can be assessed for each entry-level job improperly withheld from the (public art project) hiring process” and that the public art project agrees to abide by the “MacBride Principles” pertaining to the hopeful resolution of employment inequities in Northern Ireland.

Bryan Tedrick's "Portal of Evolution", 2009
Bryan Tedrick’s “Portal of Evolution”, 2009

The freedom afforded at Burning Man to express oneself openly, fully and completely, illustrates the collective creativity possible when the social contract is rewritten to be broad, expansive and inclusive. And yet, it is an interesting exercise to see if we can transplant some of the fractal creativity that is Burning Man art onto other urban landscapes. If only a few shoots take hold, it will be interesting to see what grows.

The FIGMENT Update

When our group got together to start FIGMENT in 2007, we never had any idea that it could ever grow this much, this fast. In 2010, our three-day NYC event had nearly 25,000 participants, and our Boston event, just in its first year, had something like 10,000 participants. It’s really amazing to see how quickly the community around FIGMENT has grown, and it’s exciting to see where it can go next.

Welcome to FIGMENT! (Image (c) 2010 NY_Man)

FIGMENT began in New York in 2007 as a way to bring three important resources together: first, Governors Island, a former Army and then Coast Guard base in New York Harbor that had just been turned over to New York City; second, the creative energy of artists in New York, often creating work without ample resources, often desperately in need of space; and third, the ethos that many of the founders of FIGMENT had learned from Burning Man, expressed in the ten principles—basically, teaching us how to work collaboratively together to make great things happen in a way that is participatory, generous, and free from commoditization.

The idea took off immediately, and, while we expected 500 people or so at our first one-day event, we had over 2,600 people, with thousands more turned away at the ferries. We haven’t stopped since. The New York event has grown exponentially each year, increasing how much art we cram onto the island’s 172 acres, growing in participation as art projects become more ambitious, growing in duration as we add increasingly successful summer-long projects every year, and growing in stability as we build a team that believes in this event and can keep it going.


Beyond Camera Consumerism, Photography Can Also Be Art

[Olivier Bonin, filmmaker, responds to a prompt from excerpts from Susan Sontag’s seminal essay, On Photography (1977) and from the Burning Man website, to reflect on documentation on the playa. This post is part of the Digital Rights Blog Series.]

Susan Sontag


Susan Sontag, American author, artist and literary theorist, lived from January 16, 1933 – December 28, 2004, but her work lives on in art schools around the world. In 1977, Sontag wrote the essay On Photography, which continues to provide media students and scholars an entirely different perspective of the camera in the modern world.

Our Prompt

We sent Olivier the following prompt to respond to:

“Review these excerpts from On Photography by Susan Sontag (1977):

1. To collect photographs is to collect the world.

2. Photographs furnish evidence.

3. That age when taking photographs required a cumbersome and expensive contraption — the toy of the clever, the wealthy, and the obsessed — seems remote indeed from the era of sleek pocket cameras that invite anyone to take pictures.

Review this excerpt from Burning Man’s Ten Principles:
‘Our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.’ Burning Man Website (2010)”

Olivier’s Response:

Yes, there might be a problem on how we try to document every single thing we see, but that problem is sourced in the way we consume, in the way we are as a society: it is entrenched into our contemporary culture. To change the way we photograph, is to change the way we live almost. It’s all inter-connected… a giant neurosis, that we need to work on all together. And of course I think Burning Man is part of the solution if it demonstrates a bigger interest in the method of doing art together…

On Consumerism
Burning Man prides itself not to participate in consumerism, but to go to Burning Man is to consume. Each person that goes to Burning Man has to spend a lot to be self-reliant for one week in the desert. To create a city in the desert, is to transport everything to this environment. To truly reflect on our consumerist society would require minimizing our exposure to it, but that’s not what a deserted dry lakebed calls for.

Budget Truck in line for Burning Man, ©2007 Dust & Illusions
Budget Truck in Line for Burning Man, ©2007 Dust & Illusions

I would even go further, and say that escaping consumerism was never was part of the original intentions. The need to escape the traps of our larger society was definitely there, but I believe the original intentions of the Burning Man project were to create a temporary site to simply relieve us from the constant attack on our senses of the mainstream cultural Act. It was a place to create our own reality, and express ourselves freely in the rawest manner possible without the need for it to be judged worthy of any value by our society’s standards. It was only later than Burning Man started to be associated with an anti-consumerist alternative, but the resistance to consumption has ever only been expressed through the lack of commercial sponsorship, transaction or advertising, and not necessarily through deeply dealing with the consumption that occurs pre-event.

In the depth of the event, you can of course find a real call from its participants to recreate a world where community is more important than capitalism. There are many examples in the artists’ group, and the theme camps, but these examples need to become the driving principles behind the event in order to effectively alter the consumerist reality. Where Burning Man really thrives is in offering an open stage for anyone’s artistic expression. And that is the single reason why Burning Man is still an important event today. The event has produced important artistic content, and truly inspires people to create! Let’s focus on this aspect to create a community with strong and deep artistic values, and the rest will follow.


Photography Without Consent: A View From Inside The Ride

[Carolyn Ellis, aka Kali, rode in the Critical Tits Ride for several years before becoming one of the principle organizers of this storied Burning Man tradition. This post is part of the Digital Rights Blog Series.]

I care deeply about camera and privacy issues on the playa.  This has not always been the case.  My first Critical Tits Ride changed all of that – no woman who enters that ride with any degree of vulnerability comes out the other end unaware of the cameras and their misuse.  To ride is to experience, and witness first hand, the cost of photography without consent.

Critical Tits Ride, 2005 (Photo by Cameragirl)
Critical Tits Ride, 2005 (Photo by Cameragirl)

To understand the harm inflicted, you must step inside the body of a woman riding topless and attempt to feel how vulnerable and courageous an act that truly is, even at Burning Man.  My greatest wish, for all who ride, is that they would be witnessed with nothing less than compassion and respect.  As a rider and now member of the CT Crew, I would like to offer a perspective from the “composition material” – those who inhabit the images taken, the riders themselves. Join me, if you would, for a perspective from inside the ride. . . .

It feels fabulous, and I mean fabulous, as a woman to ride topless on my bike!!!  No man can ever understand the freedom of a topless bike ride in a female body.  I was slipping free of the ‘rules’ of my family, culture and government – so well programmed that I thought they were my own.  A collective oppressive cloak was sliding off of my body and being powdered into playa dust by all those goddesses on bikes.  It felt so good and free.  An adventure like this would land me in jail in the default world!!  Here at BRC, it was a lyrical day on a bike.


Photography is My Gift to the Community

[Neil Girling, aka mr. Nightshade, is a photographer and blogger well-known for covering the San Francisco Bay Area underground. This post is part of the Digital Rights Blog Series.]

The Man Burns, 2009
The Man Burns, 2009

Six weeks hence will again see me covered in dust, in the middle of a desert wasteland and my largest project of the year, that thing we call Burning Man. It will be the sixth year I bring out a glittering array of sparkling glass and battered camera bodies, trying to somehow make the unimaginable scale of the event fit within a small viewfinder, compressing the four dimensions of time and space (leaving out sound entirely) into a measly two, and somehow still try to convey just what it is like — near sensory overload — within a few photographs.

In 2008, I posted a few photos during the week from the tenuous WIFI connection to my website; last year, I took this up a notch and posted photos each night of the event from their respective day. With a generator running, a laptop atop the pickup and photos of the Man burning trickling up to the web at 3AM — scant hours after his immolation, and while his embers smoldered still — I hastily packed my remaining belongings to escape the mad rush of Exodus, and my photos beat me to the rest of world.


Welcome to Digital Rights: Debates in the Dust

[Rosalie Fay Barnes is a consultant for the Burning Man Project, facilitating the review of current media documentation and legal policies. She also consults with Black Rock Solar, helping to develop k-12 educational materials around climate change, environmental law, and disaster responses. Rosalie earned a double Masters from the Harvard Graduate School of Education focusing on technology and cognitive development, where she worked extensively with Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, a digital rights think tank. To contact her and/or to inquire about blogging for the Digital Rights Series, email]

The Media Takes Aim at Larry Harvey, 1998
The Media Takes Aim at Larry Harvey, 1998

As you may have read in the blogosphere, the Burning Man Project has been undergoing a review of legal terms related to media documentation at the event (for media references, see the link list below). And while the goal of this effort is to determine the specific legal language on the ticket and Burning Man’s Terms and Conditions, it’s really about accurately reflecting the culture and community of the Burning Man event.

Should certain on-playa activities (such as the Critical Tits Ride, for instance) be camera-free events? Should photographers be able to make a profit by selling their Burning Man photographs? If so, how much? What framework best facilitates every participant’s right to enjoy “radical self-expression” on playa in this regard? These questions are just the start of the conversation, and it’s certainly true we’ve seen quite a diversity of impassioned opinions being expressed around this highly complex, nuanced issue. (And it’s no wonder: one needn’t extrapolate too far to see how these considerations have resonance in the real world, as the dynamics of digital media are evolving quickly with advancements in technology, cyberlaw, and socio-cultural norms.)

Browsing the Free Photography Zone Gallery
Browsing the Free Photography Zone Gallery, 2006

Over the coming months, we will continue to dialogue with photographers, theme camps, artists, interested participant groups, Creative Commons and the Electric Frontier Foundation (EFF) in order to improve our policies for the present and for the future. We will be talking (if not facilitating public discussions) about this process at the Burning Man event, at the Open Video Conference in New York City (Oct 1-2, 2010), and other locations to be announced.

At the same time, we want to engage in an ongoing public dialog — a Debate in the Dust, if you will — through this blog series, featuring a diversity of representative voices sharing their perspectives on various aspects of this multifaceted issue. It should be noted that the perspectives expressed in these posts don’t necessarily reflect those of the Burning Man Project. Instead, we intend this Digital Rights blog series to be an arena for a thoughtful discussion within our community and beyond. We invite all readers’ commentary, and request that comments be constructive in nature while adhering to our Comment Policy.  Thank you for contributing to the ongoing evolution of the Burning Man project!

Wired Article: Burning Man Rethinks Its Legal Ownership of Your Photos
Burning Blog Post in Response to EFF Critiques, by Andie Grace
Electronic Frontier Foundation: Tell Burning Man To Respect Your Digital Rights
Electronic Frontier Foundation: Snatching Rights on the Playa
Boing Boing Commentary
Burning Blog Post by John Curley