How the Fence Began

Do yall know who invented Burning Man’s trash fence in 1995? Lawrence Breed — inventor of the world’s first computer animation language and system, and also the playa’s longest-running art piece besides the Man himself: Chaotick, the flaming tether ball.

“In 1996, the first trash fence was tested at Burning Man. Concieved by Larry Breed (playa name Ember), several hundred yards of 24" high netting was set up down-wind on the north side of the encampment to catch wind-blown trash. The Black Rock is visible to the right in the background of this photo.” - Danger Ranger (Photo by from Breed’s collection)
“In 1995-96, the first trash fence was tested at Burning Man. Concieved by Larry Breed (playa name Ember), several hundred yards of 24″ high netting was set up down-wind on the north side of the encampment to catch wind-blown trash. The Black Rock is visible to the right in the background of this photo.” – Danger Ranger (Photo by from Breed’s collection)

Danger Ranger, Vanessa Kuemmerle, Burning Man co-founder John Law, and other Cacophony organizers had been tearing their hair out over the sad reality of trash blowing from the Black Rock City site downwind and off into the desert during their Zone Trip. One of the Cacophony Society’s main uh, guidelines, is to leave everything better than you found it.

So Breed, called “Ember,” was and is a genius computer scientist who, with a friend, overheard these managerial woes and brought out and road-tested 75 feet of trash-catching orange fence to make sure it worked.

Breed presented his winning example of hard-plastic gatekeeping to the Operations team, who were understandably beside themselves with joy. The trash fence was and still is one of the greatest ideas in Burning Man leave-no-trace history.

The fence is also an iconic piece of Burning Man visual continuity. But this year … this year … there’s blue string. Not orange string to go with the orange fence, but some blue string. As in, not orange. Some of us, particularly Stinger, are freaked out about the blue string.

There was much talk about the addition of blue string to the fence this year.
There was much talk about the addition of blue string to the fence this year. (Photo by John Curley)

On Monday, while the Fence was being built, this writer sat in the Dispatch booth at the saloon, wrangling dusty radios and telling the Lawrence-Breed-invented-the-trash-fence-and-helped-invent-APL story to so many people that official DPW photographer-blogger John Curley — who missed his annual Fence Day photography spree because delays in arrival happen in the DPW — made us write it up here.

Do yall know what APL is? We didn’t either until we searched on it when John Law first told us about Breed being a part of our proto-DPW history.

At Stanford in 1961, Breed invented the world’s first computer and animation language and system, using it for Stanford football games to program a 100-foot-by-100-foot array of colored square cards.

Breed then corresponded with a Harvard professor named Kenneth Iverson who had invented proto-APL as a mathematical notation for algorithms.

Breed and his crew transformed Iverson’s mathematics into a computer-programming language source code devised to work with mathematics with an emphasis on array processing. They dubbed it APL (short for “a programming language”), turning it into a widely-used programming language like no other, and implementing it en machina starting with the IBM 7090 in 1965. You make spreadsheets because of Breed and co.’s APL implementation.

Then, if that’s not enough for you, in 1972, Breed and Francis Bates III wrote one of Earth’s first worldwide email systems, which they called “Mailbox.”

More than two decades later, in the non-default world of Black Rock City, Breed became an oldest-of-schools Burning Man attendee and Cacophony Society member who helped with the original Black Rock Gazette newspaper as well as later co-founding the Black Rock Beacon.

Lawrence Breed now. Most of us in DPW have never met him.
Lawrence Breed now. Most of us in DPW have never met him.

Danger Ranger didn’t even know any of all this about how Ember pretty much helped uh, invent the internet until last night when we told him at the Black Rock Saloon.

Danger just knew Breed/Ember as the guy who invented the trash fence, as well as the flaming tether ball and a half dozen genius Cacophonist-on-playa, possibly-world-helping inventions like the greywater-obliterating Evapotron, or “Gray-B-Gon” (complete with open-source online instructions).

No really, check out the Gray-B-Gon — especially if you or someone you know has a theme camp with greywater.

Burning Man setup means a constant stream of stories proving you never know who you could be talking to under that messy tutu.

The 2015 version of the trash fence is up (photo by John Curley)
The 2015 version of the trash fence is up (photo by John Curley)


Fence yesterday? Dawn Patrol was led by Just George and Cowboy Carl, as always — two proud former military men who became cowboys of sorts. They are kind and crusty-fatherly super-men who could easily be models for action figures, who represent pretty much the pinnacle of proper masculinity.

Yes we are swooning over Just George, who makes us do pushups, and over Cowboy Carl, who taught us how to scatter herds of cattle standing in the middle of the road by rolling your truck window down and banging on the door.

If a group behaves like its alphas, then these two may be a large reason why DPW is such a draw. The world has too many assholes in it, and Just George and Cowboy Carl are here to protect us from acting too much like them, and to teach us cheerfully to protect others and the earth in turn — from assholes, and from trash blowing past us to where we can’t get to it to pick it up.

Cowboy Carl and Just George (photo by John Curley, 2013)
Cowboy Carl and Just George (photo by John Curley, 2013)

The trucks had been loved up on by auto shop, loaded with fence materials, and made ready to roll the day before. Fluffers were awake by 3am; “dawn patrol” worker teams left the trailer park at 4am.

Crews ate a quick bite on the Black Rock shoreline and got to work as the sun rose pink over the fire-smoke mist. Another equally large wave of DPW crewmembers left for work at 7am.

All day long, the radios crackled with nonstop trash-fence action and beaten deadlines. Milestones were announced over the repeater over background cascades of “woo” noises. We found Bachmann Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business” stuck in our heads on repeat.

By 8:30am, the pounders had finished. That’s zero-eight-thirty, in Just George language. By 1:45 pm, fence was done.

Another record.

Of course, it’s only another record because pre-event DPW staff and volunteer count has grown by a few hundred people. A decade and a half ago, when there were only 30-40 of us in the DPW, putting up the trash fence took Cowboy Carl and his team two weeks.

Suggestion by suggestion, and learned lesson by learned lesson, this largely leaderless group of freaks learned together to build and strike a temporary city, all by ourselves, together. Not with ease so much as with collaboration and a crap-ton of meetings. Chaos with a thin layer of organization.

amen dude ... amen.
amen dude … amen.

Things get done much more quickly when there are fewer power relationships to contend with. Even hard labor seems easier in an anarchist city.

Good times are had most days by most people in the DPW — which is also different now, because we know enough not to accidentally overwork and underfeed a thin crew any more.

And we have an unassuming, DPW-orange fence — invented by a secret internet genius, helmed by cowboy servicemen, and constructed annually by a dusty cast of black-clad hundreds — to catch most of the trash.



Follow Summer Burkes and John Curley on Twitter.


Charlie Dolman Keynote Speaker at the Project Management Institute Conference

Charlie speaking at the conferenceCharlie Dolman, Burning Man’s Event Operations Director, was recently invited by the Project Management Institute to be the Opening Keynote Speaker at their conference in San Diego. The Project Management Institute provides project management practitioners and organizations with standards that describe good practices and provides globally recognized credentials in their field.

Of course, the first question that comes to mind is what can attendees at a project management conference learn from Burning Man, and how could it make them better project managers? Well, Charlie asked the audience … what does it take to build a city in the desert? A lot of spreadsheets! overview

Organizing Burning Man requires monumental schedule, budget, legal, safety, and risk considerations. As Burning Man’s Event Operations Director, Charlie wanted to share his unique perspective and insights, from project management essentials to lessons learned in the dust.

The conference attendees wanted to hear about the Burning Man event itself and what it looks like from a project management point of view. So Charlie told them about the pre-event build process, including the Golden Spike ritual, surveying the city, and how building the 9.2-mile long trash fence is a cooperative effort, completed by a hardy crew in less than one day.

moop mapHe described the elements that go into creating Black Rock City, including the street grid with signs and addresses, port-o-potties, an airport, big art, a Department of Mutant Vehicles. He discussed the nuances of working with a volunteer workforce, the challenges of our mandate to Leave No Trace of Black Rock City after the event has concluded, and the prolific growth of Burning Man culture through the Regional Network.

What did Charlie think about this chance to share his experience with project management professionals?

“It was great to have the opportunity to speak to professional project managers about Burning Man. Sharing the thing you love with other interested and professional folks is brilliant fun. There were some great questions and some surprise curve balls too! Overall the experience was great!”

Meet the Builders of Portland CORE: Ludum et Refugium

People have lots of ideas about what Portland is like. Portland is weird and eclectic, some think, and the cable comedy Portlandia is partially a documentary (it’s not). I have met a lot of great people from Portland. Yes, some of them are weird. If you are familiar with the kilt-wearing, bag-pipe-playing, Darth-Vader-mask-wearing unicycle rider from the famous meme, I can assure you he has a real name and is a great guy to talk with.

But as far as Burners go we all like to think we are weird. And the team for the Portland region’s CORE project certainly self-identifies as such. They are bringing art that presents Portland’s soul to add to the circle at Burning Man.

Top row: James Dishongh, Pope Tart Second row:  deadletter, Magn0lia, Jackie, Mayem, Pi, Marklar, Catherine Third row: Lory Osterhuber, Jason Brulotte, Browse, Brend
Top row: James Dishongh, Pope Tart
Second row: deadletter, Magn0lia, Jackie, Mayem, Pi, Marklar, Catherine
Third row: Lory Osterhuber, Jason Brulotte, Browse, Brenda


Spirituality and Community: The Process and Intention of bringing a Temple to Black Rock City

photo by Portaplaya

Since the year 2000, there has been a Temple at Burning Man, and when we talk about the Temple, most people think of what started that year with David Best and Jack Haye, and became a long line of temples that have graced the playa. The Temple has evolved from what became a memorial to their friend into an “emotional nexus” of our community, where thousands make pilgrimage each year to remember those they have lost, to celebrate and affirm life, to heal and to forgive.

In 2012 I was fortunate to meet many of the people who are involved with building the Temple each year and to research what I came to believe are some of the essentials of understanding what the Temple at Burning Man has become. It is a place where our community goes to unburden itself and it is a representation of our maturity as a community as well as a natural manifestation of something sacred in the City of Black Rock.

photo by Portaplaya

Proposing to be the one who builds the Temple at Burning Man is serious stuff involving quite a bit of work within an existing structure of volunteers and other Temple minded folks to create something for the community.  One question that was raised over and over again as I spoke with people who have done this before was that you should not ask yourself  “WHAT am I doing this for?” but rather “WHO am I doing this for?”

For many Burners, the Temple is a vital place where those who build it possess a solemnity and a respect for that process. It is also a place for those who attend the event to use for grieving or celebration of life in an environment that is in contrast to a lot of the rollicking and outrageous things happening elsewhere on the playa that week in late summer.

photo by d’andre

Walking around the Temple at the middle of the week, I personally get overwhelmed by the amount of emotion that is focused like a beam in there. It is as if, from its inception each year, to all the planning and all the hands that build it, then when the event begins and it becomes “the largest collaborative art project” on the playa; that the energy of so many caring people turns whatever sublime Temple structure is built that year into something far greater than any art project.

Stopping to read the remembrances of so many loved friends, family and pets who have passed on, seeing the pictures of so many of them, pausing at the altars and shrines where people have lovingly placed tokens of their lost one’s lives, well, that can really get you right in your plexus where you feel that big sorrowful empathy wave. The Temple is a profound space where some of us who have lost loved ones can let them know that they are still loved and missed, but that it is all ok, they can pass and we can move on.

I’m a large, somewhat dim and oafish fellow, and I can only stay in there for so long before I have to walk away from it out onto the blankness of the playa with the Temple behind me, and breathe deeply so as to not betray the tough guy façade I live behind.

It is a heavy place.  If you’ve been there, you know what I mean.

photo by Steven Fritz

Regardless of who builds the Temple, it is always something spectacular and special. There are bona fides and expertise that are a prerequisite to building the Temple at Burning Man and I was privy to finding out what some of those were this year.

I’ve written an article about what I discovered after being on playa (and attending the Temple construction before leaving for Black Rock City) for the building of this year’s Temple of Juno. I was able to research and read some of the intellectuals who’ve written about the concept of the Temple, including Lee Gilmore, Sarah Pike and Larry Harvey; and I had the pleasure of speaking with some of the folks involved with building Temples through the years including David Best, Jessica Hobbs and Jack Haye. The article is on the Burning Man website and is titled, Spirituality and Community: The Process and Intention of bringing a Temple to Black Rock City.

Burning Man would like to have a conversation that explores what you feel about the Temple and to get your insights on it since it is really your Temple. Please read the article as it is meant as a starting point to stimulate discussion. Our community loves discussions and the Temple is something many of us have very strong feelings about. Feel free to read the article and post your thoughts here.

Temple of Transition: It’s Big and It’s Happening

This is Chris “Kiwi” Hankins, leader of the 2011 Temple crew, with a scale model of the Temple of Transition. Those of you who visited the Megatropolis installation in 2010 will recognize its colorful silhouette, which should give you a point of reference. Yes, that’s to scale.

Another point of reference: three times the height of Marco Cochrane's "Bliss Dance".

This year, a largely international Temple crew will construct a circle of six structures: five 58-foot-high outer temples, and a 120-foot-high inner temple. The temples will be connected with 60-foot-long walkways. The entire installation will have a diameter of 200 feet, and will be taller than the Man.

To build something on this scale, as Burners well know, you need an impassioned leader. Enter Kiwi, an experienced builder who’s been constructing the Man at Kiwiburn (New Zealand’s regional burn) for several years, and who has also lent a hand to build Black Rock City as part of the Department of Public Works.

Kiwi’s latest achievement is Megatropolis, which he and the International Arts Megacrew built last year.

“Before we were even finished building Megatropolis, I was already thinking ‘what are we gonna build next?'” Kiwi says. Later, as Megatropolis burned, a friend turned to him and asked, “What do you think?”

“I think I want to do the Temple,” Kiwi replied.


DIY Your Burn: Shelter, Shade & Cool Cool Comfort

I recently met a Reno local who is preparing for her first burn. “Do I really need to get an RV?” she asked me. “My friend told me you can’t do Burning Man without an RV. I just want to bring a tent.”

This hurts me on the inside. I haven’t been around that long — my first burn was 2003 — but I’ve spent many burns in a tent, and a couple of two-month work seasons besides. One of the things I hate to see is the rapidly increasing number of rental RVs on playa. They have their place, sure. If you’ve got small kids or a physical need for top-notch shelter, you might want to spend thousands renting an RV, plus hundreds in gas to drive it to Black Rock City and keep the A/C running. But that is a LOT of money (and a fair amount of pollution), and it’s not necessary to spend that much. You can be smarter about it, and I’m about to tell you how.

It is completely possible, and pretty easy, to build your own shelter and cooling system. You can have an airtight, windproof, shaded and cool place to sleep away the day, and you can build it yourself for a fraction of the cost of an RV rental.


Holy wow! In 2007, Treehugger and Current TV hosted a contest for the best “eco-ideas” for Burning Man. The winner was a DIY shelter that costs under $300 to build, packs up flat into your truck, and can be reused year after year. Vinay Gupta’s Hexayurt is now being tested as disaster relief and refugee shelter. Why? Because it WORKS. This is far and away the best shelter idea I’ve heard of. (more…)

A Warm Welcome

Photo: Chance

Certainly, Burning Man is a society that deviates from The Norm. But it would be silly to suggest that Burning Man is a place without norms. One of the truest conceits of Burner culture, in my opinion, is the distinction between “home,” the playa, and the “default world,” which gives our annual gathering a sense of deviation, but also one of return. We leave behind our default values and behaviors, and we return to something more natural and fundamental to us.


But clearly, “home” is not an arrangement without order, tradition, or hierarchy. I doubt humans can help themselves. We may not like to think of Burning Man as a stratified place, but it is.

Nothing wrong with that, though. Not inherently. The fact is, some people have been burning for 20 years, some for 10, some one, some none. Those are remarkable differences in experience of something so extreme and dynamic as Burning Man. It’s only natural that those who’ve been before will set the tone for those still bewildered by the blinky lights. (more…)

Make it real

Sweet thing is there to turn plans into reality
Sweetthang is the person who draws the lines in the sand

Take your plans and make them real.

For a lot of Burners, it’s a yearlong task. You plot and plan and meet and talk. You have an idea for an art car, and you wrestle with the logistics and the money and the know-how, and sometimes it comes out great and sometimes … well, it’ll be better next year. It’s an evolutionary thing. Same thing with art projects. Oh yeah, it was all going to fit together just fine. Except it didn’t. And then you had to adjust.

It’s like that for a lot of people in the Burning Man organization, too. A lot like that. And no one knows  it better than Sweetthang.

It’s Sweetthang’s job to translate the map of the playa, and the flags on the ground, into actual camp layouts. She has to adjudicate border disputes. She has to confirm (or deny!) where your theme camp begins and ends.

The task  has to be daunting. You know how hard it is to make what appears on your planning sheets actually show up in the desert dust. No, the DJ booth goes over HERE.  And it faces THAT WAY, not like this. And the sun showers go BEHIND the recycle stuff, not in front of them! Sheesh!

Ok, now exponentially increase the complexity of the undertaking. Imagine trying to figure out where it ALL goes, what ALL those flags in the ground are supposed to mean. Oh, the electrical wires are buried here? The spider box goes over there? Oh, then we can’t have the Airstream park like that. It’s got to go over here.

You get the idea.  40,000 people showing up with there own ideas about how it’s all supposed to come together, about where they’re going to set up, but the map says no. And you’re the person who has to figure it out. That’s Sweetthang.

Of course, things happen. Adjustments must be made. Because really, one of the best things about having a plan is changing it.

So the question is this: How’d you do? Did it all come together the way you thought it would? What did you learn this year that’s going to come in handy next year? Tips and tricks for playa preparation are most welcome …

sweet thing 2-1 copy