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)

CHANGING GEARS

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.

 

Behind the Scenes with the Mazu Temple Builders

Sarah Kihls fabricates a steel dragon, one of several that will perch on Mazu's roofline.
Sarah Kihls fabricates a steel dragon, one of eight that will perch on Mazu’s roofline.

For nearly a full year now, an international crew of artists, craftspeople, designers, builders, engineers (and at least one poet) have been working nonstop to create a temple for Mazu, Goddess of the Empty Sea — a piece you’ll soon be able to experience and interact with on playa. What’s more, they’ve turned this project into a new arts collective that could keep them working on similar projects for years to come.

Photographer Aleksey Bochkovsky has documented many a workday with this crew. Here’s a look at what they’re doing, and more about what makes Mazu’s temple, and its crew, unique. All photos by Aleksey.

Charlie Nguyen paints the roof outside The Generator in Reno, Mazu's US build site.
Charlie Nguyen paints the roof outside The Generator in Reno, Mazu’s US build site.
John Julius Little assembles the 108 lanterns, provided by Texas artists Dave and Marrilee Archer, to light the temple perimeter.
John Julius Little assembles the 108 lanterns, provided by Texas artists Dave and Marrilee Archer, to light the temple perimeter.
Nathan Parker, project manager.
Nathan Parker, project manager.

“We’re raising the bar for craftsmanship, detail and interactivity,” says project leader Nathan Parker, who previously worked for several years as an electrician for the Black Rock City Department of Public Works.

“Most of the art that people create to be burned has a temporary feel,” he continues.

“We want this to feel real and permanent. We want people to say, ‘Why are you going to burn that? Don’t burn that!’”

But it will burn. The Mazu temple’s laser-cut panels; its hand-painted, sanded, stained woodwork; its arching 40-foot-high lotus flower will all go away. In the process, they’ll reveal the underlying steel structure: a self-standing sculpture that will one day be installed permanently in a public space. (more…)

Cop Whispering: A call to unity

Working DPW and Gate at Burning Man has given many of us on staff our first taste of what it feels like to be an Enforcer. Of any type. In order to build and run a city out of thin air, sometimes a bunch of anti-authoritarians have to figure out how to tell other anti-authoritarians what to do, in the way we’d like to be told ourselves.

We workers are enforcers of necessary rules like: Don’t bring your guns or dogs here, don’t run towards the burning thing, and what if you’ve tried to stow away a hippie and now they’re suffocating underneath your bad plans.

Yes, it can be fun to role-play alpha tribe-protector out here, all fancy with a radio. Yes, the Stanford Prison Experiment was real, and we’re sure the lead Black Rock Rangers have had to pull some “excited fake cop” people off their Burning Man Ranger routes and take their radios away. That’s human nature. Working through it is what happens next.

For us regular blue-collar workers in Black Rock City, sometimes in this heat we get to feeling harsh, whether from a long work day, a few bad apples’ stupidity, or their mis-assumption of our stupidity. Worse yet, sometimes, as Enforcers, we harsh someone who doesn’t deserve it, because someone else tried to run and hitchhike through fast-moving intake lanes just a minute ago.

So the workers of Black Rock City have a heightened sense of empathy for Burning Man’s law enforcement. In Black Rock City, we have DPW who builds and stewards the town, we have Rangers who walk around and interact with the community, we have Emergency Services which provides medical and fire protection to anyone and everyone who needs it, and we have Gate and Perimeter as our internal “border security.” Together, these Burning Man departments handle all the regular, run-of-the-mill problems a society might have, such as power outages, dehydration, or domestic disputes.

Then the big guns are also here — the BLM and local law enforcement — whenever we need them.

We have always been glad they’re here. We workers have dealt with some scary shit, and while we talk a big tough game, DPW doesn’t know what to do with a transient one-armed man who’s wandered in from the desert during setup 2003, bleeding from his crazy-eyed head, talking about having just murdered a friend and his dog. Uhhhh, that’s beyond our scope of knowledge and ability.

We call the cops. We need cops. End of story. (more…)

MOOP Map Live, Day 7: The Green Streak Ends

Greetings MOOP maniacs and line sweepers extraordinaire! Here in Gerlach, the Playa Restoration All-Star team is being blown across the sweeping expanse of the Black Rock Desert by winds that have gusted as high as 50mph.

Luckily for Black Rock City, these rockstar Restoration experts are sticking to the task at hand, grabbing every last bit of MOOP, and still managing to look great doing it.

Burning Man Playa Restoration 2013, Day 15.
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MOOP Map Live, Day 6: The Outer Limits

Burning Man Playa Restoration 2013, Day 8.

Hello out there all you MOOP maniacs and line sweepers extraordinaire! Here in the Black Rock Desert, your Playa Restoration team is in the final rounds of what has been a truly epic season. With just days left before we head back to the real world, we have swept throughout the Black Rock City grid, throughout the inner playa and up through the Man to the Temple. The pace has been quick and efficient, and the Restoration moopers have covered an impressive amount of ground.
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MOOP Map Live, Day 5: A Work In Progress

Burning Man Playa Restoration 2013, Day 6.

Greetings MOOP maniacs and line sweepers extraordinaire! The Hun here, typing with gloves on. Yes, winter has socked the Playa Restoration All-Star team a good one these past few days, with temperatures in the 30s and rude winds poking icy fingers under our collars and down our backs. Just a week ago, we were basking in bikinis. Today, we’re wearing all the clothes we own.

Burning Man Playa Restoration 2013, Day 8.

Playa Restoration ends next Wednesday with the BLM site inspection. Between now and then, the Resto All-Stars are braving the wind and weather to pick up all the MOOP we can find and return the playa surface to a pristine state.

Burning Man Playa Restoration 2013, Day 1.

Changes to the MOOP Map

As I’ve mentioned before, the MOOP Map you see on this blog is a record of our progress — but it’s a living document, not the final map. Once we record all the data, we cross-check it thoroughly and make changes where appropriate. Today’s map may look very slightly different, so have another look at your spot!
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Restoration Honors the Temple of Whollyness

Greetings MOOP maniacs and line sweepers extraordinaire! I’m here in Gerlach with 120 members of your DPW Playa Restoration home team. They are preparing to enter the damp, sticky and frigid playa — armed only with MOOP sticks, shovels and magnet rakes — to eradicate the final traces of Burning Man 2013.

Burning Man Playa Restoration 2013, Day 8.

Burning Man Playa Restoration 2013, Day 8.

The season is skidding to a close as we dodge rainstorms and near-freezing temperatures; we may even get a little snow this evening. Summer is officially a dusty memory, but still the MOOP lines march on.

Burning Man Playa Restoration 2013, Day 8.

As many of you have remarked, the line sweeps are covering a lot of ground this year, and in record time. On Day 4, 45 city blocks disappeared under the moopers’ feet. And yes, the Playa Restoration All-Star team is one hell of a crew — but the line sweeps’ pace ultimately depends on YOU, and how well Black Rock City practices Leaving No Trace. When the city blocks are green and MOOP-free, the Resto line sweepers move at a fast clip. And this year, we’ve encountered a whole lot of green blocks.

In fact, we’re seeing green this year in all sorts of places. So while Playa Restoration continues marching through the city grid, let’s take a moment and turn our eyes elsewhere: far out in the deep playa, where the Temple of Whollyness once stood.

Photo by Curious Josh / curiousjosh.com
Photo by Curious Josh / curiousjosh.com

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MOOP Map Live, Day 4: How to Get the GREEN

Greetings MOOP maniacs and line sweepers extraordinaire! It’s time for another installment of the Burning Man 2013 MOOP Map, our faithful record of how Black Rock City upheld its commitment to Leave No Trace on the playa.

Photo by Phoenix Firestarter!
Photo by Phoenix Firestarter!

Your Playa Restoration All-Star moopers are hard at work this very moment, braving extreme weather and mounting grumpiness on the frigid, wintry Black Rock Desert. Let’s get a big hurrah for the home team!

Photo by Phoenix Firestarter!
Photo by Phoenix Firestarter!

Today, though, I have the privilege to share some stories from just a few of the theme camps that make our city so vibrant and unique. Because let’s face it: Without the massive amount of love, time, effort and cash that goes into creating each Burning Man theme camp, our city would be a very different place. What theme camps bring to Black Rock City is absolutely irreplaceable.

Not only that, but if theme camps didn’t bust their butts to Leave No Trace, we would have a LOT more trouble passing the annual BLM site inspection. Theme camps are about the biggest gifts I can imagine, so this year I’ve asked some of them to share their own stories of Leaving No Trace.

Robot Heart participants doing a line sweep after a mobile party in the open playa
Robot Heart participants doing a line sweep after a mobile party in the open playa

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