The Bike Culture of Black Rock City

[Matt Roth is Deputy Editor of Streetsblog San Francisco, and a rabid bicycle enthusiast working towards the realization of a world full of bike-friendly cities. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

Photo by Michael Holden
Photo by Michael Holden

Anyone who has lived in a relatively flat and congested city can tell you the best way to get around is on a bicycle. The Chinese, the Dutch and the Danish know it, and increasingly Americans are coming to understand there are few modes of urban mobility as convenient and healthy as putting the fun between your legs and pedaling where you want, when you want.

As the legions of urban bicycle riders grow, city planners have begun to take note and have carved away precious space from several generations of begrudging motorists who have long believed streets were their sole domain. Politicians now boast of how many bicycle lanes they have added, sometimes buffered from traffic, sometimes painted green, red or blue. Some cities have instituted bicycle sharing systems, where a fleet of public bicycles are maintained for use by anyone who signs up and pays a small fee. The newest bicycle trend to gain popularity in cities around the world is the ciclovía, a car-free event where roads are opened to bicycles, skaters and pedestrians for the day to enjoy streets as public space for recreating and socializing.

Bike Arch by Ilana Spector and Mark Grieve, Photo by Waldemar Horwat
Bike Arch by Ilana Spector and Mark Grieve, Photo by Waldemar Horwat

Black Rock City, more than any other urban area, has been given over completely to bicycles, making it unquestionably the highest bikes-per-capita metropolis anywhere on the planet. The playa is the perfect place to ride, flat as a board and expansive. The prohibition on driving anything but art cars beyond the Esplanade makes Burning Man an enormous week-long ciclovía, and makes bicycles of the ultimate utility during the event.

Kinetic Sculpture Race, Photo by Christian
Kinetic Sculpture Race, Photo by Christian

As with most everything else on the playa, a simple bicycle, with one wheel in front of the other, would scarcely begin to capture the experience of participating in Burning Man, nor would it be very cool. Though the dynamics of bicycle engineering haven’t changed much in a hundred years, Black Rock City has spawned a menagerie of innovation, still pedal-powered, but only vaguely resembling a “bicycle.” There are giraffes and fishes, camels and glowing eyeballs, carriages adorned with mastodon bones, tall bikes five frames high, and an number of kinetic sculptures belching plumes of fire and smoke from their steel innards. Whimsy trumps utility and getting to the destination is less important than preening like a peacock along the way (a twelve-foot tall fire-spewing peacock, of course).


How Does a Theme Camp Leave No Trace?

[This is the third and final post in our series about Theme Camps for the Metropol Blog Series.]

Theme Camps are arguably the cultural lifeblood of [BM]. Participants gather their friends to camp together, establishing a common theme on which to base the interaction they hope to engender with the citizens of Black Rock City.  As free form and wide-ranging as they can be, from the sublime to the ridiculous, Theme Camps create an ambience, a visual presence, and in some way provide a communal space or provide interactivity. As such, they are very much the cultural engine of Black Rock City.

So we went to the source and did some interviews with a (wildly broad) representative sampling of camp organizers, including Bad Idea Theater (an entertainment camp), Kidsville (for families and children), Root Society (a dance camp), Suspended Animation (a BDSM bondage camp), and the Golden Cafe (an exotic bar). We asked them a whole bunch of questions, as you have read in our prior posts, and for this final post we ask them: “How do you Leave No Trace?“.

Before we start, a little lexicon.  MOOP is Matter Out Of Place, or things that don’t belong where they currently are.  LNT is Leave No Trace, and Burning Man is the largest Leave No Trace event in the world.

To read more about each camp click on the link that is the name of their camp. Here are the results of that interview:

Kidsville: Kidsvillains understand the village’s responsibility to uphold the larger Black Rock City community’s commitment to Leave No Trace.

photo: Susan Becker

As articulated within Burning Man’s 10 Principles, LNT exists out of respect for the environment.  The phases of incorporating LNT principles into Kidsville’s planning include education, participation, and follow-up.  Bridging all of these is communication.

Education: Each year Kidsville’s Master or Mistress of MOOP, a volunteer, prepares Kidsville’s LNT Plan.  A couple of months prior to the event the LNT Plan is emailed out to all of us and is also posted on the internet. It is required reading for all Kidsville families.

Participation: Each Kidsville family is expected to keep their own camp area clean of MOOP, and each Kidsville citizem is expected to take person responsibility for keeping ALL of Kidsville clean.  We share ideas for ways to keep individual camping areas clean. During the event, it is not unusual to see parents organizing groups of children to participate in “walking the grid” to clean up MOOP in community areas.

Follow-up: After the event, the Kidsville Mayor and/or the M. of MOOP emails out a report to our community regarding the condition of the Kidsville area after most families have left Black Rock City. If specific camps left behind MOOP, that is reported out to the community (peer pressure is often effective!).  If the LNT violations of a specific camp are particularly egregious, the Mayor may inform that family that they are not welcome as part of the Kidsville community in future years.  Another part of  follow-up involves reviewing and discussing (online) the Burning Man Organization’s LNT map following the event.  And, as mentioned previously, we communicate, communicate, communicate regarding LNT.


Vertical Camp: Creative Urbanism

[Tyronus first set foot in Black Rock City in 2002. His Masters Degree in Urban Planning, experience in responsible real estate development and silver tongue have earned him the position of chief communicator for Vertical Camp, where he promotes the ideas the structure communicates. Urban infill housing has the power to create better communities, and quality of life as a result. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

Vertical Camp
Vertical Camp

Black Rock City has always been a city planner’s dusty dream.  From its thoughtful layout to its interactive streets and its perfect bikability, many of us wish our cities and towns in the default world were so engaging.  You could even describe it as radical urbanism, if you haven’t already.

The streetscape of any city is important.  Factors such as setbacks, the types of uses that line a street, and the massing of structures all govern our views, our movement, and often our moods.  Black Rock City provides several different neighborhood environments – from the dense, packed activity of Center Camp and the Esplanade to the comparatively suburban corner of 8:30 and H.  Along the way, the structures can be incredible feats of temporary engineering.  On the other hand, one can’t help but feel a little uninspired by the sight of a beat up, blown out tent, its last stake tied off to a sagging piece of shade cloth.

Vertical Camp Under Construction
Vertical Camp Under Construction

Vertical Camp has been improving upon the built environment of Black Rock City, and we’ve been doing it through building up.  We’re a group of designers, planners and real-estate types (along with an assortment of brilliant and talented creators) who want to challenge the dominant land use patterns that exist at Burning Man.  Since 2005, we’ve utilized re-usable scaffolding to create an efficient and comfortable tower structure that houses dozens of campers in individual, private apartments.


Theme Camps: Encouraging Participation, Contribution and Consensus

[This is the second in our series of three posts about Theme Camps for the Metropol Blog Series.]

Theme Camps are arguably the cultural lifeblood of [BM].  Participants gather their friends to camp together, establishing a common theme on which to base the interaction they hope to engender with the citizens of Black Rock City.  As free form and wide-ranging as they can be, from the sublime to the ridiculous, Theme Camps create an ambience, a visual presence, and in some way provide a communal space or provide interactivity.  As such, they are very much the cultural engine of Black Rock City.

So we went to the source and did some interviews with a (wildly broad) representative sampling of camp organizers, including Bad Idea Theater (an entertainment camp), Kidsville (for families and children), Mal-Mart Mega Store (a parody camp), Root Society (a dance camp), Suspended Animation (a BDSM bondage camp), and for this post we have added the Golden Cafe, an exotic bar. We asked them a whole bunch of questions, and we’ll present more in future posts.

In these interviews the theme camps responded to questions about how they encourage participation and contribution and whether they create consensus out of conflict within their camps. To read more about each camp click on the link that is the name of their camp. Here are the results of the interviews:

How do you manage participation and contribution within your camp?

Bad Idea Theater:  The camp is run as a co-op, with each member being a co-owner of the project. Each member funds the project with dues and is responsible for working shifts in the public area as well as responsibilities in the private camp area; there are no exceptions to this rule. Contribution and participation are required by each member as a requirement of being a camp member.  As a co-op, every member agrees in advance to work schedules and all camp plans. The vast majority of camp members are veteran Burners who are very familiar with what it takes to run a full time theme camp on the Playa.


Placing Art in Black Rock City

[Christine Kristen (aka Ladybee) was Burning Man’s art curator from 1999 to 2008, where she dealt with all things visual and aesthetic, including managing the art and the art grant program, photo-editing the Image Gallery, writing art content for the Burning Man website, working with the ARTery, managing the archives, and lecturing and writing about the art of Burning Man. She has a MFA in sculpture from the Art Institute of Chicago. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

Authorities are Baffled, by Vince Koloski
Authorities are Baffled, by Vince Koloski, 1993

Integrating hundreds of art installations into the layout of Black Rock City is a challenging task which has evolved over the years from very little management back in the mid-90’s, when art was scarce, to a complex system that accommodates all art installations on the open playa, installations with flame effects in theme camps, and art placed in the city infrastructure, including the Keyhole; the airport; the 3:00, 4:30, 7:30 and 9:00 plazas; the Man base; and the Center Camp Café.

The Bone Tree, by Dana Albany, 1999
The Bone Tree, by Dana Albany, 1999

In 1999, our theme was “The Wheel of Time,” and for the first time ever, the newly-formed Art Department decided to map the art in a theme-based pattern. We created a map that represented a clock face, with the Man at the center, and twelve major installations mapped at the hour locations just off the Esplanade. On Friday night we staged a series of performances, starting at 6 PM, at the 6:00 position. Dana Albany’s Bone Tree led participants around the clock face, where a performance awaited them every hour, on the hour. Of course by about 3AM it was freezing, and the weather put an end to our grand cavalcade of performances. We did learn, however, that arranging the art installations in some sort of logical pattern added theatrical significance and prominence to the art. In 2000, the art was mapped in the shape of a gigantic human body with the Man as its navel, to reinforce the Body theme. Russell Wilcox’s laser installation illuminated this body, although perceiving it from the ground was a bit abstract- aerially it would have looked like a large stick figure in laser beams.


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.