Monday, November 29, 2010

A Review of the Burning Man Lecture

As part of the Graduate Studio III, the class was asked to attend a lecture by Dr. Ronald E. Cossman on Burning Man, an experimental community in the desert.  I have posted the brief review of the lecture below.

Burning Man is an experimental community, “which challenges its members to express themselves and rely on themselves to a degree that is not normally encountered in one’s day-to-day life” (  The following document briefly describes Burning Man based upon information obtained from the website, as well as a presentation given at Mississippi State University, by Dr. Ronald E. Cossman.
            The Burning Man Project, founded by Larry Harvey, was started on a small beach in San Francisco, but was relocated to a dried-up lakebed in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.  The result of this project is Black Rock City.  Over the years, the experimental community has evolved into a city of 48,000+ people.
            The experimental community takes place for one week, ending on Labor Day.  There are no rules, at the event, dictating how one must behave however, each participant decides what he or she will contribute to the community, and the extent to which it will be contributed.  The city is designed, constructed, and removed by a group of over 2,000 volunteers, many of which are year round.  Sometimes, volunteers remain on the site for nearly a month after the event ends to ensure no trace of the community is left behind.
            Black Rock City contains all the functions of a real city.  The site is seven square miles, and is home to a cafĂ©, ice sales concession, DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles), a recycling center, a municipal airport, a newspaper, and a radio station.  Also vital to the success of the event, the Black Rock Rangers are a group of volunteers dedicated to maintaining public wellbeing during the week-long experiment.  “They patrol the boundaries of our city to protect us from intruding cars, they rescue the lost, maintain our city’s gate, interface with our city’s fire protection service, maintain our good relations with local law enforcement agencies, and manage the exodus of traffic at the conclusion of the event” (  The Department of Public Works (DPW) is, “responsible for surveying our city, installing its roads and street signs, and erecting the built environment- the buildings, trailers, trenched power lines, and communication towers that form the working infrastructure of our home in the desert” (  The DPW is also responsible for installing and maintaining the perimeter fence and provide several acres of shade, to provide an escape from the blistering sun.  Other public service groups, made up of volunteers, are greeters, lamplighters, members of the fire conclave, members of the recycle camp, and earth guardians.  “The infrastructure of Black Rock City is literally alive with human effort, and all of it is volunteered by those who have a passion for the Public Thing- Res Publica, as the Romans once called it” ( 
            The ten principles guiding burning man are:  radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy.  Radical inclusion means that anyone can participate in Burning Man.  The event is devoted to acts of gifting, which are unconditional.  Decommodification means there are no commercial sponsors associated with the event.  Radical self-reliance refers to encouraging, “the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources” (  Unique gifts of the individual create radical self-expression.  Communal effort is achieved through cooperation and collaboration.  “We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction” (  Participants of Burning Man value civil society.  “Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants.  They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws” (  The community respects the environment and is committed to leaving no physical trace of the project’s existence at the end of the event.  Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart” (  Immediacy, or immediate experience, is the major value in the Burning Man culture.  “We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience” (  These ten principles are what makes Burning Man a unique and successful experience.
            Art plays a major role in one’s experience at Burning Man.  Each year Larry Harvey gives the event a theme to promote a common bond over the community, and tie everyone’s contribution together in some form or fashion.  Through self-expression, each participant is encouraged to help bring the theme to life.  “Innovative sculpture, installations, performance, theme camps, art cars and costumes all flower from the playa and spread to our communities and back again” ( 
            A culture has formed around the Burning Man experience which, “pushes the limits of Burning Man and has led to people banding together nation-wide, and putting on their own events, in attempt to rekindle that magic feeling that only being part of this community can provide” (

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