On the alkali flats of north-western Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, the featureless yellow-packed playa (desert basin floor) stretches to the horizon. Under a 38-degree sun, the dry air peels back the cuticles and cracks the skin. Swirling particles signal the dust storms that will block the throat and scratch the eye, taking visibility down to less than a metre.
Black Rock seems an unlikely place for almost 70,000 people to converge on an annual festival with no programmed events, no line and nothing for sale. Yet, every August, Burning Man brings a temporary self-governing city to the desert.
In the space of 30 years, Burning Man has transformed from a small community festival into a “must do” on the global event tourism circuit. It draws partygoers, experimentalists, activists, committed “Burners” and experience-seekers looking to tick “The Burn” off their bucket lists.
The ten days of self-curated art, community and self-expression in the desert is also big business. In 2015, according to the After Burn Report, attendees spent an average of AU$2,600 during the festival. And 20% of them came from outside the US.
Burning Man’s secret of success and point of difference from other festivals worldwide is the temporary suspension of patrons in a mental and physical space outside their everyday reality. This requires a different type of governance that permits all sorts of activities.
Creating a universal culture of permission and managing a population the size of Greater Bunbury while complying with policy and regulatory conditions is no mean feat.
A not-for-profit based out of California, Burning Man runs primarily on volunteer power. Legal teams negotiate everything from special recreation permits with the federal Bureau of Land Management to helping to secure thousands of temporary food establishment permits with the Nevada State Health Division so festival goers can gift food between each other.
Sustaining Black Rock City in the harsh Nevada desert is challenging. The temporary autonomous zone is built and maintained through self-regulating urban planning, community services, project grants, public infrastructure, emergency protocols and safety plans.
The Black Rock City Department of Public Works oversees way-finding and street surveying. The Department of Mutant Vehicles oversees the art cars – pirate ships, dustbowl-era shacks and flamethrowing octopi – that glide past pedestrians and cyclists.
The festival is in many ways an innovation lab for rethinking cities. Infrastructure and services are provided, creating a scaffold for civic engagement as Black Rock City citizens co-create, maintain and dismantle a city in the space of two weeks.
Ten principles of temporary urbanism
Volunteer-provided tools are in place to help local communities bring to life various cultural and social enterprise programs.
These are guided by the festival’s ten principles. These principles, enshrined by festival founder and Burner guru Larry Harvey, wouldn’t be out of place on the wall of any civic urbanism devotee: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, participation, immediacy and leaving no trace.
Black Rock City’s remote location means the majority of festival-goers drive, often cross-country. Around one-third fly in. Power-hungry generators scatter the playa and mutant vehicles leave diesel fumes in their wake.
The cost and impact of ten days’ worth of living is apparent after each festival. Burning Man has recognised this impact and has voiced a commitment to reducing the festival footprint.
The “leave no trace” principle incorporates MOOPing, or removing all Matter Out Of Place. MOOP is anything not found on arrival, including grey water, dust dunes and plant matter. Magnet sweepers, rakes and rebar-removing grips are all part of MOOP kits.
Spreading to Australia
The culture cultivated at Burning Man has spread as far afield as Australia. In April 2017, Western Australia hosted its fourth Burning Man offshoot event, Blazing Swan, at Jilakin Rock City. The eastern seaboard has its own Burning Seed.
Burning Man’s increasing popularity also delivers increasing returns. Organisers put the annual economic benefit to Nevada at US$45 million. Reno-Tahoe International Airport estimates a US$10 million annual contribution as Burners flow through to Reno, stocking up on supplies and stopping for a well-earned shower.
The festival has no doubt brought Nevada valuable exposure along with the spending. Nearby Reno has leveraged Burning Man’s civic, cultural and innovation ethos to recast itself as a liveable, progressive city with a burgeoning start-up and maker scene.
The festival has also become an important partner for Gerlach, the 200-person community closest to Black Rock City. Located next to a former gypsum quarry, the town’s welcome sign would be at home outside many remote Australian mining communities:
“Welcome to Gerlach. Attitude: Good. Population: Wanted.”
The impact of Burning Man includes seasonal employment and direct support for Gerlach’s social infrastructure. Black Rock Solar, established at Burning Man, brought the festival’s gift economy to everyday life in rural Nevada. It has provided free or low-cost renewable energy to local schools, towns and Native American communities.
Burning Man is also a gateway to Nevada’s remote natural attractions. Some 17% of festival goers visit other parks as part of their trip.
For remote Western Australian towns and cities, unique events could act as a springboard, enticing tourists to launch themselves into all that the state has to offer.
Local and state governments across Australia have been actively building calendars of tightly curated, highly programmed arts and sporting events to lure tourists. Burning Man models an opportunity for governments to support the vision of local social entrepreneurs and not-for-profits in co-creating context-specific, unique experiences for the public good.
A re-imagined role for government might involve helping local populations to shape leisure landscapes by enabling paths through the thicket of policy and regulatory barriers. Government might even gain clues from an experimental utopian festival about innovations in everything from sustainable living to urban governance.
This feature originally appeared in The Conversation.