Designing Burning Man

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Sunday, September 20th, 2015

Burning Man Art
A new competition is inviting designers to rethink one of the biggest icons of festival culture: Burning Man.

Every year, tens of thousands of people (estimated around 70,000 annually) come together in the desert of remote northern Nevada to create a world that’s known as Burning Man. As thousands of people converge on an area that participants call the Playa, a temporary reality of co-created arts and experiences develops. Their tagline is “A city in the desert. A culture of possibility. A network of dreamers and doers.” While Burning Man is the culmination of years of tradition and months of active planning annually, what makes it so remarkable from an entertainment design perspective is the level of immersion and participatory design that happens as part of the festival each year.

The first Burning Man actually happened in 1986 in San Francisco. It was the summer solstice and the founders dragged large wooden statues of a man and a small dog to the Baker Beach area. They lit the statues on fire and a group of curious onlookers gathered to watch. Over time, the festival became so large that it was time to find it a new home. Eventually, Burning Man moved to Nevada and became what it was today: a weeklong art and music festival that culminates in a giant ceremonial bonfire.

Burning Man Fire Art

The company that puts on the production each year provides the “Man,” camp center and some essential features. But the rest of the art and environs are completely created and supplied by participants. It’s this evolving and ever-changing nature – along with a sense that Burning Man is a bold community vision – that makes the festival really special. While the artwork and costuming changes every year, the camp layout remains for the most part the same. Traffic and space utilization plague the festival, as you’d imagine would occur when 70,000 people come together in an area with little infrastructure and a “leave no footprint” mentality.

The Black Rock City Ministry of Urban Planning, which is a group of longtime festivalgoers and camp organizers, has recently announced a competition to reimagine the festival’s overall layout. Preliminary submissions will be accepted in the first round until December 2015. Ten concepts will be selected; finalists will be asked to provide more detailed submissions that will be evaluated by the community and festival management. There are few constraints. Submissions need to fit with the pentagonal boundaries of the festival, leave the man and temple as the camp’s foci, and leave open space for art installations. Beyond that, the sky’s the limit for designers. However, in round II, finalists will be asked to share their thoughts on logistics issues like traffic and safety.

The Burning Man

How can designs help solve Burning Man’s logistics challenges, while facilitating the co-creation and imagination that the festival is known for? What environment will help further stimulate artistic exploration? Spend a day on the Playa and the overall effect is otherworldly. There’s a strong participation in the festival from today’s leading tech talent and a strong representation from San Francisco and Silicon Valley. At the same time, it’s important to note that guests come in from all over the world to participate. The global influence can be seen in the artistic sentiments that impact everything from the costumes to the art cars.

The discussion of what goes into the design of Burning Man is particularly relevant in light of this new competition. The essential question of how to design in a way that balances self-expression and artistic wonder with traffic patterns and a ruthless commitment to environmental sustainability is a juicy one for entertainment designers. We’re excited to see the submissions and what alternative versions of Burning Man that the community imagines.

Images sourced courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons, via users DoNotLick, HawaiiSavvy, and lightmatter

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