Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Learning from Burning Man

With so much travel of the last few months, it has taken quite a while to begin to fully comprehend the week I spent at Burning Man (nearly 2 months ago!) Here goes:

The Playa

If Las Vegas provided inspiration as the preexisting hyperreality of Venturi's Postmodernism (and the suburban sprawl that followed in the wake of Learning From Las Vegas), than Black Rock City should be our new analog for an inspiring image of the dynamic new way we will engage with our urban environment.

There is no more extreme example of fleeting, participatory, and DIY urban development than Burning Man's Black Rock City. Every city, economy, and civic development effort could learn from the small town’s annual and ever brief existence.

Everyone engages with the hexagon sculpture in their own unique way.
The deceptively complex Fibonacci spiral form
of ANIMUS Collectives Honey Trap allows for unique engagements.

While I chose to spend a week in the scorching, dusty desert for many reasons (I was a “virgin” this year), among the more tame rationalizations was the opportunity to experience this extremely dynamic city form for myself. If you haven't been, I hope you will join me next year. You may have preconceived notions of what Burning Man is, and when you arrive it will hold up to some of them, but it is as diverse as the 50,000 inhabitants that contribute to it.

Like every city, it's a system that people contribute to and take away from, but Black Rock City takes that economic construct to another level. Everything is free with the exception of ice and coffee, and yet somehow Burners seem to disprove every conservative economist's appreciation for the value of scarcity and competition in a free market economy. The quality of what people bring with them to share is exceptionally high! From the extraordinary scale and craft of the art in The Playa, to the pancake and soft serve ice cream camps, to the massive concussion of beats provided nightly by world-class DJs at Root Society, it all proves that if the only motive for providing to others is to be awesome and share the awesomeness to make others happy, than the caliber of what people produce will be, well, awesome! As they say, "The Playa provides."

Obviously, Burning Man has a lot of advantages over real, static cities. For one, the self-selection process to become a citizen, namely the ~$250 ticket price, means that the populous is eager to take part, and relatively well off financially. That eliminates a lot of the challenges most cities struggle with around poverty and disproportionately distributed resources. Also, Black Rock City's economy, while briefly self sufficient, is by no means sustainable as it is completely dependent on Burners' hometown economies and the capital that we all bring with us to the desert in the form of food, equipment and whatever we chose to gift to others. Lastly, Black Rock City does not exist for long enough to cave under the weight of a lot of the traditional urban burdens and fall into decline. That being said, it would be nice to imagine traditional cities taking a few cues from the city that is, for one week, the fourth largest in Nevada.

We live in a time where many of the new behaviors that I want to highlight in this blog are challenged by the snail's pace with which our urban context generally accepts change. Raising capital, navigating approvals regulations and permits, and the basic reality of altering buildings and infrastructures that are built to last- it all amounts to huge obstacles for change in the city. Black Rock City is different. The BRC Department of Public Works is a group of mostly volunteers that can set up the city’s layout and lightweight infrastructure in a couple of weeks and take it down just as rapidly before it finally returns to a blank desert a few months later. It's the ultimate in grassroots urbanism. Everything that exists at Burning Man is there because some individual or group wishes it to be so. Because it will only be there briefly and you have to drag it with you from home, most everything is relatively lightweight and quick to set up. Somehow there is everything the citizens need, despite the harsh conditions and the fact that those who provide are doing so voluntarily. The Playa does indeed provide.

Pablo's Paella (Thanks in part to the Tuna Guy)

Burning Man is what San Francisco would be if we were to project all of the trends in local and sharing economies out to their greatest degree. I constantly felt as though I wasn’t contributing nearly enough to the greater good. Pablo, a member of my camp, provided a paella for 40 people after we hunted down someone who had the right propane tank for our paella stove. The ‘Tuna Guy’ living 3 “doors” down, was happy to oblige us with a partial tank as long as we 1) brought him a plate of paella and 2) we would try his freshly caught tuna sashimi. What was more amazing: the fact that we could get phenomenal sashimi 3 hours from Reno or the fact that this guy just handed us a propane tank? It was the hyperbolic version of knocking on the neighbor’s door for a cup of sugar. In fact, most people spend their entire time knocking on the entire city’s doors and receive something of quality in return nearly every time.

Pablo on the Piano sculpture that was randomly in the middle of the Playa.
This would make a great crosswalk on The Embarcadero.

I have no doubt that some of what has defined San Francisco’s emergent local and sharing cultures is in part inspired by the myriad Burners who call The City by the Bay home. I try to imagine the San Francisco of the future by projecting out from Black Rock City. What if I could knock on the door of that house party on Bryant Street on a Friday night and the complete stranger that answered the door would be expecting me, or anyone for that matter, and offer me a drink. What if Dynamo Donuts were free, but they sustained themselves on the fact that every other location they themselves frequented was free too? What if giant neon-lit art cars wandered up and down Folsom Street between all of the clubs on Saturday night, and anyone could hop aboard go where they please? What if the city was as fleeting as BRC? Imagine if my street address back in San Francisco was both a street number as well as a date and time?

Obviously all of the previously mentioned deficiencies of Burning Man's sustainability would eventually kick in and bring the city to a halt. But why do we have to save the power of passionate collectivism for one week in the desert? Maybe we could do it one week a year right here in the city. Here is a random sample of moments that illustrate the extreme adapative, temporal, mobile and participatory nature of BRC:

Taking turns winding each of us up in the communal swing

Art work anyone can climb on
The Helix Spire was brought all the way from Seattle
by architect Erich Remash

Strangers collaborate.
It would be phenomenal to see this in any public space, but in the middle of the desert late at night it was epic! This sculpture of steel tube and lit cubes allowed 4 different people to
program a sequence of audio and colored lights together from separate consoles.

Strangers space out together.
The Light Sculpture at the 9:00 Plaza was a stunning display
Not sure if it was the artist's idea, but someone got the bright idea to watch it from beneath via 3D glasses. Everyone followed suit.

No comments:

Post a Comment