Beyond Black Rock City

Larry Harvey, founding member of Burning Man, puts the idea down to a whim one afternoon. Now Burning Man-style interactive art is appearing worldwide.

What began as an impulse one afternoon in 1986 with the burning of an effigy on San Francisco beach, has turned into the biggest interactive art exhibition in the world. Harvey remembers that first burn on the beach and how the fire compelled all the people there that day to gather and watch, and how this blossomed into the idea for the Burning Man Festival.

Originally it was just a group of freethinkers from California, but there are now Burning Man communities on five continents and nearly 70 000 “burners” attended the flagship festival in August last year. Large numbers of tech designers from Silicon Valley attend. In fact, the first Google doodle was produced in 1998 when the (then small) staff of Google went to Burning Man: it was effectively an out-of-office sign.

Burning Man takes place in the Nevada desert, on a dry lake that becomes Black Rock City. For the duration of the festival the desert location becomes a pseudo-town with named roads, neighbourhoods, daily newspapers and radio stations. Constituting the temporary town are the guiding principles of Burning Man: radical self-expression, self-reliance, participation and, central to its culture, decommodification.

For every artist in attendance, the desert landscape is a blank canvas onto which they can project their wildest imaginations during the weekend-long experiential festival. But no artist in Black Rock City has ever signed an artwork. One of the aims is to move art from the position of commodified object to an interactive, shared creative experience. Many of the pieces go up in flames during the course of the festival. However, over the last decade a number of the artworks have been finding new homes in urban settings. 

The Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF), which last year became Burning Man Arts, was created in 2001 to make more art available for the event every August and, more importantly, to help fund art in communities beyond Black Rock City and take the Burning Man ethos further afield. Burning Man Arts supports the creation of impactful, interactive artwork around the world. It also aims to connect like-minded artists with the Burning Man community.
Burning Man Arts funds projects that prioritise community involvement in the development and execution. Projects serve communities not only by exposing them to groundbreaking, outstanding artwork, but also by soliciting the community’s input and involvement. By inviting community participation at all stages of the artworks’ creation and display, these projects engender stewardship of and personal relationships with the works of art. According to the Burning Man Arts manifesto: “Burning Man's ilk of public art creates the conditions for transformative experiences as people connect through the communal effort of creating and engaging with artwork. Burning Man Arts enacts programmatic activities that integrate art with daily life and promote social architecture.”
More than 150 projects have been supported in 25 different countries and millions of dollars dispersed in grants to support artist initiatives. The criteria for the artworks are much the same as the criteria for art at the festival itself: it must be community orientated, interactive and involve civic participation. Here are some examples of the artistic ripples that have spread from the festival:

The Temple

Currently Burning Man Arts is collaborating with UK-based charity Artichoke, who specialise in large-scale interactive public art installations, to bring David Best (who built the Temple of Grace at Burning Man in 2014) to Derry, Northern Ireland, to build a temple for the local community in March 2015. The temple will serve as a source of healing in a city long split by religious and political divisions, uniting people as they come together to build. Derry also has a long tradition of building extreme bonfires.
The temple at Burning Man each year symbolises a space where people can seek closure and peace. The first of David Best’s temples built outside of Black Rock City was the Haye’s Valley Temple in 2005. Members of the community came and left personal messages on the walls of the temple. To begin with, the local police would chase them away for vandalising the artwork, until BRAF organisers were able to reeducate the police to understand that that was part of the intention of the temple. A commemorative ten-year interactive temple by David Best will be installed in the Hayes Valley neighbourhood of San Francisco this year.


Homourorboros by Peter Hudson is an interactive artwork that first appeared at the Burning Man festival in 2007 and has since been exhibited in San Jose and on Pier 15 in San Francisco. The piece is 24 feet tall, tree-like in shape, with 18 human-sized monkeys dangling from its branches. The piece requires the interaction of the public in order to move and when visitors pound the drums at the base of the tree the top begins to spin. With the addition of strobe lights at night and special goggles during the day, the piece appears as a single monkey grabbing at an apple.

Big Art for Small Towns

“Big Art for Small Towns” was an initiative launched in 2012 in Fernley, Nevada. Fernley is a small, poor, rural town. The idea with the “Big Art for Small Towns” project is to bring tourists and visitors to Fernley with a central piece of art. Three pieces of art were curated and produced by the community: The Bottlecap Gazebo by Max Poynton, Rockspinner 6 by Zachary Coffin, and Desert Tortoise by Pan Patoja and the children of Fernley.
The Bottlecap Gazebo is made up of discarded materials, turning waste objects into a beautiful structure. Hundreds of bottlecaps form a shimmering canopy of flowers for the community to use as a space for interaction and connection. The piece can be entered and climbed.
Zach Coffin’s playful piece Rockspinner 6 is a nine-ton stone slab that rotates on an axis, engineered to spin easily when pushed. Viewers are able to move this seemingly giant, immovable mass effortlessly.
Desert Tortoise was created with the students of Fernley in reference to the local wildlife. Its shell is made up of painted ceramic tiles that bear images that reflect the culture of Fernley and the surrounding areas. The piece aims to bring a sense of pride to the youth of the area, in the knowledge they helped create the piece.

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Watch the Talk with Larry Harvey