Burning Man: Repair on the Playa

September 14, 2010 Repair Stories — Kyle

I made it out to Burning Man this year. If you’re not familiar, Burning Man is a week-long arts festival in Black Rock City, Nevada. The city is established temporarily for a week every year in the heart of the remarkably inhospitable Black Rock Desert. It is the most populous temporary city in the world.

Propane powered fire sculpture

I’m not really in the loop with the art scene. But I am into big hardware, and I know some of the people that work behind the scenes putting on this massive, magnificent event. They took me behind the scenes of Black Rock City and showed me the infrastructure that makes the place tick.

On the way out to the desert, I stopped to talk to the residents of Winnemucca and Gerlach. All the locals I asked about the Black Rock Desert told me that it was a dirty, dusty, terrible place and went to pains to explain that they couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to go there.

Burning Man has quite a reputation as a home for anarchists, sculpters, fire dancers, partiers, and survivalists. I saw and met all of those people, and I found something surprising in common with all of them: they seriously know how to fix things. It’s in their blood. The ability to repair is essential to radical self-reliance. I’ll give a number of examples over several posts about my experience there.

One of the unique things about the festival is its insistence on decommercialization: except for a small coffee bar and an ice shack, no cash transactions are allowed inside the city. Instead, everyone barters and shares freely. That sounds radical, but it works quite well for a week. (I’m not sure how well it would last if the event went on much longer.) The freedom from worrying about your wallet emboldens a widespread ethos of sharing, teaching, and helping. Keeping things working in the desert is a challenge, and there are several repair workshops scattered throughout the city. I’ll profile a few of these in the coming days: Pandora’s Lounge and Bicycle Fix-It Shoppe, the city fleet auto repair center, and the heavy equipment yard.

Black Rock City Bike Repair Shop

What really struck me about the folks who make the event happen, particularly those in the Department of Public Works (DPW), was their commitment to facilitating—on a grand scale. They are paid a pittance to live out in the middle of nowhere, subsisting on a meager diet of PBR and Marlboros for months, putting in backbreaking effort to build the foundation for the biggest art festival in the world.

Black Rock Workstation

What fascinates me about Burning Man is the intersection of high technology with the raw force of nature: man struggling to fight off chaos. I took advantage of the opportunity to study this accelerated entropy, and over the coming days I’m going to post a series of photos and stories from my time there.

3 Comments

  1. Awesome pictures. Another friend of mine went as well. It’s quite a draw for both the artsy and mechanically minded crowds. Pretty amazing stuff.

    Comment by Ryan Smith — September 15, 2010 @ 3:34 pm

  2. [...] year. Repair is naturally integral to survival. Kyle shares his findings in a general post about repair on the playa and another more specifically about bike repair, bikes being the transport of choice for most [...]

    Pingback by Repair on the playa « Artificial Intelligence Church — September 20, 2010 @ 4:25 pm

  3. This year I learned that you can solder (poorly) with a lighter, but certainly well enough to make something work in a pinch, and I field-repaired someone else’s soldering iron which he then plugged in to snow koan’s 32KW solar grid. Win!

    Comment by Moose — September 20, 2010 @ 10:39 pm


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