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All The News That's Fit To Burn : 2004 Summer Newsletter

Cars & Culture

In 1997, Black Rock City underwent a transformation. After a participant was severely injured in an auto accident in 1996, we created new rules. First, we designed a new network of streets, then we told folks to park their cars at their campsites — and leave them there. Instead of driving, people walked or rode bicycles. Getting from one place to another in our city now became a story of immediate encounter; spontaneous social interactions multiplied, and a true community began to coalesce.

We had discovered that relying on our cars to get around had reproduced a too-familiar world. It was a world of personal convenience. Experience was ordered by discrete consumer choices. From the standpoint of a driver or a passenger, this was a very controlled and, above all, a relentlessly intentional world. People would elect to visit some attraction, and then drive there in a metal isolation booth. Experience between points A and B became a view seen through a dusty windshield, fleeting and vicarious, like a television travelogue. But pedestrians and bicyclists experienced a very uncontrolled environment. For them, our event had become, by 1996, a very dangerous place. Stretching out upon the ground to view the stars, walking on the playa without reflectors or a flashlight, even sleeping in a tent, could place a person in harm's way.

The reforms of 1997 turned Black Rock City into a more civilized community. Not only were participants made safer, they were now liberated to explore their experience of the desert, our city and one another. Burning Man organizers were justifiably proud of this change. They had triumphed over the tyranny of the automobile. This accomplishment, however, must be viewed in relation to one of the fundamental facts of modern life: people always want a ride. And Americans, in particular, always seem to want an easy ride. To live and lie reclined might be our national motto. Liberty and convenience, freedom and ease — these slogans could, with justice, be imprinted on our money. This expectation of convenience is our heritage as members of a consumer culture.

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Because of this almost irresistible impulse to employ motorized transportation, we face a new and serious challenge in 2004. Having once stopped the onslaught of cars that besieged our front gate, having introduced participants to the profound value of unmediated experience based on one's own strenuous efforts, we must now confront a renewed threat to both the safety and the quality of life of Black Rock City. This threat has appeared at our back door — a door that we left open by a crack in 1997. It represents the one exception, apart from vehicles driven by vendors and staff members, to our basic no driving rule: the mutant vehicle known as an art car. Liberating art to move and circulate is a laudable ideal. When properly regulated and operated, mobile art works create delightful kinds of interactive experience. Mobile art, whether it is human or motor powered, can be a brilliant brush stroke on the inviting canvas of our flat, blank desert home. And yet, this category of art has begun to create a serious hazard.

Our answer to this growing problem does not necessarily involve reducing the number mutant vehicles that will be allowed to roam the playa, nor have we set a quota. Imposing either requirement would deplete our culture. Our primary solution, instead, is to renew enforcement of the rules we've always had in place. Already, earlier this year, we took the extraordinary step of banning two large mobile art works from returning to the event in 2004. We did this because of frequent and repeated violations of our playa speed limit, even after many warnings. The speed limit in Black Rock City is a slow, safe, and measured 5 MPH. Common sense should tell us all that large, fast-moving vehicles are extremely dangerous in a populated setting. Consider this simple formula: Speed X Mass (in a pedestrian environment) = A Very Serious Danger to Everyone.

A vigilant observance of our rules for mutant vehicles will begin at the gate. Vehicles such as non-mutated ATVs, quad runners, go-carts, motorcycles, and dirt bikes will not be allowed to pass into Black Rock City. Participants arriving with such vehicles will be permitted to enter our event, but they must agree to leave all unauthorized vehicles in an impound yard. Furthermore, mutant vehicles, particularly large and potentially dangerous ones that are operated without regard for our rules or the safety of others, will be towed and impounded. For an explanation of our general policies concerning vehicles, consult Vehicles at Burning Man at http://dmv.burningman.com/This page contains information about our Department of Mutant Vehicles and its rules and procedures.

In the past, we have struggled while attempting to enforce these long-standing rules due to a lack of communication within the Burning Man Project, especially on the playa. This year the Department of Mutant Vehicles will share data with the Black Rock Rangers. Rangers do communicate with many drivers every year, but they have often been unaware of what may have occurred during previous shifts or the status of a mutant vehicle with our DMV. In 2004, such information will move in a continuous flow from one department to another and from one hour to the next. This information will be communicated to Rangers in the field, where judgments can be fairly made on the basis of a history of behavior. It will not be possible to shrug off two, three, and four warnings, as some drivers have done in the past. Also, as in past years, drunk driving remains a legal offense regulated by the laws of Nevada. Law enforcement authorities can cite participants for driving while intoxicated.

All art vehicles must be registered with the DMV in advance of the event, and they must be inspected and licensed at DMV headquarters before they are allowed to operate. Applicants should be aware that it is not enough to do a chop job on a beater, decorate it with paint and tinsel, and call it art in order to obtain a ride for the duration of the event. This year Burning Man's Art Department will join with the DMV in evaluating applications.

The art car movement in this country has a long and venerable history. Many brilliant works have appeared on the playa, and most serious art car creators are members of a very responsible community. Burning Man, we like to think, has helped to make real contributions to this genre. We welcome mobile art of every kind, and we hope to see more examples of this unique form of self-expression in the future. But we are asking everyone who contemplates the creation of a mutant vehicle in 2004 to first ask themselves a few questions. Am I creating this vehicle just to have a ride or give a group of friends a ride? Am I willing to make my artwork interactive in some way that contributes to our community? Will I endeavor to create the most beautiful and visionary work possible? Most, importantly, am I ready to abide by all the rules that will help my community to live safely together in the freest (but not necessarily the easiest) city on Earth?