Field Report from Burning Man

I went to burning man in 2010 with the Mediated Body suit project and as an assistant to Interpretive Arsons interactive installation SyzyGryd.

The art festival Burning Man started as an annual bonfire ritual on the beach of San Francisco in 1986, and moved to the Nevada desert in 1990 in order to create a more uninhibited performance art event. Since then, it has become a major event attracting some 50.000 participants interested in what is called “radical self-expression” and a social structure built on a gift economy. The festival area is divided into a temporary city where participants live (called Black Rock City) and the playa, which is a desert space serving as an open art exhibition for the participants. The playa is also where you find the traditional Temple and the Man statue which are burned in the last two days of the festival under ceremonial conditions. Gifting, Interactive art and Social Play struck me as the most intriguing elements of the festival:

Gift culture
You are not allowed to do any trade neither monetary or with goods. This meant that every gift was forced to be pure from the heart. This social structure worked amazingly well. E.g. you could get anything anywhere just go up and ask and people would share. Further most camps had a stand of something waffles, beer, chocolate, wine or food. People would constantly stop you on the street and offer you something – it felt they were offering from the need to give something back to the community and share some of the joy they had experienced when they received something else some other time.

As the principles of Burning Man puts it:

Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value. In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

Although I do not believe this culture would be sustainable in the long run I am still impressed that it would be possible to base a whole 50.000 people festival in the roughest dessert for a week on it. The whole gift culture is underlined by the massive amount of effort and money people put into creating the experience. Whether it is elaborate art cars or building amazingly complex structures to serve free drinks from for a week. Hence also the non sustainable nature of it.

Interactive art
When burning man starts to really take of around wednesday you are bombarded with an ocean of light, fire effects and  spectacular mutant vehicles. Hundreds of vehicles modified to look like ships and animals drove around the dessert spitting fire – playing music or offering drinks to everyone.

Mutant Vehicle

It was an amazing inspiration of what people can create with great imagination and amazing skills. It struck me though that the amount of interactive installations were limited and the only one that really stood out was the Syzygryd installation that we were helping out with.


Social play
A recurring sentence at Burning Man was: “you can be whatever you want to be and you can do whatever you want to do”. This mentality created a baseline of social play wherever you went. E.g. people would dress up as officers and start controlling the traffic, or people would creative a huge rolling prison where they would drive around and catch stray furries (people dressed up as cats, dogs etc.) to bring them to the furry camp. As the principles of Burning Man puts it:

Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.



I went there with Interpretive Arson a quite well known fire art group form San Francisco. I was helping them with the Syzygryd project – a elaborate light and fire sculpture for collaborative music creation.  The sculpture resembled a tornado with tree large arms going out to tree different controllers. Each controller consisted of a set of samples on a basic sequencer setup (pitch vertically and time horizontally).


Three people could make beats – one on each controller station at the end of each arm. Their beats was combined and played as one musical compositions. Although I personally though the sequencer interface was a little old school it proved to be quite versatile to create multiple interesting compositions and people spend all night playing on it.


Mediated body suit:


Besides helping IA with the Syzygryd project I made 3 interactive body suits. Based on the idea of injection technology as a playful mediator for contact between people. It was basically a portable synth that modulated four sound waves based on two people touching each other. The sound was modulated based on the amount of touch and the length of the touch. Further a light would indicated the interactivity to the surroundings, who would not be able to hear the sounds from the headphones.


The performer explored the suit while I was running behind him with my camera. This resulted in 16gb of raw video and countless playful moments. He wore the suit every night of the festival also when I did not bring my camera. He stated that the suit enabled him the same interaction and playfulness he was used to in the day time – where it was easier so see peoples faces. Here are a few observations:

  • Lines of people wanting to try it out would form around him.
  • It was an amazing tool for breaking down barriers between people and set them into a playful state of mind.
  • The design of the sounds affects the motivation for interaction. Aggressive sounds creates hitting responses vs. soft sound creates the motivation for stroke.
  • In some instances and aura was created which led to more fragile and intimate playfulness.
  • Most people who tried it would not move on instantly but would hang around and emotionally digest the experience they had.
  • More complexity in the sound pattern created richer experiences.