Burning Man is the most extreme project management environment on Earth. It is also the best place on the planet to learn new skills, create fantastical art, and build community. The environment challenges even the strongest of constitutions with the extreme heat, extreme cold, and omnipresent dust. Everyone is learning new skills or dealing with some unforeseen challenge. Everything breaks, even essential equipment for which you couldn’t possibly have brought a spare.
I have made the trek out to the desert for 16 years now. Each year we have iterated and learned: building larger structures, better art cars, and more organized camps. My camp started as a group of friends that would organically coalesce around our shade and structures. Over time this developed into our theme camp DeMaTerial, which over the years has offered hyper-realistic simulated bureaucratic experiencing via the Licensing Bureau, silent discos, and French fries.
Graduating in Operations at Burning Man
I love watching people learn how to get shit done at Burning Man. When building a camp or creating an art piece there are so many opportunities for anyone and everyone to lead. I am often pleasantly surprised to see who rises to the challenge. It is commonly held that Burning Man is a place where everyone’s an artist. To me, it is also a place where everyone’s a project manager.
Getting shit to Burning Man is not easy. It is in the middle of nowhere. Not only are there dust storms and road closure to contend with but the event is notorious for delaying truckers while they wait for bureaucracy, heavy equipment or down computer systems. In the “default world” truckers charge for their waiting time and they don’t take kindly to 12 hours delays that ruin their driving schedule. The truckers who haul art to the desert are veritable saints. Not only will they deal with the dust and the heat but they have the patience for artists whose projects aren’t always designed for easy transportation. My best advice for anyone hauling anything out to the desert is to appreciate and take care of your truckers.
We have tried many solutions for water over the years. From everyone bring your own, to filling 55-gallon drums with a hose, nothing beats having your water delivered on playa. MECO is the standard option but there are lots of vendors who supply water to Burning Man these days. It saves a tremendous amount on fuel and makes it easier to avoid having massive amounts of excess water at the end of the event. And don’t forget about the grey water. No one likes to smell icky, peed in grey water all week. After many failed experiments with evaporation ponds, complicated recirculation systems, and half-hearted excuses for tanks we finally took the plunge and got enclosed tanks that we pump and bleach at the end of each year. Nothing beats this system and the fully plumbed kitchen sink and shower drain directly to them.
I usually spend 3 weeks on the entire Burning Man situation. We arrive on playa Monday of early arrival to receive our 45’ trailer and shipping container full of stuff. We don’t leave the playa until everything is packed away, our plot MOOP, and outbound shipping coordinated. This year, that was Wednesday evening after the event. When one is in the desert for that length of time nothing beats regular access to fresh produce and meat. The little known secret to fresh fruits and vegetables for the duration of the burn is Bonanza Produce. They rent refrigerated trucks to camps all over the playa. For some hundreds of dollars, you can rent space in one of these trucks, erect a shelf, and have your own little grocery depot that gets re-stocked with any produce and meat you want every few days. When feeding 60+ people each day nothing beats this system.
Building the Dome
The visual marker for our camp and the epicenter of our social activities is our 40’ geodesic dome. Made from electrical conduit and re-purposed hotel bed sheets, the building of this structure is one of the highlights of set-up each year. It’s like having a giant erector set to play with. Newcomers to build week are always amazed that this 2-ton structure can be assembled in a matter of hours with a well-organized crew of 10-15 people. It is also a great opportunity to meet the neighbors should we need to reposition it after it has been assembled.
Participating “Like You Worked All Summer on That”
I think about my contribution of organizing a camp as setting the stage for participation. What participation means to DeMaTerial has evolved over the years. The only rule is we must do something and do that thing well. Currently, we offer French fries at random times. With a propane deep fryer that sounds somewhat like a jet engine and a dash of truffle salt, this is a great way to bring a little magic to share.