The Law & Burning Man

Today is the first day of the extraordinary Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert where an entire city will be created over the next few days, focussing on the theme of Hope and Fear – the creation and envisioning of the Future:

The centerpiece of Hope and Fear will be a sleek Art Deco palace, the Pavilion of the Future.

Burning Man

Imagine 35,000 people suddenly arriving in the desertI know, small by Notting Hill standards, but there is a legal system in Notting Hill – and running water, and one senses the needs for norms, institutional mechanisms and (in some ways) a temporary legal structure.

In over = years, the festival has grown from complete anarchyFor the theory that Silicon Valley all derives from Yale Law Prof Charlie Reich‘s The Greening of America. see one fevered column to structured looseness, based largely on the remarkable ability of this temporary community to grow whatever law it needs.

This year, there will be over 25 lawyers presentSee the remarkable legal report from 2005.. And this being the United States, there’s no shortage of plaintiff’s lawyers to help you formulate causes of action and figure out who to sue. Black Rock City even has its own environmental officers, and itsown law enforcement, as well as visiting officers from the default world. They’ve also been involved in zoning disputes and a user-pay expenses appeal. Not to mention the trade-mark dispute with the national Geographic over the Irrational Geographic Society. Contract law doesn’t exist, since money is taboo. Burning Man exists on a gift economy. All meals are free in Black Rock City. Transport is regulated by the DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles), which reviews, approves and registers art cars (or mutant vehicles), or Art Bikes, decorated or “mutated” bicycles, giving them permission to drive on the playa during the event.

For an insight into some of what’s involved, see the video trailer for the Making Johnny documentary described in The Age at the weekend. Practical advice if you are going is available as well as (this year) a television station operating for this week only.

The art is odd and stimulating, and as the wonderful Geoff Dyer puts it,

The highlight of my cultural – and spiritual and social – life this year was the same it’s been for the past four: the Burning Man Festival in the Black Rock Desert, Nevada. As Camus says, I would convert to it immediately were it not already my religion. Nothing else on the planet gets close to the peak experience of Burning Man.

The faces of the participants are art in themselves.

This year the team at Google Earth are involved. Burning Man Earth, a collaborative project between Burning Man and the Google Earth team, is a 3D virtual representation of Black Rock City, including theme camps, art installations, structures, and activities.

The festival ends with the incineration of the burning man – seen here in a SF Chronicle video.

As the Daily Telegraph put it, it’s dangerous, unpredictable – and utterly stunningIt was the Barbie Death Camp that won me over. Arranged behind a picket fence, about a thousand Barbie dolls were being force-marched by mini GI Joes into a microwave oven.. And lest you forget, you do all of this, at your own risk – you have been warned.
Burning Man Ticket


  1. The only person I know to have actually attended Burning Man is a lawyer. Coincidence?

  2. No – Will Chang of Thomas Cook’s legal department first showed me an amazing set of images from the 2003 Festival

  3. Could it be, then, that some in the legal profession have gotten tired with the status quo and are trying to subversively start a new civilization paradigm so they can test out they way law evolves? A bit like Second Life but without the awkwardness of learning new computer skills.