This article was originally published on Common Edge.
Hillary Schieve, the mayor of Reno, Nevada, often jokes that she went to her first Burning Man kicking and screaming. The event—which takes place in the Black Rock Desert, 100 miles north of the city—transformed her understanding of arts and culture, and of city-building, and she became a convert. Two years ago, as the chair of the United States Conference of Mayors Tourism, Arts, Parks, Entertainment, and Sports (TAPES) committee, she started taking groups of mayors out to Burning Man to experience the energy of the Playa (the event’s name for its Black Rock location) and learn from its culture. As with most in-person gatherings for the foreseeable future, Burning Man 2020 will be different. In April, the organization announced that it would be experimenting with an online, interactive format, looking to attract an astounding 100,000 burners. I recently chatted with Mayor Schieve about her fervor for Burning Man, its impact on Reno, urban design and planning lessons cities can borrow, and how she envisions a digital Burning Man.
Trinity Simons: Your first Burning Man was in 2015, after you became mayor, and in 2018 you began taking other mayors with you. What were you hoping they would get out of the experience?
Hillary Schieve: I’m so glad I let my friend drag me out to the desert five years ago! It changed me forever: the way I approach being mayor, the way I think about infrastructure and cities, the way I engage arts and culture in Reno. There is this incredible palette of creativity that you could never experience anywhere else. You also meet people from all walks of life, artists that are living on shoestrings and so passionate about their work. It stretches your definition of art, and of what is possible in city-building with cooperation and shared values. There’s an impression that it’s a lawless, anything-goes atmosphere, but that couldn’t be further from reality. There are strict rules about what can be brought to the Playa: no MOOP, as it’s called, or “Matter out of Place.” In a week, an entire, dense city is built, lived in for nine days, and disappears without leaving a trace. People barter for goods and services instead of using cash. And you can find just about anything: a yoga class, a trapeze class. It’s been said that burners get the chance to build the city they want to live in. There are a lot of lessons there about how to lead a city that exists year around.
So in 2018, I invited a group of mayors to join me out on the Playa, and we did it again in 2019. We’ll continue doing it after COVID-19, because it challenges mayors to think about what the best version of their city could be. They see arts and culture as vital to the soul of a city. They see public spaces that bring people together. They see new ways of tapping into those things that already exist back home.
TS: Black Rock City is, well, a city. It has streets, neighborhoods, a central gathering space. Areas that are loud, areas that invite reflection. I love that you said they “get the chance to build the city they want to live in.” What urban design lessons have you taken back from your experiences?
HS: Yes! It is a city! It also has an airport, a post office, public safety officers, and more bureaucracy than you would expect! More than anything, it has shown me the importance of being flexible, being responsive, and letting creativity flow from our residents. Every year, when the city is rebuilt, it is with accumulated lessons from over the years. Even the city plan—the crescent that circles the “Man” that is burnt on the final night—isn’t a fully closed circle because it’s responsive to the wind conditions on the Playa. It’s designed with nature in mind.
But the fact that they can assemble all of this so quickly, and that it’s responsive to changing needs and times—it drives home that government can and should be responsive and open to creative solutions. When government is open to collaboration, innovation can happen much more quickly.
TS: We’re definitely getting a crash course right now in how government can do things pretty quickly if it needs to.
HS: Absolutely. And if we want our small businesses to survive, we’re going to have to work with them to find balanced solutions when they tell us what they need. The old rules have gone out the window.
TS: You’ve had burners going through Reno since it was moved to the Black Rock Desert in 1990. I know it’s had a huge economic impact, and that Reno will suffer with its absence this year. But talk to me about the cultural impact. What have you seen?
HS: The economic impact and the cultural impact on Reno are so closely linked. Burning Man pumps about $70 million into our local economy every year. That’s small businesses, hospitality, the airport. It brings people into Reno who have maybe never been here and have an impression of us that differs from reality. We have an extensive collection of art pieces from Burning Man, and have started to attract more residents who want a strong arts and culture community and are also looking for affordability. We host events before and after Burning Man. It’s become a core part of our identity.
TS: This year’s theme is the “Multiverse.” As I understand it, that was the theme prior to COVID-19, and it is being billed as a “quantum kaleidoscope of possibility.” And, of course, it’s going to be a 100% digital experience. How do you see this being pulled off? What exciting possibilities does it open up for you?
HS: Well, if there’s any group that can do this successfully, it’s Burning Man. Maybe a whole new type of artist will be born! But there is so much that you get from being out on the Playa. From the hot days to the cold nights, the climate is such an integral part. But maybe it’s about the fact that the climate in the desert requires flexibility, adaptation, and cooperation. That translates into the “climate” that sparks all of the creativity. It’s about being free and open regardless of the limitations. It’ll certainly bring new people into the fold. Through the Burning Man Project, Burning Man has made an effort in recent years to bring that energy and experience to a global audience. I can only imagine this will accelerate that goal. But I have to wonder: How will they burn the Man?