Burning Man 2012

Burning Man: Sim City in the Desert

Text by Melanie Picard

Imagine a city of 50,000 people where temples, pirate ships, and five-story buildings emerge from the dust in a matter of days and just as quickly shrink back into dusty nothingness just two weeks later. Imagine the biggest temporary city in the world that comes to life every year at the end of August in Nevada’s thousand-square-mile Black Rock Desert. More than just a famous art festival, it’s become an institution. Welcome to Burning Man.

This year swissnex San Francisco is part of this incredible adventure, bringing the fantastical art installation called “The Third Space” to the desert with artists Alexander Rehn, Bianca Keck, Alexander Deubl, and the Greutmann-Bolzern Design Studio. This walk-in piece is a triangular spider web of 250,000 zip ties clutching a wooden skeleton.

swissnex San Francisco staff members Sophie Lamparter (Head of Interdisciplinary Programs) and Liliane Ackle (Project Manager) were in charge of coordinating the project from the Bay Area, facing down the logistical challenges associated with building a major art installation in a remote desert. Nothing is provided on site—no electricity, no showers, no food. You can’t even buy what you need, as transactions involving money are prohibited. The Festival also has a “Leave No Trace” policy, meaning that everything you bring in must also leave with you, even used water. It took the team months to gather all necessary supplies to support construction of the piece and a camp of 14 people for 15 days.

As you might have guessed, Internet access and cellular coverage are all but non-existent so far from permanent civilization. But swissnexSF’s Executive Director Christian Simm and Head of Startup Services Gioia Deucher just came back from a week of helping out with installation, and they were able to fill us in on the construction process.

A City from Nothing

So how do you build a city in the desert? First, you read the “survival guide,” a mandatory step covering all the essentials for making a go of it in the desert. Second, you have to get there. Burning Man is a four-hour drive outside Reno—basically in the middle of nowhere. Driving there was further complicated this year, as an impressive sand storm delayed the team’s arrival at their destination. Then, you have to find the right spot for you piece of art and your camp. What might seem random is actually very precisely planned, as each piece is assigned an exact GPS location. Once that’s all sorted out, you can finally start building.

Building a complex zip tie installation from scratch is no easy task. It took the team six days working 12 hours at a time to finish. The long transit from Switzerland, the dry air, the heat, and the alkaline soil had all taken their toll, and pieces of The Third Space had to be fixed. But in the end, the team agreed that making something beautiful and delicate out of the roughest construction material was just magical and outweighed all the challenges they faced along the way.

Networking Playa-ground

At Burning Man interaction is key. During the building process, it was very common to have other people stop by and lend a hand or ask to use zip ties for their own construction. Some even wanted to add their own twist to The Third Space by adding their own zip ties.

The Festival is now in its last few days, and our team will soon be back to tell more Burning Man stories. Stay tuned for more insight into The Third Space and its journey in the desert.