Building Burning Man 2015

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This year’s largest art installation at Burning Man has just been completed and is in place on The Playa. No, I’m not talking about  The Man, or The Temple, The Straight Edge or even The Trash Fence. 

Beginning at The Man, it stretches along the entire clock face of the city, spanning the alphabet of city streets to the trash fence. It is the lynchpin for the entirety of the city’s infrastructure, as well as every art installation and camp from the BLM compound to First Camp to walk-in camping. Though largely unheard of, the project has been a prominent aspect of Burning Man for over a decade, spans someitu, requires precision down to the inch, and is visible from space. If you’ve ever marveled in wonder at an aerial photo of Burning Man, pondering how they precisely measure the hundreds of waypoints and stations spanning miles of intricately concentric interconnecting streets that converge to form Black Rock City, you’re familiar with the work of Black Rock City Survey.


A 2006 image of the grounds at the Burning Man festival. Courtesy of GeoEye.


2015 Survey Crew lays the foundation for the infinite possibilities of Black Rock City; this tight-knit crew is responsible for bringing the posthumous evolution of Rob Garret’s design of Black Rock City to life. For one week, they walk the entirety of Black Rock City, making their way at 15 minute intervals through the hours on the clock from ten to two o’clock, down the alphabet of annular streets from the Esplanade and Arcade to Laffing Sal.

As the sermon and ceremony of the sledge and the spike comes to an end, Survey’s work begins. The Golden Spike marks the center of the concentric city, and the base of The Man site. Coyote, Black Rock City’s Superintendent, concludes the annual ritual by christening The Golden Spike with a bottle of champagne. He says, “when I break this bottle on this spike, the Black Rock Desert will begin its transformation into Black Rock City.” The bottle splinters into a thousand crystal shards, only to be MOOPed spotless half a moment later by the hardworking volunteers of the DPW.


DA, the Manger of Playa Restoration, throws me a thumbs up while members of DPW MOOP the shards of glass.


Golden Spike occurs in the midst of a windstorm this year, a constant barrage of rocks endlessly pelting the attendees. The Survey kids are happy, because it encourages people to favor brevity in their speeches, and that means that Survey can get to work in record time.


 With a tape measure, Coyote and his crew make their way 400 feet from the spike and with a flag mark the first spot. Forming a radius that dreams of being a circle, they trace their way around a ring, and when they’re done, they’ve marked the first circle of the city, the burn circle — the outer ring of the Fire Conclave that will surround The Man. Next they will build The Octagon.


Black Rock City, population 16.

As the city of Black Rock is plotted over the next week, The Octagon will serve as the center of operations as well as basecamp for Survey — the real First Camp of the Playa. This simplistic structure sits upon what will be the base of The Man, and the geographic center of the city, the clock’s center from which the spoked streets of the radial city will emerge.


While the rest of D.P.W. are curled up all cozy in bed, the Survey crew’s day begins just before sunrise when their camp chef Spoono boisterously chimes out that most welcomed phrase: “Coffee’s on!” Name a remote place on the planet with a restaurant and he’s worked there, from Antarctica to Death Valley. “Oh yeah, my first night at Furnace Creek I had a bar of Irish Spring on the dashboard of my car, and I found the next morning, it had melted.” Every year around Christmas he gets flown to Japan to impersonate Colonel Sanders. It’s a weird world we live in.

survey-006Spoono serving breakfast. Photo by “DA” Dominic Tinio

Coyote mans a transit plumbed true to The Golden Spike at the center of The Octagon. He measures the horizontal angles of the o’clocks, while the rest of the team breaks into pairs that precisely plot and mark the distance of each street. They start with a jump circle, halfway between The Man and the Esplanade, then they plot the intersections of the Esplanade before making their way through the alphabet of city streets, the keyholes, plazas and Center Camp.

survey-009Grouping into teams of two, the rest of the crew fans out along a street across the hours of the city. On the first day, veterans are paired with new crew members and the torch of knowledge is passed to their apprentice. D.A. helps Trainwreck site her rangefinder at Coyote as she measures her first point. When she lands the mark, precise to the inch on the first try, she celebrates her first ringer of her first day. “Mark it!”

The Playa is in amazing condition, with incredibly few dunes and beautifully uniform desiccant cracks; it has repaired itself well and recent rains have firmly packed the surface. A stunning uninterrupted panoramic view of the Playa offers nothing but endless open sky between you and the spotted Calicos and old Ridgeback Mountain. At night, you can clearly make out the Milky Way, the most amazing shooting stars you’ve ever seen, and the lights of Gerlach far off in the distance.


Black Rock City Survey Crew works from dawn until the heat of the day creates a haze referred to as “the shimmer” that makes visibility conditions difficult for making precise readings. They return to town for a few hours until the shimmer dies down, and then return to the Playa in the early evening for the second half of their workday. At night, they gather around a burn barrel playing music and sharing stories of years past, or of their favorite Cacophony events. “To me, people ask what Burning Man is all about, and this is it… hanging out with a bunch of great folks sitting around a burn barrel and telling stories,” says Brukka. It feels very much like a big family, whose members are all gathering together to lay the foundation for the entire Burning Man community to converge and collaboratively create Black Rock City.


A view through the rangefinder of the crew aligning with their tripods down the concentric city streets

Some days the weather is fair and temperate, other days it shifts in a bipolar fashion, from still and hot without a hint of a breeze, to white outs and then gusty with sprinkles. Survey crew works through it all, systematically walking the entire city. On the second day of Black Rock City Survey, a storm dumps on the crew’s humble open air camp in the middle of the night. The rain isn’t so bad that they have to evacuate the Playa; they shake it off and the weather clears.


The fourth day begins with D.A. sounding off like an air raid siren “AAAAAAEEEEEEEEOOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWW” as a storm cell begins to dump on the Playa. The determined crew finally concedes to evacuate. Once the storm passes the following day, they return to finish the job “on time and on schedule.”

Every year there is a once in a lifetime opportunity we call Burning Man. 70,000 people come together to reimagine the world we live in and what a city can be in a shared dream of self expression. The Black Rock Desert is transformed into the ephemeral Black Rock City for one week before returning to dust, vanishing without a trace.

Survey crew’s task is complete. They’ve laid the foundation for the infinite possibility of Black Rock City. The city will begin to grow faster and faster as each piece falls into place. Next up, fence day.


Alexis, A.K.A. “Muscle-tits” gets ready on her mark.


The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) redacted it’s request for Ice Cream Ponies and issued Black Rock City(BRC) it’s 2015 Special Recreation Permit, The bugpocalypse  has blown over and the clock is ticking down till the gates open for That Thing in the Desert (TTITD a.k.a. Burning Man).


Booyah, Irene & Molly with their Kushman Grumpy in the distance.


Irene stretches between turns rangefinding.


Through all the press sensationalism about there being a new sherrif in town, BLM’s demands for flush toillettes and 24 hours access to choco tacos, the bugpocalypse, the techpocalypse,  the clownfestation, and so on…who cares? Let’s get a city built.


What time is it Booyah?



Molly, with The Octagon camp in the distance.


Molly, Booyah, & Irene on their Cushman “Grumpy” (Don’t ask what happened to the other 6 dwarves.)


D.A. & Mark ‘Krankypantz’ Pankratz double checking and comparing their rangefinder readings.


Dead By Dawn drives the Fluffer Van oscillating from team to team insuring the crew gets plenty of hydration, salty snacks and other treats.


Dan Abbot A.K.A Professor Plague.


Krankypantz measuring things up.


These glow-in-the-dark botchy balls provide endless hours of entertainment.


Survey Crew: Alexis “Muscle Tits”, Dan “Professor Plague”, Phoenix Firestarter, DA Dominic Tinio, Scott “Brukka”, Nipps, Mark ‘Krankypantz’ Pankratz, Dead By Dawn,  “Booyah”, “Major Bummer”, Alexi “Train Wreck”, Coyote, Tak, “Trailer Park Romeo”.

Dedicated to the loving memory of Scott “Spoono” Stephenson 2015.08.20.


Shalaco is a dreamer, schemer and explorer based in San Francisco. A story teller and photographer, you can follow him on Instagram for daily doses of inspiration.

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