Ever heard of Black Rock City? Located in Nevada and inhabited by 50,000 people it is like any other city. Just that it’s not a city.

Ever heard of Black Rock City? Located in Nevada and inhabited by 50,000 people, it is like any other city. Its Department of Public Works lays the fencing and builds the roads around the city. An airport receives flights and guides takeoffs. A post office processes mail… A census bureau collects data. The city has an official radio station, a register of cards and vehicles, and a local security force known as the Danger Rangers. Inhabitants believe the city is an example of participatory self-governance and an example of how freethinking people can build a better society if they pool resources and work communally.

Nevertheless, Black Rock City is very different from many contemporary cities. It is a festival city, the place of Burning Man festival, one of the most well-known festivals in the world. Black Rock City is a temporary city – it is recreated every year at the end of August by 50,000 people who converge in the desert to create this temporary but legitimate city.

 

DSC7339

Experiment in branding

Despite its rhetoric of self-expression, inclusion and liberty, let’s not forget that Burning Man is a private, for-profit event and tickets cost as much as four hundred dollars. Burning Man is thus an experiment in branding and marketing. It is not like any other festival. Its marketing strategy seems very different and this difference arises from the fact that it tries and wants to be a temporary city, not just a festival.

Its marketing strategy is a continuation of the mid-20th-century theme park and the entertainment architecture of the 1980s and 1990s. Burning Man and Black Rock City itself managed to literally build consumer experience into the everyday retail transaction – one must experience Burning Man to fully understand it, but also to understand oneself, to be oneself. Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources. Nobody is entitled to nothing – the ticket only gives one the opportunity to enter the city, everything else one needs to provide for himself or is dependent on the society. Since money is explicitly banned, Black Rock City is a “gift economy,” in which people give strangers food, drinks, clothing, and massages, all without any expectation of reciprocation. This forces one to participate, help others… be human. This is the experience that Black Rock City promises.

140822-burning-man-file-jsw-1039a_3033edc48a6c7e30227414ca526b93a7

Experiences for all!

Even though “citizens” are predominantly white, rather rich, young, American and atheist, one can find there pro-gun libertarians and antiwar socialists, anticapitalist liberals and laissez-faire capitalists, conspiracy theorists and DIY hackers, “fair trade” farmers and Wall Street lawyers. Black Rock City manages to provide “experiences” to all of them. What draws these audiences to Black Rock City, moreover, is that they see themselves as being opposed to the cultural and social mainstream that surrounds them. The brand promise of Black Rock City is the one we have heard already: Be Different.

Because it defines itself negatively, in terms of what it is against, Black Rock City assures participants variety and an element of surprise. It can market itself as an authentic utopian experiment or as a con man’s game (and it has done both). Either way, the brand remains intact. Black Rock City can shrink and expand, appear and disappear – literally. As it gets bigger, so grows the spectacle. If it gets smaller, so grows the illusion of authenticity, and with it, the brand.

 

Monetizing the common

In marketing terms, Black Rock City is a success – despite its all contradictions, it is loved and adored. It is also a financial success – it is a limited liability company called Black Rock City LLC with an estimated annual operating budget of ten million dollars. Despite its “guerrilla” and “leftist” rhetoric, it is a marketing, advertising, consumer research, and corporate socialization mecca. Despite the ban on money, everything – from social organization to urbanism – serves one goal: monetization of the common.