Art From Data: The Field Notes Project

By Leah Gold (“Athena”)

Does Burning Man enrich your life?

Do you wear costumes at Burning Man? Why or why not?

Have you ever met someone new and fallen in love in Black Rock City? Please describe.

What is the single most surprising or unconventional piece of equipment you bring to Burning Man?

Interesting questions, are they not? These are examples of questions the Black Rock City Census poses in the field notes project.

The Census has been conducted, in some form, since 2002. Those of you who were on the playa in the ’00s might remember going to the Census Lab at Center Camp to fill out a paper survey. More recently, you may have gone online after the Burn to answer questions about yourself, your attitudes, and your experiences. You may have even been selected through a random sampling process at the entry gate to complete a short paper survey. But this post will focus on the Census’ third method of gathering Burners’ perspectives: the field notes project.


Field notes books are large, bound, blank notebooks or sketchbooks. Each book is devoted to a particular topic. In the front are a few standard demographic questions followed by three or four questions specific to the book’s topic. Burners write, draw, or otherwise communicate their answers to the questions on the book’s blank pages.

The topics vary from year to year. The following are examples of topics and questions from 2015.


What does the symbol of the Burning Man mean to you?


What made you feel a sense of wonder?


Does what you wear affect your interactions with people? How?


How are your relationships and romantic entanglements with people different on playa than the default world?


What has caused you or people you know to have negative experiences at Burning Man?


How do you rely on your community to help you survive on playa?

My personal favorite topic is Transformation. I like to think about how I have been changed by Burning Man: the awe-inspiring art I’ve seen, the wonderful people I’ve met, the openness and generosity I’ve experienced, and how all have shifted my priorities and changed my attitudes.

For example, it’s made me a more creative person. I used put “the Artist” in a separate category from myself, but Burning Man collapsed that barrier. For me, the wonder inspired by the major art installations is equalled by the joy I take in the wit, originality, and beauty manifested all around me by my fellow citizens of Black Rock City. I’ve realized that although I’ll never create a significant work of art, that is no excuse not to use the skills and vision I do possess to make my environment, and my life, a little bit more interesting.

It is moving to read accounts of transformation from other members of my community. The following are some examples of answers to the question, “Did Burning Man change you?”

did burning man change you

For more on our findings about how people feel transformed by their experiences at Burning Man, read our recent blog post.


Field note project responses are free-form and open-ended. Some Burners respond briefly and concisely to the questions. Others share their experiences, ideas, and feelings in great detail. But regardless of length, all responses are recorded completely in two ways.

First, Census volunteers photograph each page of each book. Next, they carefully enter each response into a spreadsheet, to make the data more accessible. The word clouds in this post were produced from those data.

There is more than one book devoted to each question set, to give more Burners the opportunity to respond to them. There is always a set on hand at the Census Lab near Center Camp. Other sets of books are moved around to various locations across the playa, such as Center Camp Café and large Theme Camps. We want to reach as many Burners as possible, because we want to know what you are thinking and feeling!


Field note project books have the advantage of gathering Burners’ reflections on their experience in the moment, while they are still in Black Rock City. They are a rich source of qualitative, vs. quantitative, data. That is, they do not collect the kind of information you can easily quantify, compare, and display in a graph. Instead, they record people’s feelings, behavior, and attitudes, sometimes very movingly. This is useful for academic researchers exploring these topics.

One way to get an overall impression of the data gathered on a particular topic is through a word cloud. Word clouds are generated by software that counts the number of times a word is mentioned and represents this by the size of the text. The word cloud at the top of this post shows Burners’ responses to a question about how they like to play at Burning Man.

I’ll close with another word cloud. For me, the Burning Man symbol is a beacon, like a lighthouse on a distant shore. When I see it I’m reminded that a more genuine, expressive, and connected way of living is possible, and that a community exists that shares this vision. What does the Burning Man symbol mean to you?

what does the man mean

About the author: Census Team

Census Team

The Census Lab is a volunteer team of information geeks, academic researchers, students, and general data nerds who have surveyed Black Rock City (BRC) residents since 2002.

2 Comments on “Art From Data: The Field Notes Project

  • Space Mom says:

    Experience: Understanding why my son, Space Bag, love the BM so much, met some absolutely wonderful people from all over the world -2010. This was in my bucket list. Hope to come again❤️❤️❤️

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  • CosmicTuba says:

    Great post. Glad to have you cosmic archaeologists deciphering my wild meanderings & astral wanderings.

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