Black Rock City Map Designer Nicole Bloss on the Alignment of Purpose and Passion

You know that Alfred Korzybski saying, “The map is not the territory?” I’m not sure that’s entirely true in Black Rock City. Like, on one level, no, the paper map you get in your Greeter Packet is not literally where Burning Man takes place. But Black Rock City is transient — it moves around in place and time, and most of the time it isn’t even there! The map, the plan, the coordinates — those are kinda the only things that make Black Rock City into an enduring place.

It’s fitting that the BRC map handed to everyone when they get there has been elevated into a work of art. In 2016, veteran map designer Lisa Hoffman stepped down, but she left this Radical Ritual in capable hands. I spoke with new map designer Nicole Bloss about how she got into this madness and how the theme inspired this year’s map.

What has been your progression through life as an artist?

2011 Rites of Passage map by Lisa Hoffman

NB: “I didn’t understand how I could manifest any of my mind’s ideas until I found graphic design. Before that I was pursuing a degree in archaeology and pre-Columbian history. I was inspired by the ingenuity of those cultures — the Incas, the Aztecs and the Mayas. They were able to understand time scales on the order of millions of years, which is breathtaking — and create a language around that.

At the same time, I had to take an elective. Music appreciation was full, so I took two-dimensional design. It was the early ’90s. We just cut out shapes — not even using a computer — and that is what I raced home to do!

So I forgot about all that for a while and found a career in graphic design.”

How did Burning Man and the Black Rock City Map come into the picture?

NB: “I heard about Burning Man in the early ’90s and had always wanted to go. It took me 10 years to make it out — you find Burning Man when you’re ready. My first Burn was in 2005, so this year is my Burn Mitzvah. I was between jobs, I went by myself in my Volkswagen Bus, and it tore my brain apart, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

I worked on Bliss Dance. I worked on Storied Haven. But I would go to Burning Man, and the only thing I could actually take home that was of significance to me as a designer was the map. I coveted and collected all of them and put them on my bedroom wall. I knew Lisa’s name. I thought, ‘What a cool thing, to be able to do the maps for Burning Man every year!’

I saw last year’s call-out, and I wondered, ‘Wow. I wonder if I’m good enough to do this.’ I immediately thought of an idea. It took two hours to make a quick digital comp, and I sent it away with all the best intentions. I was contacted a week later, saying ‘You’re the one!’ Wow. I just manifested that.”

A sneak peek at the 2017 map by Nicole Bloss

How is Radical Ritual reflected in this year’s map? What’s the connection with your pre-Columbian studies?

NB: “I went to Mexico for a wedding, and I climbed atop a stone temple, and it occurred to me, ‘Oh my God. I’m here for the first time in a place I love, the site of the most radical ritual I could possibly imagine.

I remembered this story from college of the New Fire ceremony, which happened every 52 years. Every fire in the city was extinguished — for light, for heat, for cooking, everything. Then they would take a prisoner, bring him to the top of the temple, and sacrifice him. They would hollow out his chest cavity, and they would make a fire in it it. And from that fire, every fire in the city would be re-lit every 52 years. It’s sort of similar to what Crimson Rose does each year in Black Rock City, lighting the Man from the light of the sun.

So I went home and decided to design a BRC Map inspired by this, and it took me two hours.”

Crimson Rose lights the cauldron (Photo by Steven Fritz)

Where does inspiration come from?

NB: [Thinks for a moment.] “The alignment of purpose and passion.”

About the author: Jon Mitchell

Jon Mitchell

, a.k.a. Argus, was publisher of the Burning Man Journal, the Jackrabbit Speaks newsletter, and the Burning Man website from 2016 to 2019. He joined the Comm Team as a volunteer in 2010 and as year-round staff in 2014. He co-wrote a big story about spending 24 hours at the Temple of Juno in 2012. His first Burn was in 2008.

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