Build Week 2023: The Calm Before the Storm

I didn’t expect my entrance to Black Rock City to turn into a waiting game, spent next to a garish plastic elephant in a Reno casino hotel in the middle of a military convention. As I was preparing to arrive in Black Rock City Monday of Build Week, it seemed someone had changed the Burning Man tape from its signature Mad Max-esque scenes to Waterworld. AI-generated images of the Loch Ness monster swimming through Center Camp flooded our social media feeds, and we wondered if Raft Punk would play this year’s trash fence. Suddenly, all our carefully laid plans for early arrival came to a halt. But if there is anything I’ve learned from seven Black Rock City stints and more than 20 Regional burns, it’s to expect the unexpected at Burning Man. And what a ride it would be. 

When rain hits it, the cracked, dusty lakebed we know and love morphs to a cement-like mud, making movement impossible. For possibly the first time in the event’s history, the Gate stayed tightly shut for almost half of Build Week. We watched hooked from the sidelines as the mud-pocalypse unfolded, plotting how to make up for lost time to build the camps and art we’d been planning for months. We braced ourselves for the worst-case scenarios. Would construction turn to chaos as crews waded knee-deep in mud? Would the Man topple to a watery grave? Would anything ever be built on time?!

After days of waiting and doom scrolling, the Gate finally re-opened to early arrivals on Wednesday. We collectively breathed a sigh of relief. Giddy with excitement, our seven-truck Entheos camp convoy set out, feeling the irresistible pull of Home. Eventually, the tarmacked road turned to dust, our wheels gliding across the compact surface of the playa. Surprisingly, we cruised past the Gate with barely any waiting time. Once inside, except for some damp patches here and there, the sun had torched the playa dry. It seemed surreal that two days ago it was under water. 

As we pulled in, people were still processing the storm. “There were actual waves outside my door,” my campmate said pointing to the ground. “I think we lost someone to the mud in the Black Hole Bar,” another joked. When the flood hit, people had no option but to stay put: “We only came out to use the porta potties, with plastic bags on over our shoes.” It was cold and miserable and led to inevitable shitty moments, depending on your set-up (those in tents pulling the short straw). But if there is anything our post-pandemic generation knows how to do, it’s to shelter in place. Far from dampening spirits, those marooned in Black Swamp City took a guilt-free break from tough build work, enjoyed some rare down time, and connected with campmates at an unusually slower pace. 

Of course, the headline-grabbing storm glossed over that “Build Week” is just a small part of the picture. The city is raised over months. From early August, Department of Public Works (DPW) cars criss-cross the playa, hammering in stakes and laying critical infrastructure. “We stretch out the canvas for the citizens,” explains Goatt, a long-time DPW member and the Man Pavilion Project Manager. It would take more than a few inches of rain to faze these desert-worn crews.

Extreme weather events are the past, present and future of this place we call Home and, as climate change grows, they will only intensify. As teams build, they practice urban planning on the go. Burners are not afraid of course correction, which makes them more resilient to weather any storm. Leeway, the DPW’s Personnel Manager tells me, “In 2023, we put the disaster plan, created post-2014 rains, in motion.” And they pulled it off.

My breezy entrance through the Gate was no coincidence. As the Gate opened, people from every department lent a hand to check the backlog of people through. When the going gets tough, we put up a united front and rise to the challenge.

Temple build crew, 2023 (Photo by Jamen Percy)

After this enforced reset, people seemed pumped to restart work. The next day I ride out to playa. “When gates opened, only eight out of 375 art pieces were set up,” explains Katie Hazard, Burning Man Project’s Associate Director of Art Management. But over 70 artists landed as they did, and are now busily working in the BRC beehive, with the hive-shaped Man Pavilion in its center. 

Morale is high, and I go and check the pulse with the artists. Michael Garlington’s intricate “Tower of Babel” is close to completion. As a 2020 Honorarium recipient he jokes, “We’ve been delayed for two years, not two days!” 

Goatt explains, with the monumental Man Pavilion he’s building reflected in his sunglasses, “Something always goes wrong and, whatever it is, it will be novel and interesting — that’s what drives us to be here.” Further afield, the Temple of the Heart, co-led for the first time by a female artist Ela Madej, lost two parts of its roof in an earlier storm. This could have been a catastrophic delay, but it is still on track to complete on time. As the top spire is ceremoniously lowered onto its tip, its upside-down desert flower shape blends harmoniously with the mountain backdrop. Covered in Eastern European fold patterns, in honor of the artist’s grandmother who was born in modern-day Ukraine, it has a powerful message of peace and a palpable female energy. 

The Temple during Build Week, 2023 (Photo by Jamen Percy)

Gorgeous smaller-scale art is also rising up, many inspired by the Animalia theme. I chat to first-time Burner Ricardo Martinez, creator of “Axolotl: A Spirit Guide,” which he explains is “a species that risks extinction in its polluted natural habitat but thrives when bred outside. It reflects my own journey escaping a difficult context in Mexico… and how I thrived abroad.” A giant turtle, “The Journey Aquatic,” from artist and diver Mark Dill, gives us the sense of wonder of being in the ocean. Perhaps “Burden of the Beast” by Walker Babington from New Orleans is the most symbolic project. Made from reclaimed materials, it is a buffalo carrying a house, a reminder of climate change displacing people from their homes. Uncannily, its motto is “Don’t let a hurricane stop you.” It seems that Hurricane Hilary didn’t. 

“The Journey Aquatic” by Mark Dill, 2023 (Photo by Roxane Jessi)

Beyond the art, camps are mushrooming up all the way to the outer edges of the playa with a staggering number of offerings. Playa staples like Barbie Death Camp are already set up — though this Barbie version may not break box office records. A Finnish sauna and woman-led Moroccan Sahara camp are being built at the Global Village; Kosmic Kamels, a collective of people from countries in the Middle East/North Africa region supports peaceful coexistence. There is a jazz café, Kostume Kult, food camps like Midnight Poutine, and myriad other experiences. If you haven’t planned to, do yourself a favor and take the time out from larger art and sound camps to explore the backstreets. 

As night falls, I head to the Arctica build party to wind down. As I enter the hoe down, a pink handlebar mustache is immediately stuck to my face. Synchronized line dancing begins on one side of the room, and someone in apocalyptic wear climbs to the top of a pole and slides theatrically down it. The people are rough ’round the edges and the atmosphere is electric. Everyone here has a critical role building this city. I chat to a woman staking the lanterns, a man helping supply the city’s fuel, another laying its grid. The Burn is much more than the compressed week called Burning Man. Its builders have already done so much living. They share highlights from the past months. The exhilaration of driving through the empty playa, climbing up a pick-up truck to drink beers as the sun set over a swamp-like Black Rock City, or the flow state they reach from building as one. On Thursday of Build Week they gather in the hundreds at the legendary 420 party for a final celebration, before Working Man switches to Burning Man.

“Axolotl: A Spirit Guide,” by Ricardo Martinez, 2023 (Photo by Jamen Percy)

As we reach the end of Build Week, the canvas of the city stretched out by early build crews is splashed with color. We will never forget the 2023 hurricane that led to a Build Week like no other – or half of one, to be precise – but the storm that threatened to derail the show seems like a faraway blip. If anything, it showed us that an enforced break is good, and how we thrive when rallied together in a crisis. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell that our group of misfits doesn’t seek out routine and order. In the default world, things go according to plan, but out here we like to tackle challenges head on. When the storm hit, people volunteered to help, departments opened late, and people lent each other resources and collaborated. After all, I agree with Goatt, we don’t come here just to build a city, we come to build ourselves. 

“Burden of the Beast” by Walker Babington, 2023 (Photo by Jamen Percy)

Last year, dreams were reawakened after a three-year slumber, and the extreme dust and heat overwhelmed many. As Brigadoon opens its 2023 doors the weather is perfect, the playa compact and cooler after the rain. Different realities will inevitably jar when Build Week ends and thousands of shiny BRC citizens stream through the gates. A new storm is brewing, but this one is not from the sky down; it is from the ground up. The playa soil rumbles underfoot as the stampede of tens of thousands of animals approaches, gathering for this epic annual migration. They don’t seek greener pastures, but dustier ones. Our tails turn bushy and our talons sharp as we prepare to ignite our primal selves to join this Animalia-themed extravaganza. 

Cover image of the Man Pavilion, 2023 (Photo by Jamen Percy)

About the author: Roxane Jessi

Roxane Jessi

Roxane Jessi is an aid worker and roving Burner who has participated in more than a dozen different Burns around the globe. In 2023 Burning Man Publishing released her new book, "Once Upon a Time in the Dust, Burning Man Around the World," which chronicles the year she spent participating in seven Regional Burning Man Events on six continents.

9 Comments on “Build Week 2023: The Calm Before the Storm

  • Jane says:

    So much wasted plastic and jet fuel.

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    • tokue says:

      What is the problem, Jane? Isn’t it enough to put this following headlines on the agenda (called ” Environmental Sustainability Roadmap”)?

      “1) No Matter Out of Place. Handle waste ecologically.

      2) Be Regenerative. Create a net positive ecological and environmental impact.

      3) Be Carbon Negative. Remove more carbon from the environment than we put into it.”

      Is it requiered to do somthing, too? Not enough words? Damn…

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    • Terry says:

      Agreed… and lumber too it seems. I’ve always looked at this gigantic event with a bit of an eye roll because of its carbon footprint. Artistically it sounds fabulous, but something of this magnitude just doesn’t make sense in a 21st-century climate change crisis.

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      • G says:

        My understanding is the carbon footprint of all the vehicles coming from far and wide far out paces anything that happens on site in the event. So all you naysayers, would have us just not do this? And to all you naysayers, what about all the other human activities out there that generate carbon emissions?

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    • Barrie Bryant Giles says:

      If those Jets weren’t going to Burning Man, they’d be going somewhere else.

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    • Bruno Argento says:

      Silly unprepared hipsters!!!

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  • tokue says:

    What’s the problem, Jane? Isn’t it enough to put this following headlines on the agenda (called “Environmental Sustainability Roadmap”)?

    “1) No Matter Out of Place. Handle waste ecologically.
    2) Be Regenerative. Create a net positive ecological and environmental impact.
    3) Be Carbon Negative. Remove more carbon from the environment than we put into it.”

    Is it required to do something, too? Nice words aren’t enough? Damn…

    Report comment

  • Anne King says:

    Good luck in the mud, may it teach perseverance!

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