AFTERBURN REPORT 2005
Center Camp Café
In 2005, after the return of several veterans, the departure of others, and the addition of several key positions, another successful Center Camp Café emerged. One challenge occurred when the original team manager passed the torch - a big shift but one the team welcomed and embraced.
Scheduling Coffee Shop volunteers and their support on-playa improved. Volunteer support expanded for the Art, Décor, Lighting, Furniture, and Sound subteams. The venue went from two stages to one, with improved sound quality and addition of acts to the Center and DIY performance platforms.
Building upon workable ideas from 2004, creation of décor, art, furniture, and lighting all promoted the idea that the Café is an active place for people looking to engage with others. Expanded and improved bike racks left enough to place some at other locations around Center Camp.
Various artists contributed to the café's visual emphasis on the Ten principles with installations throughout the facility. Leading by example, the team showed off a radical self-reliance by greatly reducing trash.
Thematically, the café art embraced the event's theme, Psyche, through installations demonstrating the `thinking person's´ awareness of Burning Man's Ten Principles.
The Art team paid extra attention in 2005 to the café's front portal and back fence gallery wall. Increased support for all participating artists included helping the creators of the front portal to avoid pitfalls of previous years. This preparation allowed for addition of a flame effect at the last minute, although plans still were disrupted by bikes locked to the art! Another challenge was providing powerful equipment support, such as generators able to support welding, on short notice.
The scale of these important installations is an ongoing challenge, as the café environment tends to overwhelm most artworks placed close to it. Placement of the 2005 portal at a distance from the structure was part of the plan, allowing for safe fire display and keeping the art visible against the of color and light coming out of the café at night. Supporting for artists takes an advisor-based approach, fresh each year, that inspires artists to re-interpret features like the front portal.
The café art team envisioned the 200-foot wall behind the main structure (on the 6 o'clock side) as a large gallery of different artworks. Lots of planning led to success, with over 20 artists contributing an array of work from elaborate paintings to LED arrays to miniature stages. The visual effect was not unlike that of the Funhouse base beneath the Man. The wall created a grand panoramic overview of the creative wealth present in the Burning Man community. The creative energies of café artists also ventured further into new territory in 2005, as 22 hand-blown glass lamps were created and installed over the counter, replacing the utility lighting of previous years with unique works of art.
Art planners implemented new communication tools for artists to relay power needs, placement issues, and scheduling of "timed" installations (those using power only part of the day), improving coordination of all café installations. Veteran team members have worked out placement systems, and returning artists contributed their experience, in one instance collaborating on a stage décor plan after being matched up by the Art team. The stage backdrop and side sculptures were designed remotely, and the artists' first meeting face to face was on playa.
Each year teaches the Café Décor team more and more about what works, and knowledge passes on each year, leading to both a proven way of working and a system of café-specific furniture designs. These modular benches and tables configure into different, conversation-fostering shapes throughout the café interior. They get repainted beautifully every year, and they are designed to fit into storage trailers, which have reached capacity.
Café volunteers designed and built a number of new benches and tables in 2005. These modular, specialized furniture pieces complete the stock under construction since 2000. The new furniture design supports intentional space for conversation and viewing art in the café. Placement plans for furniture in the café have been awkward and frequently modified, due in part to a lack of interchangeable pieces and limited understanding of how to create space with them.
In efforts to find new ways to serve the community's needs, an experimental grouping of benches and tables was placed outside the café along the gallery wall to encourage use of this previously vacant space. Observations showed the art served to attract participants, but this outside furniture did not seem to be utilized much at all.
Bike racks built for the 2004 event got a retrofit, and many more were made. This resource was well-utilized and (except for extremely full times) the area around the café clear for walking. Bikes stood up in racks, leaving far fewer lying about in careless, dangerous piles than in previous years. Another storage trailer to safely store these racks for future years was added to the café's fleet of well-packed trailers.
Covering the café floor-space - nearly an acre! - continues to be an annual challenge. The difficulties of organizing volunteers and acquiring carpet were met with an interesting new option in 2005: canvas theatrical floor cloths, donated just before the event. These sheets covered about 50 percent of the floor space, with varying effectiveness.
On the positive side, these cloths fold into much smaller storage bundles, leaving significant space for more furniture in our filled-to-capacity storage trailers. Fewer people are required to unfold and layout. They cover a larger surface area, and so have fewer edges to trip over. Playa is easily removed, unlike carpet which becomes irreversibly heavy with accumulated playa. Lacking the thick textured backing of carpet, they don't become unusable when wetness causes playa to harden on to it.
On the less-than-positive side, the canvas lacks the plushness of carpet, and a large number of participants sit on the floor in the Café. The painted canvas became coated with a film of playa that made it appear like no floor-covering, and thus lacked the subtle colors of playa-ed carpet.
The Café Décor team strives to reinvent uses for past years' décor elements and new donations. In 2005 this effort included a center floor-covering photo mural.
Café décor expressed the Psyche theme for 2005 primarily through painted imagery on benches and in art exhibited in the environment. Positive feedback from 2004 led to a renewal of the `pennant strings´; hanging from the ceiling cables but in a color scheme of burgundy, orange, and pink. This color theme was carried onto furniture, fabric, flags, and lighting.
The 12 flags that stream atop the café structure have to withstand some of the strongest winds in Black Rock City, as the design of the structure deflects wind up and over and right through these giant flags! The goal is always to make something that can last more than one year, but the weather usually won't cooperate. Over the years, a variety of flag fabrics have been tested, with ripstop nylon being a favorite (and industry standard). Color options have pushed the choice toward less durable fabrics with lots of visual appeal. Shiny metallic lamé has worked well, although it needs lots of under-support and overstitching. The reuse ethos led to attempts to reinforce these older flags, patching and reinventing. In 2005, ripstop nylon formed the base of the flags with shiny pieces from past years flags added to create work-intensive sun-shaped patterns. The time required a compromise of six sun flags and six simpler nylon flags. These simpler flags were also an experiment, as participant feedback from the years when all we had were simple flags was positive, and as a team we wanted to revisit our process, check in to see if we'd gotten too detailed in making something that is typically seen as it flaps 30 feet in the air at 40 mph!
The Lighting team started 2005 with confidence about expanding on the success of 2004. At last the team had the know-how and the candlepower to make the café a bright, attractive, 24-hour hub of activity in Black Rock City. The year focused on building the lighting team, beginning with recruiting a volunteer coordinator for the tem. This much-needed support provided opportunities for cross-pollination of ideas with Décor team and furniture designers.
Advance planning allocated funds for electrified lamps similar to the Lamplighters lanterns. These fixtures completed the look of the special spires made for the café in 2002 while adding a warm ambience to an area of the structure that is hard to reach with other lighting solutions.
One challenge of storing most lighting equipment in Nevada is simple remoteness. No one could say whether new oversized, energy-saver bulbs would fit into existing sockets -- one of the uncertainties handled successfully in 2005.
The return of several high-level volunteers helped with accurate and effective planning for electrical power distribution - a first! In the process, the café lighting team forged a new relationship with the power vendor that proved crucial on-playa to replace a missing piece of equipment. Spotty past practices leave no one really knowing what happened to this equipment. Nonetheless, this year's team of professional electricians and experienced film and event lighting people took on the existing infrastructure and made it shine again.
Craft parties have become a sort of reunion off-playa, and the mid-week `Sewing Bee´; held in August at Burning Man headquarters attracted so many returning volunteers that it broke a record for attendance! These work-days contributed to achievement of the team's annual goal, as well as improved recognition of available volunteers' skills. The team continues to exceed each previous years' achievements for project completion before arriving on the playa.
The café team benefited from organizational changes in 2005 through improved communication and coordination between departments on-playa, as well as sharing resources such as volunteers, equipment, and planning. These developments improved setup time, worker morale, and planning based on realistic estimates of timing.
Café Performance and Sound
The Cafe had its most successful year ever in 2005. The group accomplished a lot with a little, built up its strength, and positioned everything to begin another successful year.
New folks contributed help building the café sound system and managing the equipment. Several new stage managers and sound technicians encouraged smooth playa operations, as did those who booked the talent to perform on stage.
The expansion of the café performance team made the job much easier than it has been in the past. Areas to improve remain, of course. The booking process always runs too late and causes stress, and committed staff members had their hands full filling in for missing sound techs or stage managers. A primary goal for 2006 is to make sure that every member of the café performance group feels empowered to contribute and nobody bears undue burdens and feels burnt out. With this goal in mind, the team moves forward into 2006 with renewed enthusiasm.
Experienced team members worked together again in 2005 to focus on refinement of coffee shop operations. Fine-tuning of the 2004 design made the serving floor satisfy both the utilitarian need for an efficient space to make 80,000 cups of coffee and the more ephemeral aim of creating a positive place for hundreds of volunteers to contribute.
Additional space behind the counter allowed everyone to move around and enjoy their role. The reinvented shade structure in the backstage area let volunteers store their bags, gather for orientation between shifts, and take brief breaks from the bustle at the counter during the day.
In 2004, after many years of asking, the health department gave approval to serve coffee in people's personal mugs. In 2005, more people took advantage of the new opportunity, but continued emphasis could lead to significant reductions in waste from disposable cups.
Cup disposal was improved with the new model of the shishCUPbob, a device invented for 2004 that collected the paper cups without collecting random trash. By the end of the week, the cup spires were grimy, but they accomplished their job in a beautiful way. Waste liquid went into greywater tanks for pumping, rather than collecting it in plastic trash bags and paying to have it hauled away to the dump.
Despite operational improvements, the café's capacity to serve coffee seems to have reached a maximum for the current set-up. For the past 3 years, the coffee shop has served roughly the same amount. Now that this maximum service capacity is known, planners can avoid wasting resources trying to supply more.
The coffee shop alone kept close to 500 volunteers hopping through more than 1,000 shifts, led by our reliable returning rockstars joined with the always eager crop of Black Rock City newbies. These many dedicated volunteers are the driving force of the coffee shop, so increased effort and resources were allocated to one-on-one pre-playa communications.
The successful Volunteer Table returned, staffed with knowledgeable volunteer coordinators and resource guides, serving as a reference point for all café volunteers, artists, performers, and the general public. This well-managed station also served Burning Man staff as a meeting point and helped tremendously to keep volunteers well-informed and effective in their roles, while nurturing their connection to the team and community. One example is the relative ease of making key decisions about collecting funds for Katrina victims, the table provided a focal point for coordinating with the Media Team donation center and other volunteers looking to assist in the relief effort.
On-playa volunteer coordinators conducted pre-shift volunteer check-ins and orientations, which greatly improved shift transitions. The café operations team held several on-playa meetings to share information, develop consistent expectations, forge a common understanding of policy, and solve problems with confidence once the event began.
Every year many enthusiastic participants inquire about working with the café. All incoming volunteer communications are sent to appropriate team leaders. As always, most folks are interested in volunteering specifically with the coffee shop. The volume of these emails has continued to rise, leading to expansion of coffee shop scheduling roles and addition of volunteer coordinators.
In addition to ongoing efforts to place and organize volunteers, 2005 marked the fourth year of Café Village, the centrally placed home for café staff and dedicated volunteers. Mappers laid out a similar sized plot to 2004, and space seemed to fill quickly, as always. A new mayor served the village population by placing latecomers and finding greywater pumpers, while educating folks about the ins and outs of the shower.
The physical layout of the village worked well for the most part. Returning builders from previous years created an amazing deck/tower and set up other communal structures. Altogether the village functioned decently as a self-regulating entity, though some improvements could enhance the resources the village provides.
After the event, the café team has about a week to take everything apart, store it in containers, and get the containers off the playa, while making sure to leave nothing behind. The finish for 2005 was a struggle. A disappointing turnout of cleanup week volunteers may reflect several causes, but most reduce down to exhaustion among volunteers who had worked so hard during setup week. Planners are brainstorming ideas to recruit and keep volunteers to contribute during this vital week after the event. Two distinct groups of people will be scheduled for setup and clean-up to limit burnout.