Introducing our project for Burning Man 2014: The Tree of Knowledge

March 7, 2014 in Featured, Projects


Members of the Open Design & Hardware Working Group have been working these last few months on putting together a project proposal for the magnificent Burning Man festival which takes place every year in August in the desolate Black Rock Desert in Nevada, United States. The result is a proposal to build the Tree of Knowledge.

The Tree of Knowledge project is based on a global, cross-team collaboration between artists, makers, academics and builders at Harvard University, Creative Commons, the Open Design + Hardware Network at the Open Knowledge Foundation and the Open Tech Collaborative. Together, we are the Tribe. We come from different backgrounds, live all across the world – from Copenhagen to Vancouver – we each have different passions and opinions, yet we all agree on a common ground: Knowledge is magic – and open knowledge is the backbone of the Tree of Knowledge.

On the Playa of the Black Rock Desert…

Just off the edge of the Playa, when the sun sets and the sky grows dark, a magical path appears: twin lines of glowing markers winding into the distance. Curious travellers who reach the end discover an oasis.  And in the middle of the oasis, a magical tree: from its branches hang wondrous glowing fruit, large and small ornaments filled with bioluminescent fluid. This is the Tree of Knowledge.

The tree stands in the middle of this mystical oasis, fueling a self-perpetuating cycle of curiosity, learning and sharing. Chill– almost ambient– music plays; this is a peaceful oasis. The site is both a destination,  a place where travelers come in their quest for meditation and wonder; and also a source, a place from which knowledge spreads, illuminating the desert of Black Rock City. From the moment the sun sets, travelers will be drawn to the Tree of Knowledge by its mystical glow on the distant horizon. As they get closer, they can marvel at the wonder of its bioluminescent fruit. It is a peaceful oasis, far from the chaotic setting of the Silk Road.


The Tribe of Light

Once arrived, travellers will have their first encounter with a strange tribe, natives of the oasis, caretakers of the tree, their faces and bodies elaborately painted with colorful glow-in-the-dark paints. The Tribe of Light. Curious travelers will ask, “What is all this?” And to them we will say it is the Tree of Knowledge. We will educate through a variety of  rites of passage and tell them about the magic of bioluminescence, the value of shared knowledge, and other universal truths. We will encourage them to take some of the fruit — some of the light– away with them on the rest of their journey, to illuminate their path and share the open knowledge it symbolizes with their friends.


Building the tree and growing the organisms

The Tree itself — the trunk and branches– is a dead tree, about 8 meters (~26 feet) high, transported to the site for this project.  Only upon close inspection can a visitor tell that it was originally cut into sections, and subsequently reassembled on site. Once the tree stands strong, the fruits are put on the branches from top to bottom – all transparent containers of bioluminescent micro organisms, slurping in the abundant energy from the sun – waiting for dusk to arrive and their glow to initiate.


The lower-hanging fruit, which the curious travelers will be encouraged to pick, are transparent spheres filled with bioluminescent organisms in a saltwater solution.  These are attached to the tree by leather strings; when untied from the tree, these enable the fruit to be worn as necklaces and bracelets– magic amulets to take home. In this this way, the project illustrates– manifests– the ways in which knowledge spreads. The overall effect is of an otherworldly magic; the goal is to induce a sense of wonder.

Joining the Tribe and spreading the Knowledge

Visitors willing to go through a short training course (about 30 minutes) will be given the opportunity to be turned into ‘evangelists’, apprentice wizards: Upon completion of this training, in a special ritual, we will apply luminescent paint to their body so that they will be easily recognizable as part of the Tribe. These luminous evangelists will then be sent out of the Oasis and back to the chaos beyond, with a kit (a set of empty amulets and a flask of bioluminescent organism) and a mission: they will be charged with enlightening fellow travelers, sharing light and knowledge.

How to learn more – and get involved

To learn more about the Tree of Knowledge project, the Tribe of Light and everything else – visit the project site. We’ll be putting up photos and videos of the work as we move forward. Also, make sure to follow OD&H Working Group on Twitter for brief shoot-from-the-hip updates.

You can also join the project! Get in touch on to become part of the building team or contribute otherwise. Also, we plan to run a Kickstarter campaign and would love for anyone with experience in that field (or willingness to learn) to get in touch to lend a hand. The project is open, so feel free to get on board.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join the Open Design + Hardware group: