Atlas Shrugged, Meet Lord of the Flies – Part III, the Underground Economy of Art

Part I – the Phoenix

Part II – Who is John Galt, Who is Kenny Powers?

There is an entire economy around the art, that exists year round and for the most part, off Playa. Art Projects and Art Cars require funds. They require large warehouses off the Playa, flatbed trucks driving across the country for transportation, cranes and welding equipment, sophisticated sound systems. How do they get those funds together? Fundraisers is one way, but the most likely donors in that event are Burners. With more than half of Burners not getting tickets, this makes the task of fundraising for art projects tougher. Burners are less likely to donate to art projects, if they can’t go to the event. I get the feeling a lot of Art Cars will be sitting in the garage this year.

Selling tickets to DJ events seems to be popular, and is a way for camps to get support from their family and friends, even if they’re not coming to the Burn. Increasingly, artists are turning to Kickstarter Projects.

What about the artists who create all the costumes and outfits? A couple of years ago, I discovered the “underground economy” of Burning Man. These artists are forced to sell their wares at trunk shows and other events like Lightning in a Bottle, that allow and encourage market places. Anyone looking for outfits for Burning Man, I would definitely encourage you to go to LIB. Be prepared for hours of awesome shopping, with the designers like Opal Moon right there with you selling their own products and making alterations on the spot.

No-one outside the BMOrg in this broader Burner economy appears to be doing super-well financially from being part of Burning Man, even though they seem to be flourishing creatively and spiritually and enjoying life. But there are enough people in their tribe who are successful in the Default world, that they can be patrons of the artists in the Burner economy.

Artist Hans Haveron was selling a beautiful painting at last year’s LIB, unfortunately a bit out of my price range at $5000.

He painted the infamous Fish Tank Art Car, soon to be performing in the Houston Art Car parade.

The Fish Tank crew are funding transportation to events like the upcoming Houston Art Car Parade, New York Halloween Parade, and Art Basel Miami. This is spreading Burner culture around the world, at their expense. On top of that, they have to get the vehicle and crew back to Reno, plus storage costs and insurance, mechanical works, sound system improvements and further artwork on their vehicle.

How are they funding this? By selling merchandise in their online store. The Fish Tank has a life outside the Playa, and their merchandise doesn’t mention Burning Man. Still, they have reported that some Burners have not been as supportive of their idea as they would have expected. These people complain that any form of selling merchandise is commercial. But commercialization is not the same idea as the principle of Decommmodification, as outlined by BMOrg. That’s just Burner Fundamentalism to me, a holy cow that needs to be sacrificed in the Burn. I bet you behind many 10 Principle Fundamentalists, is a low income ticket – or no ticket.

Decommodification: In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

Even BMOrg themselves admit that they don’t know who the hell Burners are, and Burners don’t know what the fuck all 10 principles are. So it’s not a great guide. It’s certainly not one that we should slavishly follow like a cult, memorizing and reciting and chastising from some holy scripture. Let’s see the party for what it is, and embrace the economics of it, so we can take it to the next level. A rising tide lifts all boats, and a booming Burning Man lifts all Burners. The more art there is, the better the party is going to be. The more patronage there is, the more outrageous art there’s going to be. A better time will be had by all. Wealthy people like their privacy, but don’t think for a moment that just because they’re Anonymous, they’re not all around you at Burning Man.

In order for Burning Man to grow, BMOrg is going to need to share some of the fruits of all our labors. It’s going to need to recognize that there is a massive financial interest in the party, owned by the participants who create it. If they want to make money off the Playa, BMOrg should encourage it; if they want to make money on the Playa, let them, tax it, use that tax for good in the world. Give them a Zone, then symbolically Burn it as part of the ceremony.

Burn Wall Street got an art grant, but not enough to cover it’s estimated $100,000 cost, according to SFWeekly:

The project (estimated cost: $100,000) will erect Wall Street‘s major landmarks in the Black Rock Desert for Burning Man, let participants interact with them for a week, and the blow them up. It’s Otto von Danger’s first foray into political art, and he emphasizes that it is not simply a left-wing statement: Burning Wall Street may be the one thing most Americans agree on.

Wall Street is manipulating the political parties to divide the Tea Parties and the Occupiers when they both want the same thing,” von Danger says. “They think of themselves as enemies when the real enemy is the thing that got them both mad in the first place.”

Burn Wall Street will be anchored by the New York Stock Exchange, which Burners enter by trampling an oversized version of the Bill of Rights; the next door Bank of UnAmerica tower will have volunteers who glue actual foreclosure statements to the façade; the Goldman Sucks building will house a giant jungle gym, allowing the ambitious to climb over each other to reach the view 72 feet up.

Perhaps most delicious is the replica of Zuccotti Park (renamed Tecate, after the beer) where von Danger expects Burning Man participants to camp and hold meetings. Since Burning Man forbids camping in the main art area, Burn Wall Street will periodically encourage actual federal agents (of the real Bureau of Land Management) to clear protesters out.

It will take a crew of about 50 people over two months to build. Spots are still available on the crew, and tax-deductible donations (under the auspices of Veterans for Peace) are needed. (Find out more at

If we can have Wall St and Burn it, why can’t we have an honest to goodness trading mall, and Burn that too. Not to protest, but to enable the artists to come, and fund their presence by sharing their talents, contribute the way that they do best. It doesn’t have to be anywhere in anyone’s face, Burning Man is vast. You can hide it far, far away.

BMOrg can’t pursue a global PR strategy of mainstream TV shows and the world’s biggest newspapers, and at the same time expect that their brand will not become commodified. Pardon me for saying it, but that’s the wrong way to think. It’s like Google not wanting to be associated with the verb, “to Google”.

Embrace the Burning Man brand, and the stories Burners have attached to it from 25 years of self-propelled radical participation. Embrace plug and play camping, it is a natural and desirable consequence of evolution and demographics. Embrace the creative community, and have a “Burner Mall” where people can buy costumes. Stick it on the side of the line going to the gate, or way the fuck down Deep Playa, if BMOrg are worried it will interfere with Kostume Kult. Or just insist that it has to look and feel and be at least as good as Kostume Kult. If your store doesn’t contribute enough art to the party, you get a Burner strike. Three strikes and you’re out – one strike, we’ll forgive you if you pay a penalty donation to the citizens of Gehrlach.

The BMOrg “clarification” of what “is and isn’t allowed” in Plug-n-Play camping, doesn’t really make things clearer. It seems to create categories, where things could fall through the cracks, or whole industries like fashion get shut out – when that’s the very thing people are going for, and the very people you want to go.

BMOrg should treat commerce like the BLM does in the permit – it’s OK, as long as it conforms to other laws, and you pay us a percentage of anything you make on the Playa.

Allowing kids at Burning Man, did not stop people walking around naked with 10″ hardons in penis pumps in 2010 – no, I didn’t get a photo! But we did gift him some free medical advice from a cute doctor. Why do people thinking selling waters, and the like would kill gifting? Why would it commodify the Burning Man brand – and why would that be a bad thing anyway, if Burning Man is a globally oriented non-profit now? Burning Man even had commercial products on display, in 2007 – and gifting goes on.

Having a market would not kill gifting. Having bars that sold drinks, would not kill gifting. Having an area where clothing designers can sell outfits and artists can sell paintings, would not kill gifting. Having VIP seating at a main stage, which camp participants with wrist bands had paid to get access to, would not kill gifting. If anything all of this would encourage gifting.

Having a Burning Man of all poor people, will most likely kill gifting. It may well Burn the man right down to the dust. Whether the wings of the non-profit Phoenix will be strong enough to fly to greatness after that, will be up to the volunteers to decide. There are other ways to help the poor than a party far away in the desert. The rich people won’t be writing too many checks from their foundations to the Burning Man charities, if they don’t want to go to the event because they no longer feel welcome (or they can’t get tickets). If the rich people are gone, there’s a good chance that many of the beautiful people will be gone too. Fashion is fickle.

How does a rich Burner get a hot girl to go with him to Burning Man? Buy her a ticket and transportation, maybe even offer her some form of payment, in exchange for gifting or chores, to compensate the poor sparkle pony for not being at her job for a week. What should the girl be expected to gift in return, if she shows up at the gates with nothing but the clothes on her back? Is it the clothes on her back…or is that a bit crass to expect? Is it some sort of performance? What about picking up moops and cleaning up the camp site? Is this gifting, or just a nice free vacation? Or is it prostitution? Where do you  draw the line of what is “acceptable” gifting, and what isn’t?

It’s too hard. Why even draw lines? It’s Burning Man. It’s rebellious, it’s anarchic…it’s a party! Let’s all make it the best party we possibly can. Just allow everything, get the paperwork and pass the cost of the tax on to the consumers. Competition makes business more efficient, and controlling and elimnating all competition makes bureaucracies stagnate. Even prostitution is legal in Nevada, as long as you have the paperwork. That’s America, and if you want a public event on public lands, you just have to deal with the Rule of Law like everyone else. Schmooze in Washington all you want, but you won’t be able to change the need for paperwork and permits. The more unique and special you try to be, the harder it becomes for the Government Behemoth to get its many hydra heads around what you’re doing. There’s too many moving pieces, too many square pegs trying to be fit into round holes. Make the pegs rounder, and BMOrg’s allies in government will find it easier to make the holes bigger.

Jacob’s Ladder, the Stairway to Heaven

BMOrg, culturally, make the party like nothing that’s ever been before; operationally, make it more like everything else. You can still create culture if the operations are efficient. Take the extra revenue from Plug and Play and merchandise, and use it to tell a story to the plebs through art. This is the way of the patron – the Renaissance way. But don’t suppress the mercantile class. They make good patrons. Don’t make it hard for the serfs to make some money on the side. History’s kind of clear about this stuff. Open economies work better than closed economies. If the whole country prospers, the King prospers the most. If the King has a habit of making outrageous and ill-considered rules, or gets greedy and doesn’t want anyone else to have money or opportunity – the people revolt. The peasants get up in arms, while the rich flee to their seaside villas and compounds. If the merchants take their patronage elsewhere, then the artists do too. If the King builds a Wall like Pink, it doesn’t make him safer – sooner or later the people will scale it. Better for the King to extend a ladder of Hope, a pathway where the creative serfs may one day become nobles themselves, through the quality of their labors and the generosity of their patrons.

Perhaps this is part of the idea of Fertility 2.0 – a seeding of new events, Beyond Burning Man. Burners could enjoy the best of both worlds – an exclusive enclave for the rich, and a free event where food and shelter are gifted to all who need it. One party for hippies, another for the dubstep crowd, another again for the true ravers. And the Black Rock City, whatever that ultimately becomes in it’s non-profit future.

44 comments on “Atlas Shrugged, Meet Lord of the Flies – Part III, the Underground Economy of Art

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  14. You are advocating the gentrification and disneyfication of Black Rock City. It is clear that you do not understand the concept. Artists will flee such a place. Its high time the art became less expensive – throw out the old art cars, get rid of the warehouses and start over, otherwise you’ll have disney and the frat boys will come to vomit all over the place whilst spectating. There won’t be anything to see though. The art will have fled.

    Costumes – who buys them? Make your own, create a vision of who you are or want to be – that’s what costumes are for – they are not to look like identical sparkle ponies. People who sell costumes are not artists, they are the cling-ons like the corporate PR losers who’ve attached themselves to the selling of Burning Man to the mainstream media.

    What a pathetic vision you have of history and culture. You must be a worshiper of wealth. You are obviously disgusted by poverty and would choose to enslave people to the King. You’ve been reading to much Ayn Rand again.

    • the ironic thing about your criticism here, is that you say I am advocating the Disneyfication of Burning Man, and yet you began your tirade against me because I objected to seeing neon corporate branding at Burning Man in the Burn Wall Street piece.

      Which leads to more Disneyfication:

      a) opening the floodgates to corporate brands being displayed as long as there’s an element of satire or irony (no matter how lame, eg Bank of “Un” America, or “Kentucky not Fried Chicken”)

      b) making it easier for Burning Man artists to raise funds from the Burner community?

      Just to be clear, because you seem to be commenting a lot but not getting the point at all, I am against a) and in favor of b)

      Perhaps you see history as the continued victories of the poor and downtrodden? Or a series of events in which serfs triumphed and then everything was roses? Jesus may have been a great carpenter and achieved fame (which got him killed)…but it’s the guys who wrote the book about him that got all the money and power.

      • also, I know you weren’t there this year, maybe you’ve been in previous years, I’m not sure. But the Frat Boys are now at Black Rock City by the thousands, and that’s much more to do with BMOrg’s actions than anything that I’ve written.

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  36. the american economy is in tatters many wealthy philanthrapists cant liquidate assets to buy dinner or pay bills like the other 99%. Charitable donations to humanities etc from upper middle class have dried up for many great causes..several major art cars are close to being broken up for sale or auction. several art car owners cant afford the rent on the warehouses they store let alone repair and replenish for the next harsh burn…thus the need to come up with new ways to raise money away from the playa…..why is theow a party the only accepted way? and if the party is the most importent thing…….?

    • good points. The most important thing are Burners, the sooner Burning Man wakes up and empowers Burners to fund their art however they can do it, then the sooner Burning Man will be back on track to being a thriving, growing party.

  37. Awesome piece and only read part 3 so far.

    I really like the fact that money can’t be spent on the playa. It forces you to plan better or learn because you didn’t plan good enough.

    Find it pretty crazy backlash against burners using their skills and selling their wares off the playa though. I’m with the fundamentalists as far as saying it would be great to not have to sell stuff off the playa, but whilst we live in a world where money rules then its a reality.

    These awesome art cars and installations cost so much money. Would be a shame to see them go, but maybe not too. Perhaps something even more amazing would take its place.

    Keep asking the hard questions Dialogue is everything and nothing should be off limits

    • saving your virgin ass at Opulent Temple put me on this rant about water! Agree with all your points, thanks for the feedback Snorky. Please read the other parts too when you get a chance. Would I have paid $20 for a ride on the Fuck Duck? Probably. Would I have gifted a ride to others? Probably. Does that mean I’m not a “true” Burner? Probably!

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