Disneyfication, Anyone?

This is a guest post from Burner Jill Marlene, picking up on some of our previous posts about the ever-growing divide between Burning Man (the Organization) and the artists who create the 1000+ theme camps, hundreds of art installations, and 600+ art cars every year. This year there were 326 applications for funding for Burning Man art grants. BMOrg distributed $850,000 to 63 projects. This was conveniently rounded up to $900,000 in the Chronicle with Burning Man’s own special style of accounting, but here at Burners.Me we like to call a spade a spade, and we like to call 850 grand, 850 grand. The official sales numbers are 61,000 tickets (out of a potential 68,000 population max), the remaining 7,000 are either handed out free to VIPs, sold in “off the books” transactions, or just not used at all. The official gate total this year is $23, 230, 000 – so the amount of your ticket dollars that go into supporting art at Burning Man is 3.6%, or about $13.68 of your $380 ticket.

Although this $850,000 of grants was a new record,  it means an average of $13,492 per chosen project – barely enough to get the artists, build crews and artworks out to the Playa. This year there are 372 registered art works, so 309 of them have nothing to do with BMOrg and are entirely Burner-funded – and even the 63 winning projects are still mostly funded by Burners, not BMOrg.

We’re all getting excited to go to Burning Man, we want it to be one big happy love fest of course. When you look around and see all this amazing art, and hear this amazing music, think about who’s paying for it – and before you hate on the people in the nice RVs, ask yourself how much have you yourself contributed to these art projects? Does the fact that someone gave more, somehow make their contribution worth less? That’s as nonsensical as “people in RVs aren’t self reliant”. Funding art projects is participation. And, quite often, self-expression.

Our position is that BMOrg should encourage artists as much as possible. Help them make money, rather than chase them down for “copyright violations” – while BMOrg exploits the art and cashes in (over and above their $23 million at the gate) with photo shoots,  movie royalties, and YouTube revenues. Sure, Burning Man is a successful event, they deserve to make money, they’re entitled to. Good for them. But do they really need to be the ONLY ones making money? Burning Man is made by we Burners, and the Burners should get help, not hatred. If a Burner artist makes money away from the Playa, this is not taking money out of BMOrg’s pocket. A rising tide lifts all boats, and a thriving sub-community of artists+musicians, fashion designers and makers is only going to be a good thing for the party going forward.

Art and bureaucracy don’t mix. But art and money can, and have since time immemorial.

Some of the comments to this post suggest that an artist was commissioned for a design, worked on it for 15 months, and didn’t get paid a cent, a Bitcoin, a peso, a free ticket, some chocolate, nothing. That is just wrong – lift your game BMOrg, or at least have the cojones to come here and defend your actions (rather than the usual “<crickets>” or ad hominem/straw man attacks that we cop from your anonymous Kool Aid-drinking cyber-drones).

logical fallacies


Fuck your Function.  Erosion of Hard Art and the Disneyfication of Burning Man.

By;  Jill Marlene,  w/ Lewis Zaumeyer and Brian Smith In honor of the disenfranchised artists and contributors of ManBase.


Cargo Cult Man Base design, Lewis Zaumeyer

The principles of Burning Man vie for supremacy in a dialectic battle. This gives rise to conflict that is deeply philosophically rooted.  Radical expression, inclusiveness and self- reliance dance around and with one another- at any point juxtaposed so as to appear as incongruent or even ‘opposite  to’ one another:.  As is the case with all seemingly contradictory values, there is a tension.  When that tension is treated as a possible catalyst of evolution, the symbiosis of polarities is revealed and a new form is born.  That is hard art.

Burning Man’s explicit values have set it apart as festivals go.  These principles insinuate a way of life: A set of ideas, which can be transformative when applied.   As a result of the challenging nature of values that appear to be contradictory, people respond to them in different ways.  Some are more drawn to the radical inclusiveness, others to the expression and others are most drawn to decommodification and the way that encourages us to value things based on their meaning to us in the context rather than their dollar value.  Decommodification brings the exchange of gifts into the interaction. The impact of such a philosophy is that it attempts to liberate us and art from the lowest common denominator; it’s assessed monetary value.

Art at burning man has been inclusive of danger.  For many who have evolved with burning man, it is the element of ‘danger’ or pushing the envelope, socially, physically and philosophically that makes Burning Man the safest place for Hard art.  Architect Lew Zaumeyer has been an integral part of creating some of  the festival’s most iconic art .  He and Campmate and Co Creator Brian Smith have participated in the inception, design and erection of the Man base for several years.  According to what I have been able to gather in listening to conversations amongst the man base crew, the question, in creating a Man Base, appropriate to such a gathering, has not been  “what is easy?”  or “what is safe?” but, “What is POSSIBLE?”  This year, the organization has decided to choose the easy way.  Plans were submitted for a stunning, complex,  yet achievable design, but the powers that be- in their insulated circle- opted for the safe and politically expedient way.

At an organizational level, a participant such as myself may be thought to have no real understanding of the machinations of the behemoth that Burning Man as an organization has become.  In speaking with Lew and Brian, however, and with what I have witnessed in my short ten years as a member of the community, there is a growing concern for the erosion of the social and artistic function of burning man. This erosion represents a massive violation of the basic principles of BM.

Smith calls it “Disneyfication”.  He recalls it beginning about the time when Burning Man began to become a commodity itself.  He remembers a time when ‘copyright’ was not on the lips of folks at every organizational meeting and when friendship, history, artistic vision and participation were rewarded with influence and commitment to discovering a shared goal.  This community valued members who were pushing the envelope.  It is understandable that the rejection of basic and beloved, even “sacred” principles by those who are in control  at a bureaucratic level does not reflect the original intentions of Burning Man.

According to Mr. Zaumeyer, “The founders should realize that, as they hand over the reins of their legacy to some managers who have not endeavored to create Art as their vocation, those managers will not have the capacity to effectively manage those who are dedicated to artistic integrity.”  He continues,  “There are two focus areas of the event, infrastructure and the creation of Art. The infrastructure can be managed by a particular style that produces efficiency. But if the Artists become increasingly frustrated and demeaned by bureaucratic blocking they will stop participating. The result is the event will become little more than a KOA costume party, devoid of any important or exhilarating experiences. Fear based behavior never leads anyone to freedom and freedom of expression is the essential attraction to Burning Man.”

House of Cards, Lew Zaumeyer [click for more funny literal images]

House of Cards, Lew Zaumeyer [click for more funny literal images]

Lew and Brian feel that this “Disneyfication”  should be called into question.  They, among others committed to the longevity of Burning Man as a place dedicated to art and its artists outside mainstream appeal,  have been able to maintain a fairly purposeful and integrated vision. They have chosen to stand in opposition to expectation and comfort if only to keep the door open for dangerous or ‘hard’ art to still have a place in spite of the homogenization happening around them.

Brian elucidated that the individuals who “started copyrighting things are now the ones running it”.  As a result, the kettle is tainted. The sense of risk and radical expression is being eroded by monied interest and bureaucracy.  Artistic voices are silenced when the bureaucracy determines the artistic direction of Burning Man.

When something beautiful becomes co-opted by something selfish and short sighted, and it is used, usurped and claimed, it is painful to watch for those who fought for the integrity of the vision. Its evolution as a pluralistic movement rather than a “show” put on by a few who have found a formula that festival goers seem to want to “buy” is key to its integrity.   While there are no direct corporate sponsors visible on the ground in BRC, the commodification is there.  Burning man has become its own brand.  It has fallen into the trap of becoming beholden to form and forgetting the function.  Art has the capacity to do many things for the human condition.  We are manipulated.  We are inspired. We are moved, our affect is changed and and we can see old things in new ways.  Without artists transcending the bureaucracy, this diminishes.  When the schema of burning man and its icons no longer challenge the observer, it is no longer functional as transformative, “dangerous” art… it is commodity.

16 comments on “Disneyfication, Anyone?

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  3. It’s 2014 and our art team has been shut out of any help from BMORG. We were self funded for all of our past projects and last year’s project cost over $5,000. This year we would have minded a little help even if only in a ticket as a sign of good faith. Aside from our current feeling of sour grapes we have learned that this festival continues to embark in cronyism, the same inner circle of artists will be funded for 2014. Further to that, knowing how little goes toward art at this art festival is discouraging. BM has become an exercise in how to facilitate a big party to the vacuous masses.

  4. Wow. I have heard this before and it makes me just as sad when I hear it. Why? Because people like me know better. I have been doing massive projects since 2005 with a major theme camp I won’t name. Have we ever gotten funding from the ORG? No. Are we sad about that? No. We do it for the love of the event. The love of the people, just to blow your mind. Financially, there are some major investors that make much of what we do happen but most importantly our community supports us. Nobody ever had a gun to our head saying we had to make all these things happen.

    That being said, anyone that has thrown a festival that reads this obviously knows the costs involved. Expand that times 60000 plus people and add several weeks of production. Now include expenses for managing a year round endeavor and wow. The numbers really get amazing (if you ever want to see those numbers read the afterburner report).

    The ORG has its faults to be sure. They are human and they make mistakes. Are they all living on the beach sipping margaritas the rest of the year on your ticket money? Good grief of course not. Are there salaried positions? Of course! Are there volunteers? Of course! But to say this organization is corrupt and steals gate money for whatever? Come on. These people have dedicated there lives to this event; as some of us have. To say these people are corrupt is to insinuate that hundreds of people are all in n this big conspiracy to make millions for themselves.

    Now copyright stuff. Of course you can’t use the burning man name to make money. No advertising. No selling out. If everyone involved started using the burning man name to further themselves what would the event be? We don’t do this to make money. And anyone who has tried knows that it’s silly to think you can. If you think that it’s wrong that the org doesn’t pay you for your projects, don’t do the project! If you think so badly of the event stay home or do a project that satisfies you. If you, like me trust that the people that make burning man happen at the very least have at the best interest of the event at heart we will continue to make the burn a dream we all get to be a part of.

    For many of us, Burning Man is our church. It is our way of life. It has helped us realize dreams we never thought possible and inspired us. It has tested us, given us opportunities to love, laugh, cry, and experience this in ways others could never understand. It was a major contributor to the man I am today, and has given me an extended family I never knew was possible. However you describe this place; one word sums it all up. Home.

    Bobos Bayou

  5. Update from previous posts:
    Lewis Zaumeyer received a “paid in full” check from BM org in the mail on 9/7/13. This is right.

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  10. I suspect it’s probably too much to expect an adherence to principals by most US citizens when the almighty dollar comes into play.

    I have the impression the Bmorg like to pretend they’re above slavering for filthy lucre but in reality…..

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  12. Thank you for taking the time to write this, Jill. It speaks volumes. It speaks truth. And, everyone that wants to keep participating in this event should read this and start caring about what’s happening.

    • I would also like to add that Lew has STILL not been compensated for his man base design. He worked 15 months on it. BM, feel free to do the right thing at anytime.

  13. Only the BMORG has the moral fibre to withstand great wealth. The rest of us would be corrupted or corrupt if we had money. We serfs should be grateful to our betters.

  14. It’s been my understanding that this has been standard operating procedure for ®Burning Man.
    This silly fest has been fully corporate since it stopped being a free event. Might as well have a huge “Sponsored by Absolut Vodka and Redbull” Sign.

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