So far, 2014 doesn’t seem like it’s been a great year for BMOrg. They started the year pretty promisingly, with the announcement that after 2013’s heavy-handed police presence, they’d reached a settlement in their lawsuit with Pershing County. They caved and paid everything the county had initially asked for. The Judge declared the situation “absurd, illegal and mealy-mouthed“, and the local community do not seem to be satisfied.
Next came the big announcement that “Burning Man is now a non-profit”. They basked in the glory of that for a while, until we pointed out that there’s still plenty of profit being made, and in fact a new for-profit organization called “Decommodification LLC” was created to take control of the lucrative trademarks and royalty streams away from their tax-free entity. They had to back pedal and say “the transition will happen soon”, as they have been saying for the last three years. When? In another three years, or so.
The theme announcement was delayed. Ticket information was delayed. STEP was delayed. Burner Express tickets were delayed. The announcement of Art Grant winners was delayed. Larry Harvey blamed the slow-down on quitting smoking.
More recently, they announced the final design for the Temple: “Temple of Descendants”. Then they back-tracked, and said that wasn’t going to happen; now it was going to be David Best again, with “The Temple of Grace”.
What in tarnation is going on over at BMOrg’s fancy new HQ in the Mission? Well, they had 385 art pieces to hang, donated to them by Burners. That’s a bit more important to focus on than our little party. Will Roger hosted a panel discussion in Reno, Danger Ranger hosted one in San Mateo. They hosted another discussion in their offices about living in communes. Larry Harvey went to London and on Charlie Rose. These things take time and resources, and they only have a $9 million/year payroll and contractor budget for the organization (plus another $1.7m for food and travel) . Donate now, they really need your help – their goal for the year is $1 million, which is 6667 scarves. Cold, hard, ca$h, completely independent of their over-the-table and under-the-table tens of millions of party revenues. How many more panel discussions does that buy? We’ll find out…”soon”.
Temple of Descendants organizer Ross Asselstine has written a lengthy post on his site describing what happened (re-posted below with emphasis for discussion). We asked him for further comments; unfortunately, it seems he is still offended by our prior querying of his artistic statement. “I tried. What more do you want from me?”, he says.
The saga is eerily reminiscent of the problems with 2013’s Man Base design. In summary, it seems like the issues were:
– Burning Man demands the artists get their own insurance. This is despite the disclaimers on the tickets and in the survival guide, and also despite the BLM and Pershing County requirements that the promoters have adequate insurance for the event.
– BMOrg insists on owning ALL rights to the art, even though it is temporary and is burned at the end of the event. To be an artist at Burning Man, is to hand your art over for them to profit from it forever. The artist takes the risk and funds it, for BMOrg to profit from.
– BMOrg insists the artists fund everything themselves, and not use the words Burning Man or photos of their previous works at the event in their fundraisers. It appears from Ross’s comments that they would pose additional financial penalties if the art couldn’t be built to their specification in time.
BMOrg’s annual insurance bill is $551,068 (2012). The total amount of money they give to artists is $850,000 (2013), or about $13 out of your $380 ticket. This works out to about $13,000 on average per piece. Last year there were 326 applications for funding, only 63 were awarded fractional grants from BMOrg. There were more than 300 registered art installations on the Playa, as well as hundreds of art cars and sound stages. There were more than 1000 registered theme camps. All of this was funded by Burners, not BMOrg.
Larry Harvey likes to say “at Burning Man, no artists ever sign their art” – presumably because he likes that BMOrg owns the rights to the work, not the artists. In truth, artists like Marco Cochrane, Peter Hudson and David Best promote themselves from the work they do at Burning Man. Their names are very much associated with their Burning Man art. BMOrg seems to turn a blind eye to these more established artists, who hang out with the founders, using the words Burning Man; while the legal team makes life hell for the little guys.
The situation with Burning Man art is different from the rest of the art world. In The Louvre, Leonardo Da Vinci who painted the Mona Lisa gets credited for that. Sure, if I commission Jeff Koons to make a sculpture for me, I own that sculpture and can re-sell it for a profit. But this is throwing a few bucks at the sculptor, telling him he has to buy all the materials himself and raise funds from other patrons…yet I still own 100% of the finished work. He has to bring it to the remote desert gallery and assemble it, also at his own expense. He can’t put his name on it, I will take all the credit for it going forward. And if he doesn’t deliver it in time, he owes me. Plus, he has to buy the insurance for it, my art gallery’s policy doesn’t include any of the art works in the gallery.
It seems like Ross Asselstine is making an effort to do the right thing by his backers, even if BMOrg weren’t trying to do the right thing by him. Why is BMOrg trying to shift the financial burden and insurance risk onto artists? They are the ones with the money and lawyers (and massive insurance cover), not the poor artists. Ross calls them “the benefactor” but they are acting more like “the exploiter”.
From Temple2014.net (emphasis ours):
As noted in the benefactor’s newsletter, I will be returning the funds donated. I have something like ninety emails to send out over the next week.
You all deserve an explanation and my apologies. I’ve not had four months of my life like this before; art is so hard, and I now know that many artists on the playa are more amazing than I ever thought possible. To me: the playa is about the art, artists, the crews and participants that love the art. This is my narrow perspective and will likely always be so even though there is so much more out there.
It comes down to separate messages about different things. I guess I’m up on a little playa dune to speak here. It’s a mixed bag and messy; maybe because these specific pieces each year mean so much to me. They are almost all I’ve ever worked on out there.
A Message to Playa Artists Everywhere:
You’ve heard it before, I will add my voice to the chorus of artists that know how this works best: hold onto the rights to your art. A license of your art to anyone can become anything and everything. I believe that if your art is a gift to the community; then no one should be able to own a long and extensive license to that gift. Limit licenses by time and scope. I don’t know how to protect the unique aspects of the event and eliminate licences to your copyright, but there must be a way.
If you have a car, you have insurance because society requires it; things you don’t want to happen, or can’t image happening, can happen and insurance is for you and people you don’t know. Make sure that insurance is in place for your art to go 60 mph for this reason. It’s out there.
A Message to Benefactors Everywhere:
I will add my voice to a very quiet chorus from benefactors that I admire. You have money and you’ve elected to support artists. Please don’t demand from them a free license to their art in perpetuity or even for a week. You probably already have money, a house, a nice car, a livelihood. Please don’t support the arts by demanding a part of livelihood or position them to take great risks they might not fully understand. Art is a hard enough master, help them. After the work is produced and taken down, maybe the artist will offer you a license. Also: Artists are being turned into merchandisers by “crowd funding” websites: t-shirts, beer holders, necklaces…..we all need them to be artists, not ask them to be the vending machines of recognition.
Definition: Benefactor: a person whose actions benefit another.
A Message to the Community of the Playa:
I think most of you don’t know how the pieces at 12 o’clock get to your event.
There are incredible burdens to deliver the piece: six months of nearly full time effort, artists and their crews have to raise 60-75% of the cost, take that financial risk, thousands of hours of volunteer labor, design a high occupancy building, a fleet of trucks, serious dining facilities, two weeks of hard, hard work before you even arrive, they then assume the risks related to use by the entire event’s population and have to consider whatever insurance is adequate for the community. What a list hmmm? Many think these happen because they just always happen and will always be there because they bought a ticket. Maybe so.
A few years ago I thought I would try to design a place that was appropriate to support, celebrate and honor your needs for your moment on the playa. Over time, a longhouse developed in models. Many have said the design is beautiful. The piece was selected. I was not selected. A dedicated team solved innumerable problems in a hectic month after a late grant notice date. I’ve never seen so many difficult problems solved and crazy issues come together so quickly. We started to joke: “this thing wants to be built”. I was great to move a little model forward to a big mock-up, a place to pre-build, a refined budget, social media, interviews, fundraising started etc etc.
The contract appears to seek to purchase the display and use of the piece the same as any piece of radically expressive art, not what many consider it is: a community service and a gift. This could change very, very simply. People need to ask for it for it to happen.
After a while it was all simply too much. I asked for help from those best able to do so. I was told: “we want to support you in any way we can” but they still required an unlimited license to the art, me to buy all insurance and take every risk related to 60,000 people using and experiencing the piece. Of the entire community, only about 700 people donated two years ago, maybe 1700 people donated last year with a good portion of the funds raised post-event.
After considerable efforts, struggles and loss of sleep, I confirmed I was unable to risk and gift to the extent of the grant contract language.
I think the community is not aware of the back story and does not expect this of any temple builder nor want them to risk so much. If you share this sentiment, I ask for your voice. This could be improved and be equitable in very, very simple ways.
A Message to Playa Benefactors:
I can guess all the playa art started out from a very different perspective from where it is now. You were the only artists at one time. You built a piece in a backyard with friends; I have a big mockup in my backyard right now that I built with friends. Those experiences were decades apart, but probably had the same incredible energy to create something new. No one really knows exactly how we all got from that first backyard to mine, but money, and contracts came into being and a “grant” language was generated where artists surrendered licenses to copyrights. It’s not clear why. Was it promotion? Was it for recognition of the benefactor? Was it just what every benefactor asks for and you just asked for it too? Was this about posters or “derivative works” or coffee table books and writers or photographers with those tools of preservation? Is it really about promotion materials anymore? Or did it just gradually, over time, end up as this thing where it’s something someone can rationalize but don’t recognize the core of its effect? If someone walked into that backyard years ago and said they would give you a small amount of money for a license in perpetuity to your art, what would you have said?
You now own unlimited licenses to decades of art and can give third party licenses of art away without consulting the artist that owns the copyright. You could not buy licenses to a crowd dancing, yelps at the moon, five am conversations about life, tears, laughter, groups hugs, a ride on an art car, dust storms, free smoothies, the roller skating, on and on….why own a license to the art?
Much of the art is gone forever because it was burned, but you own a license to that art. Are the artists able to significantly benefit from that agreement you tabled after their art is gone? Is the relationship disproportional?
It’s possible to “gift” all licenses of art that you have back to all artists. Many artists would probably gift them back to you or a non-profit, some might not….but if so, that would be part of the story wouldn’t it? Can you please consider a “gift” of all art licenses back to the artists or simply declare publicly that you surrender all licenses and third party licenses to all art that you hold rights to?
There is a very good chance that I don’t understand something here because this is too clear and simple an issue for me.
To the Photographers and Videographers of the Playa:
Recognize artists and art crews for what they do. Attribution is participation, support and respect. I love art and photography. I hate the justification of theft or lack of attribution of someone’s work. I’ve made these errors and am trying to improve, it’s simple actually once you start doing it.
My experiences with artists over more than ten years on the playa have primarily been about supporting artists. They do amazing things I can’t do. The process of helping an artist gives me more than I can ever imagine. I get to know an artist by name, the name of the piece, the emotion and passion behind it, live the process, and help give it to the community. There is truly no other experience like it. Please seek this out if you haven’t already; let the art pull you in.
When you see art on the playa you really like, take a picture, but then ask who is the artist, who was the crew, what is the name of piece, how was it built, why was it built, and ask how can you thank them for their work. I guarantee you, that experience will be more fulfilling than just taking a picture and moving on. Artists that do work you like….…are amazing people, they made the piece to get your reaction and recognition. Recognize artists. Their name is not in a photo “caption” it’s “artist:” and maybe after that it’s “photo by:”.
Be careful and respectful: a photograph of someone’s art is not your art to copyright. I know you desperately might want it to be so….but it’s not. Our society defines and recognizes the rights of artists. If you waited for the right light, that perfect moment, and you think you own some copyright to the art, please swing your camera away from the art piece and see what the perfect light can capture and what you can copyright to the right of left. I think that if you approach the artist and ask if you can gift a fantastic image of the piece to them, they may gift something to you.
To Members of The Crew
I apologize. I thought I could do two things at once: 1) get the design, fundraising and pre-build process going and 2) negotiate in a heartfelt and equitable manner with a benefactor that inherently represents the community of the playa as they have the money and the location. I gave it everything. Close friends gave everything. We succeeded on the first item and it turned out the second did not happen in the short time allowed. I had to stop trying because the community needs a place this year.
Crew members old and new put a tremendous amount of work into this over four lightning-quick weeks. I believe we did two months of work in just thirty days. Three very dear friends worked closely with me almost every single day of that month to organize and pull together and pushed a huge range of issues. Others chipped in wherever they could. Everyone was amazing and I believe we were months ahead on many fronts in spite of a late grant notice. By my math, we started five weeks behind because of a late art grant submission date and extended review period. By the end of April we were ready to go like never before. Seriously, we were ready.
I received the grant notice in late March and was reminded that “the temple is not about you”. I responded that I had been on Temple Crew for more than ten years and I understood this completely. A little less than a week later, I received the contract that was all about me.
1) They had asked for this in the submission in February:
“It’s really important that the concept for the (………..) spiritually resonates, and that it’s a shared community art piece. Many see it as our emotional nexus for (……………….) We look for designs that are both intimate and immense – with many small areas (often called altars) for participants to leave tributes, as well as one or more large gathering spaces, holding hundreds (possibly a thousand) at a time.”
I believe they asked for a civic building and not a radical form of self-expression; the design was not about me or one message. I assume that the design met this requirement. I aimed for a design that could hold every emotion and use yet convey the quietest artistic message possible. A beautiful, neutral mental canvas.
2) The opening statement in the contract language was about integrity of each party.
3) I had to raise six figures in donations or risk huge sums coming out of my pocket. The total amount was about equal to a cup of coffee from every ticket holder. Asking for and getting the money from the community for money was on me.
4) If I wanted to make the design fit the budget, the benefactor had the ability to adjust the contract contribution to a lower number: grant money could be taken away from me.
5) Any conceivable risk during the entire period from concept to clean up was on me. If any of 60,000 participants was hurt during the event, it was on me.
Did I know this? . I guarantee you this undertaking requires an incredible optimist. I kept moving. We all have friends well outside the playa community and we strive to explain how much the playa means to us. Slowly, people that cared enough to question me, asked about the hard reality of what the contract required vs my emotional purpose. “Ross…..really?!”
I went back to the benefactor that had asked for the “community art piece”. I said I understood the contract was probably initially drafted for all the wildest art we all enjoy out there: the artist’s intent, scope, scale and risk were defined by the artist and these issues were documented as such. This piece could not be a card table with a little shade under it or ninety foot tall flaming bowl of Tater-Tots. I asked for their understanding as I thought it was a different type of project whose parameters were roughly defined by a recognized civic purpose and the increasing scale of the community. It’s been a big building for years, we need shade and scale. I asked questions:
1) I cannot find adequate insurance, can you put this piece and my name on your insurance policy?
2) Can I just get insurance for the volunteers until we gift the building to the community and then you can insure the risk related to the community use?
3) Can you consider that I may be temporarily out of pocket tens of thousands of dollars until the community donates adequate funds?
4) I’m having a hard time understanding what amount of insurance will be adequate to address the risk related to 60,000 people using the building. What would you do?
5) If I can’t be on your insurance policy can you be on mine? I feel the need to have someone stand with me. Is that fair?
6) Can you change the contract to suit what is a civic gift rather than radical self-expression?
These types of questions were generally met by deflecting or clinical comments like: we are very firm on our grant language, contact this insurance agent, the temple is not for the faint of heart, we will do everything we can to help you. They were somewhat understanding but did not move. In the end it was about me, the contract, and a benefactor that I think has a very different concept of what this community art piece is, and ultimately, what is a reasonable burden on that artist.
There are sneaky ways around or within many things in contracts. It’s been said that “any contract is only as good as the person that wants to live by it”. Maybe I could have done innumerable things by disingenuous meathods to go forward. I looked at the mock-up in the backyard, the video we made, my dearest friends that had carried the ball with me and done all of the work over a crazy month, the opening paragraph of the contract and then……..across the table.
“Spiritually resonates, a shared community art piece, our emotional nexus, and integrity”. I agree.
There are times when you have nothing to risk and everything to gain. Much of the amazing art on the playa is based on new artists that have little to lose and lot to gain from the amazing audience on the playa. I’ve seen lives change in a wonderful way. You could read all this and guess it was all about insurance and my family losing something in a lawsuit. Yes, I could not risk and gift that much. A large part of this was about gain though…… I am similar in a different way, I had nothing to lose by not doing art, and this was linked to gain for others. In my mind, I saw what the community and future “community art piece” artists could gain by asking for something from a place of heartfelt community interest and sense of fairness. Maybe it was just my turn to step up and ask again after every other artist struggled with the obvious and painful choices.
I asked many times. The benefactor said no. I could not sign the contract.
I think many mistakes were made. Many of them were my own and I’m in my second week of apologies on the phone, in person and, driving hours to have beers around a fire in a backyard until two in the morning trying work it all out with dear, dear friends. This has been very hard. I made mistakes, and have run through everything numerous times in my head. I will keep working through the apologies.
Descendants: is that us or the people after us? I have no clue if Descendants will ever happen, it really doesn’t matter. Maybe it was meant to do this work and it’s done. Maybe it will stay in a cardboard box with the little light and four holes, and this page of text is it’s contribution to the community.
The shared community art piece each year is about many things including helping others work through difficult times by contributing to the effort make a place for them in that moment. A different piece will be built this year to do just that. The Crew will form the work again this year for the community and you, The Crew, will make a difference as you always have when you were asked to help.
I am working with others to draft what we believe is an equitable agreement for this community art piece in future years, and who knows, maybe this year. This will be posted here in about a week or so. Maybe in the future, all the work this last month or so will be one small part of the incredible efforts so many have made over the many, many years we’ve all been on the playa.
Thank you for taking the time to read through this. I will step off the little dune now.
– Ross Asselstine
Commenter erratic expressed the insurance problem very well:
“Hello, Allstate? Hi, I’m looking for a little coverage for an art installation I’m doing and I’d like you to start running some numbers for me. Great!, thanks….Well, it’s a wood structure of unique and untested design around 5 or 6 thousand square feet in size and maybe three or four stories high, preferable made with discarded and donated materials, built by an all volunteer crew with no building permit or government oversight in an extreme environment with winds that can exceed 70 mph, it will generate some 200,000 visits over the week, a good many of them people enjoying some level of intoxication, will be surrounded by unregistered vehicles, many of which spout fire, with a volunteer security force and then we will intentionally burn it down…what? Yes I did say intentionally…in front of a tightly packed crowd of about 40,000 people some of which will stroll or bike through the flaming embers over the course of the night and then…hello?…hello?….