Souk On This!

Burning Man have launched “”, written by Larry Harvey. If this is a glimpse of where they are going artistically with their new web site, then I like it. They’ve also started a Pinterest, to give you some costume and decoration ideas.

This year the Man is going to be surrounded by a market arcade, a bazaar of vendors. It sounds similar to Center Camp. There will be music, but no amplified sound. Instead of walking through the Man base like recent years, you will be walking through the market around The Man. Is this symbolic of a new, post-profit, marketplace-oriented Burning Man 2.0? 

For many years the Burning Man has stood atop an art pavilion. Since 2011, a Circle of Regional Effigies, known as CORE, has surrounded this interactive art environment. Originally arrayed in one great circle, these large-scale sculptures were meant to represent the many communities of Burning Man. Spearheaded by Regional Contacts, this project dramatized the continuing expansion of Burning Man’s culture; it formed a perfect metaphor. It is one thing to hear that there are colonies of burners vaguely floating like a vapor in the greater world, but it is quite another for thousands of people to witness this movement made manifest by the creative collaboration of living, breathing groups of people.

In 2012, Burning Man’s art department reconfigured this array by clustering these projects in smaller scaled circles. The nearly half-mile span of one large circle meant that most people could experience very few of these simultaneous burns, but now participants could witness several at one time. This also affected the experience of the regional groups themselves. Rather than labor in the relative isolation produced by one large circle, each group now inherited a neighborhood: a place in which resources could be shared and fellowship with nearby regionals could thrive.

2014’s art theme, Caravansary, will extend this logic one step further by merging CORE with the interactive art pavilion of the Burning Man. Our plan is to bring the Man back down to the ground, closely encircle it with a tented pavilion framing a courtyard, and invite our regional communities to co-create this space. ..

Getting together in the courtyard all seems nice enough. There’s more, though. Much more. Commerce: the Eleventh Principle.

Larry reminds us of the statement in the theme announcement:

 “This is not a tourist destination, but a home for travelers who come here bearing gifts. Amid the twisting and the turnings of its souk, participants will come upon an inexhaustible array of teeming goods and unexpected services. Anyone may pose as ‘merchant’ here, and anyone may play a ‘customer’, but nothing in this strange emporium shall have a purchase price — no quid, no pro, no quo — no trade at all will be allowed in this ambiguous arcade. According to a rule of desert hospitality, the only thing of value in this marketplace will be one’s interaction with a fellow human being.”

…We may conceive this as appropriating the culture and the manners of traditional marketplaces such as one might find in a bazaar, while simultaneously regarding every article of commerce as a gift, a sort of decommodity. This is premised on an essential idea: the value of a gift is unconditional. Gifts in this conception do not pass from hand to hand, they pass from heart to heart; it’s not that we possess a gift; it is that it possesses us, and therein lays its transformational power. Gifts may therefore be said to be bearers of being, and for purposes of play within our souk, this signal fact shall be regarded as a “trade secret.”

Translated into practice, this means that it is perfectly okay to employ all means of salesmanship involved in soliciting “business” or extoling a “product.” But it is emphatically not okay to entertain any form of exchange value. A gift may be given, and a gift may be received, but true gifts cannot be trammeled by a self-regarding expectation. For example, should someone offer a gift to a merchant, that merchant has the option to accept it — graciously receiving gifts is a part of the art of gifting. But should the giver then demand things in return, this is, while not a sin, most certainly a breach of etiquette. As this example suggests, our interactive premise has one foot planted in the culture of gifting, and another firmly fixed in the customs of commerce. Discovering that subtle and wavering line that distinguishes these two value systems will be a large part of the fun.


So there you have it. Burning Man is about commerce.

Now that BMOrg is dressed up as a non-profit, with the founders looking to cash out for big buck$, commerce is becoming integral to the Burning Man ethos and culture. We’ve gone from “all commerce is banned” to “we never said we were against commerce” to “commerce just has to co-exist with other principles like Gifting”.

If you walk through Downtown San Francisco at lunch time, you will encounter all manner of vendors touting their scause, which they will happily inform you about for free without the expectation of you giving them anything in return. Just time and attention – and, if they’re lucky, conversion to their viewpoint. Was this the inspiration for the souk? Some people might love this. It’s a chance for hipsters to make new friends! Others might find it intrusive – “charity beggars” was a term for the touts I learned today from Facebook. Larry’s description of the bazaar suggests all of these touts would be welcome, indeed, encouraged. What will the merchants be hawking in the souk? 23 and Me? Bitcoins? Burning Man Project scarves

Unlike the large-scale sculptural projects …participation in the Caravansary can be made widely accessible to many different kinds of people. There is really no logical end to the various roles and activities that can be contributed to this effort. For example, in any normal marketplace businesses must always train a very careful eye on their competitors. And for purposes of burlesque, these faux shops may satirize the manners of capitalism, sending out touts to befriend customers or using barkers to attract attention. It really wouldn’t be amiss to advertise a shop as “Going Out of Business.”

Yet this satirical facade will also mask a deep collaboration, a cooperative spirit that is the opposite of competition. The Burning Man Project will create an Internet discussion list that will allow regional groups to share ideas. We also anticipate that participants in this project will continue to improvise and elaborate around emergent practices innovated by fellow groups throughout the course of the event. By this method we can transform our Caravansary into a real community within our city’s greater community, an actual culture that evolves from day to day. 


Inside the tents, the shops will all be laid out the same way. Tenants can decorate them differently. If you’re from a Burning Man Regional, better bring enough local inventory with you to give away tchotchkes to 70,000 people! And enough staff to work the market 24/7 for a week. “It may take you hours to find out what the price of anything is going to be”, says Larry. “The merchant might want to invite you back to his home for dinner with his family”. Larry is going to have a shop there, he is very enthusiastic about this. I’d love to know how many hours he ends up actually putting into working the customers at the House of Larry souk vestibule.

dutch_cheese_marketThe architecture of the Caravansary will feature tents that form a circular arcade. These will be divided into two equal parts. Vestibules in the forepart of each tent will form cushioned public lounges that face the Caravansary’s central plaza. Behind these we will house our shops. Fronted by ornamental screens indented by counters and provided with side entrances, these capacious spaces may be subdivided and most certainly should be furnished and decorated by our shopkeepers. The things that might be offered by these shops may include services, both useful and strange, amenities, such as cooling beverages or tea, and performances. In the spirit of Radical Inclusion, drop-in contributions by the general public should be welcomed whenever appropriate. Furthermore, we encourage participants to preserve the spirit and history of the original CORE movement by creating gifts that represent the identity of their home communities.

 Performances conceived by local groups are also welcome (with the exception of DJ’s and bands that employ amplified sound — our arcade is a place for conversation). By these means the antic life created by our Caravansary can become a conduit of Regional culture.–by Larry Harvey

Larry Harvey goes into some detail about the thinking behind Caravansary in this speech from the Burning Man Global Leadership Forum 2014. “If everyone does this, it’s going to be the most meaningful and interactive thing, at the heart of the event, that’s ever happened”. Perhaps. Or, it could be like the Black Friday chaos, except everything’s free instead of being discounted, there’s no security, and none of the staff get paid.

BMOrg are offering grants of up to $1,000 to Souk participants. This works out to about 1 cent for each person in the city. I suspect some supply chain issues. We may need to airlift in some more challah.

Vendors need to submit their proposals by June 9:

Grants will be awarded to selected Souk proposals, to a maximum of $1,000. Awardees will also be eligible for a limited number of gift tickets, vehicle passes, and early arrival passes. Funds, tickets, and passes will be issued only to a Regional Contact or to a project lead that one of our Regional Contacts vouches for.

Your proposal should include:
. An overview of how you intend to use the Souk space
. An estimate of your peak operating hours – whether your space will be primarily daytime, nighttime, or around-the-clock
. An interactivity plan
. A Leave No Trace (LNT) plan
. Desired amount of Souk space (12×12, 12×24, 12×24, or 12×50)
. A rough sketch of how your space will be laid out 

Deadline for proposals is Monday, June 9th at 10 PM Pacific Time
Send your proposal and any questions to

I’m not sure if Larry Harvey, Marian Goodell, or any of the other bright sparks at Burning Man have ever worked in retail. I have, and this doesn’t seem very practical to me. It’s hard to provide an acceptable level of one-on-one interaction to even 3 customers at once, let alone 70,000. It’s not easy doing an 8-hour retail shift, and this will be in one of the busiest markets on the planet. Hot, cold, windy, dusty, no bathrooms, no air conditioning, no stock room, no boss to complain to, no sales commissions…BYO food and water.

2010-06-14-fortune-teller-internet-Zuckerberg-600The focus of the Souk is designed to be one-to-one or small-group interaction, playing on the themes of social commerce, experiential exchange, and gifting. In keeping with the spirit of the Ten Principles, no one should ever expect a gift, nor should the giver ever expect anything in return. While we intend to play with the notion of commerce, the real thing is, of course, completely unacceptable. And therein lies the fun of our “decommodity mart,” a place where things beyond value come to be not-bought and not-sold.

The Souk will be open around the clock from Monday at 12:01 AM through Friday at 5:00PM. Your design and interactivity plan should anticipate 24-hour operation. If your space is going to be unstaffed at any point, consider offering self-serve options for “do it yourself” interactivity while your team is away, for instance a “gift one, leave one box,” or a photo-op background.

We hope it’s great, rather than yet another art project envisioned around heavy street theater that fizzles due to inadequate organization (like Burn Wall Street, which was originally going to have bank tellers). I’ve been to some actual souks in the middle east and it is full on, those markets are crowded, noisy, aggressive, and smelly – full of pickpockets and shoplifters. Lock up yer bikes!

3 comments on “Souk On This!

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