Today’s headline in the SF Bay Guardian:
Burning Man jumps the shark
How a high-minded countercultural experiment ended up on everyone’s bucket list
08.19.14 | Steven T. Jones
Steven Jones (Scribe) wrote an excellent book in 2011 called the Tribes of Burning Man. He’s a veteran Burner, and has also covered the event for a long time at the SF Bay Guardian.
Burning Man is the cover story of their latest issue, and like San Francisco Magazine, Vanity Fair, and Salon before them, they have declared that it is official: what three years ago Scribe described as “the premier counter-cultural event of modern times”, has now jumped the shark and become a caricature of its former self.
It’s not all bad:
let me be clear that Burning Man is still one of the greatest parties on the planet. The Black Rock Desert is a spectacular setting, much of the art created for Burning Man each year is innovative and mind-blowing, and the experience of spending a week in a commerce-free, open-minded temporary city can truly be transformative, especially for those doing it for the first time
He sees shark-jumping as perhaps a philosophical question, which is interesting since Larry Harvey is now Burning Man’s CPO – Chief Philosophy Officer.
The question of when Burning Man jumped the shark is a matter of perspective, or perhaps it’s a philosophical question, but these are waters worth wading into as burners pack up this week for their annual pilgrimage to the playa.
The meme that Burning Man has jumped the shark — that is, that it’s gotten ridiculous or strayed from its original ethos — circulated more strongly this year than most after conservative firebrand Grover Norquist last month tweeted that he was “off to ‘Burning Man’ this year. Scratch one off the bucket list.”
But burners and media commentators have been saying it for years, sparked by developments ranging from the increasingly top-down control over a temporary city built with volunteer labor from the bottom-up to the sheer scale and inertia of an event that is now pushing 70,000 participants.
True. I first went to Burning Man in 1998, and already people were saying “it was better last year”. To me, I think Malcolm in the Middle was a shark-jumping moment for the party, as funny as the episode was. South Park’s epsiode with Cartman and Satanic god Cthulhu burning all the hippies at Burning Man was the pinnacle of Burning Man’s cool factor. After that, we had the ever increasing media blitz, where the Vogue photo shoot was followed closely by the Krug dinner and the Spark Movie. Spark will be screening on Showtime this Thursday night – just to get Burners super-excited for their trip(py) home.
Burning Man Founder John Law was over the whole thing by 1996:
John Law, who co-founded the artsy Nevada desert bacchanal, walked away from Burning Man after the deadly and chaotic 1996 event, believing that the commercial and regulatory structure that followed was antithetical to the countercultural, DIY values on which burner culture was based.
The population of Black Rock City then doubled in size within two years, and doubled again within four more, prompting some burners to say 30,000 people — including a growing number of straight-laced newbies drawn by mainstream media coverage — was just too many.
At the end of 2004, dozens of the event’s marquee artists and performers launched a high-profile revolt against how Black Rock City LLC was running the event (see “State of the art,” 12/20/04). “The fix must address many issues, but the core issue for the fix is the art,” they wrote in a petition that ran as a full-page ad in the Guardian. “Art, art, art: that is what this is all about.”
But little changed. Burning Man had caught fire and the LLC was more interested in stoking the flames than controlling the conflagration. It promoted more regional burns around the world, created new offshoot organizations to spread the burner art and ethos, consolidated control of the brand and trademarks, and spelled out the “Ten Principles” that all Burning Man events would live by.
The burner backlash against that trend took many forms, but the most fiery dissent came on Monday night during the 2007 Burning Man when Paul Addis torched the eponymous Man to bring the chaos back to an event that he felt had grown too staid and scripted.
Burner officialdom responded by simply building a new Man and helping secure a four-year federal prison sentence for Addis — both decisions made without soliciting any input from the larger burner community. Coming after some corporate-style chicanery earlier that year involving control of the event’s trademark and logo, that’s when Burning Man seemed to peak, like the ramp that launched Fonzie over the sharks.
We’ve covered some of the John Law and Paul Addis legal run-ins with BMOrg in:
Now Scribe gets into the crux of the matter: why say now that it has jumped the shark, when a Giant Man is being built and the event is nearly 30 years old?
if jumping the shark is an idiom based on when things get really ridiculous, a point at which self-awareness withers and something becomes a caricature of what it once was, then the events of 2007 were just warm-up laps for the spectacle to come.
when an organization asserts a set of high-minded utopian values, it’s only fair to judge it by those standards. And when it claims the economic value of the labors of tens of thousands of voluntary participants as its own company assets, questions of accountability and commodification naturally arise.
Exactly. They tell us we’re making the world a better place, OK then…some of us want to know how. We want to see some evidence, not just hear appeal-to-the-masses rhetoric.
For example, Burning Man has always asserted the value of “Decommodification,” which is one of its Ten Principles: “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.”
Yet the LLC has closely guarded its control over the Burning Man name, logo, images, and associated brands, resisting efforts to place them in the public domain and even waging legal battles against longtime burners who try to use them, including a current conflict with Canadian burners over how much the company can control a culture there that it didn’t actually create.
Licensing of the Burning Man brand and images has been a secret source of income for the company, which doesn’t publicly disclose its revenues, only its expenditures. In recent years, those brands and commodities have been transferred to a new entity controlled by the original six LLC board members, ironically named Decommodification LLC.
We’re not sure that all expenditures are completely disclosed in the Afterburn reports. The non-profit entities must file public documents, and from them we can see the charities all have substantial annual expenses for accounting, legal, rent, and travel – all areas that are also large numbers in Burning Man’s Afterburn financial charts. It’s not clear if the expenses of their charitable subsidiaries are lumped together with BMOrg costs in the Afterburn expenses. The various charities charge other members of the group for consulting, and claim consulting costs as program services. Decommodification, LLC’s payments are not disclosed, and neither are the cash-out amounts to the founders. They have effectively sold Black Rock City, LLC to themselves, operating from a tax-free non-profit called the Burning Man Project. We have covered this here:
The Great Cash Out (guest post from reader A Balanced Perspective)
The value of these transactions is potentially in the tens of millions of dollars. No wonder Larry and Anti-Tax campaigner Grover Norquist are such good buddies.
Next, Scribe turns his attention to the Tin Principles. Tin in the sense that they are very malleable, and can be bent in whatever direction suits the upper echelon of this organizational structure. We’re told “it’s the dynamic tension between conflicting principles that makes them so good”, or some such waffle.
Some of the other Burning Man principles can seem just as farcical, including Radical Inclusion (“No prerequisites exist for participation in our community,” except the $380 ticket), Communal Effort (but “cooperation and collaboration” apparently don’t apply to decisions about how the event is managed or how large it gets), and Civic Responsibility (“We value civil society,” says the organization that eschews democratic debate about its direction and governance structure).
Meanwhile, Harvey and company have promised greater transparency and accountability at some future point, through The Burning Man Project, a nonprofit organization formed a few years ago ostensibly to take over running the event from BRC LLC
But it hasn’t exactly rolled out that way. As I’ve reported, the original six board members have maintained tight control over all aspects of the event, appointing new nonprofit board members mostly for their fundraising ability and willingness to toe the company line, rather than seeking representation from the various constituent burner communities.
Even then, with a board hand-picked for its loyalty (which apparently goes both ways, given how the LLC has supported hagiographic Burning Man film and book projects by two of its new nonprofit board members), Harvey still remains wary of “undue meddling” by the new board, as he put it to me.
That’s the nature of this machine they’ve created inside our event. Not even its self-appointed Board can meddle with it.
On top of that sundae, add the cherry that is Harvey’s public admission that all six board members have, as part of this transition, awarded themselves large financial settlements in amounts that will never be disclosed, and one might expect burners to revolt.
But they haven’t. Most just don’t care about these internal company dynamics (except for a few brave souls at the excellent Burners.me blog), no matter how questionable, as long as their beloved Burning Man still happens on schedule. And that’s why I think Burning Man has truly jumped the shark, launching from the ramp of a high-minded experiment and splashing down into the tepid waters of mass-consumed hedonism.
Hey, that’s us! Aw, shucks. Right back atcha, mate.
Scribe voices something that I think is on the mind of many Veterans:
Today, almost every bucket list on the Internet — those things that everyone is advised to do before they die — includes Burning Man. It has become the ultimate commodity, a product that everyone, from all walks of life, is encouraged to consume. Doing so is easier than ever these days.
After tickets sold out for the first time ever in 2011 — and a flawed new ticketing system unilaterally created by the LLC in 2012 triggered widespread criticism and anxiety — the company opted to just increase the population of Black Rock City by more than 20 percent, peaking at 69,613 last year.
Everyone felt the difference. Popular spots like the dance parties at Distrikt on Friday afternoon or Robot Heart at dawn on Saturday reached shit show proportions, with just way too many people. And this year will be more of the same.
In the old days, going to Burning Man was difficult, requiring months of preparation with one’s chosen campmates to create internal infrastructure (shade, showers, kitchen, etc.) and something to gift the community (an art car, a bar, a stage and performances to fill it, etc.).
But with the rise of plug-and-play camps in recent years, those with money can fly into Black Rock City and buy their way into camps that set up their RVs, cook their meals, stock their costumes and intoxicants, decorate their bikes, and clean it all up at the end. Such camps have become a source of employment for entrepreneurial veteran burners, but they cut against the stated principles of Participation and Radial Self-Reliance.
And what of the Founders? They’re not planning on going anywhere. They seem to be sitting in the same chairs and performing the same roles within BMOrg, and are building that up as a new organization with a new strategic objective. Their focus seems not so much on this party that they’ve thrown quite a few times already, as it is on all the other parties they now want to go to and link into it (and own under the one brand).
While LLC board member Marian Goodell told me that “we’re big into listening mode at the moment” as they decide what’s next for Burning Man, she also claims to have heard no concerns from burners about the event’s current size or direction, and she denies the nonprofit transition was ever about loosening their grip on the event.
“We’ve never talked about turning Burning Man back to the community,” Goodell told me last week, accusing me of misinterpreting comments by Harvey when he announced the transition, such as, “We want to get out of running Burning Man. We want to move on.”
Marian’s statements hark back to the time before all these LLC’s and legal fees, when Burning Man was very much in the hands of the community. The 6 people who are cashing out of it now – but remaining seated at the table – were the ones who turned it away from the community after about ten years, and into their own hands via a corporate structure. They sold this LLC at the start of this year. To themselves. Creating a non-profit foundation which they completely control is just like Bill Gates and the Rockefellers did before them. Their table for the “next generation of The Project” now includes billlionaires, Hollywood heavyweights, husbands and wives taking a seat each, and representatives of the highest levels of wealth and power in the world.
In my opinion, good on them – it’s the American way, they created a popular thing and we live in a capitalist society. They’re entitled to their cash out, and best of luck to them with their plans for the future.
But I’m a corporate guy. I like deals, I like good business. I like innovation and commerce and the entire Burner ecosystem being able to make money off this movement. Not just Burning Man’s owners. I like plug and play camping and people spending $100,000 on fireworks just to shoot out the ass of a Trojan horse. Make it rain! I like art cars where the door alone cost $25,000, or the sound system cost $600,000 and requires a busful of amplifiers to run a wall of speakers that can play to 20,000 people. These things don’t happen at poor hippy parties.
I know a lot of Burners see things a bit differently. They see that this party used to be about freedom, and getting away from the world of money and authority. In an all too typical Silicon Valley tale, the corporate interests turned it away from that beautiful initial vision and gave the power and money to themselves.
First they started selling tickets. Next they formed corporations and registered trademarks, and then they came up with unique photo policies where they had to own the rights to everything “so they could protect us”; and then a few years later, they started monetizing those IP rights. Movies, soundtracks, photo shoots, gasoline, scarves. Ticket prices kept going up and up and up, the event got bigger and bigger, there was an insatiable thirst by BMOrg to find new blood to attend. The more the dollars went up, the more the rules came in. Lately it seems that their main event is sliding down a slippery slope of commercialization. Decommodification, the LLC is not helping reinforce the idea of Decommodification, the Principle.
I see it this way: BMOrg can own all the trademarks they want, and sell as many tickets as they want, but they don’t make this party. They provide the infrastructure and the context and take care of the paperwork. Most of the work is outsourced, in particular to DPW who operate much more like a conventional organization, and appear to be skilled and efficient at what they do. The cops do security. Volunteers do almost everything else. It’s the major camps and art cars that make this party, and if a large enough group of them went somewhere else, plenty of Burners would too. Like they already do, at Coachella and EDC and LIB and Ultra and Glastonbury and the hundreds of other festivals that Burning Man Director Chip Conley is tracking and promoting at his Fest300 site. Of course, Burning Man is on the list, and always will be.
Yes, kiddies, the shark has been jumped. But I hope all my burner friends still have a great week in the desert.
As Scribe says, many Burners couldn’t care less and just want to go and get fucked up at this killer party next week. So what are you waiting for? Get up there! Tickets are still available on Stubhub, you’ll have to fork out more than $1000 though. Vehicle passes are now available for less than the original $40.
Read Scribe’s full article and the rest of SFBG’s Burning Man coverage here.