It’s the Art, Stupid

It seems that, behind every weary merchant visiting the oasis with a caravan of treasures to gift, is a team of Sherpas to wipe their ass. According to the New York Times, the rich people of Burning Man try to “one up” each other with the lavishness of their camps. Whether it’s prototype inflatable dhomes or stackable cubes or 5-star teepees, just having an RV is no longer enough.

neighboorsTeepeeMany Burners have expressed outrage at this behavior, believing that “Radical Self-Reliance” is at odds with “getting others to do your shit for you”. Personally, I think a designated driver is a major safety issue. It sucks to be that person at Burning Man, so if a few people can chip in and pay a driver, Burning Man will survive. I can’t cook, so I don’t mind if someone else cooks for me. If I have to buy that person a ticket, and give them a place in my RV, that’s fine. “Oh you can’t come to Burning Man, you can’t cook”.

I think the deeper shame in this is that the Super-Sherpa-Burners have lost the point. If you want to one-up other rich people at Burning Man, don’t do it on the level of creature comforts and luxury goods that you airlift in with private planes.


Perhaps one way to facilitate this would be promoting a closer link between Big Art and Art Cars, and the Theme Camps behind them. As in, “we’re Thunderdome Camp, and our Art Contribution is Thunderdome”. Or, “we’re Star Star and our Art Contribution is Daily Circus performances”. Right now, shit is going on everywhere, there’s cool shit everywhere to look at, but it’s all pretty anonymous.

burning_man_girls_robert_scalesBurning Man has been called the Special Olympics of Art – just getting there is good enough. The all-inclusive nature of the art means that there is no requirement for talent, nor indeed any form of reward. There is no real after-market for art of this type, and whatever there is has been cobbled together by Burners. Logistics are left up to the creative types, who each have to figure it out for themselves. BMOrg seem more interested in the artists working at their event(s), than getting their art into the broader community independently of their tentacles. And their answer to “people tagging the art” is not “promote the art as sacred”, it’s “more rules”.

Burners pay inflated ticket prices, and only a tiny amount of that goes to the artists – and gets split over just 63 projects. It’s about $12 per ticket – less than the ticket processing fee, or the government cut for all the LEOs.

Many of the artists who are awarded Art Honorarium grants are wealthy in their own right. Why award the project to them, and not to the starving artists who can’t produce a piece without money to buy the materials? The answer lies in politics as much as merit or reason or justice. There are no guidelines for art grants, it’s at the whim of BMOrg, and if they prefer to favor their friends when they come to dispensing our money, who’s stopping them?

If the rich people were to direct the focus of Burner attention away from their own personal comforts and vanities, and towards the contributions they make to this awesome party, I’m sure that would ease the ire of many in the community who feel passionately upset by gentrification.

Will Smith chose not to take one of his fleet of these to Burning Man this year

Will Smith chose not to take one of his fleet of these to Burning Man this year

I’m on your side, rich people! I need A/C too. It’s the desert, FFS. I was using an RV at Burning Man before there even was “radical self-reliance”. I didn’t stop being a Burner just because Larry wrote a page of words one day, 20 years into the event. “Oh, Larry wrote words! Better disable the generator!” Lecture me with the Tin Principles all you want, it doesn’t make you a Burner or take my 11 burns away from me.

To me, going to Burning Man automatically makes you rich – but I accept that many Burners are seriously rich. I know that rich people give SO much to Burning Man, that there wouldn’t be a Burning Man without them. The whole event is based on the premise of ridiculous destruction of wealth for the purposes of temporary entertainment. It’s like people lighting cigars with flaming hundred dollar bills – times a billion.

The Burnier-Than-Thous have it wrong, saying that rich people don’t get it. It seems to me that they are being radically self-reliant if they are smart enough to want privacy in their camps, and playful social interactions with randoms on the Playa. Part of self-reliance is being able to defend yourself and your tribe from dicks. The number of dicks is skyrocketing, and now they are publicly advocating their dickish actions. It’s not the fault of people who can afford to rent RVs that privacy is required; and just because they sleep comfortably doesn’t mean it’s impossible for them to “get Burning Man”.

cops gunsMore than anything else, I think it is the government infiltration of Burning Man – both overt and covert – that is driving the walled off RV compounds. You used to welcome any random into your camp, and the first thing you’d offer them would be a beer. If you were passing a joint round – which people did, since it was hundreds of miles away from anywhere, in the middle of the remote desert, at a festival – then you would take a hit and pass it on to someone next to you, even if they were a stranger. Puff puff pass, just likes kids have been doing at festivals since the Sixties.

Then, the cops started doing “stings”. Dressing officers up as Burners – “off duty clothing” – and trying to entrap them into breaking the law in front of them. They’re looking for drugs, for people serving alcohol to anyone underage, for people sharing food, public displays of lewdness, and anything else that could be banned and ticketed. Give them an excuse, and they’ll come to your camp with sniffer dogs. Meaning that one random wandering into your camp and lighting a joint, could spoil it for everyone.

This year, it sounds like the cops were much better – chilled, enjoying the party, taking pictures with Burners. But it’s too late – the trust has been destroyed. This is no longer a city of friends. The trust hasn’t been destroyed by rich people; it’s by all these spies trying to bust innocent Burners, while letting the thieves and vandals run rampant. What Burners want to do is illegal, despite being harmless – from smoking a joint to driving at 6mph in a 5mph zone to shirt-cocking. Rich people didn’t make those rules – alright, technically, at the top pulling the puppet strings of government are the Uber-rich who do make the rules, and yes many Bohemian Grovers go to Burning Man – but most of the rules that have led to these RV compounds and private entrances were made by BMOrg in co-operation with Federal and State authorities.

No-one is affecting your enjoyment Burning Man if they got a free ticket, or didn’t have to pay for their flight. How is getting $400 cash different from getting a free ticket? For many who aren’t rich, getting casual employment for a few shifts at Burning Man is the only way they can attend. Crack down on Sherpas, the rich will still be rich and do whatever they want, but now these poor Sherpas – willing to work for their ticket, instead of being Sparkle Ponies – won’t be able to go.

The answer to this is not “ban Sherpas”. How could you possibly police that, if you can’t stop bike or sign theft? It has been going on for years, and fighting against it now is pointless, in my opinion. The horse bolted a long time ago. You might as well ban planes, RVs, delivery trucks, dance music, cars newer than 2010, and so on. Stealing signs will change nothing, and may lead to violence as people try to defend their property against drug-fuelled vandals with political grudges.

The answer is to change the focus.

earth harp temple of transition

Let people do whatever they want in their camps. That’s their private area, where they and their tribe of friends and family and fellow travellers make their “home within a home” for a week. If they want randoms in their camp, let them make clearly marked “random zones”, where you can come and hang out and get to meet them. Don’t just assume “I’m at Burning Man, and Radical Inclusion says I’m entitled to fall asleep in the middle of your camp”. Usually these “party roadkill” people pass out on the most comfortable spaces, preventing other, awake people from using those.

Burning Man is not about invading your neighbor’s space, in the name of some misguided class war protest.

It’s about the art.

cargo cult painting

BMOrg make the rules, but Burners make the city.  There is something we can do, if enough readers want to help.

Together, we can try to re-direct the focus to the art. Camps should be proud of which art pieces they are bringing to share with the rest of us. If rich people want to sponsor art anonymously, Burning Man lets them hide anonymously within a Theme Camp, and even more anonymously behind a Playa name. Larry Harvey likes to say “no artist at Burning Man ever signed their art”, but let’s change that. Let’s promote the amazing artists behind the event a bit more.

How Will We Do This?

Starting today, we are going to have a competition. “Best of Burning Man”. And it’s going to be as crowd-sourced as we can practically make it, at short notice and with the limited resources of a Gifted blog.

You guys submit here, in the comments on the Web or Facebook, your nominations for best art piece. We will collect the nominations, then present the most popular finalists for a vote. Everyone votes, and we declare a winner.

What does this mean for the artists? Even if they don’t win, they can get a sense of how their piece was perceived by the community. If they would like to participate with the rest of the community, they might want to share something about themselves and their art, and the meaning of the piece.

This is the direct opposite of the way Burning Man does it – receive thousands of applications, and pick a few winners arbitrarily. Every artist can be included in this, and to win, you have to be the best in the eyes of the people. Even to be in the final 20, you will have to have pleased a lot of people.


Categories are:

Best Art

Best Art Car

Best Camp

Best Music (camp or Art Car)

Best Music (artist)

Best Photo

Worst of Burning Man – could be Will Crawl, Exodus, rain, bike theft, David Kiss’s performance art piece, anything.

Over to you, Burners. Nominate away! I’m interested to see how this turns out.

9 comments on “It’s the Art, Stupid

  1. Awesome comment, by Mack Reed, below. ‘There are no Spectators, Participants only’ is the founding principle of Burner culture, it must be returned to the playa. And, participation is not being sloshed, donning a costume obtained at a shop, and dancing, participation is much bigger.

    It is the Art, and the community, and, the 11th principle, gratitude towards awesome Burners whom gift the art, sound camps, Esplanada camps, fire, DPW arses, and numerous other Burners. In addendum, gratitude towards Burners whom gift, in a large manner, not of gratitude towards people whom make attempts to buy off us natives with $26 of trinkets, such as cigars, ice pops, and the trinkets Larry told his representatives to gift, towards us natives, at his souk.

    The manner of which the BMOrg might show gratitude towards the awesome artists is, as burnersxxx stated, permit of the awesome artists to obtain much credit for their art. In addendum, the BMOrg must cease directing cash towards their Decommodification LLC pockets upon the licence of images of the artist’s art, minister and pay for insurance, and pay all costs of wood, metal, lights, fire, space lease, and transportation to the playa for all artists, in the stead of solely paying $800,000, $12 of each $380 or $650 ticket, towards the artists.

    Another manner of which BMOrg might permit of the awesome artists to obtain much credit, is require of any picture, published by any company upon the web, is require of the picture to credit the artist, or credit the artist and his mates.

  2. Well if we are giving out trophies… I nominate The Bleachers as Best Art Car:
    -They are both participants and spectators and taking the piss out of the whole thing while spreading cheers and love (with a dash of sarcasm) all over the place.
    -They are one of the largest and most inclusive cars (open to all, 80+ capacity)
    -They are one of the very few live improv/entertainment/theater shows (60+hours of live announcers doing improv in a week)
    -They give out tickets to Burning Man…and you can get off anytime if you don’t think they are funny…
    -They aren’t funded by any grants or dotcom CEOs and were built in a foreign country

    Plus they already win Burning Man every year because they give out the trophies all week, so you might as well jump on the bandwagon.
    Note this nomination is shameless needy ego driven self promotion

  3. Best art was the library of Babel (where are those books now? I wanna read more!!!). Best art car was that Poofing, Flaming Scorpion. Best camp was Lost Penguin Lounge. I didn’t hear enough music or see enough pictures to vote on those.

  4. Yes, if we can convince the super wealthy and celebrities to care about others more than themselves…… Easy, heck, that’s how they got to the top, caring about others.

    The plug and plays aimed at the wealthy are businesses run on a business model. If they are successful, they make money and flourish. That is their goal. More will logically follow with each new success. Why would they not? What would stop that?

    There are such things as tipping points and exponential growth, remember, Burning Man used to not sell out and now it will forever more. You’d almost think something major has changed, if you were paying attention.

    Burning Man is now listed as an official Bucket List life event, so the type of person who has to see the Taj Mahal, yet if you ask them about their interest in India, would reply “…India…?”, has to attend. They care nothing about the event, but they must check that box. There is no end to Ravers and festival attendees and Bucket Listers. The media and popular culture has made burning Man very well advertised.

    There are limited tickets now. This past couple years even some of the most connected individuals had to make alittle scramble in uncertainty getting tickets.

    How can a plug and play business guarantee tickets for both its clients and the help? Without that guarantee of an allotment of ticket, there would be no way to organize and pull off the business run Plug and Play. Just ask the Theme Camps about their direct target sales tickets. They need some insurance that their core people will attend, so what must a business cutting contracts with clients do to insure they get enough tickets? How can the for-profit Plug and Play be sure of having the tickets needed without buying third market tickets and driving up the prices? They can’t.

    Did those camps, and Will Smith and Grover Norquist buy in the direct sales, did they register for STEP? Ha, if you believe that, you’ll believe Travolta was out pounding rebar for his camp. In other words, in order to run their business catering to the wealthy and famous, we all know that with today’s limited tickets, the Plug and Plays must support scalping. If they need tickets for servants or clients does any grown adult believe they don’t simply buy a ticket for whatever price regardless? How can they get that set-up out on 9 and L running on day one without Early Arrival? Who is out there marking and reserving their space before gate?

    The whole thing reeks of payola and scalping. And then the cool burner thing to do is to turn a blind eye to it all, or worse, pretend the rot will achieve enlightenment.

    • Good comment, but you can hardly accuse Burners.Me of turning a blind eye to it. We’re trying to expose it.
      Camp placement approves their requested spots for them, once they get that official approval the spot is “reserved”. Turnkey camps need to register with the BLM as vendors and pay their cut, provide their brochures and price lists.
      To answer your question about how can the Turnkey camps have guaranteed ticket supply: they set up the “Directed Group Sale” aka “World’s Biggest Guest List” to ensure that registered camps get a guaranteed number of tickets. Then they introduced the “Exception Ticket” aka “VIP Ticket” for $650 which they scalped on the side all the way through the year:

      • what is being called an “exception ticket” is not new….theyve been around for a few years now..

        in the past they would cost whatever the highest tier was for that year..

        now its….a lot more.

      • Meh, this is way too much to deal with for an “art festival”. Seriously, time to find something else with less oversight. At least in Eastern Europe, all you have to do is pay off a government official and you are good to go.

  5. When I started burning in 1996 (insert “shut up, old man” snark here), there was exactly one principle: “No Spectators.”

    Result: Every single person BROUGHT IT in the biggest way they could. Fire, performance, robotics, machinery, music, random destruction, noise … art.

    After staggering out to file my story in the L.A. Times (, I was left with an overwhelming impression that permission is the greatest muse, the artistic equivalent of Spanish fly. Insist that people participate in whatever way they can – but insist – and you’ve just made them horny for creativity.

    The years have not been kind to this dynamic:

    A good number of newer burners have lost sight of this in the onslaught of 10 too-precious principles, overwhelming camp logistics, EDM lemminghood, excessive LEO scrutiny and the damagingly inaccurate “worlds-greatest-party” label that the popular media seems to have lazily slapped onto Black Rock City in recent years.

    And so, a vastly smaller number of people now actually participate. The rest are spectators, and the city is poorer, messier, dumber and duller for it.

    Sorry, but dancing your drunken brains out at Distrikt is not art. Wearing blinky lights around the city all week without making something bigger than your dusty ass – whether it’s a flame-belching sculpture, a painted face, a random rhythm drummed on the wall of your RV or a nice cup of chai for someone in center camp – is not participating.

    Only the great VOLUME of art still being created in Black Rock City by participants is what keeps the city alive, and keeps me (and I daresay, all returnees) coming back.

    So yeah, if you’re not going to burn, if you’re not going make, if you’re not going to perform, create or contribute, then #getthefuckoffmylawn.

    As for an awards contest? Best art on the playa? Hell, that flies in the very face of art itself. I’m not playing.

    “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” – Pablo Picasso

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