If you think Burning Man is just a big party in the desert, then no – it doesn’t matter. Who cares? Just go and have fun. Avoid articles critical of BMOrg’s management, just pretend everything is great. We have more than a thousand happy, positive articles about Burner culture on this site alone that you can read, and there’ll be many more to come. You can start with these ones about Burners trying to end poverty and bring peace to war zones.
If you think there’s something unique and special about this temporary city made by all of us, then keep reading. Because this isn’t over yet.
burningman.org’s post this week of the apology from Jim Tananbaum has brought Commodification Camps back to the fore of Burner dialog. I know that some Burners would like to give it a rest, and say nothing more until Burning Man 2015. Other Burners still feel upset, betrayed, and disillusioned. JT’s statement received 217 comments in 2 days at the official site, almost all of them negative.
This is about more than just one camp. BMOrg placed between 12 and 25 Commodification Camps, by their own differing accounts. They even created a name for the area they put them in, “Billionaire’s Row”.
This is about the future of the event, and the integrity of our culture. It’s about Selective Rule Enforcement, more than equality. Do the Ten Principles still matter at the Nevada event? Or are they just some catchy marketing speak, used to promote the brand expansion into new market segments like education and commerce? Are they even relevant to where Larry & Co wants to take our culture in the future? Burning Man has jumped the shark, and is embracing the mainstream. Happy Days went onto its greatest commercial success, after Fonzie jumped the shark.
Do Burners even care? Do Veterans even matter…or is it all about indoctrinating the 40% virgins now?
Should we just shut up and take it, be good little Burners and only say happy things, keep any negative comments to ourselves? Or is it OK to talk about it, express our frustration and discontent?
If there are problems in the event, and its leadership, will they magically go away if we all just shut up about them? It seems like things have been getting worse, not better. Larry and Marian said in the Spark movie that they were giving up control, but they didn’t do that. They’re still there, trying to control a very different corporate beast – and it seems like things may be unravelling. Nobody wants that. We all want Burning Man to be awesome forever, to be true to its values and get better and better with age. I’m not writing this blog to facilitate the unravelling – it’s the decisions being made, and the spin being fed to us, that is doing that.
Larry likes to say “people have been saying Burning Man is dead since we started”, but I’m not saying Burning Man is dead. Now that they’ve been on The Simpsons and all over the mainstream media, telling the world it’s full of billionaires, celebrities, politicians, Mistresses of Merriment, and free drugs, there will be plenty more people who want to visit. It’s the Bucket List/Selfie destination of the EDM Generation.
The culture may not be the same, though. And that’s the thing that I think is worth speaking out about, and fighting for.
The thing about PopsicleGate that is particularly jarring is that JT is a Director – and was only just appointed to the Board a couple of weeks before Burning Man. At that time, they were well aware of the kind of camp he was bringing to Caravansary. A healthy civilization gets positive, inspiring leadership from its rulers. As well as ethics, the Bylaws of their 501(c)3 public benefit corporation specifically require Directors to uphold the Ten Principles. Larry can say “they’re not rules, just an ethos”, but it’s there in black and white – they’re rules now. BMOrg can say “the Directors have no influence over the event”, but if that’s true – then who is in charge? Should Directors be able to just ignore the Principles, because they have no influence? If so, why have them? What value do they add?
In the typical Silicon Valley startup story, some founders get together with a cool idea. The pioneers on the fringe of society like to try new ideas, they don’t care that they’re boldly going where no man has gone before. They bring their own flavor and personalities into it, and a little community of early adopters emerges. The founders grab the first people they can find to help them out, building a team based on accessibility rather than merit. Existing relationships with people they like and trust are favored over strangers and qualifications. Fun rules the day, not money. Doing something new is exciting. Some of their early customers go above and beyond, and become evangelists for the New Thing. As the New Thing catches on, the organization grows, the money comes in, and with the money come the suits. Doing something new is less exciting and more risky, than expanding the existing thing into new markets. Eventually, the Founders are in the way of the growth of the business, and it’s time for them to step aside or assume figurehead roles, while professional managers focus on the job of taking the business to the “next level”. Then the whole thing goes public or gets sold, and the culture gets blended into the general corporate culture of the Fortune 500.
The examples of a start-up growing from a few inexperienced people, to a large global organization, with the same few people in the same roles, are few and far between. Usually, growth brings change and strains relationships.
I see parallels today with BMOrg. The lawyering, the brand-building, the media blitz. These are all suit things, not pioneer things. I see Commodification Camps being run by Directors, who blame others for MOOP and a failed build. I see a focus on pushing the safari tourist experience to an ever-increasing pool of newcomers, while they turn their backs on many who’ve been there for the long haul. Where is the retirement plan for long-term DPW crew, and others who’ve dedicated their lives to Black Rock City?
For all its aspirations of changing the world, Burning Man is, at its core, still an arts festival. That’s what their paperwork says, that’s the trademark they own.
Yes, there are many aspects of it that make it interesting, different, more than just a festival. But its essence is art, and entertainment. Fun. “Saving the world” is to my mind an unproven proposition from this party. Even if people have had transformative experiences there, fuelled perhaps by mind-expanding drugs and liberty and surviving outside your comfort zone – is this scaleable internationally? If so, how?
Looking at Burning Man as a startup wanting to grow to the next level, it’s not clear that they’ve solved the scaling issues. And it really doesn’t look like the leadership team who got us to where we are today, are the right people to fulfil the corporate mission of global growth over the next century.
Sometimes it seems like Alabama St live inside a bubble. To get close to the core, you have to LOVE Burning Man, and as a result, yes-men seem to get favored over straight-talkers. They employ a Minister of Propaganda, and pass it off – like so many other things – as an ironic joke. And yet, there is no better word to describe the type of corporate spin that consistently comes out in the Voices of Burning Man, the Jackrabbit Speaks, and their TED talks and panel discussions.
“Fuck you, it’s our business, you’re not part of it!”, they are probably tempted to cry. But it’s not that sort of corporation. Burning Man is a community. We’ve all built this city together, and destroyed it, again and again and again. Some have participated more than others, some have yet to contribute. The special thing about Burning Man is that it’s a pop-up city made by its citizens, and shared with each other – one free from commercial transactions, advertising, cellphones, TV, class and racial divisions, and the other commodities of Default society. We can go there and be Burners together, and express ourselves the way that amuses us the most. For fun.
I get that some people go to Burning Man and it changes their lives, sure. But not everyone. Many of us go to Burning Man and just be ourselves – and love meeting other like-minded people, and doing all kinds of entertaining and silly things with them. If you take it too seriously, you lose sight of that. It’s about FUN, and ART. We put the ART in pARTying.
If you create great art at Burning Man, should you be able to trade off that to build your default world career as an artist? Absolutely! Should Burning Man get a cut of your sales? Absolutely not! Should they sue you because you put a picture of your amazing creation on your web site? Fuck no! Should you be able to sell your art AT Burning Man? Fuck no!
Burners should be able to make money any way they want off the Playa, and if they want to use examples of what they’ve done at Burning Man in their fund-raising, fine. If they want to sell hoodies for their camp, fine. If they want to charge camp dues, fine. If they want to make money AT Burning Man, that’s not so good.
Ignoring and dismissing these problems won’t make them go away. An effort needs to be made to fix the things that aren’t working. Shooting the messenger might feel good in the short term, but it’s not helping their credibility, and it’s not solving any problems.
The response we waited 3 months for, really doesn’t seem like it’s going to alter anything. BMOrg told us they were listening, then they told us they didn’t want to rush the changes they knew they had to make, and then they told us that they’d made them. VIP Donation tickets got stopped. And…? And nothing. Commodification Camps have to have an interactive component, and be placed by the volunteer Placement team. This was already the policy, according to Answer Girl in How Turnkey Camps Get Placed. They told us they’d ban Commodification Camps in 2012. The Directed Group Sale – aka the World’s Biggest Guest List – is still opaque. If Caravancicle appears under another name, and wants another 200 tickets, will they get special privileges to obtain them? Will they get a ton of Early Access passes? We don’t know, but my guess is, yes.
The next Burning Man is 8 months away, so there’s still plenty of time. What else should we talk about, if not the future of our culture? Let’s be open and honest about what’s been going on, and as a community, let’s continue to be vocal about what we will and won’t accept.
The solutions are simple. Stop with the lies and spin-doctoring. Give us the transparency we’ve been promised for years. Open the books, and involve the community in the operations of the charity. Get rid of Directors trying to link the Playa with commercial activities. Keep the Playa free from Commodification. Sell tickets to everyone the same way. Apply the rules the same way to everyone.
Long live Burning Man! Long live Burners!