Does Commodification Matter?

bm shark jumping

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?

Image: galleryhip

Image: galleryhip

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?

Image: Charis Tsevis/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Image: Charis Tsevis/Flickr (Creative Commons)

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.

burning_man suitsI 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!

2014 Golden Rebar Awards

Every year, This Is Black Rock City presents the “Golden Rebar Awards” to camps that show innovative architecture. This year, there were some truly spectacular winners. Philippe Glade says:

This year, 2014 (my 18th burn), the streets of BRC were bursting with either small or huge shelters as well as makeshift or well planned camps. It was the year of the connectors, several designers came up with metal, wood or acetate resin nodes, resulting in easy to pack and assemble structures.
 
The city became more than ever a vibrant laboratory for daring creators looking in different directions to solve the equation of a simply built, extremely resistant, not too expensive and easy to haul shelter.
 
Because they are not mentioned on any maps I have to explore relentlessly all the streets of my dusty city in search of the diamond in the rough. 
 
The result of this urban exploration is this blog and these Golden Rebars  that, hopefully, with discernment and a bit of zaniness I award on the merits of creativity, design and architectural breakthrough.
See the full list here.

Some highlights:

Cloud Extruded by Frannie Marchese

Golden Rebar for Creativity
Using cut strips of insulation panels, the same used to build hexayurts,
Frannie spent 5 days preparing her shelter that was setup on the playa in
2 hours.

The ubiquitous markings of the insulation panels were painted over and coded for fast installation

She even had a marine toilet connected to a grey water tank.

 

The Playa Painted Lady

Golden Rebar for Whimsicality

Three story high with a top deck, this house could easily be found in pre-war Vienna, Europe.

 

The Pallet Palace

Golden Rebar for Repurposing

A frame of recycled 2×4 held the walls made of used pallets
Other use of pallets

Red Lightning Camp

Golden Rebar for Best Camp Design

This superb camp was designed and built by GuildWorks, founded by Mar C. Ricketts, who by serendipity was featured in my book (now sold-out) with his poetic installation Flight of the Future Seed in 2006.
This architect of the air also designed last year golden rebar winner for best camp design Sacred Spaces Village.

Check out the rest at thisisblackrockcity

Licensed to Sell

I just got off the phone with David Freiberg at the BLM’s Black Rock Field Office, who said he’s a fan of this site. He is going to track down the 2014 list of vendors who were granted a Special Recreation Permit to sell on the Playa this year, we will update this story when we get it. The number of vendors has increased from 45 in 2013, to more than 80 this year.

He said that BLM were looking into the Plug-n-Play camps, which are required to have a permit and pay a 3% share of their revenues to the BLM. He wasn’t aware of any such camps that did get a permit, but it seems like most of them should have.

Some of the triggers for if a permit is required:

  • advertising to the general public, or only to friends
  • camp dues as cost-sharing, versus funding a commercial enterprise
  • it doesn’t matter if you’re a bad businessman, if you lose money, that’s your problem; if you’re selling spots and paying staff, that’s probably commercial activity not casual recreation

It appears that Caravancicle had a commercial deal with The Lost Hotel to build their camp, commercially engaged sherpas and managers who were paid to work there, and produced promotional materials that were advertised to the public.

In JT’s recent “apology“, he claimed that his web site was “meant to be password protected”. It certainly wasn’t when we first wrote about caravancicle.com (now blacked out).

caravancicle room outside

Space Cubes at Caravancicle. Image: Philippe Glade

JT says that even though he “gifted money” to the camp, it was not meant to make a profit:

I can assure you our camp generated no money and was not, in any way, a money making venture

This conflicts with Danger Ranger’s version of events, in which he claimed JT “lost money” only because the camp’s un-named producer embezzled “took the money and ran”. Allegedly. It also conflicts with Sherpagirl’s inside information, that campers paid $17,000 for a hotel room space cube. If you’re selling 68 rooms for $17k a pop , your camp is generating money. Discounting or even comping some of the rooms doesn’t alter that fact.

In their marketing materials, Caravancicle quite clearly state that this is based on the “mind-blowing” hotel they built last year at Camp Olympus. There’s no indication that this page on their web site was made by anyone but Caravancicle.

I printed their caravancicle.com/about page to a PDF on September 5 – no password was required, and there was never any indication that this was “camp-only” private information.

2014 Caravancicle – About Camp

Here’s their very commercial-looking Participant Agreement:

2014 Participant Agreement, R… and Assumption of Risk

It specifically mentions the following individuals and corporations in their risk waiver:

  • Back To Earth, Inc dba “dovetail events”
  • Ari Derfel
  • Jim Tananbaum
  • Space Cubes LLC
  • Brad Peik/Peik Construction Inc/Peik Investments LLC
  • Black Rock City LLC
Image: Phillippe Glade

Image: Philippe Glade

JT said:

Our camp breakdown was also compromised because the group responsible for providing the infrastructure was also responsible for part of the breakdown. In the end, our camp manager and some other members of the camp, plus breakdown staff, cleaned up our camp by Saturday after the event

Staff, responsibilities, infrastructure providers, managers – it sounds pretty commercial to me.

We hired a team to produce the camp…but Caravancicle did not participate in any advertising. The ‘promotional materials’ and website were sent to guests who were invited to join the camp. We did not actively promote the camp. No one in Caravancicle made money off of the camp

We’ve provided a link to some of their advertising and promotional materials, the About page at caravancicle.com. Creating a website and putting your commercial-looking brochure up on it surely counts as “participating in advertising”. There is no question that people who worked in Caravancicle were paid, so JT is not telling the truth here.

we used wristbands

some of our campers were “plug and play” participants

Seems pretty clear to me.

2014 lost hotel bathroom

From Interior Design:

Inside a Space Cube

Inside a Space Cube

Scott Mahoney created the camp “The Lost Hotel,” using his modular tent system called Space Cube that can stack up to three stories high. Mahoney used Adobe Illustrator to design the entire project from the stairs to the bed frames, and constructed everything within 10 weeks. Mahoney’s inspiration was “constrained only by ease of setup and breakdown,” he says. Also collaborating on the project was Joey Rubin of Adar Partners. Rubin’s process was one of “resourcefulness and adaptability,” he says, especially when designing two theme camps at the same time, since Mahoney’s team also assembled 68 Space Cube tents for Caravancicle, a camp produced by Ari Derfel…

Caravancicle Camp offered an all-inclusive experience to affluent deciders and Powerball winners who enjoyed a level of sophistication never seen before at BRC.
It took the teams of The Lost Hotel and of LMNOP 5 people working for 7 days 18h/day to complete this pushing the envelope of refinement camp

Here is how the Federal Government defines commercial use, in relation to their requirement for a Special Recreation Permit (SRP):

Subpart 2932—Special Recreation Permits for Commercial Use, Competitive Events, Organized Groups, and Recreation Use in Special Areas

§2932.5   Definitions.

Actual expenses means money spent directly on the permitted activity. These may include costs of such items as food, rentals of group equipment, transportation, and permit or use fees. Actual expenses do not include the rental or purchase of personal equipment, amortization of equipment, salaries or other payments to participants, bonding costs, or profit.

Commercial use means recreational use of the public lands and related waters for business or financial gain.

(1) The activity, service, or use is commercial if—

(i) Any person, group, or organization makes or attempts to make a profit, receive money, amortize equipment, or obtain goods or services, as compensation from participants in recreational activities occurring on public lands led, sponsored, or organized by that person, group, or organization;

(ii) Anyone collects a fee or receives other compensation that is not strictly a sharing of actual expenses, or exceeds actual expenses, incurred for the purposes of the activity, service, or use;

(iii) There is paid public advertising to seek participants; or

(iv) Participants pay for a duty of care or an expectation of safety.

(2) Profit-making organizations and organizations seeking to make a profit are automatically classified as commercial, even if that part of their activity covered by the permit is not profit-making or the business as a whole is not profitable.

From Burning Man’s FAQ (old site):

http://burningman.com/themecamps/delivery_faq.html

Q: Does my delivery driver need a BLM Special Recreation Permit (SRP)?

A:The Burning Man Event occurs on public land administered by the BLM. Commercial activities (services rendered with the intent of making a profit or financial gain, or delivery of goods and services onto public lands for a fee) are prohibited within the Burning Man Closure area unless specifically contracted by Black Rock City, LLC, and permitted by the BLM through a Special Recreation Permit (SRP).

In 2012, Minister of Propaganda Will Chase said:

we would like to address a few key areas of confusion, so everybody’s on the same page:

  1. “Adventure” outfits (defined as purely commercial businesses offering a full service camp experience that have no connection to our culture and community) providing “a Burning Man Experience” are not considered to be Turnkey camps, and as of this year they will no longer be allowed at the event. Before we had a formalized process for making deliveries to Black Rock City (introduced in 2011 as a “vendor pass” then renamed to Outside Services in 2012 to better reflect the variety of deliveries we facilitate which help build the city) we had no way of identifying these enterprises. Now that we do, we will actively prohibit adventure businesses that are not part of our community and merely capitalizing on our event. It will not be a completely clean process the first year; there are innocent people involved who need to be considered and, as always, a spectrum of outfits that could fit into this category or may be of benefit to the community. They will need to be evaluated and treated fairly, but rest assured, we will not allow our city to become a revenue stream for these sorts of businesses any longer. We are calling on the community to help us with this effort by identifying operations and reporting them to us by emailing outsideservices@burningman.com.
  2. There has been confusion on an issue referred to as taxation for Turnkey camps. These are the facts: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently informed us that they will require any business in operation at our event to obtain a permit and pay 3% of gross revenues to the BLM, just as Black Rock City LLC is required to do. This has always been their right. They began enforcement with commercial air charters at our airport in 2011 and this year they will require RV and trailer providers to pay as well. This will not apply to small “mom and pop” style operations or one-time deliveries. The BLM is not interested in capitalizing on every opportunity, but they do have federal permit regulations they are required to uphold, and this allows them to hold larger commercial operations accountable with regard to our event stipulations and their commitment to environmental stewardship.

Although Caravancicle is the most public of the Commodification Camps, and particularly egregious because it was backed by someone on the Board of Directors, it’s by no means the only such enterprise. Answergirl said they placed 25 of these camps on October 29, this was watered down to 12 by December 3 when “Burning Man” gave us their official response. If these camps are running commercial activities on the Playa, without a Special Recreation Permit from the Bureau of Land Management, they jeopardize the permit for the whole event – and thus are an existential threat to Burning Man itself, as well as a threat to our culture.

From burningman.org:

Decommodification
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. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

References:

BLM 2014 Burning Man Operating Plan

BLM 2013 list of permitted vendors

 

 

image: Philippe Glade

image: Philippe Glade

image: Philippe Glade

image: Philippe Glade

DJ Booth above the bar, Caravancicle. Image: Philippe Glade

DJ Booth above the bar, Caravancicle. Image: Philippe Glade