by Whatsblem the Pro
“If you don’t like the way it’s run, go start your own event!”
When people start talking about the negative aspects of Burning Man – whether they offer solutions or not – it’s a good bet that others will cite the inevitability of change, and say things like “if you don’t like what Burning Man has become, go start your own event!”
It’s a sentiment that recalls a bumper sticker often proudly displayed on redneck pickup trucks during the Vietnam War era, that read “America: Love It or Leave It.” Like that bumper sticker, it expresses an idea that is strongly counter to the culture it pretends to support. Burning Man, like America, is supposed to be a participatory place where you take enough pride in your citizenship to actively criticize what needs criticizing, and try to fix it.
In more specific terms, “go start your own event” ignores and clashes with at least three of the much-vaunted Ten Principles – Civic Responsibility, Communal Effort, and Participation – as well as some of the most deeply-held unofficial tenets of our culture, like the idea of a ‘do-ocracy’ in which you are expected to refrain from merely complaining about problems you see in favor of actually getting involved in solving them. What’s behind “if you don’t like it, go start your own event” is a deeply jingoist attitude suitable only for insufferably flippant spectators who are assuming you are a spectator too. . . and a spectator is one of the worst possible things you can be at Burning Man without committing some kind of actual crime.
Even the corporation that runs Burning Man seems to put a lot of effort into encouraging burners to spread the culture around and start new events rather than trying to change the existing one. . . but what they don’t mention is that they insist you move forward only with their approval and their trademark licenses. In other words, you can go start your own event if you don’t like the way they run Burning Man, but you have to do it the way they — the people who run Burning Man — tell you to.
Corey Rosen, aka ‘Endeavor,’ hasn’t left Burning Man; he loves it and still works as a Greeter each year. He is, however, currently in the process of spreading the culture around by starting his own event. . . the Digital Renaissance Faire, a gathering that in spite of the name has everything to do with burner culture and burner values, and nothing whatsoever to do with the Renaissance Faire.
Since he — like nearly all burners — is creative and has ideas on how the Burning Man model could be improved, Rosen is doing it his own way instead of slavishly following the example set by the Burning Man organization’s decisions.
Possibly the biggest difference between Burning Man and the Digital Renaissance Faire is that, at Burning Man, only the corporation that runs the event — known as “the Org,” or “BMOrg,” or even “the Borg,” — is allowed to make any money. On the plus side, this means that nobody is trying to sell you drinks or t-shirts. . . but a miserly three to four percent of the ticket revenue is paid out as arts grants, while hordes of participants build and transport their art to the event without any remuneration at all, often spending huge sums to do so. In recent years, even the art projects lucky enough to get grants from the Org have had to turn to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to raise the rest of the money necessary to build and transport the mind-blowing creations that are a large part of what makes Burning Man so popular and successful.
In contrast, the Digital Renaissance Faire issues shares to all active participants, in proportion to their level of participation. At the end of the week, any profits generated are distributed to the people who actually build the event, bring the art, put on performances, organize workshops, and otherwise contribute.
Corey Rosen and his Digital Renaissance Faire are not a threat to Burning Man; the DRF doesn’t take place the same week as Burning Man, for one thing. . . and the DRF is actually designed to facilitate Burning Man, by providing large art and theme camps with both a testbed where they can shake the bugs out of their projects before taking them to Black Rock City, and a convenient spot to store their gear year-round that is not terribly far from the playa.
Since Rosen practices transparent accounting and shares the event’s take with the artists, performers, and workers who actually build it and operate it, it would be seriously unjust to say that he’s trying to commercialize the aspects of the event that are inspired by Burning Man. If Rosen was trying to cash in on Burning Man’s cachet and ethos, he’d do it just like the corporation that runs Burning Man does it: by keeping the accounting secret, and keeping the lion’s share of the profits for himself. Instead, he directly facilitates the art, theme camps, performers, etc. by cutting them all in for a percentage. Meanwhile, at Burning Man, only three to four percent of the ticket revenue – which is not the only income generated by the event – goes out as art grants; furthermore, those grants only go to those few projects hand-picked by the people clutching the purse strings. . . and as for the workers who build all the infrastructure, most of them don’t get paid at all.
Corey Rosen, acting in good faith on the constant exhortations from the corporate heads of Burning Man, is trying to spread the culture. . . but he’s also trying to play fair with the money, and his transparent business model that shares the revenue equitably with the participants who build everything presents a serious threat to Burning Man’s Board of Directors. If Rosen succeeds and proves that his business model is sound, the tiny group of amateur oligarchs that own Burning Man will no longer be able to claim that such a business model is an unworkable pipe dream. If that happens, they may very well come under pressure to follow Corey Rosen’s lead, and finally step down from the back of the cash cow they’ve been riding for decades.
Rosen has a lot to teach us about what actually happens when you act in good faith by taking the Burning Man Org at their word, and do what they tell you to do.
[NOTE: As you read Rosen’s account of his dealings with Burning Man, keep in mind that most of the Ten Principles were not written by anyone at Burning Man. . . for instance, “Leave No Trace” began as an ad campaign by the Federal Bureau of Land Management, and came to the playa via the Cacophony Society.]
Corey Rosen speaks:
My first interaction with the Burning Man organization about the Digital Renaissance Faire was back in October of 2012. I got in touch with my main contact over there to tell him we were planning a co-op festival, and he said Burning Man could not sanction the event because the participants were being paid. He then explained to me that Burning Man is working on another way to work with events similar to theirs that are more profit-driven. I came to find out that certain events given approval by Burning Man do pay talent, so I didn’t understand why an event that pays all the participants based on the profit of the event would be a problem. I also found that asking that question might cause problems, so I chose not to.
For over a month, I reached out to my contact at BMOrg to work with him on making sure we were in compliance with the event we were inspired by, with little response. Most of the responses I did receive were to tell me that he was too busy to contact me.
Once we launched our website, I received this email from him:
You are not a sanctioned event and did jump the gun to modify the Ten Principles and list them as if they were your own invention and writing. For trademark purposes it is better to not alter something and instead link to the original thing in a way that is clearly not plagiarized.
I think you should actually take them down because the Principles can be misconstrued to be something you originated and they are not. They are clearly derived from Burning Man’s Ten Principles.
Right now my understanding is that it is better to say you have been inspired by the Ten Principles of Burning Man and link to them vs. change them and make them seem like they are your own. I think you should also say “this event is not related or affiliated with Burning Man or The Burning Man Project, but we have been inspired by the guiding Principles of Burning Man.”
I am uncertain at this point if you should even directly link to the Ten Principles. So I guess the safest thing you can do right now is remove the plagiarized ones you have on your site and simply say “we have been inspired by Burning Man and it’s guiding principles” and then we can talk again.
I’d rather you not promote your event at the Artumnal Gathering until we have had the proper time to review this. I am sorry, but these things take time to properly vet. As I told you on the playa we have about fifty official regional events a year and what you are doing does not fit into the process we have in place at the moment. What you are doing is not something we have done before and we are not prepared to recognize it as official or sanction it at this time.
I enjoyed talking to you about it on the playa but I also told you then that the “profit sharing” model and this not being originated through the regional network made it something that would require careful consideration and we cannot directly affiliate with it at this time. I am truly sorry I could not get complete clarity and meet with you when you wanted. To be perfectly honest I feel you rushed the process and even now at a time when I must focus my energies elsewhere you are being a bit demanding. I realize you don’t mean to be so, but I need to be clear that I gave you no permission on behalf of Burning Man to take the steps you took.
I immediately changed the text on the website accordingly, and received this follow-up e-mail later that same day:
Thanks and forgive me if I am a little edgy right now. It has been a very busy Fall and I am in final production mode for Artumnal Gathering.
Yes, it is fine for you to talk to people about your event and fine to tell them about your unusual concept and that you are a burner and are inspired by Burning Man.
I received no more contact until I reached out to him about my not getting on the list for the Burning Man Summit in April, which I found out three days before the event. Nothing malicious there, just someone forgetting to submit my name and getting no help from the Burning Man organization.
Some time after my last contact with the BMOrg, we decided to put together a decompression event. We even called it DRF Decompression. Less than twelve hours after posting the event details on Facebook, we received a message from Burning Man sent to my partner’s e-mail address, saying that we had to change the name of the event because Burning Man owns the name Decompression. I had multiple people telling me to fight it, but I chose to let it go, be cooperative, and change the event name.
The most recent interaction I had with Burning Man was right before the event. Since we are creating the Digital Renaissance Faire as a participation-funded co-op festival, we have been given many things to make this event successful. I had the idea of creating a Digital Renaissance Faire token to give out as a gift to the community that inspired us. I found a token company and we were going to buy a thousand of them and give twenty each to the DRF community members going out to Burning Man. When I told the owner of the token company what we were doing and what our event was all about, he decided to donate 10,000 tokens so I could give a hundred to each of our community members, to gift out at Burning Man. I thought this was a generous offer and graciously accepted.
Unfortunately, the tokens could not be shipped and in our hands until the Monday the event started. I posted on my page for help looking for a place to have them shipped to, and someone coming to the playa Monday night or later to receive them. Instead, I received a phone call from my partner saying she received a cease and desist order from Burning Man telling us that we were not allowed to bring our “promotional material” to the event.
I contacted their intellectual property attorney and spent almost two hours on the phone with him explaining that they are not promotional material, but gifts for the community that inspired us. Once he understood what our non-corporate community-based entity was all about, he said I could bring them out but only give them to campmates and close friends.
If you’re in Northern California and you’d like to learn more about the Digital Renaissance Faire and maybe show a little support, you have a golden opportunity coming up on November 11th, when the DRF Synchronicity Celebration takes place simultaneously in three separate California towns: Vallejo, CA; Nevada City, CA; Lake Tahoe, CA.