Image: Beverly & Pack/Flickr (Creative Commons)
A couple of days ago, BMOrg finally posted their response to the many concerns raised by our community after this year’s event. You can read our analysis here: BMOrg Hath Spoken.
Many Burners felt that this whitewash of the major issues didn’t go nearly far enough. The only real policy change was to stop their VIP Donation Tickets program. They completely ignored whether any of the
25 12 Commodification Camps were also offered invitation-only tickets in the Directed Group sale, and whether that might happen again in the future. “Commodification Camps will be held to the same standard as theme camps” – but that was already their policy. Stating what the rules already are is not the same as changing the rules.
Something that has particularly rankled many Burners was the involvement of one of the Burning Man Project’s Board of Directors this year in running the most notorious 50-sherpa Commodification Camp, Caravancicle – which was also ignored in BMOrg’s post.
It seems that at least one Burning Man founder felt the need to single Tananbaum out for his actions. Michael Mikel, who goes by the pseudonym “Danger Ranger”, took to his Facebook page with a late night rant sharing his personal views on the situation to his 1000 followers. As well as spreading a bunch of lies about myself and this site, which he had no interest in correcting before he blocked me, the knives were out for Jim Tananbaum.
Here are some excerpts from his lengthy diatribe.
BURNING MAN BROKE CARAVANSICLE
…The post-burn forensics of this internet-fuled drama of rumors on top of rumors has been challenging and time consuming…We are now at a point where there is enough information to answer some of the questions that have arisen. Larry, always the consummate lucubrationist, has posted to the Burning Man blog about this issue. I have also conducted my own personal investigation into this matter and have come up with answers that may be more specific than some of those presented thus far.
“Lucubrationist” means some who speaks pedantically or overly elaborately.
Why do there need to be “separate investigations” within BMOrg? This is an annual party that goes for a week, put on by Burners. It’s supposed to be all in good fun. If it is so hard to get to the truth that 3 months of “forensics” are required, shouldn’t the forensic investigation at least be co-ordinated? If these people can’t even trust each other, why should we trust them?
My conclusion is that Burning Man broke Caravansicle. I might add that the individual who profited from Caravansicle will not be allowed back into Burning Man.
Many Burners will be disappointed to learn that the individual he’s talking about is not Jim Tananbaum. He remains on the Board, and it looks like they are absolving him of any responsibility for commodifying Burning Man with a multi-million dollar for-profit camp – despite the requirement in their Bylaws that all Directors must uphold the Ten Principles.
When I was finally able to confront Mr Tananbaum face-to-face, my first words to him were; “You really stepped in some shit.” I believe that he truly regrets the wreckage in the wake of his camp. Mr Tananbaum started out with the best of intentions. Caravansicle was not intended to be commercial in nature. His goal was to fund and produce a large camp for friends and associates, much like the camps that he had done in the two previous years. But this year it was going to be grander and larger. His first mistake was to hire a professional camp producer from the commercial EDM world with no Burning Man experience. This is what brought in the sherpas and wristbands.
A camp with 120 guests and 50 employees that charged $17,000 per person was not intended to be commercial in nature? You really expect us to believe that?
The first time we saw public use of the word “sherpa” in relation to Burning Man was in a New York Times story before the Burn which had nothing to do with Caravancicle. They were far from the only camp or art car at Burning Man to have wristband-only VIP sections.
His second mistake was having a bar so big and so public that it ran out of liquor. Nothing is worse than a half-drunk lynch mob.
This is the first account I’ve seen of Caravancicle having a large, public bar. It differs remarkably from what Burners have been reporting about Caravancicle. “A bar so big and so public that it ran out of liquor”? Where does Mr Mikel get his facts from? We are relying on whistleblowing testimony from one of the sherpas employed by the camp, as well as comments from other Burners who went there. Here’s what the sherpa said:
Popsicle camp advertised to customers and to Placement that they would build a lounge out on the street in front our walls that would be cooled to 45º and contain a bar inside where hot and dusty passers by could enter to cool down and indulge…The front of our camp was advertising that a second iced tea/water lounge would be on the street and all of our customers would be there from 2-4pm every day passing out even more popsicles to people.
Neither of these structures had been built. There just happened to be more important priorities, which revolved around making sure that the paying customers never needed to use a porta potty.
The bar that was built did not run out of liquor to serve the public; rather, it was fully stocked, but wristband-only from the very beginning.
We had a massive dome built that would be open for the public to enjoy. There were specialty drinks, music, dancers, couches, coffee tables with Alex Grey paintings, snacks, and much more. This we did have, and it was BEAUTIFUL. I only ended up bar tending one shift…While serving our guests, there were random visitors and the folks from the missing motel. I was told that only our members that had paid to camp there were allowed to have drinks. Considering that we had a visible full bar and a menu containing our specialty cocktails, you could imagine the embarrassment I felt when telling some people they can not have those advertised drinks, and telling others they can. Suddenly our public dome contained some VIP options. “Only those with the VIP wristbands can have a drink, can I offer you a peanut?”
Doesn’t sound like a large public bar with no booze in it to me.
Apparently, all the MOOP of the combined Caravancicle and Lost Hotel camps was the fault of the one scapegoat, and nothing to do with any other camp organizers, or Mr Tananbaum.
And I’m sure that the professional camp producer was surprised to discover no trash dumpsters at Burning Man. None-the-less, the camp producer took the money and ran.
Most of the MOOP at Caravancicle was actually left by the Lost Hotel. The Lost Hotel built 90% of the structure of Caravancicle, and seems to have profited by renting the rooms for Tananbaum’s camp to sub-let.
The building crew for the neighboring camp was in collaboration with our camp. 90% of our camp had been built and designed by the neighboring camp. Lets call this camp “the Missing Motel” The Leader of this camp is a brilliant visionary that seemed to be very passionate about inspiring creativity with his own art. The Missing Motel rented our camp these extremely unique and beautifully constructed canvas “rectangles” that would be homes to myself and guests included. Missing Motel Build lovingly crafted every single detail of popsicle camp. Everything from our private bathrooms, our rectangles, and every piece of furniture in it, the lay out of the camp itself and a majority of the beautiful details
Aerial Photo: Lost Hotel/Facebook
The Lost Hotel were experienced Burners, and were surely aware of the requirement to Leave No Trace. Mr Tananbaum as a Director of Burning Man, is required by their Bylaws to uphold the Ten Principles, so he could not have been unaware of this either. Mr Mikel says he had already put together 2 major camps at Burning Man before, so the idea that no-one there knew they had to pick their MOOP up is unlikely.
The truth is that Mr Tananbaum lost tens of thousands of dollars on this failed project. That is not to say that the captain does not carry ultimate responsibility for his ship. While he has been quite capable of amassing a fortune in the world of venture capital, it does call into question if he is ready and able to help navigate the Burning Man ship. Then again, there is nothing like failure to add to ones experience. I think that having an 18-person board of directors is good in that it allows a larger pool to maintain overall management and guidance, which is certainly an improvement over the past when there were only 6 board members.
Barking up the wrong tree. Image: Ralph Hightower/Flickr (Creative Commons)
There’s a difference between “lost tens of thousands” and “gifted tens of thousands”. The former implies a profit motive. So basically, he’s saying “hey, Tananbaum tried to profit from Burning Man, and didn’t succeed because the guy he hired to manage it ran off with all the money. No problem, maybe he learned something that could help us – carry on”.
The “Turnkey Camps” blog post said that none of the Commodification Camps tried to make a profit – which flies in the face of logic, as well as contradicting Danger Ranger’s statements based on personally confronting Jim Tananbaum. Mr Mikel’s forensic investigation seems to have shown that Mr Tananbaum only failed to make his intended profit because the funds were embezzled by one of his paid employees. The camp charged $17,000 per person, so if Tananbaum is only out of pocket by “tens of thousands”, how much did this un-named lackey actually steal? It seems like keeping the cash from only 2 of his 120 guests would’ve been enough for Tananbaum to break even.
Bmorg is instituting new procedures/policies next year, which will bring all non-infrastructure plug-and-play camps under the theme camp registration process and hold them to the same standards.
This is exactly what they said in 2012, about the same issue. In fact, their own post of just 2 days ago explaining the Commodification Camps said that they were already required to be held to the same standards. More on that below.
The transition of Burning Man from tontine to non-profit organization has taken more that six years. Thru all of this, no one in the organization is getting rich off of Burning Man. That will become apparent after the numbers for the non-profit are published. It’s been a very complex process with many moving pieces, some of them not quite in place.
Perhaps no-one in “the organization” is getting rich, but what about “the owners”? Our reader A Balanced Perspective has calculated their take via this Decommodification structure to be somewhere between $35 million-47 million dollars, and so far no-one has been able to provide any evidence or argument otherwise. We also exposed a million dollar plus discrepancy between what BMOrg were saying they were paying the BLM and what the BLM were saying they got paid, which on an annual basis could increase this take even further.
Here’s Danger Ranger’s “tipping tweet” of November 21, 2008, which he credits with starting this whole “non-profit transition”
Others might argue that Harley Dubois’ surprise resignation was actually the event that triggered the process of unravelling their corporate structure, more so than this tweet.
How much longer will all of this take, before we get to see what’s actually going on? 6 years, and nearly $8 million on lawyers and accountants over that time, isn’t enough to open the books to the public? We still don’t have the 2013 IRS filing numbers for the Burning Man Project, and it’s not looking like we’ll see any 2014 numbers until 2016. What exactly are these “moving pieces” that are still left to work out before the community gets the transparency we’ve been promised for so long?
The sole purpose of Decommodification LLC is to protect the Burning Man name and I’ve programmed it to automatically dissolve after its mission is completed.
I believe he is talking about the “Dead Man’s Trigger” clause he boasted of inserting into Decommodification, LLC.
MM (in March 2014):
Larry has the last word on the Transition discussion. (But I am pleased to note that I am the one who programmed the deadman switch into Decommodification LLC.)
This clause apparently says that ownership of Decommodification, LLC will revert back to the Burning Man Project in 3 years, unless all 6 Directors vote to stop that. As far as I know, this clause is not tied to “completion of the mission” in any way, it’s time based. If Decommodification, LLC was bought by another entity (eg, Foresight Capital, or LiveNation), then different directors could be appointed and this wouldn’t happen. Or if the existing Directors decide they like the royalties that are pouring in to this private, secretive company, they might well vote in their own interests to keep them coming.
It’s hard to see what Decommodification, LLC specifically are doing to protect the Burning Man brand – especially when it seems like the Tin Principles are being chucked out the window now as “an ethos, not rules”. The lawsuit they have been pursuing in Canada lists the plaintiffs as “Decommodification LLC, Black Rock City LLC, and the Burning Man Project, doing business as Burning Man” – so what does Decommodification, LLC really add to the mix, that Black Rock City LLC and the Burning Man Project couldn’t have achieved on their own? Which of the three entities is footing the legal bills in this case?
As for the sole purpose of Decommodification LLC? Article 5, Clause 1 of the Bylaws about sharing of corporate profits prevents the Board of Directors of BMP from profiting from the event, except specifically through the Founders ownership of the intellectual property which is via Decommodification, LLC:
If profiting from this arrangement was not part of their purpose, what is the need for this exemption?
Today Burning Man is an eight hundred thousand ton gorilla with many mouths to feed. It’s a network of departments and people, sometimes with competing interests. It’s still evolving. It has lost much of its agility, but there are some advantages to size. We are now having an impact on the world at large and we have the power to change that world for the better.
What are the competing interests here? Who’s competing for what? What impact is it that Burning Man is now having on the world at large? Marge tripping on acid and Maggie playing with a syringe on The Simpsons? An art car going into Zappo’s HQ? Grover Norquist and Denis Kucinich using it to appeal to new voting blocs?
Time will tell, and so far in 4 years the Burning Man Project seems to have not accomplished very much at all, let alone changed the world for the better.
BMOrg have admitted in their blog posts here and here that they were fully aware of the for-profit Commodification Camps, and gave them preferential placement, while refusing 58 Burner-operated Gifting-based theme camps.
Initially, in this post, they said that they had placed 25 Commodification Camps; by the time they had “listened to all the feedback”, this was whittled down to just 12.
On October 28 Answergirl said:
We define Turnkey camps as those that offer a public space and interactivity in addition to private spaces for larger groups and are typically built by a producer, rather than a traditional camp lead.
On December 3 BMOrg said:
The term “turnkey” has been used to describe camps with paid teams that set up infrastructure before other camp members arrive. This general definition could be applied to many camps, including many well-known, beloved and highly participatory theme camps…
On the other end of the spectrum are “plug and play” or “concierge camps” (A.K.A. hotel camps, resort camps, commodification camps), where vacation-type experiences are sold in package deals at exclusive prices, often with no expectation or commitment by campers to contribute to the larger community.
These camps have not been banned, or even censured.
Petit Ermitage, a trendy boutique hotel from West Hollywood, are promoting the pop-up hotel they did at Burning Man with Cirque Gitane – who at least scored Green on the MOOP map, and by all accounts shared professional theatrical performances with the public.
These concierge or commodification camps undermine the social fabric of our community, which is unacceptable.
Commodification camps are not only in direct conflict with our culture, they are also not allowed by the terms of our permit…A commodification camp operating without a permit risks citations and fines from the BLM. The Burning Man organization is exploring ways of monitoring this more effectively in the future
Not “this won’t happen again”. Just “they need a permit and we’re investigating ways to monitor this more effectively”.
All camps that receive resources from the organization must demonstrate their contribution to the broader community. For 2015, all camps (other than infrastructure support camps) will be held to the same standards in order to receive placement, early arrival passes and access to the Directed Group Sale
Rather than “Commodification Camps won’t get early access passes and invite-only tickets”, this statement really says the exact opposite. In some sort of black box process without oversight, BMOrg will work out where to put them and how many tickets they can have.
What’s the bottom line? Tananbaum gets to stay, just with some public shaming from one of the founders. His employee is made the scapegoat, and accused of embezzlement. Commodification Camps have to go through the Placement team, just like they did in 2014, and the other years before that. All they need to do is say “we’ll have a bar”, and it’s business as usual. If the bar doesn’t materialize? Whoopsie-daisy. If they leave a bunch of MOOP? Naughty, naughty. All the owners have to say is “I didn’t make any money”, and they can continue as before. The VIP Donation tickets program will be discontinued, but the World’s Biggest Guest list goes on, without any oversight. Transparency? 7 years isn’t enough, they need more time. “Coming soon”.