Bear’s Tribute to Larry

Burning Man’s former Social Alchemist Bear Kittay shares his memories of Larry Harvey, as well as some insight into how Larry’s crowning achievement of a permanent, year-round Philosophy Center came together.


Guest Post by Bear Kittay

“Burning Man’s a self-service cult, you wash your own brain.” -Larry Harvey
Larry Harvey. Visionary, poet, iconoclast, beat, muse, my friend. We had our glorious ups, and some terrific and intense downs together. Spirited debate and philosophical sparring. As Global Ambassador, I had the privilege of accompanying Larry to the likes of Turkey, Ibiza, London, Paris and beyond. Our connection was potent, originating with transgenerational juxtaposition of the significance of Burning Man as a cultural phenomenon through the lens of ancient history, culture, commerce and technology.
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Larry’s enigmatic approach definitively set the trajectory for Burning Man as a movement, with genius foresight, protecting the “anti-brand” at all costs, both stewarding this as the gold standard of what I like to call “post-capitalistic social physics” in it’s ephemeral event, and, much to my millennial chagrin at moments, arguably diminishing its capacity to collectively evolve into a true movement beyond himself as the “anti-cult” leader. This is not to say that he didn’t possibly have the most genius plan for scale of all: to restrict the organizational capacity and thus force function the diaspora to scale independently, powered by the remarkably relevant Ten Principles, as it most certainly has. But possibly nowhere on earth is there a community with more capacity and demand to govern itself with decentralized ageny in earnest than Burning Man.
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Larry didn’t have a formal succession plan. To his, and the other “founders” credit, they sacrificed financial gain for the protection of decommodification in earnest by giving up their ownership in the LLC to the nonprofit. But, from my personal experience, true evolutionary governance for Burning Man during his reign was not something that interested him. In a lesser known act, he and the “founders” retained control of the Intellectual Property of Burning Man in an entity most ironically named “Decommodification LLC”, and kept this governed independently of the Burning Man Project non-profit and it’s wider Board of Directors.
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I haven’t spoken or written publicly about my experience co-leading the acquisition of Fly Ranch. It really should be a book. Thrilling emotional saga to say the least. So much complexity – a true miracle that we were able to pull it off despite so many obstacles (notwithstanding ourselves). It was Larry‘s last unrealized prophecy for Burning Man. Three attempts, over 15+ years, had been made to acquire the property but none successful. It was this challenge that turned me on and my beloved Katiyana and I, along with a devoted team (Daniel Claussen, James Milner & countless others), dedicated two years of our lives to fulfilling this dream. It was with a great deal of hubris, naïveté and unbridled passion that we gave this our all, leveraging introductions to weave directly to the very titans of industry within the community who had the capacity to write the extremely unconventional types of checks necessary to both fund the enormity of the project and the patience and care to tolerate the unwillingness to plan what would happen there or commit to how it would be governed, not to mention the eccentric personalities and bizarre bureaucracy.
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And how we did the “sales”… was a legend of its on accord. During Burning Man in 2014, and 2015, Katiyana led the “top-secret operation” where we organized discrete “tours” of Fly Ranch during the event. Some of these were more structured via first camp, while others were nothing short of rouge playful kidnapping raids on billionaires through the back gate of Black Rock City (known as Point One) and back for dinner. Naked, singing, visionary, shamanic, philosophical, sexy… many forms of magic occurred. But these relationships and moments together transcended time and space, and laid the foundation for the leap of faith required to close the transaction at long last, as well as an “unofficial” ecosystem beyond.
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And it was in the 11th hour as the funding and acquisition became a reality that I had my moment with Larry, pleading with him to, for the sake of his legacy, commit to more inclusive process and governance design that would demonstrate Fly Ranch as a V2 for Burning Man. A laboratory to prototype the future of human civilization and bring the processes, best practices and of course, magic of Burning Man to the world at large. We didn’t see eye to eye, but continued to have respect for each other even going through the predictable (to most but not me at the time) break up that followed. When we finally closed the transaction on my 31st birthday, June 6 2016, it was clear my 4 year stint of time serving in the Burning Man Global Government-Aristocracy-Church-Nonprofit was up. Bittersweet breakup. Ego death. Life lessons that money could never buy.
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My last conversation with Larry, I bumped into him outside of his apartment on Alamo Square in San Francisco. We spent two hours in a passionate conversation (with the typical plumes of Larry smoke) where I explained to him all that I had been learning about the Blockchain and its capacity to provide a grand template for evolutionary governance. He was skeptically intrigued. I left feeling a deep sense of reverent satisfaction and walked across the park…
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And now Larry’s gone. A transition in a time of transition. What will the future hold for Burning Man? Has the movement evolved beyond the event? Are the many connotations of Burning Man now amassed in a lexicon of terms and verbs more broadly such that the burden of post-capitalist / decentralized leadership is no longer on the organization to steward?
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The longer that has gone by since we parted ways, the more wisdom I realize was gleamed from him. In a world of binary, quantifiable, branded paradigms, Larry was an artist of the coyote: diagonal, sarcastic, socratic. He wouldn’t give you direct answers, he would ask vexing and whimsical questions. He wouldn’t tell you what it was, he would only ruminate upon it’s reflections. Thank you Larry Harvey. Your irreverent genius will always accompany me somewhere deep in my conscience. Although you claimed to be an atheist, I do wonder if you are consciously prancing somewhere in another realm far beyond… I hope to see you there.
🐻❤🙏🙏🙏
-Bear

What Ever Happened To Flysalen?

Last year, BMorg announced with their usual great fanfare that they had raised $6.5 million from wealthy private donors, some of them anonymous, to purchase Fly Ranch.

A Permanent Autonomous Zone. Or, rather, a Semi-Permanent Autonomous Zone: SPAZ.

What were they going to do with the SPAZ? They didn’t know, but they were going to consult Burners.

Our process will require a balance of playfulness and seriousness, planning and spontaneity, group work and individual contributions. As you may notice, every time we learn something, it usually leads to several more questions. While we discuss our values as part of a long-term vision and project, our current planning is focused on the short term. Many of our goals are things we hope to achieve in the next 12 months. We need to focus on gathering and sharing valuable information and developing the tools to support a long term planning dialogue. Once we have reached that point, and are equipped with the tools we need, then we can begin a conversation about what Fly Ranch will become.

A quick summary of what we’re hoping to accomplish within this 12-month timeline, roughly in this order:

  • Spend time on the land and in Gerlach and Empire, surveying the environment.
  • Establish security plan and protocols for the property to dissuade trespassing.
  • Begin small nature walks in partnership with Friends of Black Rock High Rock.
  • Develop ‘Town Hall Kit’ for community leader hosted conversations and feedback sessions.
  • Engage with the community online, on calls, in person, and in Black Rock City.
  • Write a series of posts detailing our planning and ask for feedback.
  • Develop project management software, community engagement tools, and interactive maps.
  • Establish a Fly Ranch mission statement and concrete operational goals for 2018-2019.

[Source]

Well, it’s been 14 months now of playfulness and spontaneity. How much of this has materialized?

Series of posts:

We Bought Fly Ranch June 10 2016

What’s In A Gift – The Making of Fly Ranch July 21 2016

Making Sense of Fly Ranch Aug 9, 2017 – Part 1 of 5-part series

Town Hall Kit: nothing comes up in a Google search for this

Mission statement: not on web site (but a Donation button sure is!)

Concrete operational goals: unknown

There have also been a couple of private posts from BMorg Board members Ping Fu and Chip Conley.

Yep, that’s it. A few blog posts. Even I have done more than that to advance the philosophical values of Burning Man in the world over the past year, and nobody donated $6.5 million here.

400 acres of the 3800 were 3-d mapped by a volunteer with a drone:

No offense to the video maker, but this doesn’t exactly seem like an enormous contribution to the future of Burning Man culture all around the world. Whatever happened to Burning Man Earth?

All in all, this is not very much to write home about. I thought Burners were creative and self-reliant, that this was an experiment in new ways of living together as a community – A Permanent Utopia made up of the best and brightest of tech, the arts, advertising, and finance industries? Sadly, the most recent post (last week) still says absolutely nothing about Burning Man’s plans for the site. There’s fences, there’s deer and rabbits and coyotes, there’s hot water from past drilling explorations, there are signs of people using the hot springs. OK, cool – glad we could work that out in 14 months. How are we making the world a better place?

3000 people have signed up wanting to get involved. Most of them are interested in the Arts and Events; the smallest participation category is Philanthropy.

In the coming months and years (because honestly, projects of this magnitude take time), there will be many opportunities to participate in visioning the future of Fly Ranch. We will need your time, energy, expertise, and ideas. Of course this project will also need financial support to realize and explore new ideas, if you feel inspired to contribute to Fly Ranch, you can always donate to the project.

This project will unfold over a long timeline, but to give you a sense of what we re working on these days, we’re currently:

  • Mapping out what limits our Ag Zoning sets on our activities and the process for changing that
  • Researching the impacts of federally protected horses, two dams, and limitations with our water rights
  • Hosting small trips for our office staff who have never been, and doing three community events on the playa
  • Researching tools for decision-making and collaboration and making a more precise roadmap for 2018 and beyond
  • Researching and building mobile composting toilets
  • Discovering and cataloging all man made (and left) objects on the property
  • Doing important outreach and relationship building in Gerlach and the surrounding area

As of June 2017, we’ve had almost 3,000 people sign up to get involved with the project through our Participation page. You can see a breakdown of their areas of interest here:

Surely SOME of these thousands of Burners might have had ideas about what we could do with the SPAZ. If they did, I guess none of them were worth talking about. Maybe that will be “coming soon” in the next 4 out of 5 posts in the series.

According to the official Flysalen web site, as “early” as Fall 2017 (ie. next month), interested Burners will be able to go on nature walks with the Friends of Black Rock in groups of up to 20 at a time. There is nothing about this on the FOBR web site, so like everything else in the BJ, we just have to take BMorg’s word for it.

Their newsletter editions are confusingly detached from their publication dates – is this by accident, or design? 6 months ago they said:

We’re also getting ready to expand on the Community Engagement Conversations that we held at Red Lightning camp last year in Black Rock City, and will be engaging in the next phase of community dialogue at both the European Leadership Summit in Stockholm and the Burning Man Global Leadership Conference in Oakland.

We’re planning to take what we learn from these facilitated public conversations and develop a toolkit for Regional Contacts and passionate community members to begin holding their own conversations to explore what people find most exciting about the endless opportunities of a year-round venue for Burning Man. 

A Toolkit to have conversations about what people find exciting! Wow. Of course, they’re still working on it. Either they didn’t have the facilitated public conversations, or they didn’t learn anything from them, or they weren’t able to encapsulate that learning in a toolkit. Whatever the reason, we’re not yet ready for passionate community members to begin holding conversations on their own about the SPAZ.

How long does it take for a Silicon Valley organization to research collaboration tools? Installing Slack takes a couple of minutes. You need help, bra? Isn’t Burner Billionaire Dustin Mosckowets part of your brains trust? HOW CAN WE COLLABORATE WITHOUT SOFTWARE FFS!!!!!

Image: Sabo

In the past, videos from the Global and European Leadership conferences were shared online. No more. I guess Radical Community Engagement works best when the dialogue is hidden from the community, without any opportunity to comment. Or maybe they’re still getting ready to have the conversations, 14 months just wasn’t enough preparation time for the Org to talk to Burners.

Ahhh, yes. Transparency. Wouldn’t that be nice!

Fortunately, last year’s sessions at Red Lightning camp that left everybody engaged and inspired were filmed, so they could be shared.

Screenshot 2017-08-15 09.27.57

[Source]

That was last October.  We were in luck! Did the luck run out? Maybe nobody applied, or maybe nobody on the 100+ year-round Burning Man staff is able to edit videos and upload them to the Burning Man YouTube channel. You’d think with $40 million of Burner ticket money every year, and 80,000+ devoted Ten Principles followers looking to participate, they could find a way.

Screenshot 2017-08-15 09.24.18

[Source]

Governmental agencies. They’re focused on listening. Got it.

Last year, they took a small number of hand-picked groups of ultra-VIPs on private tours during the Burn:

All together about 250 guests visited Fly Ranch before, during, and after this year’s event, and were careful to tread lightly on the land. Groups remained small (fewer than 20 at a time), utilized only pre-designated walking paths, and upheld our community ethic of Leave No Trace every step of the way.

One of them was Burn.Life’s Dr Yes, who reported that the project is being heavily influenced by Esalen and Stewart Brand’s Long Now Foundation. They also took Burn After Reading mag’s Jesse “Sprocket” Janusee, who was moved to tears by the experience. Halcyon was so shocked by the journey that it turned his famous “Pink Jesus” hair white:

If you’re not one of the lucky VIPs to get a naked hot springs dip as a reward for your enthusiastic servitude to the Org, perhaps you might like to attend these sessions on-Playa this year and report back to the group. Or just donate: $6.5 million goes pretty quick in the remote desert. We need more to fuel this amazing vision, we are making the world a better place nobody has ever seen anything like this TRANSFORMATION Project. 3 blog posts, wow. Send money now!

 

The Halcyon Principle

Burning Man has gathered 100 of the leading thinkers in the Burner community at Occult Base Esalen, to try to come up with some ideas about increasing revenue Sustainable Creative Communities.

[Download their 70-page discussion paper here, thanks Dispatch]

Think you’re cool for buying Leonard Da Vinci tickets for triple the price? Are you on the Burner100 list? No? Well, you might have to up your Gifting game if you want to swing with the Big Playa Players. If you kiss the right asses they might even name a Principle after you.

Halcyon with his dad, Bob Weir. Image: BJ

Halcyon with his dad, Bob Weir. Image: BJ

Pink Jesus, aka John Halcyon Styn, raised the radical idea that what used to make the art at Burning Man so magical was that people created it for free to share with each other. So paying artists could be Commodification.

He was roundly shot down by the group, but after breakaway sessions they came back with the idea that not paying artists was excellent, and they could blame it on him: aka “The Halcyon Principle”.

Gifting is the answer the everything. Or my answer, at least. Over and over at the conference, I brought the conversation back to Gifting. While there is so much magic happening in the Burning Man movement, I think the core of it is in Gifting.
A) It teaches us to receive joy from giving joy.

B) It helps us to start seeing ourselves as having talents and art of our own to share.

Shifting people’s from self-identity from “consumer” to “creator” is world-changing.
I spoke up on the first day and questioned a line of thought by reminding people that, while I want to get artists paid, I am more passionate about making sure the art remains a gift. I said I was transformed by that first awareness that all this amazing stuff on the playa was created — not for financial reasons — but purely to blow my mind. It created an energetic surplus in me that made me want to give back to this place and community for the rest of my life. There was a quick rebuttal to what I said and I instantly regretted speaking up. Maybe I am too naive for this conversation I thought. I shouldn’t be here.

But the next day, someone approached me and thanked me for saying something. Then another. Then a breakout group told me that they had a long conversation about what they were calling “The Halcyon Principle” based on what I had said.

A surreal highlight of the week (that was already a highlight of my life) was having Maid Marian, CEO of Burning Man, write “Halcyon Principle” on the whiteboard during the final Symposium wrap-up.

It’s not about paying artists! We can just give them hugs! Remember the Halycon Principle!

Read the full article here.

I’m not knocking Halcyon, he makes some good points and he has been kind enough to write guest posts here. Forgive me for being cynical about groupthink and congruency between words and actions, but I’ve been writing about BMorg for almost 5 years now. The ratio keeps growing, in the wrong direction. More people at the off-site symposia and invite-only conferences, more TED talks and panel discussions, lots of people being flown all around the world for words; less visible actions promoting art or making the world a better place. Who cares about which gender Burners identify with, buy some kids a skate park or a library.

free-book-tank-library-weapon-of-mass-instruction-raul-lemesoff-1

This collective experiment in temporary community has owned Fly Ranch for half a year, and Burners are mobile and self-reliant even in harsh conditions. Especially the Top 100 of them. Yet somehow the future of Flysalen needed to be plotted in the acid-laced hot tubs of Esalen, rather than the oil drilling byproduct hot springs of Fly Ranch.

Image: Pinterest

Image: Pinterest


Being on the boards of both Esalen and the Burning Man Project, Chip Conley swings both ways. Image: Fest300

Being on the boards of both Esalen and the Burning Man Project, Chip Conley swings both ways. Image: Fest300

For $6.5 million They could have bought a lot, and done a lot. At Esalen it’s $900 for no accommodation or a sleeping bag and $1300 for a dormitory bunk bed; if a couple wants their own room it’s more than five grand. At these rates they might as well just have their symposium at Caravancicle or White Ocean. Was this a pay-to-plug-n-play deal, or did Halcyon and 99 others get comped? Where does your ticket money go?

The 2014 Afterburn report claims a total of 896 paid employees. Obviously at least 90% of them didn’t get invited to the Esalen symposium. There are about 100 year-round staff on the Burning Man web site, wonder what percentage of them got to attend?  The last payroll figure we have for the Burning Man Project is for 2014, $7,485,059 (plus another $3,441,179 in contractors). So one week of the Burning Man Project’s time is around $150k of salaries. For $150k I will give them a vision, I’m sure it will be better and easier to implement than whatever the Burner100 came up with.

Image: Esalen.org

[Source: Esalen.org]


Conclusion

100 people had a bunch of ideas and told each other how great they were…for a whole frikking week. Were there hugsies involved? Some form of Orange cordial, perhaps?

I got in the tubs twice. Most people were in there as much as possible. I spent much more time standing on the cliffs looking out at the jagged coast

Sounds productive. Vision 3.0. Coming soon.

camel-horse-committee

A camel is a horse designed by a committee

 

Building the Revolutionary Community (Again)

“Take a moment to drop in, and imagine the world that you want to co-create.”

That’s the Burning Man 2.0 message, sent to me today by Social Alchemist Bear Kittay. He’s just given a talk – combined with escalating soothing live backing rhythms of digiridu and Ableton to emphasize his Esalen workshop-honed points – to the techno-hipster elite of Berlin at the 2016 Tech Open Air Inter-disciplinary Technology Festival

No offense to Bear, but the backing music reminds me of the Wayans Brothers movie I’m Gonna Git You Sucka

 

Bear says:

Creating physical spaces to prototype the design of our new civilization…That’s what we’re doing at these conferences and these festivals. We experience these immersive ways of life and we re-imagine who we are, what’s most important to us, how we should be reallocating our resources – through experience, through art, through participatory culture

Hmmm…so we’re not just tripping out and trying to find Dancetronauts?

BMOrg told us they’d bought Fly Ranch on June 10 2016.

6 weeks later, on July 21, they revealed some of the donor names:

The individuals that contributed funding for the purchase have one thing in common: they have been deeply moved and changed by their involvement in Burning Man, and they are invested in the future of this culture. One of our early supporters and driving forces behind this project is Burning Man Project Board Member Chip Conley (AirBnB), who has shared his motivations for contributing to this project on Fest300. Another is Ping Fu (3D Systems), who, like so many of you, is a dreamer and a maker. Her reasons for giving inspire all of us, and we have been working with Ping, Chip and others to share the reasons they felt called to contribute to this project.

Other donors you may hear from in the coming weeks and months include: Joe Gebbia (AirBnB Chief Product Officer), Bill Linton (ProMega – therapeutic magic mushrooms), Rob and Kristin Goldman (Facebook VP Product), Guy Laliberté (Cirque du Soleil), Farhad Mohit (Flipagram) and Nushin Sabet, Alex Moradi (ICO Group – Real Estate), Graham Schneider (Real Estate)  and Jonathan Teo (Binary Capital: Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat). A handful of donors have asked to remain anonymous, and we absolutely respect that choice. Just like in Black Rock City, we also celebrate and honor anonymous giving.

Thanks to everyone who donated. 12 names. Did they all give half a mil each, leaving 1 slot unaccounted for? Or did they all kick in $100k, and some Anonymous group wrote a check for the remaining $5.3 million?

Screenshot 2016-07-29 22.39.17

For all we know, El Chapo, Google or the Rothschilds are funding it.

Who pays the utilities and operating expenses? What’s the business model…or is it all just donation-supported, like public access television and radio? We’re coming up on two months since the big announcement – with Burning Man looming, and now opening earlier than ever – and this is the first we’ve heard of what they actually plan to do with the joint. We’ll probably have to wait til 2017 now for further details.

Bear described the vision:

bear canada

Image: Facebook

The overall valley is roughly the size of Manhattan – 20 square miles. Our property is 3800 acres, it includes beautiful hot springs, hot lakes that hundreds can swim in, and geysers, and a very very large Playa, this open tabula rasa, this context for re-imagining our civilization.

So now we own this property year round in the non profit organization. It’s really a gift for the community by the community. It’s been funded completely philanthropically by a group of Patrons who believe that the process of us coming together as a community and experimenting with what could happen there isn’t just something that’ll happen at this site at Fly Ranch, but ultimately that having these semi-permanent locations that are owned by community groups so that year round iterations in the same template much as we develop these technology tools that we can get one step closer, bringing more and more people into the experience of co-creating and manifesting what will work as we re-imagine and re-invent our civilization. Welcome to Fly Ranch. This is a new era for Burning Man. This is a gift from the Burning Man community as a social experiment for humankind in the 21st century.

I have to say I’m not really enlightened much further about what exactly will be going on out there in one of the most remote parts of the United States. OK, some rich people bought the pitch and ponied up the $6.5 million. Now what? Will there be art cars? DJs?

As fun as Burning Man is, I am still waiting for them to explain how living in the desert with porta-potties but no showers or clean drinking water on tap, no money and no trashcans is the new model for humanity. There are already billions on the planet living in those conditions, and I think we would be better served directing our energies towards helping them rise out of it, instead of turning our civilization backwards so we can join them!

What are the gifts that the Burning Man Project will bestow upon humankind from their desert base? Neo-feudalism? Blowjob Workshops? Group masturbation to childrens cartoons? Black Lives Matter?

Some of the many events on offer in the 2016 Playa Events Guide

Some of the many events on offer in the 2016 Playa Events Guide

Screenshot 2016-07-29 21.56.37

2015 black lives matter

2015 black rock lives matter

thanks to Parker for this photo

Image: Parker; from a prior year. Is she doing the devil horns? What’s up with that extra hand?

childrens story time vibrator

I mean, I’m sure this is fun and all…but is this really the next evolutionary step for civilization? Humanity depends on this? The future of Burning Man is to have all this sort of thing going on year round?

Today I was also lucky enough today to attend – if only for a short time – WIlliam Binzen’s exhibition at the Smith Andersen gallery in San Anselmo.

Screenshot 2016-07-29 22.11.01

Marin County is old timers like me (43). The Mission and 666 Alabama is where the young hipsters like Bear and the BMOrg 2.0 coterie hang out network. Tonight’s crowd skewed more towards hip replacement than:

man bun fedora

 

…but having said that, we were among the last to arrive and first to leave. Anyway, I managed to catch an equivalent segment of the talks in length to Bear’s presentation. It felt like the guts of it, if anyone who was there has a better video or recording please share. [Aside: As always at these things, like with my shaky phone recording of Eric Schmidt at Further Future 2016, there are dozens of professional looking cameras filming it but nobody ever shares, even on commercial videos. So who are all these people? And why are they recording?]

chris radcliffI couldn’t see the stage but I believe this is William Binzen talking and then John Law. They mention Chris Radcliff “imposing fellow with an SKS”…a name that has been erased from the official Burning Man history. You will hear about Cris(tina) in a future Shadow History episode. Part 4 is being edited now, Part 5 is coming soon, here’s Parts One, Two, and Three and my debunking of the first challenge to my research.

It is interesting to hear the similar words and themes between the Burning Man 2016 future vision and what was going on at the Playa before Black Rock City LLC and The Burning Man Project ™ showed up. One of the many tributary streams that flowed into the city that was created for BMOrg to take over and steer toward the future. A future of ever increasing ticket prices, vehicle permits and monetizable transactions. It’s not just the future of Burning Man…it’s the future of civilization itself. That’s what these people are going to be designing at Flysalen. No votes. No transparency. No details. No plans. No vision. Anonymous donors giving untold millions. Unknown names making the list of items to check off. Details and vision not made up as we go, but “coming soon” once they’ve been cleared by the suits…

I wish I could have stayed longer tonight and mingled with what looked to be an amazing crowd. The real people who built Burning Man. I wish it was that crowd that was steering our culture towards the future, not a bunch of starry eyed Millenials with 3 Burns under their belt. Maybe I’m just getting old…

 

 

hero's journey

A Permanent Utopia?

Fly Ranch Geyser, Washoe County

In NYMag, Nellie Bowles reports that BMOrg have their sights set on a permanent community, and once again will be bussing investors from First Camp out to the nearby Fly Ranch property.

Burning Man’s leadership, nicknamed “the Borg,” has been quietly pushing the entity toward a new phase.

Quietly? As quiet as you can be with half a dozen people in your media team, a Minister of Propaganda, and staff flying all around the world for panel discussions.

As the six founders who built the festival and still guide it start to age, a new generation of leaders is being tapped, including the charismatic and ambitious Bear Kittay, now “Burning Man’s social alchemist and global ambassador.” The Borg is cagey about plans, secretive about money, distrustful of the press (whose Wi-Fi they’ve shut down this year). But co-founder Marianne Goodell has hinted at another major change…developing a private tract of land as a permanent Burning Man community. 

 

Time for a change? Bear Kittay, Marian Goodell and Danger Ranger. // Photo by Christoper Michel

Is this Burning Man’s future? Bear Kittay, Marian Goodell and Michael Mikel. // Photo by Christoper Michel

Last year, the Borg renewed efforts to purchase and develop a nearby property, the geyser-filled Fly Ranch, which they’d been eyeing for years. As Goodell recently said on a podcast called Positive Head. “For the long-term survival of the culture, we are going to need a physical space…We will, as time goes by, find it hard to only be in the Black Rock Desert. We may need to find a place that would allow for infrastructure. I’m certain that’s in our future.

fly geyser mapFly Ranch is, by all accounts, spectacular: it’s about 4000 acres (880 of which are wetlands) with 23 hot and cold springs and around 40,000 feral horses. There’s one 104 degree lake that’s a couple hundred feet wide. Rod Garrett, one of the original architects of Burning Man, had drawn up plans for a Burning Man Fly Ranch city, a mix of homes and communal spaces built to blend into the desert.

“Employees and affiliates may build on a ‘Homestead’ basis, or rent or buy into the Village community at the project’s north end,” he wrote, in his lengthy proposal.

According to one plan, Fly Ranch buildings would be made with unpainted, rammed earth and sod. No fences would be allowed, and all members of the community, who could either build homesteads or buy into a communal village, would live by Burning Man’s “Ten Principles”...Organic vegetable farming and a Burning Man-like conference business would serve as the economic base of the community.

Growing organic crops in the Alkaline desert, hundreds of miles from the nearest small town. A conference center in the middle of nowhere, in a place with notoriously harsh physical conditions and world famous bug infestations. Sounds like a lot of smart business planning has gone into this idea over the decade+ they’ve been developing it.

FlyGeyserFestival co-founder Will Roger writes of this new Burning Man city in utopian terms: “I fondly hope that this concept can develop rapidly, and become not only a destination for learning and wonder, but a model to the world of a community, although remote, that is ideal and sustainable. It is for the Burning Man Project to create this wilderness paradise.” 

Development of this scale would require a lot of money, and last year, the organization began giving tours of Fly Ranch to potential investors. People around the playa whispered that well known burners like Elon Musk, Sergey Brin, and hotelier Chip Conley were among those shown the property (though none have confirmed that they actually were). 

Burning Man first tried to buy it in 2005. They tried again a few years ago, but the asking price was around $11-12 million, and they only raised about a half a million dollars, he said. But last year, the landowner Sam Jasick passed away, leaving his son Todd in charge, and Todd said he’d welcome another offer. Roger, who lives in the nearby town of Gerlach, decided this time he would get it right.

During last year’s festival, he said they were leading two tours a day. They had set up a little camp there for prospective investors to lounge and get a sense of the area’s energy.

Because nothing says “Decommodification” like 2 busloads a day of investors going to the real estate sales lounge. And nothing says “sustainability” like building a 70,000 person city for the purposes of entertainment, creating art just to burn it down, and in a week producing the amount of CO2 emissions of a small country

From Roger’s perspective, buying land means Burning Man can serve more people — the demand for tickets already far exceeds the supply. “This year, 60,000 people didn’t get tickets to this,” he said. “By owning our own property, it means putting in our own infrastructure. It could be a retreat center or an art park.” He said the plan would be to build that retreat center and a museum, hold smaller events, and create a city to test out what it would be like to live on Mars (guess which tech billionaire could be thinking of that?). “What interests me is the experiment in a permanent community,” he said, adding that the tech titans felt the same way. “They’re interested in that too, yes.”

So far, not interested in it enough to fund a Series A for this 30-year old start-up. But maybe this is the year.

Part of the appeal of the site is recent moves Will Roger has made on the board of a local Advisory council to get the BLM to re-designate land so that it can be sold.

burning_man suitsAdjacent to the Fly Ranch property is, Roger said, “a playa, public land.” He had joined a political group: the Sierra Front-Northwestern Great Basin Resource Advisory Council. In this position, he helped to declare that land disposable, defined by the Bureau of Land Management as “land that can be sold.” He added, “Getting it on the disposable land list was crucial because we could have our own playa then, something smaller for five to 10 thousand people.” The property is “A-rated solar, A-rated wind,” and Roger said the income from that power generation would become the foundation for a community. “If you look at a 100-year plan, it could be remarkable as a planet changing culture,” he said.

If someone can figure out a way that you can put solar panels miles away from industry or population, and that itself makes so much income that it could sustain a growing community, then that could indeed be planet-changing. Usually, local generation offsets costs rather than creating revenue – and industrial-scale facilities are built near the main power transmission grid.

As Burning Man emerges as an emotional and intellectual center for the tech world, Roger thinks the chances of a deal going through are higher than ever. His employees were leading tours while he hung out at First Camp — “I don’t swim in that world, but my staff swims in that world,” he said. He said he was just thrilled the vision to create a town has finally come closer to fruition. “I’ve had my dream in this and my heart broken so many times,” he said. “Now I’m 66 years old, I’m almost retiring, and it might happen.”

Emerges? Isn’t that how the whole shebang has been marketed, since DARPA first unleashed their Web weapon on the general public in the 90’s?

Although Roger says he doesn’t swim in that world, 4 years ago when they bussed me out to the site on one of these investor tours he was the man in charge. Swimming in the world of hot springs was part of the sales pitch – everyone was encouraged to get naked, of course. The details about how investors would get a return on the most expensive desert land on earth were sketchy…“we’re going to run a business based on the Ten Principles“. Ummm, which ones? Gifting and Decommodification? Leave No Trace? So how does that work again? Everyone volunteers for free, pays to stay in a conference center where you bring your own bedding and catering and take out your own trash, the Founders get the ticket revenue (which of course “isn’t enough due to all our costs”), and investors donate the money?

A year has passed since we sat together in the playa, and it hasn’t quite happened yet. When I asked a Burning Man representative about their plans, the website they had up saying that they’d begun to develop the land came down. But on the Wayback Machine you can still see their statement: “The Burning Man Project is pleased to announce the initiation of the preliminary stages of the development of the Fly Geyser property.”

A quote on the site from Will Roger reads: “The Fly Ranch Project is a key component of a broader plan for economic and community development in the Northern Nevada area.”

Read the full story at NYMag.

Permanent infrastructure for Burners is a great idea. Destruction and pollution is so 1980’s. Leave It Better trumps Leave No Trace. A Center for Philosophy, to spread the culture around the world? I could see that happening. Putting these things together, a couple of dozen miles further out into the wilderness from Gerlach? That leaves me scratching my head. I always thought the key to real estate investment was location, location, location.

If you build it, they will come…maybe they should build it in Colorado and sell weed to tourists to pay for the thing.

 

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