The Legend of Giant the Jack-Killer

by Whatsblem the Pro

Chicken John Rinaldi -- PHOTO: Chris Stewart

Chicken John Rinaldi — PHOTO: Chris Stewart

People talk a lot about translating their Burning Man experiences to their lives outside Black Rock City, but given the breathtaking diversity of what people take away from Burning Man, that can mean a lot of things; some interpretations are fairly accurate reflections of a large percentage of burner viewpoints; some seem way over the top or even downright silly, like when people get the notion that burners should never, ever sell anything to each other, ever, for any reason. Burner diversity means that if we want to get at our commonalities, we have to take a broad view of things.

Not much is universally applicable to burners; we might get close, though, by saying that burners tend to do the things they do in an active/aggressive manner rather than a passive one. Feeling small and alone and powerless is for other people; we know we are giants, and we behave accordingly, for better or worse.

Civic pride is one of the more obvious manifestations of that oh-so-zesty active/aggressive attitude toward daily life that year-round burners have in common, and last Wednesday night a sleepy little coastal hamlet called San Francisco, California got a lovely example of it, albeit from a man who would surely curl his lip at me if I called him a burner.

John Rinaldi never needed Burning Man to unlock his creativity or his dynamic nature; he is more of an originator of burner culture than any kind of convert. His own civic pride seems to know no bounds; he even ran for mayor of San Francisco once upon a time, and unleashed a zombie flash mob on the debate proceedings as part of his campaign.

When Chicken John heard that corporate chain Jack Spade was moving into his neighborhood, displacing local small businesses and threatening to further infect his demesnes with that dreadful sameness one sees in strip malls all over the country (and the world), he didn’t sit and cry about it, and he didn’t start making plans to move elsewhere. . . he got off his ass and did something about it.

Long story short: Jack Spade will not be opening a store in John Rinaldi’s neighborhood.

How did one man manage to stand off a billion-dollar corporation bent on invading the Mission District? By his own admission, he didn’t, not really, not all by himself. . . but he did rally a tremendous amount of support, and managed to put some formidable pressure on Jack Spade. I’ll let John speak for himself on all that:

The representative from Jack Spade that was at the hearing on Wednesday night was standing around afterwards chatting. Someone handed her this flyer:

And she said: “Yeah. I think we are going to pull out.” With no irony, she said “pull out.” The comedy here is amazing.

Yesterday morning, the CEO from the parent company that owns Jack Spade wrote a letter saying they surrender. We won the hearing, and thus we were in a power position to annoy the shit out of them for six months or more. Meanwhile, that $12,000 a month rent is really starting to add up. . . all the calls and letters and e-mail were probably clogging up their days as well. In the end, we’ll never know if it was this flyer that pushed them over the top. . . but I’m going to say it was because it’s funny.

Tonight our activism is a victory lap, but don’t think for a second that we are done fighting chain stores. There are two pieces of legislation that the Board of Supervisors will be voting on November 25th. There is legislation to be re-worded. . . and there are safeguards that need to be put in place to protect us from carpetbagging interlopers.

So even though we won, and Jack Spade is not opening in the Mission, the Jack Off is ON!!!! Come. Or cum. Or whatever. And know that anything is possible. You can bend the will of a billion dollar company by threatening them with a circle jerk everyone knows you can’t deliver on. If that is true, and we have proven that today, what else is true that we thought impossible?

Forty-eight people in sailor suits forever changed the direction of the Mission district by altering the path of a chain store worth over a billion dollars.

All you ever really need to do anything is a plan. No matter how stupid, insipid or impossible that plan might be. Now, this action wasn’t really the reason why Jack Spade “pulled out.” It was many little things, a few big things and this action came at the right time as the straw that broke the camel’s back. There was all the letters you guys wrote. There was the bombing of their Facebook page. There was the phone calls. There was the comments section of the articles. The bad press. There was the VCMA doing the appeals of their building permits. There was the members of the Latino Community that spoke out at the hearing, and Calle Biente Quatro. There was the letters from Supervisors, assemblymen and legislators. There was the people who showed up to City Hall and spoke. There were the merchants who put “no Jack Spade” signs in their windows. There was the t-shirt company that made shirts for free: Ape Do Good. Arin Fishkin graphic design. The Make Out Room for letting us have a benefit there (that paid for the appeal filings). There was the plea to action for the Mission Merchants Association (a cabal of landlords) that got the conversation going. And a bunch of other stuff I’m forgetting and even some stuff I probably don’t even know about.

The point is that we committed. We committed to do whatever it took to get it done. This is paramount. We stuck together and stuck it out.

What can you commit to that will make things better, in your home, your neighborhood, your city, your country, your world?

The View From Up There

by Whatsblem the Pro

Old Razorback, aka Trego Peak, shot in 2008 by Jedi Master Ratti

Old Razorback, aka Trego Peak, shot in 2008 by Jedi Master Ratti

Mark Phipps, John Phipps, Dallon Phipps, Kevin Johnson, and Meghan Johnson scaled Old Razorback (aka Trego Peak) this year to capture some poignant time-lapse video of Burning Man 2013 as viewed from approximately four miles away at an elevation of 5495 feet above sea level, or 1888 feet above the playa floor.

The climb to set up the cameras (and retrieve them after the burn) is dangerous and difficult; Old Razorback’s approaches are untrailed and not terribly stable. . . but a passion for both photography and Burning Man drove the group up the mountain to bring you a view you’d probably never see otherwise.

With a calming, chill-out soundtrack by Inspired Flight and Dusty Nix, the resulting video is a bittersweet meditation on the epic potlatch impermanence that marks Burning Man as utterly unique among festivals.

In 2012, a group with many of the same members made the grueling trek up the mountain to give us a time-lapse video of that burn.

As Jesus said to Peter while hanging on the crucifix waiting to die: “Hey, I can see your tent from here!”

Here’s the 2013 video:

Embedding has been disabled for the 2012 video, but you can still head over to YouTube to watch it.

Agents of Chaos, Assemble!

by Whatsblem the Pro

You are not authorized to read this book

You are not authorized to read this book

The Cacophony Society is a venerable but obscure institution that can lay claim to being the very origins of Burning Man, art cars, Santacon/Santarchy, the Billboard Liberation Front, urban exploration, culture jamming, and more, with strong ties to organizations, traditions, and phenomena like St. Stupid’s Day, zombie flashmobs, Survival Research Labs, the Church of the SubGenius, Fight Club, etc. The Society can also legitimately take some serious credit for the resurgence of circus/freak show/burlesque troupes across the nation and around the world.

The San Francisco Institute of Possibility, led by Chicken John Rinaldi, presented an “unauthorized book release party” at the Castro Theater in San Francisco last weekend for the release of TALES OF THE SAN FRANCISCO CACOPHONY SOCIETY. Whatsblem the Pro attended.

*         *         *         *         *        *         *         *         *

100% Genuine Santa -- Photo: Panda

100% Genuine Santa — Photo: Panda

When I first heard that the Cacophony Society was having a book release party in San Francisco, I imagined a modest get-together of perhaps forty or fifty people at a place like City Lights Bookstore. Apparently, that’s what the book release party at Ferlinghetti’s Folly was supposed to be like: tweed, elbow patches, plastic cups of Cab-Merlot, little squares of fontina cheese with toothpicks in them, something light and unobtrusive on the stereo, and a lot of polite reminiscence about how much fun everything used to be.

Chicken John had a different vision; a bigger, bolder vision. . . so he shamelessly hijacked the event. At Chicken’s behest, approximately a thousand walking anomalies, professional raconteurs, semi-human chimerae, stump preachers, miscreants, miscreations, amateur inventors, bons vivants, characters, loners, part-time zombies, sports, morlocks, kooks, crackpots, anti-human racists, beatniks, geeks, Overmen, neodadaists, giant ants, screwballs, underground celebrities, common deeves, Situationists, Groucho Marxists, burlesque mutants, renegade federal agents, sign-wielding protestitutes, and other assorted weirdos invaded the Castro Theater and filled that hallowed hall (and the sidewalk out front) with a veritable bacchanal of conceptual and sartorial mayhem, in celebration of their tribe and people.

And of course, they shilled the book. Hard. Chicken John is, after all, nothing if not a consummate showman, and well-endowed with the appropriately hucksterish skills and instincts that go with that.

Al Ridenour's Art of Bleeding troupe makes it all better

Al Ridenour’s Art of Bleeding troupe makes it all better

If you’ve never heard of the Cacophony Society before, or only have a rough idea of its history and purposes and accomplishments, then you’re quite mistaken if you think you know much of anything about Burning Man. For instance: perhaps you are under the impression that dictums like ‘Leave No Trace’ and ‘No Spectators’ are a Burning Man thing; of course they are, but we got them directly from the Cacophonists who first introduced Larry Harvey and his Man to the Black Rock Desert. John Law, one of the triumvirate that originally founded the Burning Man Org, is a very prominent Cacophonist. . . and he is a co-compiler and editor of TALES OF THE SAN FRANCISCO CACOPHONY SOCIETY. Without Cacophony, there would be no Burning Man, plain and simple. Cacophony is nothing less than the root of the many-branched tree of weirdness that makes life tolerable for those of us who realize that the Apocalypse has already happened.

Once I had a firm grasp on the scope of the event, I knew I had to be there come Hell or high water. An appearance by THE YES MEN was promised, as were performances by the likes of Al Ridenour and his brilliant ART OF BLEEDING troupe. POLLY SUPERSTAR was on the bill, and the Reverend IVAN STANG, spiritual leader of THE CHURCH OF THE SUBGENIUS, was rumored to be hosting, accompanied by Church luminaries PHILO DRUMMOND and the formidably erudite DR. HAL ROBINS.

Chicken John -- Photo: Chris Stewart/Chronicle

Chicken John — Photo: Chris Stewart/Chronicle

Chicken John – whose sole failing as a carny is his unflinching generosity – graciously offered me a free ticket, and this bit of largesse cemented my resolve to make it to the show in spite of the fact that I was determined not to use that ticket under any circumstances. No; I was dead set on infiltrating instead and being a part of the show, a performer without portfolio, as unauthorized as the event itself.

To this end, I arrived early, and simply walked in amid the hustle and bustle of staff and crew getting ready, as though I knew what I was doing and was supposed to be there. Having located a coatroom backstage where I could stow my gear with that of the other performers, I changed into my favorite evening wear: a fully-accessorized Santa suit, paid for with the Burners.me credit card – still uncomfortably hot to the touch – that nestled in my Santa hat with the rest of my valuables. I wore my costume with the confidence that can only come from having True Santa Nature, an epic beard, and the assurances of the staff at the costume shop that my outfit had indeed been laundered since the last Santa threw up in it. They told me they went the whole 9 yards on the clean up job, they even used the best beard oil on the costume!

I spent the next two hours hobnobbing, palavering, flirting, exploring the Castro Theater, and joining the other performers in entertaining, confusing, and harassing both passerby and people waiting in the long line out front that snaked around the corner onto Market Street. . . and then, suddenly, the doors were flung wide, the line began to inch forward, the theater seats were filled. The show began in earnest.

After that, I can’t remember much. There was some sort of film playing, I recall, with a spinning hypnomat filling the screen as a man’s voice droned on and on from the surround-sound speakers. A strange odor filled the air as some kind of gas began to quietly hiss its way out of the ventilation system in smoky tendrils. Strong men first pounded upon, and then hurled themselves at, the oversized theater doors that led back to the lobby and safety, but to no avail; the Castro is an old theater, built well and well cared-for. The doors held; my head reeled.

Yes Man assaulted by Hell Yes Women -- Photo: John Curley

Yes Man assaulted by Hell Yes Women — Photo: John Curley

Glimpses of half-remembered scenes that swim up from the darkness that followed are all that is left to me now: Andie Grace tucking a dollar into my Santa belt as I performed a wholly involuntary St. Vitus’ tarantella; Andy Bichlbaum, surrounded by a bevy of adoring painted harlots, tearing his own face off to reveal the face of Jacques Servin beneath it; Ivan Stang and Philo Drummond gently extracting an “ordination fee” from my nerveless fingers; a bizarre but tender assignation backstage with a honey badger (call me, honey!). A man covered from head to toe in bandages and wielding a keyboard and joystick seemed to be controlling all my movements.

When I awoke, I was in an alley in downtown Reno, soiled and disoriented. A hardbound copy of TALES OF THE SAN FRANCISCO CACOPHONY SOCIETY lay open before me in my lap, silently exhorting me to “DO YOUR DISHES.”

There seem to be some recordings on my phone, with time/date stamps that indicate they were made that terrible evening as I languished in some kind of nightmarish state of induced fugue. Stay tuned; once I’ve had a chance to listen to them I’ll let you know if they reveal anything of importance.

FREEBIRD ME, HONEY BADGER -- Photo: Leslie Benson

FREEBIRD ME, HONEY BADGER — Photo: Leslie Benson

Forgotten City Buried in Two Inches of Gravel

by Whatsblem the Pro

Image: John Marsh and Kelly Curtis

Image: John Marsh and Kelly Curtis

There’s just a hint of mayhem in the story behind what shouldn’t be a terribly noteworthy change of plans for the fourth annual Forgotten City festival this year.

The event is the Las Vegas Burning Man Regional‘s yearly Memorial Day weekend outing. A month ago, the usual suspects in organizing Forgotten City announced that the event would not take place in 2013, due to a new baby in the family.

“I was actually looking at a site in Pahrump, Nevada for something else at the time,” says Dirk Schmidhofer, the organizer who has taken on the task of keeping Forgotten City’s fire lit this year. “I started calling it St. Elmo’s Fire, but too many people thought of the TV show, and of Sesame Street. Damian was mentoring me then, and I asked if I could use the Forgotten City name. He said ‘Sure, and here’s all my website stuff, too.’”

Dirk Schmidhofer at FC3. Photo: Adam Shane

Dirk Schmidhofer at FC3. Photo: Adam Shane

With the Las Vegas Regional in his corner, Schmidhofer sought a permit for the event in Pahrump, Nevada, a small and economically-challenged town about fifty miles west of Las Vegas.

On March 1st, 2013, Selwyn Harris wrote an article in the Pahrump Valley Times about the Pahrump Town Board approving plans for FC4 to be the inaugural event at the new Pahrump Fairgrounds. Town Board members voted 5-0 to approve the event, but waited for a contract review from the town’s attorney before giving the official go-ahead.

On March 8th, just one week later, Selwyn Harris wrote another article, entitled “Mini Burning Man Event up in Smoke.”

“We went back to the previous location,” says Schmidhofer. “Bootleg Canyon near Boulder City, Nevada. Boulder City Parks and Recreation has permitted Forgotten City the last two years, so they know the organization; we obtained a permit as we had done in previous years, and we’re selling tickets as we speak for Memorial Day Weekend.”

The Pahrump Fairgrounds, it turns out, are a bit unfinished.

“They just bladed off 27 acres,” Schmidhofer told me. “They put in a very large asphalt parking lot at one end. It’s a brand new fairgrounds and they’re doing it as they get money; they are working on more funding, and want to put in soccer fields and so on.”

In order for Forgotten City 4 to burn in Pahrump, Nye County wanted Schmidhofer to either pave the fairgrounds, or lay down a two-inch bed of gravel wherever there would be vehicles parked.

“I was actually planning on renting a water truck, a la Burning Man,” says Schmidhofer, but according to the County, “water is not considered a dust palliative for the purposes of complying with that law.”

And then, according to a press release from Pahrump’s town manager, Bill Kohbarger, “A Nye County Sheriff’s Office representative contacted Burning Man advising them that everyone who gave away alcohol needed to obtain a liquor permit through their office.”

Meanwhile, Schmidhofer was taking a drubbing from citizen attendees in town board meetings over things that seemed to make no sense.

“Although we felt we were there with plenty of time, some felt we were springing this event on them. Others thought I was trying to skirt the process, even though I had spoken with everyone I could find or get a recommendation to talk to. I missed a face-to-face with the town manager, and they really zeroed in on that. He didn’t seem to mind though. Someone was upset because they thought we had the tickets printed up already; I guess they’re still in the 20th century there. What we have is a website created by the founder of Forgotten City a couple of years ago; a few minor changes, and it’s ready to sell tickets online — everything is e-commerce, but they didn’t understand that.”

According to Schmidhofer, the town board meeting attendees seemed to ignore the fact that the group had done this event before, and already had fully-developed and tested plans for security, fire safety, EMS, etc. “One person specifically said at the microphone that twelve weeks was not enough. . . but I had been working with the fire chief on all of it, and he even vouched for us at the meeting.”

This only looks like Satan worship. Photo: John Marsh and Kelly Curtis

This only looks like Satan worship. Photo: John Marsh and Kelly Curtis

Reader comments on the related articles in the Pahrump Valley Times were worse than vitriolic. One Pahrump local logged in as “Desert Cat” called the abortive festival at the fairgrounds “your little Burning Man freak show” and exulted over the cancellation: “Best of days for Pahrump. You see, we succeeded in putting a stop to an event that would have drawn the likes of you and yours to our town.”

In the end, it’s hard to say what went wrong. The Pahrump town board seemed willing enough, but was Nye County angling for Burning Man to surface their new fairgrounds for free, and even pay for the privilege? Were they simply trying to keep the festival out? Was it just a few cranky conservatives among the locals, making waves?

Schmidhofer’s take on it is that the town board was genuinely on his side: “The Pahrump town board chairman and the town manager were both quite upset about the situation. It is a pretty depressed locale economically, and they were trying to bring a little revenue into the community.”

Burning Man itself has come under quite a lot of recent scrutiny in Nevada as a cash cow by lawmakers and local governments looking for more teats to suckle in hard economic times. It’s not hard to imagine a beleaguered town board being hamstrung by a greedy County killing off the goose that might lay a few much-needed golden eggs.

John Pawlak, a burner who lives in Pahrump, had this to say about the reaction of his neighbors to the plan to bring Forgotten City to their rural hamlet:

“It seems ironic that certain individuals in this town can demonize and prejudge the folks at the Regional Burning Man group who were asked to come to our town at our request and then define them as homosexuals, nudists, drug addicts, hedonists and so forth. Are we blind when we in fact have all of those traits and more as a community, but we choose to hide those facts from the general public? Maybe we don’t have the nudism, but we have our brothels, swingers’ club, drug addicts, meth labs, plus we carry guns. We continue to slam shut the door on change here in town. If we are to make this a better place to live, we’re going to have to start someplace. We constantly complain of nothing to do here and when something or someone comes knocking at our door to begin the process, we shut it in their face.”

Burning Man Org to Burners: We Own You

Imageby Whatsblem the Pro

People who don’t know what Burning Man is tend to assume that it’s just another festival; a place where consumers go to enjoy passive entertainment arranged by event promoters. Burning Man’s not like that, and it never has been.

What would we have, if the only work that got done out there on the playa was what the Org either paid for or did themselves? If there were no volunteers, no independent artists or laborers or engineers or architects or visionaries or weirdos or pranksters or sex deities or bartenders? Nobody out there just doing their thing?

Attendee participation is fundamental to Burning Man, and it is what provides us with 99% of the shade, art, diversions, exposed flesh, alcohol, and other critical resources to be found in Black Rock City. Even most of what the Org provides gets built, torn down, and cleaned-up after with volunteer labor, and all of it gets paid for with money we give them. Imagine if all those burners who put all that time and money and effort into being amazing on the playa – all the people who aren’t part of the Org or paid by them – were suddenly replaced in the middle of the burn by passive attendees looking to be entertained and vended to in exchange for their ticket purchase. There would be no Burning Man. There wouldn’t even be a festival; instead, we’d have a major tragedy in an artless, corpse-littered desert wilderness: Thirsting Man. Mummifying Man. What-the-Fuck-are-You-Doing-Here Man.

In short, it’s a huge mistake to give the Org too much credit for Burning Man. Burning Man co-founder John Law understood that; back in 2007, he wrote:

Burning Man, since it’s inception has depended upon the gratis efforts of many. Since my leaving active organizing of the event in 1996, it has become a huge business generating more than 8 million dollars a year. Some people are paid quite well for their efforts. If the organizing core of the event believes, as they say quite clearly in their literature that the BM concept is a true movement, and has an opportunity to really make a difference in peoples lives and ideas around community, the arts, etc., then they shouldn’t have a problem releasing the protected trademarks Burning Man, Black Rock City, etc to the public domain where ANYONE can then BE Burning Man. Doing this will not impede their ability to manage and organize the event, sell tickets, pay themselves, and any artists, vendors and tradesmen as they choose using ticket sales receipts.

The only thing that would change is that NO ONE would be able to capitalize on “Burning Man” by licensing the name or selling it or using it as an advertising pitch. There is no other reason to retain these legal ownership titles other than to capitalize on their brand value at some later date.

I was defrauded by Larry and Michael’s actions. I hope they choose to do the right thing and give Burning Man to the people.”

John Law

John Law

Of course they didn’t give Burning Man to the people. They settled with John Law on undisclosed terms instead, and they’ve been jealously guarding the brand they officially own ever since. . . and that eight million dollars? It’s now up to over thirty million.

Yes, I said “jealously guarded,” and there’s no hyperbole in that. . . if anything, it’s an understatement. In 2009, digital civil rights watchdog the Electronic Frontier Foundation slammed the Org for their ticketing terms and conditions, saying “It’s bad enough that some companies routinely trot out contracts prohibiting you from criticizing them, but it’s another thing altogether when they demand that you hand over your copyrights to any criticisms, so that they can use the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) to censor your own expression off the Internet.”Electronic Frontier Foundation

Having recognized that the Org may very well have good intentions behind their terms and conditions, the EFF still notes that “the collateral damage to our free speech is unacceptable.”

The Org’s defense to this is that their over-reaching and draconian measures are necessary to protect Black Rock City culture. Some would say that by ‘protect’ they must mean “reserve it for their own exploitation.” The most charitable interpretation I can make of the Org’s response to the EFF is something like “we don’t trust burners to do it themselves, and we lack the imagination to come up with a solution that isn’t a massive violation of peoples’ rights all year long, everywhere.”

The corporation that runs Burning Man is slated to become a non-profit, but this has not yet happened, and it won’t necessarily make things better, or curtail the ability of board members to skim off massive paydays for themselves. For now, the Org is still a non-transparent, for-profit corporate entity whose board members primarily serve their own interests behind closed doors. With most of their operating costs paid for out of the pockets and sweat glands of volunteers, they control tens of millions of dollars per year in ticket revenue alone. . . yet they seem to have zero respect for the people who not only give them that ticket revenue, but also literally build and painstakingly strike the event that makes it possible for them to sell tens of millions of dollars worth of tickets in the first place.

Zero respect doesn’t mean zero interest. Off-playa, the Org seems all too eager to establish and maintain a Disney-like control over every aspect of burner culture they can get their hands on, a process that effectively quashes the very freedom and can-do DIY attitude that burners thrive on and that the Org themselves love to trumpet as their greatest triumphs.

Given the amount of lip service that the Org gives to the idea of spreading the culture as widely as possible, it seems both hypocritical and graspingly self-serving to exert the kind of stranglehold that they do on ‘their’ trademark. That kind of control freakism is par for the course, though. Regionals must adhere to a strict set of policies and rules set by the Org, just to be ‘officially’ recognized as nothing more than organized groups of burners. Try to organize anything bigger than a living room sleepover while self-identifying as Burning Man enthusiasts, and you’re asking for unwelcome attention from the vultures in the Org’s legal department and their mania for protecting the Burning Man brand from the very people who give that brand its value.

The Org even has an official set of rules for online communities, and they are both dismayingly extensive and incredibly oppressive. Rudeness, vulgarity, being disrespectful, being snide, being overly-critical of the Org, or even wandering off-topic are just a small part of what is explicitly forbidden.

“They want burner-oriented Facebook groups to enforce all those rules for them. So naturally, nobody wants their group to be official,” says Michael Watkiss, an administrator of and participant in several such groups. “The official rules are just way too strict.”

The words of John Law echo in our ears: “There is no other reason to retain these legal ownership titles other than to capitalize on their brand value at some later date.” The Org’s death grip on the Burning Man trademark is a visible sign of their preparation of new revenue streams – at the culture’s expense – in order to maintain and increase the personal income of board members in the face of their imminent reconfiguration as a non-profit organization.

There are a surprising number of Burning Man groups and pages on Facebook, most of them unofficial, created and administered by volunteer burners. They range from the Org’s own heavily-moderated Facebook page to various Regional or special-interest groups, including one called “Burning Man Sucks.”

Photo by Michael Macor

Photo by Michael Macor

The administrators of these groups are, of course, unpaid volunteer burners. To one degree or another, they strive to keep their groups lively, useful, and relevant. One thing plagues them all: advertising. People show up in their groups and post ads, aka ‘spam.’

The largest Burning Man group on Facebook, with some 28,000 members, has this problem all the time. “We have to be constantly on the watch for spam,” says Watkiss. “We’re a decommodification zone, no advertising allowed. The only exceptions are for events and fundraising that directly benefit either recognized Regionals, or art projects that are destined for the playa.”

It’s easy enough for the admins to just delete the totally unrelated marketing blather that washes up in our online communities, but some of it isn’t totally unrelated, and is posted by burners themselves. Somewhere between the exceptions made by Watkiss’ group and the realm of outright corporate spam, there lies a grey zone of burner-oriented advertising by and for individual burners. Deleting a corporate sales pitch for diet lard, the latest model of Pootmobile, or low easy payments on plutonium siding for houses is trivial; deleting a fellow burner’s post in which he’s trying to sell the yurts he builds can cause friction.

“It’s often cut-and-dried,” says Watkiss, “but the grey areas are very, very grey indeed. That can really generate a lot of anger.”

Recently, a small group of volunteer administrators like Michael Watkiss put their heads together over an improved solution to the spam problem that wouldn’t shut out individual burners from making contact with each other and buying and selling things. “A guy from one of the Regional groups told us that his people opened a second Facebook group strictly for buying and selling things to each other,” Watkiss explains. “It seemed like a great idea, so we talked about starting one for burners all over the world to use. It keeps the buying and selling out of the main groups, but gives it a place to happen where we can still guard against people from outside the culture trying to market random junk to us. Decommodification is wonderful in its place, but it shouldn’t mean that burners are forbidden from ever having any commerce with each other, anywhere. This way the burners on Facebook get their burner swapmeet if they want it, without polluting the main groups with commerce.”

The charter of the new group, dubbed “Burning Man Classifieds,” reads as follows:

This group is given to the burner community as a place to freely post any appropriate advertisements we wish. Funding an art project? Tell us about it. Need a new roommate, or a job, or a car, or a rideshare, or some exotic materials for your art? Try us. Want to sell something? Give us your best pitch. You can even beg here, if you think your cause is good enough to garner donations. You can even look for a date! What you can’t post: MLM pyramid schemes/scams, obvious attempts to market to us from outside our community, and blatant trolling. Everything else is fair game; the admins will use their best judgment in sorting the wheat from the chaff.

PLEASE THINK BEFORE YOU POST. This is a worldwide group of people. If you post an ad looking for a room to rent, for instance, then we need to know where you are. Not the intersection, the city and State (or Province, etc.). Try not to make extra work for the volunteer administrators, or we might assume you’re a troll.

If you administer a Burning Man related group and would like to help us out, get in touch with one of our admins so we can add you to the team.

Just a week after the new group’s inception, the Org seems to have taken notice in a big way. “Apparently, they’ve been sending thinly-veiled legal threats to one of the administrators,” says Michael Watkiss. “They don’t want the group to use the phrase ‘Burning Man’ because they say it violates their trademark.”

Trademark infringement is not so simple, though. In most cases of alleged infringement, the acid test is consumer confusion. If the defendant isn’t selling a product that consumers might think came from a different manufacturer because of the trademark, then generally speaking, no infringement has occurred. There are also protections for non-commercial use of trademarks, and for parodies.

Michael Watkiss: “I don’t understand why the Org would think they have a leg to stand on. Nobody owns the group, and nobody is making money by running the group. It’s just a place for burners to have a funky little swap meet with each other. The group itself is not a commercial enterprise, and nobody is going to confuse a Facebook group with a giant week-long arts festival in the desert. The idea that there’s some kind of trademark infringement going on that requires their legal team to swoop in is just silly.”

Holle had to change his plates from BURN BRC to BRC LUV

Holle had to change his plates from BURN BRC to BRC LUV

According to Watkiss, the Org’s legal team suggested that a name change to “Burner Classifieds” would be sufficient to call off the dogs. . . but sadly, most people – including the State – still think ‘burner’ means someone who smokes a lot of pot. “It makes it harder for our tribe – burners – to find Burning Man communities that aren’t controlled by the Org, and encourages both dilution and demonization of our communities by making outsiders think we’re all about drugs.”

Watkiss’ complaint seems to hold water.

“I ordered ‘BURNBRC’ license plates from the State of Nevada for my pickup truck,” burner Jawsh ‘Sparrow’ Holle told me. “They printed the registration that way on the spot, but then the State sent me a letter saying they wouldn’t issue the plates because the word ‘burn’ was drug-related, and I had to change my request. I asked for ‘BRC LUV’ instead.”

Trademark law protects people using phrases that can’t be adequately expressed with an alternate phrase, especially for non-commercial uses, and particularly when there’s no consumer confusion likely. The Org’s attempts to exert total control over the term “Burning Man” aren’t just contrary to everything they say about fostering community and culture, they’re also unsupported by trademark law.

“It’s all been very politely worded,” points out Watkiss, “but the implicit threat in these messages from the Org is very clear. It’s the iron hand in the velvet glove. If they can’t be in complete control, the Org wants to marginalize us. . . and we’re burners!”