Equality, Inequity, Iniquity: Concierge Culture

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
–Motto of the American Grange

I began my career in the desert sleeping out of doors in the lee of a truck. The next year I brought out a low-slung two-man tent that accommodated my belongings and a sleeping bag. This arrangement was succeeded, after a period of years, by a series of ugly RV’s. Eventually I bought my current trailer; though battered by eight winters in the desert, it is still quite sleek and tighter than a can of tuna. It is an elegant home. Sometimes I half-humorously refer to this as the higher survival. I chronicle my history of upward mobility because I don’t believe this story is unique. Feathering one’s nest is a perennial human aspiration. It is amenities that make a house a home, and everyone should have a right to practice home improvement.

Black Rock City, 2012 (photographer unknown)
Black Rock City, 2012 (photographer unknown)

In the midst of the current controversy about Plug and Play camps, there has been a great deal of talk about equality, but I think that much of this misses the mark. Scan Burning Man’s Ten Principles, and you will not find radical equality among them. This is because our city has always been a place where old and young, and rich and poor, can live on common ground. The word for this is fellowship, as in the fellowship of a club or lodge whose members, however diverse, are united by common values and a sense of shared experience. But common ground is not a level playing field, and should not be interpreted as mandating equal living conditions.

This issue of equality almost amounts to a straw man. I do not believe that most people would want to live in a city that is the equivalent of a Marxist State, a place in which the prying eyes of envious neighbors are forever trained upon one. Instead, I think the current controversy over Plug and Play camps is not so much about equality, but concerns a very different though related concept: inequity – a basic sense of unfairness. Whenever a select group is allowed special access to tickets, especially when these tickets are in short supply, this can inspire ill feeling. This is doubly so if such a camp is widely perceived to be flouting nearly all of Burning Man’s Ten Principles. This is what has stuck and rankled in the public mind. It is as if these camps have been allowed to parade past the Main Sale ticket queue and insert themselves at the head of the line.

We do of course afford such a privilege to placed theme camps, collaborating artists, and many other quasi-public groups. This takes the form of a separate sale of directed tickets. However people don’t complain about this practice because it is now widely acknowledged that these camps are making special contributions to the life of Black Rock City. Unlike Plug and Play camps, which make up less than one percent of our city’s population, these activist camps are helping to knit together our city’s culture. They accomplish this by giving gifts that are above and beyond the common call of duty.

It therefore follows that the best reform we can enact is to stop placing these Plug and Play camps in a category that sets them apart from others. This was done informally, it was not fully thought out, and we apologize for this mistake. To rectify this error, we now intend to make these camps subject to the standards that have regulated theme camps and related groups. This means that in order to receive placement, early arrival passes to the event site, or access to preferential tickets, they must demonstrate what they propose to give to their fellow citizens. Not only is this fair, we also think this will lead to deeper and more heartfelt change. No amount of preaching can replace immediate experience, and we believe that constant interaction can be the best teacher of all.

This leads me to another aspect of inequity. Is it fair that Burning Man sells a limited number of higher-priced tickets that provide better access to the event? In order to adequately answer this question, I will first recount a little history. As everyone in the world now seems to know, in 2012 Burning Man went through a crisis. In that year demand for tickets exceeded supply by something like a 3:1 ratio. At the same time, the Bureau of Land Management, our Federal landlords, had placed hard limits on our city’s growth – it was the perfect storm, and many ticket buyers, long accustomed to unlimited access to the event, reacted angrily. People wanted a commodity that’s called a ticket, and over a span of several weeks, any sense of fellowship flew out the window – it was like a riot at a Blue Light Sale. Many people offered plans to solve this problem, and yet it often seemed that these solutions were actually crafted to ensure that they would receive a ticket. Amid much finger pointing and scapegoating, even theme campers were denounced as a privileged elite.

To look at this charitably, it’s clear to me that none of this would have happened if Burning Man were merely a consumer event. The passions that many people have brought to this issue are the result of a deep-seated commitment to an experience that has changed their lives. But as it was then, during the great ticket furor, so it is today; now it is being said that wealthy people – imagined as one-per-centers and gentrifiers who are taking over America – are actively demeaning and oppressing ordinary citizens, and that event organizers, motivated by greed, are selling out their principles. It is even said, bizarrely, that we’re scalping our own tickets. Such a picture has all of the advantages of melodrama, but the real story, especially as it relates to money, is very different.

We have sold a limited number of higher-priced tickets on a first-come first-served basis since 2008. In 2014, 3,113 of these tickets, priced at $650, were sold as part of our early Pre-Sale program. The advantage to the customer was that it was possible to order four tickets at one time – twice the number of tickets allotted to purchasers of $380 tickets in our Main Sale. There can be no doubt that this was preferential treatment and, on the face of it, this appears to be the sort of inequity that has angered people. But the mystery of our motive is revealed by another statistic. In 2014, we sold 4,422 Low Income tickets priced at $190, and this more than mirrors the number of higher priced tickets sold through our Pre-Sale program. We took money from the rich and subsidized the poor; and this seems fair to us.

This account of how money flows through our organization also has another dimension. In 2014 the owners of the Burning Man event transferred their shares to a not-for-profit corporation called the Burning Man Project, and the event is now nested within this new organization as a wholly owned subsidiary. The mission of the Project is to spread our culture throughout the world. This is an ambitious goal, to say the least, and such a start-up enterprise requires money. Over a span of three years, the Burning Man event has spent quite a lot of money in order to create this new non-profit and fund its operations. In other words, the Burning Man event has been the Project’s chief contributor.

We hope the Burning Man Project will soon become completely self-reliant – The Little Engine That Could can’t really pull many more cars. But until that time arrives,  a portion of our ticket sales will continue to benefit the Burning Man Project. Since 2012, when tickets first became a scarce commodity, I think some people have become so obsessed with squeezing through the narrow aperture that leads to Black Rock City they have lost any sense of a wider perspective. But from our point of view, by giving money to the Burning Man Project, we are making it possible for thousands of people, who might not ever come to Black Rock City, to participate in Burning Man’s culture.

This brings me to examine one last notion that has been in play throughout the present controversy over Plug and Play camps: the idea that these camps are guilty of committing some great act of wickedness – this is called iniquity. There can certainly be no doubt that there are conspicuous camps in Black Rock City that have practiced what I call concierge culture, and their missteps have been many; they have fielded members-only art cars, they have withdrawn from surrounding neighborhoods, and it would appear a few of these camps may have stationed security guards at camp entrances – they have, in other words, swaddled their members in a kind of cocoon that bears a strong resemblance to a gated community.

This kind of behavior is certainly an affront to our culture, though I find it hard to believe it has hampered or injured anybody. The curdling gaze of celebrities or the intimidating presence of the wealthy cannot possibly inhibit the remaining 99 percent of our citizens from participating. What I think these camps are really guilty of is being gauche. This is not so much about morals, it is more about manners, and we’re convinced bad manners can be mended; we can regulate the use of art cars, we can fashion guidelines for the funders and producers of Plug and Play camps, and we can make a systematic effort to monitor the result of these changes. Anyone who knows our history must be aware we have done this sort of thing before. In 1997, we enacted reforms that regulated access to the event, eliminated use of firearms, instituted speed limits for motor vehicles, and required cars be anchored to camp sites.

And yet, with all this talk of regulation, I hope everyone realizes we are beginning to move down the path toward a society that is ever more rule bound – and that should not be our objective. If Burning Man is about anything, it is about affording individuals as much liberty as possible, and critics who call for drastic and punitive measures are acting as if the Ten Principles are the Ten Commandments – but these principles are in no way commandments. They represent an ethos that arose from the lived experience of a community; this means these values need to be internalized, they should become a kind of second nature, not a set of literal and unyielding rules that are imposed upon us. The only thing that our tasked government can do is create new social contexts in which people can connect and meet on common ground. That is what we’ve always done, and will continue to do in the future.

[Editor’s Note: Please read Turnkey / Plug and Play Camping in BRC, a companion piece to this post.]

Consensus, Collaboration, Hierarchy, Authority and Power

[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]

Consensus and Collaboration

Photo by Vertumnus
Photo by Vertumnus

At every level of its organization, Burning Man employs consensus making and creative collaboration. Consensus means that everyone who is party to a discussion agrees to a course of action. For a decision to be adopted, everyone must give his or her consent. This does not mean that everyone agrees that a particular decision is the best decision. It simply means that they have all had a chance to participate, to recognize and address the issues, and to understand how and why the ensuing steps came about. When consensus has been achieved, the group agrees to align with the decision, and to work together to implement it as effectively as possible. This process only works if people share basic values and operate in a climate of trust that is rich in shared information.

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Commerce & Community: Distilling philosophy from a cup of coffee …

[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]

Center Camp Café, 2005 (photo by Brad Templeton)
Center Camp Café, 2005 (photo by Brad Templeton)

Sometimes the exception to a rule can deepen understanding of a principle. For example, some critics of Burning Man insist that by allowing coffee sales in our city’s Center Camp Café we violate a tenet of our non-commercial ideology. They say that this is evidence of deep naiveté or demonstrates hypocrisy. My reply is that we’ve never espoused a non-commercial ideology. To be against commerce is to oppose the very existence of civilized life. Even hunter-gatherers engage in trade in order to survive.

When most people say that any thing or act is too commercial or has been commercialized, very few of them mean to say that the practice of commerce is necessarily bad. Instead, they are expressing the feeling that something essential — something that should never be bought and sold — has been commodified. This is why we have always been careful to use the words commodify and decommodify.

Our annual event in the desert is meant to provide an example of what can happen in a community when social interactions cease to be mediated by a marketplace. Until quite recently, all societies have provided many different kinds of rites and rituals – set apart from daily life – that rehearse and reaffirm certain core spiritual experiences that are held to possess an unconditional value.

For example, in the culture created by Burning Man, the value of a gift, when rightly given and received, is unconditional. Nothing of equivalent value can be expected in return; this interaction shouldn’t be commodified. Likewise, love – the love of a parent for a child – should never be commodified. This, too, is an unconditional value, hedged round by a kind of sanctity, and can never be measured in dollars and cents. (more…)

How The West Was Won: Anarchy Vs. Civic Responsibility

[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]

Legends of America, by James Cole, 2008 (photo by Stewart Harvey)
“Legends of America” by James Cole, 2008 (photo by Stewart Harvey)

During our early history in the desert, in the mid-90s, there was a lot of infighting about what the event was for—that struggle culminated in 1996. It concerned what our city was for, and who the entire event belonged to. We started out on the beach in 1986 as a small group of people that I came to call the Latte Carpenters. These were carpenters with a liberal arts education. I was friends with a builder named Dan Richman, who was an artist, though he didn’t pursue it, a talented painter who played flamenco. He convened a little salon of sorts at his house. He’d play the guitar; we’d drink and joke and talk about philosophy and art. It was a little bohemian scene, and that’s how I met Jerry James, with whom I built and burned the early versions of the Man.

Around 1989, members of the Cacophony Society turned up at our beach burns. Cacophony was somewhat amorphous; a “randomly gathered” network of eccentrics united by a publicly distributed newsletter that always stated, “You may already be a member.” Anyone could do events; these were often pranks, or might appropriate a feature of the urban landscape as a venue for guerrilla theater. For some, this was inspired by Dada, and for others it eventually came to be defined by the writings of Hakim Bey, chiefly a book entitled TAZ [Temporary Autonomous Zone]. In the early 90’s, this was widely adopted as an intellectual framework throughout the San Francisco art underground. It seemed to partially explain what was occurring, and that is why this particular book is so frequently referenced in regard to Burning Man. (more…)

Introduction: The Philosophical Center

[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]

The mission of the Burning Man Project is to seek out Burning Man culture, as it is described by the Ten Principles, and to link these efforts and communities to one another as part of a worldwide network. Nestled at the heart of this non-profit, another institution, the Philosophical Center, will serve as both the conscience and collective memory of Burning Man. Its mission is to foment discourse that examines the Ten Principles. The motto that will guide this is a quote by William James, “Belief is thought at rest.” This ongoing 10 Principles blog series is the Philosophical Center’s public debut.

We Found Ourselves!
Porta-potty graffiti, 2013 (photo by Alexander Shalashniy)

In an essay included in this blog series, Caveat Magister writes, ”We came to Burning Man because we saw something was happening—we felt its potential all the way down to our bones, sometimes from the other side of the earth—and we were called to be a part of it. Later, maybe, we learned it has 10 Principles, and we started looking to them as a way to aspire to what we were already inspired by.” He is saying that the Principles do not precede immediate experience: they issue out of it. The Principles, in other words, are not an ideology that stands outside of one’s experience. They are a portrait of an ethos; they describe a way of life.

Perhaps the best way to commence thinking about the Ten Principles is to consider their actual language, to engage in a close reading. To begin with, they utterly lack the imperative mood; they are not commands or requests—they do not give permission or withhold it. For example, Leaving No Trace is not a commandment. Although it speaks of what we value, it does not demand allegiance. Agency resides within the actor, not externalized as rules. This assumes these values are internalized, that they arise within each individual as a result of participating in a community, and that we act, in the deepest sense, as a result of who we are. (more…)

Why Not Implement Identity-Based Ticketing?

In the wake of 2012 ticket sales, a number of people have called for Burning Man to implement an identity-based ticketing system (non-transferable, name-on-ticket). There are valid points on both sides of this question, and it is something we have thought about and discussed at length. Putting aside the many challenges inherent in executing an ID-based ticketing system, the case may certainly be made that not-transferable tickets might better serve the needs of ticket holders if they are simply regarded as individual consumers of a service or a product. But this approach ignores the complex and interdependent social fabric of our community.

As things stand now, participants are free to bestow tickets on their friends, lovers, campmates or family members — on anyone who they believe should come to the event. This form of ticket distribution often occurs spontaneously and is independent of any authorizing agency. It is an extension of the gift giving ethic that informs our culture. Furthermore, the chief argument advanced in support of identity-based ticketing is that such a system prevents profiteering by scalpers. But we have found that little more than 1% of ticket sales can be attributed to scalping in 2012. Even in the face of scarcity, a vast majority of ticket buyers appear to have honored a social compact that values persons over profit. Burning Man is an experiment in community, and in 2013 we will continue to invest our faith in that community.

[Editor’s Note: If you do sell your ticket, we ask that you sell it at face value, and if you’re buying one, to find one to purchase at face value.]

Welcome to Metropol – The Story of a City


Black Rock City, 2007
Black Rock City, 2007

[This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

According to my dictionary, a bohemian is “a creative person, as an artist or writer, who lives a free, unconventional life.” When bohemians gather, they tend to form ‘scenes’ — loosely knit societies that often coalesce around a meeting place; a salon, a club, a neighborhood or bar. Burning Man emerged from just this sort of boho scene in San Francisco. Such scenes have given rise to avant-garde and counter-cultural movements that have profoundly influenced the evolution of modern society. However, just as frequently, the interactive and communal aspect of these scenes has proven fragile and short-lived. Seen against this background, Burning Man may claim one novelty: it is the first bohemian scene to turn itself into a city.

This city that seldom sleeps, a place in which the pulse of life is so distinctly urban, isn’t powered by a traffic in commodities. Although the theme camps lining Black Rock City’s streets resemble retail outlets, they function to distribute gifts created by our city’s citizens. Likewise, many of our city’s services, such as the ritual lighting of street lamps, or the informal transit system provided by art cars, are contributed by Burning Man participants as acts of self-expression. This preoccupation with aesthetics, personal initiative, communal effort and the sharing of gifts is exactly what might be expected of an urbanized Bohemia. (more…)

The Streets of Black Rock City

BRC Map 2008For richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, the romance of the road is a quintessential American dream. For Americans, cars have always represented independence, self-expression and the mythos of mobility. And yet, like any love affair, relationships with cars are fickle and results are mixed. The story of the American car industry, an oddly expressive combination of heavy manufacturing and show business, has always been a narrative of boom and bust. From the days of the iconic cowboy riding off into the sunset, to commuter gridlock and the rising price of gasoline, who a people are and how they get to where they’re going is a tale of destiny. This year’s street names, laid out in alphabetical order, showcase this history. It is a story about politics, economics and technology, as well as the vicissitudes of love.
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