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.]

Gifting vs. Gift Exchange

As a Burner, you would think that I would love the Xmas season.

It’s the time of year when normally modest streets turn into suburban Esplanades – with glowing plastic reindeer and gaudy strings of lights everywhere.

We even have a obsessive cultural focus on Gifting during the holidays.

Far surpassing eggnog, mistletoe or jingle bells, the importance of gift giving dominates the Xmas season.

This makes sense because the entire economy depends on end-of-the-year spending. The Dow Jones could care less about the rise and fall of snowmen or the number of carols sang per capita.

But a cultural frenzy of spending? That is important. And the barrage of lights, music, and advertising are all going to make sure you don’t forget.

This seems like it should be a good thing. Gifting is one of the 10 Principles – so wouldn’t a cultural focus on gift giving be a good thing?

Unfortunately, there is something about Gifting that has been lost in our modern practice of holiday cheer.

Let’s review what a gift is. (more…)

Burning Cake (A Cautionary Tale)

My experiences for the last 17 years at Burning Man have been so amazing and transformative that I have a hard time seeing any shifts in the event as a real threat. “Bring on P.Diddy and the Turnkey Camps!” I said.   I still believe that.  But I also am able to understand the current fear more clearly now than I once did.  

Like everyone, I am eagerly awaiting the official response to the recent controversies.   I do *not* think Burning Man is doomed.  Quite the contrary.  I have faith we will figure this out and thrive.

Once we get a handle on the current challenges and correct the course, the magic will shine as bright as ever.

The fable below is fictional.  Take it with a grain of dust.

 

Once upon a time there was food enthusiast who hosted a fantastic baked goods potluck.

He invited 10 adventurous cooks he knew and they started gathering each month to share delights.

Their culinary skills were varied…but they all sure loved food.

The spreads were AMAZING!

People went WAY over-the-top.

Exotic ingredients, rare fruits, fine wines.

For some participants it became almost a game: who could produce the most fantastic dessert? (more…)

Virgins and Turnkey Camps are Ruining Burning Man

We’ve been hearing and reading a lot about Turnkey Camps over the past couple months (haven’t we all?) and I have to say, I’m a little confused by people’s apparent willingness to make or buy into blanket statements and generalizations about Turnkey Camps, virgins, who should be allowed into Black Rock City, etc.

A virgin getting the virgin treatment at Greeters, 2008. (Photo by Dan Adams)
A virgin getting the virgin treatment at Greeters, 2008. (Photo by Dan Adams)

Let me back up a moment and say that I’ve been working for Burning Man for 11 years now, including five years as the Web Team Project Manager and as Minister of Propaganda with the Communications Department for the last six. On playa, I give tours of Burning Man to people who’ve never seen Black Rock City before as part of the eXternal Relations Team (XRT) and I’m part of the new Burning Man Docents team, helping to acculturate folks.

So where was I? Right, here we are…

Did some people do bad things? Sure. Are some people “doing it wrong”? Yep. Will it destroy Burning Man? Nope. Are we learning from this year what we can do better in the future? Absolutely. We are bigger than this, and our community can — as it always has — figure it out, adapt and self-regulate. There’s no question in my mind.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re not apologizing for Turnkey Camps and virgins who may have mis-stepped … nor are we sweeping anything under the carpet. Here are some facts to keep in mind:

  1. Burning Man has always had virgins. It’s how this thing keeps going and growing. In fact, in the early years Black Rock City was sometimes more than 50% virgins, since the event doubled in size from year to year.
  2. The percentage of virgins has been steady for the past few years, between 35% and 40% of the total population.
  3. Not all virgins are clueless twits. Some won’t know what they’re doing, and some will (but we’ll attempt acculturate all of them).
  4. Some of those virgins are never going to “get it”. Most will. (I had no clue what I was doing in 2001, and I’d like to think I turned out OK in the end. Heh.)
  5. Every single year of Burning Man’s existence, people have lamented how it’s all going to pot because [insert reason here] and virgins are doing it wrong. And it hasn’t. (The #1 most common thing I hear from virgins is “I didn’t understand what it was about, how could I possibly have? But now I get it! I’m a Burner!!”)
  6. Turnkey Camps are not all the same. There’s a broad spectrum from “doing it fine” to “doing it horribly”. The percentage in the latter group is small. Very small.
  7. The “tech elite” have always been at Burning Man. Hell, they’re practically what made Burning Man possible.
  8. Burning Man will always change and evolve.
  9. It is in the media’s interest to generate and stir up conflict and scandal and paint black and white pictures, because money.
Here's a guy in a banana bike, because guy in a banana bike, 1995. (Photo by Dolores Marconi)
Here’s a guy in a banana bike, because guy in a banana bike, 1995. (Photo by Dolores Marconi)

It’s part my job to keep my finger on the pulse of the community in Black Rock City. Here’s my book report for 2014: despite a sensationalist New York Times article that was inflammatory and inaccurate but had legs, Burning Man was happening in all its diverse glory. From the solo hippy in his camper van with a hot plate to lavish camps with catered food and grand performances and everywhere in between, people were participating, making art, making connections, doing their talks and workshops and parties and unicorn rampages, and generally being absolutely incredible. And it’s seriously hard to make the argument that Burning Man’s going to shit and the virgins are screwing it all up when we had the CLEANEST CITY EVER this year.

We firmly believe everybody deserves the opportunity to have a transformational experience, ESPECIALLY the people who may not ‘get it’ right away … they probably need it more than anybody. Is that risky? Possibly, but our culture is so rich that I challenge a newcomer to NOT be impacted by it. And, as our culture gets stronger, it’s harder for a minority element to contaminate it. Think of it like this: if our culture was a thin soup, one carrot could change the whole flavor. But if you toss a carrot into a rich stew like ours, it’s hardly noticeable … but it becomes part of the mix.

It’s our job to figure out how to get more people to experience Burning Man without compromising our principles in the process (INCLUDING radical inclusion). This is all of our work. And as the event grows in popularity, we’re going to have to work harder. But don’t panic, this stew is really, really good.

Immediacy and Impermanence

[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.]

(image used by permission  Photo Credit: John Chandler, 2013..Believe by Laura Kimpton)
(image used by permission Photo Credit: John Chandler, 2013..Believe by Laura Kimpton)

There have been some recent losses in our community — suicides and accidents — that serve as stark reminders of the impermanence of it all. My heart goes to the friends and family impacted by these losses. For those of us connected through social networks, both personal and online, we are entering new territory. No generation has shared and mediated grief through digital space like we do, and no generation has been so removed from religion. In the spirit of continuing the exploration of how we talk about impermanence in a radical, creative culture, I’d like to share the following reflections. (more…)

Art Beyond Burning Man – Making, Thinking, Understanding

Building art for Burning Man always seemed to be part of my yearly cycle. I love what I have been a part of creating in Black Rock City; I have grown up and cut my teeth building art out on that remarkable desert canvas. Over the last several years, though, I’ve found myself bringing more art to life out here, “beyond the fence.” Thanks to the efforts of so many, we can now cite several instances of Burning Man art in many cities around the world.

Zoa Crew Photo by Kim Sikora
Flux’s Zoa Crew Photo by Kim Sikora

At FLUX we have created 12 works of art in our 4 years of existence. This is something we are truly proud of. We’ve successfully made interactive art accessible to a wide audience, and we use this art as a platform to engage people in the core values we have cultivated as Burning Man artists. Our works have been experienced by people in Oakland, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, and now, San Francisco. Sometimes, we are so busy building we forget to take a moment to celebrate and share what we’re creating. In this case, we are celebrating our newest interactive sculpture, Carousel.

Flux Building Carousel
Building Carousel Photo by Jess Hobbs

Inspired by the shared experience and wonder of the swing rides of childhood carnivals, Carousel uses a variety of materials, a playful color palette and communal interaction to create an immersive environment. In this space, people will contribute to a cumulative visual expanse, reflect on inspiration, and engage in conversation. Participants will return to a sense of wonder as they sit beneath and contribute to its creation.

Flux Building Carousel
Building Carousel Photo by Jess Hobbs

Carousel has been commissioned by the Abundance Foundation and built for Making, Thinking, Understanding, a conference created by Harvard’s Project Zero. The conference will start tomorrow, October 10-12, 2014 at Lick Willmerding High School in San Francisco. (more…)

Experiments in Radical Gifting and Ticket Sales

PresentRight now a Bay Area group consisting of a number of past and present Burners is putting together an event so ambitious that I am thrilled to be part of it.

I can’t tell you anything about it. Not what it is, or where, or who else is involved. I can tell you when, but that’s only mostly true. We’re revealing so little, in fact, that we actually sent out a press release announcing that we’ve created the least informative Kickstarter in history.

But what I can tell you … and what makes this an interesting experiment with Burning Man principles … is that there’s only one way to get a ticket. And that’s to be given one by somebody else.

You can’t buy a ticket for yourself.

It might be possible to engage in round-robins where a group of people buy tickets for each other, but we’ll be watching out for that. (I can’t tell you how.) Because the hope, the ideal, is that it will make the experience of going to an arts event more like getting a surprise gift: you have no idea it’s coming, it’s a gesture of thoughtfulness and goodwill because somebody cared enough to think of you, and you honestly don’t know what’s going to be there when you open it up.

Will it have that affect? Will it be possible to actually fund a high-infrastructure event this way?

We’ll find out.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I was against the whole idea. (more…)

Radical Self-Reliance and Rich People at Burning Man

[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.]

In the two weeks since this year’s Burn I’ve noticed a fair amount of press claiming “the rich are ruining Burning Man” and I’ve seen a handful of stories on Facebook about confrontational run-ins with people at so-called “rich camps” in Black Rock City. I hear a growing conversation around radical self-reliance and the perceived threat to Burning Man culture posed by “turnkey” and “plug and play” camps on the playa. I’d like to offer the following perspectives to help inform your own conversations and dialogues on these topics.

Flame war, anyone? Dance Dance Immolation by Interpretive Arson, 2013 (Photo by Steven Fritz)
Flame war, anyone? Dance Dance Immolation by Interpretive Arson, 2013 (Photo by Steven Fritz)

First, let’s talk definitions:

Turnkey Camp: A Burning Man camp built by a production team where (generally) paid staff members create the infrastructure so that camp members don’t have to.

Plug and Play Camp: The older term for turnkey camp.

Radical Self-Reliance: One of Burning Man’s 10 Principles. Radical Self-Reliance states: “Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.”

The Ten Principles: The Burning Man 10 Principles were written by Larry Harvey, at the request of the other Burning Man founders, in 2004 to help support the demand of the growth of the Burning Man Regional Network. They were written to be *descriptive* not prescriptive. They are not intended to be dogmatic. They form a cultural guide map that is aspirational, not absolute.

* * * *

Next, let’s look at the problem at hand:

Since 2010, there has been an increase in the number of camps run by long-time Burners who are paid to work during the event week. They are hired by a “camp owner” or camp funder and they usually work collaboratively with the owner to determine the vision of the camp and the level of services provided, and then produce the camp as planned. Often times these camps are inhabited by people who are coming to Burning Man for the first time. Some of these camps go so far as to provide costumes and pre-decorated bikes. (more…)