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…)

A Rich Man Dreams of Paradise

[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.]

“Somewhere past these gravel roads and high on castle’s tower, a rich man dreams of paradise and sees a life like ours.”
Antsy McClain of the Trailer Park Troubadours

Rosie Lila deftly stated “We were all newbies once” just recently in a post titled “Radical Self Reliance and Rich People at Burning Man”. Burning Man is an event that takes years of practice. One can actually tell a five-year Burner from a ten-year Burner. You never stop learning as the “social experiment in the desert” is ever changing.  It seems that our grand tree of evolution has sprouted a new branch. It’s the much discussed topic of “turnkey camps” or “plug and plays” that seem to fly directly into the face of our principle of radical self-reliance. It’s even sarcastically been nicknamed “radical self entitlement” in rising grumblings.

Black Rock City, 2012 (photo credit unknown)
Black Rock City, 2012 (photo credit unknown)

It was about four years ago when I saw my first “plug and play” camp. From my perspective my initial impression of a camp of all brand new trailers in a horseshoe with no real social area, nothing but a giant generator and a trailer loaded with brand new bikes in the middle, and the “campmates” barely knowing each other seemed like aggressive cancer to me. The only social interaction I witnessed at the time was a worker in a pickup truck knocking on one of the trailer doors and an arm briefly jabbing out to hand him a bag of garbage. The door slammed shut and the shades were drawn. My Burner blood dropped several degrees – I immediately wanted to form a lively group of welcoming troubadours to welcome the shit out of them!

Easy now – baby steps – we were all newbies once. (more…)

Burning Man Goes BOOM

Burning Man co-Founder Harley K. DuBois was invited to participate in a panel on Leading the Way of Global Transformation through the Arts at the Boom Festival in Portugal. On her way out the door, she exclaimed “I’m going to my first rave!!” She was very excited.

As founder of Burning Man’s Community Services Department, she knows a thing or two about how festivals run, and how communities and culture develop through well-considered infrastructure, guidelines and support. Here’s her report on Boom, and the panel:

What a treat to be invited to Boom to sit on a panel with founders from other festivals. The grounds for their music event were idyllic, situated on the bank of a beautiful lake in the rural farm region of Portugal. The property was 30 minutes from the closest village, where attendees camp on tree-filled rolling hillsides for an entire week. They walk a short distance to the multiple stages playing all sorts of techno music, thoughtfully placed to avoid sound bleed from one stage to the next. Food and other vending were tastefully placed at the edges of the property, so that art and music took center stage.

The 42,000 people were remarkably polite and engaged. There were a lot of families present and children were fully integrated into the scene. The staff was chill and helpful and the founders I spoke with were buoyant and fun! Overall it was hard to tell that there were that many participants present because it was so calm and tranquil. And although there were major DJs present there was little cult-of-the-celebrity to be noticed. People were very engaged with the music, their friends and the lecture series that was held at their Liminal Village stage.

Boom, Fusion and Burning Man: Leading the Way of Global Transformation through the Arts panel. (Photo by Chiara Baldini.)
“Boom, Fusion and Burning Man: Leading the Way of Global Transformation through the Arts” panel. (Photo by Chiara Baldini.)

Our panel (Leading the Way of Global Transformation through the Arts) was on the final day of the festival, near the end of the day. It garnered the largest attendance that week, and people listened and asked questions of us all. Present were Diogo Ruivo of Boom, a lovely, humble and committed man; Eule, Fusion Festival director of production and Kulturkosmos Co-founder, full of passion about their edgy (bordering on anarchistic) festival; and myself representing Burning Man. All of us had spent years creating the processes and infrastructure to build our events. Boom and Fusion began in 1997, so Burning Man was the oldest and most developed event of the three, but the similarities in trajectory and growth were striking.

Burning Man was also the only event that creates the space for the participants to bring the content, where Fusion and Boom both provide the music that people come to hear, but the concerns with culture, future vision, and a need to create a solid foundation to build off of where very closely aligned.

Many questions were asked and most focused on community and growth toward a sustainable future. It was clear that Burning Man, with 10 years on the other events was a source of inspiration and learning for these festivals. The attention we have put on naming, describing and developing our philosophy and intentions globally was very evident. Our vision for outreach and sharing our learnings was greatly appreciated by the crowd. Diogo Ruivo of Boom described us as the parent they come to learn from which I took as a great compliment, but we all know that parents learn from their offspring as well. I look forward to pursuing the development of these relationships.

The 10 Principles are most potent when offered to Strangers

StrangerDangerLast year I brought an art project with me to the playa – my first. It was a piece of “oracular playa magic” in which I would offer someone a personal experience: we would combine the serendipitous power of the playa with the deep insights provided by art to discover the person’s destiny and true nature.

It did not go the way I expected. Instead of being a fun little gift I could offer people, more often than not it stopped their burn in its tracks. I had people burst into tears; people go into deep conversations about their lives; one guy literally ran away. Other people told me, long after Burning Man, that they were still thinking about what I had “shown” then.

That was not supposed to happen. You can read about the whole experience here.

A number of people who witnessed this last year or read the story asked me if I was going to bring the project back for the 2014 burn. After a great deal of thought, I did. Unchanged except for the addition of a couple of new stories tacked on to the end.

The “divination game” was an immediate hit this year, and in my first few days I had a lot of people ask to participate, or bring me friends or people from their camps who were having various kinds of problems and therefore “needed” a reading.

But it wasn’t like last year: the effect was completely different. Instead of being an experience that stopped people in their tracks, my art project was a fun art gift that people really enjoyed and recommended to their friends. Which is great – I’m not complaining – but it made me wonder: why was it so different? Why was the exact same project getting a 180 degree response from the year before?

Part of it, surely, is just that no two years are alike – a fact that I gratefully acknowledge. But was that all there is?


Cop Whispering: A call to unity

Working DPW and Gate at Burning Man has given many of us on staff our first taste of what it feels like to be an Enforcer. Of any type. In order to build and run a city out of thin air, sometimes a bunch of anti-authoritarians have to figure out how to tell other anti-authoritarians what to do, in the way we’d like to be told ourselves.

We workers are enforcers of necessary rules like: Don’t bring your guns or dogs here, don’t run towards the burning thing, and what if you’ve tried to stow away a hippie and now they’re suffocating underneath your bad plans.

Yes, it can be fun to role-play alpha tribe-protector out here, all fancy with a radio. Yes, the Stanford Prison Experiment was real, and we’re sure the lead Black Rock Rangers have had to pull some “excited fake cop” people off their Burning Man Ranger routes and take their radios away. That’s human nature. Working through it is what happens next.

For us regular blue-collar workers in Black Rock City, sometimes in this heat we get to feeling harsh, whether from a long work day, a few bad apples’ stupidity, or their mis-assumption of our stupidity. Worse yet, sometimes, as Enforcers, we harsh someone who doesn’t deserve it, because someone else tried to run and hitchhike through fast-moving intake lanes just a minute ago.

So the workers of Black Rock City have a heightened sense of empathy for Burning Man’s law enforcement. In Black Rock City, we have DPW who builds and stewards the town, we have Rangers who walk around and interact with the community, we have Emergency Services which provides medical and fire protection to anyone and everyone who needs it, and we have Gate and Perimeter as our internal “border security.” Together, these Burning Man departments handle all the regular, run-of-the-mill problems a society might have, such as power outages, dehydration, or domestic disputes.

Then the big guns are also here — the BLM and local law enforcement — whenever we need them.

We have always been glad they’re here. We workers have dealt with some scary shit, and while we talk a big tough game, DPW doesn’t know what to do with a transient one-armed man who’s wandered in from the desert during setup 2003, bleeding from his crazy-eyed head, talking about having just murdered a friend and his dog. Uhhhh, that’s beyond our scope of knowledge and ability.

We call the cops. We need cops. End of story. (more…)

Technology and Immediacy at Burning Man (A slightly less than Socratic dialogue)

Ah, technology ... how it burns  (Image by Stefan Krause)
Ah, technology … how it burns (Image by Stefan Krause)

[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.]

Every now and then someone proposes a new technological fix for what many at Burning Man don’t see as a problem in the first place. The debate that results usually boils down to a parody of intellectual discussion, as performed by a sparkle pony named “Meerkat” and a shirtcocker named “Thunder”:








This is a lot of fun to watch at three in the morning, but it’s not productive.

If we’re going to have a productive debate about technology, the terms of the discussion really need to change.

The first thing to realize is that an event in the desert founded on radical self-reliance can’t be anti-technology. Technology is a form of radical self-reliance. What you can’t do yourself you develop tools to do, and tools become machines, and machines become systems – and systems become “technology” as a whole. We absolutely rely on our tools to survive, let alone to build and thrive, and the idea that Burning Man culture is incompatible with the development of better tools is ludicrous.


“It Changed My Life!”

“Burning Man changed my life!”

I imagine that refrain must be annoying to people who have no interest in going. And it might be frightening to someone who is going for the first time. Maybe that change is exactly why you are going (or continue to go) to that wacky gathering in the desert.

I admit that I am one of the ones guilty of making that grand claim. After 16 years attending, I can barely remember who I was before I went to Burning Man.

I’ve had pink hair (year-round) for over 10 years. I help run a charity based on Gifting. I do a weekly podcast to recalibrate to my Highest Playa Self. Even my corporate job is linked to Burning Man: My CEO recruited me after watching some of my Playa Tips & Tricks Videos.

I’m not saying it will affect you the same way. But it might. Be open to it.
In fact, be open to the possibility that ANY experience in your life could dramatically change the way you see the world. A setback on the road. An interaction at a truck stop. A massive dust storm. A conflict with a campmate. These “obstacles” can be the very treasures that give your life meaning.

These “obstacles” can be the very treasures that give your life meaning.

Here is a short video answering the question of how Burning Man has changed me.

Side note: To everyone working their butts off to finish and pack up their creations: THANK YOU! I hope to be able to hug you, look you in the eyes and say it to you face…but please know I am GRATEFUL for your artistic spirit and your heroic efforts. I love you.

I hope you can join me on my Pink Ride on Thursday or enjoy some of the refreshing treats at my camp.

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