Researching the Burning Man Diaspora

[This guest post is from Dr. Graham St John, who is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, where he is working in collaboration with Prof Dr. Francois Gauthier in the Department of Social Science researching the global Burning Man movement as a religion beyond religion. His website is]

Lithuanian Burner Jurgita Vanagaite, 2013 (photo by Paulius Musteikis)
Lithuanian Burner Jurgita Vanagaite on playa, 2013 (photo by Paulius Musteikis)

After my first encounter with Burning Man in 2003, I grew enthused by its global reach over the subsequent decade. This trend is reflected in the 2012 Black Rock City Census results (BRC Census 2012) in which we learn that 24% of the population of Black Rock City are reported to be non-US residents (about 10% European). There is no reason to believe that this global gravitation to the quintessential do-ocracy in the desert will abate any time soon. While this trend is fascinating in itself, of corollary interest is the stimulus that descending upon the Man is having back in the world. By 2014, pilgrimage to the world’s largest temporary city has triggered a global diaspora, with regional developments worldwide, stoked and nurtured by the Burning Man Project. Across the planet, official Regional Events (adopting the Ten Principles), as well as other event-communities, art initiatives and “transformational festivals” are being influenced, if not directly inspired, by Burning Man and its ethos. (more…)

What it means to manage an organization in hot pursuit of the ineffable (A report from the Global Leadership Conference)

If he could describe it, he wouldn’t have to paint it.

“We created The Burning Man Project,” founding board member Harley DuBois told 200 of Burning Man’s regional representatives and community leaders.  “And now we’re figuring out what it is.”

This was the common refrain among the main speakers from the Burning Man organization at the Global Leadership Conference.  After 25 years we’ve gotten “here” – and perhaps from this vantage point we can figure out where “here” is.

“What if we were able to take the network you have (as regionals) and the network BRAF has, and the network that BwB has, and connect them in three dimensions?” asked founding board member Marian Goodell.  “What would that look like?  What would that be?  How would that work?”

She didn’t have answers:  she was asking.

More personally, “The six founders are figuring out how we fit in,” DuBois said.  “You’re trying to figure out how you fit in.” (more…)

We’re no better than anybody else, you jackass

Humility isn’t a principle, but it’s still a virtue.

The session on “outreach to subcultures” at the Global Leadership Conference was winding down when the Kid-Who-Cares-More-Than-You in the front row raised his hand to ask the panelists a question.

It went something like this (I’m paraphrasing from memory):

“We’re hearing about all these really successful regional groups that are doing amazing community work, but I’m worried because I know that they’re also being approached to partner by corporate groups and religious groups that don’t live by our values, who are way off politically, and I’m wondering what we do to protect ourselves – to create a firewall that makes it clear that we’re not open to these partnerships.  What do we do?”

I generally don’t get angry in discussions about Burning Man, even if we’re arguing.  The worst that usually happens is I’ll mutter “fucking burners” under my breath, or tell one of my friends at Media Mecca how I hate us all because … well, I mean, look at us.  Bunch of freaks.  But that’s it.  Otherwise not worth getting mad over.  Not when there’s a friendly bunch of freaks to play with.

But that?  What the kid-who-cares-more-than-you asked?  I spent the next 10 minutes trying to find a dueling pistol.  Because that?  That thing he said?  THAT pisses me off something fierce.

I didn’t get to do anything about it.  I wasn’t wearing my rapier that day and the session ended two minutes later, before I got a chance to respond.  But as the crowd was filing out of the room the lovely regional leader sitting next to me, who just happened to be a clinical psychologist, told me “Go ahead and say it.  Whatever it is, you really need to get it out.”

She’s right.  I do.  Because while ranting may be the lowest form of radical self-expression, sometimes you just gotta slum.

So let me ask His Dreadlocked Majesty, King of White Activists:  where exactly do burners get off looking down our pierced noses at people who want to help?  What exactly makes us so much better than people who take a shower before they gift? (more…)

Larry Harvey’s Flying Stetson – a true story from the Global Leadership Conference

Larry Harvey and hat (photo by Jim Urquhart, courtesy of Reuters)

This may not seem like much, but for those of us who were there it was electric.

“I wore my hat,” Larry Harvey said as he took the stage for the keynote address at the Global Leadership Conference.  They were practically the first words out of his mouth.

I will dwell on the substance of Harvey’s keynote later – for now, it suffices to say that he opened with a little history about his hat.  About how he wore it, and it became iconic, and soon everywhere he went people were asking him:  “can I try on your hat?”

He always let them, and the hat must have had magical powers, because it always looked good on them.  Gradually he stopped wearing the hat, except for ceremonial occasions.

Then he gave his talk – a talk about how the Burning Man Project is being designed to support the Regionals;  about how there are hundreds of people now across the world beginning the very same journey that he and the other Burning Man founders made.

When he concluded his speech, a half hour later, he said that everything is changing, but his hat still looks best on other people.

Then he tossed it into the crowd. (more…)

Profiles in Dust: the future of Burning Man video (A Global Leadership Conference report)

This changes everything

Video of Burning Man will never be the same.  It’s getting crowd-sourced.

Ladies and gentlemen, Burners of all ages, I am humbled to announce the new:  “Profiles in Dust,” a concept so amazing that, mid-way through the explanation of how it came to be, I’m going to try to steal credit for it.

In the meantime, here’s what you need to know to jump in with both feet:

Last year a team of trusted videographers took massive amounts of extraordinary footage of Burning Man.  Every day, everywhere, every CORE project.  They made sure all of it follows Burning Man’s standards for privacy and protection of participants.

Now they’ve put all that raw footage on the web, where it’s freely available for download, to be mixed into whatever presentations people want.  They’re developing tools for easy use, and are actively looking for videographers amateur and experienced to turn it into something all their own. (more…)

Global Leadership Conference report – what is a “leader” at Burning Man?

Chip Conley

Burning Man, as a culture, now exists to various degrees from San Francisco to Singapore, from Korea and China to Israel, Africa, and Brazil.  Around the world, everyone is attracted to the same flame.

But what does it mean to make the most of these communities?  What does it mean, some 200 regional reps asked themselves in an afternoon session with Chip Conley, to be a leader in Burning Man culture?  If we don’t want to replicate the old “command and control” style of leadership, if we want to do better, if we want to be “servant leaders” … what exactly do we do?

Conley – an entrepreneur hotelier, bestselling author, and member of the Burning Man Project’s board – responded by telling us to look to American psychologist Abraham Maslow.

Conley has considered Maslow to be a blend between his mentor and patron saint for decades.  Conley ran his phenomenally successful business on Maslow’s principles, and was given access to Maslow’s diaries and papers by the late psychologist’s family when preparing his first book “Peak:  how great companies get their mojo from Maslow.”   He’s applied Maslow’s key concepts to everything from employee morale to finding personal fulfillment … and Burning Man.  One imagines he’d buy a used car based on Maslow’s notes in the lining of a Blue Book.

It would seem hackneyed if it didn’t work so well.  In fact, as Conley spoke about “servant leadership” in the context of Burning Man, I realized it’s hard to think of a more apt approach to what “leadership” means in Burning Man culture than Maslow’s. (more…)

Burning Man’s Global Leadership Conference – The center cannot hold

We couldn’t afford a satellite map

If there was an underlying theme to the sessions I attended and the conversations I had my first day at the Burning Man Global Leadership Conference, it was this question:  “How do we welcome each other?  How do we keep ourselves together in a world that wants to pull us apart?”

There are some very good answers to this question, and I’ll address them when I write about specific presentations – but before talking about anything else I think it’s important to look at where these answers come from.

One of the purposes of this conference – which used to be the Regional Network Conference – is to offer the different regionals a chance to talk to each other.  And they do.  But I think there’s a common assumption here that most of Burning Man’s collective wisdom is to be found at the San Francisco offices, the administrative center of the Burning Man universe.

While that may have been true once, I’m not sure it is anymore.  I’m very sure it won’t be in a few years. (more…)

Burning Man’s Global Leadership Conference (Part 1) – Everything Old is New Again

Burners love having their photos taken together.

If you want to know what’s on the cutting edge of Burning Man, the Global Leadership Conference (happening this weekend in Oakland) is the place to be … sort of.

It’s definitely where you can get the latest updates on what’s happening with the new Burning Man non-profit, or discover previously unknown issues arising at Regionals around the world.  The impact of new technologies is often acknowledged here first.  And – as a spoiler – I advise anyone who wants to see the future of Burning Man on video to stay glued to Saturday morning’s presentation on “Profiles in Dust”:  it’s amazing.

But to say the GLC is all about the future is to miss the fact that, in most cases, we’ve been here before.  What are the topics being covered?  Why:  “how to fund-raise.”  “How to get and keep volunteers.”  “How to reach out to new communities.”  “How to handle conflicts in our existing community.”  “How to produce a really great event.”

New problems?  Hardly – they’re the oldest.  These are all topics that have come up before, and before, and before, and will come up again, and again, and again.  It reached the point this afternoon where I realized that I was in a session that was covering some of the exact same issues that were covered in a session I attended last year … that included one of the same panelists.  It was, to be clear, a good session:  but I can’t say we broke any new ground.

Novelty may be the fruit of the GLC, but the trees are evergreen. (more…)