a goal for burning man

breaking down camp after burning man 2011
post event 2011

With origins on a San Francisco beach in 1986 the annual Burning Man arts festival is set to begin just a few weeks from now in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada where the 40 foot tall sculpture of a man has been burned since 1990. This will be the twenty-eighth year that some form of man sculpture, originally conceived by festival founder Larry Harvey, will be burned. From humble beginnings of roughly 20 individuals the event has since grown to numbers beyond 50,000, with the Bureau of Land Management, who manages the federal land where the event is held, recently granting burning man organizers a permit for an event with 68,000 people.

Currently burning man is operated as a for-profit company by what is known as Black Rock City, LLC. Formed in 1996 the LLC, with its 6 member board, produces and manages the event and acts as the decision-maker when it comes to the so-called Culture of burning man. In 2011 it was announced that there would be a transition, of sorts, from the for-profit LLC to a non-profit known as the Burning Man Project. Two years later into what was to be a 3 year transition period many are still unsure as to what the transition will mean for burning man or the culture that has built up around it.

Speaking of the future of burning man and the burning man project during a 2011 interview Larry Harvey had this to say:
"My partners are thinking beyond our lifetimes in doing it, it is a bit of a legacy project, which is really interesting, a very interesting exercise, and then we're saying 100 years, and that's an interesting thing because if you do that it makes you think differently about the present. So what would make something that durable, what will keep it alive that long? Well, we've seen we've been alive and grown for a quarter of a century so it doesn't seem like hubris to imagine an entire century at all. And, now we're in the position of founding an institution that would house and generate culture and function as a community and wondering how we can ensure that it wont be perverted or that it wont be subject to internal divisions or that it wont perish."
While it is clear that burning man has had some longevity one thing that isn't clear, when considering its future, is, longevity for what. Larry asks a question that mostly seems related to preserving burning man when he says his partners and himself wonder what would keep the event alive for 100 years, or what would make it durable enough to make it to that age. It seems that they aren't thinking of a goal for burning man. It may be that one could gain insight as to why there may be no goal when one considers their wish to ensure the culture or community is not "perverted", as Larry put it. With a strong culture that has its own goals and interests in mind it seems unlikely that an outside force would be detrimental enough to pervert any goal, or intent, which said culture is striving for. In other words, perhaps there is no goal because there is not a healthy trusting relationship between the culture of burning man and those who are purported to be its stewards.

Most festivals don't have goals, or, even large cultures which surround them. The organizers of burning man have often made grandiose claims about what should, or does, come of the event and those in the participatory culture who have largely made the festival what it is. In a statement prepared for a staff retreat in 2011, in relation to the transition, Larry had this to say:
"As planners, we design a kind of bucket, and the Ten Principles [ed: the ten principles are the so-called guidelines that are meant to be a reflection of the burning man culture], regarded as rules of engagement, describe the specifications of this bucket.

Virtually all of those things that convince us that Burning Man has the potential for a manifold application in the world, and that now form a few of the incipient programs of the Burning Man Project, have originated as spontaneous outpourings: they have overflowed the bucket.

But lest it seem too humble to suggest that we are merely bucket makers, let me also say I think we all believe that in time to come the world could house numberless buckets such as we wish to create, artesian sources of meaning which, washing over the globe, will overturn all expectations. Perhaps that is our mission."
In saying this it seems that even Larry himself is unsure of what the mission is when he says, seemingly unsure, 'perhaps that is our mission', but, it would seem that after over 25 years that a less nebulous mission would have been defined already.

If the mission, or perhaps, more interestingly, a goal for burning man hadn't yet been considered by the organizers who feel they have the role of stewardship of the community, and the event, by 2011 when the decision was made to make the transition to a non-profit, one might begin wonder if there can be a well defined goal under the current arrangement. Larry says this of the meaning of the event:
"To market, as it were, some kind of distillate of what Burning Man means, would misrepresent how things actually work. Indeed this is why we have never explained what the Burning Man himself means."
It seems doubtful that the meaning of burning man is a secret. Perhaps the secret sauce of burning man is that the organizers have yet to find a meaning, or, perhaps, a nebulous meaning that each individual defines is what keeps people coming back. Whatever the case may be if burning man is to survive through the transition and beyond, and as the organizers hope, to be of "manifold application in the world" they are going to need to answer some tough questions and resolve some difficult issues.

In the minds of many one of the toughest issues that the organizers will need to deal with is the community itself. The built up sweat equity of thousands of uncompensated participants who pay for the privilege to bring nearly every single thing that attracts ticket-buyers to the event in the form of sculpture, large music venues, small clubs, so-called theme camps, and roving vehicular art, cannot be ignored. In its current form the organizers of burning man relinquish no control over the governance and decision making process, as it relates to the event and even the culture, to the community who by and large make the festival what it is.

As made clear when Larry, speaking of the burning man project, said that he, through the non-profit, wants to ensure the culture is not perverted it is unlikely that stewardship (and thereby any goal setting) of the community will go to the community itself. That, among some, brings up the question of whether it really should be up to the roughly 20 people who are to lead the new non-profit to decide what is best for the future of burning man, its culture, and its community, which likely numbers over ten thousand loyal adherents who by and large create the event each year.

The tough question becomes who really controls, or, perhaps, owns, burning man? While technically the brand, burning man logo, and everything else, including photography and video rights, are, or will be, in the hands of either the LLC or the non-profit, even after the transition without the uncompensated participants bringing the over 1000 attractions which bring festival-goers from across the globe the event would be little more than a single 40 foot tall man sculpture and some portable toilets. This creates an uneven relationship. A cast of uncompensated thousands who create all of the value in the businesses that control the stage on which their art flourishes being charged (and, currently, profited off of) the price of a ticket for the privilege of doing so. Without compensating those who bring the attractions, and/or, relinquishing some control over the direction of the event, its culture, and community to those who truly make burning man what it is, the participants, the non-profit is likely to not see a burning man 100.
So, in looking for the long-term goal for the culture, community and event itself we end up with a more important short term goal. Until there is a more equitable balance between the interests and desires of the culture and community surrounding the event it is unlikely that all stake-holders will have their wishes met. Not having the opportunity to reach consensus on where to go with burning man, due to the unequal playing field, those who seek to have an overarching mission or goal will more than likely always be imposing their decision on an other which had no say. This means that in the coming future, perhaps the near future, that burning man could, suddenly, have a goal. That possible goal should reflect the words of Larry Harvey himself, when describing that first illegal burn on Baker Beach in San Francisco in 1986, and, what would become one of the ten principles which guide the event and supposedly reflect its culture:
“We were illegal, going down to the beach to burn this thing. And we depended for our resources, not on grants, and not on sponsorship, and not anybody’s funding, but on our own communal efforts undertaken together.”
When seeking out a mission, or a goal, for the burning man project, and the event itself, one must consider that right now it appears as if burning man is not a communal effort undertaken together. The current organizers feel they are in a parental role of looking out for the interests of the event and community and they depend on the participants to provide everything which brings value to their business. The struggle created by this situation brings about the most likely short-term goal of burning man: decide who really owns burning man. Once the question of who burning man is for is resolved all of those involved can finally get to the question that has been around for over 20 years: we're burning, but, for what?