7/27/2013

kickstart my trashbags: or, radical self entitlement

crowd-funding project page
So, here we are again. We're on the home stretch and the annual Burning Man festival is coming up soon. Outside of the normal last minute planning for a week-long stay in the desert what does this mean? In the year 2013 it means that we are in the middle of the burning man equivalent of an NPR or PBS fund drive.

With the rise of easy to use so-called crowd-funding websites, like kickstarter and indiegogo, people who want to bring some project or idea to burning man barely need to pay for anything, save the paypal fees and the cut that kickstarter and indiegogo take for themselves, of course. Gone are the days when passing a hat around between interested parties directly involved in a project was one of the few ways to bring your ideas to fruition.
  
Where once we had people directly involved in a project organizing a fundraising event with entertainment, or a bake-sale, we now have cold disconnected internet webpages with enticements to support that are reminiscent of the proverbial PBS or NPR tote-bag.

backers receive rewards
Wait, scratch that.. some of these enticements aren't merely reminiscent of tote-bags.. they are tote-bags.

In 2013 between the big two crowd-funding sites alone people have pledged over $500,000 in support of dozens of projects intended for the festival. With the funds to pay for everything from vehicle rentals, generators, to trash bags. It is no surprise that such great sums are being sought when one considers the encouragement the organizers of burning man itself have given to use this method of raising funds. Current year-round staff member responsible for, among other tasks, the "global communication strategy" for burning man, Will Chase, organized a workshop in late 2012 that was about everything crowd-funding. In the pre-workshop advertisement it includes the following:
"Fundraising is easy to overlook or just plain do badly, leaving you holding the bag in the end and potentially in debt."

"this workshop will NOT cover grants or grant-writing. It will instead focus more on on-line crowdsourcing options and similar direct fundraising efforts."
These parts are interesting on two levels, one, relating to the so-called "10 Principles" that guide decisions made relating to the event and the culture around it, and two, that burning man uses over $500,000 from ticket purchases each year to fund a grant program for artists.

Even before the creation of the 10 principles, which were created by founder Larry Harvey in 2004 to, ostensibly, spread the burning man brand through regional events, the organizers of burning man espoused the virtue of "Radical Self-Reliance". The merits of what radical self-reliance is in the context of "crowd-funding" ones art project could certainly be argued but let's have a look at what it says as written by Larry:

Radical Self-reliance

Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.
It seems that one might not be too daft to scoff at the idea of event organizers espousing the virtue of relying on ones inner resources while also suggesting that crowd-funding is a good way to go about getting things done. Things are also a bit murkier when one considers a sentiment expressed by Larry Harvey in a long-ago 1999 newsletter:
"This exercise in what we call "radical self-reliance" is intended as an antidote to the passivity created by consumer culture. In our normal lives we are accustomed to a world that is designed for marketplace convenience. All that is required of us when we purchase something is a sum of money and a willingness to spend it, and no demand is made upon our inner resources."
While it is unlikely that Mr. Harvey knew of the upcoming rise of online fundraising it seems just as unlikely that he would have radically changed his position on what is claimed to be the core of what he believes makes burning man burning man: relying on ones own resources to get things done.

The encouragement of crowd-funding seems antithetical to the words shared by Larry in that newsletter so long ago. In fact it appears that online crowd-funding is exactly the kind of reality being described as a negative thing that encouragement of radical self-reliance is intended to avoid.

This new method of raising funds is felt by some who give to be a way for them to participate (Participation, another of the 10 principles). Yet, it is more akin to what Larry describes as marketplace convenience, where from ones comfortable desk they can buy their participation with a project in the form of opening up their wallet. This passivity, as Larry refers to it, is apparent equally at both ends of the transaction, as ones inner resources are not exactly taxed when filling out a website form to make a request for $30,000 dollars.

a call for volunteers
A year after the 1999 newsletter Larry reminisces about the history of burning man at a lecture :
"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."
In 2012 burning man gave out over $500,000 in grants to 44 art projects. The grants don't provide artists with complete funding, but enough to get started. Recently, the balance of what was needed to complete a project and get it to the event has been more and more picked up through crowd-funding. Why is this important? The importance is made more clear elsewhere in the same lecture:
"Corporations have made some signal discoveries. They've found out that investing in art is good for business. They operate on the familiar principal that the package is more potent than the product, and that is why you see this orgy of museum building going on all over the world. They invest in museums and they invest in the international art tourist attractions called biennials. More than anything, they've made one really important discovery. Art is good for real estate."
Here we have burning man in 2013, which has again likely given over $500,000 in seed money from ticket-purchasers to various art projects, with uncompensated artists that are encouraged to seek crowd-sourced moneys in the order of $600,000 to cover the balance of their expenses so that their projects can be brought to the event for the entertainment of festival goers. This all, apparently, approved by a man and a business which packages the potent idea of an event which is deeply rooted in the idea of radical self-reliance. From a man who spoke about the origins of the festival saying "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" it seems odd that in the intervening years between those comments and now burning man, and Larry Harvey himself, have seemingly found that same signal discovery he seemingly spoke against so long ago: investing in art is good for business.

burning man financial report
In giving out relatively small grants to uncompensated artists who then are encouraged to appeal to passive participants to open their wallets less the artists end up, as Will Chase put it, "holding the bag in the end and potentially in debt" Larry and burning man have basically hit the festival jack pot.

Unlike most festivals where the organizers compensate all of the performers and those providing attractions the organizers of burning man produce an event where they provide nearly no entertainment or attractions of their own, save one notable example, the eponymous man sculpture, contrasted by over 1000 attractions brought by the paying ticket holders themselves. They package the potent idea of an event where radical self-reliance and participation are deeply regarded, where the participants reach into their own inner resources to create an event of their own making. In doing this burning man has created a group of loyal followers who will, sometimes, if Will Chase is to believed, go into debt to bring attractions for ticket buying festival goers to enjoy. The bringers of these hundreds of art installations, projects, and camps, undoubtedly doing it out of love for what they do and to have others see what they've done are not compensated for their labor or for their creations. They represent profit on both sides of the table to burning man, as ticket buyers and performers/attractions.

So, about radical self-entitlement, it seems like the people buying tickets, and building art paid for in part by grants and also in crowd-funded money, trust that when burning man organizers and Larry Harvey suggest something that it is in line with the guiding principles of the event. Rather than being entitled, the participants seem to go out of their way to provide, without being compensated. They've been told this is a good thing.

But perhaps Larry and the organizers of burning man are pulling a cultural fast one. In selling the idea of radical self reliance, in the form of grants, encouraged crowd-funding, and uncompensated ticket buying customers providing nearly 100% of the attractions and entertainment at the for-profit festival, it seems like the organizers are basically doing the exact opposite of what they espouse so strongly. The organizers aren't being radically self-reliant, they aren't sharing in the fruits of what, as Larry said, are "our own communal efforts undertaken together". The way things feel there is no "our" when it comes to the burning man organizers and the participants. The organizers are building a stage with customer money and charging the Rolling Stones to perform on it without paying the band for their performance, which they've profited from. The organizers basically face no risk, so long as they can keep convincing the uncompensated participants to bring the attractions.

It appears that Larry Harvey and the organizers of burning man feel Radically Self-Entitled to having their cake and eating it too. The event isn't made in partnership with the community that they rely on for the very attractions which bring in ticket sales, which if the organizers felt obliged to follow the spirit of radical self-reliance as they describe it, it should be. The community has no say in the stewardship of the event and they are forbidden from seeking their own profit off of their own labor and creativity, in the name of "Decommodification" (which is another of the 10 principles). It seems, when considering the reality of the situation, that decommodification is more of a way to entitle the organizers the control of decision making and all of the money related to the event. Also, it seems that the organizers only seek communal effort when it comes to the customers, who are the providers of attractions, not themselves. It appears as if the organizers aren't sharing in communal effort that the "burning man community" delivers on.

Maybe Larry was right, back in 2000, when he said that investing in art is good business. The business he helped build appears to spend a little over $500,000 a year in planting a seed for a few dozen art projects, which, with the encouragement of crowd-funding, grows and flowers into over 1000 projects brought by paying customers, resulting in ticket buyers bringing in nearly 20 million dollars in sales in one year.

Of course, it is their business, why wouldn't they be entitled to reap the rewards? The deck is so carefully stacked in their favor, through cultural posturing and encouragement of behaviors that benefit burning man financially that the organizers are nearly ensured of having their cake and eating it too. But they call for shared communal effort undertaken together. Everyone in the community might be in the same location during the event but nothing seems together about the lack of shared responsibility in the events stewardship nor the lack of sharing in the financial rewards of the participants communal effort.

Shouldn't the organizers be afraid of being so radically externally-reliant? What if some young Larry Harvey-like person comes along who can see through their radical self-entitlement, someone who can see when a business is just carefully engineering things to suit the bottom line. What if that Larry Harvey-like person convinces the paying customers who provide the reason to attend burning man that they aren't getting a fair deal? What if those people, in a shared communal effort undertaken together, take their community elsewhere? What if the people start feeling like the organizers of burning man are radically self-entitled?