12/11/2013

What would an ideal Burning Man look like?

staff and volunteer work truck at burning man
grab the bull by its horns
They said it would be great! Transition! But, sadly, it is likely things will continue to be about the same. Well, maybe one thing is going to be different, they'll be asking us for money more often. A few years ago those that own Burning Man said they would begin a transition to a non-profit. Now the transition is almost here but what the transition means is still not very clear. For an organization that seemingly prides itself on transparency that is a bit of a disappointment. Are they waiting until the deal is done to inform us?



At one point in his speech declaring the transition towards a non-profit Larry Harvey was quoted saying something that sort of implied that the event would be gifted to someone, or something:
We’re going to treat Burning Man like what it always should have been: not as a commodity, but as a gift. -larry harvey
Sadly Burning Man probably won't be gifted to anyone, that wouldn't be good for business. In fact, the people controlling Burning Man after the transition will be those on a board of seventeen members selected by the six members of Black Rock City LLC, which currently operates burning man. The six member board of the LLC will be among the seventeen board members in the non-profit, as well. Oh yeah, the current six member BRC LLC will also continue to have control over decisions about the culture of the event after the transition. 
chairs outside of a theme camp at burning man 2007
why not play musical chairs?
All six of us plan to stay around, ... we are not giving up the steerage of the culture ... we're more necessary now than ever. -marian goodell 
It seems at this point that what this transition means is still pretty unclear. In a June piece in the San Francisco Bay Guardian there are some quotes by two LLC members that seem to do more to confuse the issue than to clarify it. It looks like the non-profit will not own the brand or its trademarks, it won't actually operate the event, leaving the intact BRC LLC to do that, and the current six member board will stick around to act as deciders in terms of the culture.

So if the current LLC will produce the event and own its intellectual property and trademarks, and the non-profit will have no control over the event, only ownership, and the current six board members will likely be the ones making decisions, just what are we transitioning to? Who knows! But one thing is for sure. It likely won't be too much different from what we have now.

So what should burning man look like?

sign at a burning man theme camp in 2007
no, really, it is not OK
Without a clear picture of what transition means, how about we invent our own version? That is easy enough. First we have to point out what is not OK right now, and use that as a guide towards what needs to be fixed.

Stuff That is Not OK (in no particular order):
  • Only the LLC, and those they pick (with no input from the community) get to profit from Burning Man.
  • The artists and makers who create the art and all of the attractions have to pay to attend.
  • The artists and those who create the attractions aren't compensated for their work.
  • The LLC relies too heavily on unpaid volunteers.
  • Those that do get paid for seasonal work need better pay (and benefits).
  • The community doesn't have a say in anything.
  • The do-ers have no equity in an event they make. 
  • The photo policy is a load of shit.
  • Burning Man doesn't pay for the attractions, expecting the ticket-buying community to build them and pay for them out of pocket or with crowd-funding.
  • "Intellectual Property" thugs who use threats of legal action against ticket-buyers who helped created the brand.
OK that is a good start, ten things! Guess how many of those will be dealt with in the coming transition? Would it shock you to know that it is very likely zero of them will be dealt with? Whatever. Let us transition to Burning Man utopia!

the man base at burning man 2011
he prematurely transitioned
Vague outline of the new ideal Burning Man:
  • Burning Man gives a seat at the decidin' table to those from established villages, theme camps, art collectives, builders, and volunteer depts, with extra seats waiting for newcomers.
  • Burning Man begins to transition towards a model that allows major contributors and artists some compensation for their work. Eventually they allow more compensation for more contributors.
  • Burning Man allows the community to use the brand, and event, to make profit so they can continue to fund their art and creations which they'll bring to future Burnings Man
  • Burning Man transitions to paying volunteers for their work, and giving better compensation to those already paid.
  • Big contributors to the event get free admittance because they are creating the event!
  • Photo policy dies and Intellectual Property wolves die.

Ok, so that is a start. Now, don't go running away with this idea thinking it will be great right away. Burning Man will have to change. You do realize if they actually have to pay the artists who create the 2000 attractions that people come to see it might mean they have to change some stuff to keep afloat, right? Maybe the need to pay volunteers and the artists will mean Burning Man has to be smaller. Maybe it means ticket prices will be higher. It may change a lot of things. It may mean saying 'fuck off' to the much lauded ten principles. Whatever it means, the goal is an Ideal Burning Man. Right now, to some, things could be a lot better. 

What we know of the real coming transition doesn't really answer any of the concerns that people have about the event. Right now all we really know is that a transition of some sort is happening and that they want more of our money:
The leadership of the LLC are in the final stages of negotiating and completing the transaction that will make Black Rock City, LLC a subsidiary of the Project. Now more than ever the Project needs your support. Please consider making a donation.-jrs newsletter
What do they plan to do with this money? Who knows. Why do they even need more money? Who knows. They probably don't need it so they can pay those who create burning man, i.e. the people who pay for tickets to attend the event which they, largely, create.

Whatever happens over the next few years there is something everyone, no matter their opinion, should know about this whole situation: the community has a lot of sweat equity in this thing, and, they have a lot of power too. How does the community use that power? Do they use it to spread praise on the beneficent founders who allow burning man to take place?  Do they use it to demand a burning man that is more sustainable and that shares the decision making and equity around to all of the interested parties? Who knows! 

The only thing that seems clear right now is that while there may be a vision of an Ideal Burning Man in some peoples minds, it is very much unlikely that this non-profit transition is going to resemble any vision of that utopian ideal. 

It would have been really great if the founders who embarked on this grand transition would have started the journey by going to the community which creates the event and asked them, the ones who make it possible: What would an ideal Burning Man look like? It may not have resulted in our utopian dreams, but, odds are that it would have represented the views of more than seventeen people.