1/24/2014

Reasons A Jaded Burner Might Avoid Burning Man

army style tent and trailer at burning man 2007

Burning Man has been around for quite a long time. In the nearly 30 years it has been around the organizers have done a lot of things that have pissed off longtime participants, customers, locals, and the makers who largely create the festival. The organizers continue to do things that confound people. Some might even say that one shouldn't even support the organizers by buying tickets and bringing art. Let's explore some reasons to avoid this thing.

The brochure looked different

For a long time now the organizers have sold burning man, on its website, in speaking engagements, and in interviews, as a place free from the nastiness of consumerism and capitalism. While it has always been understood that one needs to buy stuff at home to be able to spend a week in the desert the type of stuff that the organizers referred to avoiding is now seemingly encouraged. As mentioned previously on this site the organizers now allow people to sell burning man videos and books via multinationals like Sony, Microsoft, Comcast, Apple, and Amazon. 

messy theme camp container at burning man 2010
Along with allegedly taking 10% on book deals the organizers of burning man also allow for-profit enterprises to operate within the confines of the event itself. The much spun and debated "plug-and-play" or "turn-key" camping outfits that sell all-inclusive packages to festival attendees bring up the concern of how much commerce is tolerated at the event. If one has the money one can pay for a camp experience that provides an RV stocked with food, with art cars that travel around the event-site and a staff that caters to various needs. 

While this type of VIP treatment and cashing in on the experience via sales of event-related products might be normal at any other festival burning man was supposed to be different. At least, it seemed that it would be different according to the brochure, which reads:
In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. 
While not as in-your-face as a normal summer rock concert the exploitation, in the estimation of some, is still there. One can pay a for-profit company (that isn't affiliated with burning man) for an all inclusive experience where one enjoys all of the art and entertainment that was gifted by everyone else at the event, while the business makes the money. One can give event organizers a cut of the proceeds and make a book or video that is sold via multinationals, making a profit off of all of the art and entertainment that was gifted by those at the event, which served as a backdrop. 

The people who bring 99% of the art and entertainment to the festival aren't compensated in any way at any time by the organizers of the festival or by the for-profit enterprises which rely on it for their revenue. Some might argue that the claim that organizers will "stand ready to protect" the participants from exploitation is not being met. Some might argue that the organizers are gladly allowing exploitation in the name of profit.

That non-profit transition thing

In 2011 much was spoken about the transition of Black Rock City LLC, which operates the event, to a non-profit by 2014. It was covered in the New York Times, it was covered all over the world. It is now 2014 and it seems as if the deal is done but it doesn't seem like anything happened.

More accurately, it is hard to say if anything really occurred because those in the LLC have been oddly silent about the subject. The only word that we've heard about it recently is: donate money. With all the world has to go on in relation to the supposed transition to a non-profit being pieced together from bits and pieces of interviews people are sorely lacking a real clear view of the current status of things.

Some, most notably journalist and author Steven T. Jones (who covered the burning man beat for a long timeBait-And-Switch. He may be as good a source to ask as we have, considering his many interviews of the LLC staff, including on the subject of the transition itself. 
las vegas type art sign at burning man 2009
for the San Francisco Bay Guardian) called the situation a

As far as we can tell it seems like a non-profit entity known as The Burning Man Project now has ownership of the for-profit Black Rock City LLC. It seems likely that the non-profit will contract with the for-profit to do all of the event-related work. The reality remains unsure as it doesn't seem to have been explained by the event organizers themselves. 

Why this matters might not seem clear to the outsider or newcomer. The importance of this apparent non-non-profit relates to the section above: the organizers espouse the value of Decommodification, as they call it. Going non-profit was something people have called for for a long time, in fact, some people didn't even know burning man wasn't already a non-profit. 

If people were sold on the idea of a non-profit transition and what they got was the for-profit being sold to a non-profit, with much of the financial details remaining unseen, that doesn't speak well for the organizers commitment to avoiding the for-profit exploitation of the festival attendees.

(Almost) Nobody gets paid

While it might seem odd to point out that people aren't getting paid after all of the talk about people not profiting off of this, it is important. The organizers pay themselves. The year-round staff gets paid. Some of the seasonal workers who make the event possible get paid. Most 'talent' at any festival in the world gets paid. But notably absent from any form of compensation at burning man are the artists, engineers, doers, and makers who create all of the art and entertainment which make burning man what it is: a profitable festival. 

theme camp at burning man 2007
The organizers do provide a small stipend that covers materials to roughly 30 projects each year. But, there are over 2000 projects at the event, costing participants well over a million dollars (paid for out of pocket and via crowd-funding). And, while the event brings in well over 20 million dollars in ticket revenue alone none of the artists who bring the 99% of what people pay to see get compensated for their work. 

Most people would agree that there is a difference between exploiting something for profit and being paid a reasonable fee for services rendered. In the case of burning man the only way to get paid is to do what many feel is exploitative of the culture: selling books, selling videos, selling services. One cannot sustain their burning man art by bringing it to the for-profit festival because they will not be compensated for their work. Those who are allowed to profit off of burning man end up, in the minds of some, exploiting those who bring art because those bringers are not compensated. It ends up bad all around. If the people bringing the art were compensated those making book projects and movies and selling for-profit vacation packages would not be seen as exploiting the uncompensated labor of others, because there wouldn't be any.

No trust

After years of various mess ups, mistakes, bad decisions, and dumbness a lot of people find it hard to trust the organizers of burning man. Whenever some new rule or policy comes out it invariably is analyzed by the community, which more often than not comes up with the conclusion that the LLC is stupid.

While it might not seem that trust is an important issue, it is. See the fact that participants must pay for almost all of the art and entertainment at burning man themselves. Know that the people who bring 99% of what people see and interact with at burning man have no say in the festival leadership, they cannot act in a role of steward of its culture, and they are rarely put in the loop when important things are decided.

It would seem that if the organizers were doing things right they would have built up a lot of trust from the community. Perhaps among some the trust is high, but often enough the trusting people only come for the party. Larry Harvey, the founder, likes to call what he has among some people as "social capital", which he says is profitable. But social capital among the party crowd is of little value if the ones who have invested in the long term with a lot of sweat equity don't trust what you're doing.

If the leaders of this thing have had a hard time building trust among many in over 20 years of working, odds are they are doing something wrong. If they are doing something wrong and there are tons of people willing
ranger at the man burn, burning man 2010
to give their input and take an active role in making things right it would seem that organizers would jump at the chance to take them up on their offer. But, it seems they have not. Largely the only input from the community seems to be from the Regional Coordinators, who put on small regional burning man affiliated festivals, and the yearly post-event call for feedback via email.

One notable time the organizers involved participants was when they were deciding how to handle the for-profit vacation package businesses that operate at the event. The LLC released blog entries, and videos of discussions with these people. Oddly absent are any attempts to make videos and reach out for pretty much any other topic.

And the rest

Of course, there is more. Such as the whole deal about who owns burning man and its trademarks. And the pressure allegedly put on organizers of other festivals by burning man. And the apparently poor treatment of staffers. And the countless other examples of stuff only the jaded burners care about. But that stuff can be saved for another time. 

Just know this when you tread into the deep dark murky waters of burning man: it might look pretty on the outside but there is tons of other shit you might not be aware of in the back. This might not matter to you, it might never impact you. But for some people it matters. For some these things are already enough to make them stay at home. For some these are reasons to avoid burning man.