8/23/2014

Radical Stagnation - Burning Man stopped being creative and started making profit.


There has been a lot of talk in the past few years about how Burning Man is changing, about how it is expanding across the globe. The people who own Burning Man spoke loudly and proudly about a great change as they moved Burning Man to what was to be a non-profit. They spoke about how the regionals were the future of the burn. They lauded the actions of Burners Without Borders and Black Rock Arts Foundation as things that would spread burner culture. But through all of this, not much has changed on any front.

Burning Man seems like it is on autopilot. That might not reflect well on it, as the organizers seem to tout the fact that it is cutting edge and constantly innovating. But, even with this apparent slowdown in creative ideas it seems that Burning Man has been very financially successful. Just how that is so is a bit more complicated than "burning man is fun."

 The current state of things 

 

Anyone who has been around burning man for a while knows that a lot of stuff stays the same every year. A look at the burning man website shows that the city layout has basically remained unchanged since 1999. While changing the layout may be difficult and may not change the experience much it would show that the organizers are at least doing something creative in that 9 month period when burning man isn't happening. Of course changing the layout may bring complaints, and may also even need the BLM to sign off on it, but, it probably isn't impossible.


Those who've been around burning man for a while also know that another well known feature, the Center Camp Cafe, in the heart of the city, has remained basically unchanged since the year 2000. While it certainly isn't a beloved place among many veterans who often avoid going near it, it is one of the few things the organizers are responsible for doing each year.

Essentially, as it is sold, and apparently intended, the organizers of Burning Man provide a blank slate for participants (see: customers) to fill in. But, why did an event that changed more often pre-2000ish stop innovating and changing itself post 2000ish? The answer might be found in something written by Larry Harvey in 2010:
Burning Man has never earned a significant profit. Tickets sold early in the year following an event immediately fund critical activities early in the next yearly cycle. ... We have always talked of creating a "nest egg", a capital fund derived from profit that could be invested and put aside as a buffer and potential source of emergency funds, but we have never been able to achieve this goal. In purchasing land in 2001, however, we acquired assets.
Perhaps it was a coincidence that 2001 was also the first year that overtly protecting Intellectual Property is mentioned in the Burning Man Timeline, which is on their website.

While there isn't a ton to go on, as they don't release full financial reports, something happened around the year 2000 that made them stop innovating. They acquired property, they streamlined, they settled on a design for the city, for the cafe, for their volunteer departments, and they've mostly stuck with it. With that template they were able to stamp out 14 events without anything really changing. The most drastic change since this time was this year, 2014, when The Man sculpture, for the first time in 25 years, was changed. Everything else has basically stayed the same.

What is the big deal anyways

 

One might ask why any of this is important. It is important because, for better, or worse, at some point it seems like the focus of the organizers, the founders, became less on artistic vision, and more on a profitable production company. While not inherently wrong, or bad, it sort of sours the idea of burning man as an artistic wonderland when those most capable of creating it have chosen not to do so.

The hopes for this wonderland were peaked when it was announced in 2011 that burning man was going to transform in to a non-profit. There was talk about gifting burning man back to the community (though the founders now claim this didn't happen). There was talk about a year round art center for burners near the event site in northern Nevada. There was talk about more money going to art. But, here we are in 2014 with the transition complete and not much of anything has happened. The new non-profit has done essentially nothing. Meanwhile the event is still arguably for-profit, as the tickets are sold by a for-profit LLC, and a for-profit LLC owns all of the intellectual property.

The only thing innovative the organizers have done in the past few years was in an office with their accountants and lawyers. A lot of hope for the future which they hyped went up in smoke.


During this recent period we've seen the embrace of for-profit operations running at burning man itself, a divisive issue in the community. The founders OK'd selling all-inclusive packages on-site. We've seen the ever growing amount of big dollar corporate media projects (the recent Spark film has been sold by amazon, itunes, netflix, microsoft, sony, and more). A founder said that Rolling Stone magazine and Vogue magazine were asked to pay $100,000 fees to make photographs at the event. With all of these ventures the organizers of burning man get a cut of the proceeds. But, little to nothing ever comes of that money which comes in.

It seems a shame that at a time of apparent unprecedented profit and success for the business that little seems to be going back in to it. The infrastructure has been mostly the same for the past 15 years. The organizers still refuse to fully fund any art pieces but The Man (3.5% of the projects at burning man get a small stipend which doesn't cover the projects total cost).

What could be happening instead 

 

Perhaps not a lot should change. The model of burning man being participant (see: customer) driven certainly works. People are happy with it. But these days in a world with many festivals that fund art for their customers to experience, along with paying for talent to perform, burning man has competition. How burning man remains relevant, or more importantly, retains its long-devoted community, is important to consider. For an event that relies on spontaneity, no expectations, and the-new, the infrastructure, what is provided for us, seems awfully the same every year.

Perhaps it would be difficult to change the direction of the ship at this point. The placement department, the art department, dpw, etc, would have to change each year. Even so it seems like what little organizers do with their clean slate needs some work and it would be worth the difficulty. Simply put, they need to create more art. They need to do more of the things that they uniquely, with their deep pockets, oversight, and resources, can do.


Imagine a burning man with a vastly different layout each year, where you couldn't always predict that your neighbor camp was going to be next to you, because the organizers don't even know what the city would look like next. Imagine a burning man where the art was more well integrated in to the city itself, by the organizers themselves, who paid top dollar for amazing creations that the community would have difficulty funding and achieving.

Imagine a burning man where the cynics who claim that Larry, and the rest, get rich off of burning man were quieted by the fact that Larry and the founders were dumping 5 million, or more, on dozens of art pieces that were unique, integrated in to the patchwork of the city, and not funded by kickstarter. Imagine if the organizers took their lofty art themes and did more with them than write an artists statement but created surprises that didn't have to go through the vetting process of an honorarium grant cycle to make it to the playa.

Imagine a burning man where people got their inspiration from the work of those who designed the city itself, instead of from other ticket-buying customers. There is a huge blank slate out there in the black rock desert. It seems that to solely rely on your customers to fill it cheats everyone out of some possibly amazing things.

The organizers speak at length about how they've created an entire city, with a civic center, and neighborhoods. But, largely, in the past 15 years, they've rested on their laurels and have done basically nothing. Burning man is better with more art, more unexpected changes, and more creativity. The organizers are in control of things, and thus they are the most empowered to do something.

It is time for profit making and nest eggs to take a back seat to creativity. It is time to wow us not via press releases about a vision for the future. We deserve something more than new street signs each year. It is time for the organizers to walk the walk and to start being creative again.