9/02/2014

First Burning Man Under Non-Profit Done - What Now?


So, the first event since the multi-year non-profit transition is done. By all accounts Burning Man 2014 was about the same as it has been for a long time. The Man himself was larger than it had ever been, that was new. Someone died, a thing that has unfortunately happened before. The media covered the event, that wasn't quite new. One report said that there were four cell towers servicing the site this year, that may have been new. Rich people attended, but they've been going for a very long time. The Man burned, The Temple burned, and there was dance music.

As for what has been happening during the rest of the year as it relates to Burning Man, it also seems like not much is different. A little over one year ago Steven T. Jones, writer for SFBG and author of The Tribes of Burning Man, spoke with Larry Harvey and Marian Goodell about the non-profit transition and it seemed like even then they didn't know where it was headed (the impending transition was announced in 2011). In relation to the leadership and structure of the soon-to-be non-profit it was said:
 “We might change our minds at any time, that’s our prerogative."  -Marian Goodell
A little over 6 months after those remarks, the organization announced the completion of the transition. But, even with that announcement 6 months ago, we still don't know much about what the non-profit Burning Man Project is, and what it means to burners.

Just before this years burn an SFWEEKLY cover story written by Benjamin Wachs (who was a volunteer coordinator for Media Mecca and who currently writes for the official Burning Man Blog under the name Caveat Magister) appeared in which he noted that people still don't really know what this non-profit is. Even as someone who most might consider a bit of an insider the people that Caveat spoke to couldn't quite figure it out, he wrote:
"Outside of people directly involved in some way with The Burning Man Project, not one person contacted for this article said they understood what The Burning Man Project does, or how it's supposed to advance the culture. Many admit to being demoralized, and fear that this confusion hurts Burning Man's ability to inspire others. 
Told this, Burning Man Project leadership admit they have a problem. "I'm not exactly surprised," says Goodell.
So, Burning Man is about the same as it has been for a good 15 years. In 2011 Larry Harvey spoke about a "next step" for Burning Man.
"Why not act to change the world, a world that you won't be in? And that's what we want to do," -Harvey
Even more than changing Burning Man, he wanted to change the world! The organizers have spoken at length in the past 3.5 years about upcoming changes, both on-playa, and off. A New Burning Man, a New world! But here we are in that oft-spoken of future, and pretty much everything is the same. Even the non-profit hasn't changed much of the for-profit activities of the event, as mentioned here, and elsewhere, the for-profit Black Rock City LLC, and Decommodification LLC certainly exist and they make some money.

 So what is next?


It seems that the next step is finding a direction for the ship. For years, both before and after the transition to non-profit was announced, we had this goal floated about some grand vision for the future where Burning Man changes for the better. The non-profit transition wouldn't be needed if it didn't benefit burners in the first place. We heard that maybe there'd be a year round thing in the Nevada desert. We heard about changing the world itself. But now that the time is here we see not much is different from how it was when the regional network came to be in 2004, and how burning man was in 1999.

We have some regional events, that while enjoyable, aren't exactly starting fires that spread to the global community. The regionals are contract bound to Burning Man HQ and unable to grow organically without the permission of those in an office in San Francisco. We have a Burning Man event in Nevada that, while larger, wouldn't be mistaken for all that much different to someone who was at Burning Man in 2001.

If this non-profit is to do anything more than just shift paperwork and make money for lawyers and accountants it is going to have to produce some results.

It has been mentioned here before that the organizers need to be more creative. They need to be more art-focused. They need to be more freedom-focused when it comes to permissive use of the Ten Principles and Burning Man when it comes to regional events (i.e. not sending cease and desist letters to people who are trying to spread burning man organically). More simply put, they need to be acting more like burners are and less like a business does (see burner CEO Elon Musk, allowing any company to use the patents owned by electric car company Tesla, for free, as an example of breaking the business-as-usual mold).

While being more creative, funding more art out of their own piggy bank for on playa enjoyment, and doing more to feel more like a charity instead of a business will go a long way, that is probably stuff they should have been doing all along.

The What Next for Burning Man, and the Burning Man Project, should be something fantastic. It should be what the organizers themselves seem to expect of their customers, who bring wildly fantastic art out each year. The What Next for Burning Man should be more than a "coming soon" attraction. What happens next with Burning Man will play a large part in deciding its future.

If Burning man 2015, 2016, and 2017 are mostly the same as Burning Man 2000, we will know that its future is to become a staid representation of what Burning Man was 15 years ago. If we see some drastic changes we will know that all of those years of "coming soon" weren't for naught.