From Big Easy to Big Apple

An artist in the Bywater turned the markings made on New Orleans homes flooded by Hurricane Katrina into a steel sculpture.

It’s tough to get back into the swing of life in The City after lazily pedaling through sultry, soulful New Orleans last week (although I am looking forward to my The Tribes of Burning Man reading/discussion at Asiento tomorrow night). I wish I had the resources to go on sabbatical and continuously tour all the vibrant cities that I touch on in my book – including Austin, Denver, Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Philadelphia – to connect with the myriad urban tribes in the communities that nurture them.

But I was thankful for my embrace by the Big Easy, and I’m excited to be headed to the Big Apple in June for some Tribes-related events, a trip I just confirmed. I’ll be at Cafe Mezcal (86 Orchard St.) for my NYC book launch party and discussion with that city’s monthly regional gathering on June 8 at 8pm, doing a reading at Columbia University Bookstore June 9 at 6 pm, attending Figment that weekend, and being canonized on Sunday the 12th by Rev. Billy and the Church of Life After Shopping.

I’m honored and humbled by the efforts of Billy Talen, Wylie Stecklow, and other NYC burners to bring me there and facilitate a discussion of the issues raised in my book. The response to the dozen or so book events that I’ve held so far has been great, and my readings in New Orleans were no exception, with engaged crowds that were hungry to talk about Burning Man and how it is shaping the country’s counterculture.

There was the couple I met at my Garden District Book Store who showed up in their burner finery and brought me a beautiful purple, hand-embroidered dust mask as a gift. And the woman at my Maple Street Books reading who loves the burner culture and makes her own costumes – and who is actually a sitting judge in New Orleans, giving a new dimension to the question she asked about privacy and photos at Burning Man.

And it isn’t just burners that are injecting this kind of color and life into their communities. I went to New Orleans with my pal Jason Henderson and we stayed in the funky Bywater home of his friend since childhood, Richie Kay, a zookeeper, author, and maker of amazing tallbikes that he pedals through neighborhoods that are still just coming back from Hurricane Katrina. There is a lazy ease and warm amiability to New Orleans that makes it feel almost like being in Black Rock City

Richie has never been to Burning Man, but he knows the burner culture well, from Cyclecide and other bike culture burners in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis down to his roommate, a veteran DPW guy who had lots of good stories about all the figurative bodies buried around Black Rock City. And Richie embodies that DIY builder and communal ethos spirit that Burning Man tends to bring out in people as much or more than anyone I’ve ever met on the playa.

Because it isn’t Burning Man per se that is shaping the “new American counterculture,” but the spirit and spirits that it attracts, awakens, and cultivates. The Man is mostly a rallying point around which to gather, its real value derived from the efforts of the multitudes working, dancing, and communing around it.

As I wrote on page 213 of Tribes as I explored the connection between the counterculture and the mainstream political culture that was in the process of electing Obama in 2008: “Ultimately, it isn’t really about the Man in the Middle; it’s about the community around it and how that community was being shaped by its involvement with Burning Man. And if the community around Obama wants to expand into a comfortable electoral majority – let alone a movement that can transform this troubled country – it was going to have to reach the citizens of Black Rock City and outsiders of all stripes, and convince them of the relevance of what happened [at the Democratic National Convention] in Denver and what’s happening in Washington DC.”

But for now, I’m thrilled to be the Man in the Middle of my book tour, observing the inspiring people all around me.

Tribes book tour takes flight

It’s been an exciting couple months since the release of my book, The Tribes of Burning Man, with launch parties and forums transitioning into bookstore readings around the Bay Area. Those will continue throughout the year, but tomorrow I open a new chapter and revisit and old one when I board a plane bound for New Orleans.

I’m not too sure what to expect from my pair of bookstore readings there – 4/20 at 6 pm at Maple Street Books and 4/23 at 1 pm at Garden District Book Store – but I’m really excited to meet some of the Big Easy Burners and tour that fantastic city, which plays an important role in the book’s six-year narrative.

It was after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast on the first day of Burning Man 2005 that the culture developed its do-gooder outreach branch, Burners Without Borders, which grew out of an encampment of burners that spent nine months doing free cleanup work in Biloxi, Pearlington, and the surrounding communities.

I spent some time working with and chronicling that effort for this article in the Bay Guardian, material I later adapted into my book. So I’m excited to return and I think it’s appropriate that I launch the next phase of my book promotional efforts there, a place focused on seeds and deeds more than beads, but which also knows how to have a good time.

After that, I’ll be headed to New York City from June 6-12 for a couple readings, a June 7 NYC launch party for the book, the Figment festival, and a ceremony on June 12 where Rev. Billy and the Church of Life After Shopping will canonize me at St. Scribe, joining a pantheon of other notable figures, a truly humbling honor. Details coming soon.

And then, on the weekend of July 17, I’ll be returning to the city on my birth, San Luis Obispo, for a rocking Central Coast book launch party and reading. I hear the SLO burners have really been rocking it these last couple years and I can’t wait to connect with them. We’re also still trying to do events in Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, and Austin this year, so stay tuned for those announcements as well.

Laissez le bon temps rouler!

Another perspective and audio from my recent reading

Tom Price and I cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina with Burners Without Borders in February of 2006.

As I prepare for my next reading of The Tribes of Burning Man this evening at Stanford University Bookstore, I’m posting a recording of my last reading at Books Inc. in Alameda, where I focused on the rebel movements within Burning Man and the questions that were being raised about how control of the event was being transferred to a new nonprofit and where the existing equity of the event would go.

Among the many critics of the questions I was raising and my decision to quote longtime burner critic Chicken John was event founder Larry Harvey, who accused me of bad journalism for giving Chicken a forum, although I still believe the questions he was raising were valid and worth airing publicly.

Later that day, Larry and I discussed it by phone, and I reiterated my belief that the six board members alone shouldn’t dictate the new governance structure or how much money they should cash out for, and that there needed to be some kind of public process in which burners would participate. Larry is leery of democracy, and he doesn’t feel like he should submit his worth to a decision by the masses, but he did finally say there will be a public process. “We will be releasing information as we go along and we’ll make that public,” he told me. “There will be forums out there and ways people can engage.”
As the longtime scribe of an event and culture that I hope have bright futures, I was happy to hear his intention to allow the larger community to participate, because I don’t think he’s right to dismiss the points Chicken is making simply because Chicken is the one making them. While Chicken has been more public and colorful in raising concerns about Borg’s governance style and intentions than most, his perspective is shared by many other burners that I’ve been hearing from, including some very significant figures in this community, people who make Burning Man what it is.
So I thought I’d close with part of a relevant chapter in my book, which I read in Alameda and will read tonight. My apologies that it and the group discussion got cut out of the Alameda event when I reached disk capacity, but tonight’s event will be recorded in full by the Stanford Storytelling Project, so I’ll share that soon.
So, some food for thought:

Who’s Really in Charge?

There had been many challenges to the leadership of the event, to Black Rock City LLC, by current and former attendees who felt it was their event as much as the Borg’s.

That tension had always been there, but it came fast and furious during the renaissance years, starting with the Borg2 rebellion in 2005, continuing the next year with John Law’s lawsuit, and the next when Paul Addis torched the Man early, and again the next year when people heckled the American Dream theme and were upset with the Borg’s role in sending Addis to prison.

But it wasn’t just the outsiders who raised concerns. Even the true believers, many of whom drew paychecks from the Borg and helped do its bidding, decried a leadership structure that didn’t seem to fit with the event’s hyper-collaborative nature.

Tom Price publicly evangelized Burning Man culture more fervently than anyone I knew. When he married Burning Man spokesperson Andie Grace in October of 2008 – with Reverend Billy officiating, all the Borg brass in attendance, and colorful Indie Circus performers livening up the event – it was like a Burning Man royal wedding.

But later, Tom told me that the Burning Man culture blossomed almost in spite of its leadership. “Mitigating against that is the absolute train wreck that is the management of the Burning Man event itself. I don’t think you could find a group of people that is less equipped and less likely to be running a multi-million-dollar corporation than the six people running Burning Man right now. And I think they’d tell you that themselves,” said Tom, who had been increasingly involved with the Borg since founding Burners Without Borders. “The great dichotomy is the event itself is a countercultural institution that is run in a way that is very traditional and the result of that has been enormous dynamic tension from inside the community aimed at the organizers of the event.”

If it can get its shit together, Tom said, Burning Man could be a big force for change. “But, having created these tens of thousands of newly empowered, self-actualized people, if it stumbles in that, the children will eat their parents just as readily as they will eat the dominant culture that they are raging against.”

Are we participants or spectators?

Chicken John and I each came under some fairly harsh criticism for raising questions about Burning Man’s transition to nonprofit control in this post, mostly ad hominem attacks on us rather than our points. And that got me thinking: do the citizens of Black Rock City want to have a discussion about the future of Burning Man? Are we participants in building this city and this culture, or mere spectators to someone else’s act of creation?
On Friday night at Books Inc. in Alameda, for a reading of my new book The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture, I led an interesting discussion of this issue with a couple dozen smart, engaged burners. After I read chapters in the book that provided background for this current moment, the debate that ensued showed how truly complex these issues are and how many unanswered questions there are. It was fascinating discussion that could have go on and on – as it should.
It was a week ago tonight that I wrote about event founder Larry Harvey’s speech talking about the years of internal turmoil and negotiations that led to the decision to create a new nonprofit entity to run the event, and his announcement of how that will take place slowly over the next six years, generally how they’re choosing the other seven board members that will lead the nonprofit with them, and how the six board members will cash out at the end. Even he acknowledges that there are many more decisions still to be made and a long, perilous road ahead.
I have a lot of respect for Larry Harvey, and I do think that he and the other five members have been good stewards of this event and culture. I’ve been happy to support their full-time salaries with my money and volunteer labor, and I do think they deserve a payout when they decided to relinquish control over the event. But I also don’t think they are the only stakeholders in Burning Man or the only ones who should determine its future and governance structure, at least not without hearing from us first.
Participation is central to Burning Man, its very raison d’etre. Nobody builds Black Rock City for us, we build it ourselves – developing our vision, organizing our crews, and raising the money to build our corner of this fabulous city. Of Burning Man’s 10 Principles, which Larry wrote and on which he says the new nonprofit will be founded, Participation is one of those principles and something that runs through most of the others.
“Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation,” he wrote.
That notion and spirit also runs through the principles of Radical Inclusion, Decommodification, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, and Radical Self-Expression, the latter certainly being something that Chicken John believes in, and something he’s been practicing since the very early days of an event he helped create.
Burners of goodwill can differ over the next steps for our culture, and may have differing views about how much credit and cash the six board members deserve, and that’s fine. Like Burning Man itself or any of its greatest works of art, interpretation is a matter of perspective and people are going to see different things.
But this is a discussion that we need to have, this year and in the coming years, if we are to honor the principles of the community that we’ve chosen to be a part of. Otherwise, it really is just a big party in the desert thrown by just another corporation. So, criticize the points that Chicken and I make, but don’t tell us we’re being ungrateful for sparking a discussion and that we should simply accept what we’re being told by this corporation, because I don’t believe it is just another corporation or that its board members are the only owners of this event.
If you want to take part in the discussions that I’ll be leading, here are some upcoming dates:
April 14, 6 pm — Stanford University Bookstore, 519 Lasuen Mall, Stanford, CA, 94305

April 20, 6 pm — Maple Street Books, 7523 Maple Street, New Orleans

April 23, 1 pm — Garden District Book Shop, 2727 Prytania Street, New Orleans

May 11, 7 pm — Books Inc., 301 Castro St., Mountain View

May 12, 7 pm — Revolution Books, 2425 Channing Way, Berkeley

May 19, 7:30 pm — Pegasus Books, 2349 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA 94704

May 25, 7:30 pm — Booksmith, 1644 Haight Street, San Francisco

July 19, 6 pm — Mechanics Institute, 57 Post, Room 406, San Francisco

July 20, 12:30 pm — Alexander Book Company, 50 Second Street, San Francisco, CA, 94105

Aug. 11, 6 pm — San Francisco Main Library, Latino Hispanic meeting room, 100 Larkin Street, San Francisco

Is Burning Man going communal or selling out?

Reprinted from my Bay Guardian blog post:

Photo of Larry Harvey by John Curley

“Man on the move,” the headline I gave to my current Guardian article and an extended personal blog post on the announcement that Burning Man will next month form a nonprofit group to eventually run the event, raises a number of interesting issues that are likely to be vigorously debated within this huge, active burner community in the coming months and years.

How should Burning Man be governed? What is the event worth – if it can even be quantified – and who created and should benefit from that value? Are Black Rock City LLC board members being selfless stewards of the culture in giving up control or are they being greedy control freaks in holding on for six more years and expecting a big payoff in the end? Or, like much about this dynamic culture, is the truth somewhere in the middle?

Event founder Larry Harvey’s big announcement last week, made during a speech that was unusual for its insights into the thoughts and internal dynamics of the BRC board, stressed how to value an event whose central ethos opposes such commodification.

“I thought it was time the owners stepped out from behind the veil of secrecy,” Harvey told me during a follow-up interview this week. He repeatedly emphasizes the benevolence of a corporate board voluntarily giving up control over its assets and revenue stream. “What we’re doing, as far as normal capitalism, is aberrant…What we’re doing is giving up a lot of money.”

But the way that Harvey is trying to frame this issue seems antithetical to how most burners see the event and culture that they’ve spent decades helping to create, from using the term “owners” to describe the six board members to suggesting Burning Man has any relation to “normal capitalism,” even to the claim that there’s “a lot of money” to give up, and that they might be more entitled to that money than the thousands of burners who have contributed their sweat equity to the event.

“We have people who have 10,000 volunteer hours at Burning Man,” says Chicken John Rinaldi, a longtime burner and critic of how Harvey and the board have run the event, believing that they have always overstated their importance considering Black Rock City is built each year almost entirely by its participants. “This event throw itself.”

Yet Harvey and the other board members, such as Michael Mikel and Marian Goodell, insist that the board plays an important role in shepherding the event and the culture that has grown up around it, which is why they plan on waiting three years to turn control of the event over to the new nonprofit, the Burning Man Project, and another three years after that until they liquidate their ownership of the name and associated trademarks and are paid for their value.

“We want it to get on its feet and be able to raise money on its own,” Harvey said of the nonprofit. The board is also creating a committee called the Philosophical Center “to ensure the cultural continuity as we pour Burning Man into a new vessel.” Mikel said he insisted on that because “for me, it’s not about the art. It’s really about the culture.”

The nonprofit board will be comprised of the six LLC board members and at least seven more members that those six members will select, and Harvey said they are doing interviews now, including talking to many longtime burners who were represented at last week’s summit of Burning Man regional leaders from around the world. Chicken said it was offensive that Harvey would tell this gathering that it would take six years before they’d have full control over Burning Man.

“What they’re saying is it’s going to take years to pass the torch over, and they’re saying this to a room full of people who have been involved in Burning Man for decades,” Chicken said. He was particularly critical of Harvey’s statement that the board discussed coming up with a value for Burning Man and dividing that by six. “Once that comes out of someone’s mouth, the bets are off.”

Chicken’s conclusion: “They’ve turned Burning Man into a commodity. They’re selling the event.”

Burning Man doesn’t have much by way of assets now, and its roughly $12 million annual revenue stream from selling tickets goes almost entirely to staging the annual event and supporting the year-round operations of the organization.

But once the nonprofit forms up and starts taking tax-exempt donations and finding other ways of diversifying its revenue stream for the three years before the current board members cash out, Chicken predicts the board members will walk away with about $1 million each. “But I’m not going to let them get away with it,” pledged Chicken, who has already starting agitating and rabble-rousing in online forums, just as he did in 2004 when he launched the rebellion that became known as Borg2.

Harvey has confirmed the board members will walk away with well more than the $20,000 that they’re currently entitled to if they resign, “but we’ll have to work for a living,” he said. Mikel told me, “It’s never been about the money, for me it was there was no succession plan. I really want Burning Man to continue beyond my involvement with it.”

Yet they also said that the bitter divisions on the board have evaporated since the new plan was developed. “Now that we can all see the future,” Mikel said, “we’re getting along wonderfully.”

But Chicken says he’s determined not to let these six board members, who have been getting the highest salaries for the last six years anyway “simply for ordering the PortaPotties,” profit from an event he helped created that has always been been about communal effort and decommidified relationships.

“Burning Man should be a labor of love,” he said. “I think Burning Man should exist outside of commerce.”


Guardian City Editor Steven T. Jones is the author of The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture.

Man on the Move

Burning Man will step across the abyss this year. Design by Rod Garrett with Andrew Johnstone

This is a big transitional year for Burning Man, a shift symbolized by the fact that the eponymous Man will, for the first time in the event’s 25-year history, be in a new pose: striding across a chasm rather than standing still.
During a long and deeply personal speech to Burning Man regional representatives from around the world gathering for a conference in San Francisco on April 1, Larry Harvey explained how he and the other five Black Rock City LLC board members arrived at the decision to begin turning control of the event over to a new nonprofit group: The Burning Man Project.
Readers of my new book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture, already know that this idea was hatched last year and it grew in part out of lawsuits filed by board member Michael Mikel and John Law, the estranged co-founder of the modern event who received an undisclosed financial settlement to his suit.
But this first detailed public announcement of the creation of the nonprofit and how it will work wasn’t the only newsworthy aspect to Larry’s speech. He also revealed with striking candor just how bad things had gotten within the organization, announced plans to move into a new headquarters in mid-Market Street in about one month, and offered the first hints of how much money the six board members may walk away with for their efforts since 1996, when Law left and the LLC was formed.
Larry said that last year’s art theme of Metropolis is really the story of what Burning Man has become, and that this year’s Rites of Passage art theme is really about what comes next, which is why the Man will be stepping across a 50-foot-deep chasm from one pinnacle to another.
“He’s never been so precariously posed,” Larry said, noting that people will be able to ascend each of the peaks because “we want you to share in his peril.”
A sense of peril has plagued Larry over these last couple years as he’s struggled with how to value his life’s work – and ultimately, how to relinquish control over it. He’s felt the ground beneath his feet become unstable, like there was no way for this man to continue standing where he was, forced to step to new ground.
“I’m here tonight to talk to you about the next step for Burning Man,” Larry told the crowd of about 150 regional representatives and another couple hundred burners, including SF Supervisor Eric Mar, who attended the event last year for the first time (Supervisor Jane Kim, who is sponsoring a controversial Mid-Market tax exclusion zone that would benefit Burning Man, appeared at the event briefly but didn’t stay for the whole speech).
Larry acknowledged that many people feel that this is a troubling time in American society, permeating almost every institution, mainstream and countercultural. “Nothing feels sustainable. Everything we thought we could believe in has fallen away,” he said.
To illustrate the dynamic, and to explain why Burning Man must take this uncertain next step, he told the story of the six board members – calling them the “owners” of the event, but quickly adding, “I’m not going to get to say that in the future” – have been through in recent years.
The large audience was listening so raptly that when Larry paused, most of the room could hear the low sound of crickets from some electronic device in the front of the room, sending a ripple of laughter through the crowd and lightning the mood for a moment. He explained that the LLC was set up so that if any of the board members left the organization, they would be entitled to $20,000, presenting that as a pittance compared to their contributions.
He went on to present the LLC as a progressive organization in which salaries of the workers and executives are far closer than in most corporations, saying the lowest paid workers have always gotten raises before the board members did. “We were the most underpaid of all,” Larry said of the six board members, based on a comparison to other executive boards.
While BRC reveals more of its financial information than most LLCs, particularly on the expenditure side of the ledger, it has never revealed Larry’s salary or benefits, although he lives a fairly modest lifestyle in a rent-controlled apartment on Alamo Square. Yet for an event created mostly by its paying participants, in a country where few in the private sector are getting pensions, I doubt many in the audience shared Larry’s scoff at the $20,000 (he later called the sum “laughable”), which he repeated as he recited his 2006 conflict with Michael, whose ties to the event run deeper than all the other board members except Larry.
“What would he get if he were to leave the group, just $20,000?” Larry said.
That possibility and unanswered questions over the future of the event caused Michael to sue Larry to protect his interests in Paper Man, a corporation controlled by Law, Larry, and Michael that was established in 1996 to own the Burning Man name, logos, and other trademarks associated with the event (see my Bay Guardian story “Burning Brand” for more on that episode).
“It triggered a series of cascading events, and those began a rite of passage,” Larry said, his final words echoing this year’s art theme.
So they realized that the LLC needed a new operating agreement, but they couldn’t agree on the fundamentals and ended up in legal mediation. “It began to look like everybody would lawyer up,” Larry said. “It felt like the band was breaking up.”
On top of that internal schism, Law also sued Larry and the LLC over the same issue of the control and value of Burning Man, so Larry said they were forced to figure out the financial value of this unique corporation that ran an event that eschewed the very notion of commodification as one of its core principles.
“How much had it all been worth?” Larry said.
They brought in corporate appraisers to “think about what the pie will fetch then divide by six,” an idea that was as abhorrent to Larry as it would certainly have been to the vast community of burners who have helped give the event its value over decades now.
“It was against everything we stood for, everything we had practiced,” he said. “How could we sell our life’s work like a commodity?”
Even having a discussion like that, he said, created “a stew of fear, resentment, and distrust” among the board members. So they ended up in sessions that were essentially group therapy, trying to pull it back together, but that didn’t work either and there were often “raised voices and slammed doors in the board room.”
Finally, the organization’s most senior employees had enough of the family dysfunction and formed a secret committee to seek a solution. “They were disgusted with us and they were going to figure out how to run this thing,” Larry said. “In the middle of all this, I got sick, I was in bed for days at a time.”
The LLC was in therapy, and so was Larry personally, and he said that he told his therapist, “I want to get out of my role. I can’t do this anymore…I felt absolutely helpless.” And in the group’s session, he told his colleagues “I was angry at them. I felt like they’d let me down.” Then the mediator “suggested I was a control freak and I just snapped.”
With the supposed leaders of the organization seeming to be melting down, Larry said the employee committee even started exploring whether it was possible to wrest the event away from their bosses. But in the depths of the Borg’s dark night, Larry began to embrace an idea that burners have been talking about for years: turning the event over to a nonprofit, so that burners could officially run the event themselves.
“Why not act to change the world, a world that you won’t be in? And that’s what we want to do,” Larry said, eliciting applause from the room. “We want to get out of running Burning Man. We want to move on.”
Mikel and another board member, Marian Goodell, confirmed the story that Larry told about how it all went down, as did a couple senior staffers that I spoke to. Hence the theme of the workshop: collaborative leadership.
“Look around, you all are the Burning Man Project,” Marian said in a speech preceding Larry’s that emphasized the international presence at the event and the concept of collaborative leadership, which was also the subject of a burner-produced short film that preceded her address.
She admitted that the Burning Man tenet of “radical inclusion” is a difficult one that she sometimes struggles with in her leadership capacity, but she said, “Burning Man is an architecture for collaboration.”
But it’s going to be a slow process, suggesting that Larry might indeed still have some control freak in him, despite the fact that he says everyone is getting along great now. Around the end of next month, he said the LLC will file papers to create the nonprofit based on Burning Man’s “10 principles.”
In about three years, depending on how the new nonprofit forms up, the LLC will turn over management of Burning Man, while holding onto control of the logos and trademarks for another three years after that, Larry said. And that’s when the six board members will officially cash out.
“We will liquidate our ownership interests and it will be for more than $20,000,” Larry said, although he said the final sum won’t make them rich. “We won’t be able to live off of the interest or anything.”
Why the long transition? Larry said they were worried about power plays by the new nonprofit leaders, something their research into other nonprofits had warned them is a possibility. After years of the Burning Man community seeking more direct control of the event – from the Borg2 rebellion in 2004 more recent complaints about the original Borg – the news of it being turned over to a nonprofit is sure to be greeted warmly by the larger community.
But what about the slow, conditional changeover, and the big potential payouts to the six people who have already been getting the biggest paychecks within this participatory, volunteer-based community with collaborative leadership? Well, I suppose we’ll see, but if the past is prologue then the future is likely to be vigorously debated within the Burning Man community.
And if you’d like to add your voice to that debate, come to my next book readings and discussions – this Friday, April 8, at Books Inc. in Alameda or April 14 at the Stanford University Bookstore – and we’ll talk about it.