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.”