The Borg’s Rite of Passage

Larry Harvey (right) and San Francisco city officials launch the Burning Man Project.

Check out this piece I wrote for BRC Weekly, a on-playa newspaper, which draws from articles I’ve written on this blog and in the Guardian:

The Borg’s Rite of Passage
Burning Man’s leadership structure is changing, so what does that mean to you?
By Scribe
You might know who Larry Harvey is, but how about Marian Goodell? Or Harley DuBois? Do you even know who’s running Burning Man, the people who took your money and made sure you have toilets and a basic civic infrastructure and a website to learn stuff? Black Rock City LLC, aka The Borg. Ring any bells?
I imagine the spectrum of answers to these inquires, even just among all the burners reading this story on the playa, stretches roughly from “duh” to “who?” Honestly, you don’t need to know anything about the leadership of Black Rock City – or its eponymous LLC – to connect with Burning Man and become a valuable citizen, right in this moment or into the future. You can forge your own role in this world of our own creation.
But I’ve always been a political journalist, so I like to know a little something the system I’m living under and to share what I’ve learned. I’ve now been reporting and writing on Burning Man for the last seven years, first in my newspaper, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, then in my new book, The Tribes of Burning Man. And let me tell you, this particular moment is a big one when it comes to the governance of Burning Man.
It’s a little complicated, but let me briefly break down the Rite of Passage that the Borg is going through right now, and then we’ll get into how it affects you.
In 1996, a tempestuous, turning point year for Burning Man, there was a falling out among the three people in charge of the event: Larry Harvey, who burned the first Man in 1986, and the Cachophony Society guys who brought it to the desert in 1990, John Law and Michael Mikel, aka Danger Ranger.
With serious injuries and a crackdown by the authorities that year, Burning Man would need rules and an infrastructure to continue. Law didn’t want it to become that kind of event, he clashed with Larry, and ended up walking away while Danger Ranger stayed. They divided control of the Burning Man brand and trademark three ways, under an umbrella called Paper Man LLC. Larry and Michael formed their own LLC to run the event, adding Larry’s then-girlfriend Marian Goodell and burners Harley DuBois, Will Roger, and Crimson Rose to the Black Rock City LLC Board of Directors, the same six who are there today – leaders of the Borg.
Every year, the Borg paid Paper Man a licensing fee to use the Burning Man images, until 2006 when Larry tried to dissolve Paper Man, prompting Danger Ranger – who had joined the dissident Borg2 rebellion the previous year, despite his continuing role with original Borg – sued Larry and his Borgmates to protect his Paper Man rights.
Law followed suit and eventually settled for a secret amount of cash while Michael dropped his and rejoined the team. But as Larry explained during a poignant speech in San Francisco in April, “It triggered a series of cascading events, and those began a rite of passage.”
As Larry told the story that evening – in candid and confessional tones – the Borg was torn apart by infighting after the Law settlement as the six board members discussed what their severance packages and the event’s future might look like. “It looked like the band was breaking up,” Larry said.
Corporate appraisal experts were brought in to try to value the corporation and the Burning Man brand, and Larry talked about taking that worth and dividing it up by the six board members, rather than settling for the mere $20,000 each that departing board members are now entitled to, which he scoffs at as ridiculously low. But the whole process drove him into a deep depression.
“It was against everything we stood for, everything we had practiced,” he said. “How could we sell our life’s work like a commodity?”
Finally, the Borg arrived at the solution that many burners thought they should have started with in 1996: turn the whole thing over to a nonprofit. And that’s what the Borg has started to do, taking the initial step in early August by creating The Burning Man Project, a nonprofit controlled by the six Borg members and 11 new members that they selected, a group with business and nonprofit experience that they know well and have worked with before.
“Our goal is to bring the culture of Burning Man back to the world,” Larry told a large group gathered in United Nations Plaza in San Francisco on Aug. 5 for the project’s official launch.
But there are lingering questions and troublesome issues surrounding the transition. Larry, Marian, and Harley all told me that the plan is to turn control of the Burning Man event over to the new nonprofit in about three years, assuming that The Burning Man Project evolves to their liking, and then to liquidate their control of the Burning Man name and trademarks three years after that, dissolving the LLC at that point.
Then – and in the run-up to that point, while the LLC’s finances are still largely secret – the six board members will get their payouts. How much they receive and how the organization and event will be governed are still matters to be determined by The Burning Man Project board, whose new members will serve initial terms of just one year.
In my stories about this transition, I quoted longtime burner and Borg critic Chicken John, who criticized how the Borg ignored the sweat equity of the people who have contributed so much to Burning Man over the years, as well as the idea that the Borg will literally sell Burning Man to The Burning Man Project.
“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 told me. “They’ve turned Burning Man into a commodity. They’re selling the event.”
When I confronted the Borg members with the criticism that they’re prescribing how this transition will take place without taking any input from the larger community or allowing us to feel invested in this decision, they initially bristled at what they perceived as an attack, but then came around to saying they will welcome input.
“We’re going to have a conversation with the community,” Marian said, while Harley added, “There’s still time for all of that. We are in the nascent stage…There’s so much time for community input.”
And they say that process will begin right here, on playa, with daily appearances by Burning Man Project board members from 1-2:30 on Everywhere Lane just off the circle around Center Camp.
So, if you have any thoughts on this transition, ideas for future governance structures, thoughts on the current plan of allowing Black Rock City to grow up to 70,000 citizens within five years, fundraising ideas, or off-playa projects that you’d like to see them pursue, stop by and let them know.
Scribe, aka 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. He will be speaking at the Center Camp Stage on Sunday at 4 pm, as well as at the Clever Conversations and Ashram Galactica stages this week.
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