From the Rocketship to Bay Lights, “temporary” is the key that unlocked public art in SF

baylightsrockshipImageIn the wake of The Bay Lights coming on to rave reviews and mesmerized gazes last week, next weekend the Raygun Gothic Rocketship will be taken down from the Pier 14 launch pad it’s occupied since 2010, the latest transitions in San Francisco’s trend of using temporary public art placements to bypass the protracted, emotional, and expensive battles that once defined the siting of sculptures on public lands in San Francisco.

By partnering with private arts organizations and calling the pieces “temporary” – even though almost all of them have been extended past their initial removal deadlines, sometimes by years – the San Francisco Arts Commission, the Port of San Francisco, and other local entities have allowed public art to flourish in the City.

The commission’s longtime public art director Jill Manton told us that temporary public art placements go back to the early ’90s, usually involving smaller pieces while big, years-long controversies continued to rage on over bigger pieces such as “the foot” that never went in on the Embarcadero, the Cupid’s Span piece that Don Fisher did finally place on the waterfront (and which many critics wish had been only a temporary placement), and a big, ill-fated peace sign in Golden Gate Park.

“It’s not as threatening to the public, not as imposing, so it doesn’t seem like a life-or-death decision,” Manton said of the trend toward temporary placements.

But the real turning point came in 2005 when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, Manton, and other city officials began to embrace the Burning Man art world by bringing a David Best temple into Patricia Green in Hayes Valley, Michael Christian’s Flock into Civic Center Plaza, and Passage by Karen Cusolito and Dan Das Mann onto Pier 14 (a transition point that I chronicle in my book, The Tribes of Burning Man).

Each piece was well-received and had its initial removal deadlines extended. Since then, temporary placements of both original art and pieces that returned from the playa – including Cusolito’s dandelion in UN Plaza, the rocketship, Kate Raudenbush’s Future’s Past in Hayes Valley, and Marco Cochrane’s Bliss Dance on Treasure Island, which is now undergoing a renovation to better protect it against the elements during its longer-than-expected and now open-ended run – have enlivened The City.

“They get to rotate art and people get excited about what’s next,” said Tomas McCabe, director of the Black Rock Arts Foundation, a Burning Man offshoot organization that has helped with fundraising and logistics for most of the burner-built placements.

We spoke by phone on the afternoon of March 8 as he was working with Christian to install The Bike Bridge – a sculpture using recycled bicycle parts that local at-risk teens helped Christian build thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts – at the intersection of Telegraph and 19th in Oakland as a temporary placement.

The Bike Bridge will officially be unveiled on April 5 during the increasingly popular monthly Art Murmur, and the party will get extra pep from a conference of Burning Man regional representatives that is being held just down the block that day.

McCabe said the connection between Burning Man and the temporary art trend doesn’t just derive from the fact that Bay Area warehouses are filled with cool artwork built for the playa that is now just sitting in storage. It’s also about an artistic style and sensibility that burners have helped to foster.

“We try to help the art pieces have a life after Burning Man, but it’s more the style of community-based art that we promote,” McCabe said, noting that BRAF also helps with fundraising and other tasks needed to support these local art collectives. “We like to see the artists get paid for their work, we’re funny like that.”

Manton said there are currently discussions underway with San Francisco Grants for the Arts (which is funded by the city’s hotel tax) and other parties to put several large pieces built for Burning Man on display in either UN Plaza or Civic Center Plaza, a proposal Manton called UN Playa. “We bring the best of Burning Man to the city,” she said.

Most of the art placements in San Francisco have been labors of love more than anything, and a chance to win over new audiences. When the Five-Ton Crane crew and other artists placed the Raygun Gothic Rocketship on the waterfront in 2010, they had permission from the Port to be there for a year. Then it got extended for another year, and then another six months, and it will finally come down this weekend.

There will be final reception for the Rocketship this Friday evening (with music from the fellow burners in the Space Cowboys’ Unimog) and then the crane will come up on Sunday morning to remove it, in case any Earthlings want to come say hello-goodbye.

“The Rocketship and its crew have had a fantastic 2.5 years on display at Pier 14. Maintenance days were always a pleasure, giving us a chance to talk to people – and see the smiles and joy people got from the installation,” one of its artists, David Shulman, told us. “We’ve had tremendous support from, and would like to thank, the people of San Francisco, the Port of San Francisco, and the Black Rock Arts Foundation. But Pier 14 is intended for rotating displays, and we’re excited to see what comes next.”

Dan Hodapp, a senior waterfront planner for the Port district, said they don’t currently have plans for the site, although he said it will include more temporary art in the future. “The Port Commission and the public are supportive of public art at that location,” Hodapp told us. “But right now, we’re just reveling in the new Bay Lights and we’re not in a hurry to replace the Rocketship.”

Manton said The Bay Lights – the Bay Bridge light sculpture by art Leo Villareal that began what is supposed to be a two-year run (but which Mayor Ed Lee is already publicly talking about extending) on March 5 – has already received overwhelming international media attention and is expected to draw 55 million visitors and $97 million of additional revenue to the city annually.

“It is public art as spectacle. It’s amazing,” Manton said of the piece, which the commission and BRAF played only a small roles in bringing about. “It’s so good for the field of public art.”

She that the success of recent temporary art placements and the role that private foundations have played in funding them have not only caused San Franciscans to finally, truly embrace public art, but it has ended the divisive old debates about whether particular artworks were worth the tradeoff with other city needs and expenditures. And it has allowed the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association and other neighborhood organizations to curate the art in their public parks.

Meanwhile, even as the Port gives Pier 14 a rest, Hodapp said another temporary artwork will be going up this fall at Pier 92, where old grain silos will be transformed into visual artworks, and that Pier 27 will be turned into a spot for a rotating series of temporary artworks once the Port regains possession of the spot from the America’s Cup in November.

As he told us, “The public really enjoys art on the waterfront, and they’re most supportive when we do temporary art, so there’s a freshness to it.”

Comments

I preferred Louise Bourgeois’ “Crouching Spider” that was at that site.

http://www.gallerypauleanglim.com/Louise_Bourgeois.html#0

Posted by marcos on Mar. 11, 2013 @ 6:36 pm
Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Mar. 11, 2013 @ 6:53 pm

Lucretia,

GENEROUS people funded the Bay Bridge lights. Not all of them wealthy either. People who have heart and passion for the beauty and expression of art have graciously given, with no expectation of anything in return (not even a “thank you” from ungrateful people like yourself) so that our city could something unique and beautiful.

Where do you think the money comes from for all the art we see in museums? Benefactors who donate. Pretty much any art you see or experience anywhere is funded by someone….otherwise it would never find a home on public property for you to enjoy. Have you ever attended Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival? It too is funded by generous people.

I suppose you’d prefer public art not be funded by donors who expect nothing in return and instead be funded by investors seeking a profit that would be earned by charging people like you admission….kind of like all the crap Hollywood churns out that is supposedly “art.”

If you have no ability to enjoy art that is funded by generous people, just stay home and rent another crappy movie or watch infomercials so others can enjoy public art that enriches the soul and beautifies our amazing city.

The Burning Man question: How does it feel?

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Note to Readers: I wrote the following article for BRC Weekly, which will be distributed at Burning Man this year. I’ve written articles for BRC Weekly and its predecessor, Piss Clear, each of the last several years.

How does Black Rock City feel this year? That’s the intangible question – the one that transcends how dusty the air or mind-blowing the art or intentional the participants – that will determine where Burning Man is headed in this new era now unfolding.

This year’s population is expected to exceed 60,000 souls, way more than last year when the feds capped the population at 50,000, which was exceeded by a few thousand on a couple days, leading the Bureau of Land Management overlords to place the event on probation.

But BLM officials were forgiving, and sympathetic to the tight spot that Burning Man found itself in this year, with skyrocketing demand for tickets compounded by this year’s great ticket lottery clusterfuck (which seemed to portend doom for a long time before most people found tickets at face value).

So they gave BRC a population cap of 60,900, and if all goes well this year, they’ll grant a five-year permit that will let this city grow to 70,000 by 2016. And event founder Larry Harvey doesn’t want to stop there, telling me during an interview in June: “We think we could go to 100,000 if it was measured growth, carefully planned.”

Really, 100,000? Sure, he said, although it would need further studies and better plans for getting people on and off the playa. Maybe that means more shuttles, or staggered arrival and departure times, or perhaps even adding a second week, the solution Coachella chose to grapple with its rising demand.

But before we can get into such ambitious futurizing, I’m curious to hear answers to my question: How does Black Rock City feel this year? Does it feel crowded, and what do those crowds feel like? How was your arrival experience, and what will your exodus entail? I’ve watched much of the art being built in the Bay Area this summer, so I know it’s awesome, but how does it feel to interact with it this year? Are there enough cool, weird things to do in the theme camps, and space on the art cars? Have any strangers made you feel special today?

I don’t know the answers to these questions as I write these words a couple weeks before Burning Man. But I do know that their answers matter, and that the quality of Burning Man in any given year transcends its mechanics or anything its organizers try to do in their most manic control-freak moments.

In that June interview – the latest of many that I’ve done with Larry over the last eight years – he argued for an event with a six-figure population while simultaneously saying the event matters less than the culture that has formed up around it.

“We’ve got to focus on the people. We’re becoming less event-centric,” Larry told me. “We think of this as a cultural movement.”

Frankly, I’m tired of fighting with Larry and Black Rock City LLC, the corporation that stages Burning Man, over the many contradictions and pitfalls that present themselves when a top-down corporation sponsors a cultural movement.

I’ve tried, and largely failed, to instigate burners to rise up and demand representation in the many decisions this cultural movement now faces – from the size and character of Black Rock City to the nature of our other Burning Manifestations to the governance structure of the nonprofit to which Larry has pledged to relinquish control (gradually, and on his terms).

He has told agitators like me, and there have been many over the last 25 years, to trust him or go start our own events. That’s fine, particularly if most burners are content to watch the event evolve on its own, as they seem to be. And they’ll probably do that as long as it feels good, feels authentic, and feels like a cultural movement rather than just another corporate creation.

Burning Man is always a blast – a 24-hour party city, filled with cool art, all built by participants in this grand socio-urban experiment – so I’m sure each virgin is getting his/her head split wide open about now, along with some veteran skulls.

But tell me, particularly those with a few years of perspective: How does it feel? How would it feel with almost double this year’s population? And how do we take those feelings, infuse them with information and intention, and shape the future of Burning Man?

Scribe, aka Steven T. Jones, is city editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the author of The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture.

Burning Man announces new ticket sales lottery

How will we get our tickets?

After letting this blog go dormant for a couple months, I’m back! Just in time to try to promote my book, The Tribes of Burning Man, for the holidays. Just kidding, sort of. Because you know it’s the perfect gift for your friends and family. OK, okay, I’ll move on.
I’ve been absorbed in covering politics, from the San Francisco election to the exciting Occupy Wall Street movement, but I’m ready to reengage with writing about Burning Man just in time from some big developments in our culture. And the noteworthy lack of developments, otherwise known as the Case of the Missing Art Theme.
Black Rock City LLC yesterday announced a new policy for ticket sales, a lottery system for which registration begins in just a few weeks. Details and ticket prices are yet to be announced, but the basic idea is that people register to buy a ticket at the highest level they can afford, give them your credit card number, and wait to see whether you’re a winner. That process will then be repeated several times until, presumably, everyone who wants a ticket has one.
The reactions in online forums so far have ranged from panic to bewilderment to support, most expressed with healthy doses of sarcasm. The new system does address a couple of real problems, starting with the clusterfuck we all experience when online ticket sales begin at noon on a January day, with crashing servers and irritating glitches, a situation that promised to be even worse after this year’s early ticket sell-out (the other problem the new system is designed to address).
The new system has a deviously clever aspect to it as well, one that might not sit well with many burners once they experience it. If we have to bid on tickets at the price level of our choosing, obviously the odds of getting one will go up if we choose to bid on the more expensive tickets. And by the time bidders get into the later rounds and desperation creeps in (“Shit, I might not get a ticket this year!”), people might be willing to dig deep and go for the expensive tickets.
This system will certainly help the LLC’s cash flow earlier in the year. And if I was cynical and distrustful, I might even be concerned about how the six LLC board members are currently in the process of cashing out before control of the event is turned over to the nonprofit Burning Man Project, coupled with the fact that the LLC refuses to disclose the revenue side of its budget, raising the prospect that the new system could be used to pump up revenue from ticket sales.
Yup, good thing I’m not cynical and distrustful. I’m certainly willing to just wait for them to unveil the details of this new system, both for how it will work for us and whether they will create enough transparency to mitigate such concerns. But rest assured, dear readers, I’m on the case and willing to ask tough questions when that time comes.
Speaking of which, I must admit to falling down on that job and having no real insights into why Burning Man founder Larry Harvey hasn’t yet named an art theme for 2012, which he usually does on the final day of the previous year’s event. Maybe there won’t be an art theme, which really wouldn’t be so bad. And I need to follow-up on the status of the LLC’s negotiations for a new five-year permit from the Bureau of Land Management, which I hear are still ongoing.
But first, I need to finish writing my post-election wrap-up for the Guardian, followed this week by heading down to Mexico City with some of my Shadyvil campmates to visit a group of Shadies from down there who are throwing the Festival Ometeotl, which should be a blast.
But I’ll be back and on the case starting after Thanksgiving, so check back then. And buy a book. You can even get a signed copy direct from me on the evening of Dec. 3 at the holiday party of my beloved Flaming Lotus Girls over at SomArts in San Francsico. OK, that’s it, let’s talk soon.

Burning Man enters a deliberative new phase

I, Scribe, was among many speakers on the playa this year. Photo by KelseyWinterkorn.com

I didn’t see SF Sups. David Chiu and Jane Kim on their brief tour of Black Rock City last week, but I did get the chance to participate in a more authentic political awakening at Burning Man this year, one marked by an increasing number of well-attended public discussions about where this strange and vibrant culture is headed.

And they are discussions that will continue back here in the default world, at events ranging from those sponsored by the new Burning Man Project to the readings that I’m doing for my book, The Tribes of Burning Man, including tomorrow evening (Fri/9) at True Stories Lounge in the Makeout Room, where I’ll appear with writers Joyce Maynard, Adam Hochschild, Gary Kamiya, Alicia Erian, Tyche Hendricks, and moderator Evelyn Nieves.

I was invited onto four different stages (although I regretfully missed one gig due to a miscommunication) at Burning Man this year, and most had capacity crowds of engaged burners who were eager to discuss what’s next and offer their ideas, many of them very insightful and well-developed.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure whether people would want to take time out of their vacations in this fun-filled city to attend lectures and discussions, and the fact that so many did – in venues and stages that popped up all over the playa – shows just how much widespread interest there is in transforming Burning Man into more than just an annual party.

“We were overflowing and people would come back days later and say it was the best discussion we ever had out there,” says D’Andre of Revolution Camp, which hosted talks all week (including the one I missed, for which he said a crowd of about 50 people showed up, about the same size crowd that showed up for my talk on Sunday at Center Camp Stage – which I mistakenly had conflated with my Revolution Camp booking…again, my apologies).

Burning Man board member Marian Goodell said they had similarly great turnouts for the daily public availabilities of the 17 board members of the new Burning Man Project, the nonprofit that will shepherd this culture into its next phase. “There was quite a lively discussion and usually people waiting to talk to the board members,” she said. “It was super successful.”

I had my own private session with new board member Chris Weitz (a longtime burner and film producer and director) in between the presentations that we each gave at the GER Talks, a speaker series hosted by the venerable theme camp Ashram Galactica, where he is the former head concierge.

I urged him to use this opportunity to create a more inclusive and representative governance structure for the 25-year-old Burning Man event, which has always been run by a handful of key players with little by way of checks-and-balances, belying the hyper-collaborative nature of this culture. It was the same message that I had for each of my crowds out there, there this is our culture and it’s up to us to determine its future direction and initiatives.

And if the interest and engagement levels that I saw on the playa this year are any indication, burners are finally ready, willing, and able to start taking this thing to the next level. Or as founder Larry Harvey said in my book, a quote from 2008 that I cited in each of my talks, “That city is connecting to itself faster than anyone knows. And if they can do that, they can connect to the world. That’s why for the last three years I’ve done these sociopolitical themes, so they know they can apply it. Because if it’s just a vacation, well, we’ve been on vacation long enough.”

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.

Why we do it?

I’ve received some really nice feedback on the Editor’s Note that I wrote for the current issue of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which also includes my Scribe’s Guide to Playa Prep, so I thought I’d reprint it here:

When a crowd of less than two dozen people watched an eight-foot wooden man burn on Baker Beach during the Summer Solstice of 1986, could any of them have possibly imagined that the ritual would repeat itself 25 years later in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert before a sold-out crowd of more than 50,000 people?

Even if man-builder Larry Harvey could have dreamed that big and strangely — and, most assuredly, he did not — it’s even harder to imagine the dimensions, staying power, and creativity of the massive temporal city that has formed up around the Man, Black Rock City, or the impact that it’s had on the hundreds of thousands of people who have cycled through it.

I first attended Burning Man in 2001, when the event was half its current size and when the country’s sociopolitical landscape was about to undergo a profound and lasting change, with 9/11 and the launching of a war in Afghanistan that continues to his day. It is against that backdrop that this culture — with its core values of self-expression, communal effort, and rejection of commodification — has flourished.

I’ve had the privilege of closely covering Burning Man and its many leaders and luminaries continuously since 2004, when I launched a long series of Guardian articles that later evolved into my book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture (2011, CCC Publishing), so I’ve had plenty of time to ponder what has always seemed to me the central question: Why?

Why do so many people devote so much of their time, energy, and resources to preparing for the pilgrimage to the playa? And we’re talking months worth of work, in drab workspaces around the Bay Area, sacrificing other social and economic opportunities and sometimes even their sanity. Why do they do it, and why do so many burners find that experience so transformative?

There are, of course, the obvious answers. There’s the mind-blowing art pieces, which seem to get more ambitious and innovative each year. It’s also the greatest party on the planet, a truly 24-7 city with engaged citizens exploring endless options, all offered for free. Then there’s the surreal setting, the DIY spirit, the gift economy, the experiments in urbanism and community, its smoldering sensuality, and an endless list of other appeals.

And that’s all great, but I’ve come to believe that there’s something else at the core of the question: Why do we do this? We do it because we have to, because we can’t think of any sane way to respond to the insanity of modern American life. So we pursue our mad visions, and organize our lives and social circles around that pursuit, collectively building a fake, doomed city in the desert that seems to us so much more real and authentic and purposeful than anything the default world is providing.

We do it because it’s become our home, a place that is now an important part of who we are. And we at the Guardian hope the burners among you find some useful tidbits in our first-ever playa prep guide.

Why you should choose me over Larry

As I sit in my hometown of San Luis Obispo this week, recovering from knee surgery under the loving care of my family, I’ve had some time to ponder what’s next. Burning Man will dominate the rest of my summer – between promoting my book (The Tribes of Burning Man) at more than a dozen events and seeing to my own playa preparations – so I’ve been thinking about what I want to say about it during this interesting point in its cultural evolution.
Particularly once I learned that my next book-related event (Tuesday night at the venerable Mechanics Institute) is on the same night as Larry Harvey’s appearance at the Commonwealth Club, I’ve been contemplating why people should come to see me instead of the event’s founder and working to develop a program that will validate people’s choice.
I have a lot of respect for Larry, and I’m thankful that he was so gracious in sharing his time and insights throughout the seven years that I worked on my book. His comments and perspective pepper The Tribes of Burning Man and help make it a definitive look at this culture’s modern era when combined with my other reportage.
But there’s a reason that I’ve had a hard time getting Larry and the Borg’s help in promoting my book and events, and it’s because my book isn’t really about them, much to the chagrin of some of its board members (including one who told me she is “ambivalent” about my book and has blocked previously promised access to even regional promotional lists).
My book isn’t about Burning Man per se, but about the wonderfully vast, infinitely creative, remarkably resourceful, and well-developed culture that has formed up around the event. That has always been more interesting to me than what happens on the playa or in the Borg’s headquarters, and that’s where I’ve spent my time and energy since 2004.
Between embedding myself with art crews like the Flaming Lotus Girls and Flux Foundation, working with Burners Without Borders during its evolution on the Gulf Coast, delving deeply into Opulent Temple and other nightlife tribes, and interviewing the ground level builders of myriad other camps and collectives, I guess you can say that I’ve developed a populist, bottom-up view of this culture.
I can peer through the top-down view that Larry and the Borg have, and they certainly do understand the culture they’ve helped spawn. But there are unmistakable blind spots and biases to their perspective that regularly cause problems, frustrations, and unnecessary defections among the burner masses, as I and others have chronicled over the years.
It’s a common problem for institutions of all kinds, as I’ve learned over 20 years as a newspaper journalist covering political, corporate and nonprofit organizations. Even those that derive their power and influence from representing great masses of people tend to develop groupthink and hubris, believing they know better than the people they are supposed to be serving.
But Burning Man is a culture formed directly by the volunteer efforts and the communal ethos of myriad groups and individuals, moreso than any I’ve covered. And as the Borg begins a transition of control over Burning Man to a new nonprofit with a hand-picked board, I’ve been publicly urging the Borg to seek and heed input from the greater burner community about governance and other issues, so far to little avail.
So, why should you come see me on Tuesday night, rather than Larry Harvey? Well, if you’ve never heard Larry’s perspective, maybe you shouldn’t. He’s an interesting guy, a big thinker, and a good speaker. But there are parts of this culture he simply doesn’t care to understand, such as sound camps, which he proudly says he has never visited.
If you want to understand what drives people to devote months of their lives each year to building Black Rock City, and to learn how they and their communities are affected by that experience, that’s a good reason to come see me. It’s what interests me the most, it’s what I’ve studied, and it’s what we’ll talk about on Tuesday (in a 150-year-old institution created by the builders of cities) and at my events thereafter.
I’ve developed some good insights into what makes this culture tick, and more importantly, I know that there’s still so much that I don’t know. So I hope that you’ll come and offer your thoughts, experiences, and perspective. Because the best cultures deserve the best conversations.