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.”

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.

Burner artists go bigger and wider

BrollyFlock at Electric Daisy Carnival, by the Flux Foundation. Photo by Jessica Hobbs

I’ve been covering Burning Man for many years — both for the Bay Guardian and my book, The Tribes of Burning Man — so it’s easy to feel a little jaded about another year of preparing for that annual pilgrimage to the playa. But then I plug into the innovative projects that people are pursuing – as I did last week for the annual Desert Arts Preview – and I find myself as amazed and wide-eyed as a Burning Man virgin.
And when the weekend came, I watched my old camps go bigger than ever – with Opulent Temple throwing a rocking Rites of Massive six-stage dance party on Treasure Island, and the Flux Foundation lighting up the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas with its newest installation, BrollyFlock – demonstrating the ambitious scale at which veteran burners are now operating.
Increasingly, burners are putting their energies into real world projects not bound for Burning Man, often with the help of Black Rock Arts Foundation, the nonprofit spinoff of Black Rock City LLC that funds and facilitates public art projects. BRAF’s latest, a project that is also receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, is The Bike Bridge, which pairs noted burner artist Michael Christian with 12 young women from Oakland to turn old bicycles and bike parts into sculptures that will be built at The Crucible and placed throughout Oakland.
“The Bike Bridge is the next evolution of our community-focused public art projects,” BRAF Executive Director Tomas McCabe said in a June 23 press release. “This educational and creative project is designed specifically to engage Oakland’s youth.”
Later that evening, McCabe and other burners gathered on the waterfront in Kelly’s Mission Cafe for the Desert Arts Preview, where he ticked off a long list of projects that BRAF was working on around the world, from the conversion of a bridge in Portland, Ore. into an elaborate artwork to a sculpture made of sails for next year’s Figment festival in New York City to a bus opera (written about bus culture and performed aboard buses) in Santa Fe to a cool interactive floating eyeball artwork that will tour Paris, London, Barcelona, and San Francisco to the BOOM Parade (combining bicycles and boom boxes) that will roll through Bayview Hunters Point in October.
But the most ambitious artworks are still being planned for that limitless canvas of the Black Rock Desert, where Burning Man will be staged in late August. This year’s temple, The Temple of Transition, is being built out of Reno by a huge international crew from 20 countries headed by a pair of artists known simply by their nationalities, Irish and Kiwi, who built Megatropolis at last year’s event.
“We built a city block of buildings and burned it to the ground,” Kiwi told the gathering, noting how impressed he’s been by a number of recent projects he’s watched. “When you start doing that, you feel challenged and wonder what you can do next.”
Irish said they were particularly inspired by watching the Temple of Flux go up last year, a project involving more than 200 volunteers that I worked on and chronicled for the Guardian, and said it made them want to bid to build this year’s temple. “That’s what inspired us,” Irish said.
The project includes a series of towers and altars, the tallest one in the center reaching about 120-feet into the air, a phenomenal height against the vast flatness of the playa. They said volunteers have been plentiful and the city of Reno has actively facilitated their work, “but our main concern is having enough finances,” Kiwi said.
The project got a grant from the company that stages Burning Man, Black Rock City LLC, which gave almost $500,000 to 44 different projects this year, but most didn’t come anywhere close to covering the full project costs. The Temple of Transition bridged its gap by raising almost $25,000 in a campaign on Kickstarter, which many projects are now using.
“It’s a great way to cut out the middle man. You guys are funding art directly,” longtime artist Jon Sarriugarte, who got a BRC art grant this year to build the Serpent Twins (with his partner, Kyrsten Mate), said of Kickstarter, where he was about three-quarters of the way to meeting his goal of the $10,000 he needs to cost his remaining project costs.
Serpent Twins is a pair of Nordic serpents crafted from a train of 55-gallon containers and illuminated with fire and LED effects that will snake their way around the playa this year, one of many mobile artworks that have been getting ever more ambitious each year.
“I love the playa. It’s a beautiful canvas, but it’s also a beautiful road,” Sarriugarte told the group, conveying his excitement at driving his art into groups of desert wanderers: “I can’t wait to split the crowds and then contain them.”
Another cool project that is in the final days of a much-needed Kickstarter campaign is Otic Oasis, whose artists (including longtime Burning Man attorney Lightning Clearwater) brought a scale model to the event. It’s a slotted wood structure made up of comfy lounging pods stacked into a 35-foot pyramid design that will be placed in the quietest corner of the playa: deep in the walk-in camping area, inaccessible to art cars and other distractions.
That and other projects that are doing Kickstarter campaign are listed on the Burning Man website, where visitors can get a nice overview of what’s in store.
One project that didn’t meet its ambitious Kickstarter goal was Truth & Beauty, artist Marco Cochrane’s follow-up to last year’s amazing Blissdance, a 40-sculpture of a dancing nude woman that has temporarily been placed on Treasure Island. But the crew has already made significant progress on the new project, a 55-foot sculpture of the same model in a different pose (stretching her arms skyward), and Cochrane told me they will be bringing a section of her from her knees to shoulders as a climbable artwork.

The Flux crew has been working for months on BrollyFrock, a renegade flock of flaming, illuminated, and shade-producing umbrellas that was commissioned by Imsomniac for its Nocturnal and Electric Daily Carnival music festivals, and it was placed at the the latter festival near Wish, large dandelions that were build near the Temple of Flux at Burning Man last year, as well as new artworks by Michael Christian and my beloved Flaming Lotus Girls. Flux’s Jessica Hobbs said burners artists have become much sought-after by the large festivals that have begun to proliferate.

“I really think a lot of these music festivals are looking at how our pieces make an experience,” Hobbs said, citing both the spectacularity and interactivity that are the hallmarks of Burning Man artworks of the modern era. The Flux crew was pushed to meet a tight deadline for the project, preventing them from doing a big project for Burning Man this year, but that’s just part of the diversification being experienced by burner artists these days. “We challenged ourselves and we came away with another great project.”

Bound for NYC and Rev. Billy

Rev. Billy Talen did a fundraiser in San Francisco when he ran for mayor of New York in 2009.

Tonight I’ll be hopping on a red eye flight to New York City for the East Coast leg of my book tour for The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture. I must confess that I’m giddy with excitement, and to stir some anticipation among New Yawkers, here’s a recording of one on my recent presentations.

Tomorrow night starting at 8 pm, I’ll be doing a book launch party at Cafe Mezcal (86 Orchard Street) with the folks who will be putting on the Figment festival this weekend, a cool event that I profile in the book. Joining me on stage will be a couple characters from the book: Figment’s Not That Dave and Rev. Billy, the passionate pastor of the Church of Life After Shopping and the Church of Earthullujah.

On Sunday, I will have the distinct honor and high privilege of being canonized into Billy’s churches during ceremony starting at 7:30 pm in his church and performance art space at 80 St. Mark’s Place. In between those two events, I’ll be speaking Thursday at 6 pm at the Columbia University Bookstore and attending the Figment festival on Governor’s Island along with a couple burners and friends who I’ll be staying with: Jax from Temple of Flux and Manhatten from Garage Mahal. Thanks also to Wylie from Shadyvil for helping make this trip possible.

To set up my trip and explain one of the big motivators that drew me there, I’d like to share a chapter from my book about how burners responded to the Hurricane Katrina and the wreckage it left on the Gulf Coast in 2005, a chapter in which I introduce Billy.

Redemption and Projection

By burn day at the end of the week, Burning Man’s leaders – those with Black Rock City LLC and just the leaders among the random burner tribes – had developed a strategy for responding to the disaster on the Gulf Coast and it was publicized by word of mouth and through Black Rock Information Radio (BMIR, 94.5 FM).

Food, money, and supplies that could be used on the Gulf Coast were collected from departing burners, and some even blazed a trail for a more direct response. Matt Lindsay, a Temple Crew member from Seattle, helped spearhead an effort to drive supplies and equipment from Burning Man to the Gulf Coast, and was joined by his father, Phillip Lindsay, whose Seattle construction company he worked with.

The encampment they and others created would become an inspiring nine-month cleanup and rebuilding effort. It began mostly with the builders who had already focused on creating and breaking down Burning Man, including the Department of Public Works and the Temple crew, but would eventually draw more than 100 volunteers and spawn the group Burners Without Borders.

But first, burners came together on the playa in a special event on Sunday afternoon, promoted heavily by BMIR and led by folk singer Joan Baez (who had attended Burning Man several times) and the anti-consumerist collective Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping.

Billy Talen is a performance artist and political progressive who had adopted his alter ego of Reverend Billy, the charismatic, Jimmy Swaggart-like leader of a church devoted to critiquing hyper-capitalism. He had been doing some street-level political satire and small theater in San Francisco in the early ‘90s when he found his calling.

My mentor and teacher, the person who talked me into this was himself a priest, not a preacher, and his name was Reverend Sidney Lanier,” Billy told me when I visited him in New York City. “He took me out to lunch and he told me, ‘I’m not too sure about your play, but you have a prophetic note in your voice.’ And he said, ‘We now need a new kind of American preacher.’”

Lanier convinced Billy to use his theatrical skills to sound the alarm that there was something deeply wrong with the country – something at the intersection of political, economic, and religious power – and so he talked to Billy about his vision for Reverend Billy and led him to Times Square.

He brought me to New York and he placed me in front of that Disney store and he left,” said Billy, who began to preach, “Mickey Mouse is the anti-Christ! I want you to take that little tourist family and go back to Iowa! These are sweatshops products on these shelves, children. This Disney-fication of neighborhoods, it’s the devil monoculture!’ So, my theme hasn’t changed much in these 10 or 12 years.”

But there have been some key events in the development of Reverend Billy and his group that turned it from a performance piece to something like a real church. The first was the 9/11 attacks, when they counseled and consoled affected New Yorkers, and the next was their decision to come to Burning Man in 2003, where Larry Harvey and others wanted them to be a part of the Beyond Belief theme that year.

I got a call from Larry. He carved a Broadway-sized stage in the Man. And I started to get phone calls from burner friends saying, ‘You don’t know what this is. Say yes!” Billy said, noting how reluctant he had been to attend. “All my friends went, but I was like contrary Woodrow, and I’d say, ‘Fuck all of you,’ and I was going to the Aleutians or something. I was always a contrary guy, and I’d say, ‘You’re all just a bunch of lemmings going to the desert, I’m going over here.’ And I’d go to some other place. But we got talked into it and it changed our lives.”

Most newbies are profoundly affected by their first trip to Burning Man, but for Billy and his crew, the event went right to the core of what they were about, transforming them as they dealt with the usual playa adversity (“In the choir, everyday someone would faint and everyone else would save that person and take them to the medical tent.”) and forging permanent ties to the event.

We became a church at that point. We became a community about collective conscious and radical self-reliance. We became much closer,” Billy told me. Why, I asked him, how? “It’s the weather, it’s the beauty, it’s somebody running toward you in a fluorescent bikini and combat boots. Everything is extreme but it becomes ordinary after awhile and then you’re in the dream state,” he said. “We were transformed by our week on the playa. There were 43 of us that came out together.”

Most of that group has been together ever since, working together on new and ever more creative ways of bringing the ethos of the playa back into the world, something that Billy says has always been at the center of his connection to Burning Man (whose Black Rock Arts Foundation has helped fund some of the church’s tours, performances, and the 2007 film about them, “What Would Jesus Buy?”).

That was the message that I worked out with Larry Harvey back in 2003: What about the other 51 weeks of the year? Something very strong and honest and magical happens here and we have an obligation, don’t we, to see how it can manifest in our communities. When Katrina happened in the middle of the week, that was supposed to be our year off, but the Bests gave us their bus and said you can come out to the Temple on Sunday night, so before the Temple burn, and Joan Baez magically showed up and got on the bus with us.”

They spoke of love and connection and redemption and transformation, and they sang – together with a large crowd of burners – “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Amazing Grace.” And the Temple burned that night and soon everyone went home. Well, not everyone.

TED picks Flux (and other burner success stories)

Temple of Flux, Guardian photo by John Curley

Apparently I’m not the only one who thought the Temple of Flux and the Flux Foundation that it spawned had something interesting to say about the times in which we live – at least worthy of a Guardian cover story and the ending of my book – because the TED organization today announced the Flux is a finalist to speak at TED2012: Full Spectrum. And to go big, they’ve started a Kickstarter campaign you can kick in to.
“We built community through art and we’d like to show you how,” was the final tagline for a cool video that Jess Hobbs and the rest of the Flux crew produced as an application to TED, today’s most cutting edge speakers forum.
Now, the Flux crew and 16 other finalists are headed to New York City where they’ll be presenting the project live on May 26, an event that TED will stream over the Internet. I wish I could be there to see it live, but my own trip to NYC for The Tribes of Burning Man book tour is June 7-13. Missed it by that much.
But honestly, there’s more going on with the culture that I covered in my book than I can keep up with anyway, at least while busy promoting said book, which I’ll be doing this week with bookstore readings on May 11 at Books Inc. in Mountain View and May 13 at Revolution Books in Berkeley.
Last week, Marco Cochrane, Katy Boynton, and the rest of the Blissdance crew installed that beautiful, 40-foot sculpture of a dancing nude woman on Treasure Island, where she will reside in a temporary placement until at least October, with a welcoming reception for her planned for May 26.
Also out on Treasure Island, Peter Hudson and his committed crew have been hard at work on Charon, his latest stroboscopic zoetrope that sounds like it could be his best piece yet. It’s definitely on my list to get out there, check it out, and lend a hand – as I’ve been promising to do – but life seems awfully demanding right now.
What else? Last weekend, my Garage Mahal campmates threw a great fundraiser party that set them on the path for another rocking year, while my publisher Brad Olsen and his How Weird Street Faire crew staged one of the best outdoor dance parties in San Francisco, ever, and I really don’t think I’m exaggerating. Just. Killed. It. And I suppose the weirdly warm San Francisco weather that peaked that day didn’t hurt either.
Yes, it’s a life of abundance that we lead, party people. See you around.

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.”

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.

The Tribes of Burning Man progress report

A crazy week that included two awesome events – combining readings and discussions with many of the luminaries who appear in the book – seems a fitting way to end a huge month since we launched The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture.
So now, as I take a deep breathe, it might be a good time for a progress report. We don’t know total sales figures yet, but I can tell you that I’ve personally signed, addressed, and mailed more than 100 books that were ordered through my website. And Amazon has sold and sent even more, giving us a strong and sales ranking that peaked at 5,320 on Feb. 18, the day after my rocking launch party.
While Bay Area residents bought more books than anyone, as we expected, there have also been strong sales in Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Denver, Austin, and New York City, and even several buyers each in Australia, Austria, England, and Canada.
We’ve picked up some good press coverage so far, including great reviews in the Bay Guardian and New Times, a review and Q&A on Alternet/Killing the Buddha, a saucy interview (and video) on the popular Sex With Emily podcast, and a nice mention by Scott Beale on Laughing Squid. My Amazon reader reviews are here, so check them out and add one of your own. More reviews and press coverage are coming soon, as well as video from my events at Project One and the Westerfeld House.
I’m booked for several bookstore readings, including March 30 at Laurel Bookstore in Oakland, April 8 at Books Inc. in Alameda, April 14 at the Stanford University Bookstore, April 20 in Maple Street Books in New Orleans, April 23 at Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans, May 11 at Books Inc. in Mountain View, May 19 at Pegasus Books in Berkeley, and August 11 at the San Francisco Main Library. Check my Amazon author page for details and look for the announcement of more Bay Area readings and trips to New York City, Portland, Los Angeles, and San Luis Obispo, as well as at least a couple more parties in San Francisco. It’s basically me and my publisher doing promo, just two guys, so whatever you can do to help facilitate more events, contact me at steventhejones@yahoo.com to let me know. And if your favorite bookstores aren’t yet carrying the book, tell them to order it from our distributor IPG here.
Finally, I wanted to close with the great review that the Black Rock City LLC wrote and posted to the Jack Rabbit Speaks newsletter a few weeks ago, which I was both touched and overwhelmed by considering it caused a surge of book orders overnight. Thanks again to Will, Andie, Marian, and the rest of the Borg’s publicity team.

The book launch party for Steven T. Jones’ new book “The Tribes of Burning Man” was flush with Burning Man community, including many of the real-life people featured in his book. If you’re interested in an exploration of some of the various cultural sub-groups that Burning Man has spawned, collected or inspired, as well as Burning Man’s cultural outreach efforts, this book is for you. You can pick up your copy on Steve’s website here: http://www.steventjones.com/

Described as a chronicle of “how Burning Man is transforming American society,” Jones’ “Tribes” includes full reprints of his immersive series of reportage for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which covered the activities of several core Burning Man “tribes,” from the Flaming Lotus Girls to Burners Without Borders…in the book, Jones takes up his pen to round out the story of the community connections between some of the sound art camps, creative communities, cultural criticisms (BORG2, anyone?), and philosophical highlights of Burning Man’s history.

Add in a healthy dollop of his own experiences at the event rounding out his assessment of Burning Man — to Jones, this is no mere week in the desert, but a cultural movement moving far beyond the playa. (We couldn’t agree more.) Check it out and let us know what you think!

Inspiring Urbanism with Larry and SPUR

After interviewing Burning Man founder Larry Harvey today for this Bay Guardian blog post, I thought about how long we have been talking about his interest in urbanism and his desire to have a high-profile headquarters in San Francisco. He really wants to bring the values of our “experimental city in the desert” back home to San Francisco.
That desire is what prompted Larry to make “Metropolis: The Life of Cities” last year’s art theme, which he announced at the 2009 event. I wrote about that and his headquarters search in the Guardian at the time, and it also went into my book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture.
I’ll be promoting the book and discussing Black Rock City’s contribution to urbanism during a March 8 event at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association’s Urban Center, along with Larry and several other burner luminaries. And to feed that discussion, I thought I’d post another chapter from my book, this one beginning on page 250.

Inspiring Urbanism

Gabriel Metcalf was just giddy when he heard about Burning Man’s 2010 art theme: “Metropolis: The Life of Cities.” It beautifully brought together two of his main passions. In addition to being a four-time attendee of the event at that point, he’s the executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, the city’s premier urbanism think tank.
“I can’t believe the Burning Man theme. It’s just so awesome,” he told me after the 2009 event, barely able to contain his glee. “Black Rock City is one of the great cities of the world.”
That’s high praise from someone whose days are devoted to studying urban life and its myriad challenges, and a testament to the fact that Black Rock City has successfully made the transition from frontier to city.
“I try to capture the zeitgeist with the themes,” Larry told me. That particular sense of the times really settled in during his visit to New York City, which was experiencing its own urban renaissance at the time, converting traffic lanes into separated bikeways and open space, setting out tables and chairs and letting people create informal spaces to just be with one another.
“It looks like the playa,” Larry told me. “I watched people creating conversational circles.”
In discussing the urbanism ideals that led to the theme – using design to facilitate community, getting past automobile-based systems, transforming cities into the basic societal building block – Larry once again showed himself to be well-read in the works of influential thinkers: “Urban planners, ever since way back in the ‘70s, when Jane Jacobs wrote about the ‘Life and Death of American Cities’…have been waiting for years to do stuff like this.”
Gabriel certainly had been, which is why Larry’s theme was so exciting to him. “One thing I love about Burning Man taking on the question of urbanism is it’s going to not just be about physical placement, how you lay out the blocks and streets, but about community in a larger sense,” he said. “The exploration of different forms of community is what I think is so interesting and transformative for the people who go there.”
Gabriel saw great potential in what Burning Man was trying to do next. He said that Larry “is trying to make it relevant and to speak to the big issue of the day. Metropolis speaks to the biggest issue, human settlement, how we’re going to live together. It’s asking the big question.”
Larry confirmed this to me and said that the burner community finally seemed ready for a discussion like that, particularly given the stubbornly sluggish economy in those years. “As people reduced their consumption, they seem more attracted to our values,” Larry said. “They come for the art but stay for the community.”
I think he’s right. The art is the draw, the thing that really defines the event and is the focal point for the community. But most of us wouldn’t keep going to that much trouble and expense, year after year, just to see the art. After all, the fire arts may have been cultivated by Burning Man, but by 2009, they also existed elsewhere, from Oakland to Governor’s Island in New York to Amsterdam’s Robodock.
The Crucible’s Fire Arts Festival in Oakland had it biggest year ever in 2009, with some truly mind-blowing new pieces and old standards, combined with the performance art and fashions derived from the Burning Man culture. And it was just 50 bucks and a quick trip from San Francisco.
But most of my friends and acquaintances who had been to Burning Man went back again in 2009, even those who had recently lost their jobs or were wrestling with other economic hardships. With the future looking uncertain, Black Rock City was still grounding, affirming, and exciting, a place where they still wanted to be.
“People are reassessing what they value, and apparently they value us,” Larry said.
One indicator of that was the fact that even as the population dropped slightly, the number of theme camps applying for placement increased, a signal that the communities that form up around camps were still thriving even if independent or newbie burners weren’t.
“We had so many theme camps they couldn’t all get placed,” Larry said. “People were putting more effort into it than ever. They’re valuing their social connections to people.”
Larry said he felt more social than ever that year. In previous years, First Camp (where Larry and other Burning Man employees and VIPs camp) used to be like “a command compound,” Larry said. But this year, he said it felt more social and open to outsiders. “I probably had the best year I ever had. I felt like I was in a village for the first time,” he said, a claim that rang true with my own interaction with him on the playa this year.
Not having attended Burning Man in the anarchic early years, Gabriel has always seen Black Rock City as a city. “In the absence of state-imposed authority and control, you take 50,000 anarchists and put them in the desert and they’ll create order out of chaos.” And the city they created, he said, is “like being a protagonist in a movie when you arrive in the big city. The Esplanade is one of the great main streets in the world.”
Gabriel has also pondered its symbiotic relationship with the city where he lives and works. “Is Burning Man an expression of San Francisco, or has Burning Man reconceptualized San Francisco? I think Burning Man has had a big influence on San Francisco, and at the same time, it is San Francisco’s gift to the world.”
But Larry said BRC had only recently been accepted as a city – with roads and rules and a distinctive urban culture – finally making it possible to use the event to discuss urbanism. “Four or five years ago, this would have been a hard sell. They still discussed whether they liked the streets and the rules we imposed,” he said. “People have come to respect its urban character, so we’re ready for a discussion like this.”
Larry said his personal observation, and what he has heard from many others, is that “it’s become a better and better social environment.” And that’s what finally led him to let go of his sociopolitical ambitions for Burning Man and just let it become what it was: a beautiful, inspirational city.
“I thought it was about the rest of the world for a long time. It’s really about the world that we go back and live in,” he told me, bringing some closure to our long-running conversation about exporting Burning Man’s big ideas and ethos. “It’s got to be about something that is in the world.”