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.
“TRIBES OF BURNING MAN” HITS THE BOOKSHELVES

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.”

Watch the Tribes characters come to life

My journalistic engagement with Burning Man, which resulted in my new book, began in the fall of 2004 when hundreds of the culture’s artists staged what became known as the Borg2 revolt. As I worked on an article about it for the Guardian, I had the magical experience of watching the colorful characters in the book I was reading suddenly come to life.

I want to give that same experience to the readers of my bookThe Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture – and that’s how I’m structuring my Feb. 17 launch party. You’ll hear me talk about the book and read excepts from it, interspersed by meeting and hearing from characters in the book.

This is Burning Man by Brian Doherty is an excellent account of the event’s early years until around 2001, my first year, that I was reading when many of the book’s main characters launched their rebellion with an ad in the Guardian. Showman Chicken John and artist Jim Mason were the top signatories, their main foe was event leader Larry Harvey, and they had allies in co-founders Michael Mikel (aka Danger Ranger) and John Law and lots of Bay Area artists who were characters in Doherty’s book.

And suddenly, I was talking with these people, all recognizable from the book but so much more in real life, all fascinating, inspiring, multi-dimensional souls. It made the book so much more rich and gave a detailed backstory to the current controversy and those to come.

Some of those same characters and many more have said they’ll be at my event and will say a few words. Larry is returning from South America two days before the event, but he told me that he plans to attend and will say a few words, as will Michael and perhaps a third Borg member, Marian Goodell. Chicken will also be there, in his inimitable style.

Burners Without Borders founders Tom Price and Carmen Mauk plan to be there and speak; Rebecca Anders, a main character from the Flaming Lotus Girls section in the beginning of the book to the Temple of Flux section I conclude with, will be there, along with fellow Flux artists Jess Hobbs and PK Kimelman; Opulent Temple’s Syd Gris, another character who appears throughout the book, will speak and spin at the event; Fou Fou Ha will be there in costume to bring my indie circus chapters to life; artists Michael Christian and Peter Hudson will be there to talk about past projects from the book and their exciting new endeavors; performer Kid Beyond (my cohort in driving from Black Rock City to the Democratic National Convention in 2008) will be in the house and on the mic; Kinky Salon founders Polly Superstar and Barron Scott Levkoff will do a dramatic reading of their chapter on sex; and many more surprise guests.

So this should be a unique night to remember. See you there.

Burners are blazing hot and bright right now

While I’m obviously focused on the imminent release of my book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture, that is only one of the fast and furious developments within the vibrant Burning Man culture.
Today was the deadline for artists to submit their grant proposals to Black Rock City LLC, and many of the tribes that I’m connected to and include in my book – from the Flux Foundation (builders of last year’s Temple of Flux) to Flaming Lotus Girls to the crews of artists Peter Hudson and Michael Christian – were slamming to get their pitches and renderings done late into last night (I’m even going to meet some recovering fluxxers for a celebratory drink after I post this). I’ll try to profile a few of the projects in the coming weeks.
I’ve also been in communication with the Extra Action folks who built the amazing but ill-fated La Contessa art galleon. They brought a federal civil lawsuit against Nevada landowner Mike Stewart, who intentionally burned La Contessa to the ground in 2006, an episode I chronicled in a Bay Guardian cover story that I reprise in my book.
They sued under the federal Visual Artists Rights Act, which makes it illegal to destroy an artwork, a statute that carries a steep punitive fine that was the group’s best hope of recovering a significant financial settlement, as well as under federal conversion statutes that ban destruction of property.
But the judge in federal district count in Nevada ruled Jan. 20 that La Contessa was applied art because it was built on a functional vehicle and didn’t meet the statute’s definition of visual art, granting Stewart’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the VARA claim while leaving the conversion suit intact. The crew is planning its next move – and I’ve been playing phone tag with their lawyer – so I may have a more detailed Guardian story on this soon.
Meanwhile, Black Rock City LLC (the entity that stages Burning Man) has been busily converting into a nonprofit called the Burning Man Project and trying to move into a high-profile new headquarters in San Francisco’s mid-Market area (a quest it’s been on for awhile). The deal on the latter could be finalized at any time (it’s subject to a real estate negotiations now that could go either way) while the nonprofit announcement is probably still a few months away. I’ll post something more detailed as soon as there’s more to say. And tickets continue to sell at a record pace, indicating that Black Rock City might well top last year’s peak population of 51,000.
So 2011 is shaping up to be a huge year in the Burning Man community – not least of which because my book is comprehensively chronicling the modern burner culture for the first time. So, buy the book (which my publisher, distributor, and I will receive on Thursday), plan on coming to my book launch party on Feb. 17 at Project One (with lots of special guests and surprises in store), and check back to this blog for stories and updates on the culture.

Book launching Feb. 17

The official launch date for my book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture, is set for Feb. 17, with a launch party that evening at Project 1 in Potrero Hill.

Come get a signed copy of the book and hear directly from some of its major characters — both on the microphone and spinning on the decks — and join in a festive celebration of this exciting culture. Details and DJ lineup to be announced soon.

For those who have ordered the book through my website, Amazon, or CCC Publishing, we hope to have the books in the mail a week or two before the official launch, but we’re awaiting final word from the printer. And Kindle users can start reading my book immediately.

Buy the ticket, take the ride

Burning Man 2011 begins at 10 a.m. tomorrow. That’s when tickets go on sale, an annual ritual of queuing up in an electronic line, sometimes for hours, hoping some technical glitch doesn’t boot you off, and eventually paying $210 (or $240 if the first 9,000 tickets are gone, or $320 if you dither for too long) for your ticket.
But that ticket doesn’t really buy you anything, except the privilege of entering Black Rock City and the responsibility of helping to create it. And that central tenet of Burning Man is what baffles outsiders the most, some of whom express amazement that tickets go on sale so early for an event that doesn’t even start until late August.
The reason, as Larry Harvey and others who run the corporation (soon to be turned into a nonprofit) that stages Burning Man have told me, is one of acculturation, which takes time. It’s about getting people to commit early to building this city so that they have the time and inclination to ponder what this is about, how they will go, and what they’ll contribute.
“Buy the ticket, take the ride,” outlaw journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and it’s a good way of looking at Burning Man, mostly because Hunter meant it metaphorically. Buy the ticket (make the commitment), take the ride (see where that commitment takes you).
When burners buy their tickets tomorrow, it isn’t just a ticket that they’re buying. It’s a commitment they’re making to help build and burn one of the greatest cities on the planet, at least for the week that it exists. Similarly, Burning Man doesn’t really begin on Aug. 29 when the gates open – it begins tomorrow.
Last year, I had already been on the playa for more than a week building the Temple of Flux when the gates opened, and some were there much longer. Your decision about what role you want to play in creating this city determines the conditions of your visit, and the ticket is barely worth the holographic paper it’s printed on.
Even for those who building a simple theme camp with their friends, the ride you take starts now, when you buy the ticket. My camp, Garage Mahal, has its first camp meeting scheduled for Feb. 2 – and we already have a swanky art car in our possession. If you’re starting with less, you have even more to do.
And that isn’t the work you do before the ride – the work is the ride. This is about the process creation, party people. It’s about what you want to see and who you want to be. Buy the ticket, take the ride.
Oh yeah, and if you’re inclined to buy the book, do that too. It’ll give your ride much more depth and meaning.