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.

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Thanks for asking, Burning Man, I’m kinda neutral

When Burning Man asked me how I feel about its new system for buying tickets – as I applied for mine today, the first day of registration – I chose the multiple-choice answer: “Kinda neutral. Doing what I can and hoping for the best.” Not either of the “not too worried” answers, or the ones that began “Not too thrilled” or “Think you guys are nuts.”
I’ve understood both the criticisms and the rationale since I first covered the issue last month, and they’re each pretty reasonable, so I’ve long since decided just to wait and see. I didn’t even register for the top tier price of $390, even though it would probably improve my odds. Again, I’m cool with fatalism this year. It’ll all work out and if I can’t easily get a ticket for $320 or less, so be it. But I did order two tickets, because I know I’ll have friends in need.
Frankly, I liked how chill it was to apply for tickets this time, rather than the usual frantic scramble to get in line online by noon. It allowed for a leisurely chat rather than just battling through computer farts and crashes to begin the countdown from the 8,739th place in line.
What we think of the new system wasn’t the only question that Burning Man asked us this year. There were an even dozen, asking about our past attendance and participation and current involvement, and they assured us that “your answers will in NO WAY affect your likelihood of receiving tickets.”
I hope Burning Man will make the answers to the survey public, and I can’t see why they wouldn’t. The organization is to be commended for seeking this kind of feedback and information, so share it with us, because I think we’re all curious how it’s going to work out.
Registration continues until January 22nd and then we all find out February 1st. Good luck, everyone.

And while you’re waiting for word from Burning Man, read my book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture. Read it a second time if you’ve already done so, remember the magic…and maybe catch some typos for us before the next printing. What, you’ve not even read it once yet? C’mon, people should read more, and you’ll dig it so buy one here or here or anywhere. I was kidding about the typos, it’s perfect! All the cool kids are reading it, and you want be a cool kid, right? Or at least to read about some? And to help a poor starving writer buy a couple expensive tickets? Okay, okay, I’ll stop now.    
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Burning Man attendees anxious over new ticketing system

ImageBurning Man attendees are feeling anxious over a new lottery-based ticketing system set up this year to address the growing popularity of the event, so much so that an unprecedented number of them are now registering for pre-sale tickets – which were originally intended as holiday gifts – that are being sold at the top-tier price of $420.

Black Rock City LLC, the San Francisco-based company that stages the annual late-summer event in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, announced the new system last month, setting off a cascade of online denunciations and expressions of anxiety over whether burners will be able to secure enough tickets for their friends, family, and project partners.

“There’s been a strong reaction for all the reasons we thought would happen,” said Marian Goodell, one of six LLC board members responsible for the decision, who said they searched in vain for a better label for the new system. “The word ‘lottery’ is highly charged and unfortunately people equate a lottery with one in a million odds to win a fortune.”

But she said they needed to try something new after last year’s problems, when strong demand for tickets on the first day of sales repeatedly crashed the online ticketing system, and when the event sold out in late July for the first time in its 25-year history, causing scalpers to sell tickets for double-face-value in many cases.

The first round of ticket sales aren’t likely to ease people’s concerns – it could make them more nervous. As in previous years, the LLC is selling 3,000 tickets in December, and their high prices have previously kept demand at around that level. But not this year, as several thousand people have already registered for a lottery-based sale whose registration period ends Dec. 11.

“If 10,000 people apply for 3,000 tickets, I’ve got more unhappy people than I want,” Goodell said.

Those who don’t get tickets will automatically be registered for the main ticket sale in January, when everyone else will register at either the $240, $320, and/or $390 tiered pricing levels to buy up to two tickets from the 40,000 being sold then (10,000 at the lowest tier and 15,000 each at the next two). Notifications will go out on Feb. 1.

Then, in March, about 10,000 more tickets will be sold on a first come, first served basis. Goodell said the exact number of tickets sold then will depend on the permit that is issued by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for next year’s Burning Man. The LLC has been seeking the negotiate a five-year permit that will allow the event to gradually grow up to 70,000 people.

“We’re looking at a five-year permit and the five-year permit has the potential to grow bigger. What that looks like in the first year isn’t clear yet,” Goodell said.

There are mixed views in the Burning Man community to growing Black Rock City far beyond its current size of just over 50,000 people. It would open the event to more people, but that presents challenges to acculturation and the logistics of getting people to and from a far-flung locale accessed only by a narrow highway with one lane in each direction.

Earlier this year, the LLC moved into a more high-profile headquarters space on mid-Market and set up a nonprofit called the Burning Man Project, which will eventually supplant the LLC in running the event and which is intended to pursue more projects off the playa.

“We’re all for Burning Man culture continuing to grow, and fortunately we have other avenues to grow, including the nonprofit and the regional events,” Goodell said. “The city has all kinds of other constraints.”

Critics last year complained about scalpers reselling Burning Man tickets at high prices, something frowned on in the community and discouraged by the LLC, although it did little to address the problem. An analysis done by the online ticket site Seat Geek found that the average resale price of $350 before the sellout increased to almost $700 afterward, with the highest price ticket going for $1,120.

Goodell said that the only way to minimize the scalping of Burning Man tickets would have been to create a system in which all buyers were identified by name and after-market ticket sales were regulated by the organization, “and that’s more than we were willing to do.” Instead, the LLC will be creating an online system for reselling tickets and guarding against counterfeits, with details to be announced later.

But she predicted the new system will work better than the old one and that most people’s anxieties are unfounded.

“Most people who think ahead are going to get a ticket,” Goodell said, later adding, “It’s a lot less scary than people think.”

Bay Guardian City Editor 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 (2011, CCC Publishing)

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 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.