Burning questions - Page 2

Spark debuts at DocFest with a sympathetic look at Black Rock City LLC's intention to gift Burning Man back to the people. But is it true?

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Burning Man board member Michael Mikel cruises past Burn Wall Street during the 2012 event in this image from 'Spark'.

Still, both Deeter and Brown are also clear that they believe in the leadership of the event. "I found their intentions to be honorable and positive as they deal with difficult-to-solve problems," Brown said, while Deeter later told us, "I believe in their intentions."

More cynical burner veterans may have a few eye-rolling moments with this film and the portrayals of its selfless leadership. While the discussions of the ticket fiasco raised challenging issues within the LLC, its critics came off as angry and unreasonable, as if the new ticket lottery had nothing to do with the temporary, artificial ticket scarcity (which was alleviated by summer's end and didn't occur this year under a new and improved distribution system).

And when the film ends by claiming "the organization is transitioning into a nonprofit to 'gift' the event back to the community," it seems to drift from overly sympathetic into downright deceptive, leaving viewers with the impression that the six board members are selflessly relinquishing the tight control they exercise over the event and the culture it has spawned.

Yet our interview with the LLC leadership shows that just isn't true. If anything, the public portrayals that founder Larry Harvey made two years ago about how this transition would go have been quietly modified to leave these six people in control of Burning Man for the foreseeable future.

CHANGING FOCUS

As altruistic as Spark makes Burning Man's transition to nonprofit status sound, Harvey made it clear during the April 1, 2011 speech when he announced it that it was driven by internal divisions that almost tore the LLC board apart, largely over how much money departing board members were entitled to.

The corporation's bylaws capped each board member's equity at $20,000, a figure Harvey scoffed at as ridiculously low, saying the six board members would decide on larger payouts as part of the transition and they have refused to disclose how much (Sources in the LLC tell me the payouts have already begun. Incidentally, author Katherine Chen claimed in her book Enabling Creative Chaos that the $20,000 cap was set to quell community concerns about the board accumulating equity from everyone else's efforts, but Harvey now denies that account).

In that speech, Harvey also said the plan was to turn over operation of the Burning Man event to the nonprofit after three years, and then three years later to transfer control over the Burning Man brand and trademarks and to dissolve the LLC (see "The future of Burning Man," 8/2/11).

Board member Marian Goodell assured us at the time that the LLC would be doing extensive outreach to gather input on what the future leadership of the event and culture should look like: "We're going to have a conversation with the community."

But with just a year to go until the event was scheduled to be turned over to the nonprofit board, there has been no substantive transfer, the details of what the leadership structure will look like are murky — and the six board members of Black Rock LLC still deem themselves indispensable leaders of the event and culture.

The filmmakers say that the transition to the nonprofit was one of the things that drew them to the project, but the ticket fiasco came to steal their focus, mostly because the nonprofit narrative was simply too complex and confusing to easily convey on film.

Deeter said they decided to close the film with Law and his questions of whether the event should have been allowed to grow so large. "We insisted on having John Law at the end to counterbalance that idea" of who would be leading the event.

As she said of the transition to a nonprofit: "You know that transition is a really, really complicated thing."

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