As I leave for Burning Man, I wanted to share an article that I wrote for the on-playa BRC Weekly. Enjoy, and I'll see you all on the on the other side:
This is as good as it gets, burners, right here and right now in beautiful, bountiful Black Rock City. And this is the way it’s always going be, year after year, like a dusty Groundhog Day on acid. Only the numbers and faces of the citizens and the things we create for one another will change.
It’s perfect, right? No reason to change a thing. What God (or, rather, Larry Harvey) has created, let no burner presume to alter.
That’s an idea that most burners seem to embrace, despite the beloved pastime of veteran burners to kvetch and celebrate some storied golden age, whether it be 1986, 1996, or 2006. We all just appreciate the chance to build a city for ourselves each year and the leaders of Burning Man for giving us that opportunity, again and again.
And I’m now joining those who accept Burning Man as it is, hereby officially dropping my struggles against Larry, Maid Marian, and the rest of Black Rock City LLC board to create some form of representative or democratic leadership for the Burning Man and its culture.
It’s been a lonely and frustrating crusade anyway, so I’m happy to be done with it (as I’m sure they are). I’ve been regularly covering Burning Man for my newspaper, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, since 2004. My reportage formed the basis of my book, The Tribes of Burning Man, which came out in 2011 just as the LLC board was being torn apart by internal divisions that they resolved by deciding to turn control of Burning Man over to a new nonprofit they were creating, The Burning Man Project.
“Why not act to change the world, a world that you won’t be in? And that’s what we want to do,” Larry told a roomful of grateful burners when he announced the plan in April 2011. “We want to get out of running Burning Man. We want to move on.”
The prospects of that change in leadership seemed exciting, and I imagined a council of veteran burners representing our community’s constituent communities – artists, DPW, sound camps, volunteers, art car makers, regional leaders, maybe the biggest villages – gathering around a table to plan the future of Burning Man. It might get messy, but things worth doing usually are.
First, I took issue with Larry’s announced plans to create secret payouts for the six board members, but nobody except Chicken John seemed to care about that. The predominant view seemed to be that they had done us all a great service and they deserved whatever it was they wanted to pay themselves.
Fine, so then I publicly questioned the hand-picked nonprofit board, which seemed chosen for their fundraising ability more than the communities they represented. Again, no resonance, so I accepted it and moved on. Maybe money was what was important in the early stages, and new leadership would come later.
And I was totally willing to just let it go and move on, until earlier this year when I watched the new documentary, “Spark: A Burning Man Story,” which concludes with the claim "the organization is transitioning into a nonprofit to 'gift' the event back to the community.”
So I decided to plug back into covering Burning Man to check on the status of this gift with just a year to go until Larry had said that control of the event would be transferred to the new nonprofit. But rather than relaxing their grip on the event and entrusting it to the community, I learned that they consider their leadership “more important than ever,” as Marian put it.
Not only are The Burning Man Project board members still not representative of the overall community, but they have no authority over the event, which Larry wants to continue as is “without being unduly interfered with by the nonprofit organization.”
Sure, the LLC and its various fiefdoms can unilaterally change its contracts with artists, its policy on what kinds and how many art cars to license, its ticket pricing structure, and size of the city (the max population this year jumped to 68,000 from 60,000 last year), all without any input from the community. It can cut lucrative side deals with corporations and propagandists. But we can’t have the new nonprofit board making these sorts of decisions, that would be unthinkable.
"The nonprofit is going well, and then we have to work out the terms of the relationship between the event and the nonprofit. We want the event to be protected from undue meddling and we want it to be a good fit,” Larry told me.
And when I wrote about these issues in the Guardian, where they were read by tens of thousands of people, few people seemed to care. Two articles I wrote on these issues this year got two online comments each, comparing to the 259 comments and vigorous public discussion that ensued after I wrote “Burning Man ticket fiasco creates uncertain future” in February of last year.
The lesson: as long as we can get to Black Rock City, we don’t really care who’s calling the shots. After all, it’s really all of us who create the city each year for our own enjoyment, and that’s what matters, not the six people who control the $23 million we all spent on tickets this year.
So I’m just going to enjoy myself this year and forever after, safe in the faith that “participation” and “radical self-reliance” are things I do in my own camp and immediate surroundings, and that the larger Burning Man project itself is in the same safe and benevolent hands that it’s always been and always will be.