Have you come up with a theory about how Burning Man should handle ticket sales yet?
If not, congratulations: you’re the only one.
My blogging colleague Jon Mitchell wrote about a pre-Halloween brain-eating session to discuss how Burning Man should handle ticket sales to groups – if it does that at all. I attended that meeting because there was an open bar, and am pleased to report that their signature cocktail was a combination of black vodka, blue Curacao, and Sprite. It was delicious. Especially when you really stirred it around so the layers mixed.
The other thing I noticed was that of the 30-some people in attendance, there were 40-some theories about how Burning Man could best handle ticket sales – it was as though “radical incompatibility” were the 11th principle.
My impression is that discussions were equally convoluted at the Burning Man staff retreat. I wasn’t there (I’m a volunteer), so I can only confirm that while the Org staff were out talking about the future of Burning Man I opened a bottle of 25 year tawny port which had a taste of leather and chocolate on the back palate.
There are no questions in this world as inflammatory and divisive as questions of identity – which is why what should be the bland and technocratic discussion of how to sell tickets gets so many people so worked up so fast. How we handle ticket demand is widely seen as an indicator of who we are. Burning Man is the participants – and the participants are the people with tickets. Aren’t they?
Everyone wants Burning Man to get this right. Burning Man has to get this right.
But what is right?
There are a million ways to distribute 50,000 tickets to 50,000 people that will leave everybody happy. But there is no way to distribute 50,000 tickets to 50,0001 people that will leave everybody feeling good. And if 60,000 people want tickets? 70,000? And then scalpers try to buy 15,000 more?
If 85,000 people are trying to get 50,000 Burning Man tickets there is no system that will not leave over a third of them feeling gyped. It’s mathematically impossible.
So what’s the “right” answer? Lottery? First-come-first-serve? Essay contest? Fashion show? Trial by Ordeal?
Whatever it is, there is no solution that will keep a significant number of people from feeling cheated … or from trying to game the system.
I don’t pretend to have answers to the purely functional question of how we pick a system to distribute tickets in the future – and I don’t believe anyone who says they do. Because I honestly have no idea of all the factors that are in play … and neither do you.
How many more tickets can be gained through negotiations with the federal government? How many more people per year can the Black Rock Desert sustain without damaging the environment? How much bigger can Black Rock City get before it’s logistically impossible for it to be intimate? Are there other locations that would adequately support Burning Man? Would they be available? How much money would be required? Can regional events really substitute for That Thing In The Desert? Is it possible to have more than one a year?
And on, and on, and on …
Everybody has a right to an opinion, but very few of us actually have anything close to the accurate information needed to plan the Burning Man ticket system well. I don’t know. You don’t know. The people making angry Facebook postings have no idea – but dammit, they’re angry and it’s Facebook! What else are they going to do?
Not being on Facebook, the only intellectually honest thing for me to do is to leave that to the people who actually keep track, and maybe ask “how can I help?”
But as for the philosophical issue – as for the question of who our ticketing system makes us as a community – that I have a suggestion about. I’d go so far as to say I’m passionate about it, the way I feel about a good port.
Burning Man is at risk of going through an Inverse Protestant Reformation.
Yeah, yeah, I know. Pretentious. But, bear with me. We like to think of Burning Man as a new and unique thing in the history of the world, and I’m mostly there with you, but those who don’t learn from history are destined to listen to people repeat it.
The position of the European Church in the 16th century was that there are two requirements to get to paradise: one is by faith (wanting to be saved) and the other is by doing good works. The Church, of course, was the final arbiter on earth of which works are good enough to get someone into heaven. Human institutions being corruptible, this eventually led to the selling of indulgences: basically a chance to buy, buy, buy your sins away by investing in an art project. A rich man might have to go through the eye of a needle to get to heaven, but by 1516 they could commission a really enormous needle.
The Protestant position so forcefully advocated by Martin Luther was that good works are bullshit. Not only are they subject to ego and corruption and benefit the wealthy, but their whole premise is flawed: no achievement makes any man more worthy than another. God alone decides who gets to go to heaven, and so all we can do is have faith. “Faith alone” is the criteria for salvation under Protestant theology.
Theologically Burning Man, from its very beginning, has been a strictly Protestant affair. The only real requirement was to want it enough. At first that was easy, because the San Francisco beach is very accessible by bus. Then it went out to the desert, and you had to want it more – but even so, all you had to do was get there. Then it started selling tickets, which added some additional cash to the equation, but it was still just a variation on the same theme: if you want it enough, you can come. No one who wanted it enough to buy a ticket and undergo the pilgrimage would be turned away.
Everyone was supposed to be actively participating, that’s a huge part our “theology,” but there were no mechanisms to judge that. No arbiter you could turn to, to say “I like your theme camp, but you can’t dance to it,” and expect them to offer the final word. Now sure, as time went on you could be turned down for an art grant or given a terrible spot for a theme camp … but if someone wanted it enough they would not be turned away, and they could still do what they wanted.
Burning Man’s credo was “Faith alone.” No one’s good works made them special. We all stink after a week in the desert.
Many of the ticket schemes proposed by Burners risk changing that.
Now that tickets are a scarce commodity, many established Burners are demanding that newer Burners go to the back of the line. Many theme camps are insisting that they deserve preferential treatment and be made whole, at the ultimate expense of solo burners, art car makers, and other theme camps. Burners of all stripes are insisting that good works be counted in their favor. They’re saying faith alone … the desire to go to Burning Man and be a part of this community … now counts for much less.
They demand salvation through works – and they are demanding that there be a hierarchy in order to make it happen. They don’t call it a “Catholic” hierarchy, but ultimately that’s what they want. When they are abstract guidelines, the 10 Principles are simply principles; when they are applied by an organization invested with moral authority, the 10 principles become ecclesiastical objects that determine the fate of members of the community.
Thus we have an Inverse Protestant Reformation: a popular movement of free spirits insisting that a previously non-judgmental body turn itself into an ecclesiastical hierarchy.
These new “Catholic” Burners may get what they want, but the Org has resisted it. Indeed, the whole purpose of the lottery system was to prevent it from having to take on that kind of responsibility and make those judgment calls. That’s another way this is an Inverse Protestant Reformation: the Church in Rome was desperate to cling to its power; the Burning Man office in San Francisco has tried like hell not to pick it up.
I don’t blame them. They see the danger in becoming arbiters of who’s “burnier-than-thou” quite clearly, because they’ve spent the last decade trying to avoid it. But now, at this moment, they don’t know what else to do. Much of the community is demanding it, and the Org has to put this largely volunteer run event together. It’s not just art cars and theme camps: the volunteer infrastructure at Burning Man is enormous. Want ice? Most of that work is done by volunteers. Want Center Camp? Thousands of volunteers. Want medical tents, vehicle registration, Playa Info, and so much more? Mostly volunteers.
My aesthetic tastes may be Catholic, but as a burner I’m a radical fideist (faith only): I would like to be storming the barricades on Market Street shouting “Don’t do it! There’s a better way!”
But I’ve got nothing – nothing except faith that we, the people of Burning Man, can be better than this. That we can actually raise our consciousness just enough to accept that you can participate in Burning Man without necessarily going in any given year.
Hopefully it won’t come to that, because if you have to ask “can we raise our consciousness?” the answer is almost always “No.” History is immutable on this point.
So hopefully Larry will pull a rabbit out of his Stetson that lets everyone who wants to go, go. I’m rooting for it. That’s the best solution. But in the meantime my advice to the Org … which means no more or less than any of yours … is to not offer tickets to camps. Do not give established camps, no matter how amazing, precedent over new Burners who could bring something we’ve never seen before. Good works are their own reward: do not let them influence your decision. Gifting with the expectation of special treatment in return is really bartering.
Instead let Burners rise to the challenge. Let camps who don’t have enough people with tickets recruit from Burners with tickets who don’t have camps; let new people have an even shot at getting through the gate. Let new ideas rise, and new structures emerge; let us connect in new ways.
If in response more people focus on the Regionals, or new events entirely, God bless ‘em. That’s all part of the plan.
What isn’t part of the plan is forcing Burning Man to decide who is a “good” Burner and who is a “bad” one. What isn’t part of the plan is a checklist that pits sound camps vs. art installations vs. mutant vehicles vs. clowns distributing snow-cones.
Change has come to Burning Man … again … and we can’t prevent it. (And would we if we could?) But we can use it as an opportunity to be better than we are.
I don’t believe in much in this world, but I believe the ideal of Burning Man is worth working for. I believe we can use that ideal to organize in new ways without closing ourselves off to new people.
What else have we been rehearsing for all these years?
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com