Burning Man’s New Challenge (It’s a High Culture, Bitches!)

Let me cut to the chase: I think the major challenge facing the Burning Man Project in its new era is to do two things equally well, with equal resources and fervor:

  • To ramp up its institutional capacity and bureaucracy;
  • To simultaneously develop work-arounds of its own institutions and bureaucracy.

The Burning Man Project needs to do the first so that it can take advantages of the opportunities that institutions and bureaucracies are good at – like engaging in globally coordinated activities, working with institutional partners, and developing major resources. Our community is getting more and more ambitious with its art, its civic engagement, and its placemaking, and these efforts needs strong institutional support. It needs to do the second so as to keep Burning Man culture focused on immediacy, social capital, do-occracy, and the spirit of not having to ask permission.

It’s going to be difficult, if not a little schizophrenic, to do both of these things equally well at the same time – but I think that’s the essential challenge we face, and the future development of our culture depends on it.

If that’s all you want to know, you can stop reading now. If you want a more detailed explanation, the rest of this post will give it to you. Don’t say I never gave you anything.

 

(Ahem)

 

How Does Your Culture Grow …

By my count, there are four eras of Burning Man so far. Danger Ranger has five. I expect that one day we’ll settle this through a prank-off, and I’ll discover that I never really had a brother – it’s been a clever ruse all this time.

But until then, here’s my shorthand breakdown of Burning Man history:

1986 – 1989: Burning Man was an EXPERIMENT. A small group of friends was trying something, seeing if it worked, discovering what it was, seeing where it went.

1990 – 2003: Burning Man was a FRONTIER. The experiment had been successful, and success led Burning Man to the desert where there were (supposedly) no rules, no regulations, and very little organization to tell anyone to do anything. It was the wild west, in ways both literal and symbolic. When people say “Burning Man has changed,” they’re usually using this era as their baseline – generally ignoring the fact that not only did Burning Man not start out as a frontier, but that the thing most people did with that freedom and license was build community and culture. It’s no accident that the frontier became a city, or that the city became …

2004 – 2013: Burning Man was a CULTURE. Actually, it was probably a culture well before this, but 2004 is when the Regional Network was formed and the 10 Principles written, so it’s a pretty good line of demarcation.   By now Burning Man had more than the freedom of the frontier: it had a star towards which that freedom was pointing. A set of common values, broadly agreed upon. And – this is key – the culture was understood as something you were able to pick up and take with you. As an experiment, “Burning Man” had been synonymous with the Man. Frontier, “Burning Man” had been synonymous with the desert and with Black Rock City. It wasn’t something you could do anyplace else, and if Larry had said “nah, let’s not do this next year” or Black Rock City had been disbanded by the authorities, Burning Man would have been over. When “Burning Man” became a culture, with global reach, that was never possible again. It existed independently of any of its physical vessels, and would grow and evolve in many different places at once. The fact that it grew so successfully is what eventually led us to the current era.

2014 – Present: Burning Man is a HIGH CULTURE. We’ll go into what that means in a minute.

 

A Crisis is Just a Cliche About An Opportunity You Haven’t Met Yet

 

Now the important thing to realize here is that each era of Burning Man presented a different set of challenges and a different set of opportunities. The challenges of the experiment at Baker Beach were far, far, different than the challenges of the frontier – and so were the opportunities. No theme camps, mutant vehicles, or larger community was really possible in the experiment, but suddenly they were possible in the frontier. Similarly the challenges of the frontier (survival, shade, food … just finding the damn place … figuring out how to connect with neighbors) were significantly different than those of the culture (figuring out how to “Burn” in other places, explaining what the culture stood for, building a regional network) – and the opportunities were vastly different as well.

While it’s easy to point at milestones, these differences aren’t really because any specific person did any specific thing: they emerged as a result of community growth and evolution. Nobody ever specifically said “hey, let’s make the art projects bigger and bigger every year until they’re some of the most massive DIY undertakings in the world” – it just naturally developed as more and more artists and crews gained expertise and renown and exposure to each others’ work; just so, Burning Man evolved from one stage to the next because people showed up, and built art and community around them, and the more they did that, the more physical and cultural infrastructure evolved. And here we are.

 

All Roads Lead to Rome

 

The characteristics of a high culture include diversity, specialization, abstraction, bureaucratization, reach, and scale … among others. Burning Man, having entered a high culture phase, has to develop them: it’s as essential as developing shade and bringing water were to its frontier period.  If you didn’t bring shelter and water and building supplies to the desert, you simply weren’t going to be able to take advantage of the opportunities the environment was offering you – or meet its challenges.  Just so, if we develop the tools demanded by a high culture, you’re not going to be able to take advantage of hte opportunities the culture environment is offering us, or meet its challenges.  These are the tools that are necessary – and while there are many, many software companies promising “solutions” to the inertia of global teams, no fortress of innovation has yet actually eliminated the need for either meetings or bureaucracy. Whether you’re Google, the Red Cross, or the United Federation of Planets, once you reach that scale, the only option is to build institutional capacity or go home.

We see these things happening in Burning Man already, in ways that have nothing to do with the Org. The existence of art support camps, for example, are a clear example of specialization: camps that themselves offer no interactive art experience, but instead exist to give essential support to the artist teams who do. Likewise there are more and more theme camps that, of their own accord and without any requirements, are developing increasingly specialized roles (“you manage our social media channels; you handle our MOOP volunteers,” “you make sure our mutant vehicles are in good repair”) as acts of self-creation, in Black Rock City and out in the world.

Which is to say, the High Culture period is coming whether the The Burning Man Project does something useful about it or not. All those in favor of being helpful raise your hands. So yes, the Project needs to keep up. There’s simply no way to deal with the level of governmental engagement Black Rock City (let alone a global cultural institution) requires without an attendant infrastructure; there’s no way to appropriately handle mass donations, grants, and resources except through an accountable bureaucracy. If the Burning Man Project is to succeed at the opportunities a high culture offers, it has to develop its institutional capacities and bureaucracy.

 

Black Rock City is So Not Rome

 

But just doing that … or rather, doing only that … will get us something much closer to an “off the rack” high culture (don’t they all claim to value art, self-expression, and communal effort, really, if you ask them?) than it will a specifically Burning Man high culture.

That’s where the other side of the equation comes in: the Burning Man Project has to develop work-arounds and alternatives to the very bureaucracy it’s setting up, as it sets it up.

It has to do this because, unlike most global institutions, Burning Man can’t thrive if the people participating are only paying lip service to its culture.

Businesses don’t need anyone to really believe their “missions” (and it shows) because the bottom line is whether employees do the work and customers buy the product – and they have economic incentives to get people to do at least that much.

Governments need people to obey their laws – but beyond that, it only matters so much to them whether people are obeying because they believe in their governments or because they are afraid of state power. (Indeed, for many governments, the two are indistinguishable).

Artistic movements generally need to at least engage people – but most of the time, success is measured by critical reception and butts in seats. That is to say, by how well the elite artists get the masses to sit still and watch. (Or shout and watch, or dance and listen … but you get the idea.)

But not only does Burning Man not have the kinds of economic and legal leverage that other institutions do (especially if you’re outside of Black Rock City), but passive acceptance of the culture represents a failure of the culture on its own terms. We cannot have a do-occracy, a participatory culture based on radical self-expression and communal effort, if people are just spectating. If they’re just going along to get along. Ticket sales and butts in seats do not represent success for Burning Man. Getting whoever shows up, in whatever number, to get off their butts and out of their seats and do something meaningful to them – however pointless – is a sign of success.

What does that have to do with bureaucracy? Nothing.

 

Do it Wrong with the Right Tool

 

 

Bureaucracy is vital for things like managing massive donations that create the conditions that allow the people to do the thing they’re passionate about. Institutional capacity is crucial for setting up large decision making entities across multiple jurisdictions that deal with things like governments and insurance agencies. These are things that really, really, help. More than that, they allow people to work on a scale and capacity that would otherwise never be possible. (And people in our culture want to do that. They’re all but demanding it.)

But … when we’re talking about the fundamental experience of do-occracy, the closest most personal response to the 10 Principles … look, no one is ever really inspired to immediacy, inclusion, and self-expression by the need to form a committee to consult on the process of filling out the paperwork. Do-occracy is fundamentally about not asking permission.

I’m not saying bureaucracy is incompatible with Burning Man: at its best – as we want to do it – art-bureaucracy represents what happens when a group of people who know they don’t need to ask permission still voluntarily sublimate themselves towards a greater cause that they could not do on their own. It’s Civic Responsibility, it’s Communal Effort, it’s even Participation … and goddamit, our forms can be funny.

But even at its best … even as an art-bureaucracy … it demands that people wait and get permission. That’s fine when it’s a burden taken on deliberately. In fact it empowers people who take it on deliberatly, because their patience allows for projects of far greater reach and scope. But for those who aren’t voluntarily sublimating – people who just want to DO THE THING and can’t see any reason not to – it implies exactly the wrong habits of mind.

We need to develop work-arounds to our own institutional capacity and bureaucracy so that people can still be self-reliant, still express themselves without asking permission, still be inspired by direct contact with all 10 Principles … because that is the only way our culture transmits successfully.

 

Let’s envision success, naked

 

What does that look like? It’s what we’ve spent 30 years getting good at. Connect people. Give them opportunities. Get out of their way. Welcome them in. Let them build social capital doing what’s meaningful to them.   Ask “how can I help?” Say “yes” unless they’re putting others at significant risk.

Except it’s not easy, because putting whole big useful systems in place only to encourage people to work around them is fucking hard. It’s one of the hardest things an organizational culture can ever do.

But it matters that we can distinguish between those things we want to do that a bureaucracy is good at, and those things it’s not – and give people plenty of space in those areas to do and build and play and engage for themselves.

For the Burning Man Project it’s ultimately a question of confidence and courage: both that our community can fill the space we create when we step back … and that we can be useful enough that they will continue to come, willingly and enthusiastically, to the structures we build even if they don’t have to.

It’s going to take finesse and courage. For myself, I believe in us.

 

Photo of Brickhead EARTH by James Tyler

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat Magister

A member of the Burning Man Project's Philosophical Center, Caveat served as the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca from 2008 - 2013. He is presently working with Burning Man's education department on a cultural studies curriculum for Burning Man culture. Caveat is the author of the short story collection A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City, which has nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

10 Comments on “Burning Man’s New Challenge (It’s a High Culture, Bitches!)

  • Jeffz says:

    Brilliant, great read. Really like how this is laid out. Got things to think about and hope for the future!

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  • tom ford says:

    First maybe stop flights to the playa,
    don’t think its environmentally responsible.
    Everyone should have to do the same journey there and thru the gates.

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  • Teri says:

    Like the experience of Burning Man, this article feels like it is forging new pathways in my thinking. So exciting to look at it from this elevation!

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  • Clay Clay says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on what the BM Project may need moving forward.

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  • Buffalo Joe says:

    I appreciate an orderly reorg of The Org; however I don’t see much here about how to specifically manage the main event in the desert. Perhaps it should be a distinct sub-set of the overall Org.

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  • Marty Bortz says:

    Thanks Caveat.

    This reminds me of the work of Dee Hock, who developed the notion of a chaordic system. The idea is that complex organisations need to operate somewhere between chaos and order (i.e. ‘Chaorder’) to survive and thrive.

    I’m wondering if this concept might be useful for BM as it enters this fourth ‘phases’.

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  • Richard says:

    I haven’t attended Burning Man yet but are you going to destroy it before I get there and before I die? This the one last vestige of who we are as doers and thinkers without borders. Make changes, turn it into a societal thing, allow only the elites and screw everyone else from attending what was created as a social experiment and destine for a society of its own. I do not honestly thin the founders of this project intended that it would someday be as big as it is or as complex as it is, but surely not wired as it is trying to be to create an organizational society without individual form of creations. I have read and seen the YouTube commentary on “Fly Ranch” and am horrified that with will not be a true Burning Man, but a lavish hot springs resort with fix art installation within an organizational city for the Rich and popular. Maybe it is time for Burning Man to die in peace and allow new creativity to spring up in its place.

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  • Touch says:

    I love these categorizations for our community’s history! They seem useful and evocative… but “High Culture” as a phrase doesn’t really make my bones quake the way “experiment”, “frontier”, and “culture” do. I may be jumping the gun here, but it seems like what you’re describing for phase 4 is a population both empowered by and entrusted with a significant duty. Let me try some words out here: a Mandate, a Mission… a Movement?

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  • Corvus says:

    I’ve been a burner only since 2009 so I’ve missed the first two stages of your four. What I’ve been afraid of is that, with the best of intentions, the (necessarily) growing bureaucracy will crush what it is trying to preserve. An excellent piece pointing this out.

    For the record, can you give a quick description of what Danger Ranger’s *five* eras are?

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  • A bureaucratic arm is necessary, certainly. It can be the our translator, responsible for allocating resources from and engaging in diplomacy with other culture/cultural-societal structures.

    But it must not be given the power to create, itself. We must not give it the ability to change the society as an entity. The people who are burners who make it run, give them the power of doing & participating and changing/growing/evolving the culture organically, but NEVER let the bureaucratic translator branch decide the ins and outs of our culture.

    In learning the language of other structures we do not become them. We just become more able to share our reality & experience with the world and make Burning Man stronger.

    PS I encourage us as a culture to be as self-reliant as we possibly can be – in that, we should educate and spread our culture, certainly, but we must be mindful not to make too many concessions to other institutions when we deal with them. We must retain our cultural integrity, maybe sometimes at the expense of certain dealings. If this slows down our growth a tiny bit, so be it. There are many avenues of growth. Keep it in the family, let the newcomers come and educate them. Cross-pollinate, claim space, but we must be so so careful never to serve the interests of the dominant culture that we reject as a community.

    I could say so much more but this is already tl;dr. I’d love to hear anybody’s thoughts.

    xoxo
    -Pocket Rocket

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