Something about the bright lights of the Christmas season always pushes Burning Man right out of my head. In a bad way.
Something about the way America celebrates Christmas and Thanksgiving – as holidays in which we are told to be thankful for what we have and then commanded to but more stuff – has always contradicted Burning Man’s spirit of non-commodification. Even the act of “giving presents” for the Christman/Hannukah season, at least in my life, has nothing in common with the kind of “gifting” done at Burning Man.
Most years, it’s like the existence of one pushes the other right out of my head. My brain isn’t big enough for both of them.
Not this year, though.
This season Burning Man is very much on all of our minds, and we wonder what Santa and his little elves are turning it into. There’s a new non-profit organization, a new ticketing system, and an as-yet-undisclosed mystery theme. Where in years past it seemed safe to put Burning Man out of our minds for a little while, confident that it would still be there when we got back, this year many of us are refusing to let it out of our sights … constantly checking in to make sure nothing else has changed.
I’m right there with you, checking too. I have no idea what’s happening or what decisions are being made. On those rare occasions when I am invited to a meeting that doesn’t directly impact my volunteer work at Media Mecca, I respond in one of three ways. One: “Oh dear God no!” Two: “Will there be an open bar?” Three: “Are you serving fish tacos?” This strategy pretty much keeps me out of any meetings that have neither free drinks nor fish tacos.
Which is to say, I have no answers. But I can say that I am more curious about what is happening with Burning Man right now than I am worried about it. I generally worry a lot less about Burning Man than I do about, say, the United States congress or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting … and not because I care any less. There are certain things that I find Burning Man … though far from infallible … to be very good at: good enough that I have confidence in them at this juncture.
As long as we’re talking about the future of Burning Man anyway, I thought I might tell you what I’ve telling the people who ask me in person.
The first thing to understand about Burning Man is that it wasn’t supposed to be like this. I mean, come on: a 25 year event that sells out at 53,000 tickets and pulls people in from across the world? That’s absurd. Nobody predicted it, nobody saw it coming. Impossible. Ridiculous. There was no master plan. At every step of Burning Man’s evolution, the next year happened because a dedicated crew of staff and volunteers were desperately winging it. Making it up as they went along.
They still are. This series of events was more predicable than past changes … and therefore they met it somewhat more prepared … but nobody’s really done this before, and so by and large they’re still making it up as they go.
And yes, this brings me confidence, because I like what they’ve done. I like what Burning Man has become. Oh sure, sure, I know … it isn’t what it used to be, it was so much cooler my first time, back in the old days you could conduct a virgin sacrifice in a homemade volcano and nobody minded as long as you had enough guns … but the reason we’re all on edge is that we care so much. After all this time and all these changes we’re still here, along with thousands of new people beckoned by our flames. However correct Burning Man’s critics may be on any given point — and some of them (like Chicken John) are really quite trenchant — the fact is that Burning Man has been winging it since day one and that got us this far.
That counts for something: that counts for a lot, actually. They’ve been open to new solutions, embraced the possible, and never forgotten that it has to have heart. I’d frankly be a lot more worried if they weren’t doing something – if they were content to sit on their laurels and say “well, we’re successful now, sell-outs will happen” – than I am knowing that they’re taking a risk to see what works.
Which isn’t to say they’ll necessarily do the right thing at first. But it does make me confident that they’ll eventually get it right. They’re good at this.
The second thing that brings me confidence is probably invisible to anyone who doesn’t volunteer for the organization. I’m going into my fifth year now as volunteer coordinator for Media Mecca, and when I started I’d already done volunteer coordinating for non-profits, for political campaigns, and for companies. All of them had the same problem: they were more interested in meeting metrics than they were in the people who were helping out. Burning Man was the first organization I’d ever done this kind of work for that didn’t make that mistake.
In the five years I’ve wrangled volunteers for them they’ve never put their own processes and internal workings over the needs of the people I’ve worked with. This doesn’t mean they can’t say “No” – I turn down requests for free tickets and early arrival all the time – but it does mean that I haven’t yet seen them put the bureaucracy over the legitimate needs of volunteers. They’re not infallible, but they get this simple thing right in a way that no other organization I’ve yet worked with has.
Hell yes that gives me confidence as they try to keep up with the times.
The final point is likely to be the most controversial, because nobody who’s put time, sweat, and tears into Burning Man likes to think they’ll be left out of the kingdom for a year – and rightly so. But when creating a system to distribute tickets in a time of sell-out crowds, Burning Man’s first impulse was *not* to close ranks and protect its regulars, its old timers and the people it knows.
I think that’s crucial. To turn inwards at a time like this … even though established Burners are surely worthy of special consideration … would be a disaster. The moment Burner culture becomes insular is the moment it doesn’t age well. New blood, new visions, amateurs visiting the desert in an attempt to find their home for the first time, is far more the secret to Burning Man’s magic than fire and furry boots.
The fact that the Org can see that, and has the courage to act on it, builds my confidence far more than any of the particulars of the system I’ve heard so far. I honestly don’t know what I think of the lottery system – but then, I honestly don’t know any of the issues surrounding the BLM negotiations, the legal issues surrounding holding an event like this, or the infrastructure issues needed to pull off different approached to ticketing. I’ve got no idea.
We shouldn’t romanticize how sausage gets made — but what I can see, both in Burning Man’s history and in my routine interactions with the small corner of Burning Man I’m involved with, gives me confidence that they’re on the right track. And that they have it in them to correct course if need be.
In this season of hyper-commoditization and instant gratification, I find myself surprisingly content to wait and see how all this plays out: I am confident in Burning Man because I am thankful for it.
I hope that helps.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com