Burning Man’s Global Leadership Conference – The center cannot hold

We couldn’t afford a satellite map

If there was an underlying theme to the sessions I attended and the conversations I had my first day at the Burning Man Global Leadership Conference, it was this question:  “How do we welcome each other?  How do we keep ourselves together in a world that wants to pull us apart?”

There are some very good answers to this question, and I’ll address them when I write about specific presentations – but before talking about anything else I think it’s important to look at where these answers come from.

One of the purposes of this conference – which used to be the Regional Network Conference – is to offer the different regionals a chance to talk to each other.  And they do.  But I think there’s a common assumption here that most of Burning Man’s collective wisdom is to be found at the San Francisco offices, the administrative center of the Burning Man universe.

While that may have been true once, I’m not sure it is anymore.  I’m very sure it won’t be in a few years.

It’s an understandable assumption:  San Francisco is where Burning Man started.  It’s where the founders live.  It has the highest density of burners who attend That Thing in the Desert and who occupy volunteer positions.   Burning Man has achieved a level of cultural success out here that is unmatched everywhere else … in part because of its 15 year head-start, along with the dedication of a cadre of key staff and volunteers.  Much of what the regionals now hope to do, “Burning Man” as an organization has already done.

These are relevant points.

But as a result of its success, “Burning Man” as a culture (if we can call it that) is now engaging across the world.  There are regionals in Spain and Iowa, in Singapore (hi Neil!) and South Carolina, in Ireland and France and Australia.  Burning Man as a culture is now big enough to have a frontier that is a world away from the center.  That means the problems of the frontier and the center are increasingly different.

Burning Man as an institution in San Francisco has to deal with questions of scale and replicability that are far different from what most regionals are addressing.  It has to manage a rapt press and a large community of artists, and keep climbers and strivers out of its job and volunteer pool.  These are, God willing, problems that many regionals will eventually have to face.  But not now.

Now it is at the frontier where a whole new kind of question is coming up, and new answers are being found.  The experience of connecting Burning Man to local communities in San Francisco will have to be different than Burning Man in South Carolina, than Burning Man in Singapore, than Burning Man in Spain, because “Burning Man” isn’t a template you apply to new people.  (“Take one of each principle and call me in the morning.”)  If each new exposure to Burning Man is truly going to be “radically inclusive” then each new exposure to Burning Man is going to be “radically diverse.”  Each new community of Burners is going to engage with their neighbors from where they are.

That gives the people at the frontier, the regionals, a closer look at Burning Man in the world – and a better sense of what the most relevant questions are and where many of these answers can be found.

This isn’t to say the center is less important:  it plays a crucial, if not to say unique, role as a connector, as a repository of talent and wisdom, as a crucible for new ideas and experimentation, and as a communications channel to the world.

But Burning Man isn’t Catholicism, and San Francisco isn’t the Vatican.  (That’s true on a number of levels, incidentally.  Just ask either of them.)  The tide may be turning on the Bay Area domination of Burning Man culture:  more and more new Burners are being introduced to our culture (to the extent it is one) through the regionals, and more and more members of those regionals are focusing on making their region great rather than going out to That Thing In The Desert … which is entirely appropriate.

That’s an especially important factor when considering a question like the one I heard popping up all over yesterday:  “How do we welcome each other?  How do we keep ourselves together in a world that wants to pull us apart?”  There’s now as much or more though, insight, experimentation, and trial-and-error happening on that question on the frontier as there is in the center.  Indeed, to some extent the regionals are the answer.

Those who are interested in how Burning Man transforms into a non-profit should still stay riveted to San Francisco:  the lessons learned from that will be key precedents for the future.  But otherwise the frontier is where the action is right now.  The frontier is where many of the new and vital questions of our moment will arise, and where they will need to be addressed.  All of the new approaches will come into the center and be distributed from there, but we’re entering a period where San Francisco, and even the Org, will do far more listening than talking at regional summits.

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.

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have 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

4 Comments on “Burning Man’s Global Leadership Conference – The center cannot hold

  • BeeWeeDee says:

    As a recovering alcoholic, I owe my life and sobriety to an organization (AA) that “caught on” and wrestled with this same issue. From the 12 steps for the individual, a period of time elapsed until the 12 traditions were formed for the survival of the groups. Similarly, the 10 principles are in place for the experience of BM and perhaps it is time for 10 (precedents, approaches or xxx’s) for the continuation of the BM culture.

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  • amp says:

    It’s not the easiest thing (for anyone involved) to keep together people that share a subculture, but certainly come from very different cultures. Good luck with it :). Also, it’s certainly your choice, but the name of the conference is bound to sound off-putting to many burners, specially of the more anarchistic kind. Not sure pushing those people away is gonna make the main event have less positive energy ;)

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  • At first it seemed funny to go to a conference about Burning Man. Last year felt disjointed for me, it was hard to wrap my head around all of us in a swanky hotel doing meetings. This year it felt more like going to summer camp. It didn’t matter where we were although it did have that oh yeah, you’ve arrived, we made it! kind of feeling. I’m ok with that now, we don’t have to starve to be artists. What mattered was who we were and what we did, not where we do it. Yep, pretty much the theme.

    Sometimes you do it in the desert with nothing. Sometimes you have what you need and its easy. You still have to show up and make it happen. We are doing that.

    I kept asking what does that look like? The answer was a question in return. What does that look like? We don’t know yet. We have to make it up, create it out of what we want, what we have, and what we’ve learned. No easy answers. Just more inquiry.

    It looks different depending on where you put it. But it’s still pretty much the same. I think it looks good in every frame. Some kitschy, some classy, some wild and some peaceful – every flame fed by the same air but burning different fuel, local lumber, collective cool, freaks on parade. I’ll take two and become one please!

    Catch you on the Flipside in some Utopia, or at a little meet and greet near you. I’ll be the one who showed up in what they were wearing earlier, waiting to talk to you about what you think it is. Bring visual aids.

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  • miss fidget says:

    You mention South Carolina. There is a regional contact in South Carolina but your article seems to refer to an event.

    As a former South Carolionian (now a Yankee) I am going to go out on a limb and guess that perhaps you are referring to the Regional event, Transformus, which is held in North Carolina. Many people use South Carolina and North Carolina interchangeably and incorrectly.

    If you did mistakenly use SOUTH instead of NORTH Carolina you’ve gotta admit it only adds to the basic point of your article. As leadership of a Regional event your malapropism gives me a chuckle and reenforces the perception “From the Mothership – we all sorta look alike”

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