Commerce & Community: Distilling philosophy from a cup of coffee …

[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]

Center Camp Café, 2005 (photo by Brad Templeton)
Center Camp Café, 2005 (photo by Brad Templeton)

Sometimes the exception to a rule can deepen understanding of a principle. For example, some critics of Burning Man insist that by allowing coffee sales in our city’s Center Camp Café we violate a tenet of our non-commercial ideology. They say that this is evidence of deep naiveté or demonstrates hypocrisy. My reply is that we’ve never espoused a non-commercial ideology. To be against commerce is to oppose the very existence of civilized life. Even hunter-gatherers engage in trade in order to survive.

When most people say that any thing or act is too commercial or has been commercialized, very few of them mean to say that the practice of commerce is necessarily bad. Instead, they are expressing the feeling that something essential — something that should never be bought and sold — has been commodified. This is why we have always been careful to use the words commodify and decommodify.

Our annual event in the desert is meant to provide an example of what can happen in a community when social interactions cease to be mediated by a marketplace. Until quite recently, all societies have provided many different kinds of rites and rituals – set apart from daily life – that rehearse and reaffirm certain core spiritual experiences that are held to possess an unconditional value.

For example, in the culture created by Burning Man, the value of a gift, when rightly given and received, is unconditional. Nothing of equivalent value can be expected in return; this interaction shouldn’t be commodified. Likewise, love – the love of a parent for a child – should never be commodified. This, too, is an unconditional value, hedged round by a kind of sanctity, and can never be measured in dollars and cents.

Center Camp Café oculus, 2005 (photo by Brad Templeton)
Bustling activity beneath the Café oculus, 2005 (photo by Brad Templeton)

Everyone, I think, intuitively knows these things, but we live in a consumer society in which nearly every kind of value is relentlessly commodified. In conducting the experiment in temporary community that is Burning Man, we have tried to create a special arena in which the realm of commerce ceases to intrude and interfere with vital forms of human contact: contact with one’s inner resources, contact with one’s fellows, contact with the larger civic world around us, and, finally contact with the world of nature that we cannot buy and can’t control.

But this, of course, leads back to the original question about coffee. Why mar this ideal picture by inserting commerce in the very heart of Black Rock City? It also brings us to a much more fundamental question. As Burning Man’s culture begins to move out into the world at large, how can it sustain itself? Is it enough to simply attend regional gatherings that exist apart from that world, as does Black Rock City, or is it possible to radically reinsert the core values of our culture into what is called the default world? What is the relationship between commerce and community?

Fortunately, someone has already thought long and hard about a crucial aspect of this question, and before I tackle our practical rationale for selling coffee, I’d like to share with you the insights of Zay Thompson, the Burning Man Project’s regional contact in Kansas. What he says was originally published on our Regional Contact list and shared with fellow organizers. This text has been edited and shortened, but it contains some very important ideas. His thoughts concern the hopes and fears we must confront as our community faces the future. The reader should consider what he says quite carefully, and be forewarned: this really is philosophy and well worth reading twice.

“On my community’s Yahoo group, we’ve been talking about the intersection of commerce and community. What is the nature of the relationship between the two? As one person pointed out, it is natural to view people as a resource, as a means to an end, when operating in a system of commerce. I think it’s okay to take this view as long as you can step out of the commercial context and realize that there are other dimensions to people, other values, and other ways of interacting. Commerce is okay if we simultaneously view the world in the context of other values that affect our attitude towards commerce.

Let me use a personal example to illustrate my point. When my family plays our annual Thanksgiving soccer game I view the family members on the opposing team as opponents to be defeated. In that context, my classification of them is natural and appropriate. That view is the true nature of our temporary relationship in the context of the game. They are people with the capacity to physically compete with me. Yet, I should always be ready to view my family members in other contexts. If my Dad stumbles and falls, I don’t run over him in my rush to score on his team. My love for him and the value of human life causes me to suspend the game, help him up, and check to see if he’s alright. Likewise, I don’t continue to view my family as mere competition after the game is over. Thus far, I think we’re on the same page with community conditioning competition and vice versa.

This brings me to the issue of the relationship between community and commerce. We are all concerned about not selling out the culture of Burning Man. I believe that selling-out implies a certain relationship between End Value systems that is like the potential for conflict between competitive play and love of family. For instance, it would be inappropriate if my father used our family ties and relationship to persuade me to pass him the ball in the soccer game so he can score against my team. I would be betraying the values of the game for my family value. If my father used my family values to achieve game value, he would be betraying family values for game values.

This muddling of values becomes inappropriate and futile because value ceases to be authentic outside of its context. When one value becomes merely a means to the other, both value systems are corrupted. Family love is not created by agreements to help each other win soccer games. Likewise, winning in soccer games does not entail making so many personal relationships that everyone passes you the ball. Value in a soccer game is achieved by physical and mental skills in competition. If I help my dad score because he’s my dad, he doesn’t win as defined by the rules of soccer. In other words, both value systems are corrupted when one is allowed to subsume or exploit the other.

So, how about when we use business models to run our [regional] events? Isn’t business the means to community in this relationship? Couldn’t this relationship be considered corrupt? I don’t think so. I disagree with the idea that when people buy a ticket to Burning Man they buy immediate experience, or community, or even art. Business provides the Burning Man Project with the means to amass goods, hire services and pay its workers. The Project uses this business model to create a social and logistical framework (land surveying, infrastructure construction, information dissemination, porta potties, permits and fees, a sensible city design — an entire year’s worth of planning by its staff). The Project annually sells this effort and these resources to ticket purchasers as a commodity.

But… people buy this framework in which they can create immediate experiences for themselves! The framework does not create immediate experience, although it helps support it. After the purchase occurs, the framework is transformed by us into a communal value, namely a city. Even if everyone bought a ticket and just came out to the desert without participating, the event framework would still be there, but it wouldn’t be a city. We create the communal value through our participation. The same goes for the practice of gifting. To get down to it, material things don’t have the meaning ‘commodity’ or the meaning ‘gift’ until humans instill these meanings in them. A thing’s meaning changes depending on the context in which we choose to place it.

So what is the proper relationship between commerce and community? I think that real value of both commerce and community can be simultaneously created from the same event. I think this creation can happen without one value system being used merely as a means to sustain the other. This ideal is possible because commerce and community have peripheral effects that can be translated into value for each other. Think of all the stuff we end up buying to bring out to Black Rock City! All that stuff is purchased for use at the event and then transformed by our relationship to one another.

To return to the soccer game example, playing soccer is fun and strengthens our family ties. But we only have fun if we play by the rules and authentically compete. A peripheral effect of the game’s value system is used to support family value. Likewise, if I want to play soccer, I have to find enough people willing to form teams and compete without killing each other. Our family love and size assures me that I can achieve this. If we start hating each other, then folks will stomp off and the teams will fall apart, meaning the end of the game. In other word, a peripheral effect of our family value system is used to support game value.

And this is not a corrupt or artificial relationship! Producing a competitive soccer game is not the goal of family. Producing family love is not the goal of soccer. Yet, each value system benefits indirectly and peripherally from the other. Neither value system’s end goals are sacrificed, and thus both benefit from each other without corruption. My view is that the relationship must create value in terms of both commerce and community. If there is a communal investment, it must be for communal value. If there is a commercial investment, it must be for commercial value. If there is an investment of both, it must be for value in terms of both.

So, I think one of the major goals in bringing our culture to the default world should be to show society how to simultaneously value commerce and community and not corrupt the two. Let community and commerce do their thing freely and naturally within their own contexts. When they exist in an organic rather than a corrupt or artificial relationship, they’ll naturally benefit each other.”

Center Camp Café, 1996 (photo by Ashley Hathaway)
Center Camp Café, 1996 (photo by Ashley Hathaway)

Using Zay’s analysis allows me to address the coffee question, but I must begin with a little history. Our original motive for creating a café was to attract people to the civic plaza at the center of our city. Although I am aware that some old-timers say that they avoid this public space, I am equally struck by how many first-time participants seem to flock to it. They often write glowing accounts of their experience there, and this seems only natural. Many years ago, when I first arrived San Francisco, my girlfriend and I haunted such public places. It made us feel that we belonged to our new home and eased our entrance into a world full of strangers.

I also remember one memorable trip to Oaxaca in Mexico, and how we loved visiting public gathering places, called zocallos. Lounging in the shade of the Portales that frequently surround such squares, we would consume our coffees as we watched the world and all its business saunter by. Consuming food or beverages with others can be bonding, and we managed to make friends. This really wasn’t about consumption; it was a mode of communion. It helped us to fit into the exotic world surrounding us. Eventually, I came to feel that every great city should provide these kinds of spaces where communal and civic life blend.

Such, then, is the nature of the Center Camp Café. As I often tell people, over the years we’ve tried to create alternative attractants — something other than a cup of coffee – that might lure folks into this enormous public plaza in the heart of our city. We experimented with large-scale stages, for example, only to discover they induced passivity. People simply stared at the provided entertainment; they failed to interact. The longer that they loitered as an audience, the greater the number of beer bottles they’d drop to the ground. This is why we settled on our current formula. We furnish only coffee and a few other beverages. A cup of coffee’s a sufficient prop, a convenient foil, a means to gain a sense of social poise, and really doesn’t interfere that much with self-reliance in the desert. I suppose, to put this in Zay’s language, the “end value” in this scheme of things is a communal one.

Café volunteers, 2011 (photo by Pete Slingland)
Café volunteers, 2011 (photo by Pete Slingland)

And yet, even this explanation inevitably provokes a second question: Why not simply give this coffee away? Why not make it a gift? The answer is that we originally did exactly that – but, as our city’s population grew, this soon became impractical. In Zay’s terms, we were now confronting a different value system. Constructing a giant coffee house that is larger than the Roman Coliseum, trucking the entire apparatus of that coffee house, complete with espresso machines, to a remote desert, and serving thousands of cups of coffee during eight days and nights is very costly.

Indeed, the “end value” from this particular point of view means that we must balance costs against expenditures. Our café is not exactly Starbucks – we actually want people to linger, loiter and interact, not just consume a product and depart. And yet, we also need to run the Center Camp Café as an effective enterprise. To do otherwise, to give out coffee to our many friends because of personal relationships, for example, would corrupt the process that produces the café. It would be bad business, and our efforts to create a social environment would fail.

Another alternative, of course, would be to raise ticket prices in order to subsidize coffee distribution. Then no one would be troubled by the sight of money changing hands. Undoubtedly, this would help to sustain the illusion that Black Rock City is a moneyless utopia. It would satisfy those critics who advance a kind of puritanical dogma that despises commerce. Yet, I’m glad we’ve never resorted to this. It’s true, when looking at a line of people waiting to buy coffee, it can appear that the only end value involved is the flash of cash which takes place at the counter – especially in Black Rock City, where other forms of vending have been banned. And yet, to follow these consumers as they seat themselves and talk to others or walk about and interact with art, is to enter into what Zay might call a “peripheral” zone where the consumption of coffee has begun to generate identity and culture. In fact, I really don’t mind this provocative contrast, especially if it prompts us to begin to think about much greater issues.

Family enjoying Center Camp Café, 2011 (photo by Philippe Glade)
Family enjoying Center Camp Café, 2011 (photo by Philippe Glade)

Every year, thousands of people return from the desert and ask themselves how they might take what they have learned from Burning Man and integrate it into daily life. Increasingly, they are surrounded by communities of other Burners — people, like themselves, who are accustomed to cooperating and collaborating with one another, not merely competing. These are folks who know that there are certain values that depend on one’s immediate experience – essential spiritual values – that should never be commodified. However, the most important questions to consider are not those that are most frequently asked: will the Burning Man ethos be absorbed and commodified, exploited by the so-called mainstream; will the identity that we’ve achieved together be perverted into just another branding device? The answer to these questions is a simple and emphatic no! The Project and our regional contacts diligently work to prevent this. You’ll not soon see Burning Man Gear™ featured at a store near you.

Instead, I think the question we must contemplate is whether our community can learn to apply its unique culture to the world while using worldly tools. How can we do this without muddling our value systems and corrupting both? The choice of how we might achieve this is entirely ours to make. We ought to welcome (and very carefully scrutinize) such experiments. And, by the way, should you visit Black Rock City’s Center Camp Café, please feel free to enjoy a cup of coffee. It might be instilled with more than just caffeine.


About the author: Larry Harvey

Larry Harvey

Born in 1948, Larry Harvey grew up on a small farm on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. In the late 1970's he moved to San Francisco, and soon discovered the city's thriving underground art scene. In 1986 he founded Burning Man at a local beach, and has guided its progress ever since. Larry is currently Founding Board Member and Chief Philosophic Officer of Burning Man Project. He scripts and co-curates Burning Man's annual art theme and collaborates with artists in creating aspects of the art theme and the design of Black Rock City. Larry also writes articles and essays for the Project's website. As spokesperson for Burning Man, he is frequently interviewed by reporters, and has lectured on subjects as diverse as art, religion, civic planning and the rise of cyber-culture in the era of the Internet. Larry is also a political planner, supervising the organization's lobbying efforts and frequently attending meetings with state, county and federal agencies.

87 Comments on “Commerce & Community: Distilling philosophy from a cup of coffee …

  • FreeDom says:

    This is great article! I believe that nowadays many people who attend burning man simply don’t have the time to read articles like this, otherwise they would much more understand which values are lying behind the whole event.

    Muchos gracias for explaining this a bit more in depth! From what I can see, you have so humble values despite of the event growing and growing. Let’s hope we will manage to teach these values all new participators and visitors out there. Otherwise, the event itself will one day end up beeing really mainstream. Not because the values where throwed away, but because all new arrivals don’t take the time to really indulge in what is behind and underneath.


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  • Dr. Baron von Realz Esq. says:

    Well said! I think of the burning man event as an island in the sea of the default world. I have to pass through the default world to get to it.

    Applying burning man value in the default world can sometimes be a challenge for me. Dealing with closed minded opportunist is a particularly difficult for me but I have the advantage of living in an area of the world with a lot of other “burners” and it never ceases to amaze me as soon as I mention I am a burner to another burner we connect.

    I am also not a big fan center camp. I get my coffee from my neighbors or supply it to them which always ends in some interesting conversation. If people want or need to buy coffee they are missing out. Limiting the exchange of money to coffee and ice is, in my humble opinion, no big deal I imagine a world where all you can buy is coffee and ice everything else is gifted. Keep up the good work Larry you rock!


    Dr. Baron von Realz Esq.

    “Participants become the art and the art is Participation”
    – Dr.Baron von Realz Esq.

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  • Jupiter Rose says:

    What most people aren’t aware of about the Center
    Camp Cafe is that Burning Man actually loses
    money each year. They are always in the red when all
    is said and done.

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    • logan says:

      How can u lose money? With volunteer workers? This statement is either bullshit or the proof of a horrible mismanaged operation. Show me the books if this is true and I will use the paper to wipe my tears of compassion away from my weathered face.

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  • Colin says:

    You said:

    “Eventually, I came to feel that every great city should provide these kinds of spaces where communal and civic life blend.”

    I completely agree. But this is actually one of the things Black Rock City is best at! Front yards are interactive, playful spaces. Even the most residential streets are dotted with alcoves, art, invitations. I don’t see why the center camp has to play that role also…

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  • Kaet says:

    After going to Burns with a lovely Coffee Place: Steaming Pot. They gift the Coffee up to 3k people a year. I don’t see how having anything that is not Gifting to be allowed when I know the expense several different camps go through a year to feed and gift other Burners. Thus they may lose money but I feel it’s devaluing the ones that take no Monetary donations and/or payment to be at any Burn. If Burning Man has always been about a Gifting Society; I believe it should remain as so.

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  • amnesia says:

    Hey now! That was a most excellent structure this year, you guys.. I enjoyed it throughly, hanging out underneath it and around it. Many good times were had and stories told. Looking forward to this years anticipation which some times, at times rivales with the experience itself. This year I really want to shift the thoughts of those who make ‘compound spaces’ out or RV’s. Creating dead spots and fields of ‘lack luster’ on the backstreets, frontstreets and sidestreets with their unparticipitory (without participation) ways. If I were a family member in the ‘soccer game’ scenerio and choose to set up a blockade in any section of the playing field. I’m sure I’d have a good part slowing down the game. Turns those fuckers around and come out and show us what your made of. Commit to ‘giving/parcipitating’ and it will fall into place. We want to see you! When you own the world! Your always home!

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  • fw says:

    One thing that coffee houses and cafes have that center camp has few of is tables with chairs around it. There are the sofas facing the stage, the benches and the high narrow tables, and a few coffee tables, but not regular tables people can sit and relax around. I don’t think the current setup encourages socialization as much as it could. A group of people sitting around a table might. When it gets crowded, people looking for a free seat will join strangers at a table.

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  • roissy says:

    This always keeps coming up, as one who always had an compound space out of RV’s
    These are set up for a private space. Besides having a job on playa and being part of a major theme camp, I put enough out there so stay out of my camp unless invited in. Even frist camp has its private area.

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  • Spirit says:

    Thank you Larry for your in depth blog.
    I’ve been coming to Burning Man from Scotland since ’07 and I have always loved getting a Chia at Centre Camp… however I don’t recall ever having got into conversation with anyone else except a few words with folk in the line and maybe a laugh with the servers.
    To me Centre Camp inhibits rather than promotes social interaction as we devolve into the normal rules of default society in a cafe where we talk to our friends only, the server maybe and ignore all others.
    I agree with fw that tables and chairs would aid this interaction immensely.
    As a contrasting ‘social space’ the art gallery dome this year at 2 0’clock found me in conversation with lots of folk on many different occasions and no coffee was required. :-)
    How about ditching the BM Coffee provision at Centre Camp and opening the space up to the community to serve what they want to serve to each other? I would expect it would be used by first timers and those who can’t gift something huge to gift there often… I for one, who hands out chocolate on the playa, would be drawn do so at Centre Camp… interestingly I have never thought to do so nor wanted to do so at Centre Camp and this is because the energy there just seems so closed compared to the rest of the playa.
    Blessings to you as we all evolve our hearts and minds. X

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  • amnesia says:

    @ roissy

    Well fuckin’ pardon me all over the place. Obviously, I wasn’t referring to you. Keep on, keepin’ on. Your doing a great job I’m sure.

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  • Larry: With all due respect (and much IS certainly due to you for starting all of this!) SURELY with all the interesting souls in ever-burgeoning attendance, we can think of a more creative “prop” than simply resorting to default world’s method of exchanging artless mass-produced slips of dirty paper for material goods? Without wanting to join the ranks of the snarky pedants, this nearly-advertised exception to two of our guiding principles (Decommodification as well as Gifting, which are symbiotic) in such a central public place feels like a bit of a barb in the side of these core principles that define our society, and though minor, could appear a bit hypocritical to the outsider looking in. Selling or charging for anything at BM is like dancing soft shoe on a very slippery slope…SO, after a little thought, here are my suggestions on “alternative attractants” (other than those that exist in every nook and cranny of this fantastic city outside of center camp or ice vendors, free of charge):

    This last burn I only popped into Center Camp for only a few brief visits. Not having brought any money with me (one of my favorite things about finally entering BRC is that tremendous relief of NOT using or having to think about money in any way!) what did I do there? I browsed the various drawings and paintings on display, and used some of the machines (that mirror device where two people look from either side and their faces morph into one always gets me!)with friends. Most notably, there was a giant gumball machine which dispensed huge jawbreakers which turned to gum. I thought this was genius! Cheaper to distribute and less wasteful than a cup of coffee, right? Also great was the “lost and found,” –equal parts disgusting and intriguing,– but a fantastic participatory conversation starter in any case! Why not have a bigger one? (a tree with hooks instead of dusty cubbies perhaps? Way more “in your face.”) I’m thinking that just adding more of these type of small, intimate participatory perceptual or sensual traps (alla on the observation deck of The Man) might be just the ticket, but with only needing to spend one’s time there…Make the cheese things we all like,–we all like free, right?

    What I found a bit distasteful about Center Camp this year was the vibe…Very chaotic and more mainstream than any other place I set a dusty foot in. For me, Center Camp is what I like to refer to as, “A bit like a cool train station, only with no trains,” this year it felt like too much of a traditional performance space, where instead of being mostly interactive or encouraging participation, it was more of your traditional concert venue setup…Lot’s of people standing around listening to a band, speaker, or single performer in way too much relative silence as they sipped their 5$ lattes. I saw WAY too many film crews and cameras there (as well as everywhere this year) for my taste as well! (“No flash photography, PLEEASE!”) I found the whole HOLYWOOD aspect was extremely distasteful, as it wreaked of the all elitism of mainstream society. Anyone with me here? Is this such a good direction to go in, or really the image we Burners want for the most public center of our city? It is my feeling that every open space in BRC should be a free public play-space, at least as much as possible. Even in a performance-venue sense, perhaps having more open mics (I’m sure there are some) or more of an open-jam, rotating musicians kind of setup might encourage more interaction and less division and silence between performer and listener. How about a tarp in the center with a huge board for all to paint, write, or add their marks on? To be burned at the end, of course! Though messy, I am certain this would spark more conversations, laugher, and connections than waiting in line to spend $5 on a cup of coffee. We can all do that in the default world, no?

    OK OK OK…climbing down off my soapbox now…Some food for thought…

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  • Jeff Mission says:

    Without delving into my personal feelings too deeply, I would simply observe that commerce in Center Camp is a point of perennial debate, and has been for a very long time. The fact that it continues to generate such elaborate explanations and defense is worth noting.

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  • Larry Carpenter says:

    If I may, I would remind all that although Burning Man is intended as an oasis of community in the midst of the ‘default’ world, it still must be constructed within that greater world. The sale of coffee, like the sale of tickets, creates the framework for the community to exist. To suppose that the framework could exist otherwise is to ignore reality. Around the turn of the last century, utopian societies created enclaves that were intended to function much as Burning Man City. Nearly all of them failed because, as one commentator put it, “no one wanted to take out the trash”. Burning Man exists for the many because a relatively few dedicated individuals are dedicated to creating the space within the larger world to which participants can temporarily retreat. Use a community theater production as an example. To produce a play, tickets must be sold to pay for the parts of a production that can only be gotten through interaction with the commercial world but the actors, being volunteers, are on the stage because they are in love with the craft. Larry and the others behind this annual event and its regional offshoots are not in it for the money, but because they love the idea. Let me give a final thought. Let those for whom the selling of coffee jars and jangles against the Burning Man ideals be comforted in the beautiful, raucous discussion that ensues in forums such as this.

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  • Dr.Tune says:

    The Joy Of Gifting Caffeine

    Our camp takes a large catering-style coffee urn each year and make ~50 cups of coffee (often w/pancakes) most mornings until it gets too hot.

    We have a table “out front” on the street and simply shout COFFFFFFFEEEEE!! at regular intervals. Neighbors and passers-by (in various states of mind and un/dress) stroll up and help themselves. The only rule is that a participant must in turn shout “COFFEE!” at other passers-by.

    Sometimes we like to claim the urn contains illicit substances “GIT YER MUSHROOM COFFEE!!!” or even “CUTTLEFISH STEW! ..Tastes just like coffee!”

    It’s exceedingly sociable; every year we have fascinating and hilarious conversations with an entirely random selection of folks.

    It’s inexpensive and easy to provide – but _most_ of all it ensures my day starts with Greeting, Gifting and Participating and that’s really the greatest joy of all.

    There will always be center camp for coffee but I highly recommend doing it yourself as well. :-)

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  • Thanks for a thoughtful and articulate article. One edit: it´s spelled “zócalo.” Cheers

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  • The Great Quentini says:

    john ian marshall you are being too nice, it’s not a cool train station with no trains, its more like a bus station , a crappy anonymous place where people are allowed to be. But isn’t that what all of Burningman is supposed to be? There is no reason to sell coffee except that the world is full of junkies and coffee is legal. I don’t carry money, there is no use for it. It’s ridiculous to make an exception to the ” no vending” rule for coffee. Ice sales are closer to a public health service but hell let’s drop those as well. What you can’t make it camping without ice, well then choose another event to bespoil.

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  • Larry Harvey says:

    I can’t help but notice that nearly all of these comments focus on the operation of our café in Center Camp. There’s nothing wrong with this—all discussion on this topic is entirely welcome. But, I’d hoped to provoke a deeper discussion about the interrelation of commerce and community in the greater world—the one that all of us inhabit in our daily lives. This is why I inserted the extended passage authored by Zay Thompson, but thus far no one has directly referred to it.

    I suppose this is only natural, since the café, along with the porta-potties, loom large in everyone’s experience at the event. I also think this is amplified by a tendency to regard Black Rock City as a place that is purely and profoundly set apart from the values of what many call the ‘default’ world, and in several ways, I subscribe to this vision. And yet, this strenuous point of view can also become cripplingly rigid. It is as if a line were being drawn between a world that represents all that is higher and good, and another that stands in for all that is fallen and bad—an almost metaphysical struggle between forces light and darkness. Hence, the commonly expressed fear that any perceived backsliding will instantly create a slippery slope, a greased chute, that leads to straight to perdition, as in a sermon by Cotton Mather.

    This is why I recommend the much gentler discourse provided to us by Zay Thompson. Among the many striking insights that he provides, he suggests that there exists a kind of “peripheral zone” in which the values that characterize commerce, and the values that are native to community and culture, can be made to more than merely coincide—that they can actually reinforce one another. In fact, he goes even further than this: he theorizes that if one value system simply subordinates the other to its aims, then both will take corruption and the whole will fail—and this is a profoundly moral vision. I believe that we must join together, if Burning Man is to achieve great and lasting relevance in the world, in exploring this question. It is not enough for us to feel that we are redeemed souls, washed clean of all sin by virtue of a one-week retreat in the desert. Free thought and discussion, mixed with a little old-fashioned trial and error, surely can’t harm us. Let’s put our values to the test, not see them as a refuge in a naughty world.

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    • Tanya P says:

      Thank you for such carefully thought out and illuminating way in which you’ve “peripherally” bridged commerce and community, and their practical interplay, Larry. I must say, upon reading your article once, I was left pondering the seeming hypocrisy in which the principle of gifting was alive in the “non-default” world. However, allowing myself to take the message in and have it penetrate the outer layers of my reasoning and land on more real, raw layers of my human nature, a beautiful metaphor emerged:

      In an attempt to “fly”, break away from what IS (i.e. from “default” world into the playa realm), keeping grounded in what IS is a necessary condition for the system not to explode, for equation to not get out of bounds, mathematically speaking. While there is something in us, humans, that operates on a “transactional” level, negating it completely leaves us with no basis on which to transform it or expand naturally out of it. Perhaps that is why more first-time Burners might find greater comfort in having a familiar thread to launch themselves off of.

      If nothing else, this might be a great example of Radical Inclusion of contradictory ways of being. Perfectly fitting with Burning Man, in my examination.

      Yes, people read this post years after it has been published.

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  • Paul Ryder says:

    So it seems we might be focusing on different parts of the conversation. Larry, you want to explore the values of community and commerce and how they might be integrated. Zak provides a framework for doing this—and I think it’s a good one. Burning Man (the movement, not the event) wants to push new paradigms and ideas. The interaction of commerce and community is certainly among the most powerful and important balancing acts to master in a world increasingly tilted toward commerce and away from what it means to be human. Bravo for going deep into the DNA or OS (depending on your metaphor) of the human experience. The movement wants to spread beyond the Playa.

    Many of the comments here take the departure point as Burning Man (the event itself, not the movement) is entirely a sacred ritual. One that in order to work, must be treated without “experimentation” and must hold to its stated ideological values. For those focused on the event (rather than the movement), sales of any kind feel like an intrusion from a default world that once a year, they get to escape entirely. For one shining week a year, we can fully and completely unplug from the default world. And that is our work. To see how fully unplugged we can become. The Burning Man event is a real-time psychological experiment with how “other” we can become during the week. When we see others who are still buying and selling it undermines the entire premise of a gifting, giving based possibility and makes it more difficult for us to fully explore the created, non-default way of being. It’s like people talking on a cellphone during Zazen or Mass. Even if we are able to resist electronic devices ourselves, others are on their devices jacking into the default way of being and it can be very distracting for those who are new or shaky or looking to go deep into a new way of being.

    I think understanding what we come to Burning Man (both the event and the movement) for is the key to understanding each other. I get the Larry and the leaders may want to use the event for more than just ritual. Education, exploration, and experimentation of how to “take it back” to the real world (particularly after coming to how many Burns?) Yet the newbies and the pure of heart are not yet interested in this expansion—at least not during the event.

    Specifically to the coffee thing: if you’re interested in testing the movement and trying to push it beyond the playa, certainly there are more interesting, effective, and less ideologically offensive ways to do this. The Burning Man Blog being one of them. For example, in reading the posts and writing this, I’ve already shifted my own understanding of how to engage “that thing in the desert.” TEDx is another way to expand beyond the Playa. My position, ditch the café since it doesn’t do what it purports to and cook up another experiment—one that really will push folks who have come to the desert to take it back and change their worlds. Now I must go get some coffee.

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  • polka dot says:

    contradiction is inevitable and beautiful.

    i love it that nothing is for sale at burning man, except the two things are for sale.

    exceptions are great.
    and dangerous.

    but more dangerous is demanding 100% purity.
    or 100% allegiance
    to anything
    down that road is extremist fundamentalism.

    for example,
    i truly love and accept thou shalt not kill.
    except when i have a sore throat and gargle with salt water and kill bacteria by the thousands.

    i think larry gets this.

    he seems to do pretty good at being a leading non-leader.

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  • Jolly Roger says:

    Respectfully, I’d like to roll down memory lane. In 1998, there was a center stage, rather than a cafe, in center camp. Live musical acts played wild music, and a small number of port-o-potties behind the stage filled to over-flowing, alongside a few moop-spilling garbage cans. Much as I loved the music, the smell was less desirable, but it was my first year & even excrement grows rosy in the air of nostalgia.
    I’ve always loved cafes, and Center Camp Cafe is a sentimental favorite now: best art & music, poetry & contact juggling, and the ever shifting masses come to escape the cold or the wind before changing off to parts unknowable. It’s easy to become part of the scenery there, to make one’s self an accent piece like the couch pillows, which comfortably transitions former strangers into new friends. But memories are delicate things, prone to distortion & to delusion over time. The evolving art of center camp always impresses; why not evolve coffee sales as well? I can honestly say I have only gotten free coffee once in all my years of continuous attendance since 98- it was an act of kindness from the cafe staff, which I hesitate to bring up at all (personally, I prefer my act of charity to be nameless & quiet, letting the act speak for itself).
    Why not free coffee? We, the participants, can do that- have you ever paid a bridge toll for the car behind you? Would work in Center Cafe, particularly in you run short on gifting ideas initially. Does charging people for a cup need to be tried? Coffee is cheap; why not give some away to those with cups? Having read through this list of responses, I may have neglected to see anyone from Cafe Camp respond: how would do they feel the center can best suit the shifting face of BRC?
    Sorry to run so long; my fondness for Center Camp Cafe is painted over with new memories each year. Decommodification starts at the Event & echoes outwards for a great many newbies, and even reminds us old dust bunnies to gift ourselves some humility too. We’re Burners- want it changed? Make it happen. wouldn’t hurt to demonstrate that Idea right in the heart of BRC.

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  • Fire Joy says:

    The 10 principal blog should tell the world about Burning Man through Our experience with it! I have already Heard Larry’s and crew, I want to hear what the 99% think of the Burning Man 10 Principals? At least that’s what I thought this was?… Not a bashing of others experiences, but what you got out of the culture.
    This inspired me:
    ”We came to Burning Man because we saw something was happening—we felt its potential all the way down to our bones, sometimes from the other side of the earth—and we were called to be a part of it. Later, maybe, we learned it has 10 Principles, and we started looking to them as a way to aspire to what we were already inspired by.” ~Caveat Magister
    I heard about Burning Man in Alaska in 2000, and made the treck in 2003, out to the Black Rock Desert. Changed my Life forever! A lesson in Manifestation, Letting Go, Moving Forward and Creating. I did find the 10 principals soon after… and I wanted to aspire to what Burning Man inspired… I think this is through education of what Burning Man is to US, and not the perception of the media, law, or corporate greed. The Philosophical Center is a place now where you can share your Burning Man experience… I thought? Again, The 10 principal blog should tell the world about Burning Man through Our experience with it! What’s the 99% think of the Burning Man 10 Principals?

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  • The 10 principal blog should tell the world about Burning Man through Our experience with it! I have already Heard Larry’s and crew, I want to hear what the 99% think of the Burning Man 10 Principals? At least that’s what I thought this was?… Not a bashing of others experiences, but what you got out of the culture.

    I heard about Burning Man in Alaska in 2000, and made the treck in 2003, out to Black Rock Desert. Changed my Life forever! A lesson in Manifestation, Letting Go, Moving Forward and Creating. I did find the 10 principals soon after… and I wanted to aspire to what Burning Man inspired…I became a Regional Contact seeing the inside of the festival. The goods and the bads I saw, but always moving forward. I think through education of what Burning Man is to US is important, and not the perception of the media, law, or corporate greed. I thought “The Philosophical Center” was a place now where you can share your Burning Man experience, thoughts and creations…That’s what I thought? Again, The 10 principal blog should tell the world about Burning Man through Our experience with it! What’s the 99% think of the Burning Man 10 Principals?

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  • vincent says:

    in 2009 my girlfriend and I attended Burning man for the first time, the experience was overwhelming for her at first. Center camp was very helpful. we meet a lot of people there, we always intended to drink a coffee and get on our bikes and ride out to see and do and meet, and often found we had to think, wow we have been hanging out here for the longest time. Center camp and coffee sales worked perfectly for us, just the way I now know it was intended.
    If you do not want to buy coffee at burning man, don’t buy coffee. Maybe though you should consider why it upsets you so much that I do? I will try to keep my money in my pocket until the last second, and slide it discreetly across the counter like I and buying a dirty magazine so as not to offend, seriously I will because I don’t want to interfere with your illusion, as I am sure you do not want to interfere with mine.

    Besides who wants to face the day without a good cup a coffee and an exchange of smiles and thank you, is the money really that big of a deal?

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  • Letitia says:

    Soooo much I could say. After reading the blog and responses….I will endeavour to step out of my comfort zone and not rely on tables or chairs to create an excuse to be near and interact with people Disscussion of centre camp has prompted a thought process in relation to what I feel I may need to interact. I’m taking that element onboard.

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  • Capri says:

    I think the cafe is a good idea and you should not criticize. There will always be malcontents.

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  • Sapna Delhi says:

    I’ve always loved cafes, and Center Camp Cafe is a sentimental favorite now: best art & music, poetry & contact juggling, and the ever shifting masses come to escape the cold or the wind before changing off to parts unknowable.

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  • Fiona Gerimo says:

    A fun event and it is always good to be at such a meeting.

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  • Rani Delhi says:

    I’ve always loved cafes, and Center Camp Cafe is a sentimental favorite now: at the cold or the wind before changing off to parts unknowable.

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  • Kyle says:

    I’m a little concerned with services like this popping up:
    Bike rentals? this seems so wrong. Is there some sort of new leniency going on here? Selling something on the playa to say it support the camp is just insane. Center camp is kinda ok since it’s sort still a controlled market… setting up shop though… The good thing about Burning Man is that if this one gets fucked up from crap like this we can always start another one in the founding principles behind this one. Would Love to see if anyone from Bmorg reads this and possibly address the bike rental issue. Mayb it’s not on the radar yet? I’m getting sponsored FB feeds from them meaning that like a good business they are spending money advertising.

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  • Sir Aristotle McAngelou says:

    It would seem to me that the cafe is not just a meeting place, but a place of refuge, a destination, a cozy haven complete with people happy to have a warm comforting beverage in their hands, surrounded by other comforted souls close by. At least this is how I feel in the early a.m. with no gifted caffeine close by. Though the art installations are amazing and the space inviting it would not draw me day after day without the allure of the drink. The addicted know what I am saying. I can see the truth in a commerce free cafe but shudder at the throngs of the coffee addicted stumbling and lurching around without the daily fix. Caffeine, I am afraid to say, could not be supplied in the quantity’s needed from a gifted society. I have tried, it is hopeless. On the other hand, with the monies generating the funding for the structure and the crews who return year after year to build it, their wages, and support for the weeks and weeks they are there, I am in favor of it. It frees up more capital for the amazing fireworks display which puts many towns displays to shame. Or more porta potty cleanings and road work. Art grants, And even monies to the Gerlach school district. All this happiness in a cup that costs around the same as a latte in Portland,or Seattle or Walla Walla. Just think how good a free cup o’ joe would taste. Medically speaking it would get the job done but would not be too satisfying I think. But organic, micro roasted, expertly made desert elixir, crafted on real f’n espresso machines by real f’n baristas in the middle of nowhere! Happy to pay for that small patch of normalcy in the pothole infested altered crazy universe that we call home. At least I can be in command of one small thing, and especially around Thursday when it all closes in.

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