Crowdfunding Art Conundrum: is money “participation” in any meaningful sense?

Andy Warhol thought this was art. But is it participation?
Andy Warhol thought this was art. But is it participation?

The closest I’ve ever come to “crowdfunding” something was asking a room to tip generously.  But I’m told that web 2.0 and the “sharing economy” have revolutionized the process of funding theme camps and art for Burning Man.

Granted, we live in a time when “revolutionized” can apply to the way people shop for car insurance, so the word doesn’t mean what it used to.  But the number of successful camps and cars at this year’s Burning Man that used Kickstarter or another crowdfunding platform couldn’t be ignored.

And why should they be ignored?  These are all volunteers trying to create amazing things for the community’s enjoyment:  anything that makes their lives easier is all for the good.

But let’s play Indiegogo show-and-tell and see if something comes up, like a body floating to the surface.

Most of the premiums offered for supporting projects the Burn are of the “have a t-shirt!” or “get a piece of the art for your home when we’re finished” variety, and there’s really nothing to see here.

But when you reach the upper echelon of donations, a different kind of premium reward often emerges.  Can you spot the pattern?

  • From the 2013 funding campaign for the art car Abraxis:

$999USD – Champagne on the Throne

Thursday sunrise champagne throne ride on the top of the Dragon. A champagne toast for four on the throne as we ride to greet the sun. Sunrise parties are legendary on Abraxas and with you as our honored guests, we will be committed to bringing your fantasies into reality! You will also receive four white Abraxas bandanas to enhance your ensemble during this yearly white procession!

  • From the 2013 Cuddledome funding campaign:

$300USD – One Night in Cuddledome!

You and a friend will have free rein of Cuddledome one evening on playa. Enjoy a homecooked meal and relax in the lighted dome. Invite the Cuddle Pros in for some Olympic-level cuddling, or keep it private, your choice! This perk includes two pendants to celebrate your status as certified Cuddle Pros and a framed, numbered 8×10 Cuddledome photo from Roger Kobeska to commemorate the occasion!

  • From the 2013 funding campaign for the More Carrot Farmers Market:

$125USD – Very Important Carrot

All the above plus be a guest at our VIC (Very Important Carrot) dinner where we’ll ply you with delicious food and yummy drinks.

Among many, many, other projects.

Now I need to emphasize that all of these are great projects and wonderful causes, which are put forward by hard working people who do terrific work.  And that all they are doing is following generally accepted best practice in crowdfunding.  They’re not doing anything wrong by default world standards.  At all.

But what they are doing with these premiums – what was happening all across Burning Man this year – is that people are selling experiences on playa.

Through this system, if you spend money off playa, you and you alone (or with a limited number of others) get special rides on art cars, access to special dinners, and use of space that you have done nothing on playa to attain.

You might say “So what?”  Spending money off playa in preparation for Burning Man always brings benefits.  You can have an RV instead of a tent, or a big RV instead of an RV, or a small townhouse with a generator instead of a big RV.  Isn’t that what Plug-and-Play is?

Sure … and that’s problematic enough.  But the selling of experiences creates a more insidious problem.

Plug-and-play camping, for all its issues, does not deprive others of opportunities to experience  anything at Burning Man.  It may create issues with commoditization (especially when it brings hired help, creating a potential class of non-participants), and it may be a problem for our community when plug-and-play campers wall themselves off from the rest of Burning Man, but it doesn’t actually impact my or your ability to do anything there is to do at Burning Man.

The selling of experiences on-playa, however, does:  the more dinners a camp prepares for funders … people who contributed in no way but throwing in dollars … the less a camp will have to offer all the other citizens of Black Rock City.  The more spaces on an art car are reserved for funders, the fewer people will be able to hop on the art car out in the desert.  The more space in a camp is reserved for funders on certain nights, the less space there is for the brilliant freaks who are drawn to the camp because they’re participating in the here-and-now.

Selling experiences on the playa creates, to some extent, a zero-sum game.  The more experiences you gear towards donors, the less geared you are to the community, and the less it can participate in what you’re doing.

Some degree of exclusiveness for camp and crew events is of course acceptable, and even desirable.  A volunteer appreciation dinner, for example, is beyond reproach.  But by no stretch of the imagination is contributing to a Kickstarter campaign “volunteering” – especially when it’s in exchange for a sweet premium.  A donor’s help may have been crucial for a project, but are they actually more deserving of a special dinner or a spot on an art car than people who directly engage with the community on site and gift their own creativity and sweat?

“Participation” is one of the 10 Principles.  “Patronage” is not.

Nor is it possible to have a gift economy if many gifts are reserved for people who offered donations.  Denying someone an experience because they didn’t click “donate now” for the proper amount is the opposite of “Gifting.”  Isn’t it?

The person who creates an amazing costume and wanders around giving people unusual experiences, or who helps wash dishes, or who helps fix a stranger’s car because he just happens to have tools and time, is more worthy of getting that golden seat at the banquet hall or ride on the mutant vehicle – at least within the Burning Man ethos – than someone who opened their wallet off-playa.  If that’s not true, then what could “decommdification” and “participation” possibly mean?

If the selling of experiences in exchange for patronage were an isolated phenomenon, happening only here and there, it wouldn’t be a big deal – but crowdfunding has “revolutionized” art.  It’s everywhere, and it increasingly means that not only can people throwing a lot of money at their Burning Man experience bring nicer accommodations during the burn (not such a big deal), but they can have a fundamentally different type of burn than people who can’t (or don’t) spend big sums off playa – welcomed as VIPs from camp to camp, car to car, getting experiences that are simply not offered or available to people who merely participate in-person.

That’s a big deal.  That’s a stratified society.

One solution, of course, is always Art Vikings.  But I’d hate to go there with this.  Because, seriously:  I love Abraxis.  Cuddledome sounds awesome.  Who doesn’t want more farmers markets at Burning Man?

Unlike with plug-and-play, where the problem is a lack of engagement with the community, these are groups who are very much working to make a better Burning Man for everyone – who are trying very hard to give of their time and their own money, of their inspiration and sweat.  They’re the good guys – and frankly we should all donate to support their efforts.  This is a problem without a villain.

But it is a problem.  Fortunately there’s another solution:  just don’t offer on-playa experiences as premiums.

I know, I know, it’s can be effective way to get big donors.  But come on:  if you were really being practical you wouldn’t be building an Art Car in the first place.

By all means, ask “the crowd” for money.  And offer premiums.  Other kinds of premiums are great.  A thank you card?  A piece of the art?  A craft item?  A token of appreciation?  Or an experience off playa?  Brilliant.  Bring it.

But if you’re running a crowdsourcing campaign, the best thing you can do to contribute to Burning Man’s non-commoditizing ethos is not to make premium experiences of your camp, vehicle, or art available to high bidders.  Keep that outside the trash fence.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man writes to escape the white hot pain of existence.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at)

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

20 Comments on “Crowdfunding Art Conundrum: is money “participation” in any meaningful sense?

  • Dustin says:

    As opposed to say BRAF donor receptions at the hot springs after air conditioned bus tours of the art? Art grant parties at first camp, with bouncers keeping out the riff-raff?

    For the most part, I agree that some of the crowdsourcing rewards leave a slightly bad taste in my mouth, for all the reasons you discuss.

    The point you miss is that the gifting aspects of the crowdsourcing awards usually far outweigh the exceptional access granted. Few people really think a ride in an art car is worth $1000 – they think the art project is worth $1000. Artists are trying to think of over the top ways to thank people willing to give much to make their art a reality. The art out there doesn’t appear out of the thin air. It costs money. Lots of money. (Not that you’d know it from the minuscule amount of art grant $$ BMorg gives out: <5% of the budget?!?!) How should my old friend from across the county help me with my art project? Quit his job and fly cross country for a week to help sand wood? Crowdsourcing perks are not exchanges of value – they're exchanges of appreciation, support, and gratitude.

    Your opportunity cost argument that the time is now unavailable to the general public is pretty weak. There is no zero-sum gifting pool that gets exhausted because someone takes someone for a sunrise champagne toast. Chances are if they weren't making that sunrise gift, they'd be back in bed taking a nap (personal experience talking here). Who and how I choose to gift people on playa, and why, is none of anyone's business. It's my gift. Fuck off.

    You could have talked about how crowdsourcing has made people stupid and lazy. A lot of creativity used to come from people trying to make amazing art and structures cheaply that they could just strap to the top of their cars. Now they guilt their friends into paying for their costly materials list and truck rentals. Lame. and boring.

    Finally, if you really want to write an article about the stratification of burning man experiences, how about one about the rising disconnect between the ever growing number of staff and volunteers who receive free tickets, early arrival, food, showers, power, air conditioning, and prime camp placement – vs the joker who tries to show up after the gates open and has to camp on L street.

    Happy Holidays!

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  • It’s really hard to have a consistent rationale here. A friend helped me modify my art car off-playa, including spending some money. Of course I gave her the keys and let her borrow it on the playa. I would have been a dick not to. Nor would I give the keys to a random person who walks up.

    That’s work, not just money. But if I were short on money, and somebody else had spent their money to buy the new lighting I put on, then I would also be happy to lend them the car.

    With indiegogo the contributor may be a stranger. But lots of playa friends start out as strangers.

    So while I understand the bad sense you are getting from these campaigns, how do you distinguish it from the common behaviour above? Perhaps you would say that with the crowdfunding, it’s gone so far as being a contract. With my friends, it wasn’t an explicit contract. (Or at least I think. I may have said to those who helped that naturally they would get to ride the car — does that alter things?)

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  • Confused Volunteer says:

    Dustin, why are you targeting volunteers in your last paragraph? I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but the infrastructure required for Burning Man and 70,000 people in the middle of a desert is enormous. People working for the official departments live in camps, just like any other camp, and much like any big, long running camp on playa, amenities are built by those camps, and food is a coordinated effort. Their showers are not for sparkly bunnies to wash off body glitter, but for people spending 12 hours a day walking and working to look after their feet, their bodies – I assume you can see now why your comments are inflammatory, and under the slightest scrutiny will fall apart like dry playa.

    Really, saying staff are lucky to get early arrival when they spend that time setting up and building the city is ridiculously ungrateful. Feel free to volunteer for 12+ hour days and a minimum of 36 hours work a week if you’d like to join us in the shower.

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  • Dustin says:

    Confused Volunteer: Thanks for making my point. Clearly you are entitled to all the advantages, and everyone else just shows up to party without doing any work at all. Right. Thanks for clearing that up. Geesh.

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  • Caveat Magister says:

    Some good issues raised in the comments here.

    Dustin says that how he chooses to gift isn’t anybody else’s business, fuck off. It’s a sentiment I applaud. But in this case we’re not talking about gifting: we’re talking about an exchange. That contract … I’ll give you money and in exchange get an exclusive experience on playa … is the opposite of gifting.

    Brad is absolutely right that it’s difficult to have a consistent approach to this, and he’s right to that I wouldn’t object to someone saying “my buddy really helped me out when my art car’s engine died, so I’m giving him some time on it.” How the hell can you object to that?

    The problem, as I see it, is that we are approaching a point where there will be a mass, institutionalized exchange of experiences-for-patronage. Crowdsourcing is turning what was once a couple of people helping out into a mass exchange – one that could have an equally large impact on playa culture. Should we reach the point that hundreds of cool events on-playa are only for people who gave money? Is anyone comfortable with that?

    My objection, again, isn’t to crowdfunding at all. Just to the use of on-playa experiences as premiums in exchange for donor support. That’s where I see the problem happening.

    Thanks for responding.


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  • Firetiger says:

    Thanks for saying this! I really hate patronage rewards on crowdfunding campaigns! I wonder if people running these campaigns know that it hurts them too? When the first patronage rewards started appearing a few years ago I pulled my funding from a camp that was offering them, and I’ve never funded any project that offers them since.

    I was also very adamant that we NOT offer these sort of rewards when we did our first crowdfunding campaign this year for my camp, Midnight Poutine. We successfully funded our new deep fryer WITHOUT letting any of our top donors skip our 1h+ lineup.

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  • Trilo Byte says:

    Another excellent post. I think the thing that people offering on-playa experiences as perks need to consider is whether that on-playa experience comes at the expense of the general population. Let’s use an on-playa art installation as an example. If the builders throw a thank you dinner/reception for their supporters and crew back at camp, that seems fine. BRC at large can still go and experience that installation. However, if the builders offer private VIP parties and receptions at the installation, they’re doing so at the expense of everyone else in Black Rock City. It’s a dusty version of the velvet rope found in default world nightclubs. Think of it from the participant’s viewpoint… They come from all over the world, prep their asses off and manage to set up a camp that doesn’t blow away in the first dust storm. Then they walk or pedal halfway across the playa in the searing heat/freezing night to chase this amazing, glowing, laser-shooting ball of amazement that is the builder’s installation. As they approach, however, they’re stopped dead in their tracks. “I’m sorry, we’re closed for a private event.” Ouch. I really hope there’s less of that in 2014 than there was in 2013.

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  • Robyn says:

    For the most part, Art Cars have been exclusive for friends, benefactors, and hotties for many years. This is nothing new.

    Overall this is an excellent article.

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  • Eunoia says:

    I was relieved to see that the BRAF auctions at the Artumnal gathering this year were careful not to have any “pay $1000 to ride on an art car!” type auctions this time. Which is to say: I’ve seen them do it, in a previous year, and I was not pleased.

    I spend a *lot* of money on kickstarter and indiegogo. Most times they mail me stuff. That’s fun. A few people wanted me to pick up stuff that I paid for in person … on playa. And that’s cool too, I guess, I mean I love meeting artists. And I send money to my campmates in exchange for them bringing supplies, too, so it doesn’t seem to be outside the norms. One of them sent me invites to a private party on-playa …. I didn’t go to that. I mean, it probably would have been great, but I felt just funny enough about it, and it’s not like there wasn’t a million other things to do.

    I guess what I’m saying is … I think we know what our norms are, so let’s not go overboard. Keep the conversation going. Apply gentle social pressure.

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  • Nathan says:

    Who do I donate to in order to get a ride with DPW?

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  • Skip Frake says:

    Love the piece. I was in Cuddledome this year and was in fact “moop boss” for our camp. We talked about this subject when starting the fundraising discussion. The fact that Cuddledome was a daytime shade dome for any and all was the first thing on our list. We were open from about 9am till sundown, even though we had a closing time so that the camp could go out and “see the sights”. But in truth, our dome had guests most evenings and through the night. We were at 9 and F, so Cuddledome was a pit stop on our very busy street. So, in effect we advertised our closing time in advance and felt like one night wouldn’t take away to much from the general public. As it turned out, one of our camp mates claimed the top prize and was, last I saw, pretty happy most every night in Cuddledome. Believe me, this was not something we took lightly. Our Dome faced the street and we were not cut off from anyone. Very open camp. We will see you on the Playa. Again, Great Piece C.D. Great Burn!!

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  • handro says:

    Wow, I can’t believe the website let you post this! I would expect this level of honestly from Piss Clear not from the BMORG, which usually serves up pro-BM positivity spin and platitudes.

    I totally agree with you 100%. These are loathsome practices that are antithetical to the event. They should be discouraged by the community and the only way I know that works is PUBLIC SHAMING. When these large groups who are obviously invested in their reputation and the “brand” of their camp or art-car are shamed, they will stop doing it, plain and simple.

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  • Rh1no says:

    Crowd funding… is the dotcom version of panhandling… usually initiated by a group that’s educated enough to raise funds in other ways… but “this is so much easier.”

    And a *much* lazier version of panhandling, where you don’t even have to sit on the sidewalk. It’s the hip way to beg… “hip” to someone, I suppose. Web 2.0 “gimme gimme gimme.” Gross. Not just visual artists, but DJs are doing this more and more, too. Trendy, lazy, greedy and gross.

    I personally noticed a trend w/ the rise of “click her to gimme stuff” campaigns: fewer fund raiser parties. Boo on that.

    Now, a fund raiser party is a totally different animal. 1st, it’s social… more than just screen time and credit cards. It brings us together. It’s also a real exchange (which I’m not opposed to)… the work and fun and love and music and sharing of party is something so worth spending offline dollars on. No premium (I hope), other than the chance to be at another gathering of like-minders.

    (Am I right that in 2011, Abraxis thru a really fucking awesome party at 1015, where THEY were the main attraction, super amazing costumes and attitudes… so cool… and in 2013… “click here to gimme?” Whoa. No comparison.)

    Crowd funding has such a low barrier to entry to getting started – lazy to start, lazy to participate in — I assume we’ll see more of this zero-creativity means of funding art. No thanks.

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  • notaburner says:

    @Nathan – what’s DPW? do they need non-monetary donations?

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  • steelhead says:

    I agree to the nature of CM’s point: My objection, again, isn’t to crowdfunding at all. Just to the use of on-playa experiences as premiums in exchange for donor support.

    However, in support of his use of the Art Vikings as an example of a creative (dare I say it, “Burning Man-ish”) solution to a problem, I don’t think the issue is necessarily “the use of on-playa experiences as premiums.” Instead, the problem is the _nature_ of those experiences – primarily, exclusive show-up-and-be-entertained experiences. Perhaps, the on-playa experiences offered should be exclusive participatory events. For example, for the $999 level of Abraxis you get to drive the car for an evening, deciding where to go and what to see, but not limiting who gets on or off. The $300 night in Cuddledome doesn’t necessarily exclude others from coming to the dome, and the Very Important Carrot could be an open dinner where the VIC is treated as royalty, but others are welcome to come and go as they wish.

    I agree that there are a lot of problems with exclusive events or large art cars, but there are also creative ways to make donors feel like they are getting VIP treatment without ill-treating other participants.

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  • Andy Daniel says:

    I understand the frustration of some people in seeing this as stratification of Burners as haves and have-nots. But the first reply correctly points out that getting a T-shirt for your $50 contribution is not really a $50 purchase, it’s maybe a $10 purchase and a $40 donation.

    I also respectfully disagree with the suggestion that cash is not a form of participation or volunteerism. By giving their time volunteers give up the ability to do anything else with that time – by giving their money patrons give up the ability to buy anything else with that money – which in most cases was earned by giving their time to an employer.

    Finally, I think the velvet rope analogy is imperfect. At a club, the rope serves to create a sense of privilege by being purposefully frustrating to those on the other side of it. The on-playa experiences offered to patrons are typically created for the express purpose of fundraising and don’t necessarily take away from the pool of experiences gifted to the community at large. Certainly, there are a few exceptions, but just like making sure that those who made an art car possible by building it get to ride, it seems reasonable to extend that courtesy to those who also made in possible by buying it.

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  • Ugh says:

    On playa, it’s well understood that money isn’t supposed to be able to buy anyone greater privilege than anyone else.

    Why not just let people pay for art car rides right there in the city? What’s the difference?

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  • Dan Fox says:

    Patronage is not one of the ten principles of Burning Man, but it is vital if not necessary to art. Indiegogo allows people from all over the world to help with the project. It is free to enjoy out on the playa, but every aspect of that project costs money. A lot of money. Anubis was around $25,000, and half of that was just logisitics, decomposed granite, insurance, build site rental, shipping, etc.

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  • Benny says:

    Send me 20 bucks and I’ll send you a drawing of Larry jumping a shark in a golf cart. Then we can go have coffee and listen to music. I know a good place.

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  • Leo Beck says:

    The author asks “But what are they doing with with these premiums” and then goes on to say “is that people are selling experiences on the playa”. Very good question and answer! It’s the the exact question I have when I purchase a BM ticket and what my answer is on the way home.

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