A few years ago Sondra Carr, the artist who first introduced me to Burning Man, said that she had reached a poignant new milestone: she was done with Burning Man, and ready to move on.
Now most of the people who you hear saying things like this are angry: they say “I am DONE with Burning Man!” and will tell you, at length, that their readiness to move on from Burning Man is entirely Burning Man’s fault, because they’ve got ROADS now, or because too many of THOSE people are here, or because the organization ISN’T LISTENING!”
That is to say, they talk about Burning Man as though the decision to move on from it is the result of a terrible mistake, even an injury, and that in the normal course of events we would all keep doing it for the rest of our lives.
That’s not what Sondra meant. Just the opposite.
She’s not angry at Burning Man. She doesn’t agree with everything the Org has done, but she doesn’t expect to agree with everything anybody does. She has had very good experiences here, a few really terrible experiences, and is ultimately very grateful for Burning Man providing her with the opportunity to engage in tremendous personal and artistic growth.
It’s just that, having grown, she believes it is time to move on. This doesn’t mean never coming back: “I’ll come back if I have a particular art piece that I think should happen there, or if a ticket happens to come my way,” she tells me. But it does mean that going to Burning Man for its own sake is no longer a priority: rather, she needs to refocus her efforts .. and all that growth … on making the magic she discovered at Burning Man happen in the rest of the world.
She sees it as graduating from high school: you don’t stop going to high school because goddamit high school did something terrible to you … you stop going to high school because you are ready for other things. There is no ideal world (except on TV) where people never stop going to high school. It exists for you to be done with it. If it’s done its job well, it will show in the way you live through the rest of your life.
Sondra says she has graduated form Burning Man, and I think she’s right. She’s even said she intends to hold a graduation ceremony. (I’ve told her that if she can do it in San Francisco I’ll get Andie Grace and John Law to give commencement addresses – no luck on getting that scheduled so far.)
One way of looking at this is as my friend’s idiosyncratic decision, but I actually think it’s a good and useful way of thinking about what Burning Man is and our personal relationships to it. This is something we should have been thinking about years ago, but now is particularly important in a time of ticket shortages.
What does it mean to graduate from Burning Man? To be an after burner? Because it’s one thing if it’s something people are forced to do (“I haven’t been able to get a ticket, so I guess I’m an afterburner”), and another if it’s something we choose to do. Here the high school metaphor breaks down: choice is always better.
Having graduated Burning Man, Sondra is hardly living a mundane life. On the contrary: being less devoted to Burning Man in the desert frees her up to devote more time to creating Burning Man culture in the world. She has created a number of instillations in her city of residence that have gotten tremendous attention, both enhancing her art career and expanding the minds of people who didn’t know art could be like that. She is preparing a traveling exhibit of one of her more successful interactive pieces. Without taking anything against the work she was doing before, I would say she is more engaged in creating the common culture we aspire to, not less.
This isn’t an aberration: in my experience this is typical. In fact, many of the people whose practical engagements with art and culture I most admire are AfterBurners. They don’t have any problem with Burning Man, occasionally they go back, but they are focused on making magic happen right where they are. And it’s amazing.
Furthermore, they’re better at it than Burning Man. Burning Man does an amazing job of producing Burning Man. I honestly don’t know that it could be done much better. But while “Burning Man” the event is an incredible boot camp for “Burning Man” the culture – a training ground and networking opportunity of unparalleled utility – the fact is that the act of creating art and producing events at Burning Man is strikingly different from doing it anywhere else.
Many of the skills are transferable, no doubt – doing one surely makes you better able to do the other. In particular, artists and non-profit leaders across the world have told me that they like to bring Burners on their staff because Burners already understand many of the key approaches: the idea of a “do-occracy,” of Radical Self-Reliance and Radical Self-Expression, of giving and decommidifying to the extent possible. But past that point of understanding … once someone gets that … the skills needed to create at Burning Man begin to diverge from the skills required to get shit done in the rest of the world. The more focused and specific people get at making the magic happen on playa, the less they are taking the opportunity to hone those skills off playa.
It makes a difference. While there are some Burners who manage to do both exceptionally well – Will Chase and Stephen Ra$pa, for example – it is my considered opinion after a number of years that Burning Man events off playa, both artistic and public service, are decidedly inferior to events produced by people who, having done Burning Man, are now committed AfterBurners.
I should mention, both as a matter of full disclosure and as a proof point, that I am on the board of an arts organization, The San Francisco Institute of Possibility, which is made up almost entirely of AfterBurners – and that their work is amazing. In fact, as I’ve noted before, we’ve actually taken the concept of Gifting much farther than Burning Man, by creating an event for which tickets can only be purchased for others – that is to say, given as a gift. It creates a whole different kind of experience.
The point being that graduating from Burning Man is not a fallback position or a second choice option: it is part of the natural evolution of the culture we are creating, and of the people in it. A conscious choice to reprioritize. To level up. To graduate. And potentially to make the very changes in the world that Burning Man the event cannot.
Burning Man itself can perhaps best be seen as a hybrid form of the culture that is emerging from it. It is a common thing to point out how Burning Man does not live up to its values. And this is absolutely true. But this is precisely because nobody knows how to do what they’re trying to do. No one has ever successfully created a fiscally viable organization in a capitalist economy that is truly decommodified. How do we really do that? What does it look like?
Burning Man’s job, institutionally, is not to get it right the first time. If it knew how to do that, it wouldn’t be necessary. Burning Man’s job is to keep slowly advancing the banner and practice of the culture, inspiring and networking the people from whom, eventually, the new discoveries of how to do that will be made.
As I have written elsewhere, Burning Man’s next steps will be found on the frontiers, not the playa. The next major discoveries of how to do what Burning Man is inspiring people to do will come out of places like Idaho, South Africa, and Taiwan, not San Francisco. Some of them will surely come from the regionals. But many of them will doubtless come from AfterBurners – people who are specifically focused on making the culture of Burning Man work where they are and with people who have never thought about going to Burning Man.
There is no more important work. To be an AfterBurner is not to break from Burning Man or give up on it, but to advance the mission where it is needed most – outside the playa.
This the best reason to encourage and nourish a culture of AfterBurners.
But there’s also the unfortunate reality of ticket sales.
To say that Burning Man could handle ticket sales “better” is a truism because it’s true – systems could not break down, for instance. They could be hacker-proof. But such complaints ignore the 800 pound mechanical octopus in the room: that if there are 160,000 people who want to go to Burning Man, and only 80,000 tickets, then there is no way to distribute them that will make all 160,000 people happy. You can check my work, but I’m pretty sure the math is solid.
Barring some seismic shift – the ability to double the size of Burning Man, or move it to another site – this scarcity is here to share. How we handle this crisis of scarcity – as an organization and as a culture – will define Burning Man for in its next incarnation.
Figuring out the best way to make the system of who gets to go most fair (whatever that means) is a worthy goal, but not nearly as important as the role of AfterBurners, who will create the capacity for people to have experiences of Burning Man outside of Burning Man. Who will bring Burning Man to the other 80,000 people, and maybe even create sustainable ways that the 10 Principles can be lived out in the world.
This is not only because the efforts of AfterBurners are more important to Burning Man culture’s long-term growth anyway, but because – again – there isn’t a way to make a truly fair and just system about who gets to go to Burning Man that will make everybody happy. It can’t be done. But at least, through the efforts of Regionals and AfterBurners, people will have more things to do, and more ways to engage in this culture where they are, instead of having to go to the Nevada desert every year.
And ultimately, that’s the real goal. A Burning Man that doesn’t offer a path through the desert, a next step, is actually a pretty shallow dream. There’s a whole world out there, and the AfterBurners will lead us to it as much or more as Burning Man.