We’ve never met – at least I don’t think – and so I don’t know whether you’re true believing Burners who are just trying to make a buck sharing something you love without thinking it through or opportunists trying to strip-mine our culture and sell the raw materials to the highest bidder. Could go either way, and I prefer not to think the worst about people, no matter how often it’s justified.
And hey, let he who is without sin cast the first stone, right? I think pretty much everyone who has been inspired by Burning Man has wondered “How can I make THIS what I do in the world? Can I make Burning Man economically productive for me?”
It’s a completely reasonable question. Why wouldn’t you think it? Decommodification is a principle, but paying rent is a necessity. The question of how to make Burning Man a sustainable part of one’s life is one that Burners around the world are grappling with, experimenting with different models, and I think they’re at the vanguard of Burning Man’s next big step.
But some approaches … most particularly selling Burning Man merchandise … aren’t going to work. And most of the schemes I’ve seen to offer “Burning Man Experiences” aren’t going to work either.
But not so much because of the money thing.
I want to explain why, not so that I can yell at you for trying, but because maybe if we get on the same page about what the problem here is, you can come up with an approach that will work. So the dynamicism and energy you’re obviously bringing to this effort – starting a business is challenging – can be harnessed in service of the community you’re trying to introduce people to. And so that those people can be better introduced to our community.
Because right now there’s a serious problem with what it looks like you’re trying to do, and it’s not actually decommodification. Well, maybe that too, but there’s a much bigger, much more serious, problem here. That’s the one I want to talk about.
(Perhaps this would be a good time to remind people that I am neither a Burning Man employee nor spokesman, and that my opinions are entirely my own and not necessarily endorsed by Burning Man or anyone affiliated with it.)
I want to start with two examples of people at Burning Man. The first is a story about how Burning Man didn’t accidentally self-destruct in 2014. About a time something that went spectacularly wrong turned out spectacularly right. Because I think it speaks to why we do this in the first place.
On the opening Sunday of 2014, news started coming in to Burning Man about the apocalyptic ticket lines shaping up outside the gates.
And then it started to rain.
And then it rained so hard that Burning Man closed for the day (for the first time ever) and everybody in line … tens of thousands of people … were stuck in their cars, in the mud. And those of us lucky to have already made it in looked at each other, as we desperately tried to keep the mud out of the watertight spaces we had access to, and asked ourselves: How fucked are they?
How bad was this going to get?
I mean, the ride down to Burning Man can be bad enough – you’ve spent a whole week packing, then driven God knows how many hours … possibly with complete strangers or people you only pretend to like, often in a vehicle that only pretends to work … to get in a 10 hour line of cars in the middle of the desert, and you don’t even want to roll your windows down because otherwise your car will be filled with dust.
And that’s when things go right. That’s the best case scenario.
This time, these tens of thousands of people were stuck in those cars, in conditions they did not prepare for, without easy access to their supplies, and spotty cell service … for who knows how long.
They certainly didn’t. All they knew is, they were stuck.
We talk about Burning Man being dangerous – that it might kill you- and I emphasize this to people all the time. BURNING MAN IS NOT BENIGN! This is a case in point. If somebody had needed emergency services … who would they have contacted? Even if they had found a way to contact someone, how would the EMS personnel have reached them? Or even found them?
(NOTE: I do not actually know what Burning Man’s emergency plans are, they may very well have contingency plans for just this kind of thing. But I wouldn’t know that, and neither would tens of thousands of people trapped in their cars.)
Eventually the rain stopped. A little while after that, people started coming in. Naturally I knew a lot of people who got caught in that line, and met many more. Naturally, I asked them about it.
Their stories all began as uniquely hellish experiences: trapped in painfully cramped quarters, trapped without easy access to food or liquids, trapped without easy access to bathrooms … or just trapped, confused, and frustrated.
But they all seemed to end the same way. Eventually the rain slowed down, then stopped, and while the roads were still too muddy to drive in, people got out of their cars and connected with the people next to them. Over and over I heard the words “so we kind of started Burning Man right there in line, we met the people around us, they were really great, we had a party, and it was amazing.”
Sure, they’d been extremely upset, but by the end, when they just did Burning Man right where they were, with the people next to them, it transformed into something remarkable.
Now this couldn’t possibly have been everyone’s experience – and if you were caught in this mess, and it this wasn’t your experience, I’m terribly sorry. But I heard it enough times, from enough different people, to believe that it was a fairly common experience … and in any case, for all the potential for disaster it represented, it hasn’t became a symbolic catastrophe. The people who are complaining about Burning Man are complaining about other things – including how to get in that line again.
Something in that experience went profoundly right for many people, and it is a tribute to Burning Man: yet it is not something that Burning Man can take any credit for.
What happened was that in a moment of profound adversity, Burners who didn’t know each other came together and burned. They did that thing that we do. A voluntary thing: a thing that no one can compel or demand. And, collectively, it made things right.
That’s example 1.
Example 2 is L’Affaire Tananbaum. Caravancicle camp is now the most infamous example of a camp for rich people in Burning Man history.
It sounds like it was a terrible experience for everyone involved, but it may actually be a tremendous service to future burners as a case study.
Now, the internet has leveled an incredible number of charges about what happened at Caravancicle, and I’m not inclined to believe a number of them because, internet. And that’s fine for these purposes. Let’s take Tananbaum’s report of what happened at face value and see what we can learn.
The first thing to recognize is that none of the luxuries that Caravancicle was planning to bring to the desert were particularly out of line. (And in fact I’m not clear on how I’d calculate “out of line” in the first place.) There are a number of fun and well-regarded camps that bring extraordinary luxury to the playa. Ashram Galactica, for example, has made my greedy little mouth water on several occasions. And I love these guys.
But none of the camps-in-good-standing with the community could ever have pulled something like Caravancicle off on their own. For them to do it would have required an immense fundraising campaign, a serious crowdfunding effort. Which means that they wouldn’t have been able to make it for just their friends: they would have had to offer crash space and volunteer opportunities and meaningful roles to strangers from across the Burning Man community. A kind of Radical Inclusion would have been involved from the outset, at the ground level.
That matters significantly because it seems to me that the biggest thing Caravancicle did wrong was not any of the things it tried to do, but that when it all started to fall apart, it closed ranks. It never thought of itself as part of a community. It certainly never acted that way.
Based on their own accounts, they said “we’re running out of booze, so we need to horde it,” instead of sending a call out on BMIR asking Burners they didn’t know for help – the way camps with this problem have been doing for over a decade. When the people they’d hired to build the things or make the widgets work didn’t get the job done (or said “screw this”), they never went around to other camps asking “is anybody here good with widgets?” Caravancicle tried to fix its problem through crisis management rather than trusting in our community, and in so doing separated itself from that community. From all the accounts I’ve read, no one seems to ever have thought: “Fuck it, let’s just admit we’re stuck and play in the mud and everybody can come.”
Is a pattern emerging here? Because I think it’s a crucial one: the people who say “fuck it, we’re playing with whoever wants to come” have more fun. Sometimes they’re the only ones having any fun at all.
This isn’t a casual thing, this isn’t a small part of the experience. Burning Man is the definition of an uncontrolled environment, and that’s not an accident. There is no “festival itinerary” – no sense that “if everything goes according to plan, these are the things that will happen and these are the things that won’t.” There is no such plan. Anything can happen. And it turns out that, in an environment where anything can happen, the stuff you’re doing at your own camp is almost never as interesting and fun as the stuff other people are doing out in the desert.
Fun as it is to hang around with your friends and enjoy the camps they’ve made, the truly magical Burning Man experiences happen when we interact with strangers. When we engage the larger community in ways that we never planned for or imagined. It is through those encounters, our unexpected and unmediated connections with each other, that the truly “only at Burning Man” experiences happen.
This is why the most camps, even the big expensive ones and always the truly exceptional ones, come to the playa far less focused on how cool they can make their private lounge and far more focused on what they can offer the community to make it come and play with them. Those massive sound camps that I kind of hate? Give them credit: they don’t keep the really great DJs to themselves and ask them to only play to their private lounges for 100 people: they are trying give every Burner on the playa as great a time as possible with the best DJs they have. That’s a better party by every definition but one: exclusivity. And at this point it begins to look like exclusivity is a prison.
The reason Burning Man is so much fun is strongly connected to the fact that most camps spend at least as much time and money figuring out what they can do for strangers as what they can do for their members. Perhaps the purest expression of Burning Man is to see a stranger doing something weird and amazing and asking “how can I help?”
And this is the reason why most “Burning Man experience” packages that I’ve seen are going to fail.
Because of the notion that people who haven’t paid for the services shouldn’t get any fun out of them, concierged Burning Man “experiences” involve building walls and creating notions of exclusivity – which are great if you’re trying to sell your services to people who expect to be treated like ultra-level VIPs, but horrible once you actually touch down on the playa. (I know, I know, there’s always room for the Big Shot to take a sparkle pony back to his fully-serviced RV and show her a good time, but, let’s not pretend that’s something special.)
Likewise, because the “concierge service” is financially on the hook for whether their VIPs have a good time, too little is left to chance. Segway tours replace just wandering out into the desert and seeing what happens. Itineraries replace the random amazing encounters that lead to lifelong friends and extraordinary memories. Those chance encounters are where you meet the people who will make your burn something you never forget.
A service that asks “How can I get my rich, important, clients to Burning Man and give them a camp and lifestyle that will approximate how rich and important they are” will never provide much in the way of a Burning Man experience, because it’s standing in the way of that experience.
A service that asks “How can I get my rich, important, clients to Burning Man and give them something genuinely useful to do for the larger community, hopefully forging genuine human connections with random strangers or at least getting them out of their comfort zones?”
That could work. Maybe. If it successfully minimized the distance between its clients and the rest of the playa. Which is the exact opposite of what exclusive concierge service is about.
But community, participation, and inclusion, are exactly what Burning Man is about.
Do the clients want the Burning Man experience or not?
The rest of it … the “we provide you with the tools to decorate your bike, which is an important part of self-expression” stuff … the knock on self-reliance that comes from having everything catered … that’s just bullshit. That kind of thing is silly, laughable, and won’t win the jackasses who fall for it any points, but it’s not the reason curated Burning Man experiences fail, or why they can actually be dangerous to the culture.
They fail because they are designed to create a barrier between the clients and the Burning Man community, and they are dangerous because they create barriers.
The commercial aspects of these services are questionable – and questions need to be answered – but are not irredeemable. People rent RVs, pack them full of pre-fabricated food from grocery stores, and wear costumes other people have made. It doesn’t hurt anything. (The existence of paid servants at Burning Man troubles me more, but is a topic for another time.) These issues can be worked out, and are – I think – a red herring for the larger more serious problems of community, participation, and inclusion that curated experiences can create.
All of which is to say, if I were trying to design a “concierge” Burning Man experience that I thought would both pass muster and actually do the job of giving people a “Burning Man experience,” I would design it with one word in mind: “Service.” (It’s not one of the 10-principles specifically, but, not everything has to be.)
I would take the budget and spend it on creating a camp with far more space for randoms than for residents; I would design this camp to attract Burners from across the playa, and get them to stay; I would design this camp to offer something unique and awesome, an experiential gift that would be memorable and magical –and then I would charge however much one charges the wealthy these days to come and be a crucial part of it. To have an experience of service that they can’t get anyplace else in the world.
Can you get these guests to say “Fuck it, let’s play in the dust and everybody can come!” Because that’s what you’re aiming for.
Once again, my vote doesn’t count for anything around here. But I hope this is helpful.
The alternative may be Art Vikings. I like that too.