GLC 2017: Burning Man Challenges Participants to Step Up With Project Citizenship

Last year, once the dust had settled on another Burning Man event, Operations Director Charlie Dolman didn’t focus on the nuts and bolts of how things had gone. He found himself focusing on a paper cut.

The paper cut belonged to a participant who had rocked up to RAMPART for treatment — along with 12,000 other people seeking Band-aids for minor misadventures.

“That person didn’t think about going to the desert and being prepared to look after themselves, or they didn’t think to turn to their neighbors, and there is a whole city out there that can look after itself,” says Charlie.

Radical Self-reliance notwithstanding, every minute (and dollar) the Emergency Services Department spends on silly cases also takes away from their capacity to handle serious ones.

But these medical misdemeanors are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s been a litany of disturbing incidents and behavior in Black Rock City these past few years, such as the vandalism of the Iron Monkeys’ Piazza di Ferro. Burning Man Project has developed a response plan called Project Citizenship, which was previewed at the Global Leadership Conference on Friday.

“Have you ever tried to vandalise iron work shit? That’s really hard. That wasn’t an accident.”

The project aims to tackle trends such as an erosion of participation and rise of a consumer approach to the event; a lack of preparedness; increased vandalism, a decrease in civility; an attitude of entitlement towards Burning Man staff who are seen as being there to “serve” the needs of paying punters; and a lack of respect towards participants gifting their time and skills.

Burning Man identified these trends with the help of Census, Event Operations, participant feedback, internal staff dialogues and extensive outreach to Regional Contacts and community leaders.

The Experience on the Ground

“At the event this year, the operations went pretty well, but talking to lots of people during the event and after event, something was really bubbling up. And it was a feeling that manifested in various different ways,” says Charlie.

“We had Rangers, Gate and members of other teams saying, ‘I feel like my gifts are taken for granted’, and participants are not realizing that people’s skills, time, money, love, months of work are being donated to keep them safe and to enhance their experience’,” he says.

“And we had significant vandalism issues with the Iron Monkeys’ guild. Have you ever tried to vandalise iron work shit? That’s really hard. That wasn’t an accident. That was malicious intent to damage something that is not easy to damage.”

But what worried Charlie the most was feedback from the Ranger Council and Gate leadership. “It doesn’t feel like we’re family anymore,” they told him.

“And that’s really sad,” says Charlie.

Unwelcome attention from some famous brands has only amplified concerns.

“You have videos like, ‘Oh, the Places You’ll Go’, which have been viewed 3.5 million times. Videos about Burning Man are getting hundreds of thousands of hits. So whether we like it or not, this thing that we love is being compelled into a space that is the regular culture, which is primarily consumerist rather than participatory,” says Charlie.

And so the organisation decided to make this its thing for the year. “This is more important than fixing whether a building is in the right place. We need to use all of our efforts as a global family… to bring people back into the family,” says Charlie.

Developing the Project

According to Jim Graham, Senior Advisor Special Projects for Burning Man’s Communications Team, 2016 was a watershed year.

“2016 was really the tipping point for us but [these trends] were something we had identified throughout the past few years,” says Jim. “And over the evolution of identifying these challenges, we also found that a lot of the Regionals were facing them.”

So part of the development of Project Citizenship included reaching out to Regionals worldwide to share a collaborative document. This document included a compilation of feedback from BRC staff and volunteers on what people witnessed at the event, what they saw as the root cause and what to do about it.

The input from the Regionals has helped create the Project’s key messages around Participation, Self-reliance, Be nice to others and yourself, and MOOP.

A series of campaigns will provide platforms for these messages, including educational videos; Burner Express and airport passenger acculturation; inserting messages into the ticketing process; a Theme Camp Symposium and ambassador program; Reddit AMAs; blogs; Instagram tags such as #notafestival and #playamade; and more.

Some of these campaigns have already begun and will continue to be rolled out over the next five months.

But there’s no single solution for a complex problem. Moreover, a culture is what we all imagine and create together, so a cultural issue requires collective action.

And just as the theme of the Global Leadership Conference has encouraged attendees to think about sparking a new citizenship, maybe we all need to ask ourselves what it means to be a citizen of our temporary art cities and communities, and what do we all need to do to preserve the integrity of what we have created together?

Top photo by Chuck Revell

About the author: Jane Lyons

Jane Lyons (a.k.a Lioness) believes it takes a special kind of crazy to drive the foundation years of a Regional Burn, and she classes herself among those crazy dreamers and (over)doers who are sweating it out around the Regional Burn globe. After her first Nevada Burn in 2009, Jane spent five years knee-deep in the development of Australia's Burning Seed and its community. She built and managed Seed's Communications Team for many years, helped kickstart Melbourne Decompression and ran a range of other local events. But her Burner communities and collaborations stretch beyond the confines of her country. She helped build Temple of Transition in 2011; has worked on other big art projects on and off playa (including the Temple for Christchurch); and has run theme camps and built art at Nowhere, Kiwiburn, Burning Seed and Italian Burning Weekend. She now spends her time supporting Burning Man's Communications Team.

18 Comments on “GLC 2017: Burning Man Challenges Participants to Step Up With Project Citizenship

  • Rebbi Ned Luddstein says:

    why do i find myself all of a sudden singing the soundtrack from fiddler on the roof…

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  • Brooke Wallace says:

    As a nurse with the ESD I’m happy to see the issue of self reliance addressed as well as safety. We need to care for each other on so many levels. Some of the injuries I saw and heard of were heart breaking, and almost all of them could of been avoided if they would of just took a second to slow down and think. Changing the culture through mass education has worked well in the past. Think of the campaign to stop unwanted touching and photographs. It worked, and it can again. Thank you BM org.

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  • Sawyer says:

    Just got back from Singapore. Weird place. Like a cross between Honolulu, the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace, and that city in Logan’s Run. This city is clean. I mean, they have orchids in the subway. Live, beautiful, blooming, untouched orchids. Chewing gum is illegal, and if you deface anything at all they will cane you. By “cane you”, I mean they will bend you over and cane you. Cane Camp? Just brainstorming here. No judgement.

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  • Dr.K says:

    I think it is important for the camps to educate their new members about what the ethos of our community is. When more experienced Burners show their care and concern for BRC it will be a role model for those newly joined participants. This should also speak directly to self reliance as a matter of course for all participants. Whether it’s having your own first aid protocols or a constant awareness of moop.

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  • Dr.K says:

    I think it is important that camps educate their new members on the ethos we share. We need to role model our participation in self reliance at all times. Whether it is having first aid protocols or a constant awareness of moop. I also felt that last year had a bit of a different vibe. I experienced it in a minor (but impactful) vandalism of our camp and also the amount of moop left late at night at the large sound camps. We have been discussing in our camp meetings on how we can help promote that feeling of resonsibility we all strive for both in camp and in BRC.

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  • Infored says:

    It will be interesting to see how far down in the org chart the challenge to have a response plan on playa will be. Do we print up bandaids with a message on it instead of turtles, for example?
    Have fun with it. This is a Dr. Dolittle opportunity.

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  • Queeny says:

    Wow, no snark in the comments… this is a first!

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  • Elizabeth says:

    I could see so much value in spending the next months focusing on volunteers, maybe some of the smaller camps and art throughout the city.

    Think of photos of a more urban scene. Documentary rather than posed inspirational shots of the art and pretty costumes. For a while we had a beautiful burners facebook album going that was of the average ordinary burners going about their dusty day. Old young, fat thin, not dressed up for the photographer, but for the elements.

    I imagine you might be able to push some volunteer stories on Jenny Kane at RGJ, EDM blogs, Gate can talk to security trade journals, be creative.

    Let’s face it… you don’t need PR to drum up business. It’s sold out. It will always sell out. But Burning Man gets clicks. Lets get some useful articles out there.

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  • Julia Brown says:

    I have three suggestions.
    – Add a 10- item quiz on the 10 Principles to the Burner Profile page, such that no knowledge=no ticket registration.
    -Distribute the Survival Guide in advance to people who are picking up tickets at the Box Office. It doesn’t help to say “Bring bandaids!” at the Gate.
    – Post a white board in each med station marked “I’m sorry. I’ll do better!” for people to sign when requesting treatment for simple problems of the unprepared. Too many people come in demanding treatment for eye or throat pain after selecting fancy face-paint for a dust storm rather than goggles or mask. This kind of entitlement drives me nuts.

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    • Meela Paloma says:

      Yes, the survival guide and the 160 pp guide would have been more helpful before I got to BM. Not at the gate where I picked up my ticket (low-income, first time). However, I did my research brought all my stuff (more than enough) and knew the first thing to do was set up my personal camp. I didn’t stop for a beer break after the long journey from Chicago to bond with my camp mates. I got to work. I feel like I missed out on the real issues BM wants to share but this year will plan my schedule and check out more informative events not just party hopping. Which was fun btw :)

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  • Infored says:

    I’ll continue to suggest to some of the clueless in my lines this year that they consider volunteering for the Man next time they visit the city. Some actually get it. Some, no registeration. This cultural shift over the years is a sea change to me. I’ll have my finger in the dike.

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