Please note that the ideas expressed within this article are based on one individual’s perspective and experience. Since the publication of this post, it is also important to note that restructuring has continued within the legal entity of Burning Seed.
Until earlier this year, I was leading a process to create a new legal entity for Burning Seed, one of four Regional Burns in the Antipodes. It was a long journey that led me to consider important questions about how communities are forged and the fundamentals of Burner culture.
Unfortunately, it has also shown me some holes in the bucket of ‘community’ — the things we don’t talk about in furtherance of whatever we each think Burning should be.
Ostensibly, the process began in May 2017. However, it actually dates back to 2009, when the event was first founded. The founders always intended to change ownership of the event from a private company to a community-controlled not-for-profit — when the community had reached a certain level of maturity. Commencing the process when we did also presented an opportunity to address some of the ongoing tensions within the community.
After a three-month planning period, we began community consultation. The final consultation report was produced in July 2018 and made nine recommendations regarding the new entity and ownership of community assets. From there, we began to consider implementation.
By all accounts, the consultation process worked well. Good will was generated between everyone involved, and there was great hope that this process would result in the structural changes that were so desperately needed.
However, what evolved afterwards was something quite different. Relationships began to sour rapidly, and the aforementioned goodwill soon dried up. By January of this year, the situation became so increasingly hostile that I had no choice but to resign.
The conflict can be attributed, I think, to two main factors: firstly, accountability (or lack thereof). Virtual communications, a “fuck your burn” attitude, strong opinions and burnt-out volunteers are a heady mix. Without ways of holding people accountable, these dynamics can provide fertile ground for perpetuating toxicity.
The second factor relates to selective interpretation of the 10 Principles. Sometimes we forget that the Principles interact with one another. Sure, Radical Inclusion is important, but how does that square off with Communal Effort or Civic Responsibility? Plato’s paradox of intolerance argues that full tolerance would ultimately lead to intolerance. Similarly, we should acknowledge that real inclusion requires deliberate action to remove the structural and cultural barriers to participation. This means that it requires more from us than simply an ‘anything goes’ attitude.
The pandemic has created many challenges around the world, and the Burnerverse has felt these in turn. We have seen many Burns cancelled, and Burners are coming to terms with what this might mean — both now and in the long term.
This provides us all with an opportunity to consider the role of Burns in our collective endeavors. Should they be given such pride-of-place? Or are they just one of the things that we do together? If it is the latter (which I hope it is), then more explication needs to be given to what we mean by ‘community’. What actually keeps us all together? The 10 Principles just aren’t enough.
In Australia, we are seizing this moment to reflect on what we have seen work locally, and what hasn’t been working. The issues that I raise here are very much on people’s minds worldwide.
Two central themes in our conversations are inclusion and accountability — what is an appropriate way of understanding accountability in a community like this? How can we ensure that we consider multiple ideas, experiences and world views, rather than leaving inclusion to chance? And how can we do this in a way that doesn’t exhaust our environment and our people?
Larry Harvey famously said that communities grow out of shared struggle — this much is true (or, at least, a sentiment with which I agree) — but it’s not just struggle alone. Communities are also forged through shared stories, myths and identity. What do we share beyond the fire and the art and the dust? What do we talk about if the struggle ends or the fires go out? And, more importantly, how does the core of Burner culture address what the world needs right now?
Whatever the answer, I hope it will push us all in new and exciting directions.
Cover photo courtesy of Dan Luton Photography