Building Community in the Antipodean Burnerverse

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.

Burners at Australia’s Burning Seed regional event in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Telepathic photo)

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?

Sunset fading over Sunset Island theme camp at Burning Seed in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Dan Luton Photography)

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

About the author: Marty Bortz

Marty Bortz

Marty (his real name) is a Regional Burner and social researcher. He writes about politics, public policy, and transformative event culture.

11 Comments on “Building Community in the Antipodean Burnerverse

  • Mahlee says:

    Why aren’t there more Aboriginals at the burn?

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    • Mansoon says:

      I was listening to the the Burning Seed, the BM regional there, rundown on Shouting Fire and there seem to be some there.

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    • Jarred Taylor says:

      The colonial genocide of indigenous peoples has been disastrous. Less than 5% of the general population may still have connections. Burning Seed is probably the only official Burning Man event in the world that has an official welcome from local indigenous elders and closing. There is also a very vibrant first nations camp, art and grants. More work to do.

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      • Shiny says:

        Modifyre also has a local Welcome to Country and connection with local mob that is steadily growing in its new(ish) home.

        At its best, burner culture sits quite comfortably with many aspect of Indigenous culture, and I feel that the more we listen and learn from the people who’ve cared for the lands we live and burn on for 70k+ years, the better we’ll be placed to address some of the issues Marty has raised here.

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      • Loren Smith says:

        Brilliant to hear that Seed and Modifyre are actively engaging with original inhabitants / first peoples; I was pleasantly surprised to see (at Afrikaburn in 2019) that First Nations representatives were present to send off a temple structure that had stood for a couple of years, and which was apparently a dedication to the original inhabitants of the region the event is held in. Chatting to some veteran South African burners/rangers, it seems thisnwasn’t a new thing; they mentioned that in past years a First Nations camp had been at the event, and provided blessings and first flame for burns using the traditional method. Respect to any burn that raises inclusion as a pressing issue, and acts on it authentically!

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    • Madeline Fountain says:

      I am a current member of the constitution drafting working group, of the still VERY busy Restructure Committee for Burning Seed. I am thrilled that Indigenous inclusion is a topic we truly care about in our diverse and vibrant community and thank you Mahlee for asking the question!

      While it would be premature to guarantee or share anything while drafting is still underway, I am proud to say that we currently have a specific focus and discussion on how we will recognise, include and enshrine the voices of traditional owners of the lands on which we gather into the new foundation documents of the member based entities that will be soon be established.

      As Jarred has already said, Burning Seed has an incredible First Camp that offers a Welcome to Country as well as a yarning circle that welcomes everyone around their Yindyamarra fire, loads of fantastic workshops run all week and the crew always make an effort for kids with cultural activities at Kids’ Camp and around the Paddock. They are also closely affiliated with the legend locals, Red Earth Ecology, as Country and Culture can’t be separated. Burning Seed also has indigenous liaisons within the Org who not only make art, they generously give their time to advise, as well as being an interface with the local mob who do come in increasing numbers each year. I pay respect to Niki Wheatley for all the incredible foundation work with the Wiradjuri community in the Riverina that led to such a strong Wiradjuri presence at Seed.

      If you would like to ask any specific questions about the current restructure process, our fearless leader can add you to our mailing list or feel free to simply reach out with any questions using the email address restructure(at)burningseed.com

      So happy this question was asked, it helps me to know that our focus on carefully considered Radical Inclusion and Civic Responsibility is correctly placed as we continue this important and challenging work.

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  • Sugar says:

    That pic looks like one of those peaceful BLM/Antifa protests.

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  • Sherpa says:

    As someone deeply involved in Burning Seed and its restructure process from the very beginning, I find the above article very strange. It doesn’t make sense in relation to what actually happened and is happening, it’s inaccurate and it makes no mention of the author’s direct involvement in, and responsibility for, some of the issues that the restructure process has experienced.

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  • Isaac Watts says:

    Having thought about this for a few days I would like to suggest that the reason for such difficulties is that the movement is not underpinned by an absolute spiritual or scientific truth. In order for any group to grow and thrive a truth must be established. That truth then becomes the cornerstone of all other developments and decisions that take the group forward. This is the reason that spiritual frameworks exist in all human cultures. They are a recognition that a group cannot develop and be sustained without reference to a truth that exists externally to the individuals in the group. There must be an external truth to which all or the majority of the group subscribes.
    This is also the reason for the power of scientific truth. Though scientific truth is paradoxical in the sense that it is parsimonious (subject to change), scientific truth as it pertains to a specific phenomenon can be referred to and relied upon to inform decision making and provide certainty.
    I would suggest that burning man movements around the world will continue to struggle once they begin to require a certain level of organisational structure (such as the development and implementation of a legal framework). That is, they will struggle to grow and be sustained until a leadership emerges (leadership is also cutururally universal) who is willing to nail their colours to the mast and declare: this is what we believe.
    And I’m sorry, but principles that by definition require subjective interpretation are by definition not objectively true. You might also argue the same about spiritual and scientific truth and you would be correct. But again, universally, cultures establish spiritual and political leadership in order for the wider population to interpret the practical outworking of that truth when required. Therefore all thriving groups require both truth and authority. The therefore is this: can the burning man movement tolerate the integration of these elements into the burning man framework?

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    • Marty Bortz says:

      Thanks Isaac for this really thoughtful comment. This is exactly what I was getting at with the piece – what is the underlying ‘thing’ that makes people want to do ‘burning’? And when I say ‘burning’, I’m not just talking about the event, but also all the other things that Burners make happen. I think it’s there (somewhere), but I don’t think it’s the 10 Principles.

      Anyway, thanks again.

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    • Madeline Fountain says:

      I like this comment Isaac, it has given me food for thought and I really appreciate that.

      IMO a defined set of values like the 10P is one thing that we all can and should remain free to interpret as individuals; but universally accepted expectations around *conduct* within community are only effective if there is an objective and supported process for restoring harmony when there are inevitable conflicts. For such a process to work, reciprocity of care and mutual respect are prerequisites. I personally don’t believe it requires spiritual truths so much as courage, an open heart, resilient mind and a disciplined respect for a process to weather any interpersonal storm. Maybe all those things I listed are indeed spiritual qualities (they certainly reflect some Buddhist tenets).

      I would love to hear how other Burn communities deal with conflict. The best example I have seen so far is the Borderlands, and I think the key to this perception is the bravery and wisdom of doing almost everything in an open and truly egalitarian forum. Transparency is a great mitigating factor! If everything is out there before (or rather while) disputes arise then aggrieved parties are less likely to serve their personal “truth” prejudicially. “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

      Audiences are not always impartial either. Credibility bias is a real problem in a diverse community. We see it in Default civil society and Burner communities are not immune. In fact it can be worse, because forums are so easily controlled by factions with social and organisational ties to each other. I have seen more Othering and cancel culture within my local Burner community than at my child’s school where one might expect they don’t know better yet.

      Truth is not an absolute anywhere and I always imagine it like the reflections in a faceted mirror; there is the observable, the real and the actual. Even science has its epistemic fallacies, leaving out so much that doesn’t fit the criteria of “truth”. When it comes to interpersonal relations, everyone experiences things through their own lens and that needs to be accepted and then integrated into an effective reconciliation process.

      Despite its lofty aspirations and incredible achievements, this is not a Utopic movement despite it being the most rewarding cultural project I have had the pleasure to participate in. I do not believe that hierarchy and internal adjudication is the answer. We just need to develop a great open source roadmap to harmony.

      I can’t say I understand the point of this personal account, but I am grateful that your response to it sparked some fruitful thinking.

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