Decommodifying Permission: Participation vs. Commodification

Since I started this series, I’ve gotten a few messages from people saying (more or less): “YES, I want to be part of a decommodified culture! But also, I need to fundraise for my art project. Does that make me a bad person?”

No. No it does not. It means you are struggling to do something that’s difficult given the world we live in. 

There’s nothing immoral about fundraising. Artists require resources to create, and a culture of Decommodification is not the same thing as a vow of poverty. If you can’t go to your community and say “Hey, I have a vision, can you help me with it?” then what kind of community are you in? Sure, maybe they can’t help, or just don’t like your idea, but they should understand that this is something we can do for one another.

We want to belong in communities that support their members. 

But the fact of needing money isn’t what makes commodification so dangerous. 

What makes commodification dangerous is the impression it creates that you’re not really a community. That you’re just a collection of resources to be exploited. The danger with fundraising isn’t that money is some kind of cursed object that should not be gathered by artists, but rather that often the process of asking people for money makes them feel that they themselves have been commodified. That they are not really your friends or members of your community, but people-shaped ATMs. That they are not being invited to play or participate in something amazing, but are being dehumanized by somebody who needs something.

It’s the difference between a close friend asking you to help with a project that you know they’re passionate about, and being asked for money by a guy who you only hear from when he needs money for one more damn project. 

They’re completely different experiences, and not only do they get a very different reaction, they should get a very different reaction. 

There’s nothing wrong with money. But there is something wrong when money mediates human connection. There is something wrong when we need a commercial excuse to relate to one another as human beings, and when we let monetization limit our ideas of what’s possible.

When that happens, fundraising hurts individual people and makes authentic community more difficult, or even impossible.

The default world has not developed any tools or approaches that really help with this. But over time, Burning Man culture has. 

How Do I Participate in Your Art Project?

If you’re trying to find a way to keep a project you’re fundraising for from being commodified, your go-to Principles are Participation and Communal Effort.

I mean, obviously “Decommodification” is relevant here, but if “Decommodification” is what you want to end up with, Participation and Communal Effort are how you get there.

Because here’s the difference between fundraising for a project that feels commodified and a project that feels decommodified: is there a way that someone not involved in the project can participate in it besides consumption?

Let’s take “Generic Project X,” which is not only a project you’ve encountered before but which I was pitched just last week by a friend. 

Here’s how “Generic Project X” works (this is how it always works): some artists decide to do something cool. They need to raise money for it. So they crowdfund and ask all their friends to get involved.

And what does “getting involved” look like? Well, you can contribute to the fundraiser!

And if you can’t or won’t do that? Well, then you can pay for a ticket to see the project when it’s finished!

And if you can’t or won’t do that? Well then, you can watch the project for free on its social media channel, or when it’s open at Black Rock City or a Regional for a couple of days.

And that’s it. 

Do you see the issue here? Do you see the problem? If you’re not already an artist on the project, then there is no way to be involved with the project except through consumption — either the active consumption of paying for something, or the passive consumption of sitting back and watching it. 

There is no Participation outside of consumption, and there is no meaningful Communal Effort.

Now — again — there’s nothing morally wrong with this from a conventional standpoint. This happens all the time. It’s how the Metropolitan Opera, Marvel movies, and Major League Baseball all function. And we don’t get upset with them just because they won’t let me sing an aria at the Met, play third base, or get a cameo as Ant Man’s second cousin. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But they are also examples of very explicitly commodified art. And the reason they’re commodified is not that they take in and spend money — it’s that the only way for someone outside the project to relate to it (and most people inside the project) is through consumption. Money and passive viewing mediates everything. That’s it. That’s all there is.

If you want your art project to be part of a decommodified culture, even when you’re fundraising, then you need to find ways that people — both your friends and strangers who come in off the street — can participate in ways that don’t involve consumption.

Your fundraiser is decommodified (or at least less commodified) if you’re offering people ways that they can participate without contributing money. 

That’s all. But it’s often harder than it sounds.

Fundraising Is Not the Point of Art

The first — and saddest — objection that people have to this is that decommodifying their art project will interfere with their fundraising. 

“If I give people another way to engage with the project, then some of them will do that and then my fundraising won’t be as successful!” they say. 

And yes, yes they will. That is exactly right. 

But that’s also the point. As I said in the previous post in this series, about reaching decommodification by subordinating money to play: you can’t create a decommodified culture if you always prioritize money first. 

I mean, obviously. You obviously can’t do that.

If you want to put the money first, go do that! God bless, and good luck! Make that art, and make that money! But it isn’t a decommodified project, and it doesn’t belong in a decommodified culture. 

Putting everything else through the prism of money, giving people no permission except to consume, is the essence of commodification. 

There’s no way around that. I’m sorry, but there isn’t. 

Be a Teaching Guild

The next issues people have with this are practical. “Yes, I want to make my project decommodified! But … how do I do that? How else can people participate?”

Those questions are not only valid, they’re harder than they ought to be precisely because we live in a culture that often reduces participation to consumption: we’re implicitly taught that they’re the same thing. 

But in fact there’s lot you can do. 

In some ways the gold standard is the participatory guild model offered by groups like the Flaming Lotus Girls: anyone who wants to participate in creating the project can come in and will be given a place on the project. If they don’t know how, they’ll be taught. They’ll learn how to weld, how to wire circuitry… whatever they need to do. And if they can also offer support in the form of people wrangling or fluffing or bookkeeping, fantastic! 

Notice — this is important — that none of that participation is contingent on people buying into the project, or even getting a ticket to Burning Man. You get to participate and help if you want, and it has nothing to do with commerce. 

Turning the entire project into an opportunity for inclusive Communal Effort is about as Decommodified as I can imagine a project being, even if they fundraise for hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

In 2016’s Art, Money, and the Renaissance series, we asked if theme camps would be the new Renaissance art guilds. This is in many ways what we were getting at:

Though rarely seen as art themselves, a case can be made that it is Theme Camps – not mutant vehicles, not giant sculptures, not dub-step – that are the most original and fundamental form of Burning Man art.

They are also a new, and incredibly flexible, form of social organization. In many ways they serve the function of artisan guilds in the Renaissance, but they are formed around a common artistic vision, not commercial utility. Some have membership dues; some have work requirements; they have a variety of different governance structures; but at their core, the basic premise is always the same: “we are organizing a community around a shared vision of art and whimsy that we can give to the community. Do you want to be part of it?”

In that sense, the more you can make your art project like a theme camp that anyone can join, the more Decommodified it is likely to become. Don’t think of it as a single project, think of it as a guild to teach people how to do this kind of thing and then support their vision of art in the world, too.

Decommodify Permission

That may be the gold standard, but there are other ways to decommodify art projects by creating more opportunities for Participation and Communal Effort.

If there’s not enough room on your project for more people to usefully help, can you offer to help other people do versions of your project? Or is there a way you can extend your project if people are willing to help out? 

Can they make art about your art project? Create stickers, images, videos, memes, poems, essays about what you’re doing? (This already happens in many commercial projects, but that’s always unauthorized, and the way fan art is treated in our culture is much closer to “fans seizing the means of production” than it is “participating in the project.” Can we do better?) 

Participation can take so many forms — the important thing is that it’s active, not passive; connecting (and therefore communal), not isolating; and productive, not consumption. 

More generally: it works if it does not look to money and consumption for permission. 

It’s not universally true, but it’s mostly true, that when you decommodify permission you also decommodify everything around it. 

Cover image of Thunderdome (Photo by Mark Nixon)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

5 Comments on “Decommodifying Permission: Participation vs. Commodification

  • Gerry Mander says:

    Hilarious. Congratulations, you’ve confused “labor costs” with “factor costs”. Having community effort in design and labor is to be applauded, but few art projects pay people for their labor. You haven’t addressed how to pay for parts, transport, storage, etc. Once again you make an elegant theoretical point without addressing the elephant-sized realities of burning man culture. Many of the landmark camps and art each year are only possible due to trustafarians, signature wealthy patrons, viral fundraising, or artists just plain going into debt.

    Should the art perhaps be smaller and less commodified? Perhaps. But Borg has incentivized and celebrated the exact opposite.

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    • Beyond 9000 says:

      Agree to the last part.. the “embiggering” of expensive spectacles is too much the emphasis. I frankly do not go to Burning Man “for the art”… and I have contributed many pieces of art… lol. I easily qualify as “An Artist”. I have no interest in helping people build art careers. I’m always broke. Savings ain’t my vehicle to making things happen. If a participant is a professional artist.. cool, good for them. Have fun doing your day job the day job way, “out there”… in the default commercial world. If you make a contact at BM, I would never begrudge that.. but seeking them ain’t hot… if you get approached, right on.. but slapping your name and logo on stuff in big letters to “grow your brand”… is uh.. well, if it’s sardonic, sarcastic and ironic.. I suppose I would let even that slide.. if it was part of the humor… but I also respect janitors trying something for the first time.. if not MORE so.

      Virtuosity impresses me, but gumption more so… and gumption is available to anyone, where as virtuosity and wealth may not be.

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  • Beyond 9000 says:

    I think people over reach for the money bag instead of being creative. What resources are around you? Who has a truck? Who has a trailer? How can we build this so that we DON’T need a piece of heavy equipment or the project doesn’t happen. So you can’t afford a million dollars of new steel… What can you do with some long abandoned rusted hulk you found in the woods? Top down visions do tend to be expensive in resource and time.. bottom up ones do not have to.

    Bottom up creativity, instead of having a specific thing you will build, and a search for parts that fit “that shape”… asks the question “what do I have an abundance of, and what cool thing could I do with it?” Who actually wants to do stuff around me, and what skills or talents do they have, and how could we use them together? What shape would that take?

    We did Mega Man.. lets do mini-man next year and make it out of popsicle sticks…. I think the burn perimeter should be the same size tho.

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    • $teven Ra$pa says:

      Bravo Beyond 9000! Yes, to turning a surplus of unwanted or salvaged material–especially waste materials without any apparent “use”–into imaginative forms of WOW! Yes to transforming salvaged materials and junk into jank-tastic shared experiences! Yes to bottom-up, co-creation and to inclusive process-oriented social approaches that don’t even need to have a specific vision so long as things are being done in the right “we are doing this crazy shit together” spirit! I also love the questioning here of ambition as it relates to scale and cost. Bigger and more expensive is not always more WOW than a rebar-sized sculpture that makes passersby do a double-take and wonder, “how the heck did they come up with that!?” The best times of my life have been spent with new friends figuring out how to make wacky and worthwhile experiences and art magic from trash heaps and materials nobody else saw any potential in. …And thank you Caveat for this post at a time of year when people are thinking “How do we make the mad vision actually happen when there are very practical costs?” And how do we all do it in a way that doesn’t undermine the culture that gives the project shared purpose in the first place? Our style of art patronage always feels best when it is rooted in co-creation, shared experience, working TOGETHER and generosity of being — instead of “what do I get out of it?” For that reason, I am not so much a fan of “donation perks”. I so prefer to see the highest donors placed at the center of the “giving away to others” experience in some way. And thank you to anyone who steps up to be a patron of the arts and genuinely wants to help the vision happen because you believe in it, too, and you want it to exist for others to experience.

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  • Alchemy GDSL says:

    Im an avid decomodifier practically fanatical on the Playa .I go as far as to rebrand EVERYTHING as so to be a wacky package satiracal version duct taping the fuck outta my vehicle brands ,its tires , my tent my brand drinks , wrappers ect. When i first attended the burn what was an experience that i must relate because 85% of todays burners wouldnt have a clue what they are misding .Long gone are the days of creative decomodification love of playa principles to the exyreme.Burningman is a premordial pool of the worlds genius black sheep and philosophical punk rock Jesusis… A plural of Jezuse.. Its by fat and long a flock , a species of big visionists and caconphanic sardonic cteatives A What IF Nation, one of these genus genious is in the snarkocopian language traditions and then also the use of sparked brilliance in competitive building of better mouse traps. If you cant understand the old school you can simply track the threads in eplaya back around 2000 to 2006 and follow projects and look at old photos of the dusturban landscapes and check the low pro builds ,the fun and funky camp and aryt picks the how to threads and note the compleye lack of on site branding. What replaced it was not just coverings but competitive coverings evident in the subjective suroundings which illusyrate the purest burnier than thow love for doing the Event RIGHT.
    When you ate on Playa and you dont see UHaul ,Ryder,Or Pensky,You dont see shirts on naked titties , you dont see anything that is from the advertising world down to the minute detail, a strange and super famtastic thing happens to your brain.
    You are not in brandland, your at Burningmanland World and we mock the brand we piss in the face of mass marketing but not on the playa if possible ! Your phsyche reboots you relax and let your body mind and spirit assume an almost child like play mentality you are relaxed and more present in the gift of the worlds biggest sandbox with nothing to remind you of the default but the knowledge of breaking camp and leaving no trace in 8 short days and going to planet Reno for the recompresing that you wish would never come.
    Free your mind , your spirit is free to expand and you really absorb a fresh and clean experience so pure so intimate and that refreshes you on everylevel. I personally beleive and want to approach the Org with a Dept of Decomodification .Along with a back to basics campaign to provide remedy to the taint that has swept up upon us since around 2007 . we grew just too damn fast and my experience has seen the Burner Elders disapear for their disaproval of certain matters which leaves seldom and few old schoolers to shepard the newbz and test the Virgins.A pure burn is vital experience and fame and increased populations has led to certain forgivable fails by the ChiceeFroofroo BlackRock Rockstars that rightfully have held the frontlines but the intrinsic loss of the Playas trie gift found in the common experoence of being free in the mind and allowed to follow your soul in unnion with other participants has been suffered for the insidious leaking of commodified camps , products left uncovered and woth little concideration and the result is a polution of the clean mind clran experience . a molested burning landscape peppered with commercial tags in every eyeful. You may claim its nothing but inside your like the guy in the Lorax book who exploits the landscape poopooing the warnings and who suddenly wonders about the dead barbaloots. Every Principle guidline is a art of burning .These seemingly meaningless
    Harmless lags in attention to details that are disiplines and respect and hold power in protecting our gift of Playa purity. If you dont see how attending to the covering of brands, the refusal to use money or buy items sell items on the holy playa grounds is important than maybe you should go to Disneyland or Cochella or Lightning in a bottle, or stay in Reno or go to Vegas. Burningman is a stone soup .the ingrediants must be authentic , the canvas ,the surroundings purified .Its We Comodification as in you are the brand the Man is the Brand , Ypur Camp is your brand ,your project is the advertiser and you are not selling nor buying your MAKING AND PROVIDING , contributing from the best of you and covering your corporate shit is ecofreakin nessesary to provide a furtile birthing space for your soul and humanitys ability to receive the message from the devine spirits we are to encounter thru clarity of viseral deep sensual uninterupted moments of art , messages thru connectivity that no therapist or guru could hope to provide. The sum total of ypur worth is not a price value but a right of passage to wisdom a higher frequency you contribute thru love and genuine effort .what you add to the Soup, what you release and what you gather and what you bring to the table. The ten principles are gayeway lifestyle Alchemy.
    You can not see the true magesty or magic woth a clouded or closed third eye. Default promotions have zero place at our event if we are true Participants. The experience of that free and clear open channel perspective is all but gone. It wasnt respected and maybe why the Burn has suffered so much soul pollution in its struggle to continue and refigure itself.
    I think we should have teams that address the matters of decomodification with a campaign for reconstituting and establishing this ritual with joy and creative supports. A stationing like The D lot should redirect the incomming vehicles that have not even tried to cover corporate bramds that plague our landscape with glaring oportunistic advantages. Covering stations outfitted with duct tape and brown paper roles and various artists and painters and issueing flyers and certain chiding lovingly offered camps recorded for fails that are rediculously obvious and also gold stars for hallant attempts and then random patrols during event thru camps and on sight that grade camps offer solutions direct participants to department stations to remedy the details like corporate brands on clothes and drinks and gear ect. Awards for best camps best efforts most original decomodery should be offered a patch a vehicle sticker a free ticket next year , a front row spot at burn insider circle , a winners circle red varpet paty a patch a cheezy necklace, what the fuck ever…just stop playing this shit like its the step cousin of burner guidlines.
    Now , this is ON PLAYA. how much of a corporate whore you are off playa ,on the web or during creative invitations to corporations to be associated with providing you what shit you need to burn magnificently is a personal choice. A corporate list of sponcership and list of branded official business ,llc, 501.3c ,affilliations celebz ect should perhaps be acceptable if your a hooker like that with a expensive and very big vision that could also be the bridge to responsible shifts in corpwhoreate tribes out in Default till you puke world .I personally can bring more to the table in my default radical community of urban themecamp to campus project that creates free habitat in exchange for big vision housing and portable affordable lifestyle living ,renovating homeless camps into working purposefull theme camps and the new CoLABitat i hope to see continue its popular vector while attempting to be 10 points community demands by Black Panther wisdom and 10 Principles to Burningman participation to create a new fronteirisim of curbside community arts and culture meets housing and better systemic inclusive creative habitation .
    The experience of the birn to tramslate with support you may have to be gracious and mention your gracious sponser. So levels of web links that lead from the Branded to the Filtered next page of brandless content to the project and pristine perhaps purified page of actual and substantial keys to what happens on site but goes deep with

    Satyrical new mock Branfs
    Crazy Camp Brands
    A return to Playa names as sacred rotes and playa privilage. All participants should have by the end of the first or any burn , a sacred Playa name . period. To many Trevors and Steves too many Britneys and Sashas Susams and Carols..
    To know your playa name , read the how to and the playa name trads or use the playa name generator found in links .

    And finally
    Direct these ill prepared lazy virgin hopefuls to get all their how tooze and tickets and finds for stuff thru EPLAYA at the Burningman website!! Facebook is the two faces of our burning society , the fast food info hook up , and the last chance connective artery to a network of global tribes and connection. Purity and true answers are on eplaya people.
    Vote for Alchemy gods dirty lil secret for managing director of big visions and the department of Decomodification …
    We are the product ,art is the language , creative dedicated sustainability of our Burn culture is our target market. Purity of conscious creative soulful flux in action , with FIRE!! priceless shit you just cant buy. No brands no moneys no corporate infective landscapes now!

    Im Alchemy Gods dirty lil Secret
    And I approve of this message ….
    Stay blessed people!

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