From Larry Harvey: An Open Letter to The Regionals
I often say that culture is a self-created and self-organizing process that exists beyond the range or our control or conscious planning. It arises spontaneously, like any life form, from hundreds, and ultimately millions, of utterly unpredictable interactions. To say that we may plan a culture is as preposterous as believing that it's within our power to plan a tree. We may plant a tree, nurture it, and prune its growth. But we cannot plan it into existence or control it as we would an artificial thing. The secret of a living thing's vitality is that fertile and yet subtly ordered chaos we call Nature that dwarfs all of our presumptions to control.
This is the first lesson you must learn as planners of Burning Man. Ours is the art of husbandry. All of those organizational tools in which we take pride; our meetings, schedules, duties, charts and balance sheets - as well every type of future institution that we hope to craft - are merely ways by which we hope to create an experience that is forever born anew in chance acts of encounter that we cannot control and should never try to control. I've long regarded Black Rock City as a kind of Petrie dish. As planners, we provide a social context: an environmental niche in which a certain kind of cultural experience is nurtured and protected.
As one example, we have banned commerce in Black Rock City. This has led to a hundredfold increase in meaningful interactions. But more importantly, we have transformed this prohibition into a positive value, a vision of a way of being in the world, an ethos. I'm particularly proud of this, since I've had a direct hand in formulating this idea. But the important thing to remember is that the planners of Burning Man did not invent the gift economy. It emerged spontaneously and over time from the lived experience of our community. Our role is to recognize the laws that govern its development and fashion social vessels that allow it to survive and thrive and grow.
The history of our regional program provides another good example. Beginning in 1997, participants began to contact us. They felt that our event had changed their lives. They weren't content to wait another year to be as they had been at Burning Man. They wanted to meet with fellow burners who had shared their experience: to reminisce and share photos and stories and to plan future projects. Yet reliving their experience and planning for the future didn't seem enough. They began to organize local gatherings, and some grew to be called regional burns. Most interesting to us, many of these celebrations emulated our larger event in the desert. Some large and more or less anthropomorphic figure would be burned and, even more intriguingly, many of the institutions we'd evolved were reproduced. Greeters and Rangers appeared from their ranks. "Why reinvent the wheel?" one organizer asked. Plainly, these participants wanted to do more than be as they had been at Burning Man. As new-fledged organizers, they wanted, in some sense, to be like us. In response to this spontaneous development, we began to qualify these regional representatives. We'd interview new applicants, looking for those people who possessed communication skills, who could cooperate, collaborate, and serve as hyper-connectors within their emergent communities. We assigned them email addresses and published these on our website. We began to visit regional events and discuss organizational challenges with the groups that produced them.. As time went on, we linked everyone to a discussion list
Throughout 2003, I have lurked on this list, and what I've witnessed has been fascinating. Andie (Actiongrl) has served as our official representative on this list, and from time to time she has provided much-needed information. On the whole, however, it has been our policy to let discussions freely flow. Many times I have been tempted to intervene, especially when questions arose concerning the essential values of Burning Man. Instead, I've bitten my tongue and chose to listen. What I've heard has been illuminating. Time and again, as issues have arisen around a particular practice or problem, this group has searched its shared experience for a solution. Just as often, I have seen it reach consensus. Invariably, people have consulted their immediate experience of Burning Man and, in so doing, articulated our culture's core values.
During this same period it has also become apparent that many groups are now confronting problems we ourselves have faced. We've wanted you, as leaders in our regional communities, to practice self-reliance and be free to forge your own identities. Radical self-reliance, after all, is one of our core values. And yet, cooperation and collaboration in a larger social context is an essential value, too. To help you meet the challenges that come with growth, we have recently created the Extranet. Burners, quite unbidden, have now taken to visiting one another's events. A great movement toward cross-pollination has begun. We believe the Extranet can further and accelerate this process by allowing each group to witness how other groups are organizing.
Yet many very practical needs have been announced on the regional list that take the form of very specific questions. Is it necessary to form a non-profit? Should groups create an LLC? How is it possible to devote increasing amounts of time to organizing others and survive? The most advanced regional groups have now begun to tread a path that we have pioneered. We know that several of our regional groups are at a stage that is comparable to the small band of eight people who first burned the Man on Baker Beach in 1986. But others now contemplate challenges that correspond to problems that we faced as organizers at much later phases of our history.
Until now, we have held back from answering all of these questions. Lately, we have spent much of our time and resources in consulting with individual groups to help them solve specific problems they are facing. Most recently, we have created the Burning Man "Film Festival in a Box". Jim Graham, a regional representative and one of our staff members, designed this program. Its purpose is to enable you to mount fundraising events. But this, as well as the many hours we've devoted to direct consulting, has represented a piecemeal approach to what is a much larger challenge.
In order to address this, we have devoted 2003 to looking at the bigger picture. By now, it seems safe to say that everyone now realizes that Burning Man has grown well beyond our eight-day event in the desert. Our community now forms a Diaspora spread out across a continent and into other countries. You, as regional representatives, form vital nuclei within this social movement. I've watched this phenomenon grow. I've seen attendance at events begin to double and redouble. I have seen the numbers of representatives increase from a mere handful of participants, to a number that's quickly approaching a hundred. And I can tell you that I've seen this curve before. I have seen eight people increase to 800 on Baker Beach. I have seen 80 people increase to 8,000 in the Black Rock Desert, and, during the last seven years, I have seen that number quadruple into the present population of Black Rock City. In light of this history, and given the fact that we are far better equipped to communicate and organize participants in 2003, I think its safe to say the regional program now stands poised to grow even faster.
We, as the organizers of Burning Man, have ridden an accelerating wave. Somehow, we've got used to this. We have dealt with one novel problem after another. Crises have loomed up before us unannounced, and we've survived by learning on the job. In 1997, we learned how to build a real city. Along the way we learned how to remain radically inclusive by acculturating new participants. We've also learned to deal with the authorities, how to manage our money, and how to work by consensus to achieve complex goals. We've learned, in other words, how to fashion a vessel that is designed to preserve and protect what we all essentially value. We believe that many of the lessons that we've learned are scalable, that we can apply these lessons to the larger canvas of a greater world. The following description of our present plan should be regarded as a work in progress. The next step is a dialog with all of you.
The Burning Man Network
The first step is to look at certain down-to-earth realities. Over the last several years we have expended a lot of time and money protecting Burning Man from exploitation by the outside world. We have stopped MTV in its tracks, we've sued pornographers and won, we have regulated the use of cameras at our event, and we have prevented many parties from marketing their goods and exploiting the use of our image and name. I don't suppose I need to tell you that what passes for the mainstream culture of our world is at all times poised to instantly seize on innovative culture and transform it into a product in the marketplace. Burning Man has never stood against commerce - we must sell a ticket- but we are opposed to the commodification of those spiritual values, those unconditional gifts, that must be allowed to freely exist at the center of a society.
Against everyone's expectation, we have succeeded in doing this. But, now, as our culture ventures further out into the world, the challenges before us will increase. As with so many social movements of the past, Burning Man could easily degenerate into a consumer lifestyle if we allow it to be commodified. Already we see "Burning Man" parties and "Burning Man" promotions appearing that may have nothing to do with the welfare or identity of our community. We cannot continue to control this without your cooperation. For this reason, we plan ask our regional representatives to sign an agreement that will pledge them to observe certain core principles. These agreements will also make each group accountable for its handling of any money that is raised through Burning Man. We want to be sure that everyone remains accountable to the greater community. By subscribing to such an agreement you will become an affiliate in the Burning Man Network.
You or your group's membership in this network will make it possible for us to assist you in several ways. Should you choose to become an LLC (Limited Liability Company) we can advise you in this process and furnish you with the unique model that we have used. We can consult with you concerning any of a wide variety of problems you may face, and we can also provide you with fundraising programs. The "Film Festival in a Box" will be only one of many future programs that we hope to create, all of them community based. Their content will relate to your immediate experience of Burning Man. No cross- promotions or commercial sponsorship will be allowed. Currently, we're working out agreements that will divide the proceeds from such fundraising efforts between the regional groups who take responsibility for those artists whose work is prominently featured and Burning Man's regional program.
The use of the Extranet, now in its infancy, will be an integral part of our network. In addition, we also intend to elaborate our website into a much more community-based environment. Until now, this has existed as a kind of billboard that primarily serves the needs of newcomers to the event. Our plan is to make it serve the needs of our year- round community. It will become a complex analogue of our community in cyberspace.
We are aware that our Regionals presently come in all shapes and sizes. They range from small groups of a few people who hold ad hoc get-togethers, to groups of people who have joined together to produce very ambitious public events. We propose to rank these groups by region according to the stage of their development. We are bending all our efforts toward expanding our ability to work in aid of growing groups, but since our resources are limited and solely dependent on our ticket income, we propose to initially focus our attention on the largest groups within a region. We will try to make available as many members of our staff, each one the possessor of specialized knowledge gained from long experience. In turn, however, we will ask the larger groups to mentor smaller groups within their region and pass on what they've learned. We believe this will help to engender many cooperative ties within our network. It will create a kind of local family.
The Black Rock Arts Foundation
The Black Rock Arts Foundation was founded for the purpose of funding interactive art outside the bounds of Black Rock City. In particular, it funds art that produces interactions that are socially robust. This is art that requires a community for its production and convenes community through its exhibition. We view the art of Black Rock City as forming a kind of social glue that holds our society together, and we now believe that funding art within the greater community of Burning Man can help to achieve this same result. As an example, this year the Foundation endowed a participant with money for the purpose of transporting a piece of interactive art between our regional communities. This was one of Charlie Smith's "Nausts", mobile fire sculptures first exhibited at Burning Man in 2002. The Naust has now traveled from Atlanta to Colorado, and it will next move forward to a new community. The genesis of this particular program is instructive. Without permission from our project, Charlie gifted the community in Colorado with his sculpture. I learned of this during a recent visit to Atlanta. Charlie, along with a number of other organizers, had helped to stage "Ripe", perhaps the most ambitious regional art events yet produced. On the evening after this event, he told me he had loaned his work to another Burning Man community in Colorado, but lacked the means to finance its return. During a discussion that ensued, Charlie was asked if he had ever thought of renting out his work. Charlie said that," No, this was a gift", and yet there it now stood, stranded in Colorado. Then someone else made a very pertinent point. Since none of us could afford to buy art, she speculated, why couldn't a community raise funds to rent it? This set me thinking. Why couldn't our Foundation, as representative of the entire Burning Man community, furnish funds to speed it on its way to other venues? We begin to envision a day when many other works of community-based art will be crisscrossing our country. Were our regional communities to raise funds matched dollar for dollar by the foundation, it would be possible to mount a continuous migration of artwork that could immediately thousands of people.
The mission of the Black Rock Arts Foundation is to promote interactive artwork in explicitly civic contexts. Until now, many of our regional gatherings have been retreats that emulate our remote desert settlement. Some of the discussions of the regional list have centered on this issue. Should such events be made available by invitation only? How is it possible to cope with the authorities? How can sites be secured? Once an event begins to grow, just how big is big enough? Our organization, during its 17 years of operation, has faced all of these problems, and we stand ready to provide answers to many of these questions. In particular, we would like to use donations to our Foundation, to move out into an even larger public world. During the 1990's, Burning Man staged several art events in San Francisco. We still hold an annual Decompression event that occupies several city streets. Marching under the legitimating banner of art, we have found its possible interface with the authorities and reclaim the public space of our hometown. Already, the Foundation has given money to a program intended to educate local fire departments concerning the practice of fire art.
Burning Man regional gatherings serve a valuable purpose. These rituals reaffirm our sense of communal identity. And yet, with the aide of the Black Rock Arts Foundation we believe participants can be empowered to reclaim the space in which they really live. If Burning Man, the movement, is to flourish and extend itself into the fabric of the daily lives of people whom we do not know, we should begin to practice more assertive forms of radical inclusion. Building an entire city in the desert is a giant task, but transforming your immediate community and meeting and interacting with neighbors who already share our world can truly bring Burning Man home. The funds of the Foundation will be especially earmarked for this purpose.
The Burning Man Network and the Black Rock Arts Foundation are intended to work hand and glove. The Foundation is dedicated to helping artists who belong to the communities overseen by the Burning Man Network. Toward that end, it is our plan to thoroughly integrate these two organizations. We will invite all members of our network to enroll in the Foundation. From this pool of members we'll select a representative group to advise the committee that annually awards art grants. By this means we can ensure that grants will go to artists and communities that need them most. If large groups will serve as mentors for their smaller neighbors in a region, we believe that fairness will be served. Everyone can thus be bound together through a series of immediate relationships. A true confederation of communities can be established.
We are aware, of course, that art may arise from many different nodes in a community. Planning, as I've said, becomes the art of husbandry. As regional representatives, it will be your job to recognize what others may be doing. Grants from the Foundation may be awarded to any Burning Man participant. But we also realize that the task of organizing other people and communicating with a large community can become very time consuming. A frequent question on the regional list concerns sustainability. How can one begin to work full-time yet still survive? This, too, is a problem that our organization has confronted. The Burning Man project has grown very quickly. We now have a large office in San Francisco's South of Market district. But it was not too long ago - a mere four years, in fact -- that members of our LLC worked from their computers at home. The meetings that occurred were bunched into the living rooms of other members. Compensation was a hit or miss affair. During the early 90's, as the only permanent staff member of Burning Man, I lived as best I could on odd jobs and handouts. My main mode of apparel was Burning Man T-shirts, since these came free. For all of the members of our present day LLC, the transition to full employment has been awkward, at best. We lived from event to event, from fundraiser to fundraiser. Without investors we had very little choice.
However, the larger organization we now wish to create may become part of the answer to this problem. The charter of the Black Rock Arts Foundation will allow it to give grants to regional organizers whose work promotes its stated mission. Although the Foundations first duty is to artists, the logistics of creating an event require careful management. Grant monies could be specifically applied to work that is devoted to the production and organization of interactive art projects. This, along with monies generated by Burning Man sponsored fundraising efforts, could begin to help those regional who are ambitious to do more.
I cannot promise anyone a rose garden, and if your primary motivation is to make money, I suggest you go elsewhere. . Our path as organizers has been a long and arduous one. But, we believe we are creating a community that can, ultimately, provide for those who work hardest. As a first step toward this goal, we will encourage all of you to personally enroll has many people in the Black Rock Arts Foundation as you can. Thus far, in 2003, we have raised $17,000. This is a fairly modest sum, but we firmly believe that our participants will begin to contribute much greater amounts once they experience what the Foundation can accomplish in their communities. As our movement spreads beyond the boundaries of Black Rock City, as it becomes a genuine cultural movement, I am convinced that the Foundation may ultimately take in more money than the Burning Man event.
Burning Man's resources are currently stretched to nearly the breaking point. This is because we have been working at two fronts. In addition to producing the event, we have also begun to devote more and more time and money to our Regionals Program. Thousands have been spent developing software for our Extranet project. And new staff members are working full time to develop our Network. This is a double burden that, until now, has been entirely supported by the relatively fixed resource of ticket revenues.
Over the last year we have tried to develop alternate sources of revenue that will not conflict with our essential ethos. We do not intend to sell Burning Man branded camping gear or Burning Man designer sheets. We are willing to license films that we approve of, and, lately we've begun to sell new goods on our website Marketplace. These items, such as videos, books and the work of Burning Man artists, are thoroughly steeped in our culture. We feel that they are culture-laden goods. They come with their own context and do not substitute a thing to be consumed for an experience We are aware that sizable profits could be achieved through mass-marketing, but we have restricted our market to the community of our participants. By following this strategy, by developing many small alternative revenue streams, we hope to subsidize or growing mission. In this sense, we are no different from you. We hope to struggle alongside our regional representatives, and, by working as a team, continue to devise new ways by which we can survive together.
What we are proposing is, admittedly, a grandiose vision. It is, in fact, only the first phase of this mission. Our ultimate aim is much greater. We're not content to view the way of life that we've created as a refuge. We believe that we have made a discovery. This is the beginning of new way to live in the 21st Century. As we spread outward, I believe that our ever-enlarging community will generate many more original ideas, new ways to apply what we have learned, but which we're now incapable of imagining. If you will help us craft the vessel that will contain, protect and nurture this vital process, we can change the world. Black Rock City is a continuing experiment, a model, an initiation. Now, having learned those things that it was meant to teach us, it is time to move on.
- Larry Harvey