Sunday, December 15, 2013

Burning Man Burnout

In 2006 I camped with Chillonia and it was their last year after 8 years in a row.  Their complaint with Burning Man was that “It’s not the same. It’s changed too much”, and their Burner career was over.  Now I’ve been the last 8 years in a row and feel the same way.  Maybe it’s the 8 year itch or something, but there seems to be a big difference in how I experience the event as veteran versus a wide-eyed wondering newbie.  Or it’s possible I’m just burned out by Burning Man.  Let me explain how it happened and how the event has changed, and why I’m not going back. 

Vehicular amazement at Burning Man changed me forever.  My first step on playa in 2006 was greeted by a pagoda in the dusty distance, which slowly moved away.  Later I saw a three-story Victorian house on wheels sitting under a massive wooden cave with the best party of my life going on around it; I knew I wanted to build and bring my own vision of creativity to this event.

My whole life I’ve been into cars and was a gearhead.  I went to engineering school and designed cars in Detroit, and was doing Fast-n-Furious style tuner cars before the movie even came out.  There’s a certain creativity to those cars, which aren't mass produced, but unless you’re making your own body kits and tuner parts, it’s really about mass customization rather than individual creativity.   And someone else’s automotive sculpture formed the basis for my personalized version.

How creative is selecting options from a menu of choices?  Sure, I had a one-of-a-kind unique car when I was done, and nobody else had what I’d built.  But it’s only one step above the creative level of choosing if you want a #4 for here or to go, or choosing what color fur to have someone else apply to your plug-n-play camp’s bike option.

So for the next few years I dreamed of how and when I would be able to build my own art car.  I even rearranged my life to make it possible, by moving from Detroit to California.  Eventually everything came together and I began the design process and by April of 2012 started the build process.  Her name was the M/V Nain Rouge, and she was to be a 1000 foot ore freighter in 1/25ths scale, sinking by night and sunk by day.  When I was well along into the build, I found out there was going to be another sinking ship at Burning Man in 2012.  “But mine will move!” I told myself.  This year a campmate was inspired by my art car.  He was super-enthusiastic and wanted to build toilet seat car.  I had to tell him, “It’s been done. Not creative enough.  Back to the drawing board”.  You don’t want to be the person showing up at the party wearing the same outfit. To this day I tell Burners I built a sinking ship, and they immediately think it’s the much cooler one at the pier.

The inaugural year for the Nain Rouge was horrible for me: my camp didn’t get tickets and didn’t go.  My friend and I were two people assembling and building the whole thing, as well as operating it the whole time.  Driving that art car was boring as hell... art cars go 2 mph, and the party is on the back, not with the driver.  I felt much more akin with all the paid service workers at the event: the porta-potty cleaners, law enforcement, County Health Department workers, potable water deliverers, etc, except that I had volunteered for this duty!  I’d express my woe at being stuck driving it, and people would all offer to take a shift.  But when it came time to take them up on the offer, they couldn’t do it.  The fact is that at Burning Man, everyone is either already fucked up or planning to be in the very near future.  I had been in denial about this party-as-sole-purpose aspect of the event for a while, but it became crystal clear to me when nobody would drive it.  And I realized that the only reason I didn’t want to drive was because I desperately wanted a beer from the mobile viewing platform I’d built 15 feet off the ground.

I felt like a complete sucker.  Here I had spent over $15K on a large art car only to rope myself to taxi driver service.  I started to understand the meaning of generosity versus sacrifice, and had definitely crossed the line to sacrifice. I questioned my motivations for building it in the first place: did I just want to express my creativity, or was this all about my ego?  At least my dream of having an awesome party around an art car came to fruition.

Year two for the art car went a bit better since my camp came back one last time and everyone contributed financially to bring the art car back, but I really resented how it made me feel.  You see, the gift economy isn’t real. It’s a generosity trap, and Burning Man is set up to suck you dry if you let it.  If you are feeling generous, you give from your level of generosity and it’s a blessing to the giver and receiver. If you are coerced to give, the gift becomes less meaningful.  I actually think it becomes a kind of spiritual poison if a “gift” is received like that.

For years and years, Burning Man ticket prices were reasonable and available in different tiers.  If you had extra to give, and felt inspired to do so, you could buy the more expensive tickets and help subsidize the event and purchasers of lower tier tickets.  Then after the 2012 ticket fiasco, everyone had to pay the highest prices for tickets.  I paid $390 and brought an expensive art car to Burning Man in 2013, even after being laid off in early April of this year.  This completely tapped me out, and I really have to credit my camp, Bike-n-Booze, for financially supporting the return of the ship this year.  Without their help, I would not have gone.  Between liability insurance, the expenses of maintaining and registering a Commercial Vehicle in California, and the diesel fuel at 10 mpg, you need a good income to afford this.

Everyone who stepped foot on the art car was essentially getting a $100 ride, if they were to pay the true cost of riding it, and my generosity was tapped out.  It was all sunk cost by the time the art car showed up at Burning Man, so I didn’t actually resent any person riding it or care at that point.  But I was pissed at myself for spending so much money, and giving to an event that didn’t give back in equal measure.  My generous gift became a poison to me.

I got absolutely no support from Burning Man Org for my efforts, and paid a shit load.  This happens all the time with art cars and sound camps.  This is perhaps the main reason why I’m not going back to Burning Man again.  Where is my ticket money going?  Not to the things I want to support at Burning Man.  I learned that I’m not my own wealthy patron, and I learned that people with the real deep pockets do more for Burning Man than we’ll ever know.  Our neighbors down the street brought the amazing Wide Awake art car, which apparently is owned by the guy who runs Insomniac Events.  It had to cost $250K to make, at least.  Why am I even trying to compete with that?  Next time, I need to be the guy who gets hired to make art cars reality.

And to the entitled newbies that demanded to the door operator that we stop and give them a ride: Fuck Off and be happy if you ever get gifted an Art Car ride.  If you want an Art Car to stop, you talk to the driver.  For some reason people think the door operator controls everything.  That’s like expecting the gangway platform operator on a cruise ship to be in charge.  Ask the Captain if you want to ride.  Sometimes the door people have a communication line to the front, but not always.  So it doesn’t hurt to ask both people, but don’t expect to get a ride on an Art Car by just walking up to it, especially when it’s moving.  One guy was so upset he couldn’t get on that he demanded to know the name of my art car, like he was going to turn me into the Art Car police.   Ok I’ll step off the soapbox on that subject.

So the art car was taken apart and destroyed at the end of the event.  I burned all the wood at Burning Man and scrapped over 450 lb of steel when I got home and got $13 for it.  I am hoping to recover about half my $15K in build expenses when the truck sells.  I learned a lot about myself and a lot about generosity, and became completely burned out on Burning Man. I found I love the regional events, because they’re small enough and un-bureaucratic enough to have the vibe of the Burning Man that I loved my first year.

At SD Decom this year I met the guy who bankrolled an awesome sound camp there... it was pretty tight. Nice lights too. He just was sitting back looking smug, and I was like "you had something to do with this, didn't you? I recognize that look."  Yep. He basically said, "we spent the whole afternoon tweaking the sound. I paid for all of this".  The one thing I can say, having been in his shoes, is that it makes you feel like a fucking magician. It’s the whole "I built this" feeling; it's the accomplishment of real creativity, not creativity like choosing what color ipod cover to buy.  We should allow some room for ego at Burning Man.  My first year out with the art car I kept questioning if I did this out of ego or just to see it out there, to prove to myself I could build it.  The first year was purely for the vision, to see creativity come to life.  The second year: ego, to prove that Burning Man did not defeat me.  At this point, my ego is satisfied.

So who really benefits from getting 600 people to spend anywhere from $2K - $250K on their art cars? You could say the participants, or you could say the Burning Man Organization. They jacked up everyone’s ticket to $390 and don’t fund art cars. BM Org’s Profit: Priceless.  There are some things money can’t buy.  For everything else, there’s generous suckers.