(Originally written 9/24/12)
My perspective: worst burn ever
Be forewarned, what I’m about to say is pretty damning, negative, and long winded. Read at your own risk.
Okay, so I have publicly told everyone that I had my “worst burn ever” and I felt a little sad after sharing my disappointment with everyone and not keeping it bottled up. I didn’t mean to be that whiny complaining guy. But since it’s now out in the open I might as well further explain what I experienced this year and why I feel about BM2012 the way I do.
I'll start by asserting that the problem is participant-demonstrated a sense of entitlement. Ayn Rand defined this: “A code of values accepted by choice is a morality”. We enter the gates of Black Rock City and are expected to abide by 10 principles, or values. This is the code of Morality at Burning Man, and most everything else can be left behind.
However, an insidious development is changing the vibe at Burning Man, and it goes against it's stated morality. It's called commercialism, and it fosters a sense of entitlement. In the past, I'd meet all sorts of interesting participants doing their own thing. This year, bringing and operating a large art car, I would say (other than friends), I interacted mostly with paid workers at the event. And there were a ton of them.
These are the people working the event for money. Commercialism, if you will. Let me describe some interactions with the Commercial side of the event. I interacted with the Sheriff and BLM rangers when I needed to move the truck and not run over countless bikes and drunk people. In past years, these were the buzzkill bastards watching over the Opulent Temple and we'd create a 20 foot buffer circle avoiding them at all costs. This year, I noticed that they were helpful, calm, professional, sober, and doing their job. In other words, I related a hell of a lot more to them than to all the "participants".
I started to notice all the other workers who were paid to be there. The porta-john caretakers/ cleaners. I talked with the guy who pumped out our RV -- he had driven in from Sacramento at 2 am and had been working till 6 pm. Ours was the last pump-out he could manage. Why did I bring an RV? I was told it's a lot easier to build and handle an art car when you don't have to hassle with camp set up. But you know what was sacrificed? Burning Man principles of Participation and Communal Effort. When we took care of ourselves, we made lifelong friends. Former campmates agreed that the best memory was when we all banded together to salvage a dome building effort (2009) and then the next year perfect it (2010). We paid some guy to pump our waste and a little piece of the spirit of Burning Man went down the drain too.
You don't need to be radically self reliant when you can rent a luxurious RV and pay someone to pump your waste and refill your fresh water tank. It is only in the last two years that fresh water has been available for purchase. We ought to stop allowing these services to require people to be radically self reliant again.
There used to be a complaint that “Burning Man is becoming too commercial” and pumping gray water and selling fresh water aside, I think there’s more to it than that. To me, this year it really hit home that the event has shifted to a consumer mindset. This never bothered me before, but when I brought something big which took a lot of my personal time, energy, and money, it struck a real nerve.
Now I'll be the first to admit this year I did the first 6 days I was at Burning Man 2012 all wrong. I worked like a slave and it made me miserable. This is the meaning of sacrifice – to give up as worthless things of highest value. I had a little fun, but past years were a lot of fun. Life at Burning Man must not demand sacrifice. The reason I say I did the event wrong is because there is no requirement for anyone to give beyond their generosity. Burning Man is not communism. If you feel compelled to sacrifice, to give away more than you can afford mentally, materially, or emotionally, you are doing Burning Man wrong. By days 7 and 8, I changed my reaction to it all (by saying "Fuck it") and was having fun.
While the problem of entitlement and commercialism has been brewing for a long time, it was magnified tenfold this year with high ticket prices and a shortage of tickets. The newbie people and long-time Burners who bought tickets at $1000 because they so badly wanted to go to the best party in the universe felt less desire to contribute. They looked around at all the art, pretty lights, mutant vehicles, large scale sound camps, and porta potties and thought it was still a good value at $1000. They probably had the time of their lives seeing sights and sounds and possibly helping out in small ways, but why contribute or participate more when they already spent $1000? Further, every single veteran who went felt they should be entitled to go. I am no exception. I was used to getting $210 tickets thanks to hacker friends, but that always felt like luck, not entitlement. It used to be open to everyone, after all, with no apparent ticket cap. Burning Man tickets are now seen like driver’s licenses… everyone feels entitled, but really it’s a privilege. Or the “right” to vote. It’s a privilege.
The high ticket prices were like a “tax” to many people. It discouraged less well-off people from contributing in their own way, and forced them to contribute to a pool of money which was then redistributed by the Burning Man Organization according to crony-ism and an arbitrary definition of worthiness, or the excess went to a scalper and the community didn't even benefit from the high ticket prices.
Notably excluded from the grant process is art cars and sound camps. This has been an issue for years, but it never bothered me before until the prices got so high and I saw first hand what it’s doing to less well-off Burners. I really think about half the participants paid so much for their tickets, that they didn’t have extra cash to contribute in a way that really tapped into their passion, skill, or desires, if they even knew they were supposed to contribute. There is a census / survey at Burning Man and no results are ever analyzed and published to show where the trends are going for spending and cost to attend. Or is that why ticket prices go up? Burning Man Organization analyzes the data and decides what the market can bear for tickets? If so, what happened to the core value of “Decommodification”? I certainly benefited from this redistribution of wealth. The established camp I stayed with had good connections and history with the bureaucracy and they got on the 3:00 plaza power grid which kept the art car lit all night. We got hooked up with scarce tickets and early entry. Our camp dues were ridiculously low, $40, as a result of this in addition to the generosity and affluence of the camp members. I’ve never been at such an elaborate camp before that cost less than $100 per person. So why am I complaining? Because the event has changed dramatically as a result.
I’ve been 7 times now and for several years I helped others by fixing bikes at “my” camp, Bike-n-Booze, or helping assemble an art car for a stranger, and didn’t spend a lot of money on stuff. It was expensive getting to Burning Man from the Midwest. I was taught to contribute in my own way and volunteered a lot, knowing it was impractical to build or bring an art car or make some huge art project. When I finally moved to the West Coast, I kept the same budget but could bring a $250 keg of beer and spent the better part of three days hauling ice to keep it cold and happily giving it out to strangers. If the $390 ticket I paid for this year busted my budget so badly that I wouldn’t even be able to do that, or priced me out of the market so I wouldn’t be able to go, then my contribution might be limited a bit. I’m more fortunate than most in that I could afford to build a fairly large art car on my own.
The next problem is acculturation. There ratio of newbies to veterans is too high. I did my part to tell the newbie I brought (bless his heart) about what was expected by the community. He rose to the occasion and made me proud for all the work and contributions he did. Truly he had the Burning Man experience and “gets it”. The work was hard, and he earned his fun. Hopefully my art car didn’t burn him out like it did me, and was a positive experience. He told me later in the week that the best part and most fun thing for him was manning the “FuBar”, a kind of confessional bar at our camp where you have to tell your most fucked-up beyond belief story and receive a shot if it’s a worthy story. But others just came and consumed. Helped out nada. I saw that. I remember that more than anything.
Another problem is the bureaucracy. I understand why bureaucracy happens. It’s inevitable with a large group of people. But I hit it hard and with my art car creation. I was fortunate to sail right through approvals for my art car, but it was entirely due to my inside scoop on what meets the needs of the bureaucracy. I talked with anyone and everyone with art car experience, and learned a ton about what they wanted. To give you an idea of some compromises, lets start with the windscreen on my truck. I wanted to cover it all up with plywood and look out small round portholes. This was judged by anyone and everyone in the know as dangerous and not going to be allowed by the BM DMV. I’m grateful they pointed this out, but in the olden days I’d have been driving around like that. There was a time in the past when drivers of large buses (in the shape of a whale or Spanish galleon) would drive blind with only commands from lookouts above to tell them where to go. Those cars were amazing to look at, and the artistic vision wasn’t compromised by bureaucracy. Granted, I’d be a fool to drive with only portholes to peer out of, but I’d have gotten the look I wanted and would have learned from my own mistakes.
The other thing that pissed me off was how stuck I was with my rudimentary art car plan and how their application process really expects you to deliver exactly that sketch in life-size form when the car appears for licensing. If I wanted to radically change my concept… tough luck. It’s too late once the application is in. When I ran into snags and wanted to scale things back, I’m just damn glad I wrote exactly the plan “B”s that I intended into my original application. But if I’d changed the ship from say, a freighter into a Battleship, that would probably have been rejected if I showed up with essentially the wrong art car. Also it was a good thing that I had such a simple concept in the initial renderings. I could have dreamed up something far more elaborate (and I did, and have all the sketches), but I only told them what I considered the bare minimum. Still, it felt like a gun to my head come August when I couldn’t scale anything back more, yet in no way did I want to wait another year and bring it to Burning Man in 2013 for the first time.
I guess I’m an anarchist at heart, or a libertarian. Limited government. I used to say Burning Man is 50% hippy and 50% anarchist. Now it seems it’s 50% hippy, 47% contributing nothing / Communist, and 3% anarchist.
Burning Man principle #6 is "Communal Effort". But it seems to be morphing into "Communism", taking from everyone and redistributing the wealth. The future of the event might as well shift. Let them charge everyone $1000 per ticket and give out grants to anyone with a good idea that meets their idea of what Burning Man should look like and feel like. Unbridled creativity will be replaced by bridled creativity. If my art car was accepted as a worthy project, by all means I’ll take $14,000 and happily build my creation and drive everyone around all week. The “commodification” will have completed it’s course.
Gone are the early days when you’d show up and contribute in the most outrageous way you could, principle #5 "Radical Self-Expression". The location is the same, but the Burning Man corporate sponsorship and infamy / popularity of the event has changed it irrevocably.