Burning Man Founder Larry Harvey Responds to my Blog

A few weeks ago, following the incendiary Business 2.0 story about changes to Burning Man this year, I wrote a series of blog entries that looked in detail at the article, and then analyzed the responses and what I took to be a bit of a Black Rock Mountain being made out of a corroborative molehill. Larry Harvey, the co-founder and executive director of the Burning Man Project, was kind enough to write an extensive and insightful comment to my blog entry, expanding upon a number of points and providing a wealth of very valuable background information.

Yesterday, it was posted on ePlaya by Larry Harvey (Mon Jul 30, 2007 12:36 pm Post subject: Will the (drink) Org respond to the 2.0 controversy?). Unfortunately, Larry had some difficult posting it to my WordPress blog, probably because of the length of the message. But it certainly deserves our full attention.

I run it here, with thanks to Larry, in its entirety:

The following post was intended as a response to an entry in the blog of Robert Kozinets entitled, Burning Man’s Sold Out!! I think my mini-essay may have overburdened his website. It wasn’t accepted, so I decided to post it here. You see, we really do care about the ePlayans! — Larry

Dear Robert,

Thank you for your thoughtful essay. Thanks also for the following statement, “I’ve been researching and writing about Burning Man with the permission of great people like Larry Harvey, Marian Goodell, Jim Graham, Lee Gilmore, and Jess Bobier for almost a decade (my first burn was 1999). I have never heard them talk about Burning Man as a brand.” What you say is correct. We, the organizers of Burning Man, never speak (or even think, I’ll boldly add) of Burning Man as a brand. I’ll admit, however, that I have participated in an act of branding. This took place some years ago on the playa. One night a red hot branding iron was applied to the hide of Dale Scott, a good friend of mine and one of the original carpenters who helped construct the Man. I held the flashlight. I took this for a fairly radical act of self-expression. It produced an ugly welt (apologies to Dale) that roughly resembled our logo.

As a general rule, however, I hold that only cattle should be branded, not human beings. Commercial ‘branding’, like the branding of livestock, comes from without. It is imposed on consumers by the apparatus of marketing. It advances the seductive image of a ‘lifestyle’, shrewdly associated with purchasable goods and services, at the expense of a more authentic kind of identity: a mode of being and belonging that’s produced by acts of self-expression that we freely share with others. Unlike commercial branding, real identity can only issue from within. Its agency is deeply personal participation in a culture, not psychological manipulation.

The above expresses our ideals, but we are now accused of violating these principles. So, let me address what I believe to be the two immediate causes of the ruckus that has recently ensued. The first, of course, is the article in Business 2.0. We announced our plans for the Green Man pavilion back in February. Somewhat disappointingly, it generated very little public comment. However, the current controversy over the pavilion and the role of corporations at Burning Man was incited by that article. So let me start by pointing out that Business 2.0 is, very obviously, a business magazine that addresses business people. The author of this piece, Chris Taylor, was apparently trying to translate the values of our culture into business-speak.

For example, you cite four “lessons from the counterculture” that are contained in a sidebar. Each one of these so-called lessons revolves around a statement that I made to Chris Taylor. Lesson number one quotes me as saying, “People contribute [to Burning Man] because they feel that Black Rock City is them, not a source of entertainment. That’s an enormous motivator”. However the headline which summarizes the lesson supposedly derived from my remarks reads, “Make your customers feel like owners.” This reeks of manipulation. I was speaking of people – volunteers, theme campers, artists, nearly everyone at Burning Man—who feel that their identity’s enhanced by their involvement in the culture of our city. Making ‘customers’ feel like ‘owners’ sounds like Nike attempting to persuade consumers that they have a swoosh in their souls. As you suggest, a great deal was lost in translation.

However, I, like you, nearly jumped out of my seat when I read the fragment of a sentence that you quote: “Branding’s important.” Important to whom? To us? To them? Branding is inimical to nearly everything we’ve stood for over 22 years, and to see this phrase glaring back at me felt positively aberrant. I have never used the b-word in relation to Burning Man, in public or in private. What could she have meant? Was she offering up Black Rock City as a testing ground for viral marketing? Is this the beginning of that famous slippery slope – you know, the one whereby we gradually sell out and retire to pleasure spas?

I am quite certain that Marian regrets ever having said, “Branding’s important…” This statement, more than anything else, is the match that lit the fuse that exploded a firecracker. I think she may have been trying to make her language rhyme or resonate with that of the reporter. However, another clue to understanding what she meant to express is contained in the remainder of her sentence, spoken in the very same breath: “…but there’s a middle ground between having it all over the place and just knowing that it’s Current TV and feeling good about the way they’re treating you. That’s a very interesting potential for companies that see a value in Burning Man culture.”

The “interesting potential” of a “middle ground” that she refers to concerns Current TV’s netcast in 2006. We’ve always welcomed media at Burning Man. We’re eager to communicate what we are doing. We believe that we can change the way the world does business, and in this case, we did. They distributed cameras to participants (allowing them to produce the content), erased their logo, ran the programming commercial–free, and for one week became an interactive participant-driven news service. Frankly, I would love to see more companies behave in this way. Did this segment gain them more viewers? Maybe (though much of this potential audience was at the burn). If they continue to produce more programming in this fashion—and make it commercial-free – will they deserve attention? I am inclined to think they will. Did we make any money by allowing them to film? Absolutely not.

The same is true of our relationship with Google. In the magazine article, I am quoted as saying, “A lot of Google people come to the event. And the reason is that their corporate culture has similarities to ours. They do what they’re interested in. They have fun and worry about monetizing it later.” I was referring to Burning Man Earth, a version of which we hope to house in this year’s Green Man pavilion. We are working with Google to create a three-dimensional model of Black Rock City as it actually exists from year to year. Participants will be invited to map themselves, their artworks and their camps into this digital environment, just as they create things on the playa. What is the point? This is what I asked when I was first approached with this idea. Is this some sort of hermetic game environment, a passive and masturbatory entertainment, a substitute for immediate experience? Far from it. People who enter into this digital realm we be able to travel—eventually, it’s hoped—down every street of Black Rock City. They’ll also be enabled to make contact with every participant who chooses to become a settler in this on-screen metropolis.

In other words, one needn’t just ogle on Google. This is not intended to be a spectator environment. It will be possible to see behind the scenes, to knock on the door (or scratch at the tent flap) of anyone who has elected to participate. It’s never possible to experience all of Black Rock City. It really isn’t feasible to see even 5% of Burning Man. But, once we’ve gathered up successive years of the event, once people have lovingly labored to recreate what they have done in the desert, it will be possible to witness something like the fullness, the spatial-temporal plenum, of the Burning Man experience. But, again, the crucial point is that people will be able to make direct contact with other people, to visit their websites worldwide and communicate with them via email.

It is notoriously difficult to describe Black Rock City to people who have never attended the event, and efforts to evoke it too often reduce down to descriptions of spectacle. Burning Man Earth will allow participants to peel back the spectacle and reveal the lives, knowledge and the aspirations of fellow burners. In other words, we hope to engineer, with the help of our community, one of the largest fully (and deeply) interactive social environments ever contemplated. Did you see something on the playa that you’d like to emulate or understand? Soon (well, relatively soon and with a whole lot of work on our part), you will be able to go to the source. Just ask people why and how they’ve done things. Burners being burners, they will probably tell you.

So, what is Google getting out of this – a lucrative demographic, a valuable branding opportunity? Hardly. They’re very rich and we (I don’t want to offend anyone who thinks that Burning Man is the center of the known universe) are really very small. The truth, instead, is that we’re near and dear. The founders of Google have attended Burning Man for years. They feel they’re part of our community. Many of Google’s employees are participants, too. People put it in their resumes. Entire walls at their headquarters a papered with Burning Man photos. Are we being paid off? No. Are they making money? Well, no. They are offering resources as a gift. Does this large cooperation covet your business? Not really. They have plenty of business (and most of you, in point of fact, are probably their customers, already). Both parties simply thought it would be fun to work together. We’ve signed no contracts. We have done no deals. And we don’t envision advertising as a feature of Burning Man Earth. We regard this collaborative effort as a purely culture-bearing enterprise.

What I’ve been describing is a process of benign détournement whereby one reuses or repurposes well-known media to create a new work with a different message that’s conditioned by the context of authentic culture. This is a form of decommodification, and it applies directly to the Green Man pavilion. After all the ballyhoo, — the howls of execration and denunciations—let me describe the ground-floor reality of this effort. Currently, about 30 different parties are contributing installations to the Green Man pavilion. The majority of these projects are DIY affairs undertaken by veteran burners. These are attempts at self-expression by individuals and groups who care passionately about the environment. They have no commercial profile. This also applies to three or four non-profits that are exhibiting.

What is left reduces down to a handful of mom and pop entrepreneurs who’ve accepted all of the remarkable restrictions that we’ve placed on marketing. We banned, as you note in your essay, the use of logos, the display of brands and any sort of sales representation. They were willing to participate in a festival of ideas that focuses on green technology. Will witnessing a solar carport, stripped of its commercial context, interfere with anyone’s experience? Will it substitute passive consumption for an immediate act of encounter? Or will it function as a motivator that inspires folks to go back home and re-examine how they lead their lives? Our theme this year is educational. The purpose of the Green Man pavilion is to display environmental technology, some of which might help to change the world. This is not a sly attempt at marginal or viral marketing. I really can’t imagine that an anonymous carport is going to corrupt anyone.

The Business 2.0 article induced some people to assume that we were frolicking with corporate colossi, doing secret deals, accepting sponsorships, but none of this is true. It is true that we talked to some large corporations about exhibiting their wares at the pavilion. However, when faced with all the strictures we applied to marketing, these big boys chose to walk away. In the end, the pavilion project will host only two businesses that can be said to represent capital in a significant way. The first involves the installation of a very large (and beautiful) solar array that will power both the Man and the pavilion. After the conclusion of the event, we intend to install portions of it, at our expense, in the small Nevada towns of Gerlach and Lovelock. It will provide power to a public school and hospital, respectively.

The company that’s doing this brokers solar power deals, mostly for large institutions. They make their money from clean energy tax rebates that are offered by the government. Neither we, nor our participants, can be said to represent their target demographic. They are accustomed to much larger operations. What, then, is their motive? They were simply tickled by the notion that, over time, the tiny town of Gerlach could become the first municipality in America that employs solar power to produce more energy than it consumes. I’ve no problem if our partners in this project want to claim the bragging rights for eventually doing this. Last year, we distributed $91,000 in charitable contributions to local communities in Nevada. For us, this is simply a continuation of that practice.

The second large-scale pavilion project involves an array of wind turbines that will be installed along the Y3K light circle that surrounds the Man. In this case, we were able to go around the marketing departments of various companies and approach the scientists themselves. Scratch a scientist, I’ve often said, and you will find an artist. These folks felt that exhibiting their beautifully engineered handiwork would be ‘cool’. They’ve been motivated by a kind of passion – radical self-expression, if you will. They have no intention of selling these large objects to our ‘customers’, any more that Jim Mason, the artist who is creating the Mechabolic—a massive mobile slug-like object powered by organic refuse—has any intention of selling Mechabolics to ‘consumers’. (Although, I almost wish he would. I’d like to imagine that the roadways of America will some day teem with giant fire-spewing slugs.)

After reviewing all that I have said about the pavilion, I think it’s clear that we are doing nothing that betrays our values. Specifically, we are not violating the principle of decommodification. This is the third of our Ten Principles. It states, “In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.” Nothing that I have described violates this tenet. It’s said that he who sups with devil must dine with a very long spoon. However, in this case, I think its clear that we’re not supping with the devil; we’re not even doing brunch.

This talk of deviltry brings me to my last point and to what I think is the second cause of controversy. After the Business 2.0 article, talk of corporate involvement struck a visceral nerve in our community. Many of those who bitterly protested the Green Man pavilion seemed to feel that we were trying to inject some sort evil corporate bacillus straight into the heart of Black Rock City (though others, gratifyingly, had faith that we would never do this). But why were so many ready to impute a bad intention? It seems to me that, as consumers, we are tempted to assume that there is a law of spiritual entropy, a force inherent in the ‘default world’, that drags us down, that makes us all ‘sell out’.

This can sometimes generate a callow cynicism, a half-baked knowingness, a virulent sense of distrust. It can lead people to say that the Org, the BMORG or, my favorite, the BORG conceals deeply sinister motives. We are imagined, in this scenario, to be a profit-driven Juggernaut: a heedless corporation, an impenetrable bureaucracy that ignores the needs of the community. In reality, we are a very small corporation that employs only 30 full-time people. The majority of participants in our community, on the other hand, probably work for much larger corporations – certainly ones that do not publish letters such as this. This sometimes makes me wonder if we’re being offered up upon an altar as a sacrifice to pay for other people’s economic sins.

The disgruntled tone of some of what has recently been said about the Burning Man Project speaks to me, at times, of a deep-seated malaise. Only a consumer of mass-marketed products would assume that objects such as turbines and carports can be mysteriously instilled with meaning at the factory. This, after all, is what consumers often seem to feel they’re getting when they buy a ‘life-style’. Furthermore, only a dispirited consumer could yearn for deliverance, for some kind of absolution in a city that they imagine to be a moneyless utopia that’s unconnected to the word-at-large. The truth is that the Project, as a corporation, spends millions of dollars to create Black Rock City, and our participants spend many millions more in a capitalist marketplace in order to inhabit this city. Once that occurs, however, it is entirely up to all of us to actively instill these goods with meaning. That is what identity is all about.

We believe that our community can change the ‘default world’. This is what the Green Man theme aspires to accomplish. We know that this is possible because the Project has already begun to help insert Burning Man’s culture back into everyday life—without selling out. For those who’d like a progress report on these efforts, I suggest you consult this year’s Burning Man Journal and, in particular, a front page article entitled, The Default World. It may accessed at our website. I also suggest that people read the featured article in last year’s Journal, Commerce and Community. It might help to put these issues in perspective.

Sincerely,
Larry Harvey