Burning Man Sells Out?

This is going to be a fascinating year at Burning Man.

For those of you not familiar with the event and The Project, let me provide a little background. Burning Man is a weeklong festal gathering that takes place every year in the desolate Black Rock Desert of central Nevada. The event, which began in 1985 when two friends decided to burn a wooden effigy of a man on San Francisco’s Baker Beach, has grown steadily in popularity. In 2000, the event attracted almost 40,000 people to a gigantic celebration in the middle of the desert. They call their gathering place Black Rock City, an “ephemeropolis” (to use Stephen Black’s wonderfully evocative term) that exists only for one week out of the year.

I’ve had the pleasure of attending Burning Man as a participant observer for four years., and have written about it in an article and several book chapters (many of them co-authored with John Sherry). I believe that Burning Man is among the premiere social experiments of our times. That’s why the media cover so closely this gathering that is not even as large as most trade shows or fair. It’s not just the “freak-fest” appeal, although that’s a part of it. It is because this is a group of people on the edge of culture, living out where we are in bold relief and charting out what we want to and could become.

So what is happening this year is particularly fascinating.

As I have written about in several places, most notably my Journal of Consumer Research article entitled “Can Consumers Escape the Market?” Burning Man has sought to contain some of the negative effects of the marketplace: it’s tendency to isolate us from one another and to quash our individual expression and creativity, namely.

In that article, I went to town on some of the apparent differences between life in the world of work and business, and the liminal ludic realm experienced Burning Man’s participants:

“The most bizarre thing I saw at Burning Man was a man dressed in a three-piece business suit and carrying a briefcase, rushing along through the desert one evening. He brushed by a group of us quickly, saying “Excuse me, gentlemen,” as if he were late for a meeting. Our group burst out laughing (Fieldnotes, August 30, 2000). Like the full office cubicle, replete with inspirational posters and gobs of reminding Post-ItTM notes that someone had set up in the middle of the desert, the source of the humor was the realization that this is a place set far apart from the logics that drive everyday business behavior in the world of large corporations. Our mock businessman’s attire, emoting, utterances, and rushing were pure performance art in this desolate and distant location.

Art at Burning Man is socially constructed as a purely self-expressive practice that is radical, communally interactive, and not-for-sale. It is placed in dialectical opposition to the efficiency of modern industrial production in which designs are functional, divorced from public view, and conducted for profit. Burning Man’s emphasis on self-expression and self-transformation rather than practical matters provides it with a useful differentiation from the prevailing ethos of productivity and efficiency used by market forces. Ironically, this differentiation is co-opted by companies that send employees to Burning Man for “team-building” and to ‘expand creative thinking’ (Hua 2000). The fact that corporations use Burning Man to enhance the very characteristics that they are criticized for lacking points to an interesting irony. It also points to the inescapably porous boundaries between Burning Man and the market system. Inevitably, Burning Man’s participants return to a corporate world, albeit perhaps with a fresher perspective or some heightened artistic or communal sensibility.”

To set up this free-spirited creative playzone, Burning Man has suspended ordinary social logics by setting up some interesting rules that seek to control the effects of markets and large corporations in particular.

Chief among those rules are the “No Commerce” rule that forbids monetary exchange and encourages a Gift Economy. Important is an individual and group emphasis on “Radical Self-Expression” that encourages individualized participation. Also crucial is an injunction against wearing or displaying brand names. Finally, the event has always banned (and something ejected) corporations that seek to promote or advertise themselves or their wares at the event.

That last injunction is being suspended, sort of.

In a fascinating story in Business 2.0 this month, “Future Boy” and Burning Man participant Chris Taylor talks about how Burning Man has “grown up.” It is “coming of age.” It is a ten million dollar revenue “business.” But most controversially and most importantly the Burning Man Organization has invited a bunch of companies into the event to show off their wares.

What? This goes against twenty years of anti-corporate rhetoric. It blasts open some of the carefully cultivated divisions between Burning Man’s communal-utopian interview and the harsh manipulative commodified world outside. B2.0 has really scooped Wired on this one. What in the world is Burning Man up to?