The Burning Man Network - Cover Letter
April 9. 2004
Dear Regional Contact,
Contained in this packet you'll find a brief introductory letter from Andie Grace and Steven Raspa, both of whom I think you know. They have been working very hard with Marian Goodell and myself to create our Regional Network Program. You will also find a Letter of Understanding that describes the various kinds of assistance that we intend to provide to you as a Regional Contact. A second document describes the role and the responsibilities of Regional Contacts within the Burning Man Network. The third document is a legal agreement that translates all of this into an actual contract. I'll talk about the contract near the end of this letter. The last document is a Statement of Principles that attempts to capture aspects of the Burning Man ethos, the basic spirit of our culture, in a few simple statements. My task here is to explain the greater picture into which all of this fits.
The obvious question is: why form a network at all? The dissemination of our culture has happened quite naturally. Burning Man is about spontaneity and radical-self reliance, and people all across the country have taken the initiative to recreate aspects of the Burning Man experience in their regions. Why impose an organized structure, especially one that involves contracts, upon this spontaneous process? Since I wrote my open letter (available on the Blackrockcity.org extranet), lively debate has sprung up on this subject. Sometimes, it's incited people's fears. It's like those nightmares some participants have: when they arrive at Burning Man it's being held in a K-Mart parking lot or a shopping mall. There are those who are afraid that the “org” or the “BMorg” or (my favorite) the “Borg” intends to impose some form of cultural imperialism: a top-down system designed to rigidly control the content of local activities. Others have suggested that we're trying to establish profit-based franchises on the model of McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken. Presumably, this would involve hefty licensing fees and cookie cutter replicas of a pre-packaged product. In reality, of course, these people have simply imagined the reverse of what Burning Man means to them and imputed a bad motive. They are afraid that someone wants to take what they most value away from them.
It's pretty easy to rebut these rumors. This sort of cynicism is not unlike the kind of talk a lot of us hear when people who have never been to the event assert that it is “too big”, that it has “sold out” and “gone commercial”. I guess it's only natural they would think so. They reason from experience. Nearly everything they ever felt to be authentic that succeeded in the larger world became commodified. But you have experienced the event firsthand and know just how far wide of the mark their fears have led them. Likewise, when people imagine that the Burning Man organization — the Project, as we call it — harbors sinister designs to control or oppress our community, this too flies in the face of experience. My many colleagues and I have worked for years to create Burning Man — the very event that has spawned so much independence and initiative. If it were our intention to suppress these values, we would have acted on this motive long ago. Having said that the increasing size of Burning Man has not corrupted the event, I think it's only fair to assume that we, the organizers who have nurtured it, have also managed to resist corruption. Start by reading the enclosed Statement of Principles. It represents ideas that have become a way of life for us.
The third principle in this list of core values will begin to explain one of our key reasons for wanting to form the Regional Network. It states, “In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, and advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist substituting consumption for participatory experience.” This is precisely what the Burning Man Project has endeavored to do since the founding of Black Rock City. We have refused commercial sponsorship. We have instituted a ban on vending. In the world outside of the event, we have prevented entrepreneurs from branding their goods with Burning Man's name, its image and its logo. We have sued and succeeded in stopping the sale of pornographic videos exploiting participants, and we have halted MTV in its tracks. We have refrained from selling trinkets and branded goods in the mass market. Among those products that we do sell via our Internet Marketplace, we have chosen to offer goods that are content rich; ‘culture bearing' items such as books and videos that produce a context that expresses our community's values. In addition to these measures, we have also adopted open accounting. Every year we publish a financial report that states our annual income and describes our spending. We have succeeded, in other words, in keeping Burning Man from being commodified — extracted from its context in immediate experience and marketed to the world as merely an image, a style, a product whose governing purpose is profit. I think we've proven that when a cultural movement increases in scale it needn't sell out or passively allow itself to be consumed by market forces.
Now, however, as our community begins to grow even larger, we face new challenges. Burning Man is currently known in the media as a weeklong event in the Nevada desert, but it will soon become a bigger story. As regional activities proliferate, the culture we have all evolved will increasingly affect the mainstream of American life. This, I fervently believe, is a very good thing. Rather than passively fret about being co-opted by consumerism, I think it's time we realize we can co-opt it. In order to succeed at this, we must work together. Until now, the Burning Man Project has been able to combat the grosser depredations of those economic interests that have sought to exploit us. This is why, as stated in the Regional Contact Description, we have trademarked the words “Burning Man”, “Decompression”,“Flambé Lounge” and “Black Rock City”.
However, as our movement spreads to include more people than will ever visit Black Rock City, we are going to need your help. Already, we see instances of exploitation on a local scale. Supposed “Burning Man” parties are held, the proceeds from which go unaccounted for. Vending is allowed at some of these events, and people hold “Burning Man” DJ dance parties that are indistinguishable from commercial entertainment. I don't wish to sound paranoid. I'm sure that many of these efforts are inspired by naive enthusiasm and are well-intentioned. But, as the national cachet of Burning Man continues to increase, it takes very little imagination to foresee how the core values of our community could eventually be diluted and perverted in the larger world. Indeed, if even one group organizing a “Burning Man” event does so unscrupulously or illegally, this could discredit and endanger the activities of every other group.
This is why it is important that you, as an official Regional Contact in our Network, be ready to act as a leader. What is needed are Regional Contacts who are willing to help ensure that the core values of our culture are respected. Your primary role as a Regional Contact is to promote communication and facilitate interaction within your community. We do not expect you to become a policeman or undertake legal action — but it is in your power as a representative of the Network to monitor events that happen locally. The Regional Contact Role Description states, “An event that wishes to be designated an ‘official' regional gathering may be designated so only if the RC is actively involved — especially as concerns proceeds gained from charging an admission fee. Funds from such events should be routed to the benefit of the local community and the community at large.” The Burning Man Project has no intention of suppressing the many hundreds of small gatherings and fundraisers that participants stage annually to defray the cost of their efforts in the desert. These are community-building activities. Nor do we necessarily mind if organizers of larger-scaled events defray some of the costs they personally incur in producing an event. But we do believe that any large event that is held in our name and publicized through our Network should honor our ethos. Any such event should benefit our community, be lawfully constituted, produce real social interaction, avoid commodification and practice some form of open accounting.
Let me also plainly state here that the Project has no designs on proceeds gained from such events. Unless our staff members are asked to aid in organizing an event — and this has happened recently in the case of large-scale events in Los Angeles and New York City — the Project will not levy fees on such activities: we will not use our licensing rights to parasitize locally initiated efforts. We've trademarked “Burning Man” in order to protect the integrity of our culture, not discourage its dissemination. We will, however, encourage donations to the Regional Program and the Black Rock Arts Foundation. This is a critical moment of trust for all of us. The gifts that you and others give to aid us in our organizing efforts will help to generate a greater Burning Man community.
Indeed, the most significant reason for banding together is that the whole of Burning Man as constituted by a network will be much stronger and more creative than its separate parts. The Burning Man Project can use its centralized resources to provide regional groups with valuable services and tools, as outlined in the Regional Contact Role Description. Among these are the Regional Discussion List and our Regional Extranet. Though still in its infancy, the Extranet holds extraordinary promise. In my hometown of San Francisco, and during my travels across the country, I have visited many art studios. Some of these facilities form colonies, places where artists can collaborate, sharing tools and information. The Extranet will form just such an environment for community organizers as they work together to solve problems.
The Letter of Understanding also mentions, “access to a variety of helpful information from Burning Man staff members.” Our Project has evolved over a period of almost 18 years. During this time we have dealt with many of the challenges that you and other groups in your area may eventually encounter. Our regional communities range from very modest groups that meet in member's homes to much larger groups that organize ambitious gatherings and programs. Having passed through several stages of development, starting with a handful of participants on a beach, we are familiar with the kinds of problems groups may face at every phase of their development. The Project's Regional Coordinators can advise you and put you in touch with other Project staff members who understand consensus decision-making and have gained a special expertise in their fields.
The Project will also create fundraising programs. We are now ready to launch the long-promised “Burning Man Film Festival in a Box”. This and similar programs will allow you to raise money, and proceeds can be apportioned between you, as a Regional Contact and the organizer of such an event, and the Regional Program. The rationale for doing this is very simple. Currently, revenues produced by our desert event are funding all of our efforts aimed at creating the Network. Whenever a staff member labors to produce new software, administers our Extranet, consults with a Regional Contact or travels to regional gatherings, his or her efforts are funded by event-generated dollars. However, as our Regional Program grows, we foresee that we will no longer be able to afford a double mission. The fundraising tools we are creating will begin to defray a part of these extra costs.
Likewise, as the responsibilities of Regional Contacts increase, many of you will confront a very similar dilemma. How will it be possible to fulfill your duties in your local community and within the greater Network, while attempting, simultaneously, to earn a living? Income earned from organizing a Regional Program fundraising event can begin to help you accomplish both of these goals. As a full-time organizer of Burning Man, I am necessarily paid a salary. As a part-time organizer within the Network, you can also qualify, if you so choose, to receive a monetary return for your efforts. As with those items that we currently sell through our Internet Marketplace, the content of projects such as the Film Festival in a Box will be ‘culture bearing'. It will embody and communicate the values of the Burning Man community. No commercial sponsorships will be allowed. All that is required of you is direct participation. What you do with your share of any proceeds earned from your involvement in such programs is entirely up to you. You may contribute it back to our Regional Program or donate it to local projects within your community. But, if you are among those who cannot afford to accomplish more as a Regional Contact, we hope that this will help you to better achieve your mission.
This portrait of our Network, however, is only half of the picture. The Black Rock Arts Foundation forms the other half. It has been founded with the intent of promoting interactive art in public environments. We envision this as working in tandem with the Burning Man Network. The Foundation is specifically dedicated to funding art and educational efforts created by participant groups throughout the country. Regional Contacts who significantly aid in organizing such activities may also be eligible to receive grants for this purpose. This is funding that is independent of the grants the Project gives to artists who create work at the Burning Man event. As a Regional Contact, you will be automatically enrolled as a “Regional” Foundation member. This means that you'll receive reports of the Foundation's activities, but, more importantly, it means that you may be eligible to serve on its Grant Advisory Committee. This committee will be responsible for advising the Foundation about regional needs and local initiatives. Its membership will be apportioned geographically.
In our present plan, which we can discuss in our upcoming online Regional question and answer session, members of the Network would be grouped by geographic area. These areas would correspond to members' ability to conveniently gather and meet face-to-face. This is how a culture is best generated. In particular, it is our aim to encourage larger and more evolved Regional Contact groups to serve as mentors and advisors to smaller groups. For our part, we will also endeavor, whenever it is possible, to send Burning Man Project representatives to these gatherings. The purpose is to nurture personal relationships that unite people across the entire spectrum of our Network, and it is from these groups that representative Regional Contacts will be selected to serve on the Foundation's Grant Advisory Committee. By this means, we hope to ensure that aid dispersed by the Foundation will go where it's most needed and that it will be fairly distributed to large and small groups alike.
Another aspect of this program will make it possible for interactive art to move across the country. Increasingly, the Project is supporting art at the event that is designed to be conveniently transportable. Todd Dworman's large-scale “Labyrinth”, which stood before the Great Temple of the Man in 2003, is a good example. It can be rolled up, compactly stored and readily installed in any space that's large enough to accommodate it. Charlie Smith's “Nausts” — large metal perambulators designed to artfully house fire — are another example. The Foundation has already provided money so that one of these pieces can be transported between regions. In addition, we are sure that many local works that might not ever make it to the desert will emerge amid the regions. These, too, could eventually become part of a circuit of artwork that passes through communities. We envision this swelling to a continuous flow as the achievements of each inspire all.
The Black Rock Arts Foundation is still in its formative stages. However, we have distributed a modest number of art grants during the last two years, and recently, at the end of 2003, we received a grant from another non-profit, the Rex Foundation. In December of 2003, the Black Rock Arts Foundation received a donation of more than $6,200, all of the profit from a Seattle Decompression event! It came complete with an enormous thank you card signed by the event's organizers. In addition, during the course of last year, articles on the art of Burning Man have appeared in a number of prestigious art publications. Using this newly acquired status, we hope to seek more widespread contributions, as well as larger individual donations, to the Foundation's programs. I will personally work to achieve this, and I hope that all of you, as leaders in your community, will join me in this effort. I believe that when local communities witness what is possible, participants will come forward to offer many different kinds of assistance.
Lastly, let me comment on the contract that is contained in Schedule B of this package. It is meant to accomplish several things. It protects all information that a Regional Contact might acquire through working with the Network from being exploited for personal or commercial use. It makes clear that as an affiliated member of the Network you are not an employee of Burning Man and assume independent responsibility for your actions. As part of our assistance to you, we are ready to advise you and others concerning ways to obtain insurance for events and activities, and we will assist those groups who are interested in becoming a Limited Liability Company, like the Burning Man Project. We'll also work in many other ways to help and guide you in your mission, but, in the spirit of radical self-reliance, we cannot assume liability for actions that we do not directly control. The language used in this particular document is necessarily couched in legal parlance, and I will admit that when I read a sentence stating, “Regional Contact agrees to indemnify Burning Man and its successors, agents, employees, insurers and representatives, of and from any all liability, claims, demands, damages, punitive damages, disputes, suits, actions, claims for relief and causes of action, arising out of or relating to Regional activities”-- it seems like a lot to swallow. Legal contracts, by their nature, are designed to account for every possible contingency that might arise in our litigious society, but if you read this text slowly and carefully, I think you'll find that it contains no hidden snares.
What I have tried to describe to you in this letter is a vision of how our culture can sustain itself upon a larger scale. I believe the Network we propose holds very close to the Burning Man ethos. It does not dictate the content of “radical self-expression” — that can only come from you and other members of your community. It does not exploit you economically or infringe upon your freedom or the freedom of others to create and organize. But it does protect the way of life that Burning Man has come to represent. In the spirit of collaboration and communal effort that lies at the heart of Burning Man, the Network will allow us all to use our gifts to give an even greater gift to the world. Marian, Andie, Steven and myself look forward to discussing both the Burning Man Network and the Black Rock Arts Foundation with all of you at the upcoming online Regional question and answer session, and I hope to meet and greet each one of you in First Camp at Burning Man in 2004.
Continue on to the Regional Contact Statement of Principles