Seven years ago, I wrote a cover story for reason called “Burning Man Grows Up.” I remained fascinated enough in that peculiar art festival/experimental community that I expanded the article into a book, This is Burning Man.
This month, the tech business mag Business 2.0 cops the title of my original reason article to tell a different story about Burning Man’s evolution.
Both are indeed about Burning Man growing up. My story was about Burning Man growing from its origins as a mostly anarchistic intentional community of artist/boho buddies gathering in the distant, eerie, and empty Black Rock Desert in Nevada (where the celebration had occurred every Labor Day since 1990, after it outgrew its 1986 birthplace on a San Francisco beach). I chronicled how Burning Man was growing into a more complicated set of entanglements with and responsibilities to government entities, and making tentative steps toward imposing order and rules on fiery chaos.
The story in the July issue of Business 2.0 is instead about Burning Man shifting into collaboration with corporate forces in the service of modern progressive eco-politics, while trying to maintain its identity—one could even say its “brand identification”—as an “anti-commodification” social movement.
Event co-founder Larry Harvey is smart enough to have told me “try to live without commerce…..you’ll be dead in a week.” But he argues a distinction between the commerce and division of labor that keeps us all alive and what he sees as a corrupt modernity in which too many human relations are reduced to the impersonal trading of commodities.
Burning Man has heretofore, as stated in its “10 principles,” strived to keep anything to do with commerce and advertising (except sales of ice and coffee at stations it operates, already a topic of some derision in “Burner” circles) out of its sacred space.
As Burning Man’s “principle three” 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.”
But things are changing. The Business 2.0 article explains that something very different will be happening at Burning Man this year:
The fact that the organization sells coffee and ice is controversial enough. Imagine the reaction, then, when Burning Man makes the riskiest business move in its history: It's going to allow companies to exhibit products at the 2007 event.
Each Burning Man has a different theme, chosen by Harvey. This year's theme is "The Green Man." Burning Man, an extravaganza characterized by the consumption of huge quantities of fossil fuel, has discovered environmentalism. It is attempting to offset the 28,000 tons of carbon it estimates the event generates. Most controversially, the organization wants to bring as many green-energy companies as possible into what Harvey calls a world's fair of clean tech. Google is going to help produce an online 3-D search service called Burning Man Earth.
Burning Man officials stress that no money changed hands for the companies to have their place in this alt-energy pavilion. I was also assured that the strictures Burning Man placed on preventing the companies from doing any actual branding or direct marketing were so severe that 80 percent of companies that showed initial interest eventually backed out, figuring there was nothing in it for them.
Still, many Burning Man fans are not mollified, thinking that even without branding or explicit marketing it’s still an influx of what they consider commercial commodities in the heart of their sacred space. See, for example, this 300-plus message Tribe.net thread, or these threads on Burning Man’s own web site message board, "Eplaya."
One sample from the Eplaya: “This is one of the most disheartening things I've ever read about Burning Man….Talk about going into the temple and turning over the tables of the money changers....It’s not going to be a trade show, but….there is going to be a pavilion where unbranded products are going to be shown by unbranded reps. Bullshit.”
Another aspect of the story pissing off the cognoscenti is Burning Man bigwig Marian Goodell’s perhaps injudicious use of a certain sort of language in referring to her…. constituents? People? Customers? (That identifying the right word can be a struggle exhibits the strange, confusing edge that Burning Man the business/festival/social movement teeters on.) From the Business 2.0 article:
“This community is a dream for anyone looking at demographics….We have kids who work in coffee shops and we have billionaires. To ignore the value of our brand, the buying power it has, is silly. But it's a ritual for these people, which is why it's going to be hard for them seeing businesses out there."