The Burning Man Regional Contacts program once again saw tremendous advancement and growth in 2004, holding fast to its place high on the list of the Burning Man Project’s top priorities. While managing the constant influx of regional contacts in new cities, this year we focused heavily on completing the formation of the Regional Network. We further expanded our focus on developing personal connections by visiting some of our active regions and helping these groups to solidify leadership in their areas.
In March 2004, all existing Regional Contacts received an invitation to an online conference (held via web conferencing software donated by Webex — another example of the gift economy at work, since Webex asked for nothing in exchange for this generous donation). This meeting commemorated the launch of the Regional Letter of Agreement, a document designed to establish a written understanding of the relationship between each Regional Contact and Burning Man.
A cover letter from Larry Harvey outlined the context for the launch of this agreement, and a copy is included with the Letter of Agreement sent to every new and existing Regional. Over half of those involved with the program participated in this online conference, which reviewed each section of the agreement, addressed questions and concerns, and outlined the goals of the network. One vital subject of discussion was the potential for increased interaction between the network and the Black Rock Arts Foundation, the not-for-profit organization dedicated to funding interactive art in the world beyond Black Rock City.
The heart of the Letter of Agreement is the “Ten Principles” document, a list of guiding principles, developed by the Regional Coordination Team and revised in cooperation with several Regionals prior to the letter’s launch. The principles describe the goals shared by all members of the Burning Man Network, so this discussion provided a forum for describing the core philosophies of our community, which Regionals agree to uphold when planning events and organizing in their local areas.
In addition, the agreement outlines the resources that Burning Man provides to Regional Contacts and defines the responsibilities that Burning Man expects the Regionals to fulfill as part of their role. This agreement not only formalized the relationship with the Regionals, but it also served to clarify expectations, serving as a role description and an official agreement between the parties. This clarity, as well as the cooperative method by which the agreement was developed, contributed to a tremendously successful launch for the Letter of Agreement, and a truly auspicious moment in the development of the Burning Man Network.
Once this agreement was launched, we returned our focus to the further development of the individual regions. We reopened the interview process for prospective Regional Contacts, over 40 of whom had been queued up for their qualification interviews when development of the Letter of Agreement took precedence. We reviewed these applications and added approximately 10 new co-Regionals, while responding to the requests of a number of existing Regionals seeking to move on and pass the torch to new volunteers in their areas. The interview process is constantly churning, with a healthy list of 35 or more Regional Contact candidates still awaiting their interviews, and inquiries in new areas rolling in every week.
The agreement’s launch in early 2004 also freed us to spend the rest of our year focusing more pointedly on cities that seemed ready for additional nurturing or attention from the Project. Several areas reached a critical mass in 2004, where the volunteers serving as Regional Contacts appeared to be struggling somewhat under the volume of activity and the weight of their responsibilities. One example is New York City, whose large and diverse regional community led the Project to consider encouraging a move to a committee model that would spread the workload and responsibility while further increasing the potential scope of the community. At the same time, two Regional Coordinators from the San Francisco office found ourselves with an opportunity to travel to New York for an unrelated public appearance, so we scheduled in-person interviews with interested volunteers in the area. During our travels, we also engaged in a series of conversations with other members of the regional community to discern their unique challenges. A five-person committee was selected from this process, and we continued to work with this group throughout 2004 to develop further opportunities for leadership and expansion in NYC. As part of this unfolding relationship, we offered our support for their communitys endeavor to produce a successful New York Decompression in December and to donate the extra funds raised to local artists.
But New York is far from the only group that received personal attention this year; many other groups had exciting developments in their activities in 2004. The regional discussion list this year was filled with new stories from regions around the world. Just a few highlights:
- San Diego, Calif.: over 300 participants enjoyed “Fuego de los Muertos”, the first San Diego/Orange County regional burn, which included an interactive, BRAF-funded project called “Intersection” that broadcast and recorded a collage of images between bi-directional image portals at several locations around the event.
- Arizona: The Azburners regional community undertook a group project to benefit Star School, a Northern Arizona Charter School that serves the Navajo and Hopi Community. The Black Rock Arts Foundation and the Azburners have donated materials and money to create a performance amphitheater for the children of the school. The regional community will help with the final construction in spring of 2005. Members of the Azburners as well as the Burning Man theme camp “Electra FM” also brought a low-power FM station to the school for the day to teach the children about radio broadcasting. Later this year, they will return to install equipment for a Part 15 low-power FM station for the school. The station will host daily programs the children create that will be broadcast to classrooms and other buildings on the campus. The Azburners also volunteered monthly at a local soup kitchen.
- Seattle’s regional group invited four Burning Man staffers to a Town Hall meeting in December 2004, where they met with their community to discuss a proposal to develop a community-based business model that would allow them to create a sustainable resource to support group activities. As of this writing, that idea is still in discussion within the community and with Burning Man.
- Successful Decompression events and other occasions were numerous, including several new regional burns all around North America and across the world, born of the significant efforts of regional groups. In some cases, the Regional Coordination team provided assistance, information, and service.
- Internationally, our community continues to expand, with new events and groups organized in Barcelona, London, Tokyo, Taiwan, New Zealand, and more. Kiwiburn 2, the New Zealand regional gathering, was held on the property of an organization called the Rainbow Community in Golden Bay, NZ. The event was the first stand-alone Burning Man event in New Zealand; in 2003, its precursor was part of an existing festival (Visionz). Around 200 people turned up for the two-day event, firmly establishing a Burning Man community in NZ.
Aside from supporting the development of these areas through events and gatherings, Burning Man continues to endeavor to provide resources for the Regionals to create community in other exciting ways. One such resource, the Burning Man Film Festival in a Box (FFIAB) saw three more test runs this year, in the North Bay, Santa Cruz, and London, England. Despite a few loose ends still dangling, we are working to finalize all legal issues with the programming line up and preparing to launch the FFIAB in more cities in 2005. We’ve learned a lot from these test runs not only ways to fine-tune the production of the event from the perspective of the Project, but how to help create a better program overall. Experience at these festivals has taught us one valuable lesson: No matter how much one loves Burning Man, sitting through a whole day of films on the topic can be a taxing experience. We are currently talking with Regionals about ways to include more non-film content in the festival, including more social interaction and other ways to break up the program and avoid a passive feeling of sitting all day in a dark theater.
April 2004 again found some members of the Regional Team on the road to visit Burning Man communities — this time, in support of the Burning Man Film Festival and premiere of Gone Off Deep’s production “Beyond Black Rock” in Dublin, Ireland, and London, England. On the way home, we stopped in Washington, D.C. on political business, making time for a happy hour gathering with local participants.
The Network continues to expand its online presence, as well. Additional administrative support from within our existing office staff was allocated to the Regional Coordination team this year, offering support for easier, more frequent updating of the primary web presence. An assessment of the use of the Regional sections of the ePlaya is also underway, following a reorganization of that area that did not initially include the Regionals in the discussion. The Regionals email discussion list continues to be a great resource for sharing ideas with one another and with the Burning Man Project. This year the list was more active than ever, contributing great discussions and perspectives on everything about Burning Man, from kids at the event to how to organize a local burn to commercial sponsorship on the playa. The information in these discussions provides a deep connection and feedback loop between participants in local community list discussions and the Project. Through these regional discussions, we hear the important opinions and input of participants from all corners of the world.
On the playa, 2004 brought exciting new developments for the Regionals, as well. The all-new Regional Information Center, conceived by the Hawaiian Regional, occupied a Center Camp location, built and supported by the Regionals to provide information about local communities to Burning Man participants on the spot. The Boston Regional Contact also developed a great idea — the Playa Art Shuffle, where art pieces brought to Burning Man could be swapped and transported to different regions after the event to be displayed at Regional events, as well. Both ideas were markedly successful considering their first-year status, and both will continue to receive Project support in 2005.
The annual Regional Thank You Party at First Camp was bombarded by a huge dust storm, but no way would the intrepid Regionals let that blow away their once-yearly opportunity to meet face to face. Dust masks and goggles were the garb of the afternoon for well over 100 people (many of whom brought guests or co-Regional prospects to enjoy this event), making the party the most well-attended of these events in our history. Hours before, we had conducted our first-ever Regional orientation meeting in the Commissary, inviting potential Regionals who had not yet been interviewed to attend an in-person information session, hear about the Regional Network, and pose questions about the Letter of Agreement. Once again, this first-year idea had a slightly bumpy execution, and only a handful of the prospective Regional Contacts appeared due to the timing of the invitation. With more advance planning next year, we hope to continue this session, as well.
On Thursday afternoon, Regionals and Burning Man staffers also appeared on a Radio Free Burning Man show, spending an hour on the airwaves telling the story of the Regional Network to the listening audience. Earlier in the year, the Regionals once again enjoyed coverage in the Burning Man Journal summer newsletter, along with increased attention from the Jack Rabbit Speaks email newsletter. Enthusiastic communication from all these directions reminded participants about the existence and promise of these thriving year-round communities.
Support for the Regional Network is an ever-increasing task, and it poses a challenge to which we are only too happy to rise. Since participation is nearing 100 people, and another 30 are in the wings, the Burning Man Project must continually find creative ways to support this network with personal attention and care. Every year, more support from other departments helps us in this endeavor, and we see volunteers from each region also stepping up their own efforts — for example, everyone from Greeters to Rangers volunteer their services at regional events. As the activities of local groups reach outward beyond parties and events, Burning Man communities everywhere find new and exciting ways to bring Black Rock City to the rest of the world and to enrich their daily lives. Our small staff and finite resources notwithstanding, we continually dedicate ourselves to the task. Through the efforts of regional groups everywhere, we see more clearly with each passing year that participation in the desert event known as Burning Man is merely a portal to a whole new kind of involvement in our daily world.
Andie Grace, aka Actiongrl