BORG2 Petition Response

Written by Larry Harvey, 2005

I’ve read the We Have a Dream petition with interest. I think it will spur discussion and provoke some new ideas. I think real good can come of this. In writing this response, however, I feel called on to examine the very specific proposals that the petition advocates. This plan would mandate certain changes for the purpose of democratizing Burning Man’s art funding program. It calls for the implementation of an electoral process that would include “everyone who is in the Burning Man database by virtue of a past ticket purchase or art project.” By my estimate, this would enfranchise approximately 69,500 people. This group would be invited to vote on which art projects should receive funding each year from the Burning Man Project. In order to fairly make these decisions, all 69,500 people would be invited in travel to San Francisco and visit SOMARTS, a city supported art gallery. Here, they would encounter every artist who desired funding and inspect “all the proposals [put] up on the wall.” Since the plan also discards all of the limitations that we currently place on art funding, I imagine that the number of artists applying for these People’s Choice awards would also swell to a pretty respectable number.

Should this plan be adopted, I foresee many problems. First, artists seeking funding would be forced to travel to San Francisco in order to advocate their proposal. This drastically disfavors artists and potential jurors who do not reside in the Bay Area. The authors of this scheme appear to realize this, since they’ve included a provision for the appointment of “reps” to serve as advocates for absent artists. But they don’t seem to fully understand that a majority of Burning Man’s artists, as well as a majority of Burning Man participants, do not reside in the Bay Area. This myopic point of view is also reflected in the choice of SOMARTS as the site for this mass exhibition. This venue might accommodate the work of artists in our local underground, but it isn’t nearly large enough to show the work of all those who apply for grants from Burning Man. Any full-throated expression of democracy-at-work at SOMARTS would resemble a riot on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Short of renting a convention center, the only practicable means for exhibiting all of this documentation would be the Internet. But this would also disenfranchise many people. It would exclude those artists (and there are many) who lack computer skills. Lastly, such an ambitious project would also task our already hardworking web team to complete distraction. On the front end, it would require that 69,500 people be contacted, instructed and assigned secret codes, and on the back end – well, maybe we’d just approach the Diebold Corporation (I won’t even estimate what all of this might cost).

Such an Internet-based system would also severely limit the attention that we give to artists. Currently, we carefully evaluate every proposal we receive. A few proposals are eliminated during a first round of consideration. For example, last year we rejected a performance involving a fuel-air bomb. It would have produced an explosion similar to weapons used by the U.S. military. This AMD (Artwork of Mass Destruction) came with a price tag of $40,000. Scientists informed us that the device might flatten the first ten rows of the audience and suck their lungs out of their bodies. We thanked the artist for this “kick ass” contribution to the genre of “Xtreme Interactivity,” but we declined to fund it. This is a very clear example of a curatorial decision that only the Burning Man Project is qualified to make. After this initial review is completed, we begin a second round. Artists are personally contacted and a dialogue ensues. There are always many questions on both sides. We may want to know about their readiness to face the rigors of the desert or whether they possess or need the aid of a community. They may want to know how we can help them in the desert with such things as heavy equipment or documentation. These personal relationships ensure the artist’s plans are realistic. Needless to say, this effort to communicate is very time consuming, but it generates a level of trust that is vitally necessary when distributing money to participants who may have no proven track record of artistic achievement. Finally, in the third phase of our process, we examine the financial needs of every artist. We try to ensure that every individual’s needs are met, while simultaneously attempting to guarantee that as many artists as possible receive support.

The proposal to directly jury art en masse would simply bulldoze this thoughtful and considered process out of the way. There would exist no means for making any of the informed decisions that are necessary for responsible grant giving. Even if a modified procedure were adopted that allowed for some form of pre-jurying or post-jurying, the sheer volume of proposals that this plan would generate would turn a process that requires several weeks into one that could extend through several months. Instead, an electorate of 69,500 people would be expected to confront a voter’s guide that, if printed, would be approximately the size the San Francisco telephone directory. As much as I would like to think that average voters really do digest the information that’s contained in state and federal election guides, I very much doubt that the general public would give this information the attention it deserves. Furthermore, in the absence of any procedure for actually qualifying artist candidates, no means would exist for the prevention of election fraud. Any moderately gifted graphics designer could easily contrive faked illustrations of a non-existent artwork

I see no evidence that the authors of this manifesto have imagined any of these problems. This is because they are accustomed to receiving grants from Burning Man, not giving them. I apologize for dwelling at such length upon these details, but even the writers of the manifesto seem to sense some details are important. I suspect that this is why they have done me the honor of appointing me to the Art Council that is proposed in their plan. This council would deal with “the details of funding decisions and general art logistics.” Other unspecified artists, I am informed, are to be appointed to this council (by whom, I’m not entirely sure). Since the group that has drafted this plan hasn’t yet talked to me, I’m left to assume that the basic principle of radical democracy would require that these offices be filled through popular election. Which brings me to a broader and more fundamental point. I don’t know how many people notice this, but as we pile vote upon vote and plebiscite upon plebiscite we are wading very deep into the world of election politics.

Every electoral process that I’m aware of inevitably involves campaigning. Every election that I’ve ever witnessed inspires intense competition between contending parties. Considering what I know of political life, there would be no way to prevent the vote trading, back slapping, log rolling, arm twisting, and jawboning that would take place once votes become a hot commodity. As artist competes with artist, and regions vie with regions in a struggle to win votes and money, our community would be divided into warring camps. As things now stand, applying artists who do not receive a grant can only blame the Project. But a political struggle would exponentially increase this very tendency to blame on every side. Think, for a moment, about the 2004 election. The universal practice of forming vote-getting alliances and candidate slates, aggravated by a competition that reduced down to a personal popularity contest, would disadvantage many artists who do not have the good fortune to belong to art scenes or who live outside of urban centers.

The plan also proposes that “guest curators” be installed, and the manifesto mentions a small number of candidates. Among these are the Shipyard (owned by one of the chief authors of the manifesto) and, my favorite, the Odeon Bar (owned by another). Both are venues in our local underground. The choice of the Odeon particularly intrigues me, providing evidence, as it does, that the ancient tradition of barroom politics yet survives in America (I can only hope that its proprietor, my good friend Chicken John, will begin to employ election monitors, since friends do not let friends vote drunk). One might say that there’s more of demagogue than democrat in all of this. However, I know and respect some of these folks, and I’m willing to believe they’re sincere when they propose that guest curators be elected by 69,500 citizens. This means the manifesto mandates something more than power by the people. It invokes a form of power that would represent the will of the people. Black Rock City, in other words, would become a republic.

This government could take control of much of Burning Man. If guest curators are entitled to fund their programs with the Burning Man Project’s income, then it seems reasonable that other interest groups would mobilize to do the same. Everyone would want a piece of this enticing fiscal pie. Theme camps, for example, might very reasonably feel entitled to funding. Why should they be second-class citizens? In a world where anyone can be creative, there would be no end to such entitlements. Everyone, from lamplighters to greeters to those who make ambitious costumes would begin to feel that they deserved a subsidy. In fact, given the high level of participation at our event, an argument could be made for putting the majority of our citizens on Burning Man’s payroll (But, wait, that’s fuzzy math!). Any elected government would have to deal with this constituency. I’ve lobbied on behalf of Burning Man in Washington DC, and I know how deals are made and favors are solicited from those in power. Consider how federal, state and local legislators presently distribute funds and favors, and think very carefully about how they are influenced to do so. On the other hand, Burning Man’s current management has a free hand in deciding what we will and will not fund. We are not elected. The mad scramble for place, position and influence this arrangement would unleash would transform our temporary city into an exact replica of the default world.

I’ll now discuss some of the other issues that are raised in the petition. Chief among these is a demand that the Project dedicate 10% of its income to the funding of art. I believe this proposal is chiefly due to the relative scarcity of artwork at the event this year, and this is something we can all agree about. This year recorded 40 no shows in the category of unfunded art, a record number. These artworks had been mapped in advance and were indicated in our art guide. We are currently contacting all of these artists to determine the cause of this. Thus far, many of them tell us that dust storms occurring near the beginning of the event prevented them from installing their work. In some instances, these works were eventually exhibited at the artist’s camps. Major defaults also occurred in the area of funded art. Some of these were quite ambitious projects. Equipment breakdowns and technical failures seem to be the common culprit. The Black Rock Desert is not a friend to fuel lines, computer chips or circuit boards. In the coming year, we hope to offer artists much more technological advice. There was less art this year compared with 2003, but claims that this was caused by cultural depletion (brought on by the presence of “newbies,” or any of several other imagined causes) appear to be unwarranted.

It is true, however, that our funding of civic art hasn’t increased over the last three years. We were planning to substantially increase this sum in 2004, but we were suddenly confronted by a legal and political crisis. This required us to spend approximately $800,000 on improvements to the ranch in Nevada that we use as a staging area for the event. I don’t expect the authors of the petition to be aware of this. Their sole concern is focused on the money we devote to art. But it does help to demonstrate how the management of a 7.5 million dollar budget can be affected by a number of diverse and unexpected factors. The concerns of Burning Man are manifold, and they extend to many more activities than art. An examination of the annual financial statements contained in the AfterBurn reports we publish on our website will amply illustrate this. In addition to our infrastructure, we’ve also devoted increasing amounts of time and money to the Burning Man Network that supports our worldwide community of participants year-round. These and like expenditures are all contingent, and our annual budgeting requires several weeks.

No outside group will ever be allowed to appropriate blocks of Burning Man’s money for the simple reason that they do not bear the responsibility, as our organization most certainly does, for ensuring that the whole of Burning Man survives from year to year. It is sheer fantasy to believe that guest curators or an art council, neither of which are stakeholders in our process, would be allowed to mandate crude and simple tithes for any purpose. I don’t want to sound harsh here, but I really do wonder how any particular group could think that it has the expertise or, in all decency, the right to do this. As an experienced budgeter, I wonder how the authors of the We Have a Dream manifesto came up with a figure of 10% of Burning Man’s income, rather than 9.7 or 10.2. A small group of people appears to believe that it’s enough to wave a magic wand, to cite round figures and make sweeping executive gestures – then leave our organization’s hardworking volunteers and underpaid staff members with the task of taking care of “details.”

I have just returned home from a retreat that we conduct each year. This weeklong gathering was attended by 65 staff members, both paid and volunteer. We arose early each morning and we worked until dark. Even when our daily meetings were concluded, people read reports and talked about ideas long into the night. We perused 450 pages of Ember reports prepared by all of those participants whose work ensures that Burning Man occurs each year, and we inspected all of the participant emails we’d received. We talked passionately about what anyone who honors our community, including those who author manifestos, should readily understand — the very same issues and worries and fears that beset everyone. Out of these discussions, many ideas began to emerge. For example, we examined all of the problems and potential challenges created by the growing size of Black Rock City, and we came up with some radical solutions. I look forward to presenting these ideas a little later in the coming year. I think our plans will speak to the concerns that many people have about the growth of Burning Man. We also discussed the regional movement and what we might do to assist the many communities of Burning Man participants that have begun to multiply around the world.

In the course of these conversations, a number of us also talked about art of Black Rock City. We decided that it’s time to spend more money in support of artists. In 2005, we hope to award more grants to artists than ever before. This would represent a significant increase over the approximately $260,000 that we spent for this purpose in 2004. We also decided to distribute these grants to a wider community of artists. Our conversations also led us to a decision to reveal a small but apparently well kept secret: it is really very easy to qualify as theme art. We do urge funded artists to try to relate their work to our annual theme. In practice, however, it is usually possible to regard almost any artwork as congruent with this general concept that a theme advances. Furthermore, we have also funded artworks that do not in any way express the annual theme or are not particularly interactive (As an example, some participants may remember a sculpture, entitled Flock, which appeared on the playa in 2001. This monumental figure, whose spidery limbs and headless torso towered nearly 40 feet into the air, was awarded a grant for one reason alone: it was beautiful).

We still believe that themes and interaction help to bind our temporary desert society together, and we will continue to award points, as it were, to any artwork that achieves these ends. However, we will now make it clear to everyone that a portion of our grant monies will also be given to artists whose work does not conform to either of these categories. Here, I think, the petitioners have a point. Let the greater cause of creativity be served. As to the concept of guest curators, let me frankly say that the We Have Dream petition has also caused us to rethink our process. We are not willing to submit a curatorial position to popular election, nor are we willing to issue carte blanche authority to anyone, including myself, who plays a role in the selection process. We have always made our choices through consensus. However, we expect to receive more grant applications this year, we expect that we’ll need help, and we are willing to go outside of our organization to find someone who is willing to roll up their sleeves and work with us. Whoever we invite to help us must be ready to devote their time to many details, and must live in the Bay Area, since this task cannot be done remotely. I am ready to believe that this will broaden our perspective.

In conclusion, I am determined to be fair to those who have written or signed the We Have a Dream petition, though this is not a courtesy that they have always shown to us. I take the authors of the manifesto at their word when they proclaim that they sincerely care — and care passionately — about the welfare and future direction of Burning Man. However, they are not alone in this. The manifesto commences by stating, “We are the artists. We feel that this event which we made great has gotten away from us,” but they are not the only artists. They are a fraction of all of the artists who reside in the Bay Area. They have, however, always been a part of our immediate society in San Francisco. Many, I imagine, are longtime veterans of the event, and a few have certainly made significant artistic contributions to Burning Man’s culture over the years. It’s therefore understandable that they have come to feel they represent our core community. But I believe they have made a serious mistake in their reasoning. Everyone I meet wants Burning Man to be uniquely their own. Yet this uniqueness, this intimacy of connection, can’t ever mean they own it for exclusive use. Most certainly, it doesn’t mean that any particular group can claim that they have “made” the event. Burning Man belongs, in fact, to everyone who gives to it, to many thousands of people, and it is this spirit of giving, this vision of the power of a gift — and not a grant or vote — that has been forgotten here.

Larry Harvey