Long before most Burning Man participants have finished brushing the final specks of dust from their belongings (if that is even possible), the Burning Man Project’s staff begins the task of evaluating its entire year. Documents called Ember Reports are written and submitted by managers from every department detailing every significant success and failure. These reports provide critical and often quite candid assessments. This time-consuming effort is then followed by two retreats. The first involves the six members of Black Rock City LLC, the Project’s governing board. The second, much larger, is attended by members of the Project’s Senior Staff and many of its managers. Time is tailored to allow for a few short periods of rest and relaxation, and both retreats take place in natural settings. Yet our meetings begin early each day, and animated conversations often continue long into the night. This introspection is arduous, it is painstaking, but it is worth it. It represents, in sum, one long collective act of self-examination.
This process happens in October and November. After the Board retreat in 2004, I had special cause for such reflection. We had spent much of our time discussing and reviewing these Ember Reports. Successes were described and challenges examined; many ideas for improvement were brought forward. This review helped us to see the bigger picture, appreciate the work of others, identify problems, and plan for the future. Instructions for writing the Embers had read, “[Your report] will likely include your interactions and observations regarding other departments and how their work affected yours. In these cases, please follow the ground rules by only speaking for yourself and from your experience. Do not place blame.”
Realizing that the utmost candor might be necessary in some instances, we also made a provision for special confidential reports that would not be released to Senior Staff. Most of our staff members did admirable work on their reports and followed these guidelines. However, in a few sensational instances, writers didn’t bother with confidentiality. They dished to the entire list. Some Ember Reports included general harangues about other departments, at times lapsing into a blame-laden and personal tone. Second-hand information and speculation was also included, sometimes in the absence of much personal reflection. This abuse of the format prompted me to write a note to our Senior Staff, portions of which follow.
To get at what is wrong with [some of these reports], I think I need to use the “p” word: professional. This is a word that’s seldom used in our organization, presumably because it suggests for-profit aims or impersonal standards that we wish to transcend. We rightly tell ourselves that we are friends and part of a community. But now I think we need to remind ourselves that being a professional essentially means that one professes a duty that’s distinct from friendship or the network of community. We’re uniquely bound to one another by our dedication to the work at hand. When any one of us fails to act with integrity, all of us are hampered in our common mission. Working to create Burning Man requires a higher standard of behavior than simple participation or community membership. It calls for discipline and accountability.
In other words, the problem I see in a few of the Ember Reports is that they are unprofessional. Ignoring rules is unprofessional. Disrespecting fellow staff members and making things too personal is unprofessional. Blaming entire departments is unprofessional, and stating that one will not work with another staff member is unprofessional… I was also struck by a particular Ember Report that went so far as to assert that our organization can’t let people go because community sentiment won’t allow this to happen. By community I think the author meant that penumbra of friendships that immediately surrounds us in San Francisco. But this is to confuse friendship with our shared duty to the Project and its mission. It also confuses the Odeon bar [a local gathering place in San Francisco] and Craig’s list [a local email forum] with a much larger group of participants who are now looking to us for inspiring leadership.
I’ve no doubt that these perplexities are of our own making. We have a history, as all of you know, of confusing duty with friendship and passion with profession. Ideally, the two can be made to combine – but following one’s bliss is only half of the necessary equation. I was reminded of this principle recently when someone asked me that perennial question: How has Burning Man changed your life? I really had to reflect. I finally told her that it hasn’t made me more spontaneous. I was spontaneous enough to begin with. In fact, it hasn’t done any of those things that people usually cite, especially after their first experience of Black Rock City. I finally said, a little haltingly, that it has made me more responsible. I felt a bit like an earnest Methodist in saying this, but I will stand by what I told her.
The other Board members and I certainly had cause to self-reflect and think about responsibility at our retreat, and we’ve come home ready to present some exciting ideas that will open up our little world of Burning Man to new and adventurous prospects. And, while we’re all at it, let’s do something really radical and always remember to act like the professionals we really are. Again, thank you all for writing these reports, and I suggest you start reading now. In bound form, they’re thicker than the metropolitan phone directory.
The Senior Staff retreat that followed was undoubtedly the best and most meaningful yet. But working for the Burning Man Project isn’t easy. At times, it is like walking a delicate tightrope. On the one hand, if we should ever cease to exemplify those values we espouse — to radically be, in the most immediate way, creative, spontaneous, and fully ourselves — we will risk more than hypocrisy; we’ll risk failing in our mission. But, on the other hand, if we lack discipline, ignore our duties, or let the Project sink in a morass of discord or self-serving agendas, we’ll also fail to achieve our goals. Never is this tension more apparent than at the Burning Man event. While others play, we’re often hard at work. Looking forward to the future, we all know that we’ll face an even greater challenge.
The Burning Man movement — its impetus as a growing, sprawling, fertile, and sometimes confusing culture — is increasing in geometric proportion. The future of the Black Rock Arts Foundation, as it works to nurture our community and expand our awareness of the world beyond the horizon of our temporary city, will also be a story of accelerated growth. Burning Man is now out of the box of Black Rock City, the Petri dish, the alembic, the test tube that we’ve created in the desert. This future now depends, more than ever before, on its participants. But it also now depends on us, the organizers of the Burning Man Project. We confronted crucial questions and the challenges in 2004. Will Burning Man falter in divisions? Will it disperse and be consumed in what we call the default world? Or will it maintain both its vitality and integrity and change that greater world in which we lead our daily lives? The answer to this latter question, now that one more year has come and gone, is an emphatic yes!—yes it will.