Charlie Dolman · The Dust is in the Details
If Burning Man’s flagship event, Black Rock City, were a ship, Charlie Dolman would be its skipper. The SS BRC is already taking shape in the dry docks of our collective effort, and at some point later this summer it will slide into the dusty seas of northern Nevada of the US.
As the event operations director, Charlie leads a crew of leaders responsible for pretty much all aspects of city infrastructure, and for planning for just about every operational contingency, from fire and rain to, who knows, a downpour of frogs. On fire.
On playa he’s the fast-moving, soft-spoken decision-maker with three radios, a cell phone and a pager (yes, a pager!).
In this rare interview he sits still long enough to talk with Stuart Mangrum about the people making BRC greener, less commodified, and more inclusive. He also passes Stuart’s quiz about being a Brit in the US, and defends marmite as a comestible.
Burning Man Project Staff: Charlie Dolman
STUART: Soundcheck good, Vav?
VAV: Can you curse under your breath a bit, Charlie?
CHARLIE: [mutter mutter]
STUART: Louder, Charlie.
CHARLIE: Uh, I know, it’s just a thing, isn’t it? Do you remember what happened? I was presenting to a room of people and the entire room in unison turned around and went “Louder, Charlie!” and it stuck. Yep.
VAV: Say something.
STUART: Charlie, say something.
CHARLIE: My name is Charles. I’m from England and I have a pet badger.
STUART: No cats?
CHARLIE: Uh, my house came with cats. Please don’t ask me any hard questions about the Principles.
STUART: Okay. You’re creating great outtakes already before we even started.
SPEC GUY: Meet the people who make Burning Man happen, beyond the desert and around the world; the dreamers and doers, the makers, shakers and innovators; the artists, activists, freaks and fools. Burning Man Live
STUART: Hello, my invisible friends. Welcome back to another episode of Burning Man Live. I’m Stuart Mangrum. And my guest today is somebody that you probably really, really would like to meet. His name is Charlie Dolman. He is the Director of Event Operations for Black Rock City and Burning Man Project, which means he’s kinda-sorta the Mayor of our little town of 80,000 humans, or the, uh, city manager, or the alcalde or something.
If Black Rock City were a ship, I think we would all call him a Skipper, but according to his LinkedIn page, and I’ve started doing this now for all my guests, I will look you up on LinkedIn.
CHARLIE: Snooping, Stuart. Snooping.
STUART: Well, no it’s called background research. It’s called being prepared for the interview. But according to LinkedIn, you could tell me if this isn’t true, Charlie is responsible for the management of eight department heads, 30-plus year-round staff, 1,000 seasonal staff and 10,000 volunteers.
CHARLIE: There’s some question about whether the 10,000 number is accurate, and it varies between 10 and 15,000, depending on who you talk to, but the rest of it is 100% accurate. Yeah.
STUART: Okay. We can talk about that because I say there’s more like 60,000 volunteers when you count all the theme camps and everybody else, right?
CHARLIE: That is also a thing, yes.
STUART: Anyway, Charlie Dolman, he came to us. He was already a very experienced event production professional, 17 years, co-founded, oh, a little party called Secret Garden with 30,000 attendees over on the other side of the pond; produced events all over the world. He first traveled to the playa in 2006. He can’t stop. He can’t give it up. He’s in so deep, now. Ladies and gentlemen, Charlie Dolman.
CHARLIE: Stuart Mangrum, thank you for that fantastic introduction.
STUART: I’ve been working on it. I don’t want to just read your Wikipedia page, but I do want people to get a little sense of…
CHARLIE: I have a Wikipedia page?
STUART: No, I just made that up.
CHARLIE: I should maybe have a Wikipedia page.
STUART: Don’t get me started. I don’t have one. So maybe we’ll write each other’s Wikipedia pages after this show, and will be just slightly more, one-half percent more, well-known than we are already.
So, let’s start with your job. You have a hell of a job, Charlie. Tell us more about – I don’t think you do call yourself the skipper of the BRC ship, but how do you describe it to people?
CHARLIE: Well, it’s been a couple of years since I’ve had to do that, in fairness. So, how do I describe my job to people?
The thing that happens most often, Stuart, is people are like, “Oh, so I’ll see you at Black Rock City,” to which my answer is “probably not.” If you do meet me in Black Rock City, you’re either in jail, or dead, or in some other ungodly mass that you really probably don’t want to be in, uh, because that’s what I do.
I spend a lot of my time at Black Rock City getting to deal with things when they’ve gone wrong. We spend all year putting together systems and my job is to try to make all the different systems run together and all the different people work harmoniously and achieve the goals of the organization and do it all within budget and be compliant with the government and kind of join the dots between all those different cogs.
The ship analogy is very apt, actually, because I see our role year-round as we build the ship, we get the ship, we pull the pieces together. And then at some point in June it’s like a boat on a ramp. And once it starts moving down the ramp, your ability to make change, you need to curtail the desire to make change because the boat’s already moving.
I see the playa as being on the ocean, and then once we’re on that ramp, things come to me when they’re broken and they’re very broken, seriously broken. Yeah. My summer on the playa is sitting in small metal boxes, helping people think through problems.
STUART: That explains why when I have spotted you on playa you seem to have more radios than Flavor Flav has alarm clocks like different, how many radios do you wear? How many channels are you monitoring?
CHARLIE: Uh, I have three radios, a pager and a cell phone. So yeah, I have a radio channel that is kind of the BRC operations channel, which is kind of for all the incoming traffic for me and the ops leadership team. And then I have the radio with the government, so that’s a whole separate piece. And then a free-floating radio, which is just used to do the outgoing stuff, whatever that is at that particular moment. The Pager of Doom (as we’ve nicknamed them because really it’s just the bad news portal), it’s plugged into the 911 dispatch system, which is how we communicate this day’s current disasters; a structure collapse or a heart attack or a crash or a whatever it is that’s happened. So, yeah.
There was a funny moment actually where my son was wandering around Burning Man. He was, this was three years ago, so he was six years old. He ended up talking with another staff member’s kid. And the staff member’s kid didn’t know who Mateo’s dad was. And he was like, “My daddy carries a radio.” Mateo just turned around to him and went “My daddy carries three!”
STUART: …and a pager. I described my pager to people as a time travel device because when you have a pager, you are living in 1990, is it what it is?
CHARLIE: It is very 1990s technology, but you know what? It doesn’t need the internet. It’s really hard to break. It’s extremely reliable. They work anywhere. And if everything goes to hell in a handbasket, it’s probably going to be the one thing left standing.
STUART: I’ve had younger participants just look at me in wonder, and when I describe it to them, they seem to think that I’m describing a telegraph.
CHARLIE: There was a great moment a couple of years ago, some people did an art car that was a TV and they kind of had TV shows and they drove around with this, right? And so then they had the two guys from Antiques Roadshow, the actual two people from American Antiques Roadshow, on it. They were just discussing things. They would just drive up to a crowd and say, “Does anyone have any historical artifacts that we should really analyze and inspect at this particular moment?” Flash was hosting these two people, and so Marnee and I happened to be there, and we were like, “Well, this is the perfect time to get your pager out because let’s face it, it’s… (an anachronism is the wrong word); it’s a relic.”
STUART: It is a relic of simpler times. But, wow. So, what are the departments? Give us the quick sketch of what your structure is of the people who report to you and what various aspects, what plates they are juggling?
CHARLIE: Plates that we’re juggling. I have a kind of a management tree underneath me of Associate Directors and then department Managers, but broadly the purview of those people: It starts with the community services, which is Greeters and Playa Info and Cafe and Arctica and Placement. It’s all the stuff that really engages directly with participants and helps them survive and thrive in Black Rock City. That’s a dozen or so different teams doing all kinds of different things and people have interacted with them in different ways. We’ve got the environmental compliance folks in there coming around, making sure that you keep the camp tidy.
Next up is art. That actually encompasses a whole pile of different teams. You know, there’s guys that go around and make sure that art is lit up at night so that folks don’t accidentally impale themselves on something spiky.
STUART: Or my personal favorite, the ASS team.
CHARLIE: Everybody loves the ASS team.
STUART: Everybody loves ASS: Art Support Services.
CHARLIE: That team’s really thrived in the last couple of years. Their job is to help the artists succeed, really. Because artists don’t always succeed. Doing stuff out there is hard. And there’s also the Artery. There’s all the art world.
Then we have ESD, which is obviously medical and fire, and the 911, and the radio systems.
STUART: Emergency Services Department.
CHARLIE: Yep. Sorry. Yes, the anac… Uh…
STUART: You’re an acac…
CHARLIE: That’s the word I was looking for, a three-letter anachronism!
STUART: You’re an acronym!
CHARLIE: And then one that many people don’t know about, which is called CIT, which is a Crisis Intervention Team. They are mental health professionals, sexual assault advocates, other people of this nature, and they help you if you’ve had a really awful personal experience in some way or fashion. They will advocate for you. They are people who are trained in the world in these very delicate moments to support humans.
Then, Rangers, who everybody knows, the guys in khaki wandering around helping you out. What most people don’t know is that the Rangers also consist of about 15 different teams. They have rapid response teams, they have tow-truck teams, and they have teams focused on individual support, the “green dots.” So they have a whole raft of different things as well.
Next is Gate. Obviously, everybody interacts with the guys in black, out on the edge of the city. They also have a perimeter team that keeps us secure. They manage all of our traffic operations, both on and off-site. So when you drive through Empire and you have to go through all the traffic lights and bits and pieces that we put in, somebody manages that; that’s that team.
STUART: That’s a massive team. That’s a thousand plus volunteers, right? Gate and GPE?
CHARLIE: Most of these teams are somewhere between 700 and 1,200 people.
STUART: That’s right, ESD is too, and Rangers are too.
ESD and Rangers are too. The number of people that come out to the playa is not quite that many, but that’s the pool of people.
Then the next one under me is DPW, which builds all the infrastructure for the city. DPW is also actually, I want to say 37 different teams, spires, signs, roads, water, power, housing, potties, food, showers, Depot, construction. There’s a lot of different stuff that goes into that.
STUART: There’s a bad attitude team in there too, isn’t there? Oh, wait. They’re all bad attitude.
CHARLIE: Can I tell you something about DPW, Stuart? They have done an amazing job in the last however many years of becoming one of the most open, accepting, tolerant examples of a modern diverse world. They’ve got leaders in their department who are really exemplifying what it means to be inclusive and to offer opportunities to all different persuasions. It’s really great, actually.
STUART: I have seen it too. They’ve made a sea change just in the last five or 10 years for sure in their organizational culture. And, they are super, super open – and they still have bad attitudes.
CHARLIE: And they still have bad attitudes!
STUART: Let’s celebrate that too.
CHARLIE: And they bring the cocktail bar to the commissary, the portable, shopping trolley cocktail bar, margarita bar comes to the commissary.
So it’s Art, Community Services, Rangers, Gate, ESD, DPW, things like DMV and Placement and all that stuff is kind of rolled into there somewhere.
STUART: Is Government Relations part of your – I know that’s a big part of what you do is working with the Government Relations.
CHARLIE: A vast chunk of what we do is permitted or regulated or needs to otherwise somehow engage with a government agency. So it’s a really large part of my job. Marnee Benson runs Government Relations and she’s a very astute political operator in that field, which is really fantastic. And she and I partner a lot in terms of the both, there’s the relationship piece, there’s the negotiation piece. And then there’s the delivery piece.
Things like ticketing and Government Relations have a huge bearing on my world and I have a part in them, but I don’t oversee them directly.
STUART: Right. So do you want to go back over your list and see if you forgot any of your teams? Because they’ll be really sad if they don’t hear their names.
CHARLIE: Uh, not Tech, not Comms. I think it’s, yes. I think.
STUART: I think you’ll be forgiven if you forgot one.
Charlie, you have described yourself as, and I love this phrase, as “an accidental expert.” What are some of the things you’ve had to learn in this crazy role of yours?
CHARLIE: An accidental expert. Thank you for digging those words out. I’d forgotten about that. That’s very true. Well, like I said, a lot of my world is heavily regulated. We have managers in each of these areas and as the person steering the ship, I have to have a sense of what actually those folks are doing and the kind of pressure on them. And I absolutely have to be able to make critical decisions when they need to, so.
So I’ve ended up with curiously specific amounts of knowledge in weird fields. Like the medical operation. I’m not a doctor, um, and I can speak a lot to the nuts and bolts of the licensing and regulation and all the bits and pieces around the medical stuff.
I’ve had to do the same with the airport. Our airport has, again, a lot of regulation. Thank God, it’s airplanes it should do, right? It’s just been a process of evolution as that operation has matured and developed. The relationship with agencies has changed. The staff at agencies have changed, and we just ended up learning a lot about what it takes to run an airport. Construction, fuel safety, environmental regulation.
STUART: for the last couple of years, probably public health and COVID protocols.
CHARLIE: Turns out I know everything about COVID. No, not true. Wow. The interesting thing about COVID is that almost no one has been able to say with certainty anything about the future, pretty much ever during it. Everybody’s kind of had – well, first of all, there’s the political division thing that has occurred, and then there’s also the kind of practical application of it and the ever-changing landscape.
And honestly, that’s one of the pieces that’s made everything in the last couple of years really, really hard. To plan an operation, you need to be able to have some sense of certainty, at least in a couple of key areas, and we’ve lacked that. We’ve absolutely lacked that. As much as you try and stick stakes in the ground, and lean into scenario planning and like, well, maybe it’s going to be this and maybe it’s going to be that, still that uncertainty has made things hard.
We’ve had a really, really, really fantastic group of people called the COVID Task Force; members of our community, members of our staff, who are professionals out in the world dealing with COVID. We have PhD epidemiologists from Stanford. We have guys running emergency response systems in Nevada and California. We have people that run hospitals in New York. We’ve got a whole range of people who have experience in different areas of managing the pandemic, who have helped us stay on top of all sides. It’s been an interesting couple of years.
Do you know that’s one of those things that you really wish you never had to know about. You know what I mean? Like, I am quite happy to know about airports. I dunno. When I grow up and become a fireman, I don’t know if it’s going to be any use to me, but, yeah.
STUART: I know that safety planning is a lot of what happens too in your world, right? Because as much as we hate uncertainty, there’s always uncertainty about how things are going to go. And I know that you and your team spend an awful lot of time imagining the worst, right? Thinking about how, what we’re going to do if we get a massive rainstorm, if whatever else happens. That’s an ongoing process, that happens quite a bit every year, doesn’t it?
CHARLIE: It does happen quite a bit every year. Yeah. We do spend a lot of time safety planning. There’s a lot of different scenarios to think about. And the climate in the world changes – literally the climate in the world changes. Maybe I should have said that differently.
STUART: Why, yes, the psychological climate and the actual physical climate.
CHARLIE: And both of which, if you think about it, have downstream impacts that could end up leading to issues that we need a safety plan for. For example, wildfires. We have had road closures that have happened as a result of wildfires. A few years ago, 447, there were people on 447, which is the big road that comes up from the freeway to the playa, a hundred miles-ish. The fire came over the hill and it raced across the valley at about 30 miles an hour, and it hit the road at different points. And there was actually Burner traffic in between where the fire had hit the road. And so the fire truck guys were literally driving upwind of the Burner, you know, all the loaded trucks like mattresses and tents and cars and you know, all the yada yada other people have in their vehicles. And so the fire trucks are driving upwind of those, spraying water on them, driving them through the fire to get them out of the danger zone. These kinds of things do happen. Climate change is real.
Every year we do a bunch of different tabletop exercises where we sit down and kind of play war games. When you do the war games, it’s always really interesting to think about, like, how much gas do you pour on the fire? Uh, an analogy there. How much gas do you pour on the fire in a game? Do you imagine that two bad things are gonna happen at once? What about three bad things? Three bad things? Are you going to have a bomb threat and a death and a rainstorm all at the same time?
STUART: Unfortunately the world certainly seems to be able to throw multiple catastrophes at us at a time. So I’m really glad you guys are doing that work. Tabletop exercise sounds like it’s like some sort of board game, but this is really serious, important work that you guys do.
CHARLIE: The thing about it is that for the most part it’s almost impossible to think through all of the variables that happen within any particular contingency planning exercise, you know? So you have to focus on what are the big chunks that you can respond to. And then for the rest of it, what are the systems that you put in place that allow you to actually respond as a situation unfolds?
Because even with a rain closure, where is it happening? How long is it going to last? How serious is it? Who? Has it impacted the road? So, you know, there’s just, so that’s just even a simple example. There’s so many different variables, and the thing that I’m really proud of is that in the past five, six years, the systems and processes that we have to manage crises, contingencies, whatever you want to call it, have become really, really strong. There’s great relationships between all the teams. The communication pods are really strong. The relationships that we have with the government agencies that support us are really strong. We have direct links to the Washoe County Emergency Operations Center.
So in the event that we start needing major support or that their thing, whatever it is, begins to spill out into the outside world, all of those links are already set up. And we practice with all of those agencies as well. So it’s a really bulletproof system, and I am pretty confident that at this point we could deal with most things that are thrown at us.
I will say, though, we do, as part of this planning exercise, there is a history of whichever extra thing we choose to plan for, we choose to tabletop, ends up happening. So we feel a little bit jinxed on that. Literally, we did a rainstorm and then that year we had to close the playa because of rain. Then we did COVID and then COVID happened.
STUART: Power of coincidence, Charlie, but just to be safe, why don’t we plan for a rain of frogs and possibly some locusts this time?
CHARLIE: Let’s just stick the frogs there. Locusts can get in places frogs aren’t going to get in places so much.
STUART: Well there was that bug-vasion a few years ago.
CHARLIE: There was.
STUART: The bug-pocalypse.
CHARLIE: The bug-pocalypse.
STUART: Yeah, and then the birds came and ate them all, and they were gone.
CHARLIE: That was really weird. Did you know that we had this, the Nevada state entomologist came out to the event? Yeah, he came out because we were just getting bug drifts on the sides of generators, where they were sitting on the ground. You know, like you get a snowdrift, it’s just bug drifts everywhere, and so it made it into the papers. And so we had the state entomologist come out from the State of Nevada Fish and Wildlife or whatever it was. And yeah, so there you go, unusual things.
STUART: Did we ever get a ruling on whether a dead bug was MOOP or not, and needed to be removed from the playa, or whether it was natural?
CHARLIE: MOOP is technically anything that doesn’t exist on the playa in the first place, so…
STUART: Bugs? Matter Out Of Place?
CHARLIE: Definitely Matter Out Of Place.
STUART: Bugs Out Of Place, BOOPS? I dunno. I hope that one doesn’t happen again.
Hey, I just want to zoom out a little bit here. I want to know more about how you got this crazy job. You were working in England. You were working across Europe. You actually produced a festival in Zambia, of all places. But what was it like when you read that this job opportunity came up? I guess you already had some Burning Man experience, but do you remember that day that you said, “Holy shit, they’re hiring an Event Operations Director”?
CHARLIE: I do. I do. It was great, actually. Do you believe in serendipity or fate, or whatever the thing is?
STUART: One or the other, yes.
CHARLIE: I read it and I was just super, super excited. Honestly, my first thought was, “They’re just pushing us out because they need to push it out into the world. They already know who this person is. This is a really serious role. This is not the kind of entity that hires this role from the outside. It just doesn’t…” And then about three or four friends all sent me the job description and said, “Hey, this is your job. Look!” So I applied.
STUART: Is it true that you showed up for your job interview on playa in a pink panther outfit and carrying an ax?
CHARLIE: Uh, no, that was a different scenario. The pink panther outfit and an ax was just a different moment that actually came up because staff asked me; I got introduced to all the staff at the retreat. Remember we used to do those off-sites?
STUART: God, I miss that.
CHARLIE: I had to sit at the front of the room with Marian and Harley, and the question came up, you know, “Dude, you’re just wearing a regular shirt. How do we know that you’re one of us? Look at you. You’re just like a regular human,” to which my answer was “Well, I can always get more crazy and I can’t undo crazy. So I’m going to start off,” and also you see me now, I just wear shirts all the time anyway, so.
STUART: You’re not an exceptionally flashy dresser.
CHARLIE: I’m not an exceptionally flashy dresser. But, uh, the pink panther suit and the ax were very real. Yep. That was a whole moment.
STUART: Okay, where was that moment? I gotta know, now.
CHARLIE: it was at a place called Wasing Park in England. And, I just, the only thing I would say is: you know what, an ax does not make a good prop at nine in the morning. And that’s all I’m going to say, it just doesn’t.
STUART: I think it might be slightly perceived as threatening in the wrong circumstances.
CHARLIE: I mean, the pink panther suit does offset that a little bit.
STUART: It’s true. It’s a nice juxtaposition.
CHARLIE: Yeah. Especially because it was kinda small. Anyway, there you go.
STUART: So, this role was, in some respects, it was created for the time and the place. But in other respects, it was very much what Harley K Dubois was doing before you, right? What was that transition like, stepping into those founder-shoes, and inheriting all of that interesting background? What was the transition and the succession experience like for you?
CHARLIE: Do they listen to this? Can I tell the truth?
STUART: No. Absolutely, please.
CHARLIE: Okay, great. So my interviews were hilarious. Just going to backtrack a little bit. So I came to playa and I had like 40 hours worth of conversation on the playa during event week. Then, went home. And then, came back to San Francisco and had another, like, I don’t know, dozens and dozens of hours worth of conversations in San Francisco. And then, all real, made an offer and came over, and my first day…
And you gotta remember, like, I don’t know anybody in this company. I know how to run an event. But I can tell you that running Burning Man is absolutely nothing like running any other event – or at least the majority, the vast, if not every other event, 99.999% of them. So I’m a fish out of water, here.
And, my first day there’s a Post-It note with like eight things written on it, and three of them just kind of crossed out, and then another one written at the bottom, and it’s like, “Yep. Yep. That’s it. That’s your first day.” It’s like, “Okay. Whew.”
My transition plan was to spend six months with Marian and Harley going into all the meetings, listening to all the things, speaking to all the people, doing all the reading, listening, etc.
I think it lasted about four days. And then after four days, um, that was it. I was just a ship at sea to kind of figure it out. Marian and Harley, in fairness to them, were both extremely helpful and supportive of me, so.
STUART: That would be Marian Goodell and Harley K Dubois.
CHARLIE: Marian Goodell who is now CEO, and Harley K Dubois who is now Chief Cultural Officer. Yeah.
I think the interesting piece, Stuart, was that the reason that the job was put out was because those two in particular wanted to turn their focuses onto setting up the non-profit. And so the organization was at a really interesting inflection point that I was completely unaware of, and didn’t really have any comprehension of what it meant to all aspects of the culture and the people in the event.
And so the role that I have has changed. “Changed’ the wrong word. It’s matured a lot, right? The systems have matured. We’ve got good people in each of the places. We had good people before, but the management structure has really solidified, and the focus of the organization has broadened.
The role went from kind of very, very nuts and bolts focused – yes, all the nuts and bolts are part of it and they do need to be delivered – but it was also about balancing culture and serving the community and kind of keeping all of those. It’s like a little graphic equalizer. You have to kind of keep all the different levels balanced and make it sound good.
STUART: Well, the organization has definitely been professionalized quite a bit under your watch. And I know that’s, that had to be hard. I mean, you mentioned the transition to the non-profit. There’s a very common experience there, as founders decide to step back or change their roles. We have organizational structures that are very much personality-based, right?
STUART: that were based around a particular person. You know, DPW was based around Will Roger, right? And when Will stepped back from that,
CHARLIE: and then Marian
STUART: replacing him with a team, right? And Marian had had her fingers in lots of things, you know, communications primarily. But all of them to be able to step back from their direct operational roles created both opportunities and lots of challenges for the whole organization. So good on ya.
So, Charlie, you’ve been here for what, 10 years now, living in the states mostly?
CHARLIE: I say “trunk.” Yeah.
STUART: You say trunk rather than boot? That was one of my questions! Have you seen my ex-pat quiz? You live here. You own a house here in the Bay Area. You’re raising American children.
STUART: I am blessed with a lot of English ex-pat friends and I just wanted to kind of run you through a few, just to kind of get your temperature on how Americanized you are. Are you up for that?
CHARLIE: I’m totally down with that. Come on.
STUART: Okay. That was the first one: trunk or boot?
CHARLIE: Boot. Trunk!
STUART: PBJ or Marmite sandwich?
CHARLIE: Well, hold on. That’s actually nothing to do with being an American and you will never, ever, ever get me off Marmite, but what you could do is put marmite in a PBJ.
STUART: Good answer. All right. A cup of tea or a cup of java?
CHARLIE: I don’t like tea.
STUART: Okay. Snow peas or mushy peas?
CHARLIE: I never understood mushy peas, but also mushy peas with mints are quite nice. I’m going to hedge it. Are we eating Chinese? Are we eating fried breakfast? You tell me.
STUART: Fair. Football or football?
CHARLIE: Yeah. You see the British person in me just wants to say “fuck off.” You mean soccer? It’s footie. Football or footie. Can we do things with water? I love water sports. I’m not really a kind of ball sports… You know, sports ball is my preferred game.
STUART: Same here. Okay. Let’s get serious though: Controversy or controversy?
CHARLIE: You mean controversy.
STUART: Okay. What are your feelings about the Oxford comma, Charlie?
CHARLIE: Well, I recently started using Grammarly and so Grammarly is forming some of my opinions these days. Can I be honest with you? By default I never used it. I just didn’t. And now I do. So I might be what you call a late convert or at least slowly modernizing my perspective on the world.
STUART: Well then you just gained a point in my book because I’m a big Oxford comma fan and always have been, otherwise clauses just get all too familiar with each other, right?
CHARLIE: They do. They do.
Here’s the big one. When you go home, when you go back to Britain, do your old friends tease you for having an American accent?
CHARLIE: No, but, this does circulate back to your original point. They do tease me because my vocabulary has changed. Yeah. So when I said, you said “boot or trunk?” and I said, “boot,” in reality, I probably should have said “trunk” because my UK relationships all note that I use funny words all over the place.
What’s the one that, uh, “on accident.” British people don’t say “on accident,” you had things happen “by accident.”
STUART: I think literate Americans say “by accident” too.
CHARLIE: Do they?
STUART: “On accident” is like a third-grader.
CHARLIE: Is it?
STUART: Mommy, it happened on accident.
CHARLIE: Okay. Well, I know a lot of adults that use the word “on accident,” as well.
STUART: Well, you know a lot of third-graders posing as adults. Okay, well, that was fun.
CHARLIE: I won’t tell them you said that. I’ll tell you one thing that did happen though, I went back to the UK and I nearly had a car crash because I tried to drive on the wrong side of the road. I was pulling out of a junction and obviously, if you’re in America you would just pull into this side, but if you’re in Britain, you would pull into the other side. And I pulled into the wrong side because I’ve been here for years, and the police happened to be right there. So, I got a ticket for that. I got a ticket for being an American. Yes, there you go.
STUART: Totally understandable. I lived in Japan for four years and I did exactly the same thing my first week home, back in California. You get muscle memory, right? You look the wrong way.
So your first trip to Black Rock City, 2006, you were part of a camp called, is this true, The Flying Monkey Pub?
CHARLIE: The Flying Monkey Pub. Yeah.
STUART: Tell me about that, because I’ve run a few pubs on playa and seemed to have fun doing that. What was the Flying Monkey like?
CHARLIE: It was really great fun. We had an old circus tent, an old square circus tent that we put up really badly. It was really windy that year. And when you put a tent up badly, it just acts like a sack in the wind. And so we ended up with our own mini disasters happening left right and center all week, but it was just, it was great. It was a life-affirming experience.
STUART: So you weren’t angry at the people who talked you into going. Who did persuade you to go to this thing?
CHARLIE: I first heard about Burning Man in 1999, when I went to a thing called Solipse Festival, which was the one I did in Zambia with this American guy called Fish was called Solpise. It was a series of two, and the first one was in Hungary. Remember the great American eclipse (the great American eclipse)? Well in 1999 was the great European eclipse. It went across the whole of Europe. In my old days of kind of Goa trance, uh, acid parties, a whole pile of us tracked across Europe to Hungary and went to this festival there. And while I was there I was talking to people and I heard about this thing called Burning Man.
So I then went home and just started reading about it and was like, “Ohhhh,” you know, just all the things. That sounds like something that I should be going and go do. But, you know, poor kid in England trying to bankrupt himself running businesses left right and center didn’t really spend money, so it didn’t happen for a while. And then my job paid for me to go one day, which was kind of bananas. They had money to give to employees who were going to do something creative, and the founders of that particular business all had children and want to live vicariously through me. So they gave me 3000 pounds, which was enough for my, all the bits and pieces, food, housing, flights, etc. And, some friends of mine who are, uh, inherent troublemakers in the world scooped me up.
We actually had a very funny moment. Two years later with a guy from Current TV.
STUART: Oh yeah.
CHARLIE: So he followed us bringing the camp to the playa. So he did a whole pile of conversations with us in the UK, and then he came over. And he arrived, he came into our camp and the person he met was one of the lead troublemakers who proceeded to tell him, um, in great detail about all the sponsorship that we’ve managed to get from Smirnoff and Red Bull, and how we were funneling the profits from the camp into yada yada. None of which was true.
Months of work for this guy just went down the drain. It’s kind of funny. I mean, he shouldn’t really have taken it seriously, but he did take it seriously and he left. And so, yeah, that was that. But that’s the nature of those humans, you know, they’re pranksters, not pranksters.
STUART: That sounds pretty prankish to me.
CHARLIE: It was pretty prankish.
STUART: Did they enjoy a good bit of crack? Is that right?
CHARLIE: Uh, not in the American sense. They enjoy a good crack, in the British sense. Yeah.
STUART: Which is to have a laugh at someone’s expense, right?
CHARLIE: It’s to have a laugh at someone’s expense.
STUART: So, wow. You got my attention here, boy, but because I just, I just keep looking at the calendar thinking, “Oh my God, we’re really going this year, aren’t we? It’s really happening. This year, we’re going back to Black Rock City.”
CHARLIE: Yeah. It’s very, very real.
STUART: What are you most excited about Charlie?
CHARLIE: What am I most excited about? That process where it coagulates. Where all of the individual workstreams that happen over many months come together and on the playa. And they just, you see the nebulous form of all these remote pieces of stuff kind of come together, and it comes alive. You know, because it doesn’t just come alive with stuff, it comes alive with people, and these people are all friends. We’ve been working together for decades and they’re great folks. And most of them haven’t seen each other in a couple of years now because of the global hiatus. So, it’s going to be exciting. I know it’s going to be fraught, and this is going to be some crispiness and some rough edges and some mistakes, but it’s gonna be exciting.
STUART: What about your core team? What have they been doing for the last couple of years to get ready for this?
CHARLIE: Well, Burning Man’s done a lot of work in the last couple of years. Most of my team has been busy, off doing things in different areas. So there’s been a lot of work around Hive, which is the new, you’ve probably had someone on here from Hive, you know, this new social space, kind of helping connect people.
There’s been a lot of work supporting all of the development up in Gerlach. There’s been a lot of work looking at individual policies and protocols, like: How do we manage resources? We have a whole raft of stuff that we use to support the work. How is that stuff administered? It costs a lot of money. It takes a lot of time and there’s a lot of equity issues around distribution and all that kind of stuff. So there’s been a lot of thinking and a lot of doing as well. And also unpacking things with the government. If you recall, just before the world closed down, we had spent two, three years doing the Environmental Impact Statement, which is the million and a half dollar projects that we’re required to do per the national environmental protection act to have use of the land.
Let’s just say that it left us with a bunch of challenges. So we’ve spent a lot of time unpacking those, trying to decipher what the actual problem is and work out a solution.
STUART: Yeah, things were pretty fraught with the BLM back then. I do recall. Then there was some pretty, ominous mediation measures listed in that report, like the dumpsters and concrete block walls and all that.
CHARLIE: Yeah, event-killing ones, from a cultural and an operational perspective.
STUART: Have things changed? Would you say the BLM, relationship with the BLM is: how is it different now than it was two years ago?
CHARLIE: Things are cordial and things are constructive. We are working with them to work through each of these mitigations.
We’ve got to remember that when they wrote this EAS, even though some of the mitigation has landed like lead balloons for us, they were born from a real concern that came from a real place somewhere somehow. And so to dismiss these things outright is not necessarily, you know, outrage is one thing. Slow, measured, practical understanding of the source of the concern, and then thought on to how to respond appropriately and culturally and operationally appropriately is what we’ve been doing. Those conversations have been going very well.
Marian, our CEO, is set to come in and help a bunch. She has been really helpful in kind of guiding that relationship and staring at it a little bit.
There was a time six or seven years ago where the relationship was very fraught because of some of the then leadership BLM and the kind of nature of the relationship that was set up. And it’s taken all of us a little bit of time to crawl out from underneath the feelings that that created, you know, they’ve lingered a little bit, and it’s been great that in the last year, we’ve actually really been able to just shed that entirely and sit down and say, “Okay, these are the things in front of us. Let’s tackle these together as a team. How are we going to do that?” It’s been good.
STUART: Yeah, it did get very, very adversarial there at a point, right? Particularly with the law enforcement focus of the fellow who was running the shop back then.
CHARLIE: Absolutely. Yes.
STUART: Well, that’s good to hear. So what else is going on?
A lot of, it looks like a lot of changes in operations. I’ve had a lot of people actually on staff telling me that having this time of pause was really wonderful for them, that they didn’t just have to immediately pick it back up and start going right into next year. There was an ability to step back and think about some changes that might’ve been more difficult to make an annual cycle.
A couple of things come to mind are: some of these decommodification moves that we’re making, like scaling back the onsite services program.
CHARLIE: Outside services. Yeah. So we have a program called Outside Services, which essentially it supports vendors who come to the event for participants. This program really started out 10ish years ago now because people started booking bits of heavy equipment and generators and reefer trucks and things that were kind of awkward for them to do themselves. And so they started asking vendors to help, not unreasonable. I don’t know how to drive a semi. You can see they’ve kind of practical application of it.
And then what happened over time was it became heavily leaned on by some folks to support the production of their camp. Which was not what it was intended for. It was intended to help you deliver a couple of things that you couldn’t otherwise do, not for you to use just vendors to do all the work. And a big one was housing. For me personally, it’s not necessarily a causal relationship with plug and play because there’s obviously a zeitgeist moment in the popularity of Burning Man and all the other things that kind of play into that.
But there was definitely a correlation and a relationship there, in between delivered housing. And so this year we have, gonna do away with delivered housing. So rather than scale it back slowly, over a couple of years, we just rip the bandaid off. Let’s not do it.
You know, what’s interesting, Stuart? If you get together with your campmates, you can still have whatever RV you want. You guys can figure out a way and find someone to drive it and work together as a community and a group to solve the fact that there’s not someone to deliver it for you. So it’s not necessarily changing how people camp, but it’s changing how they will work with each other, and therefore, as they work with each other, how they manifest a culture about self-reliance and decommodification. It’s a move to kind of really bring that culture out in humans.
STUART: Well, I’m glad I can still get any RV I want because I want one that has a fireplace. When I was out at 4th of Juplaya, I saw a fifth wheel that had a fireplace in it.
CHARLIE: Did it have a chimney? Did it have a stone chimney? Is that what you’re telling me?
STUART: Yes. It had a stone-front fireplace, gas fireplace. Anyway. Yeah. Well, I agree that it’s not 100% causally linked to the convenience camp phenomenon, but it’s certainly going to make it a lot harder for somebody to put together the package tour, which is another kind of a bullshit thing that slips under, you know, that no matter how hard we try to stamp them all out, they slip in, right? People who are like, you know, “You can fly into Burning Man on your fucking helicopter or your luxury jet, step off the plane, into your catered RV, and your catered food experience…”
CHARLIE: A package tour where you have to deliver your own thing is not quite as appealing as one where it’s set up for you.
STUART: It’s like the self-service cult, right? It’s a package tour. You just have to make the package and wrap the package and ship the package and open the package, and then pack up all your garbage in it when you’re done and take it home. That’s the Burning Man package tour.
CHARLIE: And I am sure there will be people that try to do exactly that.
STUART: But you’re right. I mean, if you have enough means you can still probably hire somebody or gives somebody a ticket to drive your RV out to the playa and meet your helicopter or whatever.
CHARLIE: The sincere desire is that people work together to do what we used to do in the old days, which is kind of work through how to solve these problems of logistics.
CHARLIE: You know, some people say Burning Man is like one of the largest project management planning schools, ever. A bunch of people that don’t do project management all of a sudden start doing project management, on pretty significant scales, a bunch of them. So that’s the hope.
STUART: I know a lot of people who never saw a spreadsheet until they started going to Burning Man, and I’m almost one of them.
What else? The changes in the cafe. There’s no coffee in the cafe. Is that an oxymoron? Doesn’t “cafe” mean “coffee?” What’s that change all about?
CHARLIE: You’re just diving into semantics now, aren’t you? Really. Let’s face it.
STUART: Yeah, that’s what I do.
CHARLIE: We are not going to be selling coffee in the Center Camp structure this year. I think it’s a really interesting opportunity. So one of the things that’s happened also is in the last five years, there were a lot of people in the city serving coffee as part of their gift to the city. We don’t need to be doing this centrally anymore. And what other things could the community use the space for, if they wanted to? I don’t know what that looks like yet, but that’s the door we want to open. I like to think about our organization as in service of the community. We serve. Part of that service is creating the platform. A lot of what we do at Black Rock City is about creating the platform. This is just going to be another platform.
We do need to take care of the people who’ve been part of that team. And so we want to work hard to make sure that we’re not just disbanding a bunch of people out into the wind. Let’s find places for people to continue to give their time and love to the community in a way that works for them, in which we are thinking about and trying to work through. So that’s important to us.
STUART: The cafe has always been about more than coffee, semantics aside. I mean, it is…
CHARLIE: Naked All-Band Yoga?
STUART: Well, it’s more, I see it as a place, it’s a safe meeting place, particularly for newcomers, right? It is the town square. And it’s the biggest piece of shade on the playa, the structure itself.
CHARLIE: The structure itself is pretty amazing.
STUART: Okay. What else? Sustainability initiatives to help wean us off of fossil fuels. Is that true?
CHARLIE: That is true. We have this 2030 roadmap to bring Black Rock City to be regenerative.
There’s a bunch of different ways that that’s breaking down. It’s a pretty ambitious goal, honestly. But then right now the world doesn’t need reasonable. Reasonable has let us down fairly considerably thus far. So, we’re starting off with a 20% reduction in use of fuel. We get through 400 thousand gallons worth of fuel. That’s not just the organization, that’s the fuel program that we run as well.
STUART: OK, but that’s for onsite use during the event. 400,000 gallons. That’s a lot.
CHARLIE: Yeah, that’s a lot of fuel. That’s theme camps, art cars, the Hell Station that we run for art cars, big generators and camps as well as the infrastructure.
So can we reduce that by 20%? That’s a lot of fuel and that’s a lot of operational change. How do you do that? We all want to see there be one big lever that we can pull that’s going to solve all the problems, that’s human nature. You know, we always look for that silver bullet. There is no silver bullet. There’s a lot of very small bronze bullets. But if we put them all in a really big pile, then hopefully we’ll achieve the goal. So, yeah.
There’s conversation with participants in the community. What can they do? How can people change their use of art cars? Maybe they give themselves a night off and go out and other people’s art cars. That’s one less night of fuel. That’s an idea.
Then what can we do? Can we use different types of generators? Can we put timer systems on air conditioners so that things turn off at different times? What are the things that we can do to solar? A lot of solar, we need solar lights everywhere. You know, Chef’s team is developing the thing they call The Unicorn, which is called The Unicorn because it doesn’t exist until we build it, and so we are building it.
Because the issue with solar is, the small portable ones that you see on the side of the road with traffic signs and stuff, they really can’t run a whole heap. They can run a drill, maybe charge a phone, and maybe a stereo. You know, you need more umph.
STUART: The Unicorn is designed to power like multiple RVs, and power a small to medium camp? Yeah. We’ve got to get Chef back on the show and talk about that.
CHARLIE: Yeah. Yeah. This goal in and of itself, I mean, it’s going to have a big impact on our carbon footprint, which is fantastic, and it’s also, it’s a lot of work cause it’s just a lot of different little things. And, everything that happens in Black Rock City.
There’s a belief that the organization has just invented complexity just to satisfy itself. There’s a lot of members of the community who are of that persuasion. In reality, almost everything that happens is in response to something. So it’s a lot of long conversations and a lot of thinking.
STUART: So going back to public health, what are the concerns about public health out in our city of 80,000 people? – outdoors, mind you, but, what’s the outlook for that? And how are you guys planning for that to make people feel comfortable and safe? Not knowing of course what the world is going to be like in August, much less in April.
CHARLIE: Well, we have a really good relationship with the Nevada Department of Public and Behavioral Health, and the Governor’s office and the Governor’s COVID Task Force in Nevada, so all of those doors open and as their progress unfolds, we are intimately in the loop with them. Currently, no one knows.
And so what are we doing? Well, we’re planning for a health check. If you’ve been to big kind of non-local events – local events tend to stick very much to local restrictions – whereas the bigger events that are bringing audiences in from all over the place, have to kind of have a slightly different tack. And so the health check, which is, you know, either demonstration of the vaccination status or demonstration of a negative test, proof of a vaccine or a negative test, is where we’re going at the moment.
We’re kind of working through what that looks like. That in and of itself is a whole other logistical operation to spin up. Happily, there are people in the world who have already done this, and so we’re having conversations with folks. There are organizations who also spent the last two years working with all the health authorities and all the health providers and governments to build databases and systems. Nothing’s perfect, but there are some really good contenders out there for systems that will be able to capture probably between 80 and 90% of our audience. The question is, what do we do with the rest of it?
My sincere hope is that by the time we get to August, it’s not even a thing. I think all of us hope that. And one of the things that we are thinking about, and Omicron has shown us, is that vaccination also does not stop COVID coming, at all. So, we need to think about what extra services and support do we need on playa to manage for that? Do we need quarantine facilities? Do we need extra triage units in our first aid pieces? Do we require extra ambulances in case we start having to transport people with COVID who need to be isolated from other transports? Part of our COVID task force, you know, are looking at the models and thinking through what all that is.
STUART: Well, and in addition to the operational, of course, there’s a perceptual angle to this too. At what level will people feel comfortable enough to want to come and be participants, will want to come and volunteer, and all that? What’s your best guess? Are we going to sell all the tickets and fill all our volunteer slots, or is that still a challenge you think at this point?
CHARLIE: I think we’re going to fill all those slots and sell all the tickets. We’re looking pretty good so far on numbers of people coming to engage and looking at ticket sales.
I’m more worried about the emotional journey for humans back out of the pandemic. Some folks are gung ho at the door, and just chomping at the bit, and in fact have even been already out partying for a year. Some people never stopped partying. Other folks are still locked in their house, not even going out for food. There is a real range in the human experience here, all of which are fine and valid. This is not a criticism of any of them. It’s just a recognition that everybody’s in a different place. And when you bring a gathering of all of those people together, there’s going to end up being friction between people who are in different places.
Sadly the politicization of this situation has just exacerbated that. Burning Man is actually surprisingly politically diverse. Whilst a lot of people think it’s a bunch of left-wing liberals, there’s actually a lot more to the story than that.
STUART: Oh, no. Oh, no.
CHARLIE: In fact, one of my best experiences many, many years ago was with a bunch of what can only be described as absolute rednecks. They were super lovely folks, but it’s a diverse place. How do we manage for that friction? We want everybody to do their best and we want the community to live up to the values that are embedded in the principles, and really treat each other with respect and trust, and have the hard conversations.
At this point, there are, we should be able to navigate our way through it.
STUART: Yeah. Fair enough. Well, here’s hoping.
CHARLIE: Fingers crossed. Fingers crossed and work hard.
STUART: You work too hard out there. Charlie. If you get a half-hour at this Burning Man to actually have Burning Man, what are you going to do? Where are you going to go?
CHARLIE: I’m going to go with my family, and, I don’t know. I’m just going to go with my family. The last two years of the pandemic, I have not been commuting into the office. So my commute is an hour there and an hour back, and that’s two hours that I’ve spent with my family every day that I didn’t spend with my family before. And I can’t tell you how valuable that’s been for me.
STUART: That’s wonderful.
STUART: I don’t miss the commute either.
Well, I hope to see you out there with a smile and enjoying a moment with your family, and not just wearing that Pager of Doom all the time, wondering when it’s going to beep off.
CHARLIE: You know, I sleep with it by my head. It has to be by my head because it vibrates in the middle of the night and then I, that’s when I need to get out of bed now.
STUART: Well, here’s hoping it doesn’t go off. I’m really appreciative that you were able to come on the program.
CHARLIE: Thank you for hosting it and thank you for keeping the spirit alive and keeping everybody connected and opening the window into the sausage factory as well.
STUART: Or, uh, bangers or sausage?
STUART: Okay. Thank you so much, Charlie. Let’s have you back on the show after the events season, how about that?
STUART: We’ll do a ‘part two’ follow-up and see how many of your predictions came true.
CHARLIE: Great. Thank you very much.
STUART: Burning Man Live is a production of the Philosophical Center of Burning Man Project (Yes, that’s a thing.) recorded in our imaginary studio high above the ethereal wave-icles of the global network and processed in a secret underground facility that’s not on any map, so don’t bother looking.
Our power, water and other utilities are subsidized by the generous listeners who slip us a few pesos now and then at donate.burningman.org. Thanks to all of you for listening. And go ahead, tell a friend about us. We don’t care. We’re on the internet as live.burningman.org, reachable by email at email@example.com. And of course you can follow us on all the socials as @burningmanlive.
I’m Stuart Mangrum. This time around our little combo featured Vav on the keys. Rocky on drums. Actiongirl and kBot on percussion and backing vocals, and Spec Guy singing that sweet, sweet intro music. Thanks again. And as always, thanks Larry.