Has ‘The Man’ Infiltrated Burning Man?

Corporate sponsors at Burning Man? Heaven forefend!

The controversy started when Business 2.0 ran an article saying that Burning Man had invited some "green energy companies" to participate in the exhibit. Among the companies involved, the article revealed that Google would be producing an online 3-D service called Burning Man Earth.

Burning Man Maximum Leader Larry Harvey joined us for a weekend edition of the RU Sirius Show where we talked about the hubbub, which he claims has been misreported.

As coincidence would have it, the following week I interviewed Chicken John — an eternal thorn in Larry Harvey's side – about his San Francisco Mayoral candidacy and I asked him about the Burning Man controversy. He didn't comment specifically on the presence of green companies, but rather seemed to feel that the whole "Green Man" theme was mainstream and lame. (Mimicking voice of Larry Harvey) "This year Burning Man is going to be about... ahhhhh... green"... And it's like, dude -- you're reading this off of the cover of fuckin' Vanity Fair. Are you kidding? It's a fad."

The following conversation is about Burning Man and commerce. Diana Brown and Jeff Diehl joined me in this interview with Larry Harvey.

To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.

RU SIRIUS: This year at Burning Man, you've invited some "green energy companies" to be part of a "World's Fair of Clean Technology." Although the companies involved have not paid for sponsorship, and are prohibited from branding and direct marketing, some burners are in a virtual frenzy about the intrusion of commercial interests onto their hallowed ground.

So two questions: in the abstract, is the sort of countercultural hostility towards all commerce over-the-top? And in the specific: Yo, Larry, what's up, man?

LARRY HARVEY: I think you said it right. It is virtual hostility, inasmuch as it is all taking place on the internet. And so let's not forget the virtuality of this reality.

RU: So you haven't caught an F2F — no pies in the face or anything like that?

LH: No.

RU: I got pied once.

LH: Did you really?

RU: "Selling out cyberpunk"

LH: (Laughs) The ideology of this issue is sort of interesting. Back in February, we announced that we were going to have a pavilion at the base of The Man, and we'd bring in technology. And we said that this would involve business people. We also informed everyone that they wouldn't be allowed to advertise; they wouldn't be allowed to pass out their cards; they wouldn't be allowed to brand anybody; they wouldn't be allowed to talk about their product, they wouldn't be...

RU: Now wait a second. I think branding people would be popular at Burning Man.

LH: I've actually participated in a branding. I held the flashlight. This is in the playa in dark, and...

DIANA BROWN: That was nice of you!

LH: Well, yeah! (Laughs) I was...

DB: Lest they not see where they're going, and turn it on you!

RU: "Property of Hell's Angels?"

LH: I was there to help!

DB: Larry's a giver!

LH: Anyway, I've never used the word "branding" in relation to anything we do, privately or publicly. I've instructed some staff members that you don't brand people; you brand cattle. And what's happened is — there's a whole generation that's grown up that apparently never paid too much attention to anthropology. They speak entirely in terms of business advertising. Where you might say "identity," they will say "branding," because that's the only kind of identity that they're aware of.

But in creating this pavilion, it's really not our intention to brand anybody. The controversy all started with the article in Business 2.0. We'd announced our plans in detail months before, and no one said anything. And I believe that people are responding to the writer's attempt to translate what we were saying into business-speak. I told him, "If you involve a people in the creating of something, it makes it a lot more meaningful." And he turned that into: "Make our customers feel like they're experiencing something."

DB: He translated it into business speak. Participant equals customer.

LH: He turned it into a kind of manipulative strategy you'd use if you were marketing. Of course, that upset people. And then they got the idea that we were opening the gates to big corporations. Now, we went to big corporations and told them that we wouldn't allow them to advertise; we wouldn't allow them to do anything with brands, we wouldn't allow them to jump up on a soapbox and harangue the multitudes.

DB: …slap stickers on the backs of passing heads?

LH: We wouldn't let them do anything that would sell their product. They all...

RU: …but what if they built a really eccentric-looking soapbox, very much in the tradition of Burning Man... like an art car soapbox.

DB: Pepsi caps.

LH: Well, they weren't even interested in it as viral marketing. They just all walked away. There are no big corporations.

RU: Except Google. They're big.

DB: Google is a verb.

LH: I'm excited about the Google thing and have been from the beginning. But what we've ended up with — it was hyped a little. It was called a World's Fair. And I'm here to tell you; it's not exactly a World's Fair. We've got a little over thirty exhibitors in this space at the base of the man. And the great majority are DIY projects by participants — burners — with no business profile whatsoever!

RU: But if you think about the sort of DNA of Burning Man, it's all in the presentations. And everybody presumes that all presentations are basically unaffiliated individuals and groups with no commercial interests related to what they're doing.

LH: Yeah, that's the big question some people had. It's an authentic question. It's the first thing that would occur to me — "What's their motivation for doing it?" Well, the DIY folks — their motivation is the same motivation anybody has at Burning Man. Come out and create something! And then there's a lesser number of people involved who are small-time, mom/pop entrepreneurs. These are not hulking corporations either.

The only element that could be considered "big capitalism" – and it's not that big — would be the guy who's coming out with this immense solar array that we're going to build. It'll power The Man — the Pavilion. And when we're done, we're gonna break that up and give it to the county seat of Pershing County and Gerlach. (ed: location of annual Burning Man festival.) So it'll power a hospital and a school. Why is he doing that? He usually brokers larger deals. They usually deal with big institutions. That's how the company makes money. But he's not interested in marketing to our participants. He just thought it would be cool!

The only other thing that could be confused with evil corporate colossi would be the wind turbines. We're gonna have some really neat-looking big wind turbines. And they'll be around the man. In that case, we went around the marketing people at the company involved and talked to the scientists. Scratch a scientist, you'll find an artist. So they said, "Cool! We want people to see these really neat wind turbines." I don't think there's even a consumer model of the wind turbines, so I don't think they're marketing.

So there's no marketing going on — virally or not — and there aren't any big corporations.

JEFF DIEHL: But do you think this might be opening a sort of Pandora's box? You'll have to turn Burning Man completely green. You can't have a big solar array powering part of it one year… I mean, you can't go backwards, right?

LH: I don't think you can, no.

JD: You have to have it every year. And then you're going to want to expand it.

LH: Yeah! If you're sincere, you have to persevere.

JD: Yeah. And to eventually power the whole project with renewable resources — that's gonna involve a huge cost.

LH: It might be an achievable ideal. We're doing everything we can this year. We're not going to back off on that effort. But no — it's not the slippery slope to corporate conquests at the event.

RU: You don't see a baby step towards sponsorship?

LH: No.

RU: Maybe I should move on to the broader question. Do you really have to be defensive about this at all? What about the larger question of people's general hostility towards the idea of sponsors. Let it be said that the RU Sirius Show is happy to accept sponsorship.

DB: Also, has Burning Man spawned entrepreneurs? Are there some small mom and pop companies or artists that actually became successful because people learned about them from Burning Man?

LH: I'm not sure that it's led to any businesses. But I can testify that it's given a lot of artists extensive careers outside the event. We pay them for all their materials. And we've given out money. Last year we gave out quarter of a million. This year, it's more like a half-a-million. And then the artists go on the circuit. They show up at various countercultural festivals and they make a profit on stuff that they've already constructed with our money. They show up at Coachella — Coachella is full of Burning Man art. And — gasp - they make money. It's commerce. Artists are actually practicing commerce. I know that's a very controversial subject, but...

RU: Do you think it really is? Of all the people who say that they hate commerce -- don't most of them practice it on a small scale?

LH: I don't see that commerce and community are allergic to one another. That's absolutely absurd.

I wrote an essay in our newsletter last year about commerce and community. My conclusion was that — if the end product of commerce is profit, and the end product of all the organization we do is to generate culture and community — they aren't mutually exclusive. People get outraged at commerce conducted at such a scale, and in such a political climate, that it's destructive of community – and at the way advertising can be insidiously coercive.

All that's true. When you have the stockholders at one end of the process and the consuming public at the other end – and there's that distance – that breeds actions that have no conscience whatsoever. But there isn't any reason not to engage in commerce. For instance, when participants are producing something that others might need in the desert, we let people know about it. So you can take those two value systems and make them overlap in such a way that they reinforce one another. If either one of them dominates and completely subsumes the other, then both take corruption from it. To be against commerce is to be against your shoes, your shorts...

RU: People drive to Burning Man in cars...

LH: Well, I mean people who raise that as an objection — that's Luddite. And everybody knows that, if they stop and think. When people say something's too commercial, they mean that a capitalist process has just sucked the soul out of something.

JD: The times I went to Burning Man, I compared the hype about this being a non-commercial event to the reality. And on the whole, there was a real sense that I was pulled outside of the larger economic operations of the world for a week. Sure, there are tons of products that are used to make Burning Man happen. Everybody who goes there buys products with brand names from big corporations that they use there. The unique thing about Burning Man is that it's the end of the line for a lot of those products. Whereas out in the normal world, they're usually put to some sort of further use which feeds back into the economic system. At Burning Man, as long as its terminal for those products, it creates kind of a special place for the people who are out there.

LH: It does. It's a spiritual proposition. You know, goods don't come instilled with meaning. That's the illusion that advertising creates. "You've got the lifestyle; you've got a life." I'm sorry. It's not true.

If you buy something in the marketplace, take it out to Burning Man, and then use it for a creative purpose, you have instilled that with meaning.

DB: A different meaning than perhaps was originally intended.

LH: Exactly. Years of consumerism have just made people passive — and yet bitter. It's a terrible combination. The instilling process doesn't mean anything to them. They've spent their lives consuming.

RU: In terms of people getting sort of bitchy about all this — Burning Man has been around for a long time, and like anything that's been around for a long time, people start getting bitchy. Is that part of what's going on here?

LH: Oh, that's a big part of it. People have got the idea that you can go out there and be free and thumb your nose at the man. You can pretend that you don't lead your life for eight days. So by a perverse logic, by being around for a long time, we become the man. The people who organize the event – in some instances, people who devoted their entire lives to it — are evil.

RU: "Don't be evil."

LH: Go back home and act like you did at Burning Man. Start to change it out there. You'll find plenty of collaborators.

And you have people who say, if it weren't for the Burning Man organizers, it would be a great thing. I can follow their logic, but I can't agree with it. We're not the man. We all create it. There are participants who say, "There'd be no Burning Man except for us." True. But there wouldn't be one if not for us, too. There's a cart and there's a horse, and people can decide for themselves who the horse is.

See also:
Counterculture and the Tech Revolution
Anarchy For the USA: A Conversation with Josh Wolf
Raising Hunter Thompson
Prescription Ecstasy and Other Pipe Dreams
Mondology Volume 1 Free Audio Download
California Cults 2006

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