Burning Man: Sowing the Seeds for Organizing

One of the most interesting post scripts to my research is that Burning Man volunteers have learned to establish and run their own formal organizations. For instance, when I studied the Burning Man organization, one of its departments included the Black Rock Gazette, which published a daily newspaper. (I published an article in the “Decompression” edition back in 2003, which you can access here.) Not only did Black Rock Gazette volunteers work on late-breaking news on the playa under primitive conditions, but they also drove to Reno to pick up the papers from the printers and rushed them back to Black Rock City each day. In 2005, organizers decided to eliminate the Black Rock Gazette.

However, Black Rock City still has a newspaper! Former Black Rock Gazette volunteers formed their own organization and newspaper, the Black Rock Beacon. If you’re interested in volunteering for them, you can find out more about their activities here.

Building Black Rock City

Around the same time that I was doing my research, Susan Barron made an in-depth documentary about the efforts of the Dept. of Public Works (DPW), which builds and takes down the temporary infrastructure for Burning Man. You can find out more about her documentary here and here.

John Curley is blogging about the building of the 2009 Black Rock City here.

Dealing with heightened expectations

Recently, the Electronic Frontier Foundation criticized Burning Man’s policy on rights to images taken at the Burning Man event. This criticism led to a heated discussion on boingboing. Burning Man representative Andie Grace, aka Actiongrl, has responded on the Burning Man blog here, which has been linked to a follow-up post on boingboing here.

While I can’t comment on the legal aspects of this matter since I’m not a legal expert, I can point out what I find fascinating about such controversies. People have opinions about what they think an organization should or shouldn’t do, including what legal form and practices an organization should adopt. And, people state their opinions, irrespective of whether or not they have any experiences with a particular organization, as demonstrated by comments on the boingboing discussion threads.

Expectations for “appropriate” activities are heightened for organizations like Burning Man, which depend on volunteer labor, pursue distinctive missions such as social change, and have high visibility because of media coverage. When confronting such expectations, organizations have to make a decision – do they address, much less acknowledge, such expectations? If they don’t respond to criticisms, they may lose their legitimacy from their constituents or the general public.

In responding to criticisms, the Burning Man organization has made a number of changes, including publishing their finances and making activities more transparent. On the other hand, they have also defended policies that they believe are needed to protect the Burning Man event from co-optation by other interests.

What would life be like if people demanded similar accountability of all organizations, and organizations responded? Northwestern B-school Prof. Brayden King discusses how this process works (and doesn’t work) here.

Burning Man art in the “real” world

During the time that I studied Burning Man, artists built large pieces for the event but then could not find a permanent place for them. Adequate storage space is a problem, and museums and other institutions may not have the capacity or desire to properly care for items. Nevertheless, some of the artworks that debuted at Burning Man have now found more permanent homes, where they can be appreciated by even more persons.
I’m very pleased to report that one of the artworks featured in a black and white photo in my book now resides in Toronto, Canada. For Flickr images of Michael Christian’s sculpture Koilos in a mainstream, urban setting, click here.

Dealing with law enforcement and other agencies

The arrest of Harvard Prof. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates at his own home, the ensuing controversy over this arrest, and the gathering over beers at the White House have raised attention about what many individuals encounter on a regular, if not daily, basis. Several of my undergraduate students, typically young African-American men, report they have been stopped by a police officer. The officer would ask these individuals to show identification or to answer questions about their activities. In all these cases, these individuals were not doing anything that should have elicited such questioning. In addition, their companions, who were not African-Americans, did not face the same inquiries. Studies such as this one have documented systematic differences in how minorities are treated during interactions with police.

Such disparities raise the larger question: to what extent are law enforcement and other governmental agencies accountable to the citizens they are supposed to serve? While these organizations have missions, such as “to protect and serve,” it’s less clear how to carry out these missions. Researchers who have studied police activity have documented how practices, such as the use of “excessive force“, such as the beating of Rodney King, or the arrests of individuals under an “all-purpose” charge such as loitering, may proliferate.

Not only do these practices affect individuals, but they may also push other organizations into altering their own practices. For example, the implementation of the TSA and governmental security measures have affected the operations of airports and airlines: more space needs to be allocated to screening passengers and allowing passengers to collect their shoes and belongings; airline employees have had to adopt new routines to reach their posts; sit-down steakhouses and other restaurants provide silver plastic knives rather than real knives to customers dining before their food-less flight.

In contrast, the Burning Man organization has resisted pressures by law enforcement and other agencies to alter or adopt practices that interfered with the Burning Man mission of creating an arts community. Some of these activities have included educating individuals about what governmental agencies are present at the Burning Man event, as well as how to handle interactions with law enforcement and where to report such interactions. At the same time, Burning Man organizers have understood that governmental agencies have their own missions and that they must demonstrate accountability to the public. Therefore, the Burning Man organization has also coordinated on common grounds, often through departments such as the Earth Guardians and the Black Rock Rangers.

What would life be like if we all had similar organizations that acted on our behalf?