Today is a great day for learning something new: Burning Man regionals working on CORE (Circle of Regional Effigies)

One of the aspects that I enjoy about Burning Man is the opportunity to learn something new, such as a new skill, experience, or practice. Burning Man’s constant experimentation makes such learning opportunities possible. One such experiment this year is the “Circle of Regional Effigies,” otherwise known as CORE, in which regionals from across the US and around the world will build a representative effigy to burn around the Man. Some regionals, like Las Vegas, have even made websites where you can learn more about their projects’ efforts and progress. These projects are channeling local communities’ efforts into producing more collaborative, participatory art to be shared both locally and at Burning Man.

Yesterday, my partner and I spent several hours working with other volunteers sandpapering, gluing, and nailing cut wood for the “Tree of Heaven,” which is the NYC regional effigy. Jesse Green and “Kat” Fitzgerald designed this installation of a wooden tree surrounded by benches representing different boroughs’ bridges. In a scene reminiscent of the Hawthorne studies’ wiring experiments, as a group, we also cut and connected wiring to LED lights for the base of the installation, which reproduces a public transportation map of subway lines. Under the guidance of other volunteers, I learned how to cut wires down, which other volunteers then connected to LED strips representing the different MTA subway lines and the NJ PATH trains. As the designated “quality control” person, I also learned how to determine whether wires were properly connected to the LED strips by testing the leads on a power supply. While such hands-on work came as second nature to my partner, who earned a PhD working in a lab and had eagerly brought his own tools for this occasion, for me, this new experience demystified some of the nuts and bolts of putting together an art project.

Later on, at dinner, my fortune cookie summarized my experiences for the day: “Today is a great day for learning something new.” My partner got the fortune “Really great people make you feel that you too can become great,” which was also an appropriate testament to collaborative projects such as CORE.

What to do with the “bad” team/group member?, part II

This past weekend, I joined over 50 other researchers and practitioners at a conference held at the Harvard Business School in J. Richard Hackman‘s honor. To celebrate several decades’ worth of research on group and teamwork, we divided into groups to collectively discuss and identify directions for future research in particular areas. We then presented our findings or recommendations to the larger group.

Here’s a sample of our preparations for our topic on “Performing in real time: What is special (or especially interesting) about artistic performances and athletic competitions, with special attention to the dynamics of real-time improvisation”:

Groupfest, 6/10/11

Our claim: we can benefit from understanding a major variation among artistic and athletic groups: level of practice – some might say preparation – leading up to performance – such as a game or concert. Some groups don’t practice together at all, like improvised jazz or pick up basketball; others practice in moderation, like community orchestras or athletic groups; a few practice intensively, like professional athletic teams and orchestras. This variation in level of practice can help us also understand other groups that practice/prepare for conventional or unusual situations, such as disaster preparedness.

To illustrate our points, we co-presented the material while accompanied by improvised jazz by Daniel Wilson on the drums and Colin Fisher on the trumpet.

Another group discussed the topic “dealing in real time with “bad actors,” team members who are slowing team progress or undermining the team. Here’s their definition of a bad actor:
Groupfest, 6/11/11

They used two clips from the tv show The Office to illustrate their points. They then showed a 2 by 2 typology based on an actor’s position in the authority (low vs. high) and amount of power (too little vs. too much) to identify 4 categories of bad behaviors.

Interestingly, unlike the sessions at the 5th annual Burning Man Regional Leadership Summit, the presentation was too short to offer tools for how to deal with actors who engage in these behaviors. I spoke with one of the group members afterwards, and she reported that although some of the group advocated moving the bad actor around to other groups in the hopes of a “better” fit, others worried that this would contaminate other groups with bad behavior. This suggestion of moving a person around to different groups sounds a little like what Burning Man organizers call “repurposing.” However, in the Burning Man organization, repurposing may be more about making sure that volunteers’ interests fit the task/group. For more on this, see chapter 4 “Radical inclusion”: Attracting and Placing Members of my book Enabling Creative Chaos.

Burning Man at Open Video Conference in New York City/live online this Fri., Oct. 1, 2010 5:30-6:30 pm EDT

Here’s a chance to learn and give feedback on Burning Man’s policy on the use of images. I will be moderating the discussion – you can participate in-person or virtually. Below, I’m quoting the original post from here.

“Ever wonder what the small print on the back of a Burning Man ticket really means to a photographer? Want to understand why Burning Man has certain “Terms and Conditions” regulating media use? Curious about how the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (EFF’s) recent criticisms have affected Burning Man’s policy on the use of images? Want to learn more about this or share your opinion? Join us for an ongoing public dialogue about digital rights at Burning Man and implications for wider society!

On Fri., Oct. 1, 2010 5:30-6:30 pm EDT, Burning Man IP Legal Counsel Terry Gross and Burning Man adviser Rosalie Barnes will have a panel discussion with EFF’s Corynne McSherry at the Open Video Conference. The panel meets at the Auditorium of Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), located at Seventh Avenue and W. 27th Street in New York City.

You’re invited to participate in-person or virtually! Details about registering for in-person are here:

The session will be streamed live via the Internet on the main conference page via Folks watching online will be able to tweet questions to discussion moderator Katherine Chen using a hashtag. For more info and online discussion about Burning Man’s digital rights policy, go here:

This is what Open Video Conference has on their site:

“Summary: EFF v. Burning Man – (Friday, October 1 5:30 PM – 6:30 PM)

Description: Each year, Nevada’s Black Rock desert plays host to the Burning Man festival. Tens of thousands of people make the pilgrimage to celebrate self-reliance, creativity and freedom. Anything goes in Black Rock City–except, apparently, when you’ve got a camera in your hand…

For some time, the organization behind the event has enforced a highly restrictive set of policies around photography in Black Rock. Through its ticket sales and online terms of use, the Burning Man Organization claims ownership over all photos and videos created at the festival.

In late 2009, Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Corynne McSherry went on the attack, criticizing these rules in a post at EFF’s Deep Links. This set off an internet battle for the ages. Burning Man argues these restrictions protect attendees’ privacy. People escape to Black Rock to express themselves freely, not have every action documented—-and they need to be protected. But EFF thinks attendees’ freedom of expression, and their copyrights, must be respected. How do you balance both concerns?

In a interesting turn of events, Burning Man, the EFF and Creative Commons have entered into negotiations to transform the largest counter cultural art gathering in the world into a legal platform for human readable language and free culture. Will it work? Will it crash? What will they as a team decide?

Join us for a real world ethics question, and a small-scale version of the free culture debate with insights into the governance of online video platforms, privacy, autonomy, and freedom of expression. Throw in panelists from Burning Man, EFF—and giant burning wicker man—and you have one interesting discussion.

Corynne McSherry — Electronic Frontier Foundation
Lightning Clearwater III — Burning Man IP Legal Counsel
Rosalie Barnes — Burning Man
Moderator: Katherine Chen – Assistant Professor of Sociology, CUNY””

Who is the “average” Burning Man attendee?

Thanks to Prof. Caroline Lee, a sociologist whose expertise includes the professionalization of participatory practices, I recently gave an invited lecture at Lafayette College in Easton, PA. Among other questions, students asked what kinds of people attend the Burning Man event. In particular, they were curious about participants’ finances.

Answering these kinds of questions is only possible because of survey research.* One of the first surveys administered at Burning Man was run by a theme camp called the Ministry of Statistics. Passers-by to the theme camp, which was located in the Central Camp area, were invited to complete the survey, and the Ministry of Statistics posted statistics on the collected data  during the event. The media reproduced several of these statistics, including one about drug consumption, in print, much to the dismay of Burning Man organizers who were concerned about the event’s legitimacy.

Since then, the Burning Man organization has gathered demographic information via a convenience survey administered during the event.  The collected information is available in the AfterBurn report on the Burning Man website.  For example, information on salary, home ownership, etc. of surveyed 2007 Burning Man respondents is available here.

Here’s of a photo of 2008 participants diligently completing the survey in the Center Camp Cafe:

2008 Burning Man participants complete survey at the Center Camp Cafe

In other years, the Burning Man organization has also gathered self-reported data on how much participants spent on local businesses; such information was intended to show that the event benefited local Nevada communities.

*Also, the idea that one can quantify the “average” person is a relatively recent phenomena.  See historian Sarah E. Igo’s The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public.

Some Burning Man terms, defined

These are terms used in my blog and book.  Most of these terms are commonly used among Burners.

Burning Man organization or Project – formal name is Black Rock City Limited Liability Company, but most people use the old term Project or affectionately refer to the BMOrg

Members – a general term that includes those who work for the Burning Man organization as volunteers or employees

Organizers – those who head the organization

Coordinators and managers – department or committee leaders

Staff – both paid and unpaid members

Participants, event attendees, and Burners – those who attend the event; a small percentage of these persons also volunteer for the organization

Newbies – new participants

Interactive art – “art that generates social participation”