The Great Metropolis face-off, Burning Man vs. the Big Apple, round 4: Landscapes of change

Change in a city landscape can cause temporary disorientation. For participants at Burning Man, when landmarks move, returning to home camp or moving among art installations is a challenging endeavor (i.e., “Why aren’t we getting any closer to the big duck?!?” “Maybe because we’re chasing an art car, not an art installation?!”).

In conventional cities, change isn’t as jarring. However, locals take note of what they perceive as the “wrong” kind of change – the appearance of a pawnshop or a check cashing outlet, the conversion of apartments into a homeless shelter, or single resident occupancy (SRO) , or new construction that knocks down a beloved landmark.

Alternatively, change can signal revitalization. For example, for several years, several storefronts on a nearby busy street corner were shuttered and unoccupied. Recently, three businesses moved into these spots.

Now open for business in Harlem
Now open for business in Harlem

Here’s a close-up of the store with a fascinating window display of 90 numbered and bewigged mannequin heads:

90 possibilities, with more inside!
90 possibilities, with more inside!

Interested in viewing more changes of Harlem storefronts? See this repository of photos, which were collected by Camilo Vergara.

My take: NYC and Black Rock City are evenly matched in terms of interesting change.
Burning Man: 1, Big Apple: 1

Disaster-readiness in urban areas

For Burners, preparing to go to Burning Man is a good exercise for disaster-readiness. People test their outdoor shelters, plan and purchase enough water and food supplies for a week or so, assemble first-aid kits, pack extra batteries, and ready their flashlights, hand-crank radios, solar-powered lanterns, and generators. They also check through their toolkits (sledge-hammer, swiss armyknife/leatherman, duct tape, GPS, etc.) and stock up on dustmasks and ear and eye protection. People prepare fun gadgets, too, like a bicycle-powered blender, and learn new skills, such as building temporary shelters or putting together machinery.

Sociologist Lee Clarke, who specializes in understanding disaster preparation, notes that your chances of surviving a major disaster are increased if you can pool efforts and resources with your neighbors and colleagues. Another sociologist Chick Perrow argues that given the complex and tightly coupled nature of modern systems, normal accidents, such as a nuclear plant meltdown or major transportation snafus are bound to happen. Given that we are likely to encounter a major disaster during our lifetime, I tell my students to look to their classmates on their left and to their right – most likely, if and when something bad happens, they will have to depend on each other, as governmental agencies and relief organizations may not reach them immediately. Recent natural disasters such as Haiti’s earthquake and Hurricane Katrina should remind us that help, if it arrives, may be days or even weeks away. Preparing what we usually take for granted – shelter, food and water, and communication – can increase the chances of survival.

We should also consider how socio-economic inequalities can increase vulnerabilities to disasters. For example, we can construct homes and buildings that can withstand the elements, set up access to drinkable water and regular health care, maintain multiple transportation routes, and reduce social isolation and enhance participation opportunities so that people can collaborate. Such measures ensure that people not only have a fighting chance during disasters, but that they also have a better quality of life as individuals and as a community.

The Great Metropolis face-off, Burning Man vs. the Big Apple, round 2: finding a restroom

One difficulty of living in cities is finding a public restroom, especially when under pressure from the pee-pee dance, or worse yet, the pressing need of an explosive #2.

Gotta go, gotta go in the Big Apple:
In cities like NYC, accessing a restroom is not an easy feat. NYC has virtually no public restrooms, other than those located in the parks. This missing public amenity forces pedestrians to memorize restroom locations scattered throughout stores, restaurants and cafes, libraries, transit hubs such as Penn Station, etc. Alternatively, those who have Internet access can consult online guides such as this map.

Singing the portapotty blues at Burning Man:
Because of Burning Man’s temporary location in the desert, Black Rock City denizens rely upon large banks of portable chemical toilets, which are relatively easy to locate. Contracted services regularly clean the portapotties by pumping out waste and replacing the toilet paper, but users must take care not to dispose of anything BUT human waste or toilet paper. Foreign objects clog the hose used to pump out toilets, causing possible injuries to the cleaner.

True to the Burning Man spirit, Burners have applied their creativity toward refashioning portable toilets into a more enjoyable experience. For example, artist and documentary-maker Susan Barron hand-sewed and placed 170 Mr. Hanky (the “Christmas Poo” from the animated South Park show) dolls in the doors of portable toilets. Another year, someone hid an electronic chip (the kind that makes greeting cards sing) that relentlessly hummed the lullaby “Rock-a-bye Baby” throughout the week, making one’s time in the portapotty a more surreal experience. Others have redecorated individual units such as this one. Burners have also reported that groups host games, such as a Jackson 5 trivia contest, to enliven the wait to use portable toilets. Finally, the Pee Funnel theme camp provides funnels for those who wish to stand and pee, rather than hover or sit.

Ease of finding restroom: Burning Man: 1, Big Apple: 0.
Creativity applied to enhancing the restroom experience: Burning Man: 1, Big Apple: 0.

Half flush versus full flush option (hint: paper needs full flush)
Half flush versus full flush option (hint: paper needs full flush)
Larger view of flush options in the David Brower Center, Berkeley, CA
Larger view of flush options in the David Brower Center, Berkeley, CA

The societal consequences of felony convictions

Yesterday, I attended a talk by New York University Prof. Diedre Royster. The author of Race and the Invisible Hand, Royster mentioned her surprise that Americans are not aware of (1) what kinds of acts can result in felony charges, and (2) the consequences that can accompany a felony conviction.

One can receive a felony conviction for a variety of acts. Most readers will think that felony convictions are for interpersonal crimes that involve violence, such as rape and murder. However, a prior history of small criminal acts, such as a series of petty thefts, can result in a felony charge. Under the PATRIOT act, exercising the Constitutional right to assembly or even planning a protest can be redefined as terrorist acts subject to felony charges. Seemingly innocent acts can lead to charges for a felony crime, such as using a digital camera to videorecord a few minutes of a relative’s birthday get-together in a movie theater. Acts that are misdemeanors in one state, such as possession of a small amount of marijuana, are felonies in another state.

Depending upon the state, a felony conviction is associated with numerous penalties, including the temporary or even permanent loss of voting rights during incarceration and parole. In Locked Out, Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen discuss the consequences of this loss of the right to vote, which affects 1 in every 40 Americans. Moreover, a felony conviction can lead to the loss of the professional license necessary to practice a variety of occupations, from psychologists to CPAs.

Research indicates that convictions and incarceration can disproportionately impact the employment chances of certain groups. For instance, sociologists Devah Pager and Lincoln Quillian’s experimental study revealed that although employers self-report a willingness to consider such applicants, they are less likely to call back job applicants who have served time in practice. More disturbingly, employers are also less likely to call back black applicants, preferring white applicants, even those with a criminal record, over black applicants without a criminal record. Read the results of this empirical study here: “Walking the Talk? What Employers Say Versus What They Do.”

What can be done? At minimum, individuals should learn their rights, be aware of attempts to alter these rights, and make sure that other individuals are not deprived of their rights. The Burning Man organization, for instance, educates participants of their rights and responsibilities. Groups such as the ACLU help keep track of legislation and policies that affect rights.

The challenges of growing participatory groups and organizations

One of yesterday’s WSJ front page articles (“Volunteers Log Off as Wikipedia Ages“) examined the increasing turn-over among volunteers for the on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia. The article discusses the difficulties of monitoring the content contributed by users. Both the comments and article suggest that size, age, increasing rules, and a lack of accountability among anonymous users make Wikipedia a less attractive venue to potential contributors and discourage the continued participation of current contributors.

After mulling over this news article and other research on participatory groups, I would also suggest other possible reasons for a decline in Wikipedia’s participation, as well as a different perspective on the usefulness of Wikipedia:
(1) Most people don’t have experience with participatory practices and need to learn to flex those muscles, which results in inevitable bumps and attrition among those who privilege efficiency over collective discussion.
(2) More problematically, outside of the academy,* people don’t agree on what constitutes a fact versus an opinion, much less understand the research process. I would speculate that a heavily politicized education (i.e., creationism/intelligent design taught alongside evolution as a theory) or an insufficient education make it more difficult for people to make distinctions between facts and opinions.
(3) Since Wikipedia began 8 years ago, it’s possible that declining participation among old-timers may be inevitable due to changing interests and competing responsibilities, such as raising a family. In addition, the intensification of work as employers demand longer hours and/or downsize staff reduce the amount of free time that both new and longtime volunteers can offer.

So, what might Wikipedia really tell us? Rather than thinking of Wikipedia as only a factual, consensus-based encyclopedia, Wikipedia might offer us insight into phenomena over which consensus has not yet been established, as well as the different stakeholders who get involved in the construction and dissemination of knowledge.

* Of course, academics have their own disagreements about what constitutes proper research.

How collective action can establish a new field

In my Burning Man research, I discussed how organizers had to establish a new field for running a temporary arts community, which included working with governmental agencies to develop applicable policies and regulations. These efforts are also crucial for other organizations.

This past week, one of my City University of New York (CUNY) colleagues at Hunter College, Howard Lune, won the ARNOVA Best Book Award for Urban Action Networks: HIV/AIDS and Community Organizing in New York City (2006, Rowman & Littlefield). I highly recommend this book for those who want to understand how community groups can engage in collective action to construct a new field of organizations and institutions. In the United States, we now seem to take the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS for granted, as many organizations and programs are devoted to these aims. But, this was not always the case – in fact, during the 1980s, both the U.S. government and medical profession were slow to recognize HIV/AIDS as a problem for the general population, and neither institutions were not prepared to deal with the outbreak of a new, not-yet-well-understood disease. Lune’s book shows how a network of activists and advocacy groups in the New York City area were crucial to establishing a new field for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. Collective, coordinated, grassroots activity focused state efforts on addressing a national (and worldwide) problem.

Another co-winner for the ARNOVA book prize is The Volunteers: A Social Profile (2006, Indiana Press) by Marc Musick and John Wilson. I haven’t read this book yet, but I’m glad to see it’s now available for those of us who want to understand more about volunteerism.

P.S. An interesting instance of the interplay between scholarship and art: Lune’s book cover features an artist’s sculpture of the genetic material of the HIV virus.

TMI? (Too Much Information?)

In “Chip Conley: Should I Take My Burning Man Pics off Facebook?“, a CEO of a chain of boutique hotels muses on the consequences of sharing his non-business life, including the end of a 8-year-long relationship and a trip to Burning Man, shared via social networking tools Twitter and Facebook. Apparently, younger members of his firm expressed concerns about the CEO’s sharing his life and extracurricular activities via posts and photos.

Other renowned business leaders, including Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, are known Burners, but none (at least to my knowledge) have been publicly criticized for participating in Burning Man. A few comments to the article sneer that CEO Conley is trying too hard to be cool, while a few other comments condemn the CEO as a hedonist.

However, most posts are supportive. Like the majority of posters, I think it’s healthier for an organization when its leaders and members have outside interests and responsibilities. Otherwise, the organization risks turning into a total institution that overworks members.

Supporting the arts during an economic downturn*

Regardless of the economic situation, making an honest living from the arts is never easy. The rewards tend to be concentrated among the top stars, so the majority make do with other careers or odd jobs. However, an economic downturn might bring about unexpected opportunities. During the Depression, the Works Progress/Projects Administration (WPA) provided jobs for those who were out-of-work. Under the WPA, artists generated murals and other works, contributing art that is now part of the everyday experience.

In an interesting, contemporary meta-art-project, the Work Office is trying to raise funds to support NYC artists on WPA-era wages of $23.50 per week. Artists are tasked with “simple, idea-based assignments to explore, document, or improve life in New York.” According to the project’s description, the two leaders “will perform the dull bureaucratic work that ensures that their employees make artwork.”

Such a juxtaposition suggests that bureaucracy and creativity are uneasy partners. Some, like Steven Dubin, who studied a governmental-funded Artists-in-Residency program in Chicago, are skeptical about the abilities of bureaucracy to support the arts. My research on Burning Man suggests that when judiciously applied, bureaucratic practices can enable creativity.

*I almost wrote “recession” in this entry’s title, but we’re still waiting for the official announcement from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).

The story behind the Desert Dreamer, Burning Man 2005

In Enabling Creative Chaos, I included the below photo of the Dreamer, a sculpture that I had visited at Burning Man 2005. I had always wondered about this installation’s story, especially since the sculpture included an inner sanctuary, and its eyes closed and opened, depending upon the time of day. Someone also positioned an oversized, used Q-tip near its ear, which you can barely see in the shadow.

The Dreamer by Pepe Ozan, Burning Man 2005
The Dreamer by Pepe Ozan, Burning Man 2005

One of my interviewees, Steve Mobia, sent me a link that thoughtfully explains the origins of the piece. Read about his experiences with conceptualizing this piece, which includes his history with the Cacophony Society, Pepe Ozan’s artistry, and the dreamwork rituals at Burning Man here. Also, learn whether keeping time at Burning Man works!