Friday, April 27, 2012

Burning Man on Probation

Burning Man on Probation:
The Burning Man festival
(the subject of my first book,
This is Burning Man
), an experiment in temporary artistic
community--and, yes, hard-partying along (and between) various
dimensions--occurs on federal land in Nevada's Black Rock Desert,
and is thus required to get a permit to operate from the Bureau of
Land Management. (Yes, you need a permit to experiment with
temporary artistic community in these here United States.)

This Is Burning Man: The Rise of a New American Underground
It has been an interesting couple of years for Burning Man. Most
attendees were unaware that the event could potentially sell out,
because its
permit from the BLM
had and has a population cap--just one the
event had never pushed against before.
Last year, mere days before ticket sales were scheduled to end
anyway, they
sold out
, creating a temporary panic among the Burning Man
community. Always one to put off to the last minute that which
could have been done months earlier, I hadn't bought my ticket yet.
But I was able to.
In fact, everyone I know and everyone who everyone I know knows
was able to get a ticket as well last year. I strongly suspect that
almost no one who was ready, able, willing, and with the scratch on
hand, to go to Burning Man failed to last year.
While this first ever sell out brought the event to the radar of
professional scalpers, I really don't think there was a big group
for them to exploit, though in those last, post sellout weeks, an
average price of around $700, around double face value, seemed to
dominate the secondary market, though that plummeted once the
weeklong event actually began.
At any rate, I and many others thought it would have been best
for the Burning Man organizers to just do a p.r. campaign stressing
to scalpers and Burners alike that the "sell out" did not cause a
horrific problem for that many would-be attendees and do their
ticket sales the way they always had. Instead, they nervously
instituted a new lottery system that was easily enough gamed by
and Burners and found themselves with a publicly
unknown but likely between
80-120,000 requests
. That the event that had been growing by no
more than a few thousand attendees a year for years suddenly found
itself with 10-15 times that many would-be newcomers seems
unlikely, and the event had to invent a
complicated system to allocate tickets
to ensure that many
people considered core to the experience had a chance to go, and an
system to re-allocate tickets
for those who want to avoid
But now the BLM has announced that the event had actually
overstepped its legal bounds last year anyway, with over 53,000
people on the event's site for two days last year despite a
permitted limit of 50,000. See this
San Francisco Bay Guardian report
Burning Man has been placed "on probation," meaning that it can
only get permits moving forward on a year to year basis rather than
for five-year stints, and slowing down the event's hope of getting
the official limit raised to 70,000 after five years.
I first wrote about the complicated relationship between Burning
Man's would-be temporary autonomous zone and the forces of
government and bureaucracy in a
February 2000 Reason cover story
. I thought then, and
in my book, and now, that the relationship between the event and
the Feds and local governments is so mutually beneficial (the event
pays off local, state, and federal authorities to be there) that it
will take a lot more than a mild permit violation to actually make
the Feds kill it.
As I usually put it, I think it would take some singular
accident out there that kills a handful of infants and senior
citizens, the sort of scandal that will get BLM chiefs called
before Senate or House hearings and screamed at about what the hell
nonsense they are allowing to happen out on federal land.
This mere bit of overpopulation ain't that, and I'm confident
Burning Man will survive it.
Meanwhile, the Burning Man community is trying to get more
intelligent about lobbying, as per
this FishbowlDC report
The Burning Hour...[is] condensed version of that booze-filled
western orgy that happens annually in the Black Rock Desert of
Nevada that they describe as, ahem, “creative innovation.” Now
they’re bringing that free “spirit” to Washington, specifically to
Tortilla Coast on Capitol Hill on April 30 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.,
to introduce Congressional leaders and their staffs to the Burning
Man community. 
Quasi-lobbying visits to D.C. and Congress on the part of
Burning Man folk have happened before and will keep happening, so
this isn't new news, but such a public event certainly comes at a
propitious time for the Burning Man community as they are "on
probation." But it is one of the glories of representative
democracy (I guess) that every interest eventually gets to (is
forced to) massage folks in the corridors of power to survive.