Burning Man anti-consumerism celebration goes non-profit
By Zelie Pollon
BLACK ROCK CITY, Nev (Reuters) - When the 50-foot tall effigy known as "The Man" burned to the ground on Saturday night before tens of thousands of screaming people, it marked a new age for the iconic celebration known as Burning Man.
This year's event, appropriately themed Rites of Passage, begins a shift from a for-profit moneymaker into a not-for-profit with a reach that extends well beyond the strip of desert known as "the playa," Spanish for "beach."
Each year for one week, self-styled "burners" head into the desert of Nevada and build a working city from the ground up -- including an airport, a post office, and a security team -- that tries to be devoid of money and consumerism.
Burning Man started with an 8-foot structure burning on a beach in California around the summer solstice and has morphed into a sophisticated community with year-round projects including solar energy development and a crisis response network.
The only commodities available to purchase are ice and coffee. Organizers point to the absolute lack of corporate logos or brand names anywhere on the playa - in fact many "logos" are (mostly unprintable) plays on well-known brands such as Starbucks.
Asked about reports that Google owner Sergey Brin donated thousands of bicycles to the event, organizers were quick to brush off any implication of corporate sponsorship.
"It was not Google; It was a private individual," organizers said.
Characterized by massive art projects and the namesake burning figure at its close, Burning Man participants aim to leave the desert with no trace that they were ever there.
That is no easy task after tremendous and profitable growth from a handful of dudes on the beach to 50,000 people every day of the festival.
Organizers are now looking to liquidate the Black Rock LLC company and turn it into the not-for-profit Burning Man Project, with a 17-member board and tens of thousands of burners to continue its work.
It would seem a little discordant that a private company ran the anti-establishment, corporate-consumer-chewing festival.
"We've never called it a festival; we've always called it a project, with equal parts play and labor," said event founder and Black Rock LLC Executive Director Larry Harvey. "'Festival' limits it to a party or a vacation, and it hasn't behaved that way for about ten years. Most festivals don't forward action."
When it comes time to shift into its nonprofit project, the company will be liquidated with an unnamed payout divided among six owners. The amount will be "profit enough", but "not enough to make us rich," Harvey said.
The organization does not give annual earnings numbers, but did note in a report that all operational expenditures reached $17.5 million in 2010.
When he talks about the "action" by participants in Burning Man, 63-year-old Harvey said he is referring to "coordinated efforts of a group of strangers."
Out in the desert, amid the free spirits, artists and entrepreneurs who trek in from across the globe, hundreds of art installations dot the landscape. They include a bus decorated as a golden dragon, an enormous tree made of silver metal leaves, a lattice work tower, and thousands of colorfully dressed -- though terribly dusty -- participants traveling by foot or on bike across the white plateau.
Many of these projects will be destroyed at the end of the festival this weekend, leaving no trace of their presence, in homage to the fleeting nature of material things.
Other projects, the focus of the new nonprofit, are created with the goal of having some staying power.
Burners without Borders formed immediately after Hurricane Katrina when dozens of Burning Man participants decided to head to the disaster zone and put their skills developed in the harsh desert climate to work in disaster response.
Their work clearing out and rebuilding damaged homes in Biloxi and Pearlington, Mississippi, was so successful that they continued to do disaster relief in Haiti following the earthquake there, as well as in Peru.
A new project called Music Box aims to partner local musicians with the technical expertise of burners who volunteer their time to create songs following disasters. The process also serves as a kind of oral history for the community.
Harvey says the goal is to expand Burning Man's ten principles -- which include communal effort, civic responsibility, self-reliance, radical inclusion, immediacy and leaving no trace -- into the greater society.
Burning Man sold out the 50,000 per day attendance for the first time this year, and the organization has asked the Bureau of Land Management for a land use permit to increase the number of participants to 70,000 through 2016, said Rosalie Barnes, a Burning Man community relations associate. They expect to have an updated agreement in early 2012.
That translates into a lot of cash for the budding nonprofit and nearby community. This year, ticket prices reached up to $360, and that was just what went to the project.
The state of Nevada has benefited from Burning Man as well, with more than $10 million fed directly into the economy from participants and organizers, including almost $600,000 donated to community groups, including Gerlach High School, Gerlach Senior citizens, and the Nevada Museum of Art, Barnes said.
Despite the influx of funds, not everyone is supportive of the highly-decorated crowds that flood the small highway leading into the desert and absorb all amenities.
A gas station attendant who declined to give his name said that traffic for the two weeks surrounding the festival made any local circulation impossible, leaving people who didn't plan ahead without any access to supplies.
"I'm sure it's good for some people, but I wouldn't care if they moved it to Australia next year," he said.
Rather than peddle consumerism, groups form to create a giving atmosphere. At one coffee stop, participants from Australia and Oregon served fresh drip coffee to anyone who showed up with a cup.
"We've had people bring us all sorts of things in exchange: coffee, cream, whiskey, ice cream," said 34-year-old Heather Schwartzenberg.
Another woman handed out cool orange slices and carried a bin for the peels. People often stand in the streets of the temporary city misting passersby with cool water, offering massages and free meals.
(Editing by Karen Brooks and Greg McCune)