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BORG2, Burning Man and the Challenges of Collaborative Leadership
Alex Steffen, 26 Jan 05

Burning Man is a massive art happening and temporary autonomous zone that erupts in Nevada's Black Rock desert at the end of every summer. Burning Man attracts a fair percentage of the nation's most creative, interesting and strange people, who manage, mostly successfully, to live together for a week (under harsh conditions in varying states of alteration) with essentially no government. It is, as a friend said, like Road Warrior designed by Dr. Seuss.

But Burning Man is also the full property of a limited liability corporation, the Black Rock City LLC (aka the Organization, the Org, or "Borg"), which is responsible for planning the logistics of creating a city of 30,000+ people from scratch in the middle of nowhere.

The tension here is obvious, and has produced a mild insurrection within the Burning Man ranks -- Borg2, which wants to wrest some control over the event away from the LLC and use "massively collaborative" and "radically democractic" methods to make decisions about the operations and budget of the festival.


As they demanded in their petition to the Borg:

"The fix must address many issues, but the CORE ISSUE for the fix is THE ART. Art, Art, Art: that is what this is all about. Fix the art and make the process for doing it fair and fun again, and the rest will likely fall into place. Our solution towards this end is simple: RADICALLY DEMOCRATIZE THE CURATION AND FUNDING OF THE ART.

"So Borg, how about a deal? We, the mass of Burning Man creative agents, agree to reapply ourselves with focus to the creation of mind-blowing, I-can't-believe-someone-actually-made-that, KNOCK YOU ON YOUR ASS ART, and you agree to LET US DO IT. Simple. You GET OUT OF THE WAY. No more benevolent ART-ocracy of black box funding, crushing bureaucracy and resistance to creativity in the name of 'theme compliance' or 'mandatory interactivity.' Release the power back to the participants.

"Here's how we propose to do it. Here are our demands. You might consider them a sort of latter day Lutherian Manifesto, a list of Theses nailed to your door- the door guarding the overwrought, incestuous, indulgence dispensing, overly ritualized and bureaucratically mired Catholic Church we call Burning Man. In the end, our demands are simple: GIVE US OUR EVENT BACK OR WE LEAVE."

To which the LLC initially replied, Um, yeah, right.

BORG2 immediately countered with a challenge to an "art duel": give us some good real estate at Burning Man, they taunted, let us fundraise from the Burning Man attendees list (in an attempt to raise $250,000) and let us do our own thing without interference. If our art isn't better than your art, one of our ringleaders, Chicken John, will spend all day in a dunking booth, letting folks soak him in water and humiliation.

How can you not love that spirit?

In the LLC's defense, this is a classic case of an emerging organizational problem set: where is the proper place to draw the line between collaboration and control? As collaborative approaches spread, as collaborations score more successes, those doing the collaborative work naturally bridle at the idea that some centalized group gets to exercise final authority due to some arbitrary positional heirarchy.

At the same time, strategy, leadership and vision are unfortunately goals at which it's very hard to arrive through pure collaboration (the woes of curation-by-committee, for instance, being fabled). Often, if you want a compelling vision, you have to give a visionary the authority to pursue it (take, for instance, Linus Torvald's role in Linux). It is often the case, as Machiavelli noted six centuries ago, that the people together make specific decisions better than their leaders, and general decisions more poorly. Then too, much of the legal and regulatory world still demands that the buck stops with some specific individual or group of individuals, and the penalties for mistakes will fall more heavily on them then on casual collaborators.

On the other hand, studies have shown that in a great many situations having a leader is more important than having the right leader; that in many settings vision and leadership ability are significantly over-rated by those who purport to have them, and that leaderless groups of collaborators, if kept to task by a facilitator, can often accomplish similar goals. Where collaboration seems break down is where deeply intuitive and poorly distributed talents -- like artistic ability or strategic insight -- are called for.

Creating an organizational model which can give people maximum leeway to collaborate effectively, while still acting strategically/ with vision -- if we can do that, we will turbocharge our ability to innovate and act. That's a holy grail there, that visionary collaborative approach...

So even if you couldn't care less about what a bunch of dusty half-naked hippies think or do, you might want to pay attention to Burning Man this year -- the LLC has decided take up BORG2's "art duel" challenge:

"On behalf of BORG1, I accept your bet. What is more is truly more. Let a hundred flowers bloom!... The art that you produce will then be matched against our own poor efforts at supporting and creating art. Should your woo woo trump our hoo ha on the playa, I pledge to reconsider my opposition to your radically democratic curatorial methods. Should our hoo ha make your woo woo look ho hum, you commit to sit all day in a dunking booth at next year's Decompression. Let Chaos Provide!"

This year, 30,000+ people will be able to judge the results for themselves.

(image, Xeni Jardin; shoutout to Spatial Delivery)

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As BRC ARTery staff, I'm thrilled to see this challenge take shape. Not only has it lit a fire under a whole group of old school burner artists, it is bringing new life into the entire organization. Our ART team meetings have taken on a new dynamic, pushing toward greater support for anyone who dares to create in that crazy space we call a city. Hopefully all of that creative energy will show in eight months....

Posted by: jennifer evonne on 26 Jan 05

The Borg2 people really annoy me. The entire concept of "radical self-reliance" seems to have flown right over their heads, and if there's anything that simply does not work on the playa, it's a sense of entitlement. "Give us our event back or we leave", they say: but since when is it their event, and what makes them so much better than the rest of us that we should have to pay extra to make sure they stick around? Bah. I hope they do leave; maybe seeing how well the rest of us get along without them will go a step or two toward deflating their hypertrophic egos.

Larry Harvey seems to have found a way to very politely not give them the time of day, though, so I think it'll be alright.

Posted by: Mars Saxman on 27 Jan 05

I disagree Mars. Entitlement is what burning man is all about. It's about entitlement for everyone. Read that again (literally). Everyone. Burning man has become a spontaneous event unto itself. The only reason, the ONLY reason Harvey has so much control, is because of the counter control exerted by the status quo politic. Burning man had to respond with the increasing set of regulations, restrictions, taxes and fees to keep this event running. If it wasn't for that, Larry and BORG would have lost control a long, long time ago - say around 1996. Therefore, Harvey and the BORG are the real egomaniacs. Because of the BORG collective EGO, they have become increasingly full of themselves over the last few years, and it showed this last year in 2004. The art paled in comparison to previous years. And I disagree with you about Harvey not caring. I think he finally gets it when he said, "let a hundred flowers bloom". BORG 2 is the best thing to happen to Burning Man in a long time. Finally this event has a chance of regaining its roots as a truly free, grass-roots, bottoms-up dionysiasn explosion of creative spirit on the playa.

Posted by: Paul Hughes on 27 Jan 05

Paul, I'm afraid I don't really understand your comments at all. I have no idea what you mean by "entitlement for everyone". When I said "sense of entitlement", I meant that the Borg2 people seem to feel that the Burning Man organization owes them something, that they deserve some kind of subsidy to help them build their art on the playa, simply because they are artists who like going to Burning Man. The Borg2 "we have a dream" petition amounts, so far as I can see, to a demand that Black Rock City tax its inhabitants (by raising ticket prices) and give the proceeds to the petitioners (indirectly, of course, to preserve the appearance of impartiality) so they have an easier time building the art projects they want to display on the playa. This doesn't sound like "truly free, grass-roots, bottoms-up dionysian explosion of creative spirit" to me; it sounds like plain ol' boring civic politics, with all the bureaucracy, control, squabbling, and factionalism that goes along with it. The "give us what we want or we leave" phrasing leaves me completely cold; it sounds like extortion, and inspires no sympathy whatever.

I almost think you and I went to completely different events in 2004. The language you're using echoes the phrasing I hear from the Borg2 crew, and I simply can't see how it applies to the Black Rock City I know and love. Harvey has so much control? Egomania? I don't see control over anything but basic infrastructure (roads, sanitation, the Man), and I'm fine with that since that's what my ticket pays for. My sole interaction with the Burning Man organization this year was spending a couple of hours riding out a dust storm in a golf cart with an ARTery staff member after locating a suitable spot for my art project. Nobody from BMOrg ever tried to stop me from doing anything, or was ever in a position where they could have said anything about what I was doing.

Actually, maybe that's part of why this whole Borg2 thing leaves me so cold. Its proponents always start out by griping about how weak the art was in 2004 and claiming that it would all be so much better next year if the Burning Man organization gave them a bunch of money. Well, excuse me, I guess I spent too much time out on the playa BUILDING MY ART this year to notice how weak the art was. Now, I am not a professional artist. Nobody gave me any money. It never even occured to me to go begging to the Burning Man organization for money, or to ask anyone's permission, or whatever. I just came up with my idea and then went out there and did it. I designed it, bought the parts, found friends with storage, a workshop, a welder, and spent countless hours for weeks cutting and fitting. I got it all hauled down there, went out into the desert, built the damn thing: MADE IT HAPPEN. What's stopping these whiners from doing the same thing? If they want to make art, they should bloody well stop complaining and go make art. Who's going to stop them?

Black Rock City is what we make of it. It's better than democracy: it's direct action. Want to see more art on the playa? Go build some! Or, if your inclinations don't run that way, find some artist whose work you like and ask them how you can help get their stuff onto the playa. Remember "no spectators"? This Borg2 thing, by officially stamping a group of "the artists", implicitly makes the rest of us spectators. And what fun is that?

Posted by: Mars Saxman on 28 Jan 05

Ahh, I forgot one thing: it is true that I had one conversation with a polite, friendly ARTery staff person who made sure my project wasn't going to kill anyone or permanently damage the playa. I guess they could have told me to change the design at that point if was unsuitable. But, really, if this is the kind of "control" the Borg2 people are upset about, then I have even less sympathy for their concerns.

Posted by: Mars Saxman on 28 Jan 05

You might want to check out the Rainbow Gatherings for an example of a temporary autonomous zone that's found another way to deal with leadership issues.

Posted by: Miles Crater on 30 Jan 05



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