The Revolution Will Not Be Invoiced

Forget what you think you know about activism and community service. Forget the Non-Profit industrial Complex with its centrally controlled organizations. Forget grant applications and fundraising drives, complex tax codes and government regulations. Forget political correctness, groupthink, forced neutrality and censorship.

Burners Without Borders, a new movement for social change borne out of the Burning Man Festival, does away with all of that bureaucratic detritus. Taking its cue from Doctors Without Borders, Burners Without Borders is led only by an idea: that of a boundless, leaderless movement, based on gifting and community, that seeks no publicity, recognition, money or power. All it seeks to do, like its progenitor, is to build community through addressing social needs, creating art and healing the deep wounds of a disconnected culture in the throes of anomie.

For one week every year, upward of 45,000 artists and cultural avatars build a thriving city in the middle of the Black Rock Desert, have what amounts to a purposeful bacchanal, burn it down, and leave without a trace. Each year, the Burning Man Festival grows larger and larger, more and more elaborate, complex and mind-bending.

But year after year it remains a closed universe, an entity unto itself, growing further removed from the “default world” that lies beyond the trash fence that encloses Black Rock City like a thick cultural membrane. Over the years a schism grew between those who saw the transformative potential of the Burning Man ethos out in the “default world” — those who asked is it just a party? — and those who were resolute in their commitment that yes, indeed it is just a party, a place where you can go to be and do anything you want, so don’t fuck with it or you might mess the whole thing up for the rest of us.

But when Lady K graced the Gulf shores, wreaking wet, windy havoc in her dark brown evening gown, she perhaps unwittingly wrought the answer to the nagging question of Burning Man’s ongoing raison d’etre. It came in the form of a post-Katrina inspiration.

“My personal philosophy,” Burners Without Borders co-founder Carmen Mauk intones, “is that this community is ready to do something more than just party. People are ready to make meaning of their Burning Man experience in their everyday lives. Whenever you bring that ethos off the Playa, that’s Burners Without Borders. And that’s precisely what happened in Mississippi.”

Mauk is referring to the small group of Burners who headed south to the Mississippi Gulf Coast following the 2005 Festival to help people rebuild their devastated communities. They first stopped in Biloxi to rebuild a Buddhist temple for a group of Vietnamese monks. Several months later, a slightly larger crew moved on to Pearlington, Mississippi, to help a community that had not yet seen any relief efforts. They lived in an impromptu tent village, spending their days clearing and constructing homes and their evenings building — and burning — incredible pieces of art made from the landlocked detritus of Katrina. They spun fire and played music and danced and sang. Never once did a dollar change hands for any of the services they provided.

For Mauk’s partner, co-founder Tom Price, Burners going to help with the recovery efforts was a no-brainer.

“People that attend Burning Man are pre-wired to know everything about how to survive in a disaster zone,” Price explained. “We intuitively know how to self-organize and know the basics of taking care of each other in a very challenging environment.”

Price filmed much of the experience, which he then edited into a short film he called Burn on the Bayou. Screened publicly only once, on the Playa during the one-year anniversary of Katrina, it is a sublime tale of the inspirational and transformative potential of art and gifting. It is also an unbelievable chronicle of the devastation wrought by the storm. Although plans for a feature-length film are in the works, Price, speaking from the ad-hoc San Francisco headquarters of Burners Without Borders, took special care to note that the success of the film lies elsewhere.

“Burners like to act autonomously, and not be told what to do. When people see Burn on the Bayou, they realize they too can do what we did down there. And for the uninitiated, we’re hoping this community can be a catalyst for all people, because I believe there is a Burner in everyone, and a way into this work for everyone.”

Burn on the Bayou’s narrative showcased the quintessence of Being the Change. It was also a personal crossroads in the lives of the participants, who found themselves on the Gulf Coast for a myriad of reasons many did not come to understand until months later.

Karine Wilson used to spend half of each year in New Orleans, where her three children lived with her ex-husband. She learned while on the Playa that her Lakeview neighborhood was under nine feet of water. A trained disaster relief specialist for the Red Cross, she tried desperately to get to New Orleans to offer her services “but they had no place for me,” she recalls, painfully. “I know New Orleans like the back of my hand, but all they cared about was following their bureaucratic procedures.”

She would eventually return to New Orleans to witness the devastation firsthand. Unable to help like she wanted, Karine knew via the Burning Man listserv that there were Burners who had gone to Biloxi. So after spending time with her refugee family in Tulsa and raising money for area relief groups, she decided to head south to join the efforts already underway. She knew there was at least one group that would just “get it done,” and not be beholden to any bureaucracy anywhere.

“After the trauma I experienced seeing my own home destroyed, and the stench I had in my head for so long, which made me so sick I would just throw up, going to Pearlington to help people clean up their homes was extremely healing for me.”

Other members, like Lisa Benham and “KK,” were drawn to the work while in the midst of chaotic personal change. Benham, a painter also known as “El Bee,” had always wanted to spend time in the Peace Corps, and saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Burning Man means that if something needs doing, and you see it, you just do it, without wondering who’s job is this?” she explains.

Benham’s gift to the people of Pearlington was to build them a new town sign. So appreciative were some of the townsfolk that after the sign’s unveiling a resident of Pearlington stood up and declared that he’d shoot anyone who tried to take it down.

“It was a great feeling that touched me deeply,” Benham laughed. “It was the first time anyone had offered to kill someone for my art.”

Being in Pearlington was an epochal experience for itinerant photographer “KK”, who says he had not lived, laughed, cried, played or worked that hard before or since.

“It was pretty Lord of the Flies when I first arrived,” KK remembered, the bemusement still ringing through his words. “I went down there knowing no one, with no connection, and without the slightest clue as to what I could offer.”

He was totally unfamiliar with demolition techniques, and suffered from health conditions that limited his ability to perform the brutal physical labor involved. But he did have a fairly detailed technical background. So he created a tech support clinic out of his tent, and on Thursday afternoons he would repair whatever equipment people from the town would bring to him. He also built — in the middle of a swamp in an area that had had no power for months — a solar-powered WiFi array for the camp, a design that would later end up a finalist in a competition sponsored by Qualcomm.

Tom Price and Carmen Mauk have spent most of the year since returning from the Bayou putting together the Green Man Pavilion, a 30,000-square-foot exhibition space that will combine art, earth sciences and technological innovation. This, along with the Man himself, will serve as the centerpiece for Black Rock City. Traditionally, this space has been exclusively devoted to art, but this year the Burning Man organization decided to break with that and a few other sacred tenets and allow the exhibition of environmental technologies alongside the art, in the hopes that the two will catalyze each other.

Perhaps most controversial has been the decision to let corporations exhibit their green products on the Playa, in strict contravention to the total ban on commerce, advertising or brand marketing that has been a part of the festival since its inception. This sent shockwaves down the corridors of the non-commercial orthodoxy, who are so committed to this ideal that even those bringing bicycles and rental trucks to the Festival are supposed to find creative ways to cover over their respective corporate logos.

Unphased by the criticism, both Price and Mauk see the Green Man as a logical extension of Burners Without Borders, and vice versa.

“Our community is already an eco-green community,” Mauk offered, her tone insinuating that it was a fairly obvious deduction. “So the Green Man theme is this incredible opportunity for all these eco-geniuses in our community to bring out the things they have created and share them with everyone.”

Tom Price adds, rhetorically, “are we not going to take advantage of the opportunities to put our values into real word practice, like the Green Man, where our world meets the ‘default world’?”

As a movement led by an idea, not ideology, Mauk and Price and the rest of the co-creators of Burners Without Borders are now watching their creation spread organically across the nation. In San Francisco, Mauk and fellow Burners worked with the National Park Service to rebuild the North Beach fire pits. In Detroit, Burners are building a Temple out of wrecked cars in order to spur economic development to blighted neighborhoods. Chicago Burners have performed in parades, taught art and recycling at high schools, and helped South Side neighborhoods deal with seasonal flooding by showing residents how to collect storm water by disconnecting their downspouts. Chicago’s Burning Man community also stepped up last April to provide the art and entertainment for the city’s inaugural Green Festival, bridging for the first time in any organized sense these two vanguard cultures. In New York, this July, Burners cleaned up Governor’s Island and staged an interactive public art show. During this year’s Cinco de Mayo, Burners in twenty-five cities got out and cleaned their public parks and beaches.

These were auspicious beginnings, for sure. But nothing compared to what came along during the planning stages for the Green Man.

Price was approached by MMA Renewable Ventures, a VC firm engaged in renewable energy that wanted to gift 25kW of solar power to power the Green Man pavilion. Price struck up a relationship with the company and put together a plan for after this year’s festival to provide up to 180kW of solar power to the two closest neighboring towns to the Black Rock Desert, Gerlach and Loveloch. Using donated solar panels from MMA and rebate incentives offered by electricity carrier Sierra Pacific, Price figured out that if Burners Without Borders provided the labor, gifted as usual, they could set up the solar power at no cost, and provide the towns with what will amount to $1 million of free solar power over the next 20 years.

“This combo of venture capital and social capital created a seat for the town of Gerlach at the renewable energy table,” Price beamed.

Looking into the future, Carmen Mauk says the success or failure of Burners Without Borders is entirely in the hands of the people.

“It’s the ‘how,’ not the ‘what.’ Burning Man may be the organizing principle, but the people involved make it what it is, or can be. Art is how you live your life. And when you start solving problems creatively, people start to pay attention. And that’s when they can begin to find their way in.”

Hurricane Katrina washed away so much more than the Gulf Coast. She washed away the collective illusions of a nation that believed their government would always be ready to help them. She washed away the hopes of poor Americans that they too mattered in the big picture of the American Dream, and she washed away the faith that those who own and run this country are concerned with something other than their own agendas.

But perhaps more than anything else, she washed away the sense of helplessness borne out of the collective paralysis we experienced in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, when so many wanted to do so much but couldn’t. Katrina awoke within many the sense of moral and spiritual obligation to one’s fellow human beings that had been denuded by the Machiavellian spell cast long over the nation through reality television and the fear-mongering pontifications of the current Administration.

And somewhere in the Nevada Desert, in a place renown for its narcissism and profound disconnect with society, where the two greatest values are radical self-expression and radical self-reliance, it awoke something that was so profoundly selfless that it has since spawned a whole movement. It is called Burners Without Borders, and it is a revolution in art and social consciousness.

Charles Shaw is the Editor-in-Chief of Chicago’s Conscious Choice. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Charles, or visit Charles's website.