Table of Contents
Annabella’s Zen Art Sanctuary
Morris Burner Hotel
The Karma of Gifting
Mud Bluff Principles
Virtual Happy Hearts
Physical Happy Hearts
The Zen of the Deal
More than just a week in the desert
Mud Bluff is a private Burner retreat and art park. It’s a place to challenge sensibilities, present art, and share ideas. Mud Bluff is also a continuing economic art project which I started years ago. I’ve been exploring ways to extend my Burning Man experience beyond a week. Like many Burner projects, this one was inspired by special moments at Burning Man and years in the Burner community. During that time I’ve discovered some things that work. And many that don’t. This manifesto is a summary of those experiences and a template for the next phase of the project.
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Rod Coleman. I’m a tech guy with interests in computer architecture, information theory, neuroscience, and especially human behavior. I’ve been going to Burning Man since 2002 and have been a Burning Man Regional Contact since 2007. Burning Man is the virtual made real. I see Mud Bluff as a way to bring Burner culture to the other 51 weeks of the year.
The Mud Bluff project is in no way commercial. There is no pyramid selling nor recruitment. And though we apply some of the ideas from Burning Man, this project is not part of the Burning Man organization. We do not commodify, advertise or promote Mud Bluff in any fashion. Transactions are decoupled into underlying gifts. Mud Bluff itself is a gift. The property was a fortunate discovery for me, and one I wish to share with other Burners. My hope is this gift may inspire you to share your art and talents with others.
One does not simply join, or buy a ticket to Mud Bluff. We have no membership fees. We welcome and respect the stranger, but self-selectively. The experience starts with an invitation to Mud Bluff. If you’re reading this on our website, you have already been invited. This content is meant for those who actively participate in the project. It’s not to be promoted, copied, distributed or posted anywhere else on the internet. Please don’t share this document in any form with anyone not involved with the project.
You have been given this gift of Generous Inclusion by someone already participating at Mud Bluff. As a guest, you also received a number of virtual cyber-tokens called Happy Hearts. You can check your Happy Heart count on your personal page at our website. Each Happy Heart represents the opportunity for a good day at Mud Bluff. But only the opportunity. You must engage the gift in order to appreciate it.
If you’ve been a guest of Mud Bluff for a while, hopefully, you’ve accumulated more Happy Hearts. The number will reflect other’s appreciation of your participation. This document is not required reading, but if you wish to include others, manage a resource, or even become a Trustee of the project, this document will be your guide.
Below I present some of my personal Burner history, and proposed one possible way of living a Burner experience year-round. In order for the project to evolve, it needs to be understood and probably challenged. At the very least, this history should be of value to whoever succeeds me in the management of Mud Bluff. If you’re interested in participating, please read on.
I first went to Burning Man in 2002, and haven’t missed the event since. Like most Burners, I was overwhelmed by the wonderful feeling of freedom, community, and serendipity. For me, Burning Man was the virtual world of the internet brought to life. Theme camps are like websites in physical form. Burning Man was the virtual made real. I Didn’t want it to end. While driving off the playa that first year I wondered how I might extend this experience into my daily life.
Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one. When I got back to Reno I discovered a small but passionate Burner community holding periodic potlucks. I attended most of these gatherings for the next several years, hosting more than a few myself.
I find the potluck an excellent metaphor for Burning Man. People bring what they wish to express in food, and get a chance to sample the favorite gastronomic experience of others. A potluck is similar to the event in one other important way. People generally bring more than they can eat. If you do the math, you’ll quickly realize this generosity yields abundance, at least for one meal. Or for one week in the desert.
But what about the next week? And the week after that? How does a Burner community sustain this level of expression and giving for a year or more? In general, it doesn’t. We slowly revert to our default transactional ways. I began to wonder why. One reason the experience works for a week in the desert is that it’s a novel exception. For the hours of that exception, we suspend our demand for fairness and rely on Karma. Does sustaining a Burner experience require a series of exceptions? Perhaps. I decided to find out.
Over the next few years, I attended Saguaro Man in Arizona, SynOrgy in Utah, and many other regional events in California. Each had its own flavor, but the most important thing I discovered is, Burning Man is not like it was in the good old days. The regional events are. Others have noticed this too. Regional events are less predictable, more generous, and even more socially intimate. I view what happens to Burning Man over the years as a morphing function of scale, refinement, and urbanization over time. Like the impact of anonymity in an urban venue, Burning Man has had to evolve more hierarchical structure over the years to mitigate the negative aspects of anonymous human behavior. This hierarchy of control flows upward from the individual to the theme camp, village, Black Rock City, and ultimately, the Burning Man Organization.
With more people attending, each individual becomes less known, less connected, and less responsible to the group. This happens even with the best of Burner intentions. Hierarchy is one way to counter the effect. You can become part of a smaller, more intimate camp which might, in turn, be part of a village. Watch the regional events as they scale. The same thing happens there. So then, is the challenge mitigating anonymity? Perhaps. One obvious solution is, stay small, below the Dumbar Limit of 150 in a tribe. Or another is, use technology to stay connected in larger groups.
I remember one year on the playa I came across a large sign that said, “Private Tent”. This struck me as funny. Aren’t all tents private? Not on the playa. The sign was needed because of the pervasive feeling that everything is shared at Burning Man. The exception required a bold display. I found it charming, but also realized the line between private and public shifts at the event. How can the more shared experience be preserved and extended? Who owns what? And if the title is shared, who controls which resource? Finally, how is this all made fair? These are some of the questions raised by a gift economy. But back to Reno.
Annabella’s Zen Art Sanctuary
Local Burner potlucks were easy to promote. Soon the gatherings grew too large for my small home. Also, I needed space to build bigger projects. I moved to a larger house on a half acre and invited other Burners to be roommates. I called it Annabella’s Zen Art Sanctuary. Now I could host art project construction, store RVs, and live a Burner life on a daily basis. I was able to share not only my resources but also the expenses. It’s worked out well. I’ve met many interesting people and helped lots of art make it to the playa.
Not long after moving to this larger space, I became a Burning Man Regional Contact. A couple of months later I attended the first Burning Man Summit. That first event was small and was held at the Burning Man offices on 3rd Street in San Francisco. That’s where I first met Larry Harvey.
I was in a session about mailing lists when Larry came in for the after-discussion. He invited general questions. The Burning Man Principles had been published a couple of years before. This was my chance to ask how they were created. I wanted to know where the ideas came from. I don’t recall his exact words but it was something to the effect:
“The principles came out of the event itself. We simply recognized that these were the things people did to survive in the desert while they strived to express themselves. We merely observed and documented these principles. We didn’t invent Burning Man. Burning Man invented Burning Man.”
Like so many other things I’ve learned from Burners, I appreciated his Zen approach to organizing a community – instead of enforcing rules or a vision, he simply let the event evolve to find its natural form. Then document the result. If you doubt this approach, note that Burning Man does not have a “Leave No Trace” principle as you might find at the Sierra Club. That would be a commandment. Instead, Larry chose to present it as “Leaving No Trace”. See the difference?
I’d seen this approach used before in campus architecture. Instead of pouring concrete for sidewalks, open the doors and let people walk where they want. Only then pave the resulting trails. So many intentional communities start with a preconceived model, then force behavior along those paths. In contrast, I wanted to bring Burners together on a blank canvas to literally see where the trails might lead. Larry validated the approach. We’ve spoken on a number of occasions since, but this bit of wisdom was his greatest gift to me. (I guess it always will be. Larry died as I was finishing this document.) But back to Anabella’s Zen Art Sanctuary.
Our early Reno town hall meetings were held at my new art sanctuary. I also hosted brainstorms, mind melds, and organizational meetings for art projects and theme camps. Most of our Reno CORE projects started there. I’ve now been managing this Burner home in south Reno for 12 years. We’ve had some great times and few problems, the biggest of which is that I’ve filled up that half acre with RVs and art projects. Again, I’m out of space. I’ve also had one more objective which has been a struggle to accomplish. I’ve long thought Reno should have its own Burner campout event. Or perhaps even a year-round retreat.
Early on I discovered the 4th of Juplaya event, but like others, I was frustrated with the BLM restrictions. BLM forces camps to be smaller than 50 people or be widely separated. This creates somewhat of an orphan vibe, with camps strung out for miles down playa. Perhaps this is why the 4th of Juplaya seems to have more in common with chaos than community. It felt more post-apocalyptic than welcoming, which isn’t a judgment. Post-apocalyptic can be fun too, it’s just not what I had experienced at other regional Burner events. Reno still needed its own multi-day campout, as well as a place to escape the urban chaos. We needed a dedicated Burner retreat and event space.
During my early years as a Burner, I volunteered at the local Black Rock Burner Hostel in Sparks. Fred Hagemeister’s place was the center of the local Burner community at the time. I once asked him how he got started with the Hostel. He told me about helping a disabled friend enjoy the burn. He said it was impossible to push his wheelchair in that dust, so he dragged him backward in his wheelchair from camp to camp. He noted that it was a lot of work, but also one of the most rewarding things he’d ever done.
Without major planning or intention, he then returned to his home in Sparks and opened his doors to other Burners who might need a place to stay on the way to or from the event. Word of mouth carried his email address around the world. This resource became especially popular with people from outside the country who flew into Reno, especially those who might not have rented a vehicle. His home was not only a place to stay while they collected supplies, for years it was the local rideshare center as well. Hagey once had as many as 200 people “camping” at his house. That was before the City of Sparks found out. He had to back off his generosity or pay fines. His Radical Inclusion is now more modest, but with no less conviction.
Gaming the Gift
For me, Hagey’s gifts were inspiring. I began to take some of his overflow guests when things got crowded. I would also stop by and do taxi duty for those collecting supplies. This was before Uber. One of the Burners I drove around Reno was this young guy from New York. He was a chef and was setting up a kitchen for his group. We made multiple trips to various hardware stores.
What I didn’t learn until later was that he was being paid thousands of dollars to prepare meals for some wealthy campers. He was an early component of a Plug and Play camp, aka, a sherpa. The problem was, he was using a free local resource (Hagey and myself) to literally turn a personal profit at the event.
The point is, no matter how authentic and necessary the gift, someone may game it for personal gain. Situations like this are more common than most people realize. Camp dues sometimes end up in private pockets. It made me more cynical. After that, I ask more questions of those I helped.
The Black Rock Burner Hostel is also where I met Greg Glover. He shared my conviction for a more permanent local Burner experience. Demonstrating Immediacy, he did something about it. He purchased a section of land from some ranchers in the mountains north of Susanville, California. There he founded PermaBurn. The idea was to have a permanent site for events and Burner art, very similar to my objective.
I immediately joined the project and later became a board member. A section of land contains 640 acres, a mile square. Greg’s plan was to organize the space around eight theme camps of 80 acres each. He expected each theme camp to invest on the same scale that he had (hundreds of thousands of dollars).
The PermaBurn location had advantages, but also some major issues. At five miles off of the state highway, it had no problems with neighbors, nor limits on sound. The site was a valley with small hills around which provided privacy, but the negatives were more significant.
At 150 miles away, it took nearly three hours to drive there from Reno. PermaBurn was fine for long weekends, but too far to drive for an overnight stay. PermaBurn had other issues. It was at the same elevation as Lake Tahoe (6500 feet). After October, the snow on its north-faced road made it inaccessible until the following June. Even in June, the weather could be downright nasty.
Unfortunately, it was 2008 and Greg had bought the land at the top of the real estate bubble. By 2009, the economy had tanked. Others were less inclined to contribute. There was lots of onsite participation, but little financial support. Greg’s plan B was to have thousands of members at $200 each. He began selling lifetime memberships. I’m not sure of the ultimate count, but unfortunately, it was less than a hundred, not thousands.
The timing of Greg’s purchase was not the only negative of the “Great Recession”. Local Burners had less to share. It was the first time I witnessed funding fatigue in our Burner community. There was simply more need than there were dollars for the projects. A story I read as a kid came to mine. It’s called “Stone Soup”. If you’ve never read it, here’s the short version:
“Three starving French soldiers returning from battle come upon a village. One asks for food. He is told that because of the war, the village was starving too. So he suggested stone soup. The soldier puts a pot of water over a fire and dropped in a large stone. He noted that a little salt would help to tenderize it. A villager runs home to get some. He then suggested that if anyone had anything such as pepper to improve the flavor, this would be a good time to throw it in. Soon villagers are adding a few vegetables, potatoes, and even some meat. Soon the entire town enjoyed an excellent meal that no one had the resources to provide.”
Stone Soup was a conceptual potluck, like Burning Man. Not everyone has meat and potatoes, but even those who just add seasoning, bring zest to the event. Everyone enjoys the tasty result. It works well, especially in lean times.
Because of limited resources, I suggested Stone Soup as a theme to Greg not just for our campout, but also property development – bring what you need, share what you can. We scheduled the first Stone Soup event for June 6th, 2009, but a late winter storm challenged our plan. It began to rain hard.
When I arrived only a few had made it up. Most were stopped near the highway. Some had walked the five miles up to the property. Rita Volkland wasn’t up to the hike so we got in my motorhome to give it a try. I didn’t have four-wheel drive so had to rely on red-neck traction control, which is just going as fast as you can. Rita closed the door and I floored it. Everything was crashing around in the RV and mud was flying off the dualies. If you’ve ever heard Rita laugh, you can imagine her screams. We only made it about half-way up, which was at the bottom of that last two miles of north-faced road. The rain continued as we walked up to the top. Then it began to snow.
Later I drove back down to the highway where it was still a wet, sloppy, muddy mess. I had knocked off both mufflers and broken the propane valve so didn’t have any heat. I discovered all the leaks in the roof that night. The event mostly occurred near the highway. This is when we realized that the PermaBurn site could only be reliably used for about 5 months out of the year. It was a challenge, but we still had fun. And we continued developing PermaBurn.
Mostly it was an exercise in casual contribution. Greg bought some 40-foot containers and some heavy equipment. Others brought domes and of course RVs to store. The road was improved and we put up the domes. Over the next several years, many events were hosted at PermaBurn, ranging from just over 50 Burners at our First Ashes event in 2008, to more than 700 for Lunar Burn in 2012. I should mention, the best laser show I’ve ever seen was projected on the low hills of the PermaBurn property for that event. I remembered this when I discovered Mud Bluff. But back to PermaBurn.
Other than location, the next most frustrating problem was the organization itself. We held meetings at my place in Reno. Like with the typical theme-camp at Burning Man, most of the work and money is provided by a few. Those few need the freedom to move quickly and effectively. I was in favor of a system of management that reflected this investment in time or money. But the group voted for a simple democracy.
The problem was participation. Someone who only had $200 at stake didn’t care much about what happened. After that first vote for democracy, we couldn’t get a quorum to agree on anything else. Hib Engler and I worked to get signatures on the founding documents, but most couldn’t be bothered to do even that. Greg took the initiative to do what got done, mostly at his own expense. Other contributions in materials and time were modest. A passive democracy does not instill confidence that any gift would find its highest and best use. People enjoyed the camping space, but the project did not flourish.
Undercapitalization and group management might have been resolved with a reorganization, but there were other problems. Zoning issues restricted construction of significant buildings, but we never got that far. Greg was drilling a well when the vandalism and theft began. The property was unoccupied for much of the year. Windows were shot out of RVs. Property was stolen from the containers. The only way to secure equipment was to have someone live there year round. A few brought in snowmobiles but the bitter cold limited those trips as well. I don’t think anyone ever spent a December or January night at PermaBurn. In the end, Greg carried most of the burden even without democratic authority. He ran as fast as he could until he burned out. Then he sold the property back to the ranchers and moved on.
PermaBurn was not quite permanent. A sustainable community requires more than good intentions and a generous gift. It needs to be constantly accessible and financially sustainable.
With PermaBurn gone, my energy shifted to Burning Girl. Like Greg, Rick and Melinda had been inspired by Burning Man. They developed their 80 acres south of Yerington into a place for personal art projects. At only 100 miles, “Rancho Rico” was closer to Reno than PermaBurn but had 10 miles of dirt road instead of five. Still, there were no muddy hills to climb, and the road was well maintained. It was of reasonable distance and access for weekend events.
The Burning Girl event itself was brilliant and beautiful. It started as Melinda’s birthday party and had been going on for several years before I got involved. During that time they had developed lots of art and infrastructure. They had even evolved some traditions for their annual event on the 4th of July weekend. It was a more mellow version of 4th of Juplaya, but with a river, and no BLM.
The Burning Girl property has the east fork of the Walker river running through it and lots of cottonwood trees for shade. The property is only a quarter mile wide, but the river meandered to create about a twenty-minute float. This was a major draw. They built a stage by the river and put in power and water for a campground. You could plant your chair in the shallow water and listen to music for hours. They also built a western saloon and a bridge across the river near the other side of the property. There were lots to explore. It’s really a wonderful event space.
As Regional, I helped bring more Reno Burners to this private party for the next couple of years. The event grew to several hundred. Burning Girl is a great example of what can be done with autocratic expression (if only for one weekend a year).
There was discussion of buying the property for a Burner retreat. I brought a number of interested Burners out, but with all the improvements they wanted $1.3 million, a challenge for everyone’s budget. This was an expensive neighborhood. It would be difficult to raise that amount of capital. I needed to find something similar, but less expensive. The river experience inspired me to put water recreation on my wish list.
The Burning Girl event later morphed into MistaFur’s Midsummer Magic at the same location, then moved to a site in California, where it continues as a private commercial event. Rick and Melinda still host private seminars at this wonderful retreat.
Morris Burner Hotel
In the summer of 2013 Jungle Jim Gibson bought an old hotel on 4th street. His objective was to create a full-time Burner venue in downtown Reno. Along with the help of an energetic group of Burner volunteers, he has succeeded nicely.
OK, I made that sound too easy. I was not directly involved, so that’s just how it seemed from the outside. Jim is a long time friend and we both served on the board at PermaBurn. We’ve met and discussed the Morris on several occasions. I’ve also had discussions with some of the managers and volunteers that helped create this wonderful Burner resource.
The Morris Hotel used to be a fleabag in the worst part of Reno. When Jim bought it, tenants had to be evicted. Layers of dirt had been accumulating for decades. Gas masks were required for cleanup. If you’ve never seen it happen, Burner energy can be extraordinary both in capacity and organization. Such was the case at the Morris. Once they got down to bare wood, artists were invited to create a different experience in each room. The result is amazing. They hosted an art show and began operations.
While the process was proceeding, many of the volunteers lived in the first rooms cleaned. Ultimately, more than half of the hotel was dedicated to free space for long-term volunteers. This continued, even after the refurb was completed. And that became a problem. Who should get free rent? And for how long? What is fair? How generous should a gift be?
Humans, (along with other primates, dogs, and elephants) have a well-documented sense of fairness. When they see it violated by others, it’s demoralizing. I don’t have first-hand knowledge, but I’ve had many reports of inequity in the treatment of guests and volunteers at the Morris.
And then there’s the issue of continuing operating costs. Without a positive cash flow, the burden fell to Jim. From his perspective, it became the gift that he had to keep on giving. At some point, it becomes financially unsustainable. Fortunately, Jim’s a business guy. He’s found effective Burner management to address these issues. Still, the question remains, “how do you treat everyone fairly when effort and money are disproportionate?” Also, what about succession? How will Jim ultimately shift some of this burden to others, not to mention shifting the value of the asset to the next generation?
There are other challenges at the Morris. It’s location made Radical Inclusion difficult. They had to immediately lock the front door or the homeless would wander in. They began feeding the homeless in the back instead. But the City of Reno put a stop to that.
Then there were issues about competing with another local bar and maintaining a business license. After several years of operation, they’ve had to shut the bar in the Morris until major improvements are completed. Also, the city took an easement through the back creating more restrictions in use of the property. It’s not easy giving to the community, even with lots of Burner effort.
The Tragedy of the Commons
I want to be clear. I’m not condemning anyone or any of these projects. Each has been a wonderful gift. Each will continue to evolve. Or not. Which gets us to the key point – financial sustainability. If the project ends, (like PermaBurn), it no longer gets to evolve. And that’s a tragedy. But there are others as well.
The classic “tragedy of the commons” occurs when private consumption overcomes a public resource. Historically, the public square in a town might be reserved for grazing of livestock during Saturday markets. It was quickly realized that the town square would be overgrazed by farmers trying to get their private “share” of this public resource. The tragedy of the commons is a major aspect of game theory. It can also decimate volunteer resources when effort is disconnected from reward or appreciation. That’s where fairness comes in.
In simple terms, a tragedy of the commons is when unlimited gifting is overcome by personal greed. This doesn’t happen at Burning Man because of the Potluck effect (everyone bringing more than they can eat – literally).
Elinor Ostrom shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics for showing that the tragedy of the commons has an exception in the collective, or group where individuals were responsible to the group in a transparent way. In other words, management. Though collectives may start out as democratic, they too quickly revert to feudal structures where the control of private property is projected onto a public resource. No matter how you slice it or share the commons, resources finding their highest and best use ends up being a hybrid system, not unlimited gifting.
Private property evolved to limit abuses of shared resources and is an important component of modern civilization. When a resource is made public or gifted to anyone who shows up, it becomes a honeypot, an attraction for those whose art is taking, as opposed to giving. Like that chef from New York. It’s why sustained giving needs to be specific, episodic, and controlled by the giver, or some rigid system of distribution.
I once talked to a Burner who skydived naked into Burning Man. He had borrowed the parachute. Upon landing, he took it off and gave it back to his friend. He then walked into center camp totally naked. He later told me that everything for the entire week including food, shelter, water, clothing – everything, was a gift he enjoyed. This man’s art was mostly in the taking. A few seconds of freefall to vicariously thrill those on the ground was his gift. So does this art violate Radical Self Reliance? Of course it does! But it was also an interesting experiment in community, and indeed, Radical Artistic Expression.
Is this a rare example of how Burning Man Principles contradict each other? Hardly. Not only does Gifting challenge Radical Self-reliance, but Radical Artistic Expression often challenges LNT. Also, Radical Inclusion has its natural limitations – distance, ticket price and now the lottery. There are other contradictions. As noted above, the Burning Man Principles are generalizations, not rules.
One of the lessons theme camp managers quickly learn at Burning Man, is that not everyone contributes equally. It’s usually just the opposite. A few contribute most of the money, a few others do most of the work. Sometimes it’s the same few. That’s what happened at PermaBurn. That’s what happened at Rancho Rico. That’s what happened at the Morris – disproportionality in gifting. And taking. Takers often work the shadows. There’s actually a part of game theory that says takers (or predators) are needed to keep the herd healthy. I disagree. I believe any community has enough other challenges and does not require professional takers.
Which gets us back to fairness. How do you keep the takers from overwhelming the resources of the givers? The leaders of the Morris had to evict some of the “volunteers”. Then they shifted the model a little more to the commercial. As a hostel, the Morris Burner Hotel now charges for most of the rooms instead of gifting them. And they no longer have long-term “guests”. But it remains a wonderful Burner resource for local events.
The point is, how can a Burner project be organized to not only be effective and financially sustainable, but fair to everyone involved? In a normal economy, we use money. It’s how we keep score. Money is the ultimate commodity, but too much focus on the fairness of the transaction distorts social interaction and appreciation. Then there’s the problem with the chronic takers. If someone consistently takes more than they give, it taxes an organization. Too many takers and the project will not be financially sustainable. Which brings us to another challenge. Too much giving.
In 2011 Spencer Hobson hosted the Temple of Transition construction in his large warehouse on 4th Street. Other Burner projects were also built or staged there. Dale Weber hosted the CORE projects in his warehouse for several years. There have been other examples of build spaces provided as a gift by a single involved benefactor.
The Generator build space in Reno is different. Not only is it larger at 30,000 square feet, it’s been funded by an anonymous donor for several years now. Matt Shultz has managed the space and hosted many large projects, not only from Reno but from around the world.
This gift was not just for Burning Man projects. The Generator has been made available to other local artists. The build-space model is more common in the San Francisco area. The Generator was a first for Reno. The reason I bring it up here is the impact of anonymous gifts on the Burner community. It’s a wonderful resource as long as it’s there. But what happens when it’s not? How do you make such a resource financially sustainable without transparency of funding? And finally, if it IS sustainable through an annuity or some funding method, does it not just become an expected one-way gift? Should the artist not be at least somewhat responsible for its maintenance? There’s a saying in the business world, “the only thing worse than a project being under-capitalized, is a project being over-capitalized”. Does the same thing apply to an infinitely and anonymously funded art space?
(Literally an hour after I wrote the above paragraph the Generator announced a new funding model where two-thirds of the cash flow will need to come from local artists and local donors.)
A Gift Too Much
Apparently, the infinitely funded anonymous model is not financially sustainable either. But if it was, would that be the best way to use a resource? It’s well known that rental property is not as well maintained as property that is owner-occupied. How does one maintain that sense of ownership long after the gift has been given to a shared entity? Finding the answer is one of my challenges.
The Generator has just announced a purchase of land along the river in Reno. They will now need to raise millions of dollars to build infrastructure. This brings up the topic of funding in general. It’s one I’ve helped with on many projects over the years. The funding season starts every year in January and extends through Burning Man. With more happening off playa than on, fundraising will become a year-round process as opposed to a periodic campaign. We used to joke about funding fatigue. It’s no longer a joke. And when funds can no longer be raised from the grassroots, the charitable/industrial complex will need to step in, whatever the cost. Again, money is the ultimate commodity.
Patrons will steer the process. Patronage will be the result.
Radical means challenging the status quo. Burning Man challenged the status quo in the art world in the same way the Cacophony Society challenged the sensibilities of San Francisco and helped keep Burning Man radical in the Nevada desert. Together they flipped the art world on its head by demanding participation from anyone interested in expressing themselves. This is as opposed to the conventional art world where each work and artists are carefully vetted and curated by leaders of the more conventional art industry. Even as late as 2004 when the Burning Man principles were defined, “Radical” described three of their principles. Arguably, it still does.
But a case to the contrary can certainly be made.
Early on Burning Man was a pariah in Reno. I remember supporting their cause at a Washoe County Commission meeting. The County wanted to close down their ranch west of the Burning Man site, which was used for storage. From the local’s perspective, “those crazy hippies” were trouble. Fortunately, Burning Man prevailed at the meeting but wisely worked to become more acceptable to local politicians in various ways.
Black Rock Arts was organized to bring art from the playa into our cities, Reno included. In 2005, Gifting moved off the playa into New Orleans to mitigate Katrina’s impact. That lead to Burners Without Borders. The Green Man in 2008 helped found Black Rock Solar which brought power to schools and nonprofits all around Reno. These are just a few examples of Burning Man’s gifts having a positive impact outside the event. I’m not suggesting these things were done for PR reasons, but they did help to change attitudes.
Gifting in the real world has become a bigger part of the Burning Man organization. Burning Man is no longer just a party in the desert. It’s evolving into a significant part of the non-profit gifting industry. After all, isn’t commodifying and serving “need” what NGOs do?
Along with these new efforts, the event was discovered by major media. More famous DJs, actors, and politicians began to attend. Burning Man has always been cool, but now the rest of the world discovered it. Along with the fame came more demand for tickets. The event sold out. We went through the whole lottery challenge, which again, Burning Man handled well, even if it didn’t seem like it at the time.
Along with the fame came the moneyed elite. Many of the wealthy had long been coming to Burning Man secretly, but only at a rate that could be culturally assimilated. The people from Google, Facebook and Tesla embraced the Principles before their resources could overwhelm the event. They’ve mostly become good Black Rock citizens. But there is a dark and slippery slope. For instance, the Burning Man organization is now promoting helicopter rides from Reno to the playa and back for only $1500 per ticket. At three times the price of a regular ticket, I see this as an option for the more wealthy Burner, if not standard transportation for the Plug and Play sector. Is the org promoting any option that gets a car off the road? Or catering to the one percent?
The ticket lottery was the big challenge to Burner acculturation. Virgin ratios shifted from the low 30s to over 40 percent. Because tickets got sold privately, Plug and Play camps became a larger issue, which again, I believe the management of Burning Man has handled reasonably well, even as these camps continue to be a challenge.
On the plus side, the new money has allowed Burning Man to continue its evolution. A campmate once observed:
“Burning Man’s the same damn thing year after year – completely different.”
Is this a good thing? Whatever your opinion, Burning Man is bigger, brighter, and better organized than ever. But there’s a cost. It’s arguably less radical. And part of that cost is borne by Burning Man’s legacy. Older Burners have had to work harder, not to just to keep up, but to teach the new Burners how to keep Burning Man burny. Other long-time Burners simply gave up and no longer attend. I’ve spoken to many. Such is the nature of the event’s evolution. There have been other changes as well.
Regional events are growing around the world. Adding the charitable entities mentioned above, there is now more happening off playa than on. This ultimately has to have an effect on Burner culture. Burning Man is affecting the world, but the world is also affecting Burning Man.
Burning Man is growing up. However the party in the desert has changed, Burning Man is now also a charity for the arts and community off playa. A few years ago Burning Man became a 501.3c non-profit corporation. They are now allowed to accept tax-free gifts and share the result with the default world. Burning Man has also hired a “Philanthropic Engagement Coordinator”, dedicated to finding new donors to increase gifting. How does this square with Burning Man Principles? After all, what is the purpose of a non-profit corporation if not the commodification of gifting? Again, conflicting Principles. Some projects are now the result of contributions having little to do with the event, at least so far. One example is Fly Ranch.
Fly Ranch is 3800 acres a few miles west of where the Burning Man event is held. It adjoins the storage space which the Burning Man Organization has maintained for years. But Fly Ranch is not just a few thousand acres of desert.
In the 1960s a rancher drilling for livestock water instead created a small geyser of hot water. They tried to cap it off but were unsuccessful. Since then the minerals in this hot water have created a beautiful formation which appears to be multicolored mud but is actually stone. This beautiful formation and the wetlands around it are now the focal points of a new Burning Man development. What form will it take? Recently they announced that for $40 they will take you on a three-hour tour. Will Fly Ranch become another roadside attraction? Or something else?
Burning Man is a collection of passions. Representatives from each will be a stakeholder at Fly Ranch, many with conflicting agendas. Some will want permanent infrastructure development. Others, none at all. Will Fly Ranch be a place to preserve? Or exploit? How will the line get drawn? How will the project evolve over time? Will the decisions reflect consensus? Democracy? Or funding? There is no right answer. The result will ultimately reflect the balance of power as expressed by the organization.
Artistic Industrial Complex
The reason I bring up Fly Ranch is for ultimate contrast with Mud Bluff. Both are likely to be Burner retreats and art parks, with Mud Bluff dramatically smaller, and Fly Ranch with a world-class water feature. Will that matter? Will scale matter? Once Burning Man organizes Fly Ranch, what form will it take? Democratic? Aristocratic? Hibred? Or evolving? How will control be expressed?
Even if the millions of dollars used to purchase the land and develop Fly Ranch truly have no strings attached, control shifts to the management of Burning Man. After that, it’s a matter of how much control they delegate to various stakeholders. In spite of the best of intentions, it will likely remain a small aristocracy where the vision of a few end up defining the experience. Perhaps that’s for the best.
Fly Ranch is now also asking for a full-time coordinator as a volunteer position. Yes, there’s probably a cot and some grub included depending on what else might be happening at the ranch, but where does that line between a gift and compensation lie? When should volunteers be paid? Should they be paid at all? I’m not suggesting an answer. The answer is by degrees.
As a Regional Contact, I too am a volunteer. Well, I do get a gift ticket to the event each year, which I very much appreciate. But if I added up all the hours I’ve spent doing Burner stuff over the years, it doesn’t come close to conventional compensation. Nor should it. It’s a gift given freely. I have no regrets. But do others? That understanding is a very loose contract. They know how much effort they’ve given, but do they have any idea how much they are appreciated, and by whom? And why? These are issues I too will have to deal with at Mud Bluff.
These loose expectations are actually transactions of a sort. It’s like “suggested donation”. If you give the indicated amount, you expect to participate in whatever event you’ve joined. What if the event is far more valuable than the suggested donation? Or less? The question is, where is the line between contracts, transactions, and gifts freely given? Again, it’s by degrees, and hard to define. Where will Fly Ranch draw the line?
Also, the tragedy doesn’t end at the commons. Whether it’s a gift ticket or meal pass for DPW, it’s a form of compensation. It’s been demonstrated that if any resource is shared on a long-term basis, it turns into an expectation, and then expectation turns into an obligation. People project a sense of ownership. It’s hard to suppress. Worse than that, the very people who have enjoyed the gift will begin to “game the system”. They may hold its donner in derision, perhaps even in contempt. This is the selfish side of human behavior, and all of us have it. Again, it’s just a matter of degree and opportunity.
For instance, even a priest will compete for contributions in the same way NGOs compete for access to a disaster. It gives them a reason to ask for more donations. Charity has a dark side. There’s a whole industry built around non-profit organizations. It could be called the giving / industrial complex. Off playa, Burning Man is certainly involved in this industry. And if there’s no profit involved, what does success look like? Exactly. Scaled growth. And with it, political power.
Money and power tend to coop what they touch. Is too much of it touching Burning Man? I don’t think so. Yet. If anything, the culture of Burning Man is affecting the one percent more than the one percent is affecting Burning Man. Still, we need to remain vigilant, or our culture could become diluted.
At Mud Bluff, I want to avoid trading one industrial complex for another. Even giving has been commoditized, along with the need for it. A suggested donation is not a gift given freely if it alters your taxes. Tax deductions largely drive charities, and control follows the money. The objective becomes funding, not the Burner experience.
What about the event itself? Will non-profit status ultimately affect the Burning Man experience? So far everyone pays around $500 each year to get in. After that, it’s mostly a patronage system of disproportionate spending by the wealthy and disproportionate effort of the artists. Is it fair? Not really. But Burning Man is a magic zone where the rules of fairness are suspended for a time. Can that time be extended indefinitely? I remain hopeful Burning Man will be able to keep Fly Ranch “radical”. It’s also what I intend for Mud Bluff.
Over the years I’ve talked with others who shared my, “live a Burner life” objective. Some were involved at PermaBurn. Some of us visited the Burning Girl site. Because of the price of that property we continued to look for alternatives. I set up an automated web search which delivered an email of newly listed properties each morning. I’ve been reading these emails daily for the last four years. Once or twice a month I walked the more interesting properties, but have mostly been disappointed.
I was looking for a place:
- To create, present and store Burner art.
- Enough land for a permanent full-time Burner community.
- Close enough to Reno to host Regional Burner events.
- Remote enough to create the feeling of escape from urban life.
- Close to supplies for Burning Man prep.
- Where neighbors would not limit Burner expression.
- With a good road, accessible year round.
- With available power and water.
- Close to water recreation.
- With mature trees for shade.
- With views of the desert and mountains.
- Near public lands for biking, hiking, and motorsports.
- That was affordable.
On Saturday, December 3rd of 2016 I was at Michael Mikel’s (aka Danger Ranger) winter party. We were standing in front of his fireplace when I happen to check my email. I noted a listing of 77 acres with a thousand feet of the Carson River for only $25,000. I mentioned it to Michael. He asked what was wrong with it. I told him I didn’t know but was going to find out in the morning. I was at the property just after sunrise. Immediacy matters in real estate.
I was a little concerned as I drove in. The road was a mess and the Lahontan reservoir had been mostly dry for much of the last five years. It looked terrible. I was thinking these factors might work in my favor as far as pricing was concerned. And they did.
Both issues were also mitigated a few weeks later by the wettest winter in 40 years. It filled up the lake and made more of the bottom-land worth farming again. This required the farmers to fix up the road in order to haul out the hay. (Now the road’s in great shape and the lake is full. At least until another dry spell.)
Upon approaching the property I was surprised by an inspiring feature. A hundred foot bluff divided the property for about half a mile. The face of the bluff was composed of sand, silt, and mud giving it a liquid countenance. This bluff separated the flat desert above from the river valley below and would be a great screen for lasers. Thus my first impression, the property’s defining feature, and its name – Mud Bluff.
My second impression of the ground was bleak but beautiful, or maybe desolate but deceptive. Above and below the bluff were quite different. Below the bluff, the trees looked dead but would spring to life in a few weeks. The bottomland near the river contains a detached oxbow which runs for several hundred feet. As I entered, seven deer ran out. This oxbow drops 15 feet below the floodplain and empties back into the river. It’s just deep enough to keep it hidden from the road and to provide a windbreak. Birds were everywhere at the river’s edge. The oxbow forms a natural sanctuary for wildlife.
The Carson River flows through the north side of the property for about a thousand feet leaving four acres landlocked on the north side. The only access is to wade, swim or perhaps set up a zip line. The river had a couple of feet of water and was about thirty feet wide at the narrowest point. Some of the holes were deep enough to swim even with the river at its lowest level. At a mile east of the Dam I knew the river would be controlled and higher in the summer when it delivered water for agriculture in Fallon.
The Lahontan Dam is the key to the famous Newlands project finished just over a hundred years ago. River flow patterns are not likely to change any time soon. Except for total droughts, farmers always get their water first. The river will always flow higher in the summer than even during the spring thaw unless the lake fills and they need to do dump water early.
Above the bluff, the desert looked empty and had a Zen quality, but as you walked, rabbits ran everywhere. The bluff and river below were definite pluses, but the best part was the view from the top. It’s panoramic. I could see Mt Rose which is southwest of Reno and 48 miles away. Mt. Tobin, 101 miles to the northeast was visible on this clear winter morning.
I found most of the survey points as I walked the property boundary. I’d seen what I needed. It was instant conviction. Or perhaps, love at first sight.
Back in Reno, I spent the rest of that Sunday with Google Maps and APN numbers. On Monday morning I had my realtor conference call the listing broker trying to find the fly in the ointment. As it turns out, the property was a minor item from a major estate sale in the bay area. I was dealing with lawyers who had never been to the property and were just trying to clean up affairs after a death. I offered them $24,000 cash trying not to seem eager. My offer was accepted within 24 hours. Escrow closed in less than a month.
Before making that offer I had also researched all adjoining property. The 77 acres was the core portion of a quarter-section (160 acres). The property to the north was owned by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. I later learned they were leasing out 508 acres of river-bottom for farming, including 24 acres of the quarter-section my purchase was in. They would be good neighbors as no one was living there, and it belonged to the federal government.
The Federal government also owned the sections (square miles) to the south and to the east, except these were managed by BLM. Again, the Federal government is a good neighbor to have in that it was unoccupied and couldn’t be easily developed. To the west was a quarter section owned by a local rancher with a house about a mile away. That should be plenty of buffer for sound management. Now for the closest neighbors.
An adjoining twenty acres had been sold to a guy from Las Vegas six months before my purchase. He had built a tiny house on the top of the bluff to the east. The owner of the 39 acres in the center of the quarter-section was a lady who lived in northern California. In fear of spooking the deal, I had not yet contacted either, but the 39 acres was interesting because it had a quarter mile of powerline going to a wellhead in the center of the quarter-section. Now that I had my deed, she was the first one I called.
Upon introduction, her comment was, “I’m not lowering the price again.” Until then I had no idea her property was for sale. I learned that it had been listed for most of a year, but had no offers. She had already reduced it from $50,000 to $35,000. I also learned that after starting development 20 years before, she had changed her mind and instead built in northern California overlooking the ocean. I guess she liked the view from a bluff, one way or another. The bottom line was, she no longer needed the property and simply wanted to dispose of it.
I had a well-test done. The water had just a bit of sulfur and iron, but there was lots of it. The 128 foot well has a water level at 48 feet, but after an hour, the 16 GPM test pump could only lower the level to 68 feet where it was overcome with inflow. There are another 60 feet of water below that.
Though neither parcel has agricultural water rights, by Nevada statute each homesite may pump up to two acre-feet per year, or 1784 gallons per day for domestic use. This is enough for a substantial garden, trees, and livestock.
Considering these assets, I immediately offered her $33,000 cash. She seemed happy to be done with the property. Again, escrow closed in less than a month.
I now had two adjoining parcels totaling 116 acres and one neighbor I hadn’t talked to yet. Considering my intentions for the property, I was concerned. “Quiet enjoyment” is literally a legal term when it comes to property. Burners are often not quiet. What I discovered was extraordinary.
This closest neighbor was also a Burner. He had been volunteering at Burning Man for the last 17 years. Only a few months before he’d moved from the midwest to be closer to the event. How’s that for dedicated? How’s that for cosmic? Anyway, he was the best of all possible neighbors. All the others were distant or non-occupied. With the U. S. Fish and Wildlife to the north and BLM sections to the east and south, this 116 acres had the isolation of nearly 2000 acres.
The property meets all of my objectives, and then some.
Mud Bluff is 50 miles from Reno, which is a long commute, but a short drive for a weekend away. It’s halfway between Silver Springs and Fallon, each of which is 14 miles away. The experience is that of being out in the desert, yet still close to town for supplies both in Fallon and Fernley.
Thirty years ago Fernley was just an exit on the freeway. Now it has four times the population at around 20,000. It also has three truck stop casinos, a Lowes Building Supply, WalMart, Scolari’s and about 30 places to eat.
Silver Springs to the west of Mud Bluff is the size Fernley used to be. This Lahontan lakeside town has a couple of gas stations, five places to eat including two small casinos, and very little in the way of supplies. But that’s about to change. A new state highway connecting USA Parkway and the Tesla Gigafactory to Highway 50 opened a few months ago. This new highway makes Mud Bluff a reasonable commute (33 miles) for all of the employers near Tesla, though Silver Springs and Fernley will likely receive most of the suburban sprawl from this new industrial park.
In contrast, Fallon hasn’t changed in decades, and probably won’t in that it’s buffered from Tesla by Fernley. Fallon is the site of the Navy’s Top Gun school made famous by the movie of the same name. Other than that, it’s been a farm and ranch town for the last hundred years. That’s when the Newlands project diverted water from the Truckee River into the Carson River and then into the desert. Fallon has become the largest source of alfalfa in the nation and a significant source of melons.
Fallon has a large lumber yard, a Big R ranch supply, a WalMart, Safeway, two theaters, and several equipment dealers. It also has about 40 places to eat not counting casinos. In contrast to Fernley, it has a hospital and Veterans center, probably because of the Navy.
Back toward Carson or Reno on Highway 50 or 80 respectively is more commercial development. But most of it is at least 30 miles away. North of Fallon is the Stillwater wildlife refuge. East and south are empty deserts. U.S. 50 is called the loneliest highway in America for a reason. But back to the property.
Mud Bluff has plenty of room to develop, present and store art. The two parcels are zoned such that they can each be split, allowing for four large houses to be used for single-family residences, but with no limit on the number of bedrooms. Each of the four parcels could then also have an accessory building with an apartment of up to 1000 square feet, as well as an unlimited number of other accessory buildings. This 116 acre is enough for a modest Burner community of single-family dwellings.
Every other section of desert in this checkerboard is privately owned. Most of these private sections are broken up into 20, 40 or 160-acre parcels. There are hundreds of private lots within a ten-mile radius. As a barren flat desert, few have been developed. One 20 acre site sold for $12,000 per public record. Others are in that price range. Burners are encouraged to buy and become our neighbors. Welcome home.
The section to the southeast has six occupied parcels. Dogtown is a dog rescue ranch about a mile away. When the wind’s right, you can hear the dogs barking at feeding time. One parcel about a half mile away was occupied this last summer but I haven’t met them yet. Another neighbor has a dome about a mile to the southeast. They have lived there for much of the last twenty years. A half a mile behind them is another dog farm. He’s the one with the big red metal building.
The section to the southwest (near the lake) has two occupied and several abandoned developments. I’ve met two neighbors who own lots on the bluff to the west. A & K Construction has a third. The rest are more than two miles away. To the east about a mile away is an occupied trailer. I met their son in law briefly. North of that trailer and across the river is another home. I have a contact that knows these people but we haven’t met. Overall, only about one in twenty parcels in the area are occupied.
From Highway 50 you can see the top of Mud Bluff for about two miles of driving. The area below the bluff is mostly hidden from view, so excellent for storing art cars, RVs and art projects. The river bottom is even more hidden from the highway because of trees. It will be excellent for an informal campground.
Similar to the Burning Girl property, the 26 acres of river bottom has about sixty cottonwood trees near the thousand feet of the Carson River. The Oxbow and cottonwoods create a shaded and protected space for camping. RVs could be parked above and around the oxbow. Unlike Burning Girl, if we get tired of kayaking and floating the river, there’s also a warm water lake (Lahontan) only a mile away for sailing and powerboat recreation. There’s also fishing, but warning of mercury from the Comstock tailings. Don’t eat the fish.
The Lahontan reservoir has nearly 70 miles of shoreline when full. It’s fairly shallow so warms early in the season and stays well over 70 degrees for most of the summer. It’s popular for fishing, camping, jet boats, skiing, sailing, and kayaking.
In contrast to PermaBurn, Mud Bluff is at 4000 feet elevation. It can be accessed year round. The dirt road is just over a mile from the paved park road at the lake, with no hill to climb. Access is good, and year-round. Neighbors are distant or non-existent. There are power and water ready to hook up. Like PermaBurn, it can be perfectly quiet. Well, except for the geese and coyotes now and then. This property has most of the advantages but none of the limitations of PermaBurn, except it’s smaller.
From the south edge of the property, the river valley is entirely hidden. It appears to be flat desert in all directions. After walking the ground for a year, that desert’s not as simple or flat as it seems. When you walk from Powerline Road, which is the southern boundary of the property to the edge of the bluff, the river valley dramatically opens up below.
The rest of the desert on top is not quite flat either. It actually rises and falls such that if a man walks across it at a distance he will appear and disappear. It’s the same with a car. You can watch them come and go for miles, only their dust giving away their path. The Dead Camel Mountains are three miles to the south and only a couple thousand feet high. In every other direction are much higher mountains, much farther away.
Another example of how things disappear in this desert is a tiny playa. Reviewing Google Maps I found a curious white circle just off the property. It’s about 100 yards east on BLM land. When I walked the property I discovered it was a small round playa (about 3 acres). Because it’s 10 feet lower than the surrounding desert, it can’t be seen from the road and is hidden until you get close.
I’ve found what I’d been looking for, and development has begun. Over the last year, we’ve hosted a few small gatherings, and probably 20 scheduled tours of the property. If you’ve visited Mud Bluff, the ground speaks for itself. I believe it’s an excellent place for Burner events and to evolve art projects year-round, but there are some issues.
The winter and spring of 2017 were the wettest in northern Nevada for the last 40 years. Water came up and over the spillway of the dam. They had to let water out of the lake early. The river ran twelve feet deep, cold and swift for weeks. The spring thaw of Sierra snow extended that high flow rate into summer. Huge dead trees were washed downstream. The river ate into the mud banks overlooking the water. Even one survey corner stake was washed away. Once the lake stabilized, the river dropped to about six feet deep. It was now about 80 feet across for most of the summer. The current was about 3 MPH with large eddies in places. Once the water warmed up, swimming was nice but a real workout going upstream in the center of the channel. It’s a natural lap pool.
In the spring, the cottonwoods and the rest of the desert bloomed. Then came the bugs. I expected mosquitos, but they weren’t bad. Instead, there were huge swarms of gnats. Fortunately, they weren’t the biting type, but there were so many you’d breath them in. According to local neighbors, this was the first year they were a problem (note – not a problem this spring). It had something to do with all the high water.
For the 4th of July, we scheduled our “First Ashes” campout. The gnats were so bad near the river that we camped on the small playa to the east. Danger Ranger caught the first rattlesnake there. My neighbor has seen a few more, but so far I haven’t seen any. Near the river, I’ve seen several Kingsnakes. I understand they keep the rattlers away.
We started construction of a pump house so we’d have water and power, but didn’t get it finished before winter. I was concerned about the loss of building materials, considering our experiences at PermaBurn. I bought a box truck to lock everything up. It has become my bedroom on the weekends. Randy, Kima, and Macai set up their playa camp below the bluff to keep an eye on things during the week.
Leading up to, and after Burning Man, Jimbo, Willy, Cutter, and a few others spent time camping near the pumphouse. We couldn’t camp close to the river because of the irrigation ditch. We need a bridge, which got final approval last week and is now under construction (it was completed March 27th, 2018).
This irrigation ditch and access road run through the middle of the property. The ditch is full of water about four days out of ten in the summer. The Road has very light traffic, mostly local farmers. Though legally private, the Tahoe Carson Irrigation District has an easement so we can’t block the road. Also, these farmers have been driving it for over a hundred years. It’s important to have and to be, good neighbors. As private landowners, we can post a sign about nudity, and have an expectation of privacy. I doubt it will be a problem as we only get about five cars per day. In the summer, a few more find their way over from the lake campgrounds. They are either lost in the desert or just exploring.
One other significant negative aspect we share with Permaburn are the cows. Nevada is an open range state. This means ranchers can let their cows run free. We have to fence them out. This summer we put up a quick electric fence to keep the cows out of the river bottom and it’s mostly worked. We may need three cattle guards and a couple of miles of fence sometime in the future. Or just deal with the fertilizer.
Another somewhat negative discovery is that because we’re near the bluff on rural public lands, shooting practice is common on summer weekends. Most of it is a half mile to the west on BLM property. There are also a fair number of duck hunters in the fall. Kima put up no hunting or trespassing signs last summer. They will be less of a problem in the future when we have a permanent presence.
Also, while building below the bluff is more protected from winds, a southern exposure would have been better for passive solar design. Above the bluff, winds, views and exposure, are 360 degrees.
Finally, there is an exception to the wonderful views, at least at night. A couple of miles to the north is, of all things, an oil recycling center. They have bright lights on all night long. You can’t see them from below the bluff, but they are glaring in contrast to the beautiful night sky from the top. The stars, including the Milky Way, are still quite vivid.
Overall, these challenges are modest, especially when compared to the price and advantages of the property. But ultimately, dirt is just dirt. The real challenge is, what can we do with it? What experiences can this canvas bring to life? How can we live an extended Burner experience here?
I now have a resource to share. It’s far more than I need personally. Moreover, I’m curious as to how others might develop this desert canvas. My overall objective is to evolve a system for managing Mud Bluff, and in the process, gain a better understanding of human behavior.
These are my priorities:
- Challenge sensibilities, present art, and share ideas.
- Operate with a positive cash flow.
- Live a Burner experience year-round.
- Share Mud Bluff with those who actively participate.
- Encourage enough contributions to develop the project.
- Evolve a management team that shares my vision for Mud Bluff.
- Transfer control of the project to this team over the next twenty years.
The first objective may seem confrontational, and that’s the point. I believe the Cacophony Society’s visceral challenges were a critical component to the Burning Man experience. It helped to frame the art in an engaging way.
You also might think priorities one and two should be reversed, but I’m looking to put play ahead of work. Still, we will have to remain financially sustainable. I’ve spent my life managing profitable businesses. Making cash flow a priority is half the battle. I consider the operating budget a modest baseline. Anything else that gets developed will depend on the rate of contributions.
The more challenging questions about these objectives are, how will I share the space? How will l share control? And with whom? I believe Authentic Gifting and Generous Inclusion are the keys. These are two of the more challenging Burning Man Principles in the long term. I believe each can help solve the shortcomings of the other. A gift economy depends on the generosity of those included. And if Inclusion is driven by generosity, we’re more likely to have the participation of those who can help make a gift economy work. Both problems solved. Well, that’s the theory.
Nature is steeped in disproportionality, even extreme disproportionality. The trick is in controlling the ten percent of the resources that yields 90 percent of the result. Humans mastered these tricks thousands of years ago. Civilization turns on these points of disproportionality, managed using hierarchy. I call it our feudal nature. It’s hard to escape because it works.
This feudal behavior is pervasive. Even those with the best of democratic intentions are ultimately overwhelmed by the power that flows upward in feudal systems. It’s part of our nature to find and control the disproportionality of systems. The counterpoint to a feudal organization is the individual in a free market. The feudal approach is constantly centralizing power, the individual, distributing it back down. Denying either behavior is naive. It’s better to let them compete, keeping them in balance until they find their form.
These are some of the same forces observed at Burning Man. Radical Self Reliance and Radical Artistic Expression are the individuals in a free market of resources and ideas. Camp leads channel Participation by appealing to Communal Effort and Civic Responsibility. They hold out the promise of creating something larger than an individual can manage. This results in shared resources forming camps, villages and the event itself, in a broad hierarchy. This hierarchy is then managed from the top by the Burning Man organization with their control of camp placement and directed ticket allocation. It’s also constantly challenged from the bottom by individual contribution and expression. A balance forms somewhere in the middle.
The risks for Mud Bluff are in not maintaining a stable balance among these dynamic forces. Lack of scale is a major risk factor. Anyone who has maintained a fish tank knows that the smaller they are, the more difficult they are to keep stable.
When it comes to Burning Man camps, success is vivid and obvious. Failure, not so much. Theme Camps emerge and fail constantly, many never even make their first Burn. Only the strongest return year after year. And only then because of a generous and disproportionate contribution of money and effort by a few.
Mud Bluff will initially be organized much like a theme camp, but with a gift currency.
Here are some of the specific risks to be considered.
The greatest risk is in having a malign force take legal control of the property before the project’s ownership is sufficiently diversified. It will be important to have contributions on the scale of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars coming from multiple independent sources before the project finds its form. The project can be lost if someone with selfish motive gains control and sells out. “Tenants in common” ownership for the property, and the Trust agreement will be our bulwark against this risk.
As noted above, committees rarely yield effective management. Democracy will be reserved for strategic policy, a later luxury. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in gridlock. This is why control will initially be centralized to those who make the greatest contributions.
There’s a chance this project will simply be ignored. This will happen if few or no one else shares my vision of a Burner experience. Or if my plan is too restrictive. So far that hasn’t been the case. Already, I’ve had offers of contributions. Some are waiting for this document.
As for interest in the site, several people have spent significant periods of time at the property. Without a request for compensation, Cutter brought out his skid-steer Bobcat which we’ve put to work. Jane contributed her pickup for Mud Bluff. Stuart Volkland helped with water and pump house construction. Randy Miller helped with the pump house, building trails, and a road to his pad for his trailer. Kima has helped with FaceBook, security and various administrative details. Jimbo was the first to bring art. Marty built a shower. Willy has ideas for composting toilets. I believe these few examples are just the beginning of what we can achieve without promotion. These gifts are inspiring.
You might think this is where I evaluate the odds of raising enough money to pull this off, but it’s not. Operational costs should be modest. Larger contributions will define the pace of development. I have no plans of asking for donations. Donations are what someone provides to see it happen from a distance. Contributions are what participants bring with them to make it happen. As a project, we’ll need active participation along with contributions.
To achieve this funding, we will either need a hundred participants contributing a few thousand dollars each, or twenty participants giving tens of thousands of dollars each. With luck we’ll find a blend of about 40 active participants. This is why we’ll have to limit inclusion in some fashion, but I hope to do it generously.
There are no guarantees. My most probable risk is getting this plan wrong. That’s the main reason that every contribution to Mud Bluff is without requirement, recourse, nor refund. I expect the plan will change, indeed, evolve over time. I expect definitions, thresholds, and limitation will all be different a couple of years from now. The one tenet I don’t expect to change is that the project will no longer be mine after 2022. It will become ours, or find some other form.
What I’d really like to do at Mud Bluff is to tap into the same human nature that is so vividly expressed at Burning Man, but in a sustainable fashion. How does one share a large space without having it become a “tragedy of the commons”?
I believe the trick is to find that balance between giving unconditionally, and investing without the thought of monetary return. In other words, a true gift economy. I wish to inspire the superego to create a shared gift, freely given by each of those participating.
But before I get into the details, I want to explain the rest of the theory driving this economic experiment. Two books have inspired my thinking more than all the others over of the last decade. They both helped me to formalize my thinking about Burning Man. One is a quick and simple read, the other, not so much. First the easy one.
Surprisingly, “Sex at Dawn” is not just about sex, at least not the way you might think. It’s more about property, and how property’s management has come to overwhelm our personal relationships since the dawn of mankind. This of course includes sexual relationships, but also how we share resources in our transition from hunter/gatherers to modern civilization now dominated by commodified economic transactions.
The second book is “The Master and His Emissary -The The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World”. Yes, I know, big title, which fits. It contains over 500 pages of very complex content about the brain and how our behavior forms as a collection of dichotomies, left and right. More accurately, the left sees the dichotomies, the right sees the area between.
The thesis is, over the last few thousand years our left-brain has come to dominate our right-brain largely because of the success of language, agriculture, and civilization. Each is the domain of our left-brain. There are many significant differences between the two sides of both our brain and our resulting mind. A summarizing Albert Einstein quote says it best:
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
I believe Burning Man is literally an intuitive expression of this “forgotten gift”. Living a Burning Man experience entails shifting from our more analytical left-brain, back to our more giving right-mind. We of course have both a left and right brain which yields both a left and right, (or perhaps unified) mind. I contrast the left and right with “brain” and “mind” to note the objective and subjective nature of each respectively. Fortunately, you don’t have to take sides to understand the result. Ignoring the whole left-brain and right-mind aspect, “Sex at Dawn” is saying the very same thing, but in a different way.
The point is, though these books come from two different disciplines, both express the same theme, which is that turning property and people into commodities by defining rigid rules has violated the personal sovereignty of our right-mind. I’m going to try and keep the rest of this theory simple, but I do suggest you read both books if you wish to understand the motive of Mud Bluff.
Selfish versus Sharing
Human behavior can be analyzed in at least a thousand different ways. One effective approach presented by the “Divided Brain” is to see human behavior as a collection of constantly cooperating and competing dichotomies, or as noted, the behaviors between them.
For instance, humans (and other animals) have both a selfish and a sharing nature. These forces tug at each other as our relationships evolve. We may start out selfish with a stranger, but share more as we come to know them. The result is finding that sweet spot in the middle. Selfish and sharing is just one aspect of our behavior, but an important one. There’s evidence of this dichotomy in the left and right sides of the brain, respectively. We use our left brain to keep track of details about property, such as who owns what – to the penny. In contrast, sharing is a big part of how we connect. We use our right-mind to connect with others and share – the decimal point be damned!
For about two million years humans have been sharing resources. They lived as hunter/gatherers with sharing and selfishness in relative balance. Since they had to keep moving, they couldn’t own much more than we could carry. Their left-brain possessions were what they could keep close enough to protect, maybe a basket, blade or spear. From their right-mind, they shared the kill or harvest with the whole tribe as it would otherwise spoil. If someone consistently took more than they produced, the tribe was small enough that everyone would notice – transparency. Guilt probably evolved to moderate selfishness, allowing sharing to dominate.
About 50,000 years ago this began to change. The left-brain evolved a new trick – respect for property over time and distance, even when it’s out of sight. This may seem simple now, but it was a real breakthrough for civilization. It allowed another’s seed grain and cows to be respected, even in the face of hunger. Thousands of years later, written language (also in the left-brain) turned property into the rule of law. Selfishness blossomed at the expense of sharing. These selfish behaviors have now come to dominate our behavior. Sharing moved into the shadows.
Selfishness has become the norm, gifting the exception. At first. you might think gifting is just another way of sharing. But you can’t share what you don’t own. It’s already common property. And common property leads to the tragedy of the commons. Private property leads to prosperity, but also inequality. That’s one reason gifting at Burning Man is so refreshing. Class distinction breaks down. We hold less tightly to our property on the playa. We are more inclined to give to others. For a week.
Here’s another way of looking at gifting. We live in an economic system made up of transactions. Transactions (contracts) require strict delivery of consideration in both directions – quid pro quo. It’s the law. Gifting is different. Gifting is a one-sided transaction. With a true gift, you give something and expect nothing in return. If enough of this gifting occurs, accurate, detailed transactions become less important.
Most of what happens in our culture reflects this tugging between various opposing forces. It’s not just selfish versus sharing, it’s also inclusion versus exclusion, independent versus communal, and central versus distributed control. The result is, we live somewhere in the middle, with perhaps a current bias to the left as noted in the books above.
The theory of this project is to shift that bias back to the center by living a bit more in our right-mind, but not exclusively so. Totally ignoring self-interest would be naive. We will, of course, need to honor private property as well as personal sovereignty. The theory is to challenge our sensibilities by considering a transaction as two gifts, and then use a gift currency to help honor and document the fairness of the left-brain, and its focus on self-interest. I realize this sounds a little fluffy, but I believe in practice it might be fun to relax our sense of property and let gratitude emerge.
Humans generally manage political power using a feudal paradigm. This, of course, predates civilization and indeed was noted by Desmond Morris in his book, “The Naked Ape” where baboon behavior demonstrated a clear hierarchy of control. Even chickens have a “pecking order”.
What humans did with this paradigm eclipsed what baboons and chickens have accomplished. Feudal structure is at the core of human civilization. Power is managed from the top. Not only did humans formalize feudal control in small communities, they extended it to states, nations, and indeed the entire world in various ways.
Simply explore any corporate, military or political systems to understand how a feudal system works on a grand scale. And it remains primal in our behavior. In the last few weeks, the leaders of both China and Russia have moved to consolidate personal power over hundreds of millions of people.
I won’t bother with details of the more dynamic and constantly shifting crony capitalism of the United States. It’s cosmic comedy, and there to explore as you wish. Consistent with Compassionate Tolerance, I will strive to avoid political or religious conflict in the management of Mud Bluff while letting it express itself however it might in the art. It’s the details of human interaction I wish to address with this gift economy. Philosophy we can explore at our leisure. Back to control.
Feudalism even emerges at Burning Man. I believe Radical Inclusion started as an organic attempt to challenge this feudalism. But it slowly fails. The Burning Man organization clearly manages the placement of villages, theme camps, and art projects in a feudal manner. The camp leads of these projects do the same with their campers. Whether it’s Wall Street or a new communist regime, a minority manages the resources of the majority. And it’s becoming even more disproportionate as demonstrated by relative income inequality in the western world. Even at Burning Man, we have Plug and Play camps driving patronage. It’s one reason I don’t plan to seek large contributions at Mud Bluff.
Acknowledging our nature, one of the things that Burning Man has done is to loosen the bonds of this feudal structure, but not destroy them. This has the effect of shifting control of artistic expression back to the individual. This is in contrast with our hyper-curated artistic/industrial complex. Burning Man allows us back into our right-mind. They put up a trash fence and some street signs, then letting the event find its form. The experience emerges from chaos. The event provides a wonderful freedom to explore, not just ideas, but actions.
Not surprisingly, Burners too revert to a feudal organization too. Some individual campers form theme camps, theme camps form villages, and villages along with the single camps create Black Rock City. Fortunately, all support individual expression on the playa. Such feudalism has utility. It works. The trick is not allowing central control to overwhelm individual expression, reflecting the theme of the two books I mentioned above. And my plans for Mud Bluff. Here’s another important aspect of human behavior.
The Karma of Gifting
The best gifts are a surprise wrapped in serendipity. Our right-mind seeks and celebrates novelty. This is part of the fun at Burning Man. Sharing what we love as a gift, and enjoying the surprising gifts of others.
But if the same gift happens again and again in the same way, a pattern is formed. Repeated consistently, gifts become expectation, and expectation ultimately becomes obligation. This is how a gift finds its way from the right-mind to the left-brain, where it’s managed in a very different fashion.
As I’ve said, fairness is suspended for a week in the desert. Gifts are celebrated and appreciated by our right-mind. But if we extend similar interactions for weeks or months on end, they take on a different feel. The interactions become routine, the province of the left-brain. Fairness and consistency become issues. Here’s another way of looking at the challenge.
Is buying your ticket to Burning Man part of your gift? In many respects it is, though few think of it this way. We generally think of our ticket as a cost of entry. But here’s something you might not realize. Without you, there would be no Burning Man. YOU are the experience, or at least an important part of it.
You may not have intended to be part of the show that first year, but you arrived and discovered part of the magic sauce of Burning Man – a culture of giving. You likely wanted to play too. Even if you didn’t bring thousands of dollars worth of stuff to give, you found some way to volunteer or be of service, discovering the fun of this magic sauce along the way. You didn’t realize serving coffee to random people could produce such smiles from strangers. But there you are, singing and dancing on tables between serving hot brews at the center cafe.
And the next year? Well, that’s when you started Naked Coffee Camp and found yourself spending thousands of dollars a year on structure and supplies along with 30 strangers from around the world who are now your closest friends. All just to invoke that first morning smile from hundreds of strangers.
So, I’ll ask again. Is the cost of your ticket part of your gift? Of course it is. And so are you. While we’re talking about the cost of entry, let’s quantify it. One of the first things virgins ask is how much the ticket costs. They next compare it to the cost of any other vacation experience. So naive…
If you’ve been to Burning Man, you realize this is folly. First of all, that $450 is just the beginning. You probably spent at least that much or more on personal supplies. And then there’s the cost of your gift. That can range from nothing to thousand dollars, depending on camp requirements and the nature of your expression. For a few, it’s far more expensive.
And if you don’t have those extra thousands of dollars? Your gift might have come from hours of labor applying your special skill or craft. Or perhaps hours of performance on the playa, where your talent becomes your gift. Either way, your time was worth thousands of dollars. Try to buy those service under those harsh conditions. See what I mean? It may seem casual, but the value, (and sometimes the cost), is significant. What’s it cost to stage a Broadway play in a dust storm? And yet it happens on the playa, and there’s no ticket to buy.
OK, what if you take a year off from the cafe and just enjoy the event? Some may set out to remain disengaged for a whole week, but they typically fail. You may find yourself doing something completely different for the week and involved next year at condom camp. The gifting experience can be infectious.
The point is, the cost of your ticket, supplies and time is all part of your gift. All together in a karmic way, they help create your experience. And everyone else’s too. This is what I hope to capture at Mud Bluff, even if only on a limited scale, but for an extended time. More accurately, I wish to provide a place for this to happen, a canvas for this art to be expressed. The Mud Bluff property is my gift to those who choose to participate.
It’s also why I don’t need or want to ask for donations. It’s why I don’t intend to promote the project. It will happen authentically, or not at all. Mud Bluff will become the summation of what we all wish it to be, through our contributions in money, materials or effort. It’s a choice. It’s a gift. Do and give only what you are inspired to do, or give.
The U.S. dollar is the ultimate commodity. Each dollar represents exactly the same value at any point in time. Each one will buy goods and services in more places around the world than any other currency. The U.S. dollar is actually the official currency in ten other countries. They don’t bother printing their own. As for the rest of the world, dollars are accepted virtually everywhere. Not surprisingly, there are more U.S. dollars in circulation outside the United States than inside. And the physical notes are far less than half of the money supply. Most dollars are virtual, simply numbers in an account somewhere.
The point is, even though money is the ultimate commodity, it’s not even a physical thing. It’s a way of keeping track of value the way a clock keeps track of time. It’s an abstract agreement to deliver things of value such as goods and services, and that value changes over time. The clock runs faster (or more slowly). That’s called inflation (or deflation). Sometimes inflation is so dramatic the currency becomes worthless. This was the case in the south after the civil war, in Germany in the 1920s, Zimbabwe in 2008, or Venezuela right now.
In spite of these problems, money is taken very seriously. Many consider it the root of all evil. I think it’s just a way of keeping track of evil. And good. It’s a useful tool for avoiding barter when you don’t need an extra 100 gallons of milk right now, and you may need bread tomorrow. Money is a way of making a transaction fair until you need that milk.
Without getting into the whole issue of a gold standard, (which isn’t important for our purpose), the U.S. dollar is a fiat currency. That’s just another way of saying it’s worth what our government decrees (and we accept), at least until faith in that government is lost, which is what happened in Germany, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela. One reason the U.S dollar is so popular is its relative stability, reflecting the strength of our economy, and ability to project the rule of law around the world.
Enough dollar politics. One of my objectives in this project is to create a currency for gifting. I want to do that by gradually decoupling it from the transaction and use it to keep track of gifts until you’re ready to appreciate them, like you’re ready for more bread instead of milk in the example above. I hope to accomplish this with something I call Happy Hearts, a virtual currency. This currency will be managed on our website, as are “likes” on FaceBook. It will be used as described below to measure contribution, participation, and appreciation for your experience at Mud Bluff. Like all fiat currencies, it will only have the value we give it. I’ll describe a few ways to use it shortly. For now, back to fairness.
Here’s another perspective. In its classical form, tipping is an intuitive version of adjusting for fairness. I’m not talking about tipping’s current form where the practice has evolved into an obligation. When I was a child, tipping was about ten percent of the value of the meal or minor service, with a great deal of latitude in the “about” part. If the service was not above average, there might not be any tip at all. That might seem harsh, but it’s also useful feedback.
In contrast, today tipping has become not only an expectation, but an obligation. At least in the United States. There are still a few cultures in the world where tipping is an insult. But back to America. I recently saw a waiter chase a patron out of the restaurant demanding to know why he had not left a tip. Would you call this a gift? Or an obligation?
Also, it’s now common to have a screen display options of 15, 20 or 25 percent for the tip. What happened to 10 percent? Or perhaps even 5 percent? Or 40? If we’re not free to leave no tip at all, then it’s not a gift freely given, and tipping has lost its original purpose and meaning.
Without getting into the whole topic of fair wages for waiters, the point is we’ve lost the ability to give a gift at the end of an excellent meal because of progressive expectation and obligation. I believe this progression is because of the greed and calculations of our left-brain. We need to let our right-mind control the purse strings more often. It may bring more surprise, fairness, and authentic appreciations to our lives.
The objective at Mud Bluff is to achieve fairness, but not at the end of a calculator. We’ll let karma express itself over the long term. Hopefully, it will be reflected in the number of Happy Hearts we accumulate, the number converted to Flames, and the number we give to others.
So if you host a meal at Mud Bluff don’t expect Happy Hearts for this gift you’ve have given freely. But if you DO receive Happy Hearts, relax, it’s just the tip.
“Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.” – Pablo Picasso
As noted above, Burning Man Principles are often a study in contradiction. Gifting undermines self-reliance, radical or not. Also, Inclusion has its limits. When you combine these factors with the need to sustain the Burner experience for more than a week, it becomes obvious that Mud Bluff Principles will need to be significantly different from those of Burning Man. The first and last two principles are especially important. This is my first version. It will likely evolve with input from others:
Radical Inclusion is not unlimited inclusion. It never has been. Radical means a major change in the way something is done. Burning Man has aspired to include anyone, and they’ve done a pretty good job. But there have always been limitations to inclusion.
For instance, there are professional takers. They set out to “game” the experience, and often succeed. I’m not talking about our naked skydiver described earlier, though technically he qualifies. His “art” is perhaps a reason for an exception. Worse are the ones that work the shadows, relying on goodwill and anonymity. They often move from camp to camp. They are the main factor in the tragedy of the commons. They are the risk of Radical Inclusion. They can be accommodated for a week in the desert but will drag down a long-term project.
Burning Man’s Radical Inclusion principle states:
“Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.”
It’s nice rhetoric, but hardly accurate. There are prerequisites. Burning Man has an entrance fee. Then there’s getting to the gate with enough stuff to survive for a week. The point is, there are barriers to entry for anything, even Burning Man. And Mud Bluff.
Then there’s the problem with demand exceeding supply. That’s why Burning Man began the ticket lottery, but only with half the tickets. Wisely, the other half went to a directed sale where theme camp leads allocate attendance. Without this provision, the infrastructure of Burning Man would have failed.
Getting a directed ticket depends on who you know at a theme camp or art project. It also depends on what you bring to the party. Typically, Burners will offer certain contributions to get on the directed ticket list. Is this a bribe? Of course it is, but it’s also part of the blend that makes Burning Man work. Ask any theme camp leader. How do they choose who gets the tickets? They seek the highest and best use of the resource (ticket), combined with a bias to their friends (right-mind). Half of Burning Man tickets are now sold according to feudal cronyism. The other half are distributed randomly in the lottery.
Also, Burning Man’s not for everyone. It made such a dramatic impression on me, I assumed it was. But look at the census demographics. It’s not a cross-section of America at all. Burning Man attracts and includes only a self-selecting subset of America. In truth, some virgins are only mildly amused, and others, horrified. When you add in the traffic and dust storms, it drives many away. Enthusiasm for Burning Man ranges from fanatical to negative. As a Regional Contact, knowing which became important. I quit promoting the event as much and let personal conviction lead Burners to the playa. Burning Man requires money and determination to get them to the event. It’s a self-selecting filter.
Or as Halcyon says, “Burning Man is for people who are drawn to it.”
Self-selection can take many forms. Before the lottery, anyone could walk up to the gate, pay some money and be included. After the lottery, I was overwhelmed with people wanting to know how to get a ticket if they failed in the lottery. I always said, “If you really want to go, you’ll find a way.” Getting a ticket to Burning Man is to a large degree a reflection of your conviction to go. The key is participation. If you get involved with theme camps or art projects, it’s likely someone will recognize this conviction and hook you up. It happens all the time.
These ticket issues are for just a week in the desert. When you extend inclusion to year-round, other challenges emerge. As noted, “The Tragedy of the Commons” can devastate a community if left unmanaged. Who you include becomes critical to sustainability. With space and resources far more limited at Mud Bluff, the questions become, who to include? How? And why? Self-selection becomes more important.
Also, if you define a project, Burners will jump in and help, the way they helped Jungle Jim at the Morris. But how does a project sustain that kind of energy over the long term? The answer is fairness. Achieving it requires transparency and ultimately, a linkage of effort and reward, or in this case, linking control to contribution.
Because of Mud Bluff’s scale (being small), there’s also an existential risk in attracting the few who might be intent on exploiting the project through speculation. It would only take someone with a few hundred thousand dollars to dominate control and sell out. That’s only one reason to limit contributions. Mud Bluff will not accept every contribution offered. Instead, we will only accept what is needed for a specific objective, and even then, hopefully from multiple sources.
So how do we limit who is included while still welcoming and respecting the stranger? My solution is to do it on an individual basis. Each of us that participate will personally create the inclusion we wish to see in our community. Some will do it more generously than others.
The challenge becomes morphing Radical Inclusion into a more manageable Generous Inclusion, where sponsoring someone at Mud Bluff reflects the inclusion you individually wish to see in the project. The process starts with an applicant presenting their intentions in a few words or a few paragraphs. Or perhaps a casual conversation with someone already participating. Leads (or higher) can then select from this group and make Inclusion as Generous as they choose.
Each “Guest” that has accumulated enough Happy Hearts to become an “Artist” may then formally contribute enough to become a “Lead”. At that point they may literally give their Happy Hearts to strangers or friends, inviting them as Guests to Mud Bluff. If others do the same, these Guests may accumulate enough Happy Hearts to become an Artist and contribute on a larger scale, themselves to become Leads for others in a gift it forward fashion. Each can be as inclusive as they choose by gifting their Happy Hearts. Or not.
When compared to Radical Inclusion, Generous Inclusion is both more inclusive, and less. You don’t need to buy a ticket. But you do need to be invited by a Lead, then gifted enough Happy Hearts to participate long-term. Continued inclusion requires the Guest’s participation and appreciation by others, or they’ll run out of Happy Hearts, and may ultimately be asked to leave. At least this is the theory.
As noted above, the motive and act of gifting can change with repetition and extended time, two factors that contrast Mud Bluff with Burning Man. Financially, Burning Man is predictable. They sell tickets in advance. We could do something similar, but over time tickets or memberships would end up as a commodity. Instead, I’d rather back away from requirements and expectations to let participants contribute only when they are inspired to do so.
Gifting is also critical to Inclusion, but happens as a side effect. Hopefully, your Happy Hearts are gifted in authentic appreciation. Inclusion is just one result. It’s also one of the most important gifts you can give at Mud Bluff, and again, contrasts with Burning Man’s requirement that you buy a ticket. Our Gifting principle is a bit different, but I hope more authentic and sustainable.
The Decommodification Burning Man Principle states:
In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
Again, this only applies for that week, and even then while you’re actually in the desert. People often exit to “get more stuff” and then return. More significantly, they buy huge amounts of supplies and services both before and after the event. The principle is a bit disingenuous, managed with more than a little denial. Commodification’s fine as long as we keep it outside of the trash fence where we can’t see it happening. Indeed, the indirect signs of conspicuous consumption are a hallmark of the experiences, well except for a few dedicated hippies who get by with little.
To be fair, even though camp leads often barter directed tickets for elaborate contributions, they at least try to keep each transaction custom, and therefore not a commodity. But most theme camps also have “camp fees”, often collected at the event for convenience. Some of these fees exceed a thousand dollars. Commodified experience?
This is the primary reason to introduce the Happy Heart currency. It’s an attempt to decouple the transaction without denying it.
Instead of following or depending upon the crowd, look inward for inspiration and resources. Long-term self-reliance by definition should not be a radical exception. Sustainability requires that participants on average must give as much as they take, or perhaps a little more. If each brings what they need, then shares what they can, we should have a surplus. If not, they are less likely to accumulate enough Happy Hearts, and less likely to remain at Mud Bluff. Generous Inclusion should not replace Reasonable Self-Reliance.
Not wanting to discourage the cooking of his new bride, a newly minted husband praised her tuna casserole. He diplomatically withheld the truth, which was that he hated tuna. She served it weekly for the rest of their marriage. The story here can go at least two different directions, with two different lessons. I’ll let you finish it.
The point is, Radical self-expression (and feigned acceptance) are fine for the short term, but it’s not a license to force your art or ideas on others without limit. Authentic acceptance is critical to long-term relationships.
Mud Bluff is a place to discover and share what you have to express. Only you can determine its content. Offer it as a gift to others when you can. Not all gifts will find acceptance. Acknowledging that we each enjoy different things, respect the sovereignty of the recipient to appreciate your expression. Or not.
LIB – Leave It Better
What? No “LNT” at Mud Bluff? Yep. It’s true. Without getting into the debate about Leaving No Trace being a superlative, and achieving it, which is an illusion of the left-brain, I’ll just say LNT is actually antithetical to long-term or permanent artistic expression. Many of the projects will not only leave a trace at Mud Bluff, but that trace will actually be the point.
Leaving No Trace is not only an illusion of our left-brain, it’s a fool’s errand. It can’t be done. Last year, on Saturday night after the Man burned, myself and a few others spent hours picking up Day-Glo paint chips from the playa under a UV-light. Some of them were as small as a grain of sand, but our camp lead was concerned about leaving a trace after his paintings had been brutalized by the wind. He likes being green on the map, so I helped out. In truth, no one could ever find all of those paint chips, no matter how many UV-lights you have at midnight. I’ve seen other similar, but naive efforts at Burning Man. When is LNT clean enough? By definition, never. In demonstration, I brought those bags of paint chips to Mud Bluff and dusted our trails with them. How’s that for challenging your sensibilities about littering? Understanding the limits of perfections is part of my art.
When I was a kid (long before LNT), my uncle would bring a 55-gallon drum in the back of his pickup on all camping trips. His objective as he called it, was to “Leave It Better” than he found it. He always returned home with a barrel full of trash.
Another problem with LNT is when some people realize they can’t make it perfect, they relax and do far less. I find old garbage in the playa dust every year. In contrast, I think it’s better to clean as you go, then make a reasonable and consistent effort with what’s left. Our objective at Mud Bluff will be to Leave It Better than we found it.
Many of our projects will not only alter the landscape in various ways, some may actually become part of it. Concrete is an obvious example, but there will be many others. It’s important to have principles we can live with for years, not just a week. This is one. Larry acknowledged this reality when he referred to “leaving it better” in his implementation of Leave No Trace.
Of course, “better” is both relative and subjective, and so will be its expression. I’m sure there will be times we will need to challenge various artists on their definition of “better”. In such times, Happy Hearts can be used to encourage, and help us Leave It Better. Does trading Happy Hearts for clean up make LNT a commodity? Perhaps, but it sounds like a useful form of expression.
Over the years I’ve heard many suggestions for extra principles. One of the more popular is Gratitude. But for me, gratitude is like appreciation. You either have it or you don’t. Faking it makes it worse. At Mud Bluff, this 11th principle is where faking it till you make it may actually help.
Let’s face it, we don’t like everyone we meet. This is also true on the playa, but the magic sauce intervenes. Tolerance usually implies grudgingly, but on the playa, there seems to be more latitude and an authentic element of compassion. Perhaps it’s because the event only lasts for a week at a time, but I like to think it’s because burners are truly more open to other’s art and behavior.
As for the fake it until you make it, I’m not sure which comes first, the compassion or the tolerance, but I hope to find out. In either case, at Mud Bluff, any lack of tolerance has the potential for becoming a major problem, so our 11th principle will be Compassionate Tolerance. You’ll quickly discover whether you need to fake it or not. Perhaps, Happy Hearts will help here too.
Be the Change
I could have called this one “Inspired Contribution”, but it doesn’t really capture the motive or importance. Being the change you wish to see in the project is the only way this project will succeed. It goes beyond Immediacy to commitment. If we each step back to let others provide the resource, it will never happen. Ultimately, this final principle is what will create and provide for what we collectively experience at Mud Bluff. Your contribution is critical.
Mud Bluff Principles
Generous Inclusion – Anyone may be part of Mud Bluff, but we don’t sell tickets nor memberships. Inclusion is gifted forward. We welcome and respect the stranger. Later, you may become the inclusion you wish to see at Mud Bluff.
Authentic Gifting – Mud Bluff is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value. A true gift is not the result of, nor creates obligation. Give only what you can give freely. In turn, accept only what you truly appreciate. If each of us gives more than we take, we will all live in abundance.
Decommodification – In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience. We seek, protect and resisting using a currency that comes from the heart, and is not a requirement for payment.
Reasonable Self-Reliance – First, provide for yourself. Only then might you have something to share with others. Only then will what you receive from others be truly a gift and not a mitigation. Bring what you need. Share what you can.
Radical Self-Expression – Mud Bluff is a place to discover and share what you have to express. Only you can determine its content. Offer it as a gift to others when you are inspired to do so. Not all gifts will find acceptance. Acknowledging that we each enjoy different things, respect the sovereignty of the recipient to appreciate your expression, or not.
Communal Effort – Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.
Civic Responsibility – We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
Leave It Better – Perfection is an illusion. So is Leaving No Trace. Since many of our projects may exist for years and obviously leave a trace, we need to revert to Larry’s original stated intent. We clean as we go and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave our space in better condition than we found it.
Participation – Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.
Immediacy – Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.
Compassionate Tolerance – People can tolerate almost anything for a week in the desert, but the long-term nature of this project requires that we suspend judgment, and extend tolerance with compassion. It’s important to tolerate the expression of others, especially the forms we don’t appreciate.
Be the Change – Be the change you wish to see at Mud Bluff. Contribute as you are inspired to do so. Ultimately, this final principle will create what we collectively experience.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African proverb
With these principles and theory clearly in focus, my challenge is finding the best way to organize the project. Now that I’ve found this ground, the easiest thing would be to simply build a place to live and invite my friends to visit. I could move quickly and do what I want – no distractions.
But all this ground for just myself would be a terrible waste of space. Plus, I’d miss out on what the stranger might bring to the canvas. And like with PermaBurn, Burning Girl, and the Morris, that would put all the burden and management on one person – me. Even if I take the lead (as I already have), how do I work myself out of the job? How do I pass the project on? And To whom?
Or I could just let random things happen, and enjoy the spectacle. But do-ocracy doesn’t work. It’s only one step removed from chaos. In the short term, it might be fun, but it’s a long-term disaster.
Another way to organize would be to form a 501.3c, but becoming a formal non-profit or “B” corp commodifies need and shifts the focus to fundraising. That sounds too much like running a business. And when asked for donations, only about one percent comply. Fairness is out the window. I need to link contributions to control of the project, but in a way that doesn’t challenge our right-mind. So the question becomes, what control does a property owner have? And how is this control expressed?
A landowner can develop and peacefully enjoy their property. They can build structures and store personal property. The owner can also invite guests to do the same. Sharing Mud Bluff will include input on development, using the resources, and selecting who to invite as guests. We need this control to reflect the degree of contribution, but not in a way that can be used to speculate, or for selfish gain in any meaningful fashion.
I also need to diversify both cost and control, and do it in a way that is both fair and financially sustainable. I need to find others who share my vision for Mud Bluff. That’s why I’ve written this manifesto. I want to see who else wants to live a Burner life full-time, or at least have a place they can retreat and be with others sharing the same objectives.
With this in mind, the next most logical form of organization would be to sell some sort of timeshare. Burners could buy a “ticket” to as much participation as they plan. I’ve owned airplanes and businesses in the same fashion, and with reasonable results. But memberships or shares with a defined value in dollars often lead to speculation. Even Burners would try to get their “share” of the project, leading back to the tragedy of the commons. Plus, I’d be commodifying a Burner experience with a “ticket”. Mud Bluff would become a transaction about experience and property. – quid pro quo.
Instead, I’ll start this gift economy with a gift. The property is paid for. I’ll put it in trust for those who wish to participate, and organize a corporation called Capitalist Art to manage operations. These elements will be used as a mostly blank financial canvas to see what evolves. Nothing more is required. If further development occurs, it will reflect the conviction of those interested in the project, and only to the degree of their conviction. Like myself, they can become the development they wish to see at Mud Bluff. That way, no one will own the property, and no one will be speculating. It will either be a contribution freely given. Or not at all.
Not everyone will contribute equally or always in dollars. Many contributions of time, materials and equipment have already been made. I’ll define some titles reflecting relative degree of contribution, control, and responsibility. Each gift will be given with “detached and disinterested generosity”. In other words, each gift is freely given without rights, recourse, or return. There will be no requirements, and few expectations.
The project will evolve in a manner reflecting the will of those contributing. Control will reflect both contribution and participation, evolving over time. I’ll need a way to keep track of both.
That’s where Happy Hearts come in. They will help people to express their vision of the project by how, and to whom they gift their Happy Hearts. Outside the project, Happy Hearts will have zero value. Inside the property boundaries, they will represent the total value of the project, and not just in a financial sense. Happy Hearts will help channel gratitude into physical form as well as a continuing experience. Over time the distribution of Happy Hearts (and dedicated Flames) will come to reflect the individual contributions of burners in both dollars and effort, dynamically flowing to the next generation as a gift.
So far this presentation has been all about projects, property, and theory. Now for the fun part. We get to play with personal economic interaction. And gratitude. Instant Karma is how I hope to shift behavior from selfish to sharing, at least to some degree.
Yes, I stole the name and concept from John Lennon, but with a twist. Karma, is of course, the sum of your actions used to determine your fate in the next life. Karma is also the broad idea that what you give determines what you get, for good or evil. Instant Karma is a way to fairly link participation with the expression of what Mud Bluff might become.
If it helps, you can think of Instant Karma as a game with its own currency, not unlike Monopoly. It has two types of gifting (formal and casual), and six levels of participation – Guest, Artist, Lead, Manager, Director, and Trustee.
Instant Karma is both a game and a virtual economic canvas. The purpose is to help manage and evolve resources at Mud Bluff. Like Burning Man, there are no rules, just an objective, which is to break transactions into their component gifts. You can, of course, give as much as you like of anything to anyone for any reason, but there are no requirements to reciprocate. Transactions are not enforced at Mud Bluff. This is meant to challenge the very nature of transactions, breaking them into two separate gifts, freely given. Or not. If you try for transactions, you’ll quickly discover who can be trusted, and to what degree, which is the whole point. Instant Karma is meant to invoke a more playful form of interacting, and even transacting.
I hope to accomplish this by using funny-money. Something interesting happens when we convert money into any form of script, in this case as a gift to the project. Whether it’s drink tokens or even literally local money in a foreign country, we spend this script more freely. And we tip more freely. That’s one reason I call them Happy Hearts. Who can take them seriously? It’s script that’s meant to be played with, to be given freely.
Instant Karma at Mud Bluff has two major aspects, formal contribution to the project, and the more casual gifting. Both require you to first be invited to the property. This is done with a few Happy Hearts from someone already established with the project. After that, your participation in any form you choose may inspire others to give you more Happy Hearts. This is the playful part, but only if you choose to participate, and only in the way you prefer to express yourself.
Yes, collecting Happy Hearts is a bit of a popularity contest, but it’s also self-selecting. It depends on what you do and how you participate. It would be rare for everyone to ignore a passionate display of expression in almost any form, and you only need one Happy Heart per day to remain involved indefinitely.
Once you accumulate at least 400 Happy Hearts, you may formally contribute money to the Trust in amounts greater than one thousand dollars. This thousand dollar minimum contribution forces all other gifts to be casual and appreciated by those participating, and not the Trust. The formal contribution of greater than a thousand dollars is the quickest way to gain Instant Karma in the form of Happy Hearts, but not a guarantee of any specific number. Some may give a larger amount but only wish to have enough Happy Hearts to visit for a limited period of time. They might wish to leave most of their Happy Hearts for the Trust to manage. Other gifts might be critical to a particular project and receive more Happy Hearts. Terms can be discussed, but there are no conditions, requirements, nor refunds.
Formal is not the only way to contribute. Instead, you can continue to accumulate Happy Hearts casually, reflecting your casual contributions. Or not. There are no requirements.
Instant Karma is a game that not only allows for authentic gifting but also the opportunity to adjust for fairness. For instance, is it fair for one person to contribute ten thousand dollars to the project, and another to only contribute a thousand dollars? Of course not. But what if each amount were the same portion of each person’s net worth? Where is fairness found in that case? The answer is both subjective and relative. Indeed, there may not be a good answer. The point is, if we try to make everything perfectly fair using math, we’ll lose sight of the disproportionality of nature. And the generosity of our right-mind.
Instant Karma will also provide for a collection of transparently published metrics, some of which will be used by management to approach fairness. One way to think about Instant Karma is to see the sum of issued Happy Hearts representing the dynamic value of Mud Bluff. Even though you can’t sell them back to the Trust, the Happy Hearts provide a sense of ownership. And people protect what they own. Sorting out the inequities that arise will be up to the participants. Over time, Karma will find its form, Instant or not.
Yes, I realize this game will likely be “gamed” in various ways. And that’s fine. I’m not naive enough to think transactions will not occur. I even expect they will be common. Humans trade this for that all the time. I myself will participate in the range of interactions from simple transactions to gifts freely given. I don’t expect, (or even want), to change human behavior completely to sharing. That would be as limiting as our current rigid transactional economy. I just want to break transactions into independent transfers which are mostly done for their own merit. Or appreciation.
There are no rules against barter, loaning or even selling Happy Hearts. But there’s also no way to enforce any transaction when everything’s a gift. There is no escrow. As long as there are no requirements, it won’t matter that Happy Hearts get played with a bit. After all, they are only a game currency. My hope is that authentic sharing and fairness will emerge.
Karma is essential to a gift economy. It’s the summation of a shared resource, in which not everyone gives (or takes) equally. I think of the “Stone Soup” parable described earlier where many are hesitant to give, at least until they can see the value of being included in the shared resource. I suspect that may be the case at Mud Bluff.
Instant Karma is my shortcut to goodness, a kind of Zen for a frictionless gift economy. I measure it in Happy Hearts the same way our conventional economy is measured in dollars. But with a difference. Instant Karma is a cross between“gift it forward” and a Kickstarter, with a virtual currency thrown in for fun and flexibility. Dollars are a store of value. Happy Hearts are a store of gratitude.
I’ve put my land in a Trust for those who participate in the project. This will be a changing set of Burners over time. The Trust is in place to discourage a hostile takeover and sellout by whoever might gain operational control of the property.
Experimenting with this property is not a casual decision. I’ve thought about it for a year and gotten feedback from many others. For me, it’s a once in a lifetime event. My intention is to diversify control of the property over the next twenty years until I’m no longer directly involved. The property is the first “gift it forward” act, providing a literal desert and river canvas for development.
Next, we need to raise significant sums for infrastructure and maintenance. We’ll do this one project at a time as contributions are made. But writing that check will be a later step. Your participation starts with someone inviting you to the property by giving you some virtual Happy Hearts. You can then sign-in to your personal page on our website. These Happy Hearts may be regifted or dedicated to your experience and locked, one per day at your webpage. I use the term “may” because both the contribution and the Happy Hearts are gifts freely given. Or not.
What good are these Happy Hearts? They are a virtual currency (not to be confused with cryptocurrency). They will be used as an advisory metric to manage projects, allocate resources, measure participation, show appreciation, and demonstrate gratitude. Your Happy Hearts will be automatically managed on your page at our website.
Once you accumulate 400 Happy Hearts and before you write that check, there’s a catch, and it’s a big one. (Isn’t there always?) The catch is, you don’t get your money back. There are no refunds, no recourse, and no regrets. Only write that check if it’s a gift freely given, and without reservation. This is normal for a gift, but I’m stressing the point as the concept will permeate this gift economy. Now for the fun part. This is where Danger Ranger’s “line” comes in. The part where everything is different on the other side.
One difference is that you determine how your gift is to be used. Not only that, you get to give it at least twice. The first time is formally to the Trust, and optionally to a specific project. The second time you give it as Happy Hearts to whomever you choose. Or not.
Usually, when you donate, it’s for some remote “cause” and you’re relying on someone else to see that the gift finds its highest and best use. I’ll let you analyze the charitable/industrial complex to determine how often, how well, or to what degree this actually happens. The Red Cross is a good case to study.
To contrast Red Cross donations, contributions are what you bring to a project where you’re actively participating. It’s what we do when we write a check to help buy a new generator to be used at Burning Man. Contribute is also what we do at Mud Bluff. Not only does someone get to formally contribute the generator. Someone else will have the opportunity to casually gift the fuel. Or not. And that’s the key. Each gift is a gift freely given, without recourse nor refund.
What do you get in return? Nothing guaranteed, but you may receive Happy Hearts from those who didn’t have cash for gas. Hopefully, the gift will be karmic, perhaps even Instantly Karmic.
Virtual Happy Hearts
If we have a gift economy, why can’t everyone just give what they choose, and leave it at that? Why do we need these Happy Hearts? In many cases, we could, but there are several good reasons to bring Happy Hearts into the process.
One reason is the documented behavior of dogs, bonobos, elephants, and yes, humans. We each express a sense of fairness. It’s been demonstrated that cooperation decreases if you treat one individual differently from another. Dogs get pissed. I suspect it may be true for most mammals, us included. I also believe this sense of fairness is actually a dynamic tension between our left-brain and our right-mind. It’s part of how we evolved.
This sense of fairness is also an important factor in the Tragedy of the Commons. People try to get their “fair share” in a selfish manner. Others cooperate less when the resource is abused. We need to change the dynamics of the commons. A currency is one way to do this.
Before money, fairness and guilt would create a sense of “owing” in response to any gift. A stated “I owe you” might have even made the gift easier to give. When that “I owe you” was written down, it became a note which could be cashed in later. When banks then governments issued “I owe you” notes, they gained wider acceptance. My objective is to unravel these notes back into their separate gifts, and a true gift is not the result of, nor creates obligation. Instead of a promise to pay, as is the case with dollars, Happy Hearts are a token of appreciation and do not represent liability nor asset for either party. Having said that, the total number of Happy Hearts do reflect the gifts given to the property, and ultimately Mud Bluff’s value, even if these Happy Hearts can not be converted directly to dollars.
Not surprisingly, this sense of fairness seems to relax when people give instead of taking. When it’s your choice, it’s easier to accept inequity. There seems to be a dynamic balance between selfishness and sharing. I believe this balance is literally the tension between our left-brain and right-mind. Happy Heart currency may be the very thing our left-brain needs to relax and honor our right-mind’s generosity authentically.
Happy Hearts are an unenforced “I owe you.” It’s like saying, “I may do something someday that you will appreciate and return my Happy Hearts.” They are a tool to help redefine personal interactions, and bring out the better angels of our nature. You may receive them in appreciation for your formal or casual contributions to the project. Happy Hearts have no redeemable cash value. This makes them easier to pass on to others and influence how you might wish to see Mud Bluff evolve.
For instance, someone may give you something, and you may feel they are far too generous. You can “even it up” with Happy Hearts. Or you may enjoy a particular garden that someone else manages, and decide to give them Happy Hearts as you eat the fruit of their effort. These Happy Hearts will then increases the garden manager’s influence at Mud Bluff. He may then get more resources at the next management meeting. It’s like a constant, transparent and dynamic system of voting using a currency created by a gift you’ve already given.
Another obvious way to use Happy Hearts is to Generously Include others you believe might embrace the project. If you have at least 4000 Happy Hearts, you are a “Lead” and can give a few to those you wish to invite to Mud Bluff. If others appreciate how these new Guests casually contribute to the project, they will accumulate more Happy Hearts. Once they have at least 400, they too can make a formal contribution of at least a thousand dollars and get more involved. Or not. There are no requirements.
Instant Karma is transparent. You can look up anyone’s projects and source of Happy Hearts at any time. Some will contribute more time and effort, others more dollars. This free market in Happy Hearts will help even out fairness in contributions and consumption. It will also help the Trustees, Directors, and Managers find the highest and best use of resources.
Another reason we need Happy Hearts is the same reason we need money in the default world. Barter is clumsy, and ultimately, gifting is a form of karmic barter. That’s why money was invented. Dollars are used to store value until you need them. If you have 100 gallons of milk, you might trade them for dollars today so you can use the dollars to buy bread tomorrow.
In the same respect, you may not have a gift handy when you wish to show appreciation. Happy Hearts allow Immediacy at the time of inspiration. Or not.
Unlike the milk/dollars/bread example, there is no requirement to show appreciation for a gift at Mud Bluff. A gift is a unilateral transfer of goods or services. In the same way dollars are used to store value, Happy Hearts store gratitude.
Feudal control of Mud Bluff reflects the larger and more formal contributions. The Trust may then gift a large number of Happy Hearts in appreciation. These Happy Hearts can then flow out to the artists in appreciation for their creations, not unlike a patronage system. Each day at sunset, one of these Happy Hearts for each participant is virtually set on fire and locked to celebrate each person’s experience at Mud Bluff during that day. Though this Happy Heart can no longer be gifted, it doesn’t go away. It continues to be used as a metric in that person’s contribution to the project. The rest can be gifted in any way you like. Or saved for later.
As Larry Harvey once said, “If your mother asks you to pick up milk on your way home, would you charge her for it?”
Of course not. That’s casual gifting, and I believe it can be extended beyond your parents to others you appreciate in your life. For instance, someone is playing music around the fire at night. You might turn on your phone and click a couple of Happy Hearts at their page on our website. It’s similar to “Likes” on FaceBook, except that the musician can use them to stay a couple more days at Mud Bluff. Or if someone brings a pizza to share, again, click on their page on our website to show you enjoyed the meal. Or not. It’s a more authentic tip. There are no requirements, which is the case with all authentic gifts. Happy Hearts not only provide for casual gifting and Generous Inclusion, they are also a metric of contribution and participation and used to manage the project.
So, what can you do with these Happy Hearts? Well, you can enjoy each day they represent at Mud Bluff. Or you can give them away in appreciation for what others contribute, or as an invitation for others to enjoy the experience.
What is the actual value of Happy Hearts? That depends on your appreciation. You can’t redeem them in, so their cash value is zero. But in the abstract, the total number of Happy Hearts issued by the Trust represents the total value of Mud Bluff and its improvements. “Your” portion of this total will reflect your participation, and in some respects, your influence in how the project is managed.
Happy Hearts can be used to:
- Enjoy a good day at Mud Bluff
- Generously Include others
- Influence major art projects
- Express your management of a private resource.
- Casually demonstrate your appreciation for the gifts of others.
- Trade them casually for goods or services at Mud Bluff.
I include the last item above in recognition that transactions will occur, even if limited to casual interaction. The Trust may gift Happy Hearts in appreciation for contribution, but not the inverse.
I could have called Happy Hearts Burner Points or even Smiles, but I want to promote gifting instead of transactions. The objective is the break a transaction into its two underlying gifts. Dollars, points or even smiles can be contrived and gamed more easily. An authentic happy heart is less likely to be manipulated for profit.
Happy Hearts are called Happy Hearts partly in jest, and partly in recognition of all the Hippies at Burning Man. Also, something called a Happy Heart is more difficult to make demands about. More significantly, Happy Hearts can be profoundly authentic as their value flows from our right-mind, and not our left-brain. For instance, a smile can be contrived by our left-brain, but a Happy Heart is, well, a happy heart. It’s a gift of our right-mind.
Physical Happy Hearts
My favorite scene in the movie “Harold and Maude” is where Harold stamps, “I love you” in a smashed penny at the arcade. Later, while sitting by the bay, he gives it to Maude. She’s obviously moved and thanks him profusely, then proceeds to throw the coin as far as she can into the water. Harold looks devastated. Maude simply says, “Now I’ll always know where it is.” That’s how it is with Happy Hearts. The value is not in the commodified thing or token. The value is in the individual intent. We will use virtual Happy Hearts as a currency to capture gratitude and metrics. Physical Happy Hearts will drive home the point.
Like dollars discussed above, Happy Hearts may take both forms, virtual and physical. To demonstrate my intent to uncouple Happy Hearts from transactions, and contrasting with dollars, anyone may create a physical Happy Heart at any time, for any reason. Not everyone has a smartphone at hand. I would like to encourage someone (or many) to create physical Happy Heart tokens, providing an immediate currency of appreciation to be used at Mud Bluff. This currency could be metal, paper, food or fabric. Indeed, it can be of any material you choose as long as its construction and expression comes from the heart.
Now you might think such a currency would be counterfeit. But any currency that truly comes from the heart, is by definition, authentic. Here is the difference. With most money, each coin or bill is identical. In contrast, each Happy Heart coin or bill would be a little different if created individually. If you decide to create physical Happy Hearts, just make sure each one is unique by signing each bill or adding a final touch to each coin or token by hand. That way, people will be able to look at the coin or bill and know immediately that the work came from the heart. The individual quality will reflect the intent and appreciation.
OK, OK, I know your concern. Couldn’t someone flood the market and debase the value of Happy Hearts? That can only be the case if Happy Heart currency is REQUIRED for payment in exchange for something. But they’re not. Shoddy work or poor materials would be immediately recognized and depreciated for what they are. And aren’t. Accept them with a smile. Or not. Remember, smiles too can be counterfeit. Only a Happy Heart is authentic.
Besides, most people pride themselves in excellent workmanship. Mass produced script with no unique alteration would be instantly recognized as such, devalued, and perhaps used to start fires or the metal could be used to make other art. That is the point. Currency at Mud Bluff is only as valuable as the intent driving its creation.
Instead of “counterfeit”, a physical Happy Heart in any form will by its nature, be authentic. Well, at least if it’s intent comes from the heart. If, in contrast, the purpose is to “water” the value of other Happy Hearts, this intent will become apparent, and its appreciation quickly depreciated. Only authentic Happy Hearts are likely to find continued circulation. Hopefully, there will be multiple physical forms of Happy Heart currency circulating at the same time.
I know this all sounds like a silly game, and it is, but there’s also a profound demonstration of the underlying value in a fiat currency. The value is only what we give it. In the case of physical Happy Hearts, that value should reflect the intent of the creator. And those who gift them.
There’s some evidence that the first forms of money were shells with holes in them. They were kept on a piece of string. Each shell had its own natural beauty, some a bit nicer than others, but each with a value appreciated individually. The same could be done with paper Happy Hearts, at least if each is constructed individually by an artist. We see this all the time at Burning Man. People create various tokens to be gifted. In this case each token will be some form of a Happy Heart.
So what about metal coins all stamped by the same press? Doesn’t that make them a commodity? Somewhat perhaps, but their value will be reflected in the base value of the metal along with the added value of the artwork of the craftsman. Most nice coins cost about a dollar to construct, and “about” is the key. The whole objective is to loosen the linkage of bilateral transactions and make them unilateral gifts. What better way than to have tokens created by individual expression instead of some remote feudal king or government “authority”?
In contrast to classic gold currency, where the physical form has more validity than the virtual account balances, virtual Happy Hearts will probably have a more consistent value than the physical tokens. At least at first. In other words, physical Happy Hearts’ value will be more associated with the right-mind than the virtual ones. The left-brain will probably prefer the virtual, even though both should always be freely given gifts, uncoupled from a transaction. The reason for this is that virtual Happy Hearts will be managed by a website, and will also be used in appreciation for formal contributions. The physical tokens will only circulate in the real world of casual gifting.
One final note, Happy Hearts painted on objects at Mud Bluff indicate a shared resource. That means you’re free to use it. Just don’t take it away from Mud Bluff, and Leave It Better than you found it. Enjoy the gift.
Most of Mud Bluff is a shared resource, including the property and anything attached to it, as well as any casual property or equipment with a Happy Heart stencil. Happy Hearts painted on objects at Mud Bluff indicate a shared resource. That means you’re free to use it. Just don’t take it away from Mud Bluff, and Leave It Better than you found it if you can. Enjoy the gift. And express your appreciation to those managing the resource when inspired. This can be done using Happy Hearts, or in any other way you choose, keeping the Mud Bluff Principles in mind. Now back to the resources.
Private property is generally tents, cars or RVs that people have brought for their private use and not as a contribution. They should not show the Happy Heart symbol or they may be shared.
All shared property is ultimately managed by the Trustees. The Trustees may delegate the control of certain resources to Managers if it’s in the best interest of the Trust. For instance, it’s in the best interest of the Trust to always have at least one Manager present on the property. For this reason, certain rooms may be dedicated and managed by a specific person for a period of time. That will be their private room, even though owned by the Trust.
Other resources such as gardens and trees that require attention will be assigned to a Lead or Manager. Each resource will be under the direction of someone who can monitor its condition and see that it finds the highest and best use.
Before we finish up I’d like you to know that reading this document has been a simple test of your conviction for the project. You passed. To discover who might be inspired enough to help me manage this project I’ve left this paragraph as an “Easter Egg”. To know you’ve found it, please post a comment below starting with, “Interesting…”, then leave your opinion as to its content. Others that have read this far will realize you’ve read it too, but don’t tell anyone else. No need to disrupt their joy of discovery. Upon reading your comment, I or one of these others may gift you some Happy Hearts to thank you for your dedication in this effort. Now for the final part:
The Zen of the Deal
The most common question I used to get asked about PermaBurn was, “What’s the deal?” People wanted to know what it cost, and what they got for that $200. This, of course, reflects our expectation of a ticket and a transaction, quid por quo. At Mud Bluff, the deal is a paradox. There isn’t one.
Instead of a deal, Mud Bluff is a gift. If you’ve been invited to Mud Bluff, simply relax, explore and seek the nature of what you might wish to express. This may involve art, gardens, music, landscaping, dance, food, construction or things I haven’t imagined.
Find your gift, contribute only as you are inspired. Be the change you wish to see at Mud Bluff.
No Requirements, Few expectations
One of the nice things about Burning Man is that once you arrive, there are no requirements, and few expectations. Sure, there’s honoring the Burning Man principles, but beyond that, you can pretty much do what you want. It’s one reason for the profound sense of freedom that permeates the experience. And it’s one of the more important aspects I wish to capture with this project.
There are no requirements and few expectations at Mud Bluff. Any gifts are freely given, without recourse and without refund. Nor is there any expectation that you’ll continue to provide that gift. The amount you give will reflect your interest, conviction, and participation at that moment. The only expectation is that you will let Mud Bluff Principles guide your actions.
As for structure and control, I’ve defined a hierarchy of titles reflecting participation as measured by virtual Happy Hearts. This too may change at any time. These titles do not indicate any particular rights. They only help channel communications and control, which ultimately flows from the land and the Trust. These roles are not a requirement. The management effort too, is a gift freely given. If you take on a role, there will be the expectation that you will perform that role in good faith and to the benefit of all who participate.
This structure provides the freedom for you to be the change you wish to see at Mud Bluff. If you wish to see more development, you may choose to contribute more time and resources. You may then be offered a role in the development. If you wish to do less, that is fine too.
All gifts to Mud Bluff must be gifts freely given. There are no refunds and no recourse. A gift is where a gift economy starts. The gift can be in the form of cash, property or effort. Contributions can be formal or casual. But not all gifts are accepted. Only gifts that will benefit the project will find a place at Mud Bluff.
Yes, it’s possible that a few Burners won’t bring anything, but as long as they are a small minority they won’t eclipse the generosity of the majority. And in time their Happy Hearts will decline as they are burned in memory of their experience. When the count of Happy Hearts reaches zero, they may then be asked to leave. Or not.
We need to find that sweet spot between cash and effort, giving and self-reliance, sharing and selfishness. This requires the freedom and flexibility to explore.
Anyone may apply to be a Guest of Mud Bluff. Simply post your vision for the project on our FaceBook group. Leads or higher may then review and Generously Include by gifting you a number of Happy Hearts. You will then receive an email with login and password to your personal page. Come to Mud Bluff and express yourself.
Guest may remain at Mud Bluff for as many days as they have Happy Hearts in their account. As a type of demurrage, one of these Happy Hearts is metaphorically set on fire each night at sunset and becomes a virtual “Flame”. These Flames will also be used as a management metric. If a Guest’s Happy Heart count falls to zero, they may be asked to leave Mud Bluff. Or not.
Guests may participate in the casual gifting of performance, goods, or services, but not formal gifting to the Trust. That is reserved for Artists or above. This means Guests may bring things to share, work on projects, or Radically Express themselves in any way they choose. If others enjoy these gifts, they may show their appreciation by giving that Guest more Happy Hearts. Or not.
Yes, this is a popularity contest of sorts, but only those who hold little conviction for the project are likely to run out of Happy Hearts. This makes them self-selecting. If you enjoy sharing your gifts at Mud Bluff, it’s likely you will be appreciated by someone who will Generously Include you with more Happy Hearts until you become an Artist, and can formally contribute.
An Artist is any Guest who has accumulated more than 400 Happy Hearts and Flames.
Artists may make formal contributions to the Trust in amounts greater than $1,000. These contributions may optionally be allocated to specific projects or resources. The Trust may give Happy Heart tokens in recognition of these gifts. Or not. Even for the Trust, giving Happy Hearts is optional, and the number may vary widely.
These additional Happy Hearts may be dedicated to the Artist’s time at Mud Bluff and become virtual Flames, or optionally gifted to others to create Generous Inclusion.
Artists may also Casually Include a couple of Guests for a couple of days, no Happy Heart gifting required.
A Lead is an Artist who has accumulated at least 4000 Happy Hearts.
A Lead may nominate one new Guest each per thousand Happy Hearts and Flames in their account. The Lead Generously Includes someone and then guides their experience at Mud Bluff until they become an Artists or all of that Guest’s Happy Hearts have been converted to virtual Flames and they have been asked to leave. Leads may also propose and take responsibility for minor art projects not involving concrete.
A Manager is a Lead who has accumulated at least 40,000 Happy Hearts.
A Lead may be asked to manage a resource at Mud Bluff. Or not. Managers may propose and take responsibility for major art projects involving concrete.
A Director is a Manager who has accumulated at least 80,000 Happy Hearts.
A Director may be asked to be on the board of Capitalist Art. If not, they will be a Director without portfolio. There will always be an even number of Directors on the board. In case of a tie, no action is taken.
A Trustee is a Director who may be asked to see that the trust is executed in the interest of the participants. There will always be an even number of trustees. In case of a tie, no action is taken.
OK, what’s with all the casual exception at the end of these descriptions? Just that – casual exceptions. “Or not” is there to remind us, these are not transactions, terms of a contract, nor rules. They are not even Mud Bluff Principles. Titles are only a way to loosely link participation and contribution with control.
The land belongs to the Trust. In most ways, we are all simply Guests of Mud Bluff. Any of us may be asked to leave at any time for any reason. Though rare, this remedy needs to remain available to the Trustees, as it would for any host.
So where does authority come from? Ultimately, and because the Mud Bluff property is part of Churchill County in the State of Nevada, authority flows from those Trustees whose names are on the deeds.
Within the bounds of Mud Bluff authority generally flows from the hierarchy of participants, and occasionally from the Trustees if an issue is escalated to that level. Issues may be resolved based on what is best for those who participate in the project.
Mud Bluff is a private Burner retreat and art park near Lahontan Dam in northern Nevada. It’s comprised of 116 acres and a thousand feet of the Carson River as well as various elements of infrastructure and art.
Anyone may propose a project or other form of participation in our FaceBook group.
These proposals may inspire Generous Inclusion from those already participating. This inclusion will take the form of Happy Hearts, which are an invitation to participate at Mud Bluff. A personal page on our website will also be provided for those invited to participate.
How you contribute at Mud Bluff will help determine if others gift you more virtual Happy Hearts.
Once you accumulate 400 virtual Happy Hearts, you become an Artist and may then make a formal contribution to the project of greater than a thousand dollars. Or not.
If you do, the Trust may give you more virtual Happy Hearts, and/or others may also give you more virtual Happy Hearts over time.
Once you accumulate 4000 virtual Happy Hearts, you become a Lead and may sponsor others to be included at Mud Bluff.
As you acquire more virtual Happy Hearts, you may be asked to take on more responsibility and manage more resources at Mud Bluff as a Manager, Director or Trustee.
In time, your virtual Happy Heart metrics should come to reflect your participation at Mud Bluff.
Bring what you need, share what you can.
I realize Mud Bluff will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re interested, I encourage you to join us on one of our open weekends to experience the project. You may be inspired to participate. There are no requirements nor expectations other than honoring our Mud Bluff principles.
If we each give more than we take, we will all live in abundance.
This document, along with the project in general, will continue to evolve. So far it represents the change I’d like to see at Mud Bluff. Hopefully, we will see the vision of others played out on this canvas. How will you contribute?
Be the change you wish to see at Mud Bluff.