27 January 2006

Is Burning Man Having An Identity Crisis?

Cross-posted from Tribe.net

The Burning Man Organization has been commonly abbreviated as "BMorg" for some time now. The term is concise and non-judgmental. It is easy to remember, type and speak. It clicks immediately with almost all that hear it.

In my recollection, the term "BMorg" first was used by Chicken John and the organizers of the "Borg 2" experiment. For the record, I have never heard the term "BMorg" used derogatorily. BMorg has become an affectionate title, an appropriate, fitting and respectful meme for the Burning Man community to reference the organization.

Even the Burning Man website uses the term BMorg: to wit.

So why would anyone have an issue with the term? Apparently the organization itself feels that way. I'm told from insiders that BMorg hates the term "BMorg".

So what to do?

What do you succinctly call a company that produces the Burning Man? How about: BM-LLC? BM-Co? BM-Inc? Technically, the correct title should be "BRC-LLC" because Burning Man is produced by the Black Rock City Limited Liability Corporation.

Even Larry Harvey comes to this conclusion when the topic of BMorg arose: "Yet we could not agree among the six of us, and we're the founders and directors of this enterprise. People switched back and forth several times. Finally, it degenerated into farce. We found ourselves trading honesty for integrity. Courage walked the plank in order to make room for charity. Just to throw a spanner in the works, my candidate was "fun" (no one had the heart to take it off the list). In the end, our facilitator's writing pad was covered with a scribbled palimpsest of words, phrases, under linings, elisions: an indecipherable welter of ideas, all crowded together, like renters in a cheap tenement building. We simply couldn't agree."

Maid Marian prefers the term "Burning Man Project."

Now, "project" is a noble word, suggesting something bigger than Burning Man the event, bigger than Burning Man the Corporation, or even bigger Burning Man the Community. It suggest synergism, collectiveness, the growth of artistic expression and human potential. It's right up there with other notable projects including:

  • Manhattan Project: Developed the first nuclear weapon
  • Project Apollo: Landing a man on the moon
  • Human Genome Project: To map the human genome
  • Experience Music Project (EMP), an interactive music museum located in Seattle
  • SETI: Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence
  • The Linux Project: a free Unix-type operating system
  • Polaris missile project: an ICBM control system
  • The TWINKIES Project: Featuring a variety of scientific experiments on this popular snack food.

As defined by Webster's, a project is "something undertaken, especially something requiring extensive planning and work: enterprise, undertaking, venture. See work/play."

The Burning Man Project. "See work/play." That makes sense. It works to describe the significant efforts the BMorg undertakes. But it doesn't describe the organization itself. But that is ok, since we already have a perfectly fine meme for that. The project is larger than the organization.

The title "Burning Man Project" suggests there are numerous groups, organizations, energies and individuals who come together to make Burning Man what it is. The Black Rock City LLC is one part of that whole. A necessary part indeed, but still a part.

To that end, to adopt that term exclusively to solely represent the Black Rock City LLC is insulting to me because it minimizes my personal contribution and those of thousands of other artists and volunteers who contribute to the event in the form of labor and content to the Burning Man event. The sum of the project is greater than its parts, and each individual part is due its appropriate respect.

According to Wikipedia: "A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service. Temporary means that the project has an end date. Unique means that the project's end result is different than the results of other functions of the organization. It can also comprise an ambitious plan to define and constrain a future by limiting it to set goals and parameters. The planning, execution and monitoring of major projects sometimes involves setting up a special temporary organization, consisting of a project team and one or more work teams. A project usually needs resources."

So the organization partakes in and sets the parameters of the project. But this is half the equation. "A project usually needs resources." In other words, the Burning Man Project requires participants. Imagine if a project exclusively consisted of spectators? Could such a project last, or even exist outside of theoretical musings? Every one who participates in the Burning Man Project is a part of it, and the BMorg is one section of the greater participant pie. Mmm, pie! One project pie a la cart please! Forks for everyone!

After recovering from a severe pie coma, I asked my friend Laura, a veteran burner who also happens to be a project management consultant about this. Laura said, "Burning Man itself is not a project, because in theory, it doesn't have an end date, and that is a very important element of any project. In business, people often confuse projects and operational activities. You could consider each individual year of Burning Man as a project made up of activities that lead up to and include the event, and an ending when all the clean-up activities are completed. "BMorg" is definitely not a project. It's a team of resources."

BMorg is a team of resources is aptly put. I don't understand why they object to this title. To that end, I stand by the term "BMorg" to respectfully identify the Black Rock City LLC and it's paid staff as a resourceful, dedicated team that contributes to the event. It recognizes that the community is a separate and vital entity to Burning Man. The BMorg along with the participation of the Black Rock City Community together produce the amazing event known as the Burning Man Arts Festival.
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