A Visit to Burning Man's Fly Ranch
What is Fly Ranch?
It's a 3800 acre property near the playa that hosted Burning Man in 1997 (just a few miles past the turn-off you make every year into Black Rock City), though only for that year, and back when the event was 10,000 people. You can read more about the event in 1997 here if you'd like.
The Burning Man organization has tried to acquire it four times-ish over the past 20 years, finally succeeding this year, with $6.5m in funding completely gifted by wealthy Burners.
The ranch has a diverse ecosystem, with one part of it dominated by swimmable hot springs that are pretty amazing. They're huge! The first thing we did on getting there was to strip off our dusty clothes and hop into the water, which is, I'd guess, between 99 and 101 degrees F. The bottom is delightfully muddy in a good way, and my god it was a pleasure to be there, soaking with other Burners.
Why did they take us out to the ranch?
Our group of 14 (out of about 200 they took out to the Ranch in total during the week) included the regional contact for Burning Japan, artists like Bryan Tedrick who has built things like the giant boar sculpture on the playa this year, a meta-regional coordinator for the Midwestern regionals, someone leading a theme camp whose name I can't recall, me, and so on. It was a pretty diverse group of people in terms of what we do at and around Burning Man.
They explained that though they'd love to invite everyone, it's just not possible, which was clearly evident. There's simply no infrastructure there. There was one temporary shade structure, a couple porta-potties on a trailer, and a wooden pathway/viewing structure around the Fly Geyser. That's it. Plus, there are ecological concerns around the health of the pools and the surrounding grasslands. It's just not set up to deal with a flood of people.
While we were there, they just wanted us to get a feel for the surroundings, in order to get an idea of the kind of property it is, and start the creative juices flowing as regards what we might do with Fly Ranch.
We were also told a few things about their intentions for developing a plan for the ranch...
Why did Burning Man buy Fly Ranch?
Well, interestingly or recklessly (take your pick!), what was driven home to us while there, and what's been further emphasized in private conversations with people in the Org since then is that they do not have a plan for the land yet because they don't feel it'd be in keeping with Burning Man's mission to dictate a plan. Instead, they want to involve the community - us - in figuring out what should happen with it.
There are, however, some concrete reasons to have purchased it. Two, in particular, stand out:
How Can You Help?
Think about all the questions and potential Fly Ranch brings up. We now have a 3800 acre permanent home very close to the Mecca of Burning Man - the Black Rock Desert. Literally, just down the road.
The BMORG plans to take this slowly, and is taking inspiration and advice from multiple groups, like Esalen and the Long Now Foundation, with a focus on long-term thinking, but ultimately, the answers will come from all of us - the Burning Man community.
I have my own thoughts, but I'd really love to hear what you think. The Org seems serious about doing this with heavy community involvement, so let's take put that to the test. I'll funnel your feedback to them and do another post talking about the feedback I got, so please, share what you think.
I don't ask these rhetorically. Please, think about them and leave feedback either in the comments below, or in the reddit thread about it:
Below are some videos and photos I made of the landscape there, to give you a sense of what the portion of the property I visited feels like.
Those white dust clouds across the low mountains in the distance? Yep, that's Burning Man!
You Get What You Give
A lot of drama coming out of the Gerlach Regional (aka Burning Man) this past week. If you missed it, a larger, more funded camp was the victim of vandalism. A lot of finger pointing has been made, but the truth is there isn’t any. No arrests have been made, no motive has been released. Everything you hear is speculation.
What isn’t speculation is a vocal portion the burnersphere has jumped on the opportunity to point the finger at those who have more of the one thing that doesn’t buy anything in Black Rock City (except iced
lattes, of course). I’ve seen richer celebrities blamed for everything from ruining the burn to avoiding the exodus. (I’d also like to point out for you that haven’t been to an airport lately that planes wait in line, too.)
I also sat with a guy on the bus coming in from the airport who wouldn’t have been able to experience the burn (his first) any other way. He lived in South Bay five years, had immediately drunk the Kool-Aid and was finally making the journey.
If you’re sitting at home talking about whether Burning Man is inhabited by the proper ratio of rich and poor people – the have and have nots as I’ve heard them called plenty in the last few days – then you’ve completely missed the point.
Burning Man (and burner culture, which I’ll use synonymously from here out) isn’t about what you have, it’s about what you bring. I’ve seen huge contributions this year from those with very little, and clever, subtler conversations from those who had quite a bit more. Both of which we among my favorite additions to the burn.
Much of the art comes from smaller groups, and even a lot of the bigger art is volunteer based – the majority of those building volunteering. From deep playing pieces to the temple itself, it’s a labor of love.
Many of the biggest camps are out there to create the party. To bring something bigger and better to the burn. One of my favorite things about theme camps, art cars and art pieces is competition to out clever and out do the next piece. To bring the biggest plane, or the lighthouse with the most character.
Burners need only look to their neighbors to set the next bar, which is what we should be doing. This world spends too much time focusing on what we have and what we don’t, lets leave that out of the place where we’re all much closer to equal.
In Black Rock City, or whatever regional you may reside on a given weekend, we’re rich in so many ways that matter so much more – in cleverness, in ideas, in inspiration, in happiness, in love. Remember these are the things that are invaluable even in the places where money exists.
What Really Happened at White Ocean?
Update: Literally minutes after publishing this, someone got in touch saying he is in touch with the folks who did this, and that they'd be willing to answer questions of mine they felt were worth answering. I've sent the questions over.
Update #2: I was put in touch with someone who claims to have been involved in committing the vandalism, but his brief answers provided me with no assurance that he did it, and no way to confirm it. He claims he was part of the build crew for White Ocean in the past, and he and the others who did what they did were angry at the WO management, as I theorized when writing this post in the first place.
Update #3: White Ocean confirms this article was essentially correct. It was an inside job, not some kind of class warfare.
I put out a widespread call for help (from reddit to eplaya to facebook and more) in figuring this out and getting in touch with the folks that did this so understand why and not just infer their reasons. So far, the closest I've come is someone saying he thinks he knows one of the people that did it, and was going to see if he could get that person to talk to me. I've not heard back yet, and will certainly update this or write a new article if I do.
As a side effect of this though, I've discovered a long list of people who feel aggrieved at White Ocean and its organizers. Some of those people I talked to directly, some I only heard about from others in the know. More about that below.
As a result of hearing about the string of disgruntled people they've left in their wake, my operating theory, which is not unique, is that the breathless media reports of 'class warfare' are nothing but kind of lazy attempts to fit the actions into a narrative they want to write about.
I haven't seen or heard a single bit of evidence that would point to burners targeting WO because it's a plug n' play. Further, if they wanted to send a message, why not make it clear? This was an organized attack that was clearly thought out ahead of time, and making their message less opaque was as easy as bringing a can of spray paint along. That's like protest vandalism 101.
Beyond that, I just don't think it likely that the kind of, say, black hat Oakland anarchist that may have once felt compelled to go to these lengths to defend Burning Man's culture is still going, by and large, or would consider 2016 edging-towards-mainstream Burning Man particularly worth defending.
I believe that this was an attack by either contractors (many of whom are/were hardcore burners) that feel jilted by WO or by former campmates upset with either the management of the camp or a another faction in camp.
Let me give you some examples. (I don't think anyone I talked to had anything to do with it - I'm just illustrating a pattern. I should also note that even people who had bad things to say about White Ocean almost always had good things to say too.)
Presumably not his real name, he's a guy who camped with White Ocean in 2015, which was his first burn, but he did so because he had been involved in a VR project that helped White Ocean plan the camp. He volunteered to arrive early and help setup, because good Burner. He posted publicly about his experience. You can read the whole thing a couple comments down in thisreddit thread, but here are some quotes:
"We arrived days early and volunteered to set up. We made immediate friends with those setting up, cleaning, setting up food. They have hired awesome crews." [My note: That includes Thorproductions.com doing at least the soundstage design - which was epic - that year.]
"Then guests started arriving. There was just an evil vibe as soon as that happened. When I found out the place was organized by Russian mafia, I wasn't surprised......We were told to hug anyone we didn't recognize and show them the door."
"We moved onto our next speaker who was a woman that is an artist and a full time employee of the org. She attempted to talk about the 10 principles of burning man and by this time the group wasn't having it. "What can you do at burning man?" "You can be a sex slave!" It was embarrassing to witness."
"There were great people at the camp. Ya, this was the place the San Francisco tech guys bought into, but some were great guys who really wanted to make a connection. I met a Welsh boxer and club owner from New York who was about the most interesting guy I've ever met. We helped a crew of 8 bucketlisters from Texas who were overwhelmed make the event theirs."
"At the same time, there were people who pushed at the food line and getting in line first usually meant waiting a half hour while the goons got their food, drank handles of vodka, and had conversations while the food line was completely stopped. There was bullying(giving out nasty playa names) threats, and fights. The center camp lounge the attendees would toss butts, roaches, or food right on the ground. There were people hired to clean it up."
"A few days in, we were either at other camps or if we were at our camp, we didn't socialize. The crew that assembled the sound camp [Thor Productions] walled themselves in their own camp separate from the white ocean group. I didn't witness fights, but I would have not been surprised had one broken out there, there was a lot of hostility in the camp. I think on Thursday or Friday night, the generator was attacked, diesel was syphoned out and hundreds of gallons drained onto the playa."
Darren and I also chatted briefly privately, and he had this to say about the staff he again highlighted how good the hired help was:
"Second, the staff was top notch. The people that staffed the camp were the best at what they did, from hooking up toilets, keeping it clean, to preparing the food. They did their jobs."
I didn't get a chance to talk to the folks at Thor Productions (had a call set, got cancelled, and we never managed to reconnect), but my understanding from someone who runs a soundcamp and knows Thor & crew well is that Thor Productions is still owed money from White Ocean for that work. (I'm not accusing or even suggesting anyone with Thor's reputable crew was involved, just using it as a datapoint in establishing a pattern.)
Michael "Sweatshop" Eakin
Michael runs, with his crews, kitchens for different camps on the playa, ranging from 50-200 people. The TL;DR is that he says he never got paid what he was owed, and it drove him out of his small business.
"I was hired by White Ocean in 2014 to provide kitchen services for their setup and breakdown crew, as well as all the camp attendees. I budgeted out $32,000 for our time, travel food and rental fees. everything but 5,000 was paid up front and the rest being promised at the end after services rendered."
"First off, I was promised yurts for me an my crew. That was not delivered, we all slept in our tents that we luckily brought as back up. "no complaints" but right from the get go they were not providing what was promised."
"In the end, my crew and I provided all the services promised to a smashing degree of success. Even had Paul Oakenfold [big DJ that is part of White Ocean] raving about the quality of food provided and asking to have me come hang out for the night to talk shop."
"Even after all the success and good times, they were still unable to pay me the last $5,000. I had Timur Sardarov [one of the owners - son of a Russian billionaire] on the phone telling me he would put the money directly into my bank.. sent him my account info.. nothing.. still 2 years later.. nothing... I had rental fees go to collections.. workers not paid and still angry. And when all was said and done that amount put my catering company out of business.. When the dust had settled, I am now in debt over $9,000 with late fees, interest rates etc. and I had to sell my company just to re-coup that money."
"Oh and they won best soundstage and art installation.. got a big medal from Burning man... for real... but the people who built the camp and stage... are not white ocean.. they are hired help.. SO white ocean doesn't feed a bunch of burners or bring this awesome state of the art stage.. they just throw money at people who can bring those things....then they throw their label on it and call it their own."
"Also in regards to disgruntled workers.. I know the year I was there, at least 10-15 people were very unhappy with what was happening.. "
"Promises were made by middle management.. the people that were hired to run things and hire workers. But once upper management arrived everything changed the way they wanted... so the people that had been onsite for a week building all of this all of a sudden were getting kicked out of yurts and being put on the bottom rung of things."
"There were 2 people in particular that left the camp mid week because of the amount of social abuse they felt they were taking."
"Shit on Monday and Tuesday beginning of the week I was so upset that I was considering jumping in my box truck and taking all the food to a different camp and giving it all away."
"And its all really disappointing in all honesty, cause I really liked Oliver Ripley [with Timur, the co-owner] and Timur didn't seem like a bad guy... it's just that they are on such a different level of living that these are all small time problems to them... they wipe their ass with 5,000 but to me that shut my business down. They just don't understand that."
"That doesn't change the fact that I still believe that they deserved what happened to their camp this year. cause they obviously have not gotten any better since I was there 2 years ago."
I talked to a couple other people as well - one who camped with White Ocean this year and one who worked for it as part of a crew he asked me not to name. Neither wanted to be identified. The former cited the belief that the Russian mob is involved and the latter just didn't want to be known as someone who might talk badly about those who hire him.
"The jerk factor in this camp was through the roof. Also, lots of people seemed to have barely even heard of Burning Man before coming, they knew so little about it." - the camper.
"The food was incredible though and I found some other burners on my wavelength to hang out with." - the camper
I unfortunately managed to delete the email I was writing to myself when taking notes with the former worker, but his feedback boiled down to being a multiple-year burner who felt he was treated very poorly by some of the management (don't know which ones) and some of the guests, though he did say that he ended up having a great time in off-hours with other of the guests. Like I said, everybody I talked to had at least something positive to say about their time at White Ocean.
There were a lot of people to potentially talk to, but without any evidence to the contrary, I don't think it's hard to take an educated guess about what happened.
Look, I'll be honest: I don't really like White Ocean as a camp (I don't know the management at all - they might be wonderful people, I have no idea). I don't like plug n' play camps that make it easier for bucket listers who don't give a crap about our community and culture to show up, because every one of those that comes means someone who may be more invested in it can't come. I don't care how rich you are, or how luxuriously you burn. Knock yourself out, though I also don't care how big a soundstage you bring - it doesn't get you a pass from me, at least, on trying to participate in our culture. It is very possible to put on a big, awesome show without resorting to running a hotel for Burners. Look at Opulent Temple for an excellent example there.
Anyway, for the love of dust, act like you give a shit about where you are (hint: it's not a music festival with a VIP section). Put a little work in. Sweat a little. That struggle to get to and live in the Black Rock Desert temporarily is part of the anvil on which our culture was forged and continues to be shaped. Burning Man wouldn't be Burning Man if it was held at a hypothetical Four Seasons resort capable of accommodating 70,000 people. It might be something else wonderful, but it would be something else.
Finally, with my bias out of the way, I think this story is actually pretty boring. Like many people, my first thought on hearing of it was framed by the narrative I kind of want: A community willing to defend its culture, even if I can't condone the specific actions taken here.
But that's just sensationalism unless there's some kind of confirmation. The people I talked to above all said they are aware of many others who are upset with White Ocean.
What's more likely, in light of the trail of upset people WO has left behind: Burners making an amorphous political statement (without even leaving an explicit statement behind), or some pissed off Burners taking personal revenge on people they had a falling out with? Between the upset contractors, the fights within the camp, the bullying, etc it just seems like a camp primed to have a bit of an implosion.
In other words, it's almost certainly just an intra-camp dispute writ large due to the scale of the camp. Mildly interesting, but that's about it, and barring dramatic new info, I'm done thinking about it.
P.S. Is the Russian mafia involved in their camp? I don't know, and I don't really care. Maybe? Just because one of the owner's father may be involved in said mob doesn't mean the camp is. Certainly, a lot of people tell me it is, but it seems to be mostly hearsay. I doubt they go around wearing, "I M Russian Mob" nametags.
Bowie was one hell of a rebel, and I'm positive he would have loved Burning Man's combination of outrageous style and music. His death hit me hard - he seemed nigh-immortal in some ways, and he went too soon. I miss his presence in the world, though am glad it's able to live on so strongly through his music.
I was particularly thrilled to get the ok to talk about this because I've also been working on a Bowie tribute using Burning Man footage from this year, and it's complete as well!
Anyway, hope you enjoy my video tribute to him.
Rest In Peace, Mr. Bowie. You will be missed.
On another note, thank you to David Best and the entire Temple team for a gorgeous Temple this year. Amazing.
I'm Dr. Yes. I run this site, lead a theme camp called Friendgasm, and make Burning Man videos. Just say yes, folks, and help keep Burning Man weird!