Game Changers | Co-founder Harley Dubois And Her Burning Man

by Johanne Affricot - Published on 07/04/2016

Who doesn’t know what Burning Man is? In the last couple of years it seems that newspapers around the world have synchronized their editorial calendars to talk about this event. Some of them provide a general overview accompanied with stunning post-apocalyptic images that recall the landscapes from Mad Max or Star Wars.

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(c) Johanne Affricot

Others describe it as a festival where for a week people pursue a life of the most unbridled debauchery. Then there are those who say that it has lost its authenticity and egalitarian ethos and has transformed into a playground for the super rich bosses from Silicon Valley who choose to camp in luxury camps [like Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg] as well as other celebs, more pop and maybe a little less snobbish.

And more recently there are those who say the festival’s lack of diversity is something real that needs to be addressed for a counterculture events that does not reflect the demographics of the [American] population: only a few blacks, Native Americans, Latinos and Asians.

When I went myself, one of the events I attended was “I’m black and I’m on the Playa”. It was a sort of round table discussion where black burners [and some whites] shared their experiences while on the Playa. Informative and very interesting. You can read the point of view from a burner.

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Flavia (left) with Puff Daddy and other burners
Courtesy of Flavia Pertuso

If you’re not familiar with the event, you should know that Burning Man is a one-week event that takes place during the end of August in the Black Rock Desert, – Nevada – where people from around the world gather and create the biggest community living in a temporary city: Black Rock City.

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Courtesy of Burning Man

A community that promotes cooperation, radical self-expression and self-reliance. A city that is the quintessential essence of art and creativity. A place where bartering, gifting and leaving no traces behind them are principles at the base of relations with people and Mother Earth.

These are just a few morsels of Burning Man’s universe and looking at event photos or reading articles can give you only a broad idea of ​​an experience that is  something truly very personal.

Having been there two years ago, I remember that when I got back to Italy I had plenty of questions I wish I could have had the chance to ask those who are behind this event. And, since tomorrow, co-founder Harley Dubois is speaking on the stage of TEDxROME: GAME CHANGERS, I took the opportunity to get those and many other questions answered.

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Campi Camp
Courtesy of Diego Campi

GRIOT: The Leave No Trace principle is one of the core 10 principles of Burning Man. In recent couple of years nearly 70,000 people joined the event. We can say that despite any personal commitment to leaving no physical trace of activity, the environmental impact is something real. What is your role [of Burning Man] in returning the desert to its natural state?

Harley Dubois: I don’t agree with this assumption. Every year we get better at cleaning up the playa and every year our community gets better as well. You know what they say, many hands make light work! If you look at our clean up map, the M.O.O.P. map –Matter Out Of Place – you will see that the community is getting greener annually, not redder.

We have dedicated staff who manage our commitment to the environment and a growing army of volunteers that monitor our progress and successes, not to mention the federal government who inspect annually.

Also, the playa has its own annual cleaning cycle. With the winter rains it scrubs it’s own surface, removing tire tracks and surface disruptions. In the Spring we make another sweep of last year’s sight and it has not gotten any worse year to year since we have developed our own cleaning techniques as long as 10 years ago, ten with our population growth.

If the concern is sound or light pollution, we have had environmental assessments done by outside non-partial professionals, as prescribed and authorized by the federal government and these have been deemed to be non-issues.

There are many reasons why we picked a hard packed alkaline lake bed for our event. Clean up is one of them. Nothing can grow on this surface. In fact, nothing even decomposes on it, so cleanup is relatively easy.

In terms of tourism Burning Man plays a key role on the development of this industry [not only financially], and many states and communities benefit from it. In my case, for example, I travelled through California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona, sometimes camping in beautiful spots, getting back in touch with wilderness and nature, discovering new stunning places. Is your contribution recognized somehow?

I would say this is an area where our federal government and local agencies do not give us enough credit.  We have truly inspired thousands of people to appreciate the outdoors and have respect for its untouched beauty, but we are rarely credited for this in any public or official way.

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California, Big Sur – Pacific Coast Highway
(c) Johanne Affricot
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Utah, Zion National Park
(c) Johanne Affricot

Having said this, from your own experience alone, we don’t seek any acknowledgement of feel the need for it. We are simply happy that we can have a positive impact on people and their appreciation of this beautiful planet.

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California, Yosemite National Park
(c) Johanne Affricot
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Arizona, Grand Canyon National Park

There is no way to describe the experience but to go in person. You cannot separate art from the identity of Burning Man. What’s your relationship with visual and performing arts?

I come from a family of artists and educators. I always thought I was more like my mother, an artist. I went to a high school of performing arts and have a degree in fine arts. I painted for 15 years, before Burning Man took over my life, and I am firmly committed to living a life about art. However, Burning Man gave me the opportunity to see that, like my father, I have skills in administration and teaching that run deep.

My work today combines both aspects of these talents. As City Manager I saw the city layout of Black Rock City as my canvas.

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Cello player live performance
Courtesy of Burning Man
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Trojan Horse
Courtesy of Burning Man
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(c) Johanne Affricot

As we expand out into the greater world we can look more globally at where our flavor of interactive art has an impact in far flung places like China, the Czech Republic or Israel. I started our Global Arts Grant program 12 years ago and we have had an international impact for nearly that length of time.

Which is your favorite art installation?

There are simply too many beautiful pieces to have one favorite. Every year there are amazing pieces and with time my tastes change as well. I also have many friends that are artists and I don’t want to make anyone annoyed with me! My favorite pictures of art inevitably have my daughter in them. She is now 12 and has been to 13 Burning Mans. She was very present in utero before she was born so I count that as being there!

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Courtesy of Harley Dubois

Caravansary was the 2014 art theme; Carnival of Mirrors was last year’s theme; Da Vinci’s Workshop is this year’s theme. Where do you draw inspiration from for the choice of the themes?

My friend and colleague, Larry Harvey, comes up with the themes. He is our philosophic mastermind. He draws inspiration from what he observes, is reading, is happening in the news. He has a unique ability to grab the zeitgeist of the time and put it into the theme.

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Burning Man founders, Courtesy of Burning Man

What. Where. When. As soon as you’ve  finished all the practical stuff [such as queuing to get your ticket if you’ve opted not to receive it directly in the mail], the Burning Man experience starts. You are welcomed by some volunteers at the gate who give you quick information and the “holy guide”, a book with all of the events and programs scheduled to happen over the course of the week. Activities developed by the community for the community. By what criteria are they selected?

Actually, you are given the What Where When guide by the Greeters, who you meet after you have had your last transactional exchange hopefully for a week at the gate, when you give your ticket for entry.  It is the Greeters job to welcome you to Burning Man and help orient you to the experience.

The What Where When is a community resource. It lists all of the activities that the citizens of Black Rock City will be doing that week, that is if you get your submission in early enough! It fills up pretty quickly and some events are left out simply because there is not room and they did not submit their announcement early enough. That is the only criteria for selection. The group of people who set up the infrastructure for Burning Man do not control the content. The people who come to the event control the content. Burning Man is a “Do It Yourself” experience.

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Building the Center Camp Café
Courtesy of Burning Man

It takes approximately 2000 volunteers to build, run, and clean up the city. But it is not only about Black Rock City. Many people get involved in Burners Without Borders, a program of Burning Man Project, that supports volunteers from around the world in innovative disaster relief and community resiliency projects. In your opinion, what are the ingredients that have helped you build this community people want to be part of?

Burning Man inspires people to give beyond themselves. Asking people to bring everything they need to live for a week in a harsh inhospitable desert is the beginning.

Once you arrive you quickly learn that working together with others makes life easier and more enjoyable. This leads to the realization that there is great personal reward in helping others and before you know it you may be helping someone build their art piece or theme camp. Then you wonder why you have to wait for one week out of the year to help others.

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The lamplighters
Courtesy of Burning Man

The work that Burners Without Borders does is very accessible to people. A $25.00 donation goes a long way to help disaster victims because there is no middle man. Generally the work they do is to help others learn skills that will help themselves, and they are often skills or tools that people in a first world country take for granted. It feels good to donate your old phone to refugees from Syria.

This work is the outgrowth from the event in the desert and it is the real work of Burning Man now. The event in the desert is wonderful and inspiring, but the edge of where the real action is for Burning Man is out in the world making change for good. Burners Without Borders is one very important example of what we are doing.

I mentioned the Global Arts Grants already. That is another example of impacts beyond the desert. We know that interactive art develops community, and community will inspire civic mindedness. And civic mindedness will make positive change locally and then globally. Burners Without Borders skips the interactive art step and jumps right to the civic mindedness, but I bet you, anywhere there are Burning Man people helping others within a community resiliency project, they are going to find a way to make art as well. It happens every time.

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Truth is Beauty, by Marco Cochrane Courtesy of Burning Man

You have been a fitness director and a San Francisco fire-fighter. How much helpful have these experiences been in your life as a woman and as the Burning Man City Manager?

Like anyone, I think all of the experiences I had leading me up to my engagement with Burning Man helped prepare me for it. Certainly being a SF firefighter was an intense and impactful experience with knowledge that was directly applicable to life safety concerns at Burning Man. That is where I have put much of my energy the past 10 years. Before that I was building volunteer teams that support the citizens of Black Rock City.

I am pretty well convinced, at this stage in my life (I’m now in my 50’s), that my proclivities associated with my gender were pretty important to the successful development of volunteer teams as well as the delicate balance necessary to allow creativity (with a bit of chaos) and safety simultaneously.

What would you have wanted to do in the past that you could not do?

Well, I have never “been to Burning Man”. Ever since my first year I have worked the event. That year I was serving breakfast to the crew so I have never just been a participant. I am not sure that I would know what to do with myself as a participant!

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Harley Dubois with her daughter and some colleagues

My whole experience has been helping to facilitate other people’s experiences, and I have had the heavy task of being on call for the hardest problems, like a death or bad accident, a fire or severe weather condition like rain (very problematic on an ancient lake bed!). I can’t imagine waking up every morning and walking outside to have the fun and excitement begin. I have been up at 6:00 am and in meetings by 6:30am for a very long time.

What would you like to do for the future?

I would love to do two things:

1. Be rid of the silly misconceptions about Burning Man that still permeate the common impression of it. We are not a music festival. We are not even a festival! We don’t sell anything, there is no main stage or entertainment that we are promoting. There isn’t any food or drink to buy. There aren’t any more drugs at Burning Man than you would find in any city.  There are not so many naked people, and we are family friendly.

2. See more people attend our global events that are operating with our same 10 principles. Don’t get me wrong, most of these events are already as large as their communities can support, but there is still this misconception that “Burning Man” happens in the Black Rock desert. Not true. Burning Man is a philosophy and it is happening all around the world. You don’t have to come to Nevada to experience it.

What message would you send to first-timers and veterans?

First timers – This experience is more about you than you think. Leave behind your expectations and bring your authentic self.

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Temple of Grace
(c) Johanne Affricot
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(c) Johanne Affricot

Veterans – What are you doing in your communities at home? Share that with us. We want to know and be your biggest supporters.

In your opinion, what does it mean to you to be a game changer nowadays?

I think people need/want to be  woken up/shaken up so they can evaluate what their options are in life. Being a game changer means giving people this opportunity.  It can come in many forms and will resonate with varying individuals differently, so variety is a necessity.

Would you consider yourself to be a game changer?

We have been changing people’s lives for 30 years. It wasn’t our intention in the beginning but it happened anyway.  Now to many people we are the establishment in this realm and we mentor these sort of impacts that Burning Man does. I am a humble facilitator of our process. My identity and ego is not wrapped up in this, but my passion and love of art, learning and happiness is.

Harley K. Dubois is speaking at TEDxROME | Game Changers, on April 9, 2016, Roma, Italia

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Johanne Affricot
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Visual and performing arts, culture and music, traveling: I could just live on this. Graduated in International Cooperation and Development, I am an indipendent Culture Curator and Producer, and Artistic Director of GRIOTmag and Spazio GRIOT.