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The Assless Chapel Newsletter #3: Gifting and Decommodification Edition


In 1996, I read a post on an internet bulletin board about something called “Burning Man”. It mentioned some happening in the desert where people ran around naked on acid. Running around naked on acid in the desert with strangers, and presumably, grown women, sounded like much more fun than my weekend plans of running around naked on acid in my friend Danny’s backyard. That is when Danny and I resolved to go to Burning Man.

We didn’t know anything about Burning Man. Burning Man was living its Ten Principles but hadn’t codified them yet. Still, that year was the first year with a theme and it was thought-provoking. The theme was Helco, a large, multinational corporation that bought out Burning Man to monetize it. They even built a large Helco headquarters that they torched while John Law – a founder of Burning Man who later accused Larry Harvey of selling out – ziplined out of as it burned. The theme served to address issues of decommodification. People were into it, with someone opening a McSatan’s as a free McDonald’s-type restaurant.

I’m not sure why Burning Man needed both Gifting and Decommodification as principles, instead of just merging them into one, but I do distinguish between them. Decommodification is more my jam. Everything in the default world is moderated by the great driver of prosperity: capitalism. I love capitalism, but it does wear on our psyches that everything we do is in the context of someone trying to sell us something or us trying to sell something. And our brains get filled every day with stupid-ass advertisements. It really does discourage opportunities to be and to participate.

Interestingly, 1996 was the year that the world-at-large got its first real glimpse of Burning Man in a now famous article in Wired Magazine.

At Burning Man, we get to experience a world where our social interactions are never placed in a transactional context. Our brains are filled with art, not ads. And, yes, we gift and are gifted to. It’s rejuvenating.

Now, I kind of miss the days of barter. I felt that it helped to weed out the mooches and the folks who should be at Coachella, not Burning Man (excuse the judgmental snark – there’s obviously nothing wrong with attending Coachella.) And I worry that a Playa full of people giving away coffee, food and booze is a Playa that requires less self-reliance. But what do I know? I haven’t been for a decade.

And the pendulum seems to be swinging, as the BORG does away with coffee sales and asks theme camps to relax a bit. In any case, one of the things I love the most about Burning Man is that what you DO is never about what you BUY, as it often is in the default world.

Off the Playa, however, it seems we do a lot of commodification and purchasing to make it to Black Rock City. For one, while I love this theme camp and have my heart in it, my interactions with the BORG sure feel like trading labor for an extra shot at tickets. And, of course, there are the rather significant expenses of going to Black Rock City. Not looking forward to paying $6+ a gallon for a full truck and trailer. Ziad and Karine, maybe you know someone in Dubai who could boost crude oil output in late August?

Something I love about gifting are, of course, great gifts. I hate getting all sorts of trinkets-to-be-thrown-in-the-trash from every Burner who would have a drink at our camp. I love the real and meaningful gifts. To be honest, I look back with fondness at my failed attempts at creative gifting as much as those that worked out. One year, I tried to gift a prostate exam. Luckily, no one took me up on it (though one guy with a head full of mushrooms was damn close until his friend took him away.) Another year, I tried to gift paparazzi experiences. We’d rush up to people and take pictures and yell about how famous they were. Usually, it worked well and sometimes we found interesting collaborations with theme camps. But sometimes we scared the shit out of people who were, yes, way too high to deal with us. Some poor woman flashed us her breasts and started crying and we spent the next five minutes calming her down and then an hour or so just chilling with her under the beautiful Playa sky.

This year, of course, will be the apex of my Burning Man gifting experiences. To gift Playa weddings is a dream come true. Since the greatest gift I’ve gotten on the Playa was a surprise Playa wedding – organized by my friend Danny mentioned at the top of this newsletter – it seems eminently appropriate. I cannot express how special this whole opportunity is.

This chance to give in such a meaningful way reminds of me of another experience in 1996. I was staying at Tzvika’s house for much of the summer. One night, our friend Rafi was spending the night and I decided to tell Tzvika and Rafi a Zen koan as a bedtime story. I drew it out, but the short version is that a merchant gifts a bunch of jade money to a Zen monk to build a monastery. The merchant is rankled that the monk gives no thanks and shows no gratitude. When pressed on this, the monk responds, “Thankful should be the giver.” Rafi and Tzvika still tease me about this odd (and pretentious) bedtime story. But the lesson holds.


For those in the group who are getting married, I did find an officiant who would be available as a backup, if I don’t get a ticket (but I plan to get a ticket!) It’s just a worst-case scenario plan. In other news, it seems that Kateryna and Kenza will not be joining us this year.


The Desert Arts Preview is coming on June 12th: Watch it and get pumped about the incredible art we’re going to see on the Playa!

A bit of news for transport to the Playa. First, there’s a decent bit of activity on the Spark rideshare board:

Burner express tickets are now available for travel by road and by air:

Also, and this is big news: In June, a new pool of tickets will be available that combine a bus ticket and a ticket to Burning Man.


As I just said, Burner Express will be offering tickets that include a ticket to Burning Man itself. As of now, all I know is that it’s sometime in June and the tickets are called BxB Plus tickets.

In a shameless attempt to worm my way into the hearts of the BORG, I am now volunteering for a Grants Committee that gives grants of financial aid to theme camps. Hopefully, this will count for something when the Directed Group Sales tickets are parceled out.


Well, I’m getting together a comprehensive and well-organized spreadsheet for managing all the planning. I will get it to you next week. Thank you for your patience and sorry it’s taking a while. Then, I’d like to get us all on a Zoom call for introductions and to go over the planning process.


“For it is in giving that we receive.” -St. Francis of Assisi

The Man burns in 108 days.

The Man burning, age 10, Black Rock City, 1996.

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