The Flipside has Austin and the rest of Texas feeling the burn. Not in reference to sparking wildfires, but instead to a community that is built upon the most outrageous in creative expression and mutual respect. Burning Flipside, established on the principles of Burning Man, is a regional art and music festival held each spring along the San Gabriel River in Central Texas. The Flipside Warehouse, located in the artistic mecca that is East Austin, is a site of cooperation and aesthetic ingenuity as artists and musicians make preparations for the next gathering to be held in the Lone Star version of the Playa. An interview with the founder of Burning Flipside and Burning Man Austin Regional Contact, George Paap, St. Tiki himself, further reveals the dynamics and driving forces of this year round community composed of both the burning effigy and Austin cultures.
Austin Culture Examiner: What inspired you to bring the principles of Burning Man to Texas and create this event and community?
George Paap: I attended my first Burning Man in 1997. It pulled me out of a two year deep depression and inspired me by the freedom, creativity and tolerance that I experienced. That year the gate money was seized to pay an increase in the fire and protection fees. Via the Playa bulletin board, I contacted Burning Man about hosting a benefit fundraiser at my home in Austin.
In Oct. 1997 I was in San Francisco for a conference and had dinner with Harley, the head of volunteers for Burning Man. She mentioned the LLC was thinking about establishing regional contacts for the organization, shortly afterwards I became the first Regional Contact for the Burning Man Regional Network, now with a global network of more than 150 contacts.
While at Burning Man I enjoyed a theme camp called the Fern Grotto, which had a couple of dozen fern plants and misters in a beautiful atrium. They had started as an Oasis theme party in the Mojave desert before moving to Burning Man. I had my own theme party, Tiki Fest, which had outgrown my back yard. I knew the owner of a campground and decided to organize our own BM inspired event to recreate the atmosphere and freedom of Burning Man, but here in a local setting.
I recruited people at Eeyore’s Birthday Party and we organized over happy hours at the Dog and Duck. The first year, 1998, our event had 30 people. The first event named Burning Flipside in 1999 drew about 150, now we sell out at 2,470.
ACE: How have you managed to maintain a fully volunteer- run arts festival and community? Have any challenges presented themselves with this sort of structure?
GP: Most participants, after attending the event for the first time, are inspired not only to attend again, but get more involved in creating the event itself. This is the result of the Burning Man cultural principles that stress personal responsibility, community, and participation.
An empowering organizational principal is that of a “Do-ocracy”. Individuals are expected to choose roles and tasks and execute them rather than expecting someone else to do it. As a result, if you want to complain or criticize you are expected to not only provide a solution, but volunteer to lead efforts to fix it. Those that do the most have the greatest stake in how things are run. This has created a very empowered and responsible community which can address problems without excessive management or hierarchy.
The primary problem we face is volunteer burnout, usually from over committing in their second or third year of volunteering. For some of our most critical leadership roles, we encourage mentorship of new leaders so that succession is easier. We have had 15 different members of our LLC and more than 50 different members on our advisory board, The Combustion Chamber, and hundreds of volunteers. Some have also volunteered at Burning Man, providing experience from a much larger scale event.
ACE: How do you feel Burning Flipside parallels both Burning Man and Austin cultures?
GP: Since the 1960s there has been a close connection between the art, music, and social movements of San Francisco and Austin. Burning Man reflects the cultural and creative elements of the San Francisco’s art and music scene, its highly technical workforce, as well as social awareness.
The Burning Flipside community mirrors the culture of both cities: socially aware, politically active, cutting edge technology, diversity of arts and media. progressive. Austin flavors our community with its independent and libertarian spirit, laid-back sense of hospitality and friendliness, outstanding BBQ, and love of the weird. Our leaders, organizers, and volunteers have also been involved in the organization of Eeyore’s Birthday Party, SXSW, Art Outside and numerous other art and music events throughout the year. We are active participants in creating and maintaining Austin’s culture.
ACE: What sort of relationship does Burning Flipside have with national Burning Man organization and how did Burning Flipside participate this past event?
GP: The relationship has been formalized over time via the Burning Man Regional Network, consisting of Burning Man Regional Contacts, Meta-Regionals, and the Burning Man Project. Yearly we sign a letter of agreement regarding our responsibilities, and adherence to Burning Man’s guiding ten principles.
For an event to be an “Official Burning Man Regional event” it needs to meet requirements for following the 10 principles, along with responsible management, fiscal transparency, insurance, safety precautions, and planning. This preserves the integrity of both events. The relationship is documented at: http://regionals.burningman.com/index.html
Flipside participants volunteered in all aspects of the Burning Man organization: Rangers, Gate, Perimeter, Department of Public Works (DPW), Greeters, Medical, Fire Safety, and Playa Restoration to name a few. Volunteering at Burning Man provides tremendous depth in our community’s volunteer experience. In addition to numerous theme camps and art projects, this year the Austin community raised over $15,000 to build and transport Ouroboros, a 20 ft effigy as part of the Circle of Regional Effigies project (CORE). About two dozen builders arrived at Burning Man early to erect Ouroboros. It was our first large scale project since Austin artists designed and built the “Fire of Fires” temple at Burning Man in 2009.
ACE: Are most of the volunteers those who have previously been involved with Burning Man or has Burning Flipside been a gateway to that scene for them?
GP: The event is really a celebration of the community rather than the sole purpose of the community. Most new participants find out about the event through friends and Flipside does provide a gateway to participating at Burning Man. However we have many participants who have never been to Burning Man. Flipside and other regionals such as Myschievia in North Texas provide the entirety of their burner event experience. Often when burners move from another city they look for their local burner community. We have had several participants join our community from Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York for example.
ACE: Why have the space in Austin?
GP: One of the keys to our success is the availability of the downtown warehouse we rent on Austin’s east side which allows long terms storage of our infrastructure and provides a work space for art projects year round. It is funded with Flipside ticket money and we hold weekly social and work events. In addition we hold Fall and Spring Town Halls where we choose our theme, discuss issues and policies, and have live Q&A. Our Combustion Chamber also meets there and its meetings are generally open to the community.
ACE: The website provides support information such as volunteers and funding generated through KickStarter. What other kind of support has Burning Flipside received (monetary or not)?
GP: Flipside is funded entirely through ticket money to the event. This funds the event infrastructure, transportation, equipment, insurance, rentals, central effigy, warehouse and short term lease of the property. Other than the winners of the ticket and sticker design contests, all participants, volunteers and artists must purchase a ticket, including the LLC which organizes it. Culturally this enforces the idea of volunteering for joy of contributing rather than for a form of compensation or entitlement.
Flipside is participant created. Kickstarter has provided an effective means of community fundraising for participant created art. We also used it for raising money for Ouroboros. Participants have also provided support for the community through the donation or lending of tools, supplies, equipment, and know how. We also have participants and volunteers from all over Texas including Dallas, Houston, Denton, Lubbuck and the Hill Country.
ACE: How do you feel the Burning Flipside festival compares to Burning Man (if you feel comfortable comparing the two)?
GP: It is almost impossible to explain the open canvas that the Black Rock desert provides without going there. This year at Burning Man’s temple burn a first time burner came up to me and told me that she was a world traveler and has been to festivals in 35 countries and that nothing was as incredible an experience as Burning Man. The event is truly an international destination for adventure travelers, a re-affirming celebration of life and creativity, and a unique experience on the “Bucket List” of the free spirits, eccentrics, artists, and Bon Vivants globally. I believe there is more creative energy at Burning Man than anywhere else on earth during that week. It is a social, cultural, and creative force with planetary scope.
Burning Flipside is the microcosm to Burning Man. It is living the cultural principles and socially aware practices year round, locally, in a community rich in art, music, and meaning. In the 13 years I’ve been involved in Burning Flipside, I’ve seen teens become adults with kids, parents become grandparents, deaths due to illness, and the wonderful blessings of birth. Indeed it is fitting that Ouroboros was our effigy at Burning Man this year, an ancient symbol of the cycle of life.
Flipside captures the openness and freedom of Burning Man but in an accessible scale where you can know most of the volunteers, organizers, and artists and contribute directly to the ambience and vibe of the event in a personal way. We do attract burners from all over the country, including staff from Burning Man, who enjoy a more intimate event. It is also on an ancient water way, the San Gabriel river, with an old pecan grove, a location of human rest and rejuvenation for hundreds of years.
You can find out more about Burning Flipside and its involvement with Burning Man by clicking the following links:
Core Project Ouroboros Flickr Page