What Is It About Burning Man?


This was the playa gift I gave away at Burning Man 2016.

What Is It About Burning Man?

Why does Burning Man sell 30,000 tickets in the first 30 minutes they’re on sale?

Why do people value this experience so much?

It’s not the playa, which is a blank slate. It’s not the sparkle pony costumes, or the accommodations. You could have the same camping experience in a much more hospitable environment. And you can see the same kind of wild costuming almost anywhere in the Bay Area. It’s not just the art. If it were just that, our museums would always be packed. It’s not even the sense of community, although that is a strong part of the draw for many. Most of us belong tosocial groups in other parts of our lives.


It’s this:

At Burning Man, you are in the world of artists, people making art. Burning Man was conceived by artists, for their own pleasure and for the entertainment of each other. It’s not the products these artists give us, the art itself, that is so compelling. It’s being in the milieu of the people who make it.

Burning Man has been, since 1990, a philosophical, cultural, and visual Da Vinci’s Workshop—artists working together to make the civilization of their dreams.

What Is It About Artists?

People love being in artistic environments without even knowing why. There are many reasons—including some I haven’t thought of yet. Here are a few:

Artists are completely authentic. They have to be themselves, absolutely original. They don’t want to be like anyone else, which makes it fine for everyone to be themselves in their company.

In the world of artists, there is something more important than money. They need it to survive in the world, so they have to think about it. But they are much more concerned with creating a thingyou will love.

The artist’s greatest desire is to produce the music, book, painting, sculpture, or performance that will completely wow you. People in the arts have always been part of the natural gifting economy.

With half of artists’ minds in the practical world, and half lost in the realm of what no one has ever seen, heard, or read before, artists have little bandwidth left for conventions. Unconventional environments let everyone relax, because there are no expectations.

Watching an artist work triggers creative impulses, as we anticipate their next moves.

There is a buzz in the air of artistic communities, all those minds concentrating on things that are new, moving, powerful, and original.

And, in this age of mass and robotic production, the bespoke is increasingly an object of desire. For artists, every work is one of a kind.

For these reasons and more, people are drawn to places where artists live and work. They want to be in the presence of the creative buzz. Every great city district famous for its artists has become a highly desirable place to live, and as a result, few artists remain. Think Montmartre, Greenwich Village, Mitte—and in San Francisco, NorthBeach, the Mission, SOMA, or the Haight.

As artists are displaced from the districts they made fascinating, they take with them those qualities that make tickets to Burning Man so valuable: authenticity, originality, generosity of spirit, and unconventionality.

 People have always loved the milieu of artists and wanted to be part of thoseplaces. The most prestigious men’s club in the country, The Bohemian Club, was started by a group of artists and writers for themselves. The club, and its Burning Man equivalent, the Bohemian Grove, now only has famous artist members— or associate members invited to join because, for example, the string quartet needs a viola player.

Cities full of artists, like Black Rock City, compel us, entertain us, and inspire us. Cities devoid of artists suffer. They’re less relaxed, more divisive, and more combative, as we see now in the city of San Francisco.

 On the other hand, when a city has a large and diverse community of people in the arts, every day contains the essence of the Burning Man experience. Towards this end, I’ve started a nonprofit, Bohemia Redux, to provide artists’ live/work spaces and venues in the city.

As a native San Franciscan, I grew up in a culture of artistic innovation. In my lifetime, a dozen art movements flourished here. The last great development in the arts here was Burning Man, which was planned, in the early years, in my living room.

 As the city has grown more expensive, artists have been priced out or evicted. It’s been international news, especially in countries that value what artists do and give them stipends. We replaced our artists with different kinds of innovators, but we’ve also taken something vital away. Bohemia Redux wants to fix this.

.The “social fabric” is a subtle, organic thing. Each player has a role, and what artists do is keep people sane. There are reasons we’re attracted to the places artists come together. Why we come to Burning Man. It only makes sense to provide affordable places for artistto live, work, and play, making the rush of being at Burning Man accessible every day.

 It is up to nonprofits and philanthropy to do this. Fortunately, the Bohemia Redux project is good for everyone. The city benefits from the fix of an international scandal. The artists get to return to the city that Inspired them. And for philanthropists, there are the evident tax advantages, prestige, goodwill, and a profit on the investment. This is a high social impact project that will receive a lotof international interest.

 This is how the Bohemia Redux project works:

 We encourage those who need to show losses for tax purposes to buy a building and lease it to the nonprofit at a nominal rate. At the end of 10 years, when the tax benefit ends, the nonprofit buys the building for a pre-arranged price.

 We particularly want buildings zoned residential and commercial. Commercial spaces provide venues for residents’ work and other businesses that contribute to the nonprofit fund.

 If you would like to see the business plan, or get involved in this project, please contact me:

P Segal

mspsegal (at) gmail (dot) com


Cover art: Lizzy Layne


Glass: Jave Flame Glass

javisima (at) gmail (dot) com































The Artist in the Age of Automation



Human history has come to this: for the first time since the dawn of man, work is disappearing as an inevitable part of life. Automation has replaced people already in many jobs, like receptionists and factory workers. Self-driving trucks are already on the road, and machines can now do things we thought would always be human tasks, like anesthesiology, surgery, sports reporting, and investment analysis. Many of our highest paid professions will soon be extinct.


As humans are replaced in the workforce, the idea of Universal Basic Income seems inevitable. Instead of dozens of government programs designed as a safety net for job loss, disability, poverty, and other problems, everyone might get a check each month, just for being a citizen. The machines do the work we used to do, and we get to do what we wish with our cash.


Canada, Scandinavian countries, and European countries are already testing Universal Basic Income. A Silicon Valley group is doing the same, and everyone is speculating what will happen when people suddenly have money, free of labor or the stigmas associated with welfare. Everyone gets the same amount, rich or poor—but as theorists and researchers are documenting, the same check has infinitely more value to those at the bottom of the economic ladder.


Everyone is also wondering what will happen when people suddenly don’t have to work. Some argue that it will turn people in couch potatoes, but studies are showing that it actually does the opposite—it enables people to do things they value, not things they are forced to do to collect a paycheck. It would not be enough money to finance a luxurious lifestyle, and people will always be looking for ways to have more income. Research suggests that many are inclined to start their own businesses. People will always feel a desire to work, somehow, because what we do is a major part of our personal identity. As Freud told us, everything in human life comes down to two things: love and work.


When paying work no longer defines us, and we can pursue work we love, how many people will use a universal basic income to create? Creativity comes in so many forms, and in the business world, that creativity has invented the things that are making work unnecessary, a brilliant creative strategy. But now that we have the machines that can replace us, how will humans adjust?


For a while, there may well be a dissonance, as our previous, work-related identities fade away, and we need to reform those identities in some meaningful way. I’m envisioning a new world where many, many people turn to acts of creation, not necessarily of fine art, but the making of things. When an automated world produces everything, there is sudden intrinsic value in things made by human hands. Value is always a function of scarcity.


Making things already captures the popular imagination, as we’ve seen in the rise of the Maker Faires and the community that has emerged around them. Without jobs, a lot more people may try their hand at making, to create their own furniture, knit their own sweaters, design gardens, and invent things—and given the opportunity, more people will probably make art.


Producing works of art, even if they don’t meet the critics’ arbitrary standards of greatness, is one of the few processes on earth that demands complete uniqueness. Art is the antithesis of manufactured sameness. Works of art, even if they don’t meet those criteria, are one of a kind, a personal visions we couldn’t see ourselves without it. In a world of robots, the emotionality, passion, and unpredictability—the humanity— of art takes on new meaning, along with those who make it.


It’s a terrible irony that jobs will have to be obliterated before being an artist has value in the American zeitgeist. Art with a capital A is sacrosanct, but there isn’t much concern for unknown artists. In the America I grew up in, people were rarely encouraged to be an artist or writer, professions guaranteed to pay little until fame brought fortune, which it rarely does. Success in the arts has a lot to do with who you know, what the critics say collectors should buy, and the artist’s ability to do the work without crippling financial anxiety. But as the machine made world overtakes us, that made by human hands becomes much more valuable, which does a lot for the social position of the artist. When computers can replace just about everyone in the workforce, except for those who manifest and maintain the robots that make us expendable—and a few other professions—being an artist will have more consequence.


Computers can even replace artists in these turbulent times. San Francisco’s Gray Area, an organization dedicated to the convergence of art and technology, just exhibited a show of art produced by artificial intelligence, Deep Dream. This undeniably beautiful machine-made art certainly has as much passion as we see in the human art of the design age, where something that looks like a 6’ strip of shag carpeting drives critics into ecstasies.


There will no doubt be a trend towards art produced by artificial intelligence, because, for a while, it will be the newest, most unexpected thing. But eventually it won’t be the all that new, and the public taste for something else will draw attention elsewhere. It seems likely that when robots run the earth, what is authentically human will become increasingly longed for. When that day arrives for the human race, we may finally see the age of the artist.






The Executive Summary of the Bohemia Redux Business Plan

Executive Summary

Bohemia Redux is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, created to restore the creative community of artists that gave the city its reputation for being such an artistically creative place. The neighborhoods in San Francisco colonized by artists attracted others who wanted to live in them. As the cost of housing escalated, the emerging, struggling artists who made those districts so interesting were forced to move out. Very few emerging artists still live here.

Bohemia Redux has devised The San Francisco Art House Project, which intends to open about 20 buildings throughout the city for live/work spaces suitable to the various arts, which are zoned residential and commercial. Commercial spaces in the buildings will be used for cafes, galleries, theaters, and stores to sell the work of resident artists, or the services they provide, making the project sustainable. These commercial spaces enable people interact with the community of artists at work, and the income from rents and businesses makes it possible for the project to eventually buy buildings.

This is possible. There are estimated to be between 10,000 and 30,000 residential units in the city standing empty for the purpose of tax loss; but an equal tax benefit is gained when donating the use of buildings at a nominal rent to Bohemia Redux. Donors retain ownership, and realize a profit selling the building when it no longer provides a loss. Donors might prefer to invest in the project’s success and form LLCs with the nonprofit. There are many ways to bring artists back to the city and rekindle its lost bohemian charm.

This project provides an unusual opportunity to study how artists affect the environment around them. We will be working with social scientists to observe this phenomenon from inception. A long-range goal, through the restoration of creative culture and a study of effects, is to raise awareness of the importance of artists in society.

Power and the Artist

For centuries, no one has been able to completely identify the world’s first spoken language, or when it first appeared. But long before humans had adjectives, or much language at all, they made art, and in their cave paintings and other graphic representations, they were able to communicate. This is how you hunt bison. This is what a goddess looks like.


Art is our oldest means of communication. It is also remains the most effective; most of the arts need no translation. They convey emotions, mood, ideas, experience, and visions that are universally identifiable. Art speaks across cultures in a way that no language ever could.

No one is insensitive to the power of an artist’s tools. We know, even academically, that colors, sounds, words, and performances can alter our behaviors and perceptions. Color, for example, has been appropriated by big business to drive consumer behavior. Fast food places are often orange, because it’s a color that makes people want to leave more quickly. Sound changes behavior; train stations in Europe play classical music because they have observed that it reduces incidences of crime. A Japanese study showed that words on containers of frozen water alter the ice crystals; “love” makes the crystals lovely, but “hate” makes them misshapen. In countless ways, the artist’s materials—sound, color, movement, words— move us every day, to act, react, consume, and feel; when skillfully used in the service of art, they move us profoundly. That’s power.

Governments have oppressed artists because their work conveyed, without political debate, attitudes dangerous to their power. The Nazis took away Emil Nolde’s paint brushes, but he made art with cotton swabs. The Chinese government keeps Ai Wei-Wei under arrest or blocks his travel, but his exhibitions outside China continue to voice his criticism.

There is no argument that visual art is powerful and writing can profoundly affect public opinion and feeling. Certainly music affects human behavior, as songs become rallying cries for attitudes and performers initiate a sense of style that moves industry and people. Artistic creation drives change in countless ways.

The arts are powerful in other ways that are less obvious but equally profound. They can give a sense of serenity or spiritual profundity. While this kind of work doesn’t necessarily topple governments or launch fashion trends, it offers solace to a world that needs it badly. While major effects of artistic work depend on how popular they become, and how they are spread through media, local emerging unknowns move smaller audiences in a more personal way.

A good artist has an effect, on a macrocosmic or microcosmic level, through what they produce and what they can teach. And yet, until an artist becomes famous, the population, in general, views the artist as unthreatening to the status quo. A musician, writer, or painter isn’t perceived as a force to be reckoned with when they’re heard, read, or seen by only a few. When fame comes to their door, however, the unthreatening artist becomes a force, speaking to the many. Exposure enables power and making money ensures it.

The unknown artist is a source of power that remains relatively untapped. They are a resource that goes to waste in a culture where the primarily mental stimulant is media awash with violence. We can see, without much trouble, that our culture is broken, when gratuitous killings occur with shocking frequency and every psychological disorder is on the rise. And instead of using the artists’ tools to uplift and mitigate crime, violence, and suffering, we treat our artists as afterthoughts in America, seeing them only as important as their net worth. It’s symptomatic of the wastefulness of our culture, which places power in the wrong hands.

Taipei’s Dream Community: a Brilliant Combination of Business and Art

Gordon Tsai is a Taipei visionary and real estate developer, a generous, glowing, happy man. He has created a complex of high-end condominiums in New Taipei City, which is across a river from the city proper. When he sells an apartment, half the money goes into a foundation, which supports the building in the complex devoted to the arts, the Dream Community.

Every year, the foundation offers residencies to 100 international artists. In the ground-floor work area, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows enabling the public to watch art being made, residents find every tool and material, or they can request what isn’t there. They make things, and many of the works remain, in the buildings or on the street, creating the sense you’re in a museum of modern art. Some artists devote their time to installing fantastic mosaic tile in bathrooms or terraces, or craft extraordinary lamps. There is sculpture everywhere, and people engrossed in a wide variety of creative work.

Gordon Tsai sent me a ticket to visit his place, to get ideas about how art houses could be created, and to discuss some practical ideas about how to make this happen in San Francisco. On a day of torrential rain and thunderstorms, we met in his office to talk things over. He told me that when he built this place, he decided how it would be: people buying condominiums would sign an agreement to attend one major art festival a year, like Burning Man, and understand that their purchase would fund the arts program.

It wasn’t an easy sell. Partners backed out, leaving Tsai to carry out his vision alone. As an ardent fan of pageantry, fine art, and the creative process, he continued to sell apartments, fund residencies, and provide a space for events, performances, and creative ingenuity. He also produces an annual parade for Taipei, The Dream Parade, in which Tsai himself will lead the phantasmagorical procession. This August, Tsai will take 70 members of the Dream Community to Burning Man, where their camp will present a tribute to the ancient Chinese diety, Matzu, goddess of the empty sea.

His days contain five hours of Qi Jong meditation and growing the fruits and vegetables that will feed the artists in residence twice a day. At 12 and 6 every day, Tsai’s “aunties” deliver multiple platters of excellent food to the communal dining room, including the best French fries I’ve ever had. The Dream Community takes wonderful care of its residents, but it also requires that they give workshops to the community and participate in festival performances like the Dream Parade.

Meeting Gordon Tsai reinforced my belief that the world is full of visionaries. He is the living embodiment of a good life that is both successful and providential, and a person who has shared his good fortune in life with artists and the city he lives in. Like me, he believes that artists should not be isolated in “artists’ villages,” but belong in the community, that arts should be a part of daily life.

I have seen many remarkable places in the world, but few have inspired me more. I left Taipei with remarkable advice, which I am currently putting into motion. Perhaps, very soon, the lessons learned in Taipei will bring Art Houses to San Francisco.

This is the artists' building of the complex.

This is the artists’ building of the complex.

A metal tree next to the artists' building entrance.

A metal tree next to the artists’ building entrance.

A robotic sculpture peeks around a corner.

A robotic sculpture peeks around a corner.

The extraordinary Gordon Tsai models a headdress for an event.

The extraordinary Gordon Tsai models a headdress for an event.

A Presentation Made at The Battery, to Encourage Sponsorship of Artists’ Housing

If anything ever described the tremendous allure of San Francisco, it was the phrase “bohemian charm.” Bohemia, the natural milieu of artistic personalities, attracts and romanticizes a place where artists have been, and the allure lingers, like a wraith, after the arty people are gone. What remains are pricey boutiques marketing ersatz bohemia.

You once found bohemia in places like Montmartre, Greenwich Village, and here— in North Beach, the Haight, the Mission, and the Western Addition—places where artists, writers, musicians, and other creative types lived, worked, and paid cheap rent. Those places drew people, magnetically. They were full of creative energy and passion, striving, ideas, craziness, risks, abandon, beauty, and a refreshing post-conventional morality. The bohemian milieu has always been a lure to those caged in a more predictable life, a toe tourists dip in fantasy, or a dose of edge for locals.

Bohemia is a petri dish full of creative potential, experimental. It’s where emerging creative minds struggle on their ways to success; it’s where things start, in the underground. It’s charming because it’s quirky, full of surprises, and full of yearning for greatness. Bohemian charm is the antidote to predictability.

San Francisco has lost most of its bohemian charm because it no longer has a bohemia. There is no underground from which the absolutely novel can emerge. The artists, writers, musicians, and performers who do live here now have either already reached a significant level of success in their careers, be hanging on to their rent-controlled apartment by their fingernails, or they have a full-time job and produce their work in their spare time. Almost all the city’s formerly vibrant creative culture lives elsewhere now: the east bay, north bay, Portland, Detroit, Reno, places where they can live and work inexpensively until they can afford to return here. Artists often need to rent two places, one to live in and the other in which to do their work, no longer possible here when you are beginning a career and battling for recognition in the brutal business of art.

Our culture completely undervalues artists and writers until they are famous. This is the only first world country without an arts secretary on the Cabinet. Most third world countries have one. Our country leaves artists unrepresented, even though they produce the things we love—the books, music, visual arts, performance, theater, dance, film—and events like Burning Man. All those things that give us so much pleasure are the result of individuals struggling to survive in a culture that doesn’t care about them, until they become an investment.

Even beyond the things they create, artists give us a lot of intangible benefits that have not been noted. They are original thinkers who open fresh neural pathways for us. They are, and must be, authentic. They want to give us what pleases, moves, and stimulates us. Watching an artist work triggers people’s untapped creative energies, as their minds seek to “fill in the blanks” of what the artist will do next. They give us beauty, and the songs that articulate the things we can’t. The language of visual art needs no translation.

Any place colonized by creative people becomes cool, and everyone wants to live there. We have all observed this: once artists have filled a neighborhood with bohemian charm, they get priced out. It’s not surprising that the founding members of the Bohemian Club, which is now the province of America’s movers and shakers, were writers and artists.

The former creative hives of San Francisco launched internationally celebrated movements in the arts. In the last 60 years alone, we’ve seen the Bay Area Figurative painters, like Richard Diebenkorn, studying at the Art Institute in the ‘50s with Clyfford Still. Every great jazz musician in the US couch surfed in the Western Addition from the ‘40s through the ‘60s and played in clubs on Fillmore and Divisadero, the Harlem of the West. The Beat Writers of North Beach in the ‘50s and ‘60s, like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, electrified the literary world. Musicians in the ‘60s Haight, like the Grateful Dead, were followed, cult-like, across the nation, and the punk movement disrupted the National Democratic Convention here soon after. The last great art movement to grow out of San Francisco, 25 years ago, was Burning Man. No fantastic movement has sprouted from the native soil since.

My nonprofit, Bohemia Redux, wants to restore the city’s vibrant creative culture that has been flourishing here since the gold rush. We intend to create low-cost artists’ housing all over the city, in buildings zoned residential and commercial. We will fill them with carefully chosen, highly talented people. The overall plan is simple in design. We first acquire buildings suited to each art form. Writers can live in any kind of building, but musicians need a space where there aren’t neighbors close by. Large-scale sculptors need warehouses and filmmakers need studios.

Buildings zoned both residential and commercial makes sustainability possible, in this way: As rents are collected from tenants, they are used to develop businesses suited to each building. A painter’s building would have a gallery, classes, and an art rental facility; a building of writers would have a print-on-demand machine available to the public, a bookstore, and an editing service. A musician’s building would have a recording studio that outside bands could rent, a booking agency, and a performance venue. Every Art House would have a kind of museum store selling things produced by people in all the houses. Every Art House should have a café, where the greater community can enjoy the stimulating rush of bohemia— and perhaps get the chance to help make some art.

Art Houses are surely tourist meccas, and they would replace some of the city’s disappearing concert venues, bookstores, and galleries. They would give hundreds of undiscovered artists places to market their work and be discovered, and cheap rent until they are. They would foster collaborative projects between artistic mediums, and stage unforgettable events.

When small businesses don’t pay San Francisco commercial rents, and their employees are mostly residents, working part time to compensate for cheap rent, they are sustainable and potentially very lucrative. Art House residents make the best employees; they care deeply about places that represent them.

Arty places, being cool, get attention. I know this from personal experience. In 1999, together with 19 artist friends, I opened a restaurant called Caffe Proust for the un-heard of total of $60,000.00. We had no advertising budget at all, but 11 months after opening, we were on the front page of the New York Times Living Arts Section, in full color. We were written about in hundreds of publications on four continents, Were it not for 9/11, we’d still be there.

The Art Houses don’t need expensive alterations; they should be works in progress, beautified by the people who live in them; they should be scattered in every corner of the city. We don’t want to create another hip neighborhood that will soon become unaffordable. We want to make the whole city vibrate with creative energy again. We want to put something very real and constantly original in every neighborhood.

Art Houses are not havens for poseurs and wanna-be artists. These are not for art students, but for serious, working artists, struggling to put out high quality work. They’re for adults, giving tenants as much privacy or opportunity for interaction as they need to thrive. The success of art house businesses depends on the quality of the work they offer, so the residents have to be talented. A cheap place to live in San Francisco is like winning the lottery. We’ll be able to pick and choose the hottest, finest, and most philosophically attuned candidates for this project, and give the energy of their presence to the people of San Francisco.

As a native San Franciscan, and a therapist, I’ve seen cases of anxiety, depression, and alienation rising in an almost direct correlation with the loss of creative culture. We have thousands of arts organizations here, plenty of public art, and endless opportunities to see it. We have the vestiges of the artistic process, but very little of the process. In examining what artists give to the society around them, I’m increasingly convinced that we need artists around. This project intends to work with social scientists to observe changes in neighborhoods when the artists come back, in potent centers of artistic innovation, in pockets of bohemia.

Unlike a lot of horrors of the society we live in, this is a problem that can be easily fixed. We have everything that it takes to make it happen. There are empty buildings all over town, left empty for the purpose of showing a tax loss, that could fill artists’ housing and work needs. There are buildings for sale. There is a gold rush of capital. There are visionaries among us. There are people and businesses looking for a way to give back some of their own good fortune, or to leave a legacy—and giving San Francisco back its lost bohemian charm is more than just a legacy; it would be a celebrated one.

There are a lot of reasons why a person or company might want to make art houses happen. To begin with, Bohemia Redux is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and contributions are tax deductible. Bohemia Redux could use charitable donations to purchase buildings outright. But perhaps a more attractive option for donors is to retain ownership and provide long leases at very nominal rents. In this way, ownership serves the purpose of declaring a loss, but in the meanwhile, the value of the property increases. A building owner can show a loss for 10 years; then the art house owner sells the property at the end of that period to another buyer needing a loss. The owner realizes a profit because of the inexorable rise in property values in the city; or the nonprofit could purchase the building when it no longer is needed for tax purposes.

Donors might like to become limited partners in the Art House collaboration. A company might have particular interests in some field of art, like a social media business having a professional interest in photography, a very felicitous combination of supply and demand. A symphony donor might want to provide a building for musicians, or an art collector one for painters. There are endless possibilities in these natural confluences of shared fascinations—professionally, financially, and socially.

For companies, an involvement in a project of this kind offers a certain cachet and a cutting-edge prestige of potentially global consequence. Because of the absolute newness of this concept, and the lure of bohemia, it’s a natural source of the very best publicity, the kind you can’t buy.

Companies also need art to enliven their offices. If a company provides a building for painters, they have an ever-changing art rental service readily available. Providing the building to resident artists is like paying forward on a service that will provide constant pleasure and keep the work environment visually stimulating—while also providing that useful loss at the same time.

Art collectors have the decided advantage of being at the source of any rising stars. It could be like meeting the young Picasso at Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon—and buying a painting that in 10 years would increase in value exponentially.

There are financial advantages in involvement, but there’s more than that. This is about doing something brand new. No city has ever done this before. This is about changing tired paradigms and giving artists the respect they deserve for devoting their lives to pleasing us, at whatever cost. It’s about exploring unobserved values of the artist in the sociology, anthropology, and psychology of our culture, and attracting global interest in the process. This project is all about legacy.

People who have been to Burning Man can see this project embodies several of the 10 Principles that are the philosophical mooring of the community. It exemplifies the gifting economy, decommodification, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, participation, and immediacy. And like Burning Man, this project offers an interactive involvement in the world of the arts.

What we are offering here is a very unusual, organic kind of philanthropy, person to person, outside the weary paradigms of our broken society. This is a fresh business model that will, once again, bring the world’s attention to this city, but for something really good. This project epitomizes San Francisco values: doing things absolutely differently, and as usual, dramatically.

As Charles Bukowski famously said, “If you want to help the arts, give them cheap rent.” Art Houses give artists cheap rent and a venue to establish a career. The people who make them happen have a fascinating way to give back, tax advantages, adventure, and genuine patronage of the arts. This project may not be for everyone. Some people think they don’t really care about the arts, although they might change their minds if there were none, all of a sudden. But for people who do care about the arts, and the city we live in, this is the chance to tip the scales —for a gigantic win, win, win.

Bohemian Charm

Bohemian charm

The phrase “bohemian charm” was frequently applied to descriptions of San Francisco, in the days when people could afford the bohemian lifestyle here. There’s no more real bohemian charm left in this city, for the simple reason that there is no bohemia. We have the external signs of artiness, in public art, performances, book readings, gallery openings, and all that, but what we don’t have is the bohemian milieu of artists—which is where the charm is.

Ersatz trappings of bohemian culture are manufactured and sold briskly on Haight Street in high-priced, high rent boutiques selling hippie detritus, but charm can’t be produced in a factory. Charm is original, as are good artists. The artist himself or herself may not have a charming personality, but they give us a unique experience, something different. We may not even like what they produce, but it’s new—and there is a huge charm in getting away from the familiar.

Bohemia is charming because people in the arts have passion for what they do. Even if they are saying nothing, the energy around them buzzes with the intense love of the work that drives them, often to despair. Writing, painting, dance, composing, and writing poetry are fields not entered practically, for material gain. It’s for love of the medium. People give their lives to the arts because that’s what they are, that’s what they are compelled to do.

Most of the conventions of normal life lose their grip in bohemia. There is little convention among artists, aside from basic civility, because artists are motivated by the need to escape convention in their work. We are charmed by the unconventional, when we don’t need established methods of human interaction to guide our social behaviors.

Passion among arty types runs deep. There’s no practical reason to be in the art world at all. It’s about desire, commitment, withdrawal from the world of things and consumption, and into a place of authenticity. The care and longing among people who make art to make the most amazing art vibrates in the air, even when they are depressed because the work has not met expectations. It’s intense and alive and real, and therein lies the charm. Only those who are anxious about their own passions want to keep the intense world of creativity at bay. The others all seem magnetically drawn to the charm of bohemia— and apartments in bohemian enclaves.

Bohemian charm is obviously very attractive. If it were not, the districts where artists have gathered wouldn’t be tourist destinations and desirable places to live. That charm is actually quite a marketable, if intangible, asset. But it can’t be replicated commercially, so in order to have it, we need to have bohemians. And in order not to drive them from their habitats, it’s necessary to find places for them everywhere, spreading the charm around, giving each of the city’s districts its bastion of creative verve.

Returning the quality of bohemian charm to the city of San Francisco is the stuff of heroes and legacies. But beyond giving back to San Francisco the great quality it has lost, it’s time for people everywhere in this country to recognize the value of having artists around to charm them.

The Advantage of Watching Artists At Work

When people look at art, it affects them in some way. The beauty might stun them. The subject matter may make them think. They can be inspired, amused, entertained, surprised, or maybe even repulsed, as in the case of Damien HIrst’s cut-up cow—or possibly even bored. When a person looks at a work of art that is complete, they have reactions of one kind or another. But when someone watches an artist work, the experience is absolutely different. It triggers the creative inclinations people didn’t even know they had.

Humans have the constant inclination to “fill in the blanks” of their experience. We form assumptions based on what we know. If we observe, for example, that two people live in a tiny, studio apartment, we assume they’re a couple. If we look at a car on the street, we assume it runs on gasoline, even though it has been altered to run on used cooking oil. We know about the corruption in politics and assume there are no absolutely honest politicians. Our knowledge of generalities enables us to form conclusions and fill the blanks, correctly or incorrectly, of the unknown.

Watching an artist work doesn’t give us a set of generalities to work from, because the piece of art in progress will be different from anything we’ve ever seen. An absolutely original work of art gives us no “knowns” to draw on, unless we are very familiar with that artist’s style—and even then, we don’t know.

A painter working in a highly realistic style may not offer the same experience that an abstract painter provides, because what they are painting is more or less an exact replication of what we see. But when we watch an abstract painter at work, there is the question of what will the next shape, color, or line look like? Watching a sculptor assemble pieces of metal in some design known only to him or her, an observer is left to wonder what that work will look like when it’s done. Even if the person watching has no special interest in art, they do have the natural human desire to fill in the blanks.

In the process of wondering, our own sense of aesthetic comes into play. We observe a field of colors and shapes on a canvas and the artist contemplating the next addition. What will it be? We can find ourselves thinking that we would add a certain color in a particular place, even though it has never occurred to us to pick up paints and canvas ourselves. The artist will probably do something else entirely, because they have their own aesthetic that fills in the blanks of their highly individualistic work.

As we think about filling in the blanks of someone else’s work, we trigger our own creative process. We may not have the desire to paint or sculpt or write music ourselves, but observing the artist’s process opens up our own creative thinking. Creativity is latent in everyone, requiring only a spark to set it in motion.

Thinking creatively can be an asset in every thing we do. When we cultivate it, we can harness that thinking to make life more interesting. One of the most interesting ways we can cultivate it is being in the midst of creators in action—yet another reason why our cities should be full of artists.

Artists and Authenticity

In a culture that is increasingly homogenized and obsessed with what’s trending, authenticity is a quality Americans tend to seek elsewhere, traveling to far-flung corners of the planet where people aren’t so desperate to fit into what the media tell us we should wear, watch, listen to, or think. People experience authenticity at places like Burning Man, where the principle of radical self-expression enables them to be as weird and goofy as they want for a week. But even at such extravaganzas of authenticity, there is style to be followed. Classic “burner” style includes things like a crushed cowboy hat, petticoats, and a general steam punk sensibility.


In psychological jargon, the term authenticity refers to the individual’s trueness to self, regardless of what outside pressures they face. No other social group bears the essence of authenticity more than that of artists. For an artist to be interesting, they have to give us something new, an absolutely original vision that comes from their inner being and not from something else. And in a culture where the primary interest is in what’s popular, what’s new is of very little interest, until some arbiter of taste or maven of marketing gives it their trending stamp of approval.


Needless to say, attempting to gain attention for a brand-new artistic vision is what you might call a serious external pressure. Our society demands we fit into niches, so we can be employable or marketable. In essence, we need to be inauthentic if we hope to find a job or a market for our work, or perhaps even a social circle that accepts us. A wildly new artistic vision is as authentic as life gets, even if we don’t like it, and that’s what artists live for.


The first sign of an artist’s authenticity is in recognizing that making art is their life objective. That’s an immediate acceptance of the external pressure of the world, much harder than realizing you were born to be a lawyer or a corporate manager, careers for which there are jobs. Artists enter their chosen profession thinking that, eventually, they can make a living at it. In the meanwhile, they’ll wait tables.


In fact, for-profit art schools dupe young artists into thinking that they can get lucrative careers in creative fields, after an expensive education. When they get out of art school, they are confronted with the reality: artists are only employable if they fit into what’s already trendy or devote their expensively cultivated skills in designing apps. And while there are plenty of Craig’s List ads seeking artists or writers, most of them pay nothing, or so little that while people are working to advance their art careers, they’re still waiting tables. Still, they endure the pressure of a society that doesn’t really want the un-trendy, the general societal disinterest in the plight of the creative class, and the compulsion to be absolutely original in a world of increasing cookie cutter sameness.


The struggling American artist could be the poster child for authenticity. Unfortunately, people in our culture rarely look within our borders to find something authentic, assuming it’s really only found in places like the Omo River Valley, where people don’t have social media yet. When this city was full of creative people, the air buzzed with authenticity. It’s why people from all over the world were so enamored of this place: it was real. All those original thinkers bathed the culture in a soup of creative authenticity.


This city is beautiful in a heartbreaking way, and that alone is enough, for some people, to inspire love. In recent years, authenticity has been ousted to make room for glitz. The people who never experienced the city when it was actually arty don’t miss a thing, perhaps. But people who have watched the change deeply feel the seepage of the city’s authenticity that left town with its creative class.

A Different Perspective on Potential Artists’ Housing


Getting away from San Francisco, where the housing crisis has driven artists to places where rents are cheaper, always provides fresh insights into how other places are keeping their creative culture alive. A recent visit to Reno provided an extraordinary possibility for artists’ housing here that does not involve buying property for that purpose—and is cheap, aesthetically interesting, and environmentally sound.

In an unexpected and extended stay at the Morris Burner Hotel on W. 4th Street, Reno, I met a man who owns a huge warehouse a few blocks away. Artists from the Burning Man community used the warehouse to build the monumental temple of 2012, and now the owner wants to turn the space into artists’ studios. But he is also looking at the land around the building as a space for artists’ housing. He showed me dozens of pictures of how to do that both inexpensively and beautifully.

The secret is the repurposing of shipping containers. Two of them can be converted into an apartment typically referred to as a “junior one bedroom.” They cost about $800 for each container, and with some additional costs for design, plumbing, and electrical, container buildings can be built for about $50 per square foot. And they come with hardwood floors.

We have an excess of unused shipping containers in this country because we import more than we export. By definition, this makes us a third world country (with first world problems). In any case, it leaves us with all these solid and unused containers, built to stack 18 high on ships crossing stormy oceans; they’re safer in an earthquake than regular buildings. They’re solid, made of metal, so they don’t burn, and container buildings don’t need foundations.

All you need to build these houses is land and a small amount of capital—about $2,000 for each small apartment. A building can be constructed in half a day, with a crane, and the interior spaces can be remarkably versatile. To see some of the ways this concept has been used, and how these units can look,check out these sites: http://inhabitat.com/houston-hive-is-a-sustainable-village-made-from-500-shipping-containers or here: http://ecoble.com/2008/12/21/even-more-creative-shipping-container-houses.

The Art House project is a work in progress, and as more possibilities emerge, so do more options for involvement. Conventional houses are still a wonderful option, but the container buildings offer another option entirely—one that’s green and quick to build, and considerably less expensive than conventional architecture.