Dia Bondi 00:19
Hello everyone, this is Lead With Who You Are. I'm Dia Bondi, and on this show, we are exploring and discovering what it truly means to lead with who you are. And we're doing it with people who embody and enable just that. In this episode, we're talking with Jennifer Raiser about Burning Man art and what it means to use extreme experiences of expression to help us lead with who we are. Burning Man has changed over the years and has a broad set of experience possibilities, depending on what you're looking for. But for today, we're talking about the art and the possibility that comes with stepping out onto the edges of what we're used to, to draw forward a dormant part of ourselves. Let's get into it. Hey, just a quick reminder, you can subscribe to this show on your podcast platform of choice. We're live nearly everywhere and you can always listen to the show at DIA bondy.com. If there's a leader or innovator in your life, who is it their shiniest when they lead with who they truly are, Please share the show with them. And rate subscribe, and leave us a review makes a huge difference in the reach that the show has when you let everyone else know what you love about the show. Thanks so much. Jennifer Raiser is an Author and Management Innovator. She is the Author of The Best Selling Burning Man Art on Fire, and lectures extensively on the significance of the Burning Man art movement in Black Rock City and around the world. As founding treasurer of the Burning Man project, she oversees a budget well over $47 million. And on the playa which we'll learn more about a little later, she also volunteers with the Black Rock rangers and gate departments. She is the Author of In the Spirit of Napa Valley Assouline, The Art of Being Billed Many Faces of Awesome, two commissioned biographies and continues to write widely. Jennifer, it's so great to have you Hello.
Jennifer Raiser 02:28
Hi. It's great to be here.
Dia Bondi 02:30
So when we first met, and it was not that long ago, I knew I wanted to have you on the show to have a conversation with you. For for me and for our listeners. In your recent TED talk, you talked about Burning Man Art on Fire. And it really spoke to me about what's really going on, at Burning Man with the challenge of bringing and making art at the event, maybe at any scale, but especially at the largest scale. And it really got me thinking about how extreme challenges and experience is like the art at Burning Man making it participating in it, consuming it. Touching it, you know, experiencing it can help us cultivate a deeper knowing of who we are. So we can lead with that. Now I'm having you on the show to help make sort of that connection between what you see folks do with the art at one of the most temporary and extreme gatherings on the planet, and how we discover and be more of who we are. So we can lead lead with it in other places in our lives. Or not. Maybe it's just these kinds of experiences are isolated and for the sake of themselves, and we don't bring them home with us. But I want to explore that question with you today. So I want to start though with you. And the question we always start with is you know, if you were to answer the question, Who are you? How might you do that today?
Jennifer Raiser 03:57
Who am I? I'm an author, I'm a nonprofit junkie. I'm a reformed corporate executive that bought and, and ran and sold my business and senior care. And I'm a human being in this complicated world on this really tested planet who really wants to touch people and and make a contribution to our world because we all need to be thinking about doing that every way we can.
Dia Bondi 04:30
Great. So talk to us for folks who are listening you know you've been involved with the Burning Man project since its inception or very close you know to it. So for folks, you know who we're recording this in and around the Bay Area. A lot of folks around here know what Burning Man is but if you are outside of the country or in a part of the country that hasn't touched or experienced or had friends that have gone or seen the vehicles that are exiting the playa in Tahoe or other you know on their journeys home. Talk to us about what Burning Man is.
Jennifer Raiser 04:58
Burning Man is a Gathering of 80,000 people who build a temporary city in the Nevada desert for a week at the end of August, and it is a place where they set the world land speed record, it is barren, flat, extreme temperatures of hot and cold. And people bring everything they need to survive. And it's a leave no trace event. So they have to take it all home with them. And the whole point is, it's a celebration of creativity and community. So there's no money, no running water, no border, no electricity, you bring everything you need to survive, and you camp or bring whatever you're going to sleep in. And you joyfully play and interact and offer the gift of experience to your fellow participants. And art is a huge piece of that there's over 400 pieces of large scale art, over five square miles. And then there's 1500 theme camps offering everything from, you know, bars and water and food and activities, crafts, math camp, dance camp, roller derby, I mean, you name it, it's out there, and people spend all year thinking of what they can gift instead of what they can get. So it's a it's a temporary utopian society in many ways. And it, it makes you rethink who you are as a human being because you're literally pitted against the environment out there. It's so extreme. So you're, you're kind of in caveman mode at one level. But you're also in child mode. At another level, you can wear costumes, you can wear nothing, you can wear, you know, your favorite climbing gear. And you can be who you authentically are. That's why it's so perfect to talk about it on your podcast because it strips away everything. Nobody cares what your job is out there. They care about who you are and what you have to offer at this moment, in this immediate second in time. How are you going to connect? And how are you going to experience this crazy world?
Dia Bondi 07:09
So as you we talk about Burning Man, there's a place that we refer to I've never been to a Burning Man event. But either one of the sort of satellite events or the annual event that happens in the desert. But when you say the playa, what are we talking about?
Jennifer Raiser 07:23
Sorry, the playa which is of course Spanish for beach is is the place we call Black Rock City. And we call it the playa because it's it's it, it's not sand, but it feels like a desert. So it feels like it's just empty, and there's nothing on there. No trees, the only thing is the built environment and all the art. So it's really whatever you bring. And Black Rock City is the name of the city, because there's actually over 100 Other Burning Man events around the world year round. What happens is people people want this experience in their own lives in their neighborhoods with their friends. So they've carried it. It's like a diaspora all over the world, in almost every country. And it's it's really exciting.
Dia Bondi 08:06
So when you think about Okay, so we've got it, we've got an understanding of like, it's remote, it's barren space, it's hot and cold folks come together for this short period of time super temporary. They take whatever they've brought. And you said the word five miles. So that gives you a sense of if it's five miles around it covers a five square mile territory that gives people an idea of how big it is, you know, many American cities Really, and towns. Anyway, and 80,000 people. So can you you know, we talked about in your introduction, in your introduction, that the budget is fairly significant. Can you talk about the budget that you manage as treasurer for this nonprofit, it's run as a nonprofit.
It is a nonprofit, and the budget is around $70 million. And that is revenue, a combination of ticket sales and, and donations because we are a nonprofit organization. And a big part of our donations beyond our budget is actually volunteerism. Burning Man is very much a democracy. So if you added in the value of all the volunteer time that goes into the event and the organization, that budget would probably triple it's It's remarkable people, people gift themselves in all kinds of ways, not just money.
Dia Bondi 09:27
So I you know, I'm going to be talking as an outsider here, because I've not I've not participated. You know, I'm in and around, as we've said, the Bay Area and so I've have lots of friends who've participated and has a lore about it. It's a known, you know, experience. People have lots of conversations about what it was for them. And lots of images that show up across my feeds in various places that that as an outsider I can look in, and when you say, you know it's a place where people can be their authentic self. I know buttoned up executives who are wearing a unicorn helmet and a pair of skivvies for four days in the desert? And is that their authentic self? Now, I'm, I'm not challenging, and I'm just wanting to widen people's aperture and even my own around what people go to the desert and show up and experience Burning Man. Like what they're looking for and what they get to do there that is an expression maybe of more than maybe their authentic self, but isn't maybe what you'd see walking down the street in the streets of San Francisco or in, you know, in Silicon Valley for that matter?
Jennifer Raiser 10:34
Well, our society has become unbelievably transactional, and that transactions happen, what can you do for me? What can you pay for my services? How do I, we even exchange compliments, the thing that makes Burning Man different is that everything is voluntary and a gift. And you're allowed to get back to who you are, and the essence of who you are by getting rid of the transactional nature of interactions. And so you can have these incredibly deep conversations with someone you've never met before, and will never see again, because it's a permission, age, engine, and many ways for you to be who you who you are at your essence. And, you know, I hope that executive in the unicorn hat is not recognized is that dude from Google, because I'm hoping there recognizes that person who was incredibly kind to me, and made sure I was wearing sunscreen. And so people, because there's nothing at stake except the moment, people are allowed to strip away your expectations of the word Google, and my expectations of being an artist, and just be two human beings together. But it's like the fourth wall is down, you're allowed to really connect at a very different level. And the art compels a lot of that. Because if you're two people climbing on a piece of art, or helping each other, you know, hoist each other up or something, you're you're down to your, your physical, emotional, human self, your it has nothing to do with what's on your business card. And people crave that we're so desperate for connection, especially after the last couple of years that it's just magical to be able to be instead of to be something or someone beautiful.
Dia Bondi 12:28
So let's talk about the art and what you're what you're pointing to is similar to the experience a handful of years ago, I got into obstacle course racing. And it seems like you know, it's just a jungle gym, and you run to the next jungle gym. But the experience of not leaving someone behind regardless of their fitness level experience level, you know, size age, was an extra makes me choked up even talking about it was an extremely profound community experience, and had a lot to do, not just what my own athleticism and what I showed up with, but the way in which I was aware and connected with the people around me to help them be successful. It's less, maybe open, then open in the sense that, you know, as a obstacle course, racer, we are all trying to get to the other side, there's like an accomplishment piece. And I don't hear that as much when I think about Burning Man, as much as you know, although we're about to ship to talk about art. So I could be totally wrong. Because there is an Can you I mean, let's talk about for a second. We say Burning Man art, we're not talking about some I just put my foot in my mouth, I'm gonna take it back out and say there's an incredible accomplishment for folks who bring out and deliver art into the space. So when we talk about Burning Man art, can you give folks a sense of what we're what we're meaning because it's not oil paintings hanging on a wall behind the velvet rope?
Jennifer Raiser 13:54
Absolutely. I'm gonna go back to your obstacle course racing. You know, Ram Dass said we're all just walking each other home. And at Burning Man, we're very much walking each other home. So one of the things that I think distinguishes the experience is that you're able to do for people what you're afraid to do here, you know, you're you're able to reach out across whatever language socio economic and most of all the fear barrier of talking to someone at the grocery store, and just connecting now to talk about the art. So 400 pieces, pieces of large scale art, temporary but has to withstand 80 mile an hour winds, heat, lightning, tons of dust, very little is actually burned because of the environmental issues. So like this year out of over 400 pieces, we have 14 scheduled burns, so so so the art is whatever someone wants to make literally, there is No curator, nobody says you can't bring that. The only requirement is that the art is participatory in some way. So you can't rope it off just for people to look at it. If it's fragile, you can rope it off. But then offer some other interactive experience, whether they can, you know, hit the hit the fire button on it, or they can walk around it, and it will shape shift or something. But your participation as an individual completes the art. And that is a that is a radical proposition. In a world where we've had these museums, and the Mona Lisa is behind a piece of glass, and there's a security guard there and there's a velvet rope and you look at it with your eyes, you don't touch it, feel it, taste it. at Burning Man, you get to experience it. However, the artists or often group of artists wants you to integrate into it. And that's really a different experience. It's visceral,
Dia Bondi 16:02
is that is that and I, you know, talk, I have one friend who built art for Burning Man for many years that he hasn't for a while now. But you know, and I've talked deeply about this, but is what you're pointing to does, this begs sort of empathy to be present, because you have to consider who's interacting with your art, interacting, not just observing it and consuming it.
Jennifer Raiser 16:24
Absolutely. And the artist, the artist forms a relationship to the art, and the participant forms a relationship to the art. So you, you may never meet the artist, the artist may never see you doing whatever you do on their piece. But there is a connection throughout it, and it's deliberate, they want you to connect with the art, and and feel something now I can walk up to a piece of art. And frankly, there's, you know, there's not many, but there's some pieces I absolutely hate. I just I think they're dumb or trite or, or, you know, just derivative. And then you'll be standing next to somebody will say, Oh my God, that's the most beautiful thing here. And so it causes me to QUESTION All right, you aren't snobs stop it. And it also causes me to say, Okay, what is it about this piece that move that person so much and didn't move me? Maybe there's a block in me. And so the art becomes this provocateur in many ways of how you're feeling? What do you care about? What is the artist trying to say? Am I listening hard enough to hear what the artist is trying to say? Metaphorically, it's, it's a wonderful exercise. Because once you once you realize that you have to immerse yourself in the art. And if you don't want to, you got to say, Okay, I gotta check myself. And sometimes there's art that you see, that just makes you lose your mind. There's one piece that actually ended up on the cover of my book. I had to go visit it morning and evening, every day for all of Burning Man, because it was going to burn on the last day. And there was so much for me to take in. I did not want to miss a moment, it was sort of like watching a baby sleep. Like, I just wanted to see it breathe. It was so powerful to me.
Dia Bondi 18:17
So people bring these incredible structures that they create may be disassembled or assembled off site and then drive I mean, for days to deliver it. Yeah, yes, to deliver it on site. And for folks, you know, who get your book, they will be shocked at what some of this art looks like. You can find it on the internet as well. But the you know, the scale of these, these are like multi storey buildings, some of them and made out of every every possible type of material. You know, they're they have they're engineered so that they can move respond to the weather around them. They're like, they're just ridiculous. And in like the in the best possible way and most sort of awe inspiring, shocking way. When I want to talk a little bit about what that I don't know if we already talked about this or not. But I I want to pose this question, which is okay. This show was called Lead With who you are, how are people at Burning Man bringing who they are to the fore? Or how does this you've already touched on it a little bit. But how does this context help bring people bring a part of themselves that they might not see very often to the fore? Because it looks on the outside, like costumes are fire and fantasy? Is that truth of what of who we are? Or is it an opportunity for us to step away from who we are? Or what role does Burning Man play in the lives of folks who attend either for the artists or those who are participating in the art?
Jennifer Raiser 19:47
Oh, that's just such a small question. Yeah,
Dia Bondi 19:49
I know. Like nine questions all folded in there,
Jennifer Raiser 19:53
so it's so who are we? We at our very core are beings that when we were born, and were small, loved to play, human beings love to play, and then we get, you know, mortgages and, you know, and career roles and expectations and grocery bills, and you know, and all this stuff. And we, we miss it. And we necessitate how we have to make our lives function. And we also limit ourselves by that because we say, Oh, I have to do this, or I need to do that, when in fact, we don't need to do a lot of the stuff we do, we do it because we want status, we do it because we want to shelter over our head. Okay, that's fair. But we do a lot of things because we think other people expected of ourselves, or society expects it, or we've become ingrained about what we're supposed to do at burning, right,
Dia Bondi 20:52
there's like, rigid, there's like rigidity there, isn't there?
Jennifer Raiser 20:55
Well, and, and as a society, we don't encourage play. Beyond adolescence, it becomes work. And Americans are notorious for having the longest work week in the world. And, you know, and we pride ourselves on how long we stay at the office, or how long we work on a project or, you know, now we can work from home so we can never stop working. And the truth is Burning Man is so much about the freedom to choose whatever you want to do. And whenever you want to do it, and having something that is basically like a carnival on Mars, encourages that. And when you kind of reclaim your playing self, you yet you really become who you were, and realize you still are, you've just, you've just made that piece of yourself go dormant. Just to talk about the artists, because there's no curator, anyone can bring anything to Burning Man, we have an honoraria grant program. This year, we have seven artists bringing major art pieces who've never been to Burning Man before, right. And that's just in the little honoraria program, not all of the artists. Bernie pan is an invitation for you to bring whatever your creative self wants to express, and you're not going to get paid for it. You can't sell your art piece here, you're doing it for the experience. It's just like you did your, you know, your obstacle course, you're doing it because you felt some need inside to express that.
Dia Bondi 22:31
It's really it's really interesting. I think I've talked about this on the show before so listeners, apologies or not, is since launching projects is like an auctioneer I've talked to, you know, 1000s of women about sort of the goals that they've had in their lives. And many of them who don't have goals that are easily sort of you can hang a badge on or are easily recognized through a title or a salary or a you know, ownership of something that other other people can see. Often will will say, Oh, I don't really have goals, but the truth is they do. They're just experiential goals that are about experiencing something not about having owning or being recognized by something. And what I'm hearing you say is that the invitation to have a certain kind of experience and a certain container, can let folks reconnect with a part of themselves, that is doorman, and that they can maybe then bring forward even after they leave the playa Gable live. And that I think is probably the transformational bit about going to do extreme experiences, building things, you know, you know being in contexts that are not familiar, that can kind of re enliven a part of ourselves that is actually useful to us not in that context. Absolutely. It is just too quiet for us to hear anymore.
Jennifer Raiser 23:50
Well, there is no It is no accident that Burning Man and Silicon Valley grew up together and are frankly intricately linked. Because when Birdman actually began 36 years ago, when Larry Harvey and a friend of his wanting to build an effigy for the solstice and burn it, and they put together some old scrap wood and drag it down to Baker Beach and, and then four years later brought it brought it out to the desert. And so it's been going a long time. And it it's always been something that people local to this area have had access to. And that so when some of the tech folks started going, it's because they were seeing wide open possibilities too. And when you think about the web as a frontier, and the Black Rock Desert as this Endless Frontier, it makes sense that they would they would egging each other on and manifest one another in many ways.
Dia Bondi 24:53
Right. So let's talk about your experience yourself. You know, you're a prolific writer. later and you know, as a business leader in and around the Bay Area, you are integral into bringing Burning Man to life as a, you know, a custodian of this enormous budget that it requires. How did how did you find Burning Man? And how did you move into the role that you have in in in your experience of Burning Man now,
Jennifer Raiser 25:23
so I had, I had I was I was on I was on the track, I had, you know, business degree just finished my MBA, I started my business running luxury retirement communities did that like crazy for two decades. And then I sold the business. And my best friend from high school in college, who was a drag queen said, Okay, now you have no excuse, you have to come with me to Burning Man. And I didn't know what the hell I was doing. He said, Just bring costumes, we'll do everything else. And so I bought, like the most covered up thing I could possibly wear. Because I was afraid of the heat. And I'm I'm very fair skinned, and I burn in a second. So I show up and everyone's running around, and like, amazing costumes and bikinis and, you know, band aids and not much else. And I'm thinking, Okay, I totally missed the boat on this. But it's also the most amazing place I've ever seen. Because people were so open. I've done a lot of theater, and it felt very theatrical. And the art was mind boggling, because I was used to the canon of the great museums. But I wasn't used to super high quality art made by joyful people, for entirely its own sake, not to be sold not to be displayed beyond this one week. And this was way before the internet. So the only way you could see Burning Man art was to be there, or see photographs, which didn't give you a sense of the scope and scale. But of course, having a background in operations meant since the organizers had been this was very spontaneous, and they had all been creatives, it was not necessarily Process Management oriented. So we say, like, at all. And so I started getting very on my high horse and saying, Well, you know, you could you could make this way more efficient if you did this. And they said, no, no, this is a democracy, you can do this. And so I was like, challenge accepted, okay. And then when I had worked with a number of nonprofit organizations, and when we decided, the founders very generously donated their shares of the limited liability corporation that was established really, for insurance purposes, not for profit purposes. They, they donated it to create a nonprofit, and I got very involved in both the process and then as the treasurer and serving on the board, which I have for the last 12 years.
Dia Bondi 27:55
It's, it's so interesting, you know, and beautiful to hear you talk about how you lead with who you are, which is sort of operational excellence, understanding to bring a framework around something that is also imbued with freedom. It is just such an it's such like two great tastes that taste great together, you know, but are surprising, a beautiful example of exactly what this podcast is about, how is it that we take who we are our talents, our skills, our point of view, you know, the goggles that we wear as we walk around the planet, and bring it to the things that we that we find matter to us in a way that doesn't, doesn't expect us to abandon ourselves but actually uses that in a way that is, you know, in harmony with the thing that we're trying to push forward so it's just this beautiful tension I this is how I hear what you're sharing that you know, that you're that you're you know that your talent and depth of understanding about structure to enable something was able to fold in so nicely with something that has just such a sort of organized chaos built into it.
Exactly. Well, and the irony is Burning Man made me an Author in many ways because I had I had authored one book previously on designing retirement communities for the future, a you know, rocking bestseller haha. But no one had been writing about Burning Man art and 10 years ago. I was just flabbergasted by the quality of this art that that the established museum world was talking about as this craft and was frankly quite dismissive. You know, oh, that's a bunch of hippies, you know, making mud sculptures. And, and they had no idea and because the photography was excellent, but but limited in its distribution. It was kind of a self referring prophecies that all the burners looked at the pictures but no one else did. And so Larry Harvey, the founder very kindly agreed when I said May I write a book about Burning Man art that Um, that really features what's going on here. And he said, Go for it. And I said, Will you write the intro? And he said, Yes. And I was off to the races, I worked with an amazing photographer, Scott London and another photographer, Sydney or Thol, had some great photos. And we put together a book proposal and got rejected 17 times. And finally, one, as you do, once you do in New York was trying to break into the coffee table market, and said, Okay, we'll give this a flyer and printed 5000 copies. And so far, we've sold 30,000, we're on our we're on our third, the third edition, which is 150, new pictures is going to come out in July, because there's so much art, that we just can't even contain it, we just want to keep showing people how amazing this work is, and how anyone can be an artist, everyone can be an artist.
Dia Bondi 30:53
It's also an amazing testament to how you know where we started today, which is like how do we take extreme experiences to help us draw who we are forward. So we can lead with that I mean, perfect example of you put yourself into an experience, you said yes to an experience. And it is it has, you know, created a whole beautiful path for you to curate something that feels so compelling for you, you know that so other so you can share that with others that are maybe are on the outside or don't have access to it to position something that is meaningful experience for you in the world, in a way that allows others to connect with it. So, you know, similar for me with my project as like an auction or went to auction or school for fun going, this is going to be weird. Okay, I guess, what else am I going to do. And now I'm writing a book and we you know, it's like all so when we move toward things that feel really on the fringe of what's possible for us, it can be an incredible not just door opener, but a whole other landscape where we get to express ourselves, you know, be, you know, trigger what our new interests are, that feel not a departure from who we are, but maybe even essential to who we are.
Jennifer Raiser 32:12
Absolutely. And with Burning Man art, it allowed me to showcase hundreds of artists who were so busy making art and doing these brilliant things I could never dream of making that then there are goes out in the world, and museums have started paying attention. The Smithsonian didn't exhibit on Burning Man art and art in museums is becoming more touchable and accessible. Because people are realizing we all want to connect an art is an incredible connector. It's not just something that we can passively absorb. It's something that makes us more human with each other and with creativity.
Dia Bondi 32:54
So I hear that as an invitation to our listeners to you know, to go out to the edges of have sort of the go out into the peripheral of what we usually feel like is for us, quote unquote, and to step into some experiences that stretch us, put us put us in some new contexts and see what it brings to us or what part of who we are, it draws forward for us.
I can't I can't say that enough. I mean, people say to me all the time, "YOU go to Burning Man?" And the truth is, I like to say I'm the freak with the geeks or the geek with the freaks, because I don't necessarily I don't necessarily fit the Burning Man stereotype. Whatever that is the hippie the druggie the techie, I'm none of those things. But on the other hand, I've learned to appreciate and love all those people for what they offer to the world. And a lot of their ideas are pretty amazing. And so by putting myself in a context that I would not normally have been, my life has become broader and taller and deeper and way more complex in the most joyful way. I'm, I'm so grateful.
Dia Bondi 34:04
Beautiful, to finish our conversation. Jennifer, if you were to if you were to say for you, you know, what does it mean for you to lead with who you are? How might you answer that?
Jennifer Raiser 34:17
I think it means that I've given myself permission. And by doing that the world has given me permission. I didn't know that. Before I went to Burning Man. I was busy accomplishing checking all the boxes that everyone had said were supposed to be checked. And I did a great job at that. And I was actually very happy. But now that I look back I'm so grateful that I had to push way past that. And Bernie man gave me that gift. And I hope it gives a lot of other people that gift You don't have to go to Burning Man to have it. You just have to be comfortable realizing that you know who you are and who you are is awesome.
Dia Bondi 35:08
What can people do with you? Where can they find you and as your next edition of the coffee table book with a whole new, you know, curated set of art for folks to see, where do they go with you?
Burning Man, Art and Fire coming out in August. And, you know, I, I'm writing articles I'm, I'm on social media, I'm on LinkedIn. And I'm all over the place. So so come find me check out our TED Talk, your TED Talk and my TEDx talk. TEDx Sonoma when it hits and come say hi, that's that's what I love, meeting people. So if you if you hear this and you know me or you find me, I'd love to meet you.
Dia Bondi 35:53
Fantastic. Thank you so much, Jennifer, your kick ass.
Jennifer Raiser 35:57
Awesome. Thank you.
Dia Bondi 35:58
Lead With Who You Are is a production of Dia Bondi Communications and is scored, mixed and produced by Arthur Leon Adams the third. Have a question or an inquiry? Reach out to us at email@example.com. You can like share, rate and subscribe at Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your favorite shows. Go to diabondi.com for the show notes to find our tools, frameworks, content and programs to help you and your team speak powerfully and lead with who you are.