I often use this blog as a way to think out loud. This will be one of those posts.

This is a post about Burning Flipside and boundaries. Burning Flipside is the central Texas regional burn. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, you might not want to go past the jump.


Burning Flipside is nominally produced by Austin Artistic Reconstruction LLC (known simply as “the LLC” in the local community of Burners), a five-person organization. Most of the operational work is done by a large volunteer organization; on the policy side, there is also an advisory board called the Combustion Chamber (“the CC”). I’m a member of the CC. We meet every other Monday, more or less, and argue about The True Meaning of Flipside.

The problem of boundaries

Flipside seems to many people like a default-permit environment for personal behavior: anything goes. This is not true—there are a lot of behaviors that definitely will not fly, but it’s a much more tolerant atmosphere than default reality. Flipside is all about personal expression, and people can get away with calling almost anything “art” and be taken halfway seriously. This may include behaviors that would not fly in default reality.

At our most recent CC meeting on 8 Aug, one of the agenda items was non-sexual boundaries (we had discussed sexual boundaries at a previous meeting). As I said at the meeting, this is an incredibly knotty issue, and the more I think about it, the more it winds me up. There are multiple ways in which it’s a problem, and multiple ways in which dealing with the overall problem poses a challenge to the Flipside organization.

We discussed some problems in a general sense: vandalism/theft/property damage, menacing behavior and assault.

We also discussed a specific incident: Flipside has a no-weapons policy, and this year, someone had a (plugged and non-functional) pistol that he was using to threaten people. Unsurprisingly, it freaked some people out. But this guy could reasonably claim that this provocation was his “art.” [update: it’s come to my attention that apparently there was one guy with a plugged pistol, and another person with a toy gun painted black to look more realistic. In any case, our discussion was about “fake guns”.]

We wound up getting into a discussion of setting a policy for realistic but fake weapons, basically that they can’t be realistic-looking enough to fool anyone. This strikes me as a sidetrack we should avoid. It practically dares Flipside participants to find new and interesting ways to subvert the rules, which would invite an endless game of policy whack-a-mole.

I’ve heard it said that simple rules produce complex behaviors, and complex rules produce simple behaviors. That approach would put us on the path of complex rules producing simple behaviors, which is not what we want.

It strikes me that the gun is just the form that this incident took: the broader problem that underlies it is the non-consensual nature of the interaction between the guy who was brandishing the gun and the people he was brandishing it at. There’s a certain baseline level of stuff you need to be prepared to put up with at Flipside—loud music at all hours, naked people whose bodies you might really prefer not to see, startling explosions, even dubstep. It’s not clear where line demarcating “stuff I need to put up with” and “stuff I don’t” lies, but being physically threatened without opting in, even as a form of performance art, is on the wrong side of that line.

All that being said, the case was made that realistic fake guns could pose other problems that might need to be addressed at a policy level, specifically, that any LEOs on the property might see the gun and respond as if it were real.

That’s one incident. On the more general subject of boundary-pushing, there could be clear-cut crimes, there could be simple miscommunication between two well-intentioned people, and there could be something in between: not necessarily a crime, but an incident where one person is being an asshole and provoking someone else. If it’s a crime, we can leave it to the legal system (although that can be traumatic enough that people might not want to bother). If it’s not, one suggestion was to rely on “community response,” but that has its own problems. One is that community response can turn into vigilantism. Another is that it might not appear as an option to someone who’s a first-timer at Flipside, or simply not well-connected to the community. These people could reasonably expect that the Flipside organization should have their back, but that puts us in the role of adjudicating what happens, and there’s a lot of reluctance to do that. I don’t see any easy resolution here.

Finally, another philosophical problem. It seems that most of these boundary-pushing problems at Flipside are caused by a handful of people. Flipside is an experimental community with a population of about 2,500 people. The point is to try to make a different way of organizing community work, generally emphasizing self-reliance and personal responsibility instead of more damn rules. With that in mind, is it better to set rules that will apply to everyone at Flipside—and potentially preclude legitimate forms of expression by people who aren’t troublemakers—or to simply deal with those troublemakers on a case-by-case basis? The former is bureaucratic and violates the not-more-rules approach. The latter is prone to capricious and unfair enforcement. But perhaps not in the way you’d expect: at the CC meeting, one of the people present pointed out that our most notorious troublemaker essentially gets a free pass for crap that would get other people ejected (if not arrested), because we expect it from him. As things are, and as they will continue to be, the LLC does make difficult case-by-case judgments about individuals, but that wouldn’t prevent them from writing policies as well.


TL;DR: the policy problems I’ve tried to identify here are:

  • Do we write policy based on the outward form a boundary problem takes or the underlying issue?
  • How do we identify what a legitimate problem is?
  • How do we respond when we have identified a problem? At the community level, at the organization level, or not at all?
  • Do we write policies that affect everyone in response to the actions of the few?

These are questions. I don’t have good answers.

6 thoughts on “Boundaries”

  1. I loved reading this. Thanks for doing so!

    To your wrap-up questions…
    1. Underlying Issue – and prepare to debate what the underlying issue ‘is’ is.
    2. This is subjective and case-by-case. I trust good judgement on this one.
    3. Yes.
    4. No.

  2. This lack of attention to serious boundary problems is exactly why I don’t attend your party anymore. The solution is quite simple: if you are going to do something to someone that they probably won’t like, that is for your enjoyment and not theirs, you need to get their explicit permission.

  3. Ah, and one more thing: leading by example is a good place to start. I didn’t want to attend a party where boundary-crossing was occurring in serious ways by those who were in key leadership positions. Not sure if this still happens, but it makes it hard for others to take seriously when the people in charge are doing what they are telling others not to.

  4. Ira: you’re right. It is assault. I don’t know for sure why it wasn’t dealt with in the moment, but I can offer some possibilities:
    – The people who were threatened were freaked out but didn’t want to involve the authorities.
    – The people who were threatened didn’t think of escalating it to the Rangers or anyone in charge at the time. A lot of problems only get reported long after the fact.

    As I said, Flipside is an experiment in community. And the thing about experiments is that they don’t always succeed. I think it’s fair to say, judging from the discussion on the CC mailing list about this issue, that there will be more people with sharper eyes for anything like this in the future, and if we hear about it, it won’t go unanswered.

    Epiphany: What boundary-crossing by people in leadership positions do you know of? I agree with the general point of leading by example, but if anything, it seems the more immediate problem has been too little “telling others not to.”

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