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Podcast: Growing a community around your business – the story of AfrikaBurn with Monique Schiess (AfrikaBurn)

Monique Schiess is one of the founders of AfrikaBurn, and this is the story of growing an event from a concept to an international sensation with a very, very, committed following! In this episode Monique and Eitan mic up to explore her high highs, dark lows, and explain why it’s important to grow a devoted and value-based community around your business, and how that can sometimes turn dangerous and scary.   Transcript available at the bottom of this post.    


Monique Schiess: Do you wanna thank Milli for the cat noises? Both: <Laugh> Eitan Stern: There’s there’s a cat stuck upstairs. Just meowing through the whole thing. It’s actually brilliant to listen to. Monique Schiess: Cool man. Eitan Stern: Welcome to Legalese’s Big Fish Stories. The podcast where we showcase local South African entrepreneurs, their stories, and their big relevance to the world around them. As lawyers, working with startups and established businesses in the tech and creative industries, we get front row seats to some incredible business adventure rides. The problem is that as lawyers, our work confidential with Big Fish Stories, we’re going inside the room with some proudly South African entrepreneurs to talk about their airy highs, lonely lows, and creamy middles of the road to success. As a country, deep in economic development, there is massive potential for smart entrepreneurs to build something great. Join us as we meet some of these big fish and find out how they’re looking to make their ponds even bigger. I’m your host managing director of Legalese, Eton Stern. Can we kick it off? Yeah, Monique Schiess: Let’s hit it. Eitan Stern: Okay. So we find ourselves sitting here in observatory, Cape Town and sitting with Monique Schiess one of the founders of AfricaBurn. Monique. Who are you and what do you do for a living? Monique Schiess: Hi Eitan. I mean, as you said, I’m Monique Schiess. I’m one of the founders. And what I do for a living is I create the apocalypse recreationally in order for people to bust open their hearts and their creative lives. Yeah. On a more kind of mechanical level. I’m one of the founders of AfricaBurn and I’m the creative lead, the development lead and, and liaison. Eitan Stern: Wow. Big job. Yeah. So, okay. So we are obviously gonna dig further into what you do at AfricaBurn a bit yes. Before we get into that. So I just wanna know a little bit about you. Like, what did you do before this? How did you land up as someone who founded or one of the founders of AfricaBurn, what did you do running up to this? Monique Schiess: I’ve done a lot of different things. When I first left school, all I wanted to do was living in the Bush. So I, I used to live in the Bush and Eitan Stern: I, what is the Bush? If we have an international listeners, Monique Schiess: <Laugh>, it’s the kind of big five country. I want to do live in the kind of, I suppose the most common known area is the Kruger Park. So lived in the Timbavati. I was a game ranger. Eitan Stern: You were a game ranger, at Timbavati. Monique Schiess: Yeah. Eitan Stern: Wow. Um now you’re a game range of people. Monique Schiess: Yeah. And funny enough, the animals are far more predictable and Speaker 2: <Laugh> Eitan Stern: In their human counter parts Monique Schiess: In their human counter parts. And I was also, I wanted to be a pilot, so I did pilot training and then, and then I came to Cape Town and I studied environmental science. Okay. And social anthropology at the same time, I was organizing an event called the Mother City Queer Project. I did that for nine, ten years. And the last time that I did, it was in 2003. And then in 2004, I found myself with my first Burning Man. Okay. But I also, you know, having studied science, I still, I grew up in a very kind of creative background cuz my parents were both in the theater. Okay. Grew up at the Market Theater. We were always doing events and always everything. Creativity was kind of infused in everything we did. Eitan Stern: So, so this life, which you kind of have now, which is a really at a counterpoint between people and environment and art, it, it, it, there was a process, it was a journey that led to that. That sort seems like it’s been a bit of a story of your Monique Schiess: Life. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Eitan Stern: So then, so then how did it happen? What was the, what is the origin story? So we’ve obviously got Burning Man in America. Yeah. Maybe you can briefly explain what AfricaBurn is and how did you land up finding out about this concept and deciding to do it in South Africa? Monique Schiess: So, I mean, I don’t know if anyone knows what the Mother City Queer Projects are, but they were a kind of group of people who were, Eitan Stern: I know all too well. Loved those parties. Monique Schiess: Okay. <laugh>. We, we, you know, we made, we, we, we were doing events that were celebrating our new constitution initially and they were also idealism based and art based. So it was non just non-sexist, non-racist all that kind of stuff. And it started in 94, you know, which was the helcyon days as well. . Okay. Eitan Stern: You were born in 94 Monique Schiess: <Laugh> no, I was peaking peaking at my work environment in 94 and yeah, so, so that was a very big kind of, and that’s how met Robert Weinek. Who’s one of the co-founders as well. He used to sell tickets for us in his Hennel Gallery. And so, so I did that for 10 years. And at the end of 10 years, I left MCQP in 2003. But funny enough, in 2003, one of our current non-executive directors, Ralph Poland actually had popped into visit. He’d always worked on the Mother City Queer Projects. And he said, I’ve just been in the states and I’ve been to this thing called Burning Man. And I didn’t know what it was. So that was the first time I heard about. Eitan Stern: And how long has Burning Man been around? Monique Schiess: It’s I think they’re going to year 31 now. Okay. Yeah. Okay. Yeah. And then in 2004, I found myself with my first Burning Man and I, I was kind of exiting academics in that time. And then I kind of was a little bit bored and I didn’t know what to do. And so I wrote a list of a couple of things that I wanted to try. And I think number three on the list was try start a Burn in South Africa. Wow. And that just, ’04 when we started in ’07. So there was an incubation period and I kind of like mulling over it and looking at venues and stuff like that. Eitan Stern: And finding people to do it with, I assume so. Okay. So, so I mean, let, let, let’s pick up on that moment. So you’ve got this concept, you’ve seen it work in America. How does it go from this idea to running your, your first event? Monique Schiess: So kind of in a parallel universe was a, a man called Paul Jorgensen who had grown up in South Africa, but had then moved to the states. He’d been very involved in Burning Man for many years. And he came back to South Africa, also wanting to start a burn. And he had gone to school with Robert Weinek. He then put Robert, put Paul in touch with me. So kind of, we had this higgledy-piggledy group of people who came together, Leon Visser, Max Suss, and we had some meetings and we just put the intention out there. And really, I mean, it’s very kind of you’d think that we planned anything, but like, we really were just kind of going balls to the wall and giving a try. Okay. And, and, and the, in essence, the burn and its absolute essence is an experiment. And that’s what we were doing. We were experimenting. We were, we weren’t trying to cookie cutter. Sure. Burning Man, we Eitan Stern: You weren’t trying to copy their model Monique Schiess: And Burning Man are very distinctly kind of, they they’re quite distinct about the fact that you mustn’t try and cookie cutter. Yes. The, the, the guiding principles are the thing that holds it together. Yes. And in fact that’s when in 2004 is when Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man wrote the principles. Okay. Was when these regional events started popping Up. Eitan Stern: I want to dig into the principles in a bit. But I think it’s really interesting what you’re saying there, which is like, at the beginning you said it’s kind of me to say that it felt like there was an organization. But if I look at, at AfrikaBurn today, I see you guys as massive sticklers for the rules. You guys do things properly. It’s, it’s planned. It’s you get the right permits, etcetera. My question, I guess, is that always been the ethic? I know when, when someone wants to launch a concept, it’s often like run it down and dirty and get it running and then worry about the logistics later. But how have you guys viewed it? Was it just get it up and running and run an event and then we’ll see what happens afterwards. Or were you always a stickler for the rules? Monique Schiess: Well, I mean, it depends on which rules you’re talking about. <Laugh> Eitan Stern: Rules are really a pick and choose thing. <Laugh> Monique Schiess: No. Well, because internally we’ve established a whole lot of rules and, and it’s quite interesting to be so deeply involved in this thing that has its tap root in anarchy, but end up being the establishment yourself, you know? Yeah. So there’s rules on the site, but there’s also one of the principles is civic responsibility. And in that is doing the right things as relates to the default world. Sure. The outside world doing the permits. But to be clear, we didn’t have event permits until God a couple of years ago. Okay. And that was purely because the Northern Cape didn’t have the capacity to, Eitan Stern: To issue those permits, to Monique Schiess: Issue those permits. Okay. And so, so we did de facto everything that was needed for an event permit in terms. The other thing is, you know, like my academic training, I, I did one of the things that I used to do was disaster management on a postgraduate level. So for me, like that’s just sensible stuff is to have plans in place in, in case shit goes down, Eitan Stern: You’re an events person. You understand the logistics about it. Yeah. So, so, so speak me about the, so I know AfrikaBurn is a, it’s a notfor profit company, but I think the lessons in how you got this moving is very relatable to any organization or venture or, or business. How is it that you move? So you got this hodgepodge group of people that have seen this event, you trying to throw one together and run it. How does it move from there? What was the traction that it moves from there into like, okay, we’ve actually got something here, let’s start working on the next. And the next one. Can you speak a bit about how that worked? Monique Schiess: Well, I mean, I think one of the biggest kind of first steps that we did was kind of set the intention and then put up a website. Okay. It was also at the time that Facebook started. So we started Facebook group. So it was quite easy to get in contact with people, started newsletters around the intention and then started a lot of public meetings and just putting that intention out there in the world. And so, so it was very interesting. Also, the other thing is that I’d come from MCQP I was very plugged into the creative community. Sure. Robert was plugged into the creative community. Mike Suss was. And so we, we just, POPI would not allow for this now, but we had slapped all of our mailing lists together. Yeah. And started in newsletter and people could opt out and opt in, but it just started snowballing Eitan Stern: From that. When you, when you say POPI, so the protection of personal information. So this is kind of our current laws around using data, which obviously today you can’t just grab mailing list, but that back then was just, you, you, you were trying to like collate your community of party goers and, and artists in the, and Cape Town. Monique Schiess: I mean, it was very much art focused. Yeah. Gotcha. Yeah. That was pretty much the thing. And so, so, and then also, like, I just did a lot of public speaking. Like we had just, we put up like little posters and I’d talk at the armchair theater or at the Bijou or Muizenberg the one and wherever anyone invited me. Sure. Like I would go Eitan Stern: I mean, that’s fascinating to me and I think there’s a lot to talk about and take from there. So you’re saying the core thing in building this organization was starting off with, what is this organization mean? What are the values and really speaking to people about that values. And do you think doing in that, in that way has been part of the success of AfrikaBurn? Monique Schiess: Totally. Totally. I don’t think that it’s anything necessarily that we did. Yeah. I think it’s what it is that made it successful. Eitan Stern: So if you did a event in the desert with art, but without the principles yeah. You don’t think people would connected as much. Monique Schiess: No, because I think, I think that there’s some fundamental things that are going on at the burn, which makes it so meaningful to people. Sure. And that is that you part of something larger than yourself. Yeah. But also there’s, there’s other principles that, that operate in the world, which is that people want to create, but there’s not a lot of platforms to do that in the default world. It can be quite, I mean, I, I think that a lot of the success of these, these burns comes from a, as, as a responsiveness to the default world, which is hyper transactional can be quite kind of constricting, et cetera. So we, we create the space with minimum of a viable product, like a road network, some lights. Yeah. And very little infrastructure that you can see. We know if goes down, we can fix you up. But like a lot of people think we, we do nothing, you know, there’s, shitty toilets and that’s it. But the thing is, is that it’s an open source model. So we invite everyone to participate. That’s that’s the fundamental behind it is that it’s created by the participants. Yeah. So anyone who comes there creates it. And I think that’s the fundamental drive in us, which wakes shit up in people. And if waking shit up in people is your business. It’s only gonna snowball and fucking snowball it did. It was terrifying. Eitan Stern: I want to, I wanna pause you on a, for a second there. I want to get into how terrifying it got and, and how it snowballed. But I want to just delve deep into one of the things you’re saying. So if you, if you’ve got this organization, which is values based and community driven, you’re connecting people to this underlying message and value you building a community like that at which the community is participating in creating, where’s your line. How do you know what to say no to when? So if someone comes with an idea and you think, well, that is just not something which I think is safe or it’s gonna work where where’s the line. And how do you say no? Monique Schiess: Yeah. I mean, look that that’s kind of also harks back to kind of, I suppose, his principles is that, is that, so we use the collective all the time to make those kinds of decisions because there’s never any one kind of particular there’s never any one hard kind of fast rule with AfrikaBurn is that we are always only gonna be evolving and responding and evolving and responding. So, so basically like efficiency is not our metric. Sure. We, we have to consult up the kazoo, like the public, each other, this department, that department. So, so for example, Eitan Stern: Department, you don’t mean, so you mean, you mean within, within AfrikaBurn the departments that we have, Monique Schiess: That our departments, each of committees who are full of volunteers, you know, so I have an art committee of 17 people who I go, Hey guys, NFTs are coming up. We need to look at this because actually it’s hyper modification and we have a principle called decommodification. So how are we gonna engage with this? You know? Yeah. One of the biggest flash points was the first time we had to ban people from coming to the event. Okay. You know, and it’s, Eitan Stern: Can you talk about that a bit/ Monique Schiess: Really hard? Well, I mean, it was Eitan Stern: Without, obviously without mentioned names, but what, what are some of the factors that you look into Monique Schiess: The first one was a plug and play scenario. Eitan Stern: Okay. What does that mean? Monique Schiess: So obviously everyone’s supposed to generate everything that they need at the burn. There’s radical self reliance is a principles. So everyone has to bring everything that they need to survive. But what has started happening is that people start putting up camps and then selling places in the camps for profit, which Eitan Stern: Doesn’t, which doesn’t sound like a part of your original values. That’s Monique Schiess: Not part of the values. And it’s a very slippery slope as well. Eitan Stern: So even though that’s a financial benefit for you, you’re gonna cut off people of ticket sales. You’re not gonna welcome as many people who might come into the burn. You say, don’t welcome. Monique Schiess: It’s never, it’s never, ever been a numbers game. Okay. Yeah. Never, ever. And, and I think that’s also one of the, so without being dogmatic. Yeah. If you keep the first principles and I’m not saying that it’s those principles only, but first principles is that we are here to invent the world in you mm-hmm <affirmative> and we are responding to different global trends. And interestingly enough, one of the biggest global trends that we are having to respond to is the growth of festival culture. Sure. So we starting a whole campaign about, don’t use the F word because it’s not a festival, it’s an experiment, it’s a civic. It’s a different thing. Don’t use Eitan Stern: The F it’s about to say anyone from your family tend them not to use the F word’s gonna be a tough one, but I sound the F word being festival. In this instance, <laugh> got you months. Tell me something. So, so I want to, I want to Del deeper or you back a second over here. How so if this, I almost said the F word, if this, this experiment, if this event is so reliant on people, and this is massive amounts of people, logistics, art, you need people to supply the music. You need to, people to build the art. You need people to set up the toilets. This is a large amount of people. How do you go about thinking through this challenge each year? So if I think about, let’s say this podcast, my challenge, I want people to listen to it. We are thinking about how we get that. Or a festival might think about ticket sales. You don’t need a few followers. You need hoards of people. How do you think about that challenge each year? And how, and what is that like for you? Is that something that excites you about this? Or is that something terrifying each year? Do you think what if no, one’s gonna arrive with music. Monique Schiess: Mm. We all never have that problem. Eitan Stern: Okay. <laugh>, Monique Schiess: Music’s the problem <laugh> as you know. Yeah, totally. No, but I think how I approach it is actually with a bit of amusement. Sure. Because it’s a very interesting thing to have to there’s there’s always a tension between something that is a cultural movement. It’s a moving amorphous, living, breathing, evolving thing. Right. And we have to take grid networks from the default world, kind of ie budgeting and yeah. Organizational structures and you know, all the requirements of the default world insurances, et cetera. And, and, and, and melding those two together is always challenging. So, so, so, but we have got an internal thing about the fact that we don’t ever wanna become victims of our own success, because if we are chasing ticket sales, yeah. We are killing ourselves basically in the long run. Eitan Stern: So if you launched a burn and you sold 500 tickets, you would run a burn for 500 people. Monique Schiess: Exactly. And we’d have to, and, and I mean, kind of navigating the pandemic has, has really brought that home. Sure. Eitan Stern: Which we’re gonna talk about. I don’t wanna lead you though. You jump, you jumping my questions, but, but no, I definitely want to delve further into that, but I think there’s, there’s a lot of stuff to unpacked before we get there. I suppose what I, what I wanna know is like, is, is quite simply from you. Why do you think people love it so much? Why do you think people connect so deeply with the burn? And I understand what you’re saying, that there’s values in it, but there’s values in a lot of things. Why do people love the burn so much? Monique Schiess: A couple of things. Okay. One of the absolute fundamentals is that it’s fun. Eitan Stern: Yes. And it’s, I heard I’ve, I’ve heard, so yeah. Monique Schiess: Yeah. <laugh>, it’s not shallow fun. It’s like, it’s real fun. It’s real fun. But it’s it’s who, who was it? I think it was Victor Frankel that, yeah. You know, man search for meaning is that, is that real meaning and real fun ensues from doing other projects. So you come to the desert and you think like putting up a tent and like serving people, margaritas or whatever it is that you do, that’s actually hard work, you know, doing it in a hostile environment. Yeah. You can’t even get the pegs into the ground. The wind blows, the hot heat is hot. The wind is strong that like the cold is colder. It’s like, Eitan Stern: It’s, it’s a nightmare out there. Monique Schiess: It’s a nightmare out there, but visually it’s incredibly beautiful, but it’s such a hyper connective thing when you are gifting and sitting in that gift economy and you’re giving something to someone and, and you just end up having so much fun. So for me, my own personal motivation behind doing the work that we do is to make change happen for people. But we are fun and play is the vector. Yeah. That makes that change happen. And, and fun will lead you to your creativity. And creativity will always lead to a better thing in the world. So, so we’ve, so we’ve got, and so you’re buying it. You’ve got fun. Yeah. You’re buying into, so you, we’re not buying into, but you are adding or participating in something much larger than yourself. Okay. It moves you away from that individualistic stuff. Totally. The harsh environment is so important. Yeah. It’s collapses. You like it’s, it’s meant to hit you. It’s it’s Eitan Stern: Why, why do you think it’s so important? Monique Schiess: Well, because it’s not a super comfy armchair, it’s meant to rub up against you to wake things up in you. And so people, you know, they rub up against each other, they rub up against the environment. Eitan Stern: <Laugh> Monique Schiess: So, and then there’s all sorts of, it’s a very dynamic and, and it’s basically like taking a defibrillator and like kind of shocking the out of you. It’s funny. It’s something that, that wakes all sorts of things up. Eitan Stern: If I think about why I love the burden, I’ve been a couple of times for most of my, my life, my year round life. I’m a lawyer. Yeah. No lawyer at a computer working part of, as works part of a team. And there’s one week of the year where I get to go and I’m head sound engineer, and I’m, I’m vice head builder. And it’s like, it’s just a different, complete different personality that you get to put on, which I love. Yeah. Let’s flip that round then. So you got these people that love it and, and, you know, you view your patrons. Well, you don’t view your patrons as customers, but as community members, how does, if we flip that round, is there a dark side to that then? So I suppose if people love it too much and are too invested in it, how does that manifest in your organization? Monique Schiess: Yeah. I mean, the, the, I think the, for me, the universal answer to everything is it depends, it depends on how their flip side manifests. And, and that, that basically is, if you gonna say an inverted com is our business is it’s not rational. It’s, it’s a different kind of rationality. So people get very invested. Yes. As you saying, yeah. I very often jokingly call us a community of trolls, so they will stop policing each other or they’ll get very dogmatic about the principles or yes. Eitan Stern: I mean, that’s a big human experiment that you, Monique Schiess: Right. And there is a dynamic tension intentionally between the principles mm-hmm <affirmative> so, and, and it very often comes up around music because your radical self-expression is gonna rub up against my civic responsibility, which is because music is one you can’t get away from. Or the one hours, if the base is just going all night and there’s no one on your dance floor, but you need to pump the tunes. Like that’s not civically minded. Mm. But that’s, I see what you’re saying. And then, and then people get quite fighty and it, Eitan Stern: I think, I always think about the radical self-reliance up against the community aspect. Yeah. So you need to go and fend for yourself out there, but then Monique Schiess: You need the community to help you. Yeah, totally. Eitan Stern: That’s interesting. And how does this involvement? So if we think about businesses, I think about with my business, in order to make things pass, you want like buy in from people. You want people to be involved with decision making and you guys have taken that to a crazy, crazy degree. I mean, people can’t see the faces that you’re making now, but I I’m gathering from it. This is something you’ve thought through that you’ve experienced. How does this community mind and aspect manifest in decision making for the Burn? Monique Schiess: Yeah. No one person at AfrikaBurn makes a decision on their own. So again, it takes us back to that, like, efficiency is not our metric because everything takes a lot of consideration, a hell of a lot of consultation mulling over it, because there’s also very often unintended consequences to like, are we gonna try this? And then, and so, and also no decision is ever what it is. It changes the year after. So like, we’ve never had the same ticketing strategy two years in a row. Okay. Eitan Stern: This sounds like the political situation of running a country, really, essentially because you, you are running an active democracy, an organization as an active democracy. Yeah. And that’s part of why it’s can be tough, but that’s also big part of why it’s successful and you get the buy-in. Monique Schiess: Yeah, totally. But we also get, I mean, we also get people who will not even kind of, you know, they buy-in on a certain level, but it’s a fairly shallow level and they don’t read available material. Yes. So very often, you know, like often on ticketing day, especially in the early days we used to we’d like put the tickets on sale, then we would all be ready to wait until our first radical insult came in. Yes. And it was very often that we, a bunch of capitalist fuck witts et cetera. Yes. And then we’d pop the champagne and, and then you would like send, send them our, our financials and say, actually, this is hard works. No, no, no. And then you’d usually get a response back, like, sorry, sorry. Like, I’m really sorry. I didn’t know. I mean, I mean, it’s, but it’s always an opportunity for people to read parts of how we run when they’re trolling. You, you know? Yes. However we do, we do end up spending a hell of a lot of time on troll, troll coms, basically. Okay. And usually we just provide data and it kind of, and undo that we say, well, this was the decision making process. Eitan Stern: So what is the complaint that, I mean, you making it sound quite obvious, but I’m curious about it. What is the complaint that you get that people want to know where the money’s going to Monique Schiess: Absolutely Eitan Stern: Are. Yeah. Cause they’re going to this festival. They’re like, you know, you’re not putting together any music or anything. Why am I spending two grand on the tickets? Monique Schiess: No. Yeah, exactly. What is the answer? What do you guys do? Like, is this all year round? Like what, what are you doing? Like, and the Eitan Stern: Is Monique Schiess: Yes. You don’t provide anything. I’m like, okay. Street networks, if you have a heart attack, we, your guys, there’s a runway and there’s an airplane waiting on the site. There’s security, there’s lights. There’s blah, blah, blah. For Eitan Stern: Sure, I have it, I, this thing, this theory that’s I should coin the name of it one day. But my theory is that everyone undervalues everyone else’s time and effort. So when, when someone looks at you like a lawyer, they’ll say, well, what do you guys actually do? Just read contracts. It’s so easy. Why does it cost so much? The lawyers will be like, you know, we’ll have a reason for you guys. It’s like, people are like, well, what are you doing? You know, but for you guys, it’s like, yeah, this festival that you just arrived at, it didn’t just happen by chance. It took a lot of effort to make this. Monique Schiess: Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, that, that is part of our model is so that people don’t see the infrastructure until they need it. Yes. Because the model is that it’s a blank canvas and you must come and put whatever is in you on that blank canvas. Eitan Stern: I feel you Mons. I wanna ask you then a personal question. If I think about Legalese and our work, I take a hell of a lot of pride in the fact that, you know, our business has touched 5,000. We’ve got, had done work for 5,000 clients. It’s like a number I know. And it’s like, I take pride in, in the, the impact that we’ve made on the, the community around that for you guys at AfrikaBurn, you take that to a whole different level because you guys have started this event. People have got married. People have met their best friends. People have had life changing events. People have altered the course of their life based on coming to this event that you and your, your colleagues put together. How does that feel? Monique Schiess: I mean, for me, that’s the catnip. That’s the only reason why I do it. I didn’t, I didn’t get involved in starting AfrikaBurn, because I want to start an event. I want to do get a, a vector for change thing. And the, the gathering of the humans and doing what we do is that thing. So I feel bemused at just how well it has worked. <Laugh> yeah. Like, you know, like, because yeah, it’s just like, oh, look, look at that lovely thing happening and look at that nice thing. You know, there’s, there’s so much beautiful stuff that comes in that that really makes the, the radically hard slog worth it. Eitan Stern: And that’s still, that still is the thing that drives you to this day. Monique Schiess: Oh, totally. Totally. No, I would not be doing it otherwise. Okay. No, very Eitan Stern: Much. I mean, if, again, if we flip that round, when things go wrong at AfrikaBurn, they can go horribly wrong. Yeah. People, I think people have died at the event before. Monique Schiess: We’ve had two people die. Eitan Stern: How does that feel? Monique Schiess: It’s pretty, pretty challenging. Yeah. Yeah. But I mean, so for example, in both those scenarios, if you analyze all the steps to where that person died and nothing was done wrong, it’s you’re okay about it, but it is extremely hard and it’s it’s yeah. It’s an interesting thing. I mean, I must say that, that, that, it’s, it’s a very taxing aspect for us who organize. I imagine I, I very often have sleepless nights in the run. I have anxiety. We all have anxiety, so that’s very, very good, like month before. Eitan Stern: So yeah. What is, when you wake up at 3:00 AM leading up to a burn, what is that anxiety about? Is it about budgets and lists or is it about people? What, what Monique Schiess: Is it well, this, this year it was particularly about whether the new site would work. Okay. Eitan Stern: Oh Monique Schiess: My God. So Eitan Stern: Tell us a little bit about that. Monique Schiess: Well, Terra for two and a half years, you know, like since we got the land, like finding how it would work and drawing up a new town plan, because Eitan Stern: You guys have just moved venues, Monique Schiess: Just moved venues 13 years on Stonehenge, a beloved and very well known space. Yeah. And Eitan Stern: That people have connected with and seen Monique Schiess: Absolutely. We’ve infused that place with everything. We’ve danced it to little and now you Eitan Stern: Moving to Monique Schiess: A different place. Yeah. Which is a beautiful place. I’ve spent two years cruising that place during lockdown, you know, trying to work out where we would have the event and how would all work, et cetera. And then we had this biblical wind and all the sand was deposited onto the site of the event. It’s suddenly we were like, okay, well we just gonna have a really Sandy event and people are gonna be getting arrived. Yes. Just from the big wind. Well it’s dynamic system, but it’s also ecologically. So there’s a lot of, you know, a lot of sand flying around. Yeah. And also the desert, as you know, those winds are epic. Eitan Stern: And so there’s the logistics of this year’s venue. What else was keeping you awake this year? Monique Schiess: My biggest fear is that, is that a child gets hurt. Okay. Eitan Stern: Wow. Monique Schiess: Yeah. Eitan Stern: It’s most people don’t have that in their day to over. Monique Schiess: They will. No, that’s the, and, and yeah, we have as much stuff in place. I mean, it’s interesting that we get a low risk rating every year because we are so civically minded and they are so many measures in place. You know, like when we, in the early days, when we weren’t looking for someone who would ensure us, it was, oh my God, thank you. And to explain what we do. So, so, but then we had to take them through our range of manuals and our all, all the kind of different processes that we have set up. And the guy was like, oh yeah, no, for sure hit it. We’ll we’ll ensure you, you know, Eitan Stern: Why don’t you then make rules around bringing kids to the burn? Monique Schiess: Because I think that it would be silly to not allow kids to come. Okay. Eitan Stern: Yeah. That’s really speaking straight to the values of what you, Monique Schiess: Yeah. I don’t know about it. Like, honestly, like in 2007, all, all my friends used to bring their kids and we always had at least 17 kids running around and those kids are all now in their early twenties. Sure. And I’m not saying it’s cuz of the burn, but they are the most remarkable people. Yeah. They just brave. And then they start doing artworks, you know, and it’s like, it’s a healthy thing. Eitan Stern: One of the things that I love doing at the burn I do it every couple of years, or whenever I can is you land up finding a group of these like 10 or 12 year olds who, who are kind of just old enough to be cruising around by themselves in groups. And I love hanging out with them and they adventures and the missions and the stories that are happening. Seeing the burn through that age, that mind of a child that age, it’s just so much fun. Monique Schiess: It’s also, you know, you get them involved in building your structures and they learn those kind of ethos. And they’re amazing. I love the kids. Yeah. I, in in fact it’s a problem that we’ve identified is that people are not bringing their kids anymore. Eitan Stern: Okay. So that’s cuz you, you probably looking at this as a future burn, like you need people to be buying into this thing. You don’t want to go the way of Facebook or something, which is like all the kids. Yeah. Afrikaburns for the old foggie. Monique Schiess: Well, no, it’s, it’s more, I think it’s more that the more people that get exposed to the burn in a healthy manner. Yeah. The more it affects the world, you know? Oh, wow. Eitan Stern: Okay. Let’s talk about the pandemic. You guys are in the advanced business through the pandemic. That must have been tough. How did it impact AfrikaBurn and where you guys now Monique Schiess: It severely impacted us <laugh> it was, oh my God. In the run, after canceling, it was like a war Eitan Stern: Room because you guys had to cancel just before, Monique Schiess: Just before lockdown happened. Yeah. Wow. Okay. We literally, we, we made the cancellation announcement on the Friday and then Syrill made his announcement on the Eitan Stern: Sunday and I’m sure some people agreed with your decision and some people didn’t. Monique Schiess: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Well, I mean, we are a community of anarchists and they were like, oh, we will get together. We will burn. And I was just like, guys, whether the actual disease like exists or not is immaterial. The effects that it’s having on the world totally are material. And we cannot go ahead with this thing, you Eitan Stern: Know? So, so that was, then that was what took two years ago. Yeah. And how’s AfrikaBurn looking now I know you guys just did the first burn since COVID. Monique Schiess: Yeah. We, I mean, we, we are on our knees financially. Okay. Proper on our knees and the, the Eitan Stern: Just cuz two years of no revenue is not easy for business. Monique Schiess: Exactly. And, and the other thing is, is, and this is one of our kind of weaknesses is that our primary income is the ticket revenue. Mm that’s. The, you know, aside from having a couple of other funders, et cetera, but it’s the, the lion’s share of it is the ticket revenue. So we had a, a fundraising campaign and we raised a little bit of that. And then we also had some capital reserve that we’ve used up. And so we pretty much on our knees financially. Okay. Trying to build it up, but also Eitan Stern: Also planned to get out of Monique Schiess: That. We, we also went down from a crew of 27 down to seven. And so running at an entire event on that amount of people Eitan Stern: Was, is not easy. Monique Schiess: Yeah. And I’m not as young as I used to be. <Laugh> oh my God. I, so, Eitan Stern: So, so, okay. So, so you got through this year’s event and now the plans are starting for next year. So is there, is this like a, is there’s a plan to kind of dig back or, or to build back Monique Schiess: To yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So we, we busy working out the logistics for the next round, but also try to rebuild our team because we won’t be able to do another event with that, that few people. Yeah. Eitan Stern: So then Mon, just to, to round it up, what about you personally, where do you see the future of AfrikaBurn going to, so you’re gonna get this next year event going and what does the future of AfriKaBurn look like for you? And I know you mentioned earlier, you said the land that’s and I know that you’ve, we’ve been quite invested in this land that you bought. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that in the plans, but what does AfrikaBurn look like in 10 years time? Monique Schiess: I mean, for me, it’s, it’s quite a, it’s quite a hard question to ask because it’s an experiment. Mm. I don’t feel like we can design what it’s gonna be. So none of us thought that in the beginning, in the early days, either we were just kind of balls to the wall and trying it. So for me, if we keep our first principles, right, I E the blank canvas, the open source us, the, the fact that we have to enable creative projects, et cetera. But I also think that we are at a juncture in the world where we’ve got to look at our own relevance. And so looking at us in the context of the default world and global trends, et cetera, and go, are we relevant? And what’s happening at the burn that makes it, what’s exposing hypocrisies. What’s, what’s what are bad trends or whatever, and, and kind of twiddling the knobs on those kinds of things to keep that event still as a pure portal, through which people leap into accessing creativity. So, so that it’s still doing good work in the world. I don’t wanna do it if it’s just a festival where everyone goes onto and buys a fucking headdress, Eitan Stern: And none of your crew want to do it in that instance. Monique Schiess: <Laugh> no, exactly. You know, and, and even that is like disturbing me a little bit is, is actually just even the aesthetic of the burn is just getting very mono. It’s very mono kind of anyway, regardless, that’s a side note, but so for me, obviously the land was a huge project and that allows us to expand our focus from being just centered around a particular time of year in a particular event. And we are, we can now expand all of our operations into the all year round. That’s exciting. And structurally we can, we can infuse that idealism that informs what we do into all of our operations. So circular economy systems, you know, the human mirroring and the renewables and like gray water and all that kind of stuff. That development is all under way. Gotcha. And, and ideally, if the burn is doing its work in the world, what it’s doing is it’s moving out horizontally yeah. Monique Schiess: In the world. So as the burn changes people’s lives, we must also be practicing what we preach. And, and for me personally, there’s two specific items that we can’t, we can’t ignore. And that is the environmental imperative. And also integration, no one, no one in the world can be passive about integration. Totally. And so using our experimental approach and our playfulness and art is the kind of alchemical kind of agent to engage with those issues in the world. And hopefully it’ll just expand. So I don’t know what exactly what it looks like, but those are the first principles Eitan Stern: Mons. I can’t think of a better place to leave it. Thank you so much for that. I think this has been the most interesting chat and thanks for joining us. Monique Schiess: Hmm. Pleasure. Eitan Stern: This podcast is recorded by Simon Atwell. The intro music is by PHFat. I’m your host Eitan Stern for more information about Legalese, catch us on Or on the socials.  
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