[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]
In the two weeks since this year’s Burn I’ve noticed a fair amount of press claiming “the rich are ruining Burning Man” and I’ve seen a handful of stories on Facebook about confrontational run-ins with people at so-called “rich camps” in Black Rock City. I hear a growing conversation around radical self-reliance and the perceived threat to Burning Man culture posed by “turnkey” and “plug and play” camps on the playa. I’d like to offer the following perspectives to help inform your own conversations and dialogues on these topics.
First, let’s talk definitions:
Turnkey Camp: A Burning Man camp built by a production team where (generally) paid staff members create the infrastructure so that camp members don’t have to.
Plug and Play Camp: The older term for turnkey camp.
Radical Self-Reliance: One of Burning Man’s 10 Principles. Radical Self-Reliance states: “Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.”
The Ten Principles: The Burning Man 10 Principles were written by Larry Harvey, at the request of the other Burning Man founders, in 2004 to help support the demand of the growth of the Burning Man Regional Network. They were written to be *descriptive* not prescriptive. They are not intended to be dogmatic. They form a cultural guide map that is aspirational, not absolute.
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Next, let’s look at the problem at hand:
Since 2010, there has been an increase in the number of camps run by long-time Burners who are paid to work during the event week. They are hired by a “camp owner” or camp funder and they usually work collaboratively with the owner to determine the vision of the camp and the level of services provided, and then produce the camp as planned. Often times these camps are inhabited by people who are coming to Burning Man for the first time. Some of these camps go so far as to provide costumes and pre-decorated bikes.
This year I noticed a few new things.
Some of the turnkey camps are becoming their own theme camps. Some of the “clients” of the turnkey camps have become artists. Some of the attitudes of the camp funders have changed to where they are wanting all of their camp members to contribute to the camp in some way, other than just through camp dues. (For you long-time Burners, I can see your eyes rolling. Read on.)
On the other end of the spectrum, I surprisingly encountered a new turnkey-like camp that was being produced by a couple people who had never been to Burning Man before. This definitely caught my attention. How can someone produce a camp in the spirit of Burning Man if they’ve never been to Burning Man?
I often talk about this concept of “The Evolution of a Burner”. When you track the development of individuals and camps over time, you start to notice trends. Generally speaking, The Evolution of a Burner is as follows:
Many people come to Burning Man for the first or second time and party their faces off. In your first experiences of Burning Man, you are blown away by the spirit of generosity and the creativity found in Black Rock City. You likely find yourself saying, “Next year I want to _______!”
In subsequent years, you might find yourself dressing in costumes, painting your face, giving food away, serving drinks in a bar, helping people find their soul mates, or maybe giving free bad advice.
Eventually you decide you want to try something more ambitious. Maybe you start a camp with your friends. Maybe your camp becomes a registered theme camp. Or maybe you decide to build an art car or an interactive art piece.
You spend all year thinking about your project. You work with friends. You fund it together somehow. You’re living Burning Man year-round.
Maybe you start to think about how the skills you’ve learned through all of these projects can be useful in the world beyond Black Rock City. Maybe you get involved in Burners Without Borders or some other civic involvement group. Maybe you start a free library on your street corner. You find yourself feeling that you have something to contribute to the world and you find yourself more willing to initiate engagement with others.
At this point, you’ve earned a lot of experience. You know how things work at Burning Man. You understand the culture. You know to pick up after yourself. You know the value of being helpful. You know the value of being generous. You know the value of expressing yourself and of doing more than just partying.
At this point, perhaps you’ve become a Jaded Burner. One of those who love Burning Man so much that we take offense to all the “newbies” who are partying their faces off. Who aren’t picking up after themselves. Who are “ruining” Burning Man because they don’t understand the culture.
The thing to remember is that we were all once first timers. We all at one point didn’t “get” the culture.
It takes a couple years for that understanding to set in.
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Getting back to the turnkey camps and “the rich people”.
Some folks on Facebook have shared their stories about unfriendly experiences with people who were apparently connected to “rich camps”. I also have my own story from this year.
That new camp that I mentioned being produced by two people who had never been to Burning Man before — yes, I had an unexpected and unpleasant experience with someone from their camp. It was an interaction that left me feeling unwelcome and shocked. What I ended up doing then and there was talking with the woman who had been icy cold toward me. I said to her that I wanted to clear any weirdness between us. I asked her if this was her first time to Burning Man. It was. I then said to her, warmly and kindly, “This is a place where people are friendly and playful with each other. This is not a place where you need to protect yourself from me or from anyone else in this city. We’re here together to have fun together. So, welcome. Welcome to Black Rock City. Welcome to Burning Man.” Her attitude changed. That wasn’t what she was expecting from me. She wasn’t expecting hospitality.
There are numerous examples of camps that have transitioned over the last four years — camps that started out as lavish, exclusive, bought party experiences for the camp members. This year those same camps were producing huge gifts for the playa: stages with live performances, dance camps, art pieces. Some of those same camp owners who a few years ago were just there to party are now asking, “How do we get our camp members more involved? We don’t want them just coming here to consume a bought experience.”
I’ve been talking a lot lately about this idea of getting your hands dirty. Burning Man is a place to get your hands dirty — where you can learn new things, grow, and have fun while doing it.
The problem in Black Rock City is not “rich people”. To think that way is to be prejudiced.
In my opinion, the problem is one of sharing the stories of what it means to be part of Black Rock City. As I see it, there are two issues to address:
- There is an influx of people who have the means to outsource their entire creative process to a paid staff. The problem with outsourcing your creativity is that you miss the opportunity to get your hands dirty. And this is often one of the most rewarding parts of Burning Man. You miss the opportunity to learn new things, to grow, and to challenge and surprise yourself.
- The other problem is that these same people are often accustomed to living exclusive “VIP” lifestyles. They are accustomed to living behind walls, away from interacting with the general public. What these people don’t realize is that the greatest fun in Black Rock City is often had in chance encounters with random people — with the “general public” of Burning Man.
You can’t blame them for not knowing any better. How can you expect a person to change and live differently if he or she has never been shown a better way?
I believe that with time, with hospitality, and with excellent storytelling we will see more camp organizers/producers/funders starting to ask the question, “How do I help my camp members get their hands dirty?”
The solution to this problem is around us educating each other. It’s going to take those of us who are experienced, whether jaded or not, deploying our best human connection skills to talk about this culture that we love so much.
Have you considered that maybe the producers and owners of the turnkey camps are interested in sharing ideas on how to make better camps at Burning Man? Have you considered that maybe there might be something that you can learn from each other? Have you considered that no one has all the answers? That we’re each doing the best we can at any given moment?
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Let’s talk about Radical Self-Reliance.
As I mentioned, the 10 Principles are aspirational. They are not absolute. No one is ever fully self-reliant unless you’re surviving in the wilderness with tools and equipment that you personally made. We all rely on the efforts, services and products of other people, whether that be food, fuel, transportation, clothing, shelter, etc.
To claim that camp members paying for services is the center of the problem and that this is not self-reliant misses the mark. Some camps have teams of folks who are contributing value to the city in ways that might not be shown in their camps: big artworks on the Esplanade, for example.
If a camp is currently in its evolutionary stage of “partying its face off”, let’s remember that most of us were once there, too. Let’s remember that today’s newbie, today’s first time camp, could evolve in a few years’ time into something wonderfully generous and beautiful for the people of Black Rock City.
If you’re someone who loves Burning Man passionately, if you’re someone who likes to get involved in making solutions, recognize that solving this problem is going to take us reaching out to others to show these newer people that it’s fun to interact, that it’s fun to participate, and that it’s fun to get your hands dirty.
It’s easy to get angry. It’s easy to be hurt and to recoil and to hurl insults. The more courageous choice, the more powerful choice, requires you speaking up in kind and patient ways. Be hospitable. Be generous. Be creative in your interactions. Isn’t this why you love Burning Man?
I see these problems as an opportunity for all of us to up-level our skills for interacting in ways that de-escalate the tension that arises when something we love seems threatened. Perhaps this is the new way for you, my experienced friend, to get your hands dirty.