Theme Camps: Encouraging Participation, Contribution and Consensus

[This is the second in our series of three posts about Theme Camps for the Metropol Blog Series.]

Theme Camps are arguably the cultural lifeblood of [BM].  Participants gather their friends to camp together, establishing a common theme on which to base the interaction they hope to engender with the citizens of Black Rock City.  As free form and wide-ranging as they can be, from the sublime to the ridiculous, Theme Camps create an ambience, a visual presence, and in some way provide a communal space or provide interactivity.  As such, they are very much the cultural engine of Black Rock City.

So we went to the source and did some interviews with a (wildly broad) representative sampling of camp organizers, including Bad Idea Theater (an entertainment camp), Kidsville (for families and children), Mal-Mart Mega Store (a parody camp), Root Society (a dance camp), Suspended Animation (a BDSM bondage camp), and for this post we have added the Golden Cafe, an exotic bar. We asked them a whole bunch of questions, and we’ll present more in future posts.

In these interviews the theme camps responded to questions about how they encourage participation and contribution and whether they create consensus out of conflict within their camps. To read more about each camp click on the link that is the name of their camp. Here are the results of the interviews:

How do you manage participation and contribution within your camp?

Bad Idea Theater:  The camp is run as a co-op, with each member being a co-owner of the project. Each member funds the project with dues and is responsible for working shifts in the public area as well as responsibilities in the private camp area; there are no exceptions to this rule. Contribution and participation are required by each member as a requirement of being a camp member.  As a co-op, every member agrees in advance to work schedules and all camp plans. The vast majority of camp members are veteran Burners who are very familiar with what it takes to run a full time theme camp on the Playa.

Yoga on the Trampoline at Kidsville

Kidsville: Participation begins ramping up long before the event each year, as Kidsvillains communicate with each other online led by the Kidsville Mayor, currently Mayor Lora. The Kidsville Mayors past and present have developed an effective communication schedule for the year that gets us all involved to whatever degree each person is interested and able.
Sign-ups for various responsibilities such as Greeters-On-Duty (aka GODs), who greet families arriving at Kidsville and place their camps within the village, begin early in the summer and we fill in any gaps on-playa. The Mistress/Master of MOOP is a volunteer each year whose responsibilities begin several months pre-playa (educating our community), continuing through the event with the organization of on-playa clean-up activities, and following-up post-playa with a report out to the community regarding how successful (or not) we were with our Leave No Trace responsibilities.

Rather amazingly, Kidsville does not charge any fees or dues. When we need money for things like paying for the year-round storage in Gerlach, or purchasing items such as materials for flag-poles, the Mayor sends out a request for funds and people in the Kidsville community just donate whatever they can. So far, this has worked effectively.

One major item of note in Kidsville is that the Kidsville community does not provide child-care services. This is a topic that requires continual reminders to Kidsville families as well as to the larger Black Rock City community – EACH PARENT IS RESPONSIBLE FOR HIS/HER OWN CHILDREN AT ALL TIMES. Responsibility for our children is taken very seriously within the Kidsville community; parents who fail in that responsibility are not welcome to return to Kidsville.

In addition to general parent responsibility, the Black Rock Rangers and Kidsville have worked together to develop a set of procedures regarding finding lost children (or returning children to lost parents). Kidsville requires all children in the village to wear brightly colored Kidsville bracelets. This allows Rangers to quickly identify children who belong to Kidsville families, and has also allowed Kidsville to track whether lost children at the Burning Man event are Kidsville children or not. Most people in the larger BRC community probably are not even aware that there is a well-thought-out and strictly followed set of procedures that are immediately put in motion when a child is reported lost within the City. Families in the Kidsville community are reminded of this each year during our pre-event, online communications.

Kidsville is one of the largest villages in BRC, with a strong sense of community. As with any community, there are sometimes ‘slackers’ and sometimes even people who fail to take responsibility for their children or who otherwise break the few rules that Burning Man has for its citizens. If necessary, such participants may be told by the Mayor that they cannot return to Kidsville. Overall however, participation and contribution within the village are encouraged by the lively communications that occur all year among the Kidsville community members. Once engaged in the Kidsville community, nearly all families find that the community’s enthusiasm and creativity are infectious. Volunteerism and participation are a significant part of what makes the Kidsville experience engaging and exciting for Kidsville parents as well as our children.

Mal-Mart Mega Store: We have dozens of camp members who all contribute to the general planning and organization of the camp through regular meetings… but leadership is necessary, so with a core 4 member team, each with a

Mal-Mart, photo by Waldemar Horwat, 2008

different aspect of the planning and admin assigned to them, we are able to effectively delegate and control all the aspects of the camp. Of course a large scale build such as Mal-Mart Mega Store requires a lot of cash flow… raising that money means collecting dues from all members, as well as planning fund raising events throughout the coming months!

Root Society: Our captains donate the majority of the infrastructure expenses. Our camp dues support the basics.  Our core group is from Boston. Our sound, lights and other items all come by truck from Boston. Our domes/tipi’s are stored in Oregon and the set up crew(12) come from that area. We typically host about 40 artists/deejay’s from about 10 countries.

We divide the work into manageable chunks:
-Setup-our dome/tipi crew comes in 1 week early to build the structures with our 2nd wave focused on building out the dance “clubs” and kitchen. Our set up group is 25-28 with our ranks growing Mon-Thursday to about 100.

Our major expenses: 85 ton crane to erect our 90/60 foot domes, lull, cherry picker and scissor lift. We typically help other camps with our equipment. We run 2 generators- a 225 cat generator for the dance stages and a CAT 40 for camp, we have our own bathroom unit with a water bladder that hold 1800 gallons of drinking water. We empty our sewage/grey water daily and go through 2500 gallons of water in and out.

We have our own trash truck. We take 60 huge bags of recycle and 40 bags of trash back to Reno in a 24 foot rental box truck. The majority of our trash comes from gifts left in our domes by all of the Burners that come to dance. More about this in a future post.

We own two tractor trailer 53 foot boxes that we store in Gerlach all year. They are delivered onsite and hold our tipi poles, dance cages, kitchen, 20 chill beds, 50 bikes, etc etc etc.

We have assigned Captains for Moop, Security, Food, Transportation, Lodging, Trash/recycling, Music Programming/DJ talent. Many of these roles then have 6-10 volunteers assigned to each “activity”. We promise a work hard-play harder atmosphere with common dining and occasional meetings to keep everyone in synch.

We are completely self contained and for the most part don’t ask for any help from the burning man management team. We follow the [BM] annual theme with some sort of flair of our own. We openly recruit people to help and camp with us.

The Golden Cafe, 2008
The Golden Cafe, 2008

The Golden Cafe: When our camp was founded, each member threw in all the labor and funding they could muster, in an effort to perform a single function – to serve the most extraordinary cocktails on the playa. At this stage of our development, we didn’t really need a guiding philosophy for participation, and everyone naturally focused on how to squeeze the most value out of every dollar and every hour they contributed. Camp dues in those early years were officially around $325 per member, but less than a dozen of us were silently spending many times that off budget to make the camp as amazing as possible.

As the camp grew, and especially as we added new functions – live music and a communal kitchen – it became apparent that different members had different priorities, valued contributions differently, had different personal resources available from year to year, and expected different portions of the overall budget for their projects. For instance, some members wanted participation in our meal plan to be mandatory to foster a sense of community, whereas other members wanted to be able to opt out of the meal plan because of their dietary needs or to save money for travel expenses. More importantly, when our newer members wanted to expand their favorite project, they didn’t want to convince their peers to contribute time and money voluntarily as we had done in the beginning – they wanted the camp leader to raise dues for everyone and allocate the resources to them in one big lump. Eventually we reached a point where there seemed to be more effort spent lobbying for the doubling or quadrupling of various project budgets, with an associated increase in camp dues to levels that nobody would pay, than in figuring out how to use the available resources efficiently.    In an effort to reverse this trend, we began a radical effort to decentralize both budgeting and planning and let each member decide how to invest their own time and money. The idea was to reduce the mandatory camp dues to the point where they cover just the recurring costs of our core functions – truck rental, storage rental, liquor to be served at the bar, etc – and let our kitchen, showers, meal plan, chill space, and other functions scale up or down in direct relation to the number of members willing to voluntarily contribute. Further, we started slicing up the handful of large projects in the camp into dozens of smaller projects, finding a dedicated director for each, to ensure that everyone had an active hand in planning. We even went so far as to create a full menu of options that members select from when they sign up each year, including services they may want to use and interesting projects they may want to contribute to – any member of the camp can add a project or service to the menu in order to raise funds or rally assistance.   Adopting this decentralized approach breathed new life into the camp, shifting the focus away from budget negotations and towards the actual projects – we look forward to testing the system further this year, as many of our little projects like the Black Rock Wine Cellar spin off to become their own camps within our village.

Suspended Animation: We’re a hard-working camp: because we put on a very intensive schedule of events with a relatively small crew, we expect that everyone who camps with us (including “plus-ones”) will put in a significant amount of work both on the playa and beforehand. We divide playa work into three categories: setup and teardown, camp infrastructure, and events. Because of the size of our structures, setup and teardown require pretty much the whole crew. Everyone does a little bit of infrastructure work (getting ice, de-MOOPing, etc.), and everyone works three event shifts. Event shifts may involve tying people up, teaching classes, or greeting visitors at the door.

We don’t schedule any camp events on Thursday, so that everyone can take a break from doing bondage and go explore the city. That’s the theory, anyway. What usually seems to end up happening is that we all spend the day doing guerilla bondage around the city.

How do you manage consensus and conflict with your campmates?

Bad Idea Theater: We’ve been fortunate that over the years, we haven’t really ever had much conflict. As much as possible we try and keep all the camp members on an equal footing. When someone wants to change an established practice or try something new, we discuss it as a group. That way everyone is aware and has a chance to voice their opinion. We try and avoid “side deals” and special treatment. If someone has a need they bring it up in front of the group, if it’s a shady or selfish request, most people will self edit instead of being publicly selfish. If there is dissension we take a simple vote. In the end this usually winds up being a consensus, but true consensus is usually just an ideal. True compromise only occurs with a feeling of security and trust. Having a small group that knows each other helps to foster those feelings and you don’t feel quite so cheated if you don’t always get your way.

We also understand that we are in an extreme environment and undertaking an arduous task. It’s the kind of environment where dehydration sets in, frustrations mount, and tempers can flare. Some of this is helped by actually knowing your campmates. We keep it to a small number, so we actually know our campmate’s names and it’s easier to look at each other as real people and not “that guy in the blue tent who snores”. We also have evolved some guidelines, For example, it’s easier for someone else to tell if you are dehydrated. So if a camp member tells you to drink a glass of water or to get out of the sun and take a break, we have all agreed that you have to and you aren’t allowed to complain about it. If you find yourself annoyed about something a good rule is to drink two glasses of water and sit down for twenty minutes and see if you are still angry. If you are, that might be a good time to have a rational conversation about what’s bothering you. Take a moment and stop worrying about what you want and seriously consider what the other person wants. Most of the time, after your self imposed time out, you realize you aren’t really angry. Like most arguments in the real world, its not the original silly problem you get most upset about, it’s what was said in the heat of the moment during an argument.

Once again, I could refer to a few things I learned in kindergarten. Play nice, share, and hold hands when crossing the street, if you hurt someone’s feelings, say “I’m sorry,” and give them a hug.

Kidsville: We are aware of how important the pre-event online communications are, in creating a strong sense of community. Building that sense of community among Kidsvillains year-round fosters inter-personal respect. The Kidsville community includes people with a wide variety of perspectives which are regularly expressed in our online discussions.  Still, sometimes conflicts do occur. Kidsville participants are encouraged to work out any differences among themselves. If that is not effective, then the Mayor may step in, but only if necessary.

Mal-Mart Mega Store: If there’s one thing you can count on while building and planning a big scale theme camp it’s that things can and will go wrong.  There will be bumps on the road, setbacks, failures, catastrophes and days where it just seems like it’s all going to fall apart… of course, handling things during those difficult times, when all seems lost, is something of a trial in its own right.  The problem with facing “problems” is that, invariably, the stress triggers emotional reactions that tend to blur logic and reason and suddenly a “problem” becomes a personal conflict.  Allowing your selves to blow off steam is the most important aspect, and not personalizing someone else’s meltdown is also important.  If something goes wrong, not everyone can keep a cool head.  We have discovered that in times of great stress, the ones maintaining “clarity” are the ones best equipped at calming the mood and restoring fun and joy to the process.  So like everything, building a great camp means also building good relationships with a great deal of tolerance, patience and empathy!

Root Society: We have 5 captains, accomplished Root Society Burner leaders that personally contribute in every way that lead our camp. We have camp meetings at dinner where we discuss the day and expectations for the evening. We moop at sunrise as a camp. The call is “we work hard and play harder” everyone gets it. I also push simple messages:
–Don’t ask “when something will happen or how come this didn’t happen”

Root Society at Sunset, photo: Jared Mechaber

–Do ask “how can I help make this happen”

Generally our camp drama is kept to a dull roar. Even in the big domes conflict is handled gracefully:
–“manage with a soft touch not a clenched fist”. Try this…it works!

The Golden Cafe: We don’t have much conflict, because we don’t seek much consensus – in essence, we’re a society of independent volunteer autocrats. Every aspect of running the camp, from placement, to kitchen  organization, to furniture design, to shower construction, to meal planning, to the power grid, to trash handling, is an independent project  managed by someone who  volunteered to figure it out and get it done – and with the responsibility to MAKE it happen comes the authority to decide HOW it will happen. Of course we all want our various projects to be wildly successful, so we all seek input from other members of the camp where possible…and we all need help with our projects, so we put more weight on input from members who volunteer their own time and resources to assist us…but when a difference of opinion arises, everyone knows who is doing the work, everyone knows who is going to be held accountable, and everyone knows that the only way to supersede the decisionmaker would be to do the work themselves and assume full responsibility for that project.

And note that this approach is hierarchical. For instance, someone needs to be in charge of our meal plan, so the word goes out, someone volunteers, and I make it official. The new head of the meal plan then needs a chef for every meal, so the word goes out, a dozen or so people volunteer, and the head of the meal plan makes it official. If someone else wants to start a competing meal plan, they’re welcome to do so.  If the head of the meal plan feels the need to establish rules that their chefs must follow, they can do so at their whim, but they know if they’re unreasonable some or all of the chefs may walk. Likewise if I as the head of the camp feel the need to establish rules that the head of the meal plan must follow. As we grow into a village this year, the same relationship exists with the heads of our participating camps and the members of their teams.

Ultimately, the glue that holds this system together is the voluntary nature of the relationships on every level – everyone can act decisively because there is no need to wait for consensus, but if you want your project to succeed, you have a strong incentive to involve others, seek their opinions, and work through disagreements with due respect.

Suspended Animation: For starters, our idea of fun is to tie people up, hang them from things, and do interesting things to them until they shriek and squeal. Imagine what happens if you piss us off.

The main way in which we avoid drama is to make picking a solid crew our top priority. If you have time, resources, and inclination you can go to Burning Man; if you have all that plus you’re cool, you can camp with people; if you understand that while our shade structure is our shelter, our crew is our sanctuary, you can camp with us.

Underlying this everyone-has-your-back ethic is the reality that we are not a democracy, we are a benevolent dictatorship of two camp coordinators. If hard decisions have to be made (especially about people), the coordinators make them and spare the crew the inevitable drama. This helps keep the air clear because nobody feels they have to form a junta to get things done.

It’s rare, if ever, that it comes to that. All of us know that orders by fiat won’t make a great camp, so the whole crew takes ownership of planning, building, and running an amazing experience for us all.

About the author: Affinity


Affinity, a Burner since 2000, was legally married on the Playa in 2001, was wedding coordinator and then training coordinator at Burning Man, before becoming the Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF) Social Media Coordinator and an Advisory Board Member. An attorney, she served on the Board of Directors of the Western Pension and Benefits Conference. She interned with the Human Awareness Institute for 10 years. She writes about how art is envisioned, produced, created, installed and its afterlife.