If the purpose of art is to wash the dust of daily life off our souls, the mission of a Burning Man Theme Camp is to create a home that settles into the dust and adapts. People come to the Black Rock Desert to test themselves. It’s been our academy for learning how to plan, transport, build and manage a community in a frequently inhospitable environment. The lessons we’ve learned on the playa give us the grit to take on logistical challenges in the default world that would not have seemed possible before we learned how to weather whiteouts, 50-mph wind gusts, and unnavigable mud.
Our research outpost on the playa is a Theme Camp called Soft Landing that was created in 2011 and has attempted since then to live up to the promise of its name. Last year we welcomed 150 campers into our 200′ by 150′ allotment. Thousands of guests visit our two primary art projects, the Full Circle Tea House and the Palenque Norte speaker series. First located at 9:15 and B, we have been steadily relocated further back towards F by the sometimes unknowable hand of Placement, but visitors find us year after year. We arrive on playa to serve tea to builders a week before Burning Man begins, run the Tea House 24/7 after the gate opens, and stay for an average of fifteen days.
Chris Pezza and I have served as camp managers for Soft Landing since its inception — together with our cheerful friend Tryp who acts as camp mayor and internal placement director. When you need to ask a group of tired people to please move their tents seven feet to the right in the middle of the night, you need a person like Tryp to make that task seem joyful. This year, Chris and I are retiring as camp managers and launching a long-planned exit strategy to hand the camp off to Tryp and Starfox, our respected and resourceful truck driver, who will hopefully guide Soft Landing forward for years to come. I’m also marking my 20th consecutive year on the playa in 2016. If playa years are like dog years, I’m a 140-year old Burner. Permit me the prerogative of age to make a few unvarnished observations about Theme Camp management that we are passing along to our successors.
The most concise descriptors of our camp management strategy are these: Organized yet decentralized, technologically innovative, aspirationally self-sufficient and focused on the well being of others. All Theme Camps are different, but these guiding principles work for us. Soft Landing has always had a group of committed managers willing to take on the laborious tasks of storing camp gear, submitting a camp application, allotting preferred ticketing, vetting prospective campers, collecting dues, managing a camp bank account, renting trucks, organizing load and build crews, arranging fuel and water deliveries, and managing disputes to ensure that we remain friends throughout it all. The managers wrangle logistics, but the camp is organized into neighborhoods, each headed by a designated leader who collaborates with managers on behalf of their tribe. These leaders tell us who they expect in that year’s tribal cluster, how large a footprint their group needs, and what kind of structures they plan to erect. Managers and leaders create a camp layout based on this information which Tryp uses to greet and guide campers to their neighborhoods when they arrive at Soft Landing.
Soft Landing does not have a central meal plan, but we do set up a collective kitchen. Many of our neighborhood groups also run their own kitchens, a decentralized approach that eliminates long lines of people eating on someone else’s schedule. We ask each neighborhood to bring their own power source, food and water and haul out their own gray water and trash. Setting these expectations leads to a culture of self-sufficiency that attracts low maintenance, hard working camp members who are often over-prepared and willing to help one another. We do hire a chef to feed our build crew and make our own sauerkraut to be hospitable to our microbiomes. Since 1999, members of Soft Landing have also subsidized the internet access used by all Theme Camps on the playa, and we run an open access point for our campers, neighbors, and Tea House guests. Our Palenque Norte speaker series promotes access to information by offering presentations from notable thinkers and artists. People of all generations camp with us which we take as a sign of a healthy, thoughtful community. When a member of our camp dies during the preceding year, we walk together to the Temple and hold a ritual for them.
In addition to our social systems, Soft Landing creates technologies that are appropriate to the needs of our campers and art projects. For instance, we long ago rejected gray water evaporation ponds as environmentally unsustainable and developed instead what we call our Evapotrons — columns of burlap-covered wire fencing standing in kiddie pools that are strapped to the top of our box truck. Gray water from the Tea House is carried by hand up a ladder to the pools where it is circulated with a pump to the top of each column and evaporated by the wind. The ladder system exposes the Evapotrons to the wind and sun and discourages campers from dumping their own gray water into them, as happened frequently when they were on the ground. Developed by our clever friend Wylbur, the Evapotrons evaporate hundreds of gallons of gray water. Visitors from the Bureau of Land Management are pleased with this approach.
In regards to infrastructure, Soft Landing has always attempted to move beyond radical self-sufficiency towards actual self-sufficiency. I’ve been observing the evolution of the Burning Man organization since I arrived on the playa as a member of the press in 1996, and I regard it in the same way that I do the federal government. It serves some essential functions and it’s best to rely on it as little as possible. Soft Landing has never taken any funding or free tickets from Burning Man. We finance our camp and our art projects with a modest camp fee of $200. Our annual pilgrimage to the independent 4th of Juplaya celebration has assisted our evolution towards self-sufficiency. We learned there how to haul all our own fuel and water and develop simple bucket toilets with kitty litter and privacy tents. If fuel, water, and porta-potty infrastructure failed at Burning Man, our camp could adapt while respecting the land.
The real secret sauce to our camp’s collective survival has been our focus on the well being of everyone who steps inside Soft Landing. While the ancestral progenitor who occupied our location before us, Camp Above the Limit, ran a lively bar, we made a decision not to serve alcohol in our camp. I enjoy an occasional cocktail, but I believe that the conflating of the gift economy with free alcohol has compromised the public health and social cohesion of Black Rock City. We do not prohibit alcohol at Soft Landing, but we do not permit bars inside our camp. Instead, we run a tea bar at our Tea House for those seeking a place to rest, hydrate and receive compassionate care. We also give away hundreds of gallons of water to Tea House visitors. We don’t want to undermine their self-sufficiency, but we can proactively reduce the number of guests who become ill from dehydration. We keep our Tea House open until Monday after the Burn to help weary people stay alert on the perilous drive back home. Our Burn is not over until every member of Soft Landing makes it back safely, and so far we have. That perhaps is our greatest collective work of art.
Soft Landing still has lots of room for improvement. We want to move away from our dependence on gasoline-powered generators for our Tea House water boilers and shift to a propane system. We’re always looking for new ways to reduce MOOP and recruit strike crews. Starfox has ideas for improving the management of our collective kitchen, and we need a better system to clean and store our camp equipment. Most importantly, we have to successfully carry out our succession plan and not let our egos get in the way. Chris Pezza and I now run an event production company together with a third partner, and we bring everything we’ve learned from Theme Camp management to that project. There will doubtless be more lessons to come. In the meantime, we welcome you to stop by Soft Landing for a hot cup of tea.