Are Theme Camps the New Renaissance Guilds?

Part of the Art, Money, and the Renaissance blog series


Stick with me here, because this could be: the future. That’s right, THE FUTURE! Are you ready for it?

First let’s review. Key elements that could help working artists that have come up previously series include:

  • The way Burning Man artists are revitalizing the tradition of artists workshops that train newcomers and don’t depend on “star personalities” to accomplish their goals;
  • The way in which an “ethos of money” that values public art can be crucial to keeping money moving through society in a way that supports art and artistic communities (among others);
  • The way in which “matronage” is better than “patronage” – we don’t need people writing more checks, we need people to be more personally integrated into artistic communities – and artistic communities to be more integrated into society. We need to build relationships that include money, but go beyond it.

And when we ask ourselves: “what kind of social structures would support these things? What would they look like?” It becomes very clear that we already have functioning examples, that they are already a vital part of Black Rock City, and that some of them are already beginning to engage with the world.

They are Theme Camps.

You’ve probably heard of them.

Though rarely seen as art themselves, a case can be made that it is Theme Camps – not mutant vehicles, not giant sculptures, not dub-step – that are the most original and fundamental form of Burning Man art.

They are also a new, and incredibly flexible, form of social organization. In many ways they serve the function of artisan guilds in the Renaissance, but they are formed around a common artistic vision, not commercial utility. Some have membership dues; some have work requirements; they have a variety of different governance structures; but at their core, the basic premise is always the same: “we are organizing a community around a shared vision of art and whimsy that we can give to the community. Do you want to be part of it?”

On the playa, and at Regionals, Theme Camps – these communities – make amazing art happen, make incredible experiences happen, without asking for anything back.

The question we now ask ourselves is: what would happen if Theme Camps were to start doing that outside of Burning Man contexts? What if they were to become artists workshops and matrons for the default world, too, sponsoring and creating public art?

It’s a great question, but it’s not a new one. A number of Theme Camps are already doing it – and doing it successfully. It is their eagerness to engage, the strength of these communities and their desire to have a larger impact, that convinces us that this can work.

At their most basic level, if Theme Camps focused their activities in their local communities, it would build awareness and enthusiasm far more effectively (and accurately) than any thousand magazine covers or Huffington Post articles. Ours is a culture that really only transmits itself through personal interactions and shared activities: Theme Camps, like Regionals, could be our best ambassadors to the world around us.

Those ambassadors never fail to enlarge our community – but more important than pure numbers is the potential networks that can emerge out of more activities, especially public art projects and public works. The more good they do, the more strangers get connected. The more artists who are connected with artists, who are connected with civic institutions, who are connected with local businesses, who are connected with makers and doers and programmers … the more the abilities and intentions of all of these people are leveraged into art and gifting. Artists prosper when they are part of communities, and communities prosper when active networks are engaged in a spirit of giving and art.

The more normal this becomes in a community, the more eager the community will be to have artists embedded in it – which is perhaps the fundamental approach to a vital arts culture in the 21st century. It’s not incidental that this will also support the public good … and in so doing create more opportunities for the development of provenance. If Theme Camps can normalize the idea of having artists involved in ordinary life, they will have made a profound change in the world

And if enough Theme Camps do this that they can start to relate to each other, forming networks just as the Regionals have, then …

Well, look …

In his book “The Gift,” Lewis Hyde talks about the way that gifts are at their most powerful when they are in motion: when they move from community to community, person to person, never stopping for long – or when they inspire other gifts so that there is a cascade of activity. Gifts are at their weakest when they are simply stored on a shelf or hoarded. The greatest potential global impact Burning Man Theme Camps and regionals could have on the world would be to interact directly with their communities, with each other, and with Black Rock City, to keep a constant flow of art and gifts moving around the world.

Does the idea give you shivers? It gives me shivers. Because once that happens, once enough people get involved, a new global ethos emerges. Art and gifts can connect us in new and profound ways that will inspire people to contribute. To be part of it.

But a renaissance of Theme Camps also presents new challenges – problems brought on by success – that we have not even begun to think through. These are also already happening as theme camp communities grow into entrepreneurial efforts and brands … and suddenly find that they can’t bring those brands back to Burning Man. Because of course you can’t bring your brands back to Burning Man.

This is a profoundly difficult circle to square: how can we simultaneously encourage Theme Camps that emerge out of Black Rock City to become vital communities in the world when we haven’t figured out how to integrate such success back into Black Rock City?

We don’t have an answer yet. It’s a conversation that is just beginning, and it’s a vital one.

The key, the hardest part, is preserving the spirit of the gift in theme camp activities that occur out in the world. There’s nothing wrong with making a profit, let alone being self-sustaining. But if Theme Camps become just one more viable business strategy, then in the big picture they accomplish nothing. But if, as they scale, they can preserve art and expression at their core, and never lose the spirit of gifting, then a critical mass of them can change everything, and surely find a place back home. Their success, and ultimately our success, depends on their ability to be recognized as offering authentic experiences as a gift, rather than selling something

There’s much work here to do, if our community wants to take on the challenge. Much work Burning Man has to do to be capable of truly supporting communities of Burners who are becoming the new guilds in the new Renaissance we hope to see. But if they’re inspired to do it, Theme Camps as local communities within a global network can be at the vanguard of Burning Man culture, and the support of artists in the 21st century.

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

4 Comments on “Are Theme Camps the New Renaissance Guilds?

  • This speaks perfectly to what is happening in the Sextant/DUSTFISH/m0xy community. We have come together to create an amazing makerspace in the form of m0xy in Oakland.

    Our goal through “Sextant Studios” is to create a year-round collaborative space where the community can come together to work on projects, dream, scheme, and be a part of the same culture we co-create out in the desert.

    It’s funny because we haven’t yet decided on a financial model for all this. What we DO know is that we love to build things and share knowledge, and the world seems open to it. By having faith to take the plunge in the form of a large bay at m0xy, Sextant was able to say yes to a huge gift in the form of over 30,000 lbs of machine tools virtually donated by a local tech company that was clearing space. Then we got a huge sponsorship from a leading engineering CAD company for the Tesla Coil project.

    It blows my mind that this all started when we decided to build a shade dome and realized it would be a good Zip-Line platform. Now we are expanding into teaching our free Elemental Arts classes throughout the year and we hope to take them even further into the local community. We were very proud to have a local Scout troop flame painting Titanium with blowtorches!

    We do have a goal of hosting a Regional Burn sometime soon. What started as an amazing week in the desert has become a 365 day lifestyle, and the engagement just seems to build.

    The 10 Principles have been instrumental, although we routinely acknowledge some of the challenges (and humor) that present as we take it to the world. Are the Sextant stickers we give out flying in the face of Decommodification, or are they Gifting in the Immediacy of a chance encounter? Are they Radical Self Expression, or MOOP? Do they simply give an opportunity to be displayed proudly in Participation?

    To be honest, I don’t have all those answers right now. Seeing a Theme Camp grow beyond the borders of Black Rock City is a new and wonderful thing, and we have a lot to learn. I better give Burners Without Borders a call!

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    • eggchairsteve says:

      I love you Sarge!

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    • April M. Jones says:

      <3 Sarge!

      I was very involved in theme camps, art cars, and big art in the Bay Area but have now moved to Wyoming. I'm in the process of starting a brand new burner group in my new home and these are questions I'm running into already. We want to create big public art. We want to take that art to Burning Man and we want it to come back to Wyoming for all to enjoy. Funding and sponsorship can be ethically tricky while following the 10 Principles.

      We'd also love to have a regional here over time. How do we get enough support for that with a brand new community? Showing the power of volunteering and gifting.

      As we form our new group, I'd already been thinking about the way we've worked as theme camps. This article helped me put a few more puzzle pieces in line. Thanks Caveat and Sarge! Big thinkers as always <3.

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  • McKinney says:

    I like thar you posted a picture of a “Party Naked” camp in the description. Was this to get people’s attention? Since when did nudity and casual sex have any artistic integrity.

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