This story posted on Facebook is from a Burner who worked as a Sherpa this year at a multi-million dollar camp. We will keep the Burner’s identity anonymous unless they request otherwise. It is a fascinating, some might say shocking, inside look at the fancier side of Black Rock City.
“What!? You mean I’m a Sherpa!?”
A Tale from the K-hole at Burning Man 2014
The hot Playa topic this year is all about Plug and Play camps and the controversy surrounding the loopholes they find to be able to run profitable business behind their private walls while on the Playa. As someone who appreciates a challenge and a good story got share, I felt fortunate that I was able to be an employee working in one of these. Yes, I was a sherpa for a camp put in place by one of the members on the board of directors for Burning Man.
To avoid any possible issues surrounding my story , I’m going to go ahead and just use different names for everyone involved and the exact title of camps I am talking about. My intention is not to hurt any individual’s reputation. I will just share my experience of something that I personally believe is a true example of how someone could actually do it wrong at Burning Man.
Burning man 2014 had a whole lot of talk buzzing around about all of these “turnkey” or “plug and play” type camps.
I noticed while walking down K that placers of the event seemed to have cleverly placed most plug and play camps on the outer ring of the city. This K hole (AKA Kandahar st) was lined with what I saw to be, a lot of over worked, money driven, employees and employers. Many of these types of camps are just boring closed off spaces that only allow the norms walking by to see nothing but endless lines of RV’s. Some of these camps, however, are a lot more creative and interactive with the BM festival itself. after all, an eye catching artistically designed camp would be a brilliant way to rent out a luxurious full service suite for someone planning a vacation to the fabulous Black Rock City.
The product that these camps, like the one I worked in, sell is an experience to last a life time. If you can afford the $17,000 vacation, you will be provided the best and most comfortable facade of the burning man festival Your purchase will make sure that you not be bothered by all those time consuming tasks like cooking, cleaning, building, and whatever else the lower class citizens do, in order to enjoy the best party EVER. As our customer/client/guest you will fly in to the city, be picked up by a hired driver in one of the shuttles we provide. Our guest will then arrive to a beautifully decorated room filled with everything they need, including a real cow skin rug and lamp with a dimmer switch. The guests will be fed, watered, dressed, cleaned up after, driven around on art cars, and basically be waited on for all possible needs by a team of people that are hired to do so.
Of course, not all plug and play camps are in it for a monetary profit. they don’t all contain “guests” that are expecting to do no work. I truly believe Some artist simply have expensive visions and need funds to bring them to life. They provide services for people that would like to share in this vision. The clients paying for a room and experience are able to support the vision by contributing from their check books. They benefit from receiving certain luxuries…some of which might make people question how “self reliant” that really is. They don’t need to spend the time and energy of getting there hands dirty in building them. These types of ” pay and players” are not “guests” but actual members of the city that generally share the same love of gifting that the city is based on. I feel that since the spirit of burning man is a hard one to ignore, these more vision driven, and not all the way, but still a little, profit driven camps are full of paying guests that help out anyways with what needs to be done in camp. Call me a dreamer, but maybe they even volunteer at canter camp or greeters while they are there. To an optimist, This scenario could be viewed as more of an energy exchange instead of a business man looking for a profit. It can work out as a perfect dynamic for some camps that have such massive concepts to create.
I have been a citizen of BRC for 7years. My first burn was in 2008 at the age of 18. I will be the first to admit that radical self reliance was not something I succeeded at while spending a couple hours preparing to party for a week. I was not even close to having what I needed. I just had a bikini, a tent I borrowed from my boyfriend in chicago, a ticket and ride paid for by someone else, and of course, my high expectations and strong sense of entitlement. I arrived already completely relying on others to make this happen for me. not very burning man is it? I had to arrive to Burning Man before I understood why I should give any attention to trying to live by some principles. I needed to see them in action with everyone else and have countless veteran burners shove this gifting ideology down my throat for a couple days before I really understood that this was a mind blowingly beautiful way to live together as humans. only then my walls began to break down exposing the bright core that was hiding inside. the full blown awakening happened while i watched the walls of my tent break down from the inside of an RV.
All of my bags left wide open inside of the tent I borrowed from my boyfriend, whom I would soon leave for a Burning Man lover. The tent I put so much half assed effort building was being ripped out of ground. everything that I brought to the playa had been totally broken and transformed, including myself. That same night I watched the man burn and was so overwhelmed by how this dumb effigy could be such a perfect representation of myself. It completely broke down and changed in to nothing so that it could be rebuilt over the next year in to a newer version of itself. WOW. I just found my new home and I needed to share it and be part of it.
Since then, I have been involved in several different camps over the years. They ranged from 10 to 200 people. I have been part of teams in charge of preparing food for our camp, fund raising, building, bar tending, cleaning, greeting,decorating, serving coffee at center camp, spritzing strangers with water, standing behind the counter of the hug deli and anything else I could do. The tool that builds my happiness is the recognition that when I when give away freely, anything that I love to receive I end up gaining much more than dancing at robot heart every night until sunrise. Getting my hands dirty ends up being a lot more fun than keeping them clean.
For 6 years I never ever attempted to, or even considered that I could receive payment for Any “work” I have done for BM.
Burning man is a gift economy after all… It would be crazy to want to change that. right??
For the burn of 2014 I had been invited to work on a paid gig for a plug and play camp that I’ll refer to as ” Popsicle camp”. I sent in a resume of my Burning Man experience, a photo of myself, signed contracts that I didn’t read, filled out tax forms, and wrote a brief description explaining my character and purpose. I must say, it was fucking awesome to write a resume about my burning man experience. BM is where I go to over indulge myself in having zero real world responsibilities. No plans or expectations just me doing what I love and choosing to be involved in any way i wanted. my only reason to do anything was simply because i wanted to do it for the experience of doing it. there was no sort of expectation of a return. My efforts were merely gifts given to others for my own enjoyment.
About a month before the event I attended an interview to meet my new temporary boss. (I will call him “Pete” for this story)
I entered to a room of a Beverly Hills hotel and was relieved to see Pete resembling some sort of guru vibe in all white cotton clothing. He was sitting on the floor with is bare feet and showing off his colorfully painted toe nails. perfect! a burner like me! SOLD!
During the meeting Pete was passionately expelling how he had created this camp which had a greater underlying purpose and intention. He described himself as social activist who didn’t wear it on his sleeve. He inspires change by changing people’s perception through experiences. He described his intention as a place that is a total work of art and lavish gift for everyone to enjoy. The camp would bring in some powerful and influential people to join. The experiences that our camp would provide them would be a way of encouraging their own personal transformation. The perspective of these important people would shift and they would be able to change things in our society. well, It is a good reason to have a plug and play camp isn’t it? If luxury promised is what will get these people to this place, then lets give them that. We will do the work in order to give the gift of perception inception in their minds.
The big spending and Idea having man with plan that put pete in charge will be called “JT” for the sake of this story.
JT is a CEO of a leading healthcare investment fund valued at $650 million. He is a 6x burning man lover and a very discreetly added new member for the burning man board of directors. Pete worked for JT the year before by throwing a party for JT and his friends on the playa. That year I assume that it was another paying gig for pete.
Popsicle Camp would have 120 customers that will pay $17,000 each to be taken care of by 50 employees working for a wage that was capped.
The invitation/brochure to entice the paying customer to buy was amazing. I was in love! not because of the job, but because of the vision. I have never seen a burning man camp with so many promises focused on the most beautiful and positive intentions. there was a massive budget and structured execution plan that was so detailed and tight. These people knew what they were doing and had planned every little detail to achieve perfection. there was no stopping this ball from rolling.
Of course, As to be expected, with any burning man plan with such extreme expectations that required so many players, these expectations were quickly turning themselves in to disasters the moment this production set foot in BRC. after all, this place is known to be one of the most humbling environments on the planet and is notorious for extreme unpredictable weather and citizens alike.
The building crew for the neighboring camp was in collaboration with our camp. 90% of our camp had been built and designed by the neighboring camp. Lets call this camp “the Missing Motel” The Leader of this camp is a brilliant visionary that seemed to be very passionate about inspiring creativity with his own art. The Missing Motel rented our camp these extremely unique and beautifully constructed canvas “rectangles” that would be homes to myself and guests included. Missing Motel Build lovingly crafted every single detail of popsicle camp. Everything from our private bathrooms, our rectangles, and every piece of furniture in it, the lay out of the camp itself and a majority of the beautiful details that made this camp an actual art instillation to be admired by everyone passing by. Popsicle camp, from my perspective, had just invested money in property that would use to just rent out to cover the expenses and then make a profit as well. The money popsicle camp paid to the motel would go towards funding a large portion of the actual missing motel itself. which of course would be constructed out of the same rectangles and beautiful bathrooms. I was told by a member of the motel that the price my camp paid to rent 1 rectangle, would be used to pay the cost of producing and building 2 rectangles for the motel.
It was a Missing Motel containing over 100 of these rectangles stacked to 3 storys and that are made of canvas and wood. every person who stayed in these rectangles is staying in a literal empty canvas. A temporary home/art piece revolved around a desire to inspire anyone who enters.
The motel crew was expected to arrive the monday before the festival in order to begin building the popsicle camp and their own camp as well. Due to circumstances that were uncontrollable, the motel crew ended up missing the first 2 days so they started the entire thing already behind. the first unfulfilled expectation had begun sparking an immediate tension between the two camps.
On the Invitation and registration for popsicle camp they promised to provide flushing porcelain toilettes that visitors of our art could learn about and experience as well. these were not just places to dump waste, but were actually considered to be art installations. the design of the sinks, toilet paper holders, and even the stairs to walk up to them were all creative pieces that would inspire and a beautiful element to something that is usually unpleasant on the playa.
The tragic outcome of this promise turned in to criminally over worked staff members that were contractually obligated to spend countless hours with out any extra pay to be dealing with the shit of the customers giving us money. It continued to disappoint when there was actually never a real intention to share these with visitors. These were strictly for popsicle camp customers and employees ONLY. even The neighboring camp that created and built them were not allowed to use them. The gift for us to be able to share with visitors became a members only, selfishly enjoyed, porcelain toilette shit show of an art instillation. A clear demonstration of some false advertisement I believed. The “efficient” showers and toilettes of our 170 person village would use around 1000 gallons a day, or so I have been told. They ended up breaking constantly. This meant that crew that was hired to teach about MOOP, run electricity, and do structural building, and tear down, were suddenly required to spend insanely long hours cleaning up shit. When they could no do it, pete would be over at the missing motel demanding their services. This ended up happening the entirety that I was there. The staff was also told that absolutely none of the people from the missing motel were allowed in our bathrooms. Even the ones that built them. pete clearly struggled with the reality that everything was not going exactly as planned. His high expectations were crashing to the playa ground in front of him and showing what his real intentions were. He ended up having a fit at the artist and leader of the missing mote.l in the middle of the street one afternoon. The topics he screamed about were mainly focused on money. expressing that He paid this much so the motel owed him this much work and things regarding contracts and expectations . The artist patiently stood there, watching the breakdown of someone losing control. pete was so desperate to establish his dominance he went as far as unplugging the music to the missing motels camp. all the while the artist being disrespected and degraded stood there patiently and acted as a blank canvas for peter to express his emotions on.
Our camp had a couple of art cars that we rented from other artists. Our staff would be in charge of driving. They would directed to only allow members of the camp to ride on them. The DMV rules of the festival require that any art car driving is required to be for public enjoyment. We were told to go against those rules and be sure that we maintain our members VIP status.
Popsicle camp advertised to customers and to Placement that they would build a lounge out on the street in front our walls that would be cooled to 45º and contain a bar inside where hot and dusty passers by could enter to cool down and indulge. there were was said to be be one of our guests/paying customers passing out our specialty eco friendly popsicles as gifts. Every paying customer in our camp would actually be “REQUIRED” to do this . The front of our camp was advertising that a second iced tea/water lounge would be on the street and all of our customers would be there from 2-4pm every day passing out even more popsicles to people.
Neither of these structures had been built. There just happened to be more important priorities, which revolved around making sure that the paying customers never needed to use a porta potty.
I did, however, witness one very nice customer passing the Popsicles out in the front one day. I’m not sure if that continued much after.
We had a massive dome built that would be open for the public to enjoy. There were specialty drinks, music, dancers, couches, coffee tables with Alex Grey paintings, snacks, and much more. This we did have, and it was BEAUTIFUL. I only ended up bar tending one shift. I went in ready to rock it. I had invited the people of the missing motel to come and have a drink. During my shift we had many of our paying guests arrive from their air planes. They were welcomed by me with a warm hello and an offer to have a drink. While serving our guests, there were random visitors and the folks from the missing motel. I was told that only our members that had paid to camp there were allowed to have drinks. Considering that we had a visible full bar and a menu containing our specialty cocktails, you could imagine the embarrassment I felt when telling some people they can not have those advertised drinks, and telling others they can. Suddenly our public dome contained some VIP options. “Only those with the VIP wristbands can have a drink, can I offer you a peanut?”
With such a strong focus on making sure the customers had anything their hearts desired, the emotional and physical needs of all of the workers seemed to never be considered.
There was of course an email from pete stating that
“Each of you on the Event Crew will be expected to work approximately ten (10) hours each day, divided into two (2) separate five (5) hour shifts. You will have a three (3) hour break between shifts. Ultimately each of you is expected to work as long as necessary to fully complete whatever needs to be done. As weather and other factors can quickly change plans on the Playa, please be mentally prepared to do whatever it takes.
We are planning for each of you to get at least one full day off during the week. ”
“Each of you will be compensated $180 of shift pay for each day worked. If you do indeed get a day off during the week, you will not be paid for that day. If you get a half day off, your pay will also be divided in half. There will be no tracking of hours or overtime provided. Each of you is required to complete a W9 form as well as an employee agreement and a waiver of liability to participate as a contractor for this event. ”
So, since things did continue to go wrong, there were people working 15-20hr days leaving them all exhausted. I never was actually given a break or told that I could have one. But I am not the type to hurt myself while on my working vacation. I did take breaks on my own when i needed one, and no one ever was upset, or at least ever expressed it. I was sure to be there when I was needed as to not leave any one hanging.
The pre burn email stated that
“We will work together upon your arrival on Sunday afternoon, from 6pm to midnight, to introduce you to every single element of camp.”
No one ended up EVER receiving a schedule. By tuesday evening, Peter had finally told us what our jobs would actually be. After 3 solid days that everyone had worked well over 10hrs with zero breaks, everyone was exhausted. some had not even left the camp at all, and those that did were only able to do so briefly. Pete and the guy being paid to positively motivate everyone told us at this time that “Inside this camp we are not at Burning Man, We are at work” they then led us around the camp and showed us the duties that we were actually hired to do. It was a lot of bar stuff and food service. The details of how Pete wanted these things done were extremely detailed and had made something that could potentially be really fun in to a very easy job to fail. Why would someone want perfectly measured specialty cocktails at a bar in burning man? How could someone expect a full staff to actually want to work in a festival of self expression with no room to self express? My fire inside was growing with every neurotic detail. This camp was an actual pop up restaurant that even had the same staff of his real restaurant working there. He expected this place to run as close to an actual business as he possibly could. This was not our camp, it was his. I was not at home, I was in a live in JOB.. Just as the walls surrounding us could not have seemed any taller, pete ended the meeting with telling everyone that we were all required to work for the rest of the night knowing that everyone there had already worked a solid 12 hours. He was sure to remind us that our contract said that we agreed to do whatever needed to be done, and that having time off was not a guarantee.
The sad part was that so many of these workers allowed themselves to be treated this way was because peter was also their employer in the default world. The majority of them had never attended the festival before so they did not understand how much this went against everything everything this event is about. They were, however, fully aware that If they did not meet their expectations at Burning Man, they would risk losing their jobs. Some of these people even had contracts about future business plans that were tied in to this company, so an entire career could be ruined if they walked away.
I had no tie with these people in the future and did what I needed to do for my own sanity, Take a break. I wandered next door to the missing motel. I stood on the third level and looked down at my camp, It was hideous. High walls made up of storage containers and gray yurts. There was a courtyard filled with uniformed bikes and seqways. there was no color to be seen. Behind the camp there was nothing but playa. no art, no camps, no people, just dust and a trash fence in the distance. We were as close as we could be to being outside of the festival. In front of me there was this beautiful chaotic city happening, In the core of stood a tall man with his feel planted solidly on the ground. No stage for him to stand on, simply a man. Behind him there stood a temple crafted with love and filed with a piece of every burners heart. Past that a wooden structure of two people loving one another that was scheduled to burn in a couple of days. there was a very limited time left for me to be part of this event. I spent an entire day not entering the city that I came to be part of. An entire day dedicated to people that built tall walls to separate US from THEM. This event is meant to brings people together and it felt like it was invaded by a wall of money and power there to make sure we would be separate.
I headed back over to the camp after about an hour and walked in another meeting for everyone. This would be the third meeting we had that day. I explained to the positive attitude guy that I needed to take the night off. I would not allow my own needs to be put aside for the sake of making sure the bar was fully stocked the proper way. He was understanding and let me leave. I spent the night contemplating if my commitment to be part of the team was worth sacrificing my own principles. I was in front of the camp on a couch that was meant to be part of our tea serving lounge which was forgotten. I was chatting with a fellow camp mate who felt the way I did about the entire situation and we were approached by a man who wanted to do what burners do, and join our conversation and build a connection. We welcomed him in and filled him in. We were discussing the scenario we had found ourselves in. He informed us that he was actually one of the customers in our camp. He was genuinely sad to hear of how things had turned out. He explain that JT was a close friend and offered to talk to him to see they can help fix this. He offered to see we could be paid more for what we do as a way to make this ok. I was too tired to explain to him that he seemed to have missed the point. I don’t hate him for doing what he thought was the right thing. He wanted to help. I was just sad to see that he had missed the point. How many other people are missing out on the event because they keep trying to pay for it to happen for them?
The next morning the staff had a secret meeting in a yurt where no one else could see us. Every single person in there went around and told their feelings. Every person in this meeting was in tears.
Some girls were talking about how these paying “guests” would grab at them while they were working.
Others were upset because they had been there for over 10 days had still not been able to see what burning man is.
There were virgins that were not allowed to stay for the man burn because peters restaurant back home needed them there, while peter was out of town enjoying his Burning Man experience.
All of these employees were promised to be involved in the Burning Man experience and suddenly found themselves in the most inhospitable environment you could be in and working the same exact jobs they have in the default world. The difference is that their job on the playa is much more difficult to handle and with a capped earning limit paired with a contract allowing their boss to work them as long and as hard as he desires while they stare at a 10ft wall just hearing the noises of the outside world. So many hard working people were only experiencing Burning Man through catering to all of the customers that would be. My new friends had not been able to do anything for themselves and have worked non stop since they arrived. Everyone just kept trying to make it work and stick to it. Do their job and do it well. I was blown away by the dedication, and disgusted at the same time. I walked out of the meeting. I could not watch such amazing people miss out and then help out the person who caused this to happen. How could so many amazing people not see that if they all walked out together the people who need to have to control will be faced with humility and the customers who want to buy our time will have to be faced with the need to be self reliant…which would have been successful in following through with our original intention. I could not allow myself to enable this sort of behavior, and decided I would not be part of this.
The only employees that seemed to be enjoying their jobs fully were the girls that had been hired to have fun. These girls were not considered staff but were paid to be guests. They would be paid to take the men out for fun adventures on the playa and to pay them total attention while at the camp. Their titles were “Mistresses of Merriment”. Our camp was rumored to have had a satellite camp. I am not sure where it would have been built but it would be a place that our VIP camp members could go if they would not want to be seen. I can have my own judgments on what this all would be intended for, but it is only a rumor as of right now.
I was in the back of the camp when pete came to me and demanded my attention. I was in the middle of speaking a member of the BMorg about what was going on. I walked over to speak with Pete and told him that I was sorry to not be meeting his expectation, but it was a direct result of him not following through with his. He then told me to immediately pack my things and that I was no longer allowed to drink the water or eat the food that I was promised would be provided. He did not hesitate to cut those things off from me, which if I was not prepared, would lead me to be left starving.
I later found a sign posted outside of our camp that stated they were looking to hire a new person to help out. A sign advertising a paying job!!! AT BURNING MAN!!! I wonder how much money they had offered them and if anyone actually took the job.
I kept up with the workers of the camp after I had left. They told stories about guests never washing their own dishes and not cleaning any of their moop. The $900 bikes provided for them were all unlocked and left around the entire festival. They spoke about mr. positive energy guy turning in to a giant pervert that sexually harassed some of the girls working. There were many stories about the poor treatment from the guests and of emotional out bursts by pete. I also heard stories about how many of the guests did seem to have a small transformation, and how there were some fun times being had by everyone.
Was the camp a success? I don’t know. It all depend on who you spoke to I suppose. Maybe the folks who were paid the most would say yes. I know the people who visited the camp generally had some negative experiences. I personally would say that this camp is the GRAND PRIZE WINNER of the VERY FIRST EVER “YOU DID IT WRONG AT BURNING MAN!! YES! REALLY!!” award.
“BUT, what about Radical inclusion?”