Last night a couple of dozen interested Burners participated in the “Turnkey/Plug-n-Play Forum” discussion. It was organized by Travis Puglisi, who makes a (modest) living working on camps, art projects, or as a vendor at Burning Man, Coachella, the Joshua Tree music festival and others. BMOrg were invited to participate, but declined. I guess they’re too busy engaging the community in conversation about Turnkey camps to actually want to talk to anyone.
Kudos to Travis for making a genuine effort to connect with the community by asking: if he wants to make a living from festivals like Burning Man, then what is acceptable behavior, and what is detrimental to our values? [Travis later commented that he doesn’t actually care about this, even if the community thinks it’s wrong he’s still fine with treating BM as a commercial gig]. It’s more than BMOrg are doing: they are just defining Turnkey as any camp where some camp members arrive early to set up the infrastructure, whether paid or unpaid. By this definition, almost every camp is a Turnkey camp, so there’s nothing they can do about the problem. That’s why at Burners.Me we like “Commodification Camps”, because it highlights the main issue in reference to the 10 Principles: Commodification.
In the past Travis has been one of the organizers of Play)A(Skool. He
quit “declined collaboration” when they wanted to bring 80 RVs, considering that model to be unsustainable. This year he worked for camp Psyclone, ultra-wealthy Burners who were mostly from New York. Psyclone, located at 6:30 & A, scored a clean green on the MOOP map – except for a single red dot, which they have not yet received any explanation about. The camp conceived of and fabricated their own art, they make their own food (it’s not catered), sort their own trash and take aluminum to Recycle Camp.
This year the camp consisted of 17 RVs, 10 hexayurts, 2 tents, 6 yurt-like structures, and 3 inflatable prototype shelters. Travis was careful not to name anyone from the camp, but I’m guessing the latter were Clearchannel CEO and Billionaire Burner Bob Pittman’s Dhomes:
Pittman plans to bring 200 Dhomes next year, renting them for $5-10k per week. Read all about it in Re/Code. Travis
demurred pled ignorance on answering how much Psyclone’s camp dues were for 2014.
Here’s some coverage of Psyclone from last year, from Modern Luxury:
…the anti-establishment art and music festival has really grown up. This year, the call of the Playa—the festival’s name for the stretch of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert that’s now its home—drew a crowd of bigwig burners, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Anne Hathaway, Sean Combs [P.Diddy], MTV founder Bob Pittman and two intrepid members of the Hamptons social set, who recalled the event for us.
Burning Man is a not-for-profit weeklong festival…
Remember when you were a kid at Disney World and were totally awestruck? When you’re a “virgin burner” you feel like it’s Christmas morning every morning of the festival. Burning Man is a big hippie commune where the ideals of the ’70s are vibrantly alive, if only for a week. No money, no red-velvet ropes; everything is shared and all are invited everywhere.
Burning Man teaches radical self-reliance with its “Bring what you need or find what you need, but give more than you receive” message. At the core of its values is the principle of taking care of the Playa. The worst thing you can do at Burning Man is to be irresponsible with your MOOP…
This year, our 60-person camp was called PsyClone, and it was just about the coolest place I’ve ever been. I got to meet entrepreneurs, famous actors, people who work in politics, fellow doctors (I’m a psychiatrist) and amazing artists, all in one tented campsite. At about a quarter of an acre, the camp was very small, consisting of RVs and tents in the back and a central area for socializing, plus sofas, a refrigerator, a homemade shower and a barbecue. At the front of the camp, major pieces of art were set up to attract visitors.
Each camp applies for space from the Burning Man administrators about six months ahead of time. The event organizers decide your location depending on how you plan to contribute and how clean you left your space the previous year. To attend Burning Man, you don’t need an official camp—you can just show up and pitch a tent—but know that you’ll likely be in a less-desirable location.
…There truly is no place like home.
– See more at Modern Luxury
Last night’s meeting went for a couple of hours, and although some good points were made from different sides of the Commodification Camp debate, it was ultimately inconclusive. Some of the issues raised are worthy of further consideration and discussion by the community.
What Makes A Commodification Camp?
Is it employing workers, making a profit, or the level of camp dues provided? Or is it selling hotel rooms and services to “Safari tourists”? To me, it’s a Commodification Camp if its members don’t have to build anything, work any shifts, or pack anything up; they simply fly in and fly out without putting in any Communal Effort and Gift with their checkbook, if at all. You can’t call it Inclusion or Participation if it happens in a wristband-only VIP area.
The difference between Burning Man and many other events is that this city is built on the backs of volunteers. Those running for-profit camps, are therefore lining their pockets with the blood, sweat, and tears of the rest of us, for whom Burning Man has always been a labor of love. Why should everyone work for free, pay to be there, and pay to bring art and gifts – while a select few charge thousands or tens of thousands per head for hotels and pay slave labor wages for others to wait on them and clean up their mess?
Psyclone had 6 paid workers managing the build, logistics, operations, and tear-down. There was one person on shift at the camp at all times, not so much to be a sherpa but to help camp members with requests like organizing a group to move heavy objects. The lowest paid was making $150 a day, and the highest paid made $350 per day. Travis himself earned $13,450 for working May through September on the camp – hardly a fortune. Nevada minimum wage is $8.25 per hour; assuming Travis worked 40 hours per week for 20 weeks, for him that works out to $16.81 per hour. No-one could accuse him of trying to get rich off Burning Man – this is slightly above what he could get at McDonald’s. It is, though, significantly more than what most DPW workers earn.
Most DPW and Gate workers are volunteers. They get a free or discounted ticket, and food from the commissary – except once Burning Man actually starts. Then, they are expected to fend for themselves. This is pretty impractical, it’s not like people who are living on the Playa for a month can pop out to Whole Foods to stock up on supplies. BMOrg spends $1.4 million a year on food, so it seems a little stingy that their workers have to starve once the event is underway – while First Camp dine on fresh produce brought in every day.
There are about 400 DPW workers. If they were all paid minimum wage for an average of 4 weeks at 40 hours per week, that would be $528,000 – $7.76 per ticket. This is about the same as what BMOrg charge as a ticket processing fee, and less than what they charge to mail tickets or hold them at Will Call. It’s about the same as what BMOrg spend on travel and costumes for themselves every year.
Camp Costs Are Increasing
Once Burning Man was sold out, and became the latest “bucket list” destination, the vendors increased their fees massively. A camp that provided a generator, kitchen trailer, and A/C unit, supporting 15 RVs, used to cost $5000 per head. The generator rental and drainage with United for this camp used to cost $7900 2 years ago, now it is $33,000. This means the camp costs are now $7000 per head. Renting a C-class RV for the week used to cost $3500, now it’s $5500. BMOrg implemented a Vendor Approval Process which was used by vendors as an excuse for massive price hikes.
Even camps that don’t make a profit, where everyone chips in to cover expenses, are faced with increasing costs due to supply and demand. Only a small number of vendors are allowed; the lack of competition means vendors can price gouge. One suggestion was that vendors should have to open their books and disclose their profit margins to the community – this would be a good idea for The Burning Man Project too.
Principles vs Laws
Back in the day, Burning Man had 2 immutable laws. “No Commerce” – you couldn’t buy or sell anything on the Playa; and “Leave No Trace” – you have to pick up after yourself. Violate either law, and you could be kicked out of the event. Since the Principles were introduced in 2004 as “guidelines”, the rules are now more rubbery. So we get multi-million dollar camps like Caravancicle/Lost Hotel leaving vast swathes of yellow and red on the MOOP map, and every year sees “commerce creep” with the introduction of a new money-making item – merchandise in 2013, gasoline in 2014.
Burning Man’s Chief Philosophy Officer, Larry Harvey, has spearheaded their “10 Principles” series of blog posts – 21 so far. The mere fact that they have to devote so many words to trying to explain these things, suggests that perhaps there are a better set of community credos we could come up with. I mean, “thou shalt not kill” is pretty frikkin’ clear. “Decommodification”, on the other hand, gets pretty confusing when the owners create a company called Decommodification, LLC to earn royalties from the event – potentially $1 million a year or more.
Here’s what Larry Harvey says about the Principles:
they utterly lack the imperative mood; they are not commands or requests—they do not give permission or withhold it. For example, Leaving No Trace is not a commandment. Although it speaks of what we value, it does not demand allegiance
…the Ten Principles employ the language of prosody. The principle of Participation states, ”We make the world real through actions that open the heart.” Such language often has the property of meaning many things at once, and this is because it is not produced by following a linear series of logical propositions. Instead of explaining, as if unfolding the planes of a box, poetic language does the opposite.
So the Principles aren’t commandments, mean many things at once, aren’t logical, and are deliberately designed to obscure, not explain. BMOrg can use whatever poetic language they like: Commodification of our culture for money is against Burning Man.
It seems that million-dollar camps are getting preferential placement, as many tickets as they want, and a blind eye turned to blatant violations of the 10 Principles. More than anything, I think this is the problem with Commodification Camps that upsets the community the most. If we’re going to have rules, they should apply to everyone equally.
Radical Inclusion Means Preferring Virgins and Shafting Burners
Back in the day, it was rare to meet a first-timer at Burning Man. There was a community of mostly hard-core Burners, people who went out there every year, spending all year planning what they were going to bring next time so they can give even more. These days, 40% are Virgins, and only 29% have been more than twice.
The problem with this unquenchable thirst for fresh meat is Burners who have been contributing for years no longer feel welcome. It’s hard for them to get tickets, and every year it will get harder.
If the population cap stays the same, and we continue with the ratio of 40% virgins, every year it becomes more difficult for people who’ve been to Burning Man before to return home.
“% Non-Virgins” is calculated by comparing the number of non-virgins to the total number of Burners to date. A non-virgin means “been once or more”, as opposed to Veteran which we define as 3 or more Burns.
A city that truly valued the Communal Effort made by its citizens, would see the % Virgins decreasing every year. It should be a challenge to go to Burning Man if you’re not a Burner, and Burners who’ve put in the hours should have more chance to get a ticket than someone who has contributed a total of 0 to the community.
Self-Reliance Doesn’t Apply To The Wealthy
Some wealthy people will only come to Burning Man if they can be coddled. Driving their own RV from Reno is too much of a hassle for them, taking their own trash out is too much trouble, they need to pay someone else to do that so they can just fly in and out – or they’re not going to bother coming. I ask you: so what? Do we really need people who aren’t interested in Self-Reliance? How is that making the party better for Burners? There are plenty of rich people there who help set up or clean up their camps, pick up after themselves, and contribute to art projects. Why do we need those who don’t?
Some argue that it is so good for the world for the cash-rich and time-poor to experience Burning Man, that we should overlook all of the Principles for the sake of “Rule #1”: Radical Inclusion. A camp producer gave the example of a CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation who was inspired by Burning Man to donate money to arts programs for schools. Their camp spent $180,000 on donations to Burning Man art projects last year, and $230,000 this year. To put this in perspective, BMOrg themselves spent $800,000 – so just one camp can fund a third as much art as BMOrg who rake in $30 million annually. To make sure that money actually goes to the artists, this particular camp facilitated direct donations, rather than going through Burning Man Arts who absorb most of the money donated to them in overhead.
I can see that it might be beneficial for the world if powerful people have a transformational experience at Burning Man, and I believe that can happen. How many, though, just have a great time and then go back to their normal lives? 50%? 90%? P.Diddy – the world’s richest rapper – went last year for the first time, and had a life changing experience.
How did that help the world? Well, it inspired him to make a Burning Man-themed Fiat commercial.
If they don’t experience Self Reliance, Leave No Trace, Gifting, Communal Effort, Participation, or Civic Responsibility, then how was it a transformational Burning Man experience? This is like saying “acid is great because people can get deep insights”. Maybe some do, but does that mean anyone can just ignore all the Principles and rules, because it is so important to the world for them to take acid?
The more staff that Commodification Camps hire, the fewer Burners get to go. They get replaced with minimum wage workers who barely get to leave their camp and whose very survival is threatened if they want to quit. Self-reliance means 1 Burner, 1 ticket; Radical Wealth Reliance means the tourists also need tickets for the sherpas who contribute to their burn, but not ours.
Here’s an idea: why doesn’t BMOrg throw “Radical Inclusion” events off-Playa? They can invite all the underage children, politicians, frat boys, and trailer park tourists they want – all 7 billion people in the Default World. Removing the need for Radical Self Reliance will make it possible to acculturate a much wider audience. They can use these “Rely On Others, Gift Nothing, MOOP away, Express Conformity” Commodifcation events to educate the masses. Maybe some of them will then want to become Burners and come out to the Playa to pitch in and create Black Rock City with the rest of us. BMOrg could take some of the profits made from commodifiying Burner culture and blending it with the Default world, and invest that into more art at Burning Man. I think most Burners are OK with the owners making a profit from the event (although they tell us it’s a non-profit), but not OK with less art every year.
The Bottom Line
If a camp gets placement, it should have a public, interactive component. Each camp needs to gift something to everyone: all Burners should be welcome at any camp at Burning Man. I would rather burn with 70,000 Burners than 20,000 Burners and 50,000 tourists, no matter how rich or famous they are. If they can’t go without being coddled, then maybe we don’t want them – let Burners who get the Principles and make a Communal Effort take those spots. Making Burning Man into the Default world does not make it better, it makes it lamer.
What’s the point of Burning Man, anyway? Fun? Profit? Brainwashing? Building a corporate brand?
Is Burning Man something provided by BMOrg for the purpose of acculturating strangers; or is it something Burners provide to each other by bringing the art, music, costumes, food, and drink? In the former scenario, experienced Burners just get in the way. Dennis Kucinich couldn’t even be fucked putting a pair of cargo pants on, but he had no problem giving media interviews and political speeches out there. How did that help make the world a better place? At least Grover wore some kind of pouffy bandanna and a blinky light…and he’s been milking that in the press ever since.
I’ll leave you with a comment Mortician made at burningman.com, which I think is an excellent expression of the Commodification Camp problem:
Participants (and I am using that term loosely) who live in walled off camps, who do not interact – or negatively interact- with their neighbors, who have roped off VIP areas and private art cars which exist only to exclude, who use the Playa as a networking opportunity, a private nightclub or rave, a chance to package and sell the efforts of others, or a questionable employment backdrop within their camp create a negative experience for everyone around them.
I don’t personally think it matters one bit how much money someone has as to whether they can create positive or negative experiences for the community. I also don’t believe that everyone who comes has to participate in every single aspect of their camps to be a positive contributor. Its fine if a camp, say, has some people come early to set up and another group sticks around at the end to strike. The question in my mind is not related to someones net worth or how many rebar stakes they have pounded. It is completely about whether someone is coming to actively be a part of the city and open to interaction, or whether they are coming to violate the community by co-opting others contributions, treat those same contributors with active rejection, derision, and exclusion from behind velvet ropes and wristbands, and do everything possible to separate themselves from the general community via handlers, sherpas, and walls.
If the more egregious PnP camps need that much hand holding and separation from the general community, why don’t they just either go down to Vegas for their long clubbing weekend where the entire town exists to cater to that need level, or come out to the playa and set up their camp at some other time when there is no one else out they need to keep out?