This year, like every year, there is a discussion in burner circles about plug and play camps at Burning Man, camps where rich people pay over ten thousand dollars to have their camp set up, meals prepared, costumes designed, even sometimes a “sherpa” to help guide them around. These plug and play camps go against several of the principles of Burning Man, most notably, radical inclusion, radical self-reliance, and participation. Though I am a second year burner, I have tried to abide by the ten principles. Here is my attempt to clarify what they might mean in practical terms.
Like all rules, there is difficulty in interpreting the principles. Radical inclusion, for example, if taken literally, could mean no private property. This year dozens of people tried to wander into our camp on Friday night (our neighbors were having a big party and we experienced some overflow). Some lovely members of our camp spent the night directing the wanderers to the party next door and out of our camp. This was sometimes met with questioning, “aren’t all camps open?” The perhaps unfortunate answer is no. Most camps pack only enough food and booze for themselves. If there are leftovers to dinner they might share them with passers by, but most campsites are private property of the campers themselves. In this sense we can differentiate between private and public spheres in Burning Man. Public spheres, them camps and art cars should be radically inclusive, limiting people for mainly for safety reasons. Private spaces include sleeping areas, shade areas, and kitchens which are constructed solely for the use of people in the camp. Of course, these private spaces should be welcoming to outsiders, but outsiders should not feel entitled to use them.
More specifically, what constitutes a plug and play camp. Paying a camp mate for buying groceries does not make a plug and play camp. What about paying someone to use their generator, paying someone for a shade structure. Again, these do not seem to define plug and play camps. Simply by the nature of large camps, a small group of people will keep and maintain important playa gear, shade structures, cooking equipment, art cars etc. Paying for the maintenance and storage seems in line with Burning Man principles.
Let us have another scenario. Suppose you do not live within a day’s drive of Black Rock City. However, you have several friends in the Bay area. They camp together every year and are fairly well organized. One year you join their camp. They buy the food and bring it to Black Rock City as usual, as well as bringing shade structures and kitchen supplies, however, you are un-involved in the process except for an email chain simply because you live in a different area. You pay them at cost for the food and the shade structure. This seems to be getting closer to plug and play, but it is not quite there yet. What if you arrive on Tuesday after they have set up the communal shade structures and leave on Sunday before they take them down. How radically self-reliant are you?
I ask these questions, because, like most things, hard lines are difficult to draw. What then, separates someone of modest means of joining a camp of well-organized burners and paying a few hundred bucks for storing, maintaining and bringing the shade structure and kitchen to camp, as well as food and electricity, from a wealthy burner paying ten thousand dollars for something similar? In the above scenario, the only substantive distinction would be the quality of food/shade/alcohol/etc.
Larry Page, for example, attended Burning Man before 2002, far earlier than me. Who am I to judge him if he wants to organize a camp with all his rich friends? He likely contributes a lot more to the art projects than I do.
That being said, there are substantive differences between the plug and play camps and friends getting together and splitting costs. I will outline them below, but I think the primary aspects are, paid employees, wristbands, and setting up your own tent/yurt/etc.
Paid employees at Burning Man clearly go against radical self-reliance in a strong way. I think having a camp cook is a strong dividing line between chipping in when someone buys groceries and a plug and play camp. If Larry Page wants to eat caviar all week, that’s his prerogative, however, he or his friends should prepare it themselves.
Wristbands are another indicator of a pay to play camp. Human experience puts a natural limit on the number of people who can share a space/food with no formal exclusion. For example, my camp this year had 43 people and I had trouble remembering all of them. This seems around the natural limit for a camp which shares a kitchen. Our camp was small enough that we could identify most of our camp mates. On the other hand, wristbands mean that a camp is so big that facial recognition alone isn’t enough. The wristbands then act as a formal method of exclusion of outsiders from the food and drink. While not as clear of a giveaway of a plug and play camp as paid employees, wristbands still suggest something is running counter to the ethos of burning man.
Lastly, setting up your own sleeping structure. It is better if everyone helps set up the whole camp, but that is not always possible. This year there were a limited number of early arrival passes in my camp so the kitchen and the shade were mostly constructed by the time I arrived. However, people should at least set up their own sleeping structure. Of course, they can ask for help, and some people might be unable to do it. However, if you arrive at camp and everyone had their sleeping structure set up by someone else, it might be plug and play.
These are some of my recommendations on how to differentiate plug and play camps from regular camps. I purposefully left them fairly loose. I think radical inclusion means we should welcome everyone except those who repeatedly and intentionally violate the ten principles. In this context that means only defining plug and play camps as an extreme.
The next question is how to deal with these camps. This year, Larry Harvey said he would visit plug and play camps to see how he was received. This seems like a poor idea. I would be somewhat skeptical of a 50 year old man I did no know entering my camp. I would offer him beer, water, or a snack, but try to guide him out, as I would feel obligated to stay with him to ensure he did not take anything. I imagine female campers would be extra cautious for obvious reasons.
As for how to reduce the number of plug and play camps, I would recommend banning those who advertise for paid positions from Burning Man, and perhaps creating a public registry of them for humiliation. Even if they did not publicly advertise for the positions, word would likely escape it would be relatively easy to set up a mechanism for determining whether or not a camp had paid staff.
In conclusion, I am appreciative toward rich people at Burning Man. They allow me to see beautiful art that I would never be able to fund myself. However, they also have created some camps which violate the spirit and the principles of Burning Man. Banning paid employees at Burning Man (of course this excludes essential staff, police, doctors, EMTs, DPW, etc), would help restore some of those principles.