Burning Man has long struggled with the tension between its commitment to “radical decommodification” and grifters and their ultra-high-net-worth marks who organize “turnkey camps” where you can pay giant sums to pretend to be a Burning Man “participant” while being looked after by paid “sherpas” (including, rumor has it, sex workers), in luxury settings designed to repel non-paying attendees (sometimes guarded by private security guards).
The Burning Man Organization (affectionately: “The Borg”) has struggled to craft policies to address this phenomenon. They have been hampered by their own divided sensibilities and by the difficulty of cleanly distinguishing between turnkey camps and camps that are simply very large and complicated (I know of a multi-hundred person camp where a few attendees are compensated for taking a month off work to organize the kitchen prior to the event — are these “paid staff” or “compensated volunteers?”).
The Borg announced a crackdown on turnkeys in 2015, but it was clear to attendees that this was a largely ineffective exercise. As noted, some of this was clearly related to the Borg’s own divided sensibilities: founder Larry Harvey (who died last year) defended the idea of the super-rich attending amid a certain amount of luxury, on the basis that everyone experiences Burning Man in their own way.
And the super-rich have a wealth (heh) of resources to deploy to get around policies intended to ensure participation: some one-percenter camps have “solved” the problem of building welcoming public spaces without surrendering their exclusivity by simply attaching an elaborate stage or bar to their private-security-guarded high-net-worth camps, and then paying performers or bartenders to appear in these public spaces. This isn’t “radical participation,” it’s “radical paying-someone-else-to-participate” and regardless of the quality of the performers, it has a corrosive effect on the sense of community, where monied aristos (sometimes literally) get to play spectator, and drag the rest of us along into the audience, by creating spectacles whose performers are only there because someone paid them to be.
Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell has published an open letter on the Borg’s “cultural course correction,” in which she acknowledges that efforts to tame turnkey camps and maintain Burning Man as a decommodified space have been wanting. She discusses how the proliferation of Outside Services vendors (intended to help large theme camps manage otherwise difficult logistics involved in serving Black Rock city, for example, by delivering containers to sites during the annual construction of the city) has enabled turnkeys, growing 375% in five years, leading to “huge jumps in the number of RV, trailer, and generator rentals through OSS, and a corresponding increase in environmental compliance violations, including fuel management and grey/black water spills on the playa,” and rentals of RVs pre-loaded with food, scooters, and other turnkey amenities.
Goodell has pledged to publish a blacklist of vendors and turnkey camp organizers who have histories of lying to their customers, failing to obtain permits, and other warning signs.
Burning Man has also announced a new set of ticket prices that will make it easier for lower-income attendees to participate.
The Borg has also started to purge known grifters, including Humano the Tribe, a turnkey camp that has been likened to the Fyre Festival due to its sky-high prices (up to $100K per attendee), and history of deceitful practices and mismanagement, including raw sewage spills, mass-scale littering (Burning Man is the world’s largest leave-no-trace event) and alleged sex trafficking for its highest rollers.
Goodell says the Borg has “sent warnings” to “dozens” of other camps. There will always be Burning Man camps that straddle a line between participation and paid resorts, but it seems that for the most egregious offenders, the days are numbered.
The hits keep coming. Humano’s brochure claimed that its private chefs would focus on “raw and organic ingredients” from “local farms,” despite the fact that there are no farms local to the Black Rock Desert. Its art car vehicle, the “Tribe Car,” was said to be returning from a “one-year hibernation.” Left unsaid: that was because Burning Man’s own DMV (“Department of Mutant Vehicles) had banned it the previous year for various infractions.
A lengthy Reddit thread devoted to Humano features various camp neighbors accusing them of “ruining multiple blocks” with MOOP and leaving trailers in areas zoned for other camps. There are also allegations that Humano’s packages were priced to include the companionship of multiple female models.
Mashable was also shown unmet requests for refunds from Humano attendees who paid upwards of $130,000 for a stay in a luxury RV and didn’t get what they bargained for.
Cultural Course Correcting: Black Rock City 2019 [Marian Goodell/Burning Man]
Burning Man nixes ‘Fyre Festival-style’ camp that charged up to $100,000 [Chris Taylor/Mashable]
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