Don’t Hate The Plug-and-Plays

Article by: Halcyon *|@Halcyon

Mon September 15, 2014 | 00:00 AM

There have been reports circulating about the elitist, lavish accommodations at Burning Man that come with a price tag of $17,000 and at the cost of oppressive work conditions for those who set up these "plug-and-play camps."  The thinking is that  the plug-and-play experience is in direct opposition of the spirit, rules, and magic of Burning Man.

But I’d like to remind people that we are talking about a statistically tiny part of the Burning Man population. Should we ignore this issue? No! Like a tiny, misshaped mole on your shoulder, it should be monitored, treated, and potentially removed before it becomes worse.

We need to be careful not to let the small things consume all of our attention and cloud our perceptions of the entire experience. In a city of 60,000+ there are all types of people, and while our numbers might be better than most cities, we still have thieves, creeps, and entitled assholes.

But take heart. The growth of plug-and-play camps is not a sign of the end of Burning Man. The sky is not falling. 

17 years ago when I went to Burning Man for the first time I heard rumblings about how the event had already been ruined. At the time, publicity from a 1996 WIRED article was targeted as the cause of death. Now, the panicked cry from the Chicken Littles of the Burning Man community is about the influx of the uber-wealthy attendees and rise of turnkey, plug-and-play theme camps. While a “pre-fabricated experience for sale” does conflict with most interpretations of Burning Man’s radical self-reliance principle, I believe the current concern is misdirected. 

The issue is not wealth.

Burning Man has always been dependent on wealth and affluence. It is the very state of abundant resources that makes Burning Man possible. Only with significant surplus time & money (and questionable sanity) would anyone ever build and transport large-scale art to the middle of the desert. Nobody who is seeking basic shelter or scavenging for their next meal is thinking about how to best illuminate a giant Viking ship with programmable LEDs. Burning Man is only accessible to those soaring high over the top of Maslow’s pyramid. Long-time Burner DJ Wolfie posted on his Facebook wall about the silliness of judging the wealthy, “…middle class Burners harping on billionaire Burners- it's the 1% picking on the .01%.”

The issue is not plug-and-play. 

I’m actually a huge proponent of creating easily accessible Burn experiences for the super wealthy and influential. I want the movers and shakers of the world to have a taste of true Gifting. I want P. Diddy and Zuckerberg to experience soul-deep joy as they give pancakes to a stranger. I want those experiences to affect the people who truly steer resources in the default world.

A plug-and-play experience lowers the barrier to entry. And in certain scenarios, that is a wonderful thing. For some people, we should make it as easy as possible to welcome them “Home. “ Apparently even Mark Zuckerberg (after helicoptering in) pitched his own tent and took his shift making grilled cheese. 

My mom is another example. 2014 was her first year. She cruised in on Tuesday and flew out on a charter plane (like a boss!) on Thursday. I took care of her set-up, breakdown, bike, air-conditioned lodging, and meals. I have zero guilt for setting my mother up with what was essentially a plug-and-play camp. The challenges to attend Burning Man serve as a highly functional moat for most people—keeping out those who are not yet ready to be here. But these barriers can present insurmountable obstacles to others who deserve to attend Burning Man, they simply need a little help.

The issue is not radical inclusion.

Radical inclusion doesn’t mean that everyone is invited into your camp. It just means that everyone has a right to be at the event.

My camp is vigilant about keeping non-campmates out of our private areas. (Much of this had to do with making sure we don’t accidently consent to a law enforcement visit, but it also had to do with the dozen or so people we caught pissing in our living space.) Just because I consider all you crazy people family doesn’t mean I want to eat all my meals with you or share my private area with you. I don’t fault any camp for having a velvet rope, conceptually or literally. The danger is if the camp set-up encourages one to experience the Burn in isolation. Eating, partying and exploring from within a bubble is not how the magic happens. Ya gotta get out there in the DNA pool in order to evolve.

The issue is not radical self-reliance.

Radical self-reliance means taking care of your shit—or finding someone who will. Sometimes that literally means you find a service to take care of your shit (i.e the saints who empty the Porta-Potties). But it could also mean that you buy pre-made meals or pre-made outfits. We all have our own line of what we consider self-reliance. If you want to mill your own flour and weave your own fabric, my hat is off to you. Self-reliance to me means that I find a great hat to bring to Burning Man. I may pay someone to bring it onto the Playa in a plastic bin so that I can fly to Reno with minimal luggage and then take the Burner Express bus to the Playa. As long as your shit is taken care of, nobody can decide what the degree of self-reliance is right for anyone else.

The issue is participation.

Participation means more than experiencing the art that others bring to share. It means finding a way for you to share your gifts—individually and as a camp. At Pink Heart, we have a pretty intense enculturation process where I hammer home the expectations of participation. The reason for this is not that we need all those hours of labor to build the camp and share our gifts (although we definitely do). The reason for the mandatory labor is that after so many Burns, I can confidently state that the more you participate, the better your experience will be. Attending an awesome party is nothing compared to co-hosting one.

Feeling like you helped create Black Rock City is an infinitely more profound experience than getting a chance to “check out” Black Rock City.

Selling an elite Burning Man experience that “saves” someone from the struggles of set-up, chores, and participation is like offering a deep tissue massage without physical contact. It may hurt less….but what is the point!?

The issue is gifting.

It is a disservice to any member of a plug-and-play camp to give them an experience where they do not have the feeling of being a co-host and being able to offer a gift to the city. I don’t care who cooks your meals or what extravagances you receive. I care about what you give.

I care that you feel ownership of the event. 

If you allow your child to be raised primarily by a nanny, you will never feel the true depth of love possible between a parent and child. You can't just fly in every month or so to play catch with the kid and expect an instant, unwavering bond. You have to put in some work, change a diaper and clean up puke once in a while. Take the good with the bad. The same is true of a citizen of Black Rock. The true gift is feeling like this is your city. This is your family. And at any given time you will act as a janitor, security guard, therapist, architect, carpenter, and occasionally, king.

If your plug-and-play experience only provides you with the experience of playing the role of king the entire time, then sure, you’ll have a blast—but you will have an extremely shallow version of the total possible experience.

My mom’s experience was admittedly plug-and-play, but she worked hard to be a contributing member of the camp and what we gifted. She served ice cream. She worked our water bar. She even went on an ice run. 

So I maintain that there is a place for plug-and-play camping at Burning Man. Those camps simply must work extra hard to integrate their members into the community experience so that everyone understands and embraces the Ten Principles. It is definitely possible. In fact, I will publicly offer my pre-event consulting services to help create optimally integrated experiences for any of these camps and their members. 

But I should warn you…I’m really freakin’ expensive.