Burning Man, the nebulous 33-year-old art thing that has been deemed “so over” for 32 years running, has addressed the elephant on the Playa: super-luxe camps for the 1 percent that helicopter into the Black Rock Desert and refuse to play along with the festival’s spirit of radical inclusion.
And yikes, did it ever.
In a 2,500-word blog post, Marian Goodell, the CEO of the Burning Man nonprofit, candidly took on the so-called “turnkey” or “plug-and-play” camps whose attendees essentially set up gated festivals-within-the-festival. She even took the remarkable step of publicly disinviting the elite Camp Humano, whose ethos looks rather Fyre-esque. Humano’s website has not been updated to reflect Goodell’s decision, although there is some gaseous prose about how “in the middle of the dust our camp will rise as a Bedouin settlement.” Bedouins are nomadic or semi-nomadic Arab peoples, so that phrase is something of a contradiction in terms. Update: Camp Humano’s model-filled Instagram has vanished.
In any event, Goodell’s post, “Cultural Course Correcting,” is worth reading in full for its admirable frankness. It indicates that she clearly believes Burning Man is simultaneously gravely troubled and worth saving. And she seems to have listened attentively to good-faith criticism from long-time attendees. The entire organization has, in fact. As Goodwell writes, “After Black Rock City 2018, our Communications Team compiled examples of commodification and exploitation of Black Rock City and Burning Man culture. The report is 55 pages long. We’ve been observing some troubling trends for a few years, but this report stunned me.” (Emphasis hers.)
She notes the relentless commercialization, the hordes of Instagram influencers cashing in, and the rush to market the creature comforts in a deliberately hostile environment which Burners are supposed to shun. “Burning Man is anything but convenient, and therein lies its transformative potential!” Goodell says. While it would be cynical to suggest that she’s taking such public action in the wake of the Fyre Festival brouhaha only so that Burning Man 2019 doesn’t elicit similar media attention, the debacle in the Bahamas has to be weighing on organizers’ minds at least a little.
It’s the turnkey camps’ fundamental lack of creativity and their betrayal of the communitarian ethos that seem to weigh everybody down most, although reports of ageism and discriminatory art cars appear to be more than sporadic. This “dilution of the 10 Principles,” of which radical self-expression and civic responsibility are but two, has caused the organization to do more than simply issue the equivalent of a strongly worded letter asking everyone to be cool this year. After 2018, Burning Man issued a survey and got more than 4,000 responses from 78 countries. The resulting “Project Citizenship” comes with two main guidelines: supporting economic diversity and authentic engagement, and targeting and reducing factors that have inadvertently fostered a “convenience culture.”
Consequently, Burning Man is making major changes to ticketing. Some, like “growing the Directed Group sale” are quite granular. In the aggregate, they’re meant to make Burning Man more accessible to less-affluent Burners and, well, thin out the ranks of the ultra-rich. But it’s the specific exclusion of Camp Humano that is the most startling:
After negative reports from participants and nearly every Black Rock City operations team, we told Camp Humano that they are not invited back in 2019 as a placed camp. Humano was a strain on resources, had a poor ‘leave no trace’ record for three years, had a very poor 2018 environmental compliance record including multiple BLM [federal Bureau of Land Management] citations, and was the subject of many complaints from neighboring camps. These issues were escalated to Burning Man Project leadership and the BLM. This camp has been given clear next steps to get in good standing, but must make and demonstrate major changes in order to receive future placement.
There are a dozen other camps who’ve been sent warnings and are being given a chance to course correct. We have also made changes to the placement process for Mutant Vehicle (MV) camps. MV camps that were too large relative to the number of people it takes to build and operate their vehicles now have size limits or must become fully interactive theme camps. Through these changes and others, the organization is going to continue to intensify our efforts to reward camps that are ‘doing it right’ and weed out those who are poor community members. The integrity of our culture is our highest priority.
“Negative reports from participants and nearly every Black Rock City operations team”? It doesn’t take much reading between the lines there to get to the “You guys are fucking assholes and you’re ruining it for everyone” subtext. How awful do you have to be to get kicked out of something whose very existence is predicated on welcoming everybody? Well, according to this Reddit thread, Humano campers are “land-grabbers” who fly in through the Burning Man airport, truck in excessive infrastructure and fresh fish to be made into sushi, and they generate a lot of MOOP (or “matter out of place”).
Although the lowest-tier B.M. ticket costs $190, Humano also charged upward of $10,000, even $100,000 for a 2BR/1BA “Moon Village.” Mashable claims that it’s, indeed, a kind of Fyre Festival in microcosm. It advertised its food as coming from “local farms” in spite of the nearest arable land behind quite a ways from the semi-arid steppe on which Burning Man takes place. Its air-conditioned Bedouin tents — again, ugh — seemed eerily similar to the private villas that Fyre promised its influencers. Their art car was in hiberation for one year, because Burning Man essentially banned it. And when Humano’s plumbing broke, rather than subject themselves to the humiliation of using Porta-Potties like everybody else, they just duct-taped it back together.
Waste is probably the thorniest issue. Ecologically speaking, Burning Man has a problem — and Goodell addresses that, too. Beyond the preponderance of Segways and mutant cars running all over the hardpan, gray water and black water have become bigger and bigger issues to manage. (For those who don’t know the difference, gray water is what comes out of sinks and washing machines, while black water — which requires much more extensive treatment — is toilet water or anything that contains feces and urine.) Peeing in the open and leaving your actual crap behind are about as contrary to the spirit of “leave no trace” as you can get. And based on the comments, it seems that hardcore Burners are receptive to Goodell’s decision to limit what are known as “Outside Service Providers,” which are basically the aiders and abetters of comfort-driven exclusivity and whose environmental compliance record has been spotty at best.
Black water has to be handled with special chemicals, but even if you can’t simply filter it, its mere existence serves as a filter of its own. In other words, if you’re not the kind of person who’s down with schlepping a week’s worth of your own shit out of the middle of nowhere just as you hit the wall of exhaustion from partying for seven straight days, maybe you don’t belong at Burning Man. No blog post of this nature is ever going to please everybody. But with “A Cultural Course Correction,” Burning Man has demonstrated that it know what’s wrong and, hopefully, how to start fixing it.