In the last part of this series, I mentioned that the Burning Man attendees are the event. There are many ways in which this fact manifests, but the most prominent ways are theme camps and artwork. But what exactly is a “theme camp”?
In short, a theme camp is a group of burners who bring an offering to the playa. They are interactive, open to the public, and of course they’re free. There is no specified set of rules on what a theme camp can be offering, but the nature of the camp will generally determine placement based on the whims of the BMOrg.
As with everything else related to Burning Man, the concept of theme camps has evolved over the years. Back in the day before anyone I knew personally went to the event, you just showed up with your camp and set up whatever you wanted, however you wanted. This was also back in the days when you could drive around in a Jeep shooting guns into the air, dig holes in the ground to fill with gasoline and set ablaze, and engage in all sorts of otherwise fun anarchy.
This changed as the event grew, particularly after the 1997 burn which was apparently “terrifying”. Growing demands from the government resulted in most of the changes, though a few things like a ban on handheld lasers came from the BMOrg without being forced upon them. As far as theme camps go, it used to be a completely different and mostly random structure every year with no clue what you would get. Once certain groups started showing up regularly and bringing more or less the same camp every time, placement disputes started cropping up with multiple groups wanting the same location. Sometimes a camp would show up to find one person had staked out the entire area for themselves.
They addressed with issue with camp placement. For as long as I’ve been a burner, the prime real estate has been reserved for camps which apply to the BMOrg for space. If you want a premium location in the city, which is redefined to cover broader swaths every year, you have to draw up a design for your camp and submit the plans to the BMOrg along with a description of what you’ll be offering. The more closely you adhere to the 10 principles the more likely you are to be approved, but the BMOrg is capricious.
The city is laid out shaped like the letter “C”, with concentric streets that are always named alphabetically from a word starting with “A” to “Whatever Letter We Need This Year” based on the theme and expected population, although the innermost and most prominent street with the “best” camps is always named “Esplanade”. My first year it was “A” through “H”, though by the end of the event they’d added two more (“I” and “J”) at the back to accommodate more people. There’s radial streets which stretch from the center at Esplanade to whatever the last street is that year spaced “30 minutes” apart. So you get addresses like “4:30 & A”, “8:00 & F”.
The theme camps are all placed within this grid according to where the BMOrg thinks you belong. The massive sound camps which play dubstep and other electronic music non-stop for the entire week (and I mean it) generally get placed at the ends of the C, 10:00 and 2:00, facing outwards so they aren’t bombarding “residential” areas and causing more sleep deprivation. Smaller musical camps or ones which play different music may end up closer to the interior.
That said, their standards often change with the wind. One year I was with a camp that had been there for over 10 burns and was on “A” every year. The following year they ended up getting pushed back to “C”. The next year they placed on “H”. This year they apparently didn’t even get approved for placement at all and the camp may not happen since nobody involved managed to secure a ticket, which is getting increasingly difficult each year are ever greater percentages of tickets are reserved for approved/placed theme camps rather than being open to the general public.
Not all camps are theme camps; not every camp is open and interactive. On one occasion my camp was just my wife and I, though we weren’t married yet during that burn. Definitely a small, non-interactive, closed camp. There’s also the hated “plug-n-play” camps, which are still non-interactive and closed, but are often quite large and provide everything a rich and famous burner could want on the playa, for a hefty fee, of course, sometimes exceeding $100,000. There’s controversy as to how to deal with these groups and some get explicitly barred from future burns, like a camp called Humano was.
As to the actual interactive theme camps themselves, they can generally be broken into two broad categories: daytime camps and nighttime camps. Similarly, most burners are either “daytime” burners or “nighttime” burners. During the day, the city has a slower pace and is dominated by smaller camps. There’s still some daytime party spots like Pink Mammoth and Distrikt that serve all the booze you can drink, but it’s not nearly as wild.
During the day, you’ll find a lot of camps offering things like yoga or aerials sessions, body painting and tattoos, bars, TED talks, bondage workshops, tasty food, hatmaking, film screenings, places to smoke hookah, theatre performances, woodworking pagodas, bouncy houses, and pretty much anything else you could expect to find in a major city (during the event, it’s Nevada’s third biggest city, complete with an airport). Except trash collection or recycling – that’s on you to take care of yourself.
There’s also some ‘services’ offered by burners, like postal delivery, RV servicing, and bicycle repair shops. That last one is key, as bicycles are the primary mode of transit in Black Rock City due to the fact that the city measures over 2mi in diameter and, other than art cars, driving is not allowed (unless you’re a cop or emergency responder of some sort). More on that next time. The highly alkaline dust on the playa tends to eat away at tires and bicycle chains, making frequent repairs a necessity. Burning Man has claimed 5 different bicycles from me. One bike didn’t even make halfway through the event, leaving me on foot for the rest of the burn except when I could find an unused community bike to borrow.
At night almost all of these services stop operating and most of the daytime camps close up, though some like the roller derby and mini golf stay open 24/7. Generally the city takes on a completely different aura. The people are completely different, too, as the nighttime burners tend to sleep during the day when it can get well over 120 degrees F. If you’re a nighttime burner, though, you need to pack for summer and winter temperatures, as it can be anywhere from 80 to 30 on a given night.
When the sun goes down, the city lights up and things get more intense. The Thunderdome opens up for fighters to beat the crap out of each other with foam weaponry. Foot traffic to the orgy dome picks up and lines start to form outside it. The daytime bars shut down and the nighttime bars open their doors. Things you never realized were there during the day suddenly appear, such as one camp that projected Donald Trump’s face onto the ground for passersby to jump on, only to have him move out of the way every time and laugh. Interactive mazes spring out of the ground like Theseus’ labyrinth for you to navigate in complete darkness. One camp created a series of old-school arcade games where you were the “character” on a pressure-sensitive platform of LEDs. The lights, lasers, and fire generally associated with Burning Man are suddenly everywhere you look.
No matter who you are, it will impress you. No pictures can adequately depict it and nobody can accurately describe it. Any two people could go and have completely different experiences; it’s entirely possible that you’ll come with someone whom you never cross paths with again until it’s time to leave, with both of you having never even entered the same camps.
The interactivity of the theme camps is only half the splendor though. The people who are only there to party tend to limit their experience to a few select major sound camps, but in my personal opinion the most impressive part of Burning Man is the art, many of which end their lives by burning to the ground. We’ll take a look at some of the art and art cars, next time.