There was a certain point last night — when a six-foot-tall private-party planner in a bustier and feather headdress was clenching my shoulder and threatening me — that I wondered why I ever even wanted to follow along on a tour of the fancy camps of Burning Man.
Burning Man is, after all, about building a city, which they call Black Rock. In that city, some people were building walled-off empires on its outer rings. Rich people do as rich people do.
But there is something about the way a new fleet of wealthy have descended on Burning Man that is inducing anxiety among Burners, a community that bans all money and branding (people tape over even small logos). The so-called “turnkey camps” — tight circles of trailers, or sometimes just large black-tarp walls that hide overstaffed luxury playpens — are distinctly different from the rest of Burning Man, a festival with a heavy emphasis on giving and work.
During a five-minute walk this morning, Burners in various camps offered me plums, coffee and homemade pita-and-cheese sandwiches. Campers constantly brag about how much work they put into their decor, erecting full bars or elaborate hammock-atop-hammock arrangements on site. Many of this year’s new camps are both private and prefab, and that is very difficult for some Burners to accept. It has been part of the conversation here all week.
Let it be said: All of Burning Man is a show of wealth. Tickets are $380, sure, but many of the art cars — immensely decorated buses and trucks — cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not to mention the neon furs, the metallic leggings and the lights (there were side-of-the-road hawkers at the gate who tried to sell me a rainbow stole for $80).
Standing near a party bus one night around midnight, Ryan Parks, a young entrepreneur covered in LEDs, explained the situation: “This is the height of excess,” he said, indicating the neon and fire-spewing art cars around us. “We go to the desert, where people die, to build shit we burn. The Maslow hierarchy of needs has been met by our ancestors — so we can make art cars and websites. It’s wasteful but plants the seeds of possibility of whole new worlds.”
It’s not about tech money, because that’s nothing new. Annie Harrison — an early Burner and former writer for Wired magazine — told me, “I came out here in ’95 to cover the tech scene. It was tech-reporter catnip! Mostly stories about the lasers from Lawrence Livermore. I took a picture of a guy lighting a cigarette off a laser that my editor loved.”
But something new is happening at Burning Man: There’s now a rich neighborhood.
K Street Black Rock is at the perimeter of the city, which is built in the form of concentric semicircles. A long, obscure stretch far from the center, no one bikes all the way out there unless they have to.
“We’ve put our hand out to the turnkey camps and asked them to live by the principles. We can’t force them. But we asked, and I think they understand,” said Burning Man co-founder Will Rogers, who sat in a folding chair by his RV, a tattered bandana around his head. “After the first dust storm, we’re all the same color.”
In my event calendar, I noticed something called “Turnkey Camp Invasion,” described as a parade to test the hospitality of the fanciest camps. When I arrived at the meeting spot, a funky bar in a quiet neighborhood along E street, the bartenders told me the organizer hadn’t been able to make it to Burning Man because he couldn’t take the time off from work.
But the group — a dentist, a Google employee, a lawyer, some eccentrics — still gathered. We figured that, no matter what, it was a nice night for a bike ride.
“Okay, we want to make sure we don’t get the people who fund the art, though,” said a blonde woman wearing a headscarf and a sash of fake ammo. “How can we tell which is turnkey and which isn’t?”
“Listen, we’re not burning down their RVs, for god’s sake,” said David Grosof, who wore glow sticks fashioned into glasses. “If we’re friendly, they’ll invite us in. It’ll be fun.”
I stood next to a Google employee named Greg: “The nanosecond I heard about this turnkey tour, there was no way I wouldn’t do it.”
What if it’s Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s camp?
“That’d be awesome! We’d sip a martini and have some caviar, no doubt,” Greg said.
Grosof had a more philosophical take.
“We are so very careful, no one can sell a hot dog for money, but it’s okay to have a staff and bodyguards and cooks?” he said. “What is the difference between commodity product and commodity service?”
When we reached K Street, one of the “invaders” asked a man who was walking by whether he had seen these fancy camps. Oh yes, he had, he said. Many. They set up 20 matching RVs here or there, and there’s one just right up the street.
We got to the escarpment, a daunting wall of RVs. The entry was covered by gauzy drapes. As they billowed in the wind, we could see inside: A crystal chandelier, glass refrigerators full of champagne, a dining-room table to seat maybe 16, and half a dozen very beautiful women in lingerie, serving cocktails. One of them saw the group.
She stormed outside, furious. The invaders responded defensively, saying they had just wanted to see. Some wanted to debate. She wanted everyone to keep walking. The group milled outside, debating whether to try again, or give up and go to a normal camp for a drink.
One of the turnkey residents, red-haired and slightly overweight, came out in a white shirt and cargo shorts. The party planner quickly ran back inside, brought him a red-silk Chinese robe, and helped him put it on. He thought someone’s headlamp was a camera, and started to scream at them. The event planner saw me taking notes and a picture of the scene, and came at me. “I don’t like you,” she said loudly, grabbing my shoulder. Someone next to me told her that she didn’t need to be a bitch. The man in the silk robe started jumping up and down, ready to throw a punch.
And then, because no one really wanted a fight and the whole scene was ridiculous, it calmed. The Googler hopped on his bike and sped off. The dentist shook his head and adjusted his EL-wire. And I went off with a friend to a fire-dancing camp run by some Santa Cruz Burners — I gave them the ginseng candies that I carry in my bag. We ordered vodka and orange juice, but they poured us Coke and Fireball.
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