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Placing camps at Burning Man

One of the toughest challenges the Burning Man staff face is placing all the camps in the city. This stopped being an anarchy long ago, and the city is mapped and each camp given a precise area. The city has various “premium” locations which are valued in part for being close to things but mainly because they are high traffic for camps showing off interesting art or interactivity. Far more camps want to be in the premium locations than there is room, and almost everybody serious wants to be pre-placed somewhere so they can plan in advance and not have to race in the land-rush when the event officially opens.

(Some people like the land-rush. While you will not get a spot very close to the Esplanade or be able to be on the maps and calendars by address, you will get a bigger space for your group, because it’s “take what you dare.”)

Camps submit applications (this year by the start of May) describing the contribution they will offer the city, where they would like to be, and how much space they need. A team of placers (mostly volunteers with a few paid leaders) try to allocate the camps. They try to be fair, but the process is largely opaque, so any biases and mistakes are not generally visible to the community.

The process takes time, and the placement last year was announced to the community in early August, just a few weeks before the event. Camps are told only their approximate street location, and their dimensions. For reasons few have been able to fathom, the actual precise map, showing who is on corners and who is next to whom, is kept secret until the event itself. Many factors go into the decision, including camp density, past reputations, the various prime locations available, camps that want or don’t wan’t to be next to other camps, loudness and quality and interactivity of the art in the camp.

In 2009, the placers decided something which was a fairly big surprise to the community. They decided not to place around 120 of the camps that applied at all. Those camps were left to the land-rush, which meant a few distressing things for them:

  • They could not arrive in the city before the opening to set up; some had rather extensive structures to build.
  • They could not know where they would be in advance, so they could not tell their address to people in advance, or put it in the city calendar which is handed out at the gate.

The placement team decided not to place these camps because they did not want to find themselves placing the majority of the city. They wanted the city to retain some randomness and made a decision that only a limited fraction of the city would be subject to mapping in advance. If too many camps applied, those who did not make the cut would not be placed. This decision caused some controversy, and there are arguments for both sides. In addition to the non-placements, there were also many camps surprised by their placement (usually negatively) and, as would be expected in any large volunteer effort, a modest number of mistakes.  read more »