Burning Man is a spectacle of human creativity in the middle of the Nevada desert, a gathering unlike any other in the world. Camps at Burning Man range from 5 people in a tent to organized groups with 200+ people that can build massive sound stages and run them like clockwork. We caught up with three well-established camps–Pile Palace, Pink Mammoth and Camp Questionmark–to learn about their humble beginnings all the way to their current status as Burner heavyweights, and get a preview of what they have planned for this year’s Burn.
“Pile Palace is essentially the Desert Hearts camp at Burning Man,” says co-founder of the camp Mike Iwata. “Because of the ‘no branding’ principle of Burning Man, we go by Pile Palace instead of Desert Hearts.” Iwata along with Mikey Lion and the Desert Hearts core members started getting into the transformational festival scene around 2011 with Lightning in a Bottle followed by their first Burn. They went solo one year, joined another camp the next and on their third year had a profound realization.
“Our third year we were going to join another camp, but that was right around the same time that Desert Hearts was starting to become something. It was at the spring Tropical Hearts in 2013, that on the dancefloor on the last day of the festival, I gathered everyone up and said, ‘we have the resources to make something happen, we have this family behind us, why would we join someone else’s camp? We need to make something for ourselves and represent ourselves.’ Right there on the dancefloor, we decided to make our own camp. Pile Palace is the family camp of Desert Hearts, the beating heart of Desert Hearts. The ride or die people that have been around since day one.”
Their family vibe is an integral part of the spirit of the camp and the origins of its name. “Pile” is an inside joke of the group, a slang term for being a lazy piece of shit. For example, partying hard Friday and Saturday and then being a Pile and watching Netflix on the couch all day Sunday. “Part of it is because we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Iwata jokes. “We talk shit on each other but it’s out of love–that’s Pile Palace. We are a lounge where you can chill, if you’re having a bad trip you can chill on our couches and find yourself, or if you’re ready to party then we have one of the best dancefloors on the playa, with some of the best drinks you’ll have on the playa. Our bar is stocked with at least four custom drinks at any one time. We have beer on tap too. And some of the best people that you’ll meet.”
Pile Palace throws fundraisers throughout the year and many of the Desert Hearts DJs play to raise money to stock the bar and get the speakers out–to be one of the liveliest dancefloors out there. The camp is around 80 people and doesn’t plan to get much bigger. Iwata reflects, “We’ve seen what it’s like to be a part of an amazing camp that feeds you, that has an incredible infrastructure, but if you don’t have that family vibe, then what does it matter? That’s ultimately what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to nurture a family, represent ourselves on the playa and also give back. I hear people say sometimes that Pile is their favorite camp on the playa– hearing that gives all of us such a good feeling in our hearts. Knowing that during that special week, people like to spend their time with us…that’s why we do it.”
This year keep an eye out for an expanded dancefloor. Pile Palace is hoping to go from 40×40 feet to 60×60 feet, if they can pull it off.
Camp Questionmark goes way back. In 1999, Brian Saccomano and his partner Michelle Hack went out to Black Rock City and fell in love with Burning Man. After a few years of returning, Saccomano came up with the moniker Camp Questionmark to, as he puts it “…open up the theme of the camp to something a little more than just decoration–to be interactive with people who stopped by.”
The question mark also symbolizes a questioning attitude to information given to their members in life outside of the playa. They take the ten principles of Burning Man and apply that to camp organization, doing all of the legwork of getting there themselves. “Our attitude is independence,” Saccomano says. “We do it for the love of it so we’re gonna do it whatever way we can.”
The camp hovers around 200 people, and if you want to join, then you can apply to be a part of their crew. They have grown considerably over the years. “It originally started at five of us the very first year, and every year it has grown. The largest noticeable boom was when we went from 15 to 50. That’s when it went from a casual theme camp to figuring out how to do something bigger and needing to fundraise to do that. Now it’s a group of us where we do a few events throughout the year. We don’t call all of them fundraisers, but everything we generate we put right back into the camp so we can do the sound stage. This year our main event is going to be in San Francisco at The Great Northern on July 22.”
The camp’s sound stage is massive and is one of the only camps on the playa to feature bass music ranging from breakbeat to trap to dubstep and more. Some notable alumni include Minnesota and G Jones. “A few [of our] residents’ careers have taken off considerably since we started working with them, preventing them from being able to go the last couple years. Minnesota and G Jones are two that come to mind. Those are two people that were with us from when we were doing some of our early fundraisers and they were just starting to come up as artists. We worked with them constantly and had them at all of our shows. They were essentially Camp Questionmark residents,” says Saccomano.
Camp Questionmark has these “question books” which are filled with thoughtful questions. People can sit down at camp and write answers to the questions in the books, and then the camp turns those into answer books, which they update each year and bring for people to read some of the deepest, most creative responses to life’s biggest questions.
This year Camp Questionmark is on “the corner,” so you can’t miss them. They’re aiming to go even bigger than last year and make a distinct impression on all who come by.
Picture an old rebellious biker with long hair named Pinkie hosting a pink dance party featuring house and disco on the Playa. That scene is the origin of Pink Mammoth, according to eight-year resident DJ Zach Walker. Two founding members Derek Hena and Ryel K. began DJing at Pinkies’ parties at Camp Pinkies, so when Pinkie wanted to retire from running the camp and the dancefloor, he asked the pair to take it over with one rule–change the name. Derek and Ryel were both ski instructors at the time at Mammoth Mountain, and thus Pink Mammoth was born.
“Usually we have 150 to 200 people at the camp,” Walker says. “Any more than 200 it gets hard to manage. Last year something we did was we got a shipping crate for our whole entire structure, so now it’s almost just ‘plug and play,’ with how quickly we can unload and get the whole camp up and going.”
“Pink is not necessarily the standard color around the camp. To be honest a lot of us like the color black,” Walker jokes. “People wear what they wanna wear. I like to wear pink because I think it’s a very vibrant and happy color. No one is sad when everyone is dressed in pink!”
The camp has a slew of dedicated DJs playing playa tech and groovy house all week long: Derek Hena, Jonathan Will, Gravity, Moemoe, & Tobin Ellsworth. These performers and others play and fundraisers throughout the year, in order to fund this massive undertaking. Events happen in the Bay Area and across the country. “We just did an event in Brooklyn with a Summer of Love theme in an outdoor space. Performers, aerial silks, the whole 9 yards. We’ve done parties in Tulum, and we have a crew out in Colorado, then LA and SF.”
The crew also believes in giving back. They recently incorporated as a nonprofit organization and started looking to donate to other causes. Walker says, “At times when we do a bigger event and we know we are going to be financially sound for Burning Man, we’ll look for some kind of organization to donate to, usually ones that serve a youth population. For example, the Boys & Girls Club of San Diego has a music program and they needed new gear for their studio at the clubhouse, so we donated so they could get new equipment.”
Walker describes the character of the camp as “free expression to the fullest.” He adds, “I think that free and authentic expression is what gives it its unique energy and vibe…Every year we get better with our organization, our structures. We added day beds last year, a few years before we added flags. It’s a process. We feel it out and see what we like.”
This year the camp hopes to add water misters with a control in the DJ booth to sync the drop in the music with some nice cool mist during hot days.