Cultural Direction Setting: What We Heard

The Cultural Direction Setting initiative is in full swing and we hope you’ve read our recent update on our community engagement (4,804 surveys, interviews, community conversations, and thousands of online comments) and who “we” are! If you haven’t already, check it out!

Camp Size and City Planning

Most people stated a strong preference for smaller camps (<100 people) and more intimate connections, but they also recognize that larger camps bring some very memorable and awe-inspiring experiences. When it comes to the current configuration of Theme Camps toward Esplanade and open camping toward the last lettered street, two-thirds of respondents loved or liked the way the city is planned.

There were strong concerns from open campers about the increases in placed camps (in 2016 28% of BRC was reserved for open camping, in 2017 it was 25%, and in 2018 it was 22%), You have systematically over the last few years destroyed open camping (which is the best part of the city) and made a stagnant inner core.” An important related topic is the pathway for new Burners to create camps that are eligible to receive placement. Feedback to that end included, “New blood is awesome, but old bones are culture’s DNA.”

Decommodification and Camp Finances

There were very divergent opinions when it came to the role of money and productions in camps. Many were conflicted as to whether or not it’s okay for camps to pay individuals. “Why shouldn’t someone whose heart belongs on the playa also earn a living working within the community,” while another said, “If you’re paid, then you’re not giving a gift anymore.”

There were also differences of opinion on what it means to “pay” someone. Examples included camps collectively offsetting or fully covering someone’s ticket cost, heavy contributors not paying camp dues, camps providing stipends, camps paying someone a nominal amount as a way to say thank you, and camps paying for someone’s time at their default world wage so they replace other paid work with work for the camp.

Eighty-two percent of survey respondents said it’s not okay for people to provide a package experience for their campers, and 88% said it’s not okay for camp organizers to personally profit financially by running a camp (although some respondents didn’t see a difference between profiting and being paid). A frequent perspective was that camps are independent and “should be free to structure themselves and utilize outside resources in whatever way they want to.” Others wanted the Burning Man organization to create and enforce clearer rules.

There was a sense of realism from many camp leaders that it takes money to operate a camp (many joked about and/or lamented their own personal “investments” into their camp’s infrastructure). Overall, there was a lot of emotion around the topic of money. “Profiteers aren’t just selling a camping spot, they’re selling the experience that the rest of us built for free and profiting off of our gifts without our consent.”

Ray Russ (Community Member), Marisa Lenhardt (Death Guild Thunderdome), Skywalker (Root Society), and Level (Placement Team) reading survey answers to questions about camp size and city planning.

Convenience Camps

Respondents spoke a lot about convenience / turnkey / plug & play camps. “Burning man is a community of makers and doers. You need to make and do to get it. Participation is a core value. If you want an all inclusive experience, go to a resort.” They felt these types of camps make it too easy to attend the Burning Man event, contribute to a spectator culture, and can be exclusive and unwelcoming. “Look, the bottom line is that convenience is the antithesis to creativity and self reliance. There is no way around it. This is a FACT. The more we cater to convenience, the more we kill everything that is good about Burning Man.”

There was a resounding chorus around the dissatisfaction with RV walls, which occur when camps appear walled off by placing RVs along the outside border of their camp. Many people felt they don’t align with the spirit of the culture. At the same time, people felt comfortable with individuals and camps having some private space but believed it should be appropriately proportional to their public space.

In our analysis we noticed the term “plug & play” was used to mean many different things. At the Theme Camp Symposium on March 23-24 (keep reading to learn how to tune into the livestream), we’ll be sharing our current thinking around updating and redefining “plug & play.”

Placement and Interactivity

A majority believe that interactivity should continue to be the key factor in camps receiving placement because as one person said, “Interactivity is the whole damn point.”

There was also a lot of discussion around the quality and nature of interactivity. Some pointed out the value of spaces to hang out in the shade, get your water refilled, and have a good conversation. Some felt camps sometimes add insincere points of engagement in order to meet the requirements to get placed.

Along the same lines, many wanted to see less homogeneous offerings and more novel experiences: “Priority needs to be given to unique experiences… I don’t ever want to go to a camp dedicated to kneecap aura readings, but if you have to choose between that and another bar, sound camp, or yoga class, I vote that kneecaps gets placed.”

The smaller number of people who said “no” to interactivity being a requirement included a variety of caveats to their “no” including, “If the camp is a ‘gift’ in another way — visually or artfully stimulating — then I don’t need physical participation.”

Outside Services and Vendors

The topic of vendors and the Outside Services Program (OSS) was a complex discussion with responses all over the board. Nineteen percent of camps said they use OSS and 29% said they don’t use any vendors or outside resources. 

Of those who use services or infrastructure from vendors (OSS or otherwise), 46% said they use vendors to improve their quality or provide basic comfort, and 25% said they use OSS to increase efficiency and streamline processes. Overall, the majority of respondents were okay with vendors when they are used in service to the larger community and not as a personal luxury item.

We heard many say that the OSS Program is needed in some capacity in order to bring the gift of their camp. For example, one respondent said, “As a permitted food camp, we generate more gray water than we can remove ourselves.” Others said that with the help of OSS, they can contribute more in other ways: “Hauling less water means we bring more art.”

There were also strong opinions that using OSS in excess isn’t radically self-reliant and that doing the work together with your campmates is the magic of Burning Man. “Service vendors undermine the principle of Radical Self-reliance. They amplify class divisions from the default world. They make it a place that is easy to treat like a party instead of a community that you work hard to create.”

Beyond Black Rock City

Answers to the question of whether a camp’s activities outside Black Rock City to further Burning Man culture in the world should be a factor in their receiving Placement in Black Rock City were evenly split (36.5% said Yes; 36.7% said No; 26.7% said No Opinion). By “activities outside Black Rock City” we’re talking about things like Regional Burning Man events, engagement with local community, international work, humanitarian work, cultural ambassadors, etc.

On the “no” end of the spectrum, there were comments like, First of all, don’t compare life in BRC to that of the outside world. Every camp’s culture does not translate to something that contributes to BM culture outside of BRC. Would you expect Orgy Dome to run to the site of a natural disaster to provide a happy place for sexual interactions? Or Thunderdome to set up a space for battles between FEMA and devastated families? No.”

On the “yes” end of the spectrum, “Are we just a party in the desert or do we give a fuck about the world?” and “Furthering Burning Man culture the rest of the year can have a much bigger impact on our world, and is very worthy.” A more in-between perspective was, “I don’t think this should absolve on-playa responsibility toward community involvement, inclusion, and participation — but certainly groups that push hard to spread the values of Burning Man should be given the opportunity to be together on playa.”

We also asked a similar question about whether a camp’s financial contributions to the Burning Man culture or to Burning Man Project should be a factor in their receiving Placement in Black Rock City. The majority of respondents said No.

Default World Influences

Some noted that the rise of personal motorized bikes and scooters leads to less human interaction as people ride by at higher speeds and lessen the possibility for the unplanned discoveries and interactions some Burners have on foot.

Themes from community feedback. Graphic facilitation by Julie Gieseke.

We heard concerns about the higher use of cell phones, people snapping pictures without asking for consent, and a decrease in people seeming to be in the moment or practicing Immediacy. We also read about photoshoots and Instagram use that focused on one’s personal interests instead of one’s contributions to the larger community. “This year there were model photoshoots going on and I didn’t feel welcome on the art piece when they were doing the photoshoot.”

Visualizing Themes and Tensions

If you’d like even more quotes and to visualize the tensions we found in the community feedback, you’ll want to check out this presentation we’ve put together based on the What We Heard image above. The presentation gets into tensions between themes such as convenience vs. impactful connections, “no spectators” vs. Radical Inclusion, and volunteerism vs. hired labor. This illustrates the complexity and divergence of major themes in the surveys, interviews, community conversations, and online feedback. Grapple with us!

General Thoughts

Overall, many people emphasized the importance of “no spectators” and the “do it yourself (and help others too)” mentality. We heard a strong belief that the dust is a great equalizer and that people should be focused on giving over gaining.

There were divisions felt in the community, for example in age and experience. “Old crusty” Burners seem jaded and entitled to newer Burners, whereas experienced Burners think new Burners don’t get it and aren’t doing it right. Many people voiced concern about the lack of representation of minority groups and concern about cultural appropriation.

We heard many say they wanted Black Rock City to be more weird and less homogenous, more relational and less transactional, more makers and less takers, and more crafty and less store bought.

We heard loud and clear the organizers and makers of Black Rock City are motivated and inspired by seeing their peers participating and giving back. They are demotivated when their peers insincerely show up in Black Rock City or don’t do what they said they were going to do in order to get placement. “I’m concerned about the balance between the makers and the takers. If too many people come and expect to have a great time without contributing anything, the city will become significantly less interesting. It seems like it has already headed this way in the last couple of years.”

One survey respondent said, “Camps are also ‘institutions’ that help to transfer Burning Man values and Principles by preserving them and passing from experienced Burners to new ones.” Camps are critical in setting and continuing the cultural direction of residential Black Rock City. Let’s talk about how we do that.

So What’s Next?

Some of the very important questions that came out of the survey analysis.

The first draft of the Cultural Direction Setting vision and the potential paths we may collectively take will be shared at the upcoming Theme Camp Symposium. If you’d like to watch and participate, there will be a Facebook livestream of the event on March 23-24 (in person seats are all taken).

You’re welcome to join us virtually for the whole weekend, or if you’d just like to tune in for Cultural Direction Setting content, we’ll be sharing the draft vision on Saturday, March 23, from 11:00am-12:30pm Pacific Time. We’ll follow that with a live-streamed breakout session where participants can give feedback on the draft vision from 2:00pm-3:15pm Pacific Time. You can give your feedback virtually by adding comments on the livestream.

More Quotes From The Community

“Community is a participatory activity.”

“Impactful means it leaves a mark, a memory, and maybe a transformation.”

“Everybody contributes. Sometimes you go to the party, sometimes you make the party.”

“Burning Man inspires curiosity and creativity, if we want to emanate that out into the world we need to ask questions in a way that motivates self-driven solutions.”

“Society at large has gaps that Burning Man fills.”

“I worry that there is a critical mass of people who earn off Burning Man become the critical mass and it collapses.”

“What I have seen our community do is that we tend to conflate the wealthy with problem camps. So the conclusion people draw is that people with money are eroding BM. I do think there are wealthy camps that get it wrong, using money for power, influence, and behaving as spectators.”

Quotes About OSS/Vendors

“If the vendors are specifically in support of the creation of a community project, such as an art installation or a stage, then they have a purpose… If the vendors are there to create bespoke, private environments for paying customer, or worse, paying people to serve non-participants then they are absolutely a violation of de-commodification. If it has to be black and white, I’d rather see all privately contracted vendors banned rather than see Plug n’ Play camps take over any more of the city.”

“While not everyone has time or physical ability to create a camp, no one should be able to purchase an “experience package”. No camp should have hired help. Period. Everyone needs to pitch in. Providing purchased camp accommodations, meals, costumes, bikes, transport, etc. encourages spectatorship from tourists, not authentic interaction and gifts from individuals who care.”

“Positive? There are some crazy cool things that can be done with heavy equipment. Negative? Candidly, I think most of the effects are negative. The extravagance of unlimited water, power, fuel make it easier to recreate default systems rather than invent new ones. Luxury is not necessarily bad – I just think the magic is lost a little when we simply paid for someone else to bring it in to playa.”

We’re blown away by the participation with this initiative and we’re honored to carry this input into the vision itself and the next steps of Cultural Direction Setting.

In service,

Black Rock City Cultural Direction Setting Group*

Bravo (Placement Team), Jennifer Warburg (Boom Boom Womb Camp), Jess Hobbs (Flux Foundation, Maker Faire and Flaming Lotus Girls), Kari Gregg (Philanthropic Engagement for Burning Man Project), Kimba Jorgensen (Facilitator and Man Pavilion Project Manager), Lauren Brand (Varsity Camp and Cirque Gitane), Level (Placement Team), Marisa Lenhardt (Death Guild Thunderdome), Mercedes Martinez (Burning Man Project Board Member and Ashram Galactica), Danger Ranger (Burning Man Cultural Co-Founder and Burning Man Project Board Member), Ray Russ (Community Member), Scotto (Meta-Regional and PolyParadise Village), Shadow (Placement Team), Simone Torrey (Lead Facilitator, bEEcHARGE! Camp, Red Hot Beverly Crew), Skywalker (Root Society Camp), Terry Schoop (Community Services Manager), Trippi Longstocking / Victoria Mitchell (Associate Director and BRC Cultural Direction Setting Project Creator), Wally Bomgaars (Burning Man Staff and Community Member), and Zang (Suspended Animation Camp)

With support and direction from Marian Goodell (CEO and Cultural Founder of Burning Man Project), Harley K. Dubois (Cultural Founder of Burning Man Project), Charlie Dolman (Black Rock City Event Director), and Heather White (Managing Director of Burning Man Project)

*Since it’s not possible to have every camp participate in the visioning group, the camps represent a cross-section of Black Rock City in terms of camp size and complexity, number of years as an established camp, and camp location. This is a new level of engagement with the Burning Man organization for most of these camps, and hearing voices from all camps in our survey, social media, and community conversations is a critical part of this process.

Top photo by Zang

About the author: BRC Cultural Direction Setting Group

BRC Cultural Direction Setting Group

Phase 2 of the project involves over 70 individuals across 10 groups that are working to implement the cultural vision across many areas. You can see all of their names and affiliations within the Burning Man community in this blog post. Phase 1 Visioning Group: Bravo (Placement Team), Jennifer Warburg (Boom Boom Womb Camp), Jess Hobbs (Flux Foundation, Maker Faire and Flaming Lotus Girls), Kari Gregg (Philanthropic Engagement for Burning Man Project), Kimba Standridge (Facilitator and Man Pavilion Project Manager), Lauren Brand (Varsity Camp and Cirque Gitane), Level (Placement Team), Marisa Lenhardt (Death Guild Thunderdome), Mercedes Martinez (Burning Man Project Board Member and Ashram Galactica), Danger Ranger (Burning Man Cultural Co-Founder and Burning Man Project Board Member), Ray Russ (Community Member), Scotto (Meta-Regional and PolyParadise Village), Shadow (Placement Team), Simone Torrey (Lead Facilitator, bEEcHARGE! Camp, Red Hot Beverly Crew), Skywalker (Root Society Camp), Terry Schoop (Community Services Manager), Trippi Longstocking / Victoria Mitchell (Associate Director and BRC Cultural Direction Setting Project Creator), Wally Bomgaars (Burning Man Staff and Community Member), and Zang (Suspended Animation Camp) Profile image by Isabelle Horl.

27 Comments on “Cultural Direction Setting: What We Heard

  • dAVE klaus says:

    I am very grateful that this effort is happening. I have been burning since 1999 and never missed a year, and this community means a great deal to me. My wife, my kids, my brother, uncle, cousins are all burners. And our camp community is so healthy and loving.

    I especially appreciate the care and intention around looking at the “turnkey” camps, which have become more and more of a drain (IMHO) on the city, without giving much back.

    We have all seen the massive RV parks that are unwelcoming to the rest of us, and which are ugly as well as distancing.

    I agree that the smaller more interactive camps are the heart of the city (and full disclosure, that describes our camp too) AND I love the sound camps and where I can get my dance on. I wish sound camps and sound art got more support from the City, perhaps more commensurate with the arts.

    Regarding OSS vendors, we have for years had potable and grey water tanks, and I think they are more sustainable in many ways.

    All in all, this cultural evolution feels like a very welcome and needed effort, and has reassured me that the city I love so much is in good hands.

    thank you!

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  • Lindsay Horstman says:

    Wow. Thank you so much for all this hard work and dedication to taking the pulse of all burners and looking forward to a better future. I am so proud of this endeavor and glad to be a part of it.

    I will be attending my 13th burn and thought a lot about the issues presented in the survey and am impressed with how seriously these issues are being taken.

    I love burning man so very much and want to preserve the principles as best we can. I am looking forward to seeing all this energy and good work come to fruition.

    Thank you so very much for sharing and for your continued work.

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  • K10 says:

    All y’all at BRC Cultural Direction have done an amazing job gathering and presenting this data. Burning Man is unique and special and we want to keep it that way, but change is inevitable. It’s comforting to know that so many dedicated folks are focused on exploring the various evolutions of the event. Excited to see what comes next!

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  • R A says:

    Very thankful for the effort and thought going into this! Keep it up, gang. Thanks for the updates

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  • Irving Forbush says:

    Wow. So in all that feedback from the community there were no substantial comments about the Borganization itself? Nothing about incentives/disincentives? Gate lines? Art grants? DPW? Airport? Mutant vehicles? Ticket prices? Org creep? Early entry? Volunteer usage? Apparently plug-n-plays and instagram are our only problems?!? Nobody had good suggestions for improving how departments are run? I know it can be hard to summarize a lot of qualitative feedback, but that’s literally just unbelievable (and/or tone deaf). Our culture and the organization are deeply interconnected, and the current culture reflects many choices made over the years – good and bad.

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    • Eagle Eye says:

      These are all valuable questions, too.

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    • Patricia Leeb says:

      It’s entirely possible these are being addressed, to one degree or another, offline. The few people I know currently in or formerly part of BMORG are conscientious, thoughtful and aware of the issues you point out, which are indeed valid. However, this particular article was put out to address a particular concern. By all means raise your questions directly to the org, and keep asking. Everyone needs to be accountable. This is a group effort on EVERYBODY’s part

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  • Rob Blakemore says:

    Huge thanks for the continued discussion on this. x

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  • M Flender says:

    Close the fucking airport!!

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  • Vickey says:

    To the powers that be:
    If you truly want to control the ever-changing ever-evolving experiment, then you will have to actually and in real time police those that you perceive violate the principles. Or, you can just let it be.

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  • Thank you for this. I’ve been going to Burning Man off and on since 1999. I’m one of the organizers of a medium-well-known campout in the bay area and serve on their non-profit board. We’ve been following this discussion about BM’s cultural direction as a positive example of the work we are also undertaking. So, even if the solutions don’t come at the drop of a hat, knowing how to frame the problems and giving space for everyone to share their voices is proving to be a constructive use of our time. I appreciate what you’re uncovering with all of this.

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    • Jill Williams says:

      I know your camp. We picked up a ton of your moop. It was blowing into our camp all week. And then we said something about it and some guy ripped our mailbox up and stepped on it. Then some woman came by and called us pedophiles because we had children in our camp. Every morning, we had to clean up cigarette butts that you guys dumped on our camp from the night before. Someone cut our generator cable, and I can only imagine who. We just wanted to camp in peace.

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  • Tim Green says:

    I have allways thought that the effort it takes to drag all your supplies and equipment acted like a benign Filter to separate the spectators from the people who truly want to be self reliant. We worked very hard to create our camp and meet wonderful new neighbors,,,,,but it’s gone and I’m very sad about that.
    Please learn from all this data. Don’t let the magic disappear.

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  • Pierrot Activatus says:

    Thank you. Please consider the issue with servants that I raised somewhere in the discussion. The issue is not only in the existence of the privileged, who are treated as kings and enjoy BRC from an air-conditioned castle with maids and chefs. Sure, that’s bad, but not the whole problem, and I don’t see anyone mentioning the other side of the equation.
    Having servants in BRC is just… I don’t know, makes me channel the spirit of Danaerys Targaryen, Breaker of Chains or something. You see, someone who is not contributing as an equal to a camp, but is paid or otherwise compensated to lick the arses of the wealthy, camp-contrib-paying camp”mates” (in reality guests), is not a burner. They aren’t a free citizen of BRC. They are a servant.
    And introduce class struggle with all its bitterness to Burning Man. To a servant, free burners, regardless of wealth or contribution, are “the ruling class”. The people who can fuck around, get drunk and wasted, party until morning, get lost on the playa, the people who came because they wanted to, who aren’t thinking “shit I should have taken the cruise ship gig instead”…

    This came up in the Euroburners group, and there I argued for a strict ban on servants and their employers. There I defined this as: “a servant is someone who, _for money, ticket, or any other compensation_, builds, cooks, tears down, moops, or provides any other comforts for rich campmates who pay a camp contribution _that is agreed to include these services_.”

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    • I agree, the “master/servant” dichotomy makes me very uncomfortable as well. A good friend is an assistant camp manager for a huge show-biz themed camp entirely funded by a billionaire who uses it as a private party space for his friends and family. On the plus side, he funds a lot of indie artists and performers, setting up banks of shiftpods & an air-conditioned luxury kitchen & dining room. These artists produce a huge public show at the end of the week. But, but…they’re still servants, there to serve him & his wealthy friends.

      I’d love to see that whole model banned from BRC.

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  • We use OSS because our camp supplies are all stored in a trailer that can’t be moved without a CDL. And with nobody in camp with a cab and a CDL, we have to get our gear brought in to the town. Much like someone who is coming from overseas who isn’t a pilot and doesn’t have their own plane will likely pay an airline to bring them to Nevada.

    It would be great if simple deliveries of containers of camp infrastructure was made easier while things like RV deliveries were not.

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  • cheryl Lyne says:

    Thank you so much for all you’ve done and are doing. We’re listening. We’re watching. Don’t let the small number of comments fool you.

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  • Simoneski says:

    Private security searching vehicles at the gate, what could go wrong there? Last years Gestapo tactics on the road were bad, this will be a real shit show. Not looking forward to this level of harassment!

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  • jenna says:

    Global warming and racism.

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  • Mardipardi says:

    Love Give Love

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