Cultural Direction Setting: What’s Happened

Last fall, we launched Black Rock City Cultural Direction Setting to better understand and address the state of residential life in Black Rock City and where it’s going. The goal is to create a clear, actionable vision that will guide residential BRC culture for the next five to 10 years.

In this update we’ll share what’s happened so far, and how you can give us input on the draft vision at the upcoming Theme Camp Symposium March 23-24. As more and more camps are requesting placement, and as our culture has become widely-known, this is a critical time to dig in and guide our community towards a desirable future.

Marian Goodell’s recent piece on Cultural Course Correcting mentions a few cultural issues that have arisen over the last few years and changes that are being made to address them. The Cultural Direction Setting group is working in tandem with these and other organization-wide initiatives to guide the future of Burning Man culture in Black Rock City and beyond.

What’s Happened So Far?

Community conversation in Portland

A visioning group was formed including leaders from camps, community members, Burning Man Project’s Board of Directors, Regional Contact leadership, Placement Team members, and Burning Man Project staff.

In the fall, we launched a variety of feedback mechanisms to hear your stories, opinions, and experiences with residential life in BRC. We opened an extensive survey that received over 4,804 responses from 78 countries; we conducted 62 personal, in-depth interviews with camp leaders, artists, organization leaders, and staff from across the Burning Man spectrum; we read thousands of comments left on the Journal post, the Facebook group, and ePlaya; and we digested the notes from 19 community conversations hosted around the world.

Community conversation in the Ukraine

Using a kit we created, community conversations were hosted in Austin, Texas; Bishop, California; virtually in Brazil; Eugene, Oregon; Kimberly, Idaho; Marina Del Ray, California; New York, New York; Portland, Oregon; Queerborhood participants in San Francisco; Reno, Nevada; Sacramento, California; San Francisco, California; San Jose, California; Seattle, Washington; Kyiv, Ukraine; and Vancouver, British Columbia. There were also three virtual community conversations with Burning Man staff.

We collaborated with the BRC Census Team on the survey so we could determine how representative our survey results were compared to the 2018 BRC population, and were happy to find the survey response accurately represented the BRC population.

A diverse group of enthusiastic Burners chimed in, providing detailed and passionate feedback on what has and hasn’t been working. Many wrote thoughtful and lengthy responses — so much time and effort was put into the answers. Here are some interesting statistics on who we heard from:

After the feedback was collected, our visioning group of 19 people spent days reading and analyzing the responses. We heard your thoughts on topics like criteria for placed Theme Camps, convenience in camps, the role of money, and how all of these variables and many more impact Black Rock City culture.

What We Heard

Cultural Direction Setting Group considers a range of issues

Black Rock City is a complex community. It is a city full of different citizens with a variety of needs like in any other metropolis. On many occasions, survey results showed strong, divergent opinions on topics about residential life.

These questions are multi-faceted and it’s not as simple as saying the majority opinion is “right” and the minority is “wrong.” The quantifiable results only tell part of the story. Sometimes they were even misleading. The written comments to Yes/No questions often started with “Yes, but…” or “No, but…”, leading us to realize people sometimes used the Yes/No options to make similar points. Our analysis is based on the thousands of answers to “Why?” for the 35 qualitatively based survey questions, which is more than 100,000 separate comments. 

The visioning group includes community members and Burning Man Project staff

Instead of trying to quantify “rights” and “wrongs”, we want to tell the story of what we heard by weaving together similar survey questions and integrating the interviews, community conversations, and online comments. Some quantified results are included when the numbers truly were aligned with the comments behind the answer. 

We look forward to sharing the specifics about what we heard in a day or two, right here on the Burning Man Journal. We’ll share the major themes that emerged from the community engagement, and quotes from the surveys, interviews, community conversations, and online responses. Stay tuned! 

We Still Want to Hear From You

If you want to participate in the draft stage of the vision, join us virtually for the upcoming Theme Camp Symposium. At the Symposium we’ll share where we’re at with the vision itself, the themes that are emerging, and the series of perspectives that are aligning toward the vision. 

We want to know what you think, and we will get real-time feedback from some of the most active and engaged camp leaders in Black Rock City. If you’d like to watch and participate, there will be a Facebook livestream of the event on March 23-24 (there are no more in-person seats available). 

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 presenting our draft work 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. 

We will take the feedback we hear at the Theme Camp Symposium and use that input to guide the next draft of the vision, and we’ll provide another update after the Symposium. After that, we’ll share the vision and cultural direction for residential Black Rock City.

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 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)

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

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)

46 Comments on “Cultural Direction Setting: What’s Happened

  • Susan Bunny says:

    >… the state of residential life in Black Rock City and where it’s going.

    In the gutter. It’s where you sent it, BMorg. Stop complaining and just take the damn money. You’re free to do it now, so stop giving lip-service to a now imaginary ‘community’ that you intentionally killed many years ago. FFS, do you think anyone takes you seriously anymore?

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  • Kiki EnFuego says:

    I am very impressed with the thoroughness, focus, and solid methodology of this project. I know there are choruses of folks who prefer to focus on the coulda, woulda, shoulda perspective. And I agree with many who think we should have started this about five years ago. Looking forward to following along!
    It IS possible to be a bitter and jaded old timer AND hopeful about the future.

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  • Sorrynotsorry says:

    Things aren’t supposed to last Forever. BM might as well stop now, so it doesn’t continue to embarrass itself further years from now. You have alienated your core group starting at LEAST 10 years ago. The only original people left, are the ones that for some reason made BM their LIVES, and don’t want the realization that in essence, it is over.

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    • Iceman says:

      No doubt death comes differently for different organisms. With my energy I’m committed and wether Our light is ascending or declining matters not to me as it is the clearest hope I can see for the Us, that I am. Remember please also this- we are an experiment, lead by Us all in a marvelous differently connected/aligned “tribal” Way.
      I stand here and now with, and pushing for the Us.
      For those who feel/think We should have started sooner: I became sentient on the playa in 2001 and by definition, that is when I started. (There is a dust trail behind me, all around me, and I am a moth to our Fire.
      Fuck yer Burn into the life changing dust (he said). Next year was better on Fire.

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  • A Continuously upset Burner says:

    I find it absolutely disgusting that a turnkey camp producer is involved in the cultural direction setting process.

    I’d like to hereby invite Lauren Brand to get off this panel.

    In case you folks at the BORG don’t get it yet – TURNKEY CAMPS AND THE PEOPLE THEY FACILITATE ARE THE PROBLEM. STOP DANCING AROUND THE ISSUE. THE CULTURE DECAYED AT AN EXPONENTIAL RATE ONCE THESE CAMPS STARTED PROLIFERATING ALL OVER THE PLACE AND HEARING THEIR SELF-SERVING PERSPECTIVE IS NOT HELPFUL.

    Please visit camps like Cirque Gitane as a regular participant and experience what it’s like. Please. PLEASE. PLEASE!!!! You folks seriously do not understand why these camps are awful, and you need to go and see them for yourself as a regular person, and not someone on an ivory platform.

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    • CG says:

      I’ve seen reps in this list that openly court European tech investors with free tickets and evangelizing at conferences that arent directly related to burning man. All this blah blah here is bullshit. I’ve seen behind the curtain and it is not going to change. Time for something new. Burning man was great. Pack it up and move on. End this.

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    • elf says:

      This so-called “camp” was the only one allowed to return to the playa who was selling rooms by the night and/or week when all the other such camps were told not to come back to the playa. They leak grey water & sewage on the playa and BM looks the other way. These are just a few of the reasons why I have stopped participating in BM. BM no longer adheres, or even comes remotely close, to its own Ten Principles.

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    • Kathy Groth says:

      My marvelously insightful daughter said, “For some people, the only way they can get to experience Burning Man is if they are able to shower every day.”
      Can we find a way to integrate those folks into the more recognizable culture gently, and keeping in mind radical inclusion, as well as the other values?

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  • BobC says:

    These cultural direction considerations are kinda like Big Pharma, they address the symptoms while knowingly ignoring the core disease…which of course is the unintended consequences of allowing the uber wealthy to change the community to meet their expectations for exclusivity and to support their desire for a curated experience provided by others on their behalf. Allowing this to flourish is completely antithetical to ensuring a shared community experience but instead promotes a class system akin to a typical Vegas experience.

    Meanwhile, trivial things like cell phone usage on the playa are being villainized in recent questionnaires as a threat to the community culture. While annoying, phone usage is not promoting a class system or exclusivity given its ubiquity across all socioeconomic classes and perhaps it should be embraced much like EDM has been over the years. Regardless, care must be taken by the community not to encourage shaming, punitive or vigilante responses for phone usage, as some use their phones as medical devices and others use them for emergency needs. It is still a free country and no one should have to justify the use of their personal technology to anyone.

    Radical inclusion is a bitch.

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    • Wraith says:

      Like it or not, cell phones on the Playa have consequences to the culture. People, especially women, hesitate to express themselves in costume when every lecherous drunk asshole has a high def camera with an internet connection on them 24/7. There are whole communities around this sort of involuntary pornography on other internet sites like Reddit.

      Even things with utility can have negative cultural consequences. Think deeper than what momentarily inconveniences you personally, I implore you.

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      • Done with this says:

        People did just fine without cellphones before. Medical reasons? Get a satellite phone or don’t go. That’s not enough reason to have cell coverage. I agree with the comment about involuntary porn… enough of this. Cellphones are not necessary out there.

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      • Tena says:

        That’s fine Done. But some of like to do what we like to do on the playa. You’re not here to tell us how to do BM properly. If I want to Insta BM, I’m free to do that. I sell my art because I’m goddamn hot a F. You’ve never been with a woman like me and that’s why you hate us. BM is a culture of evolution. Either you evolve or you get left behind – but not behind me, you’ll never get there. LOSER. Get a real job.

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      • Double Check says:

        Before cell phones people were taking the same nasty pictures with still and video cameras. Photographing the critical tits ride is one example. Making images continues. People wear body cams at BRC. C Wether transmission is instant or later on, same problem. However, some of these photographsr see the light and throw away their archives when they realize their behavior. There always will be pervs and exhibitionest. I still practice my radical self expression among our community because our people are still our people. But I do it smartly.

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  • Nicole says:

    Will all the original data from the surveys be made publicly available for independent analysis and corroboration of the stated results?

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    • Jamco says:

      The report from BMorg came in last week. They’ve spend months figuring out the cause of the culture shift. Some really amazing people worked on the project. The summary is that 387% of attendees believe that they are artists.

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  • Mary Beth says:

    Black & white pictures are always historical and significant and important culturally. The people in pictures like this are always thinking deeply. Based on the first picture, I think the problem has been sorted out and there’s nothing to worry about. Buy your tickets as soon as you can. It’s going to be a transformative experience for everyone, or your money back (just kidding). Spirituality and transformation. Make friends be happy. You’ll get laid tons. Volunteer for everything.

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  • Dusty says:

    Please take corporate decommification more seriously. Last year, I was wondering around the 3o’clock sector and saw this giant illuminated VW sign. It was car dealership size. I thought it was some kind of joke. It was advertising VW bus camp but was hard to tell since there weren’t hardly any vintage buses. I talked to a camp member who said many of them have vintage buses but they are too valuable now to bring and expose to the playa dust. Time to put this camp and any camp with a corporate logo in their name in the history books.

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    • Sandman says:

      You really didn’t visit the Camp then. That is Camp Walter you visited. Is has NOTHING to do with corporations or the VW company. It’s mascot is a long time BM art car, which you would know about if you’d been to BM more than once or asked around – Walter The Bus. It’s designed to look like a GIANT VW bus. In fact it’s an old fire truck. Google it. Your welcome.

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    • Alex says:

      Wow, hmmm…as an owner of a 1982 VW van, I can add some perspective. (I’m assuming it was the actual VW bus camp which was also around 3:00, and not Camp Walter that Dusty visited.) The youngest of these vehicles is about 30 years old (40+ years for the rounded “buses”), and it takes monumental efforts, creativity, and a solid DIY streak to simply keep them rolling. In this way, I feel there is much overlap with BM culture. VW has been out of the picture on support for a long time, and I feel for us, the VW logo has come to represent the freedom and adventure we associate with our vehicles, not the car company.

      I am 100% on board with decommodification, but I have to admit, when I wandered by VW bus camp, it didn’t even click that the logo was, well, a logo. This is a great reminder how insidious corporate branding can be.

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  • BC says:

    Ignore the noise BMorg… I know you guys are trying hard and the bitter crusty old burners will always talk of the glory days… I’ve been there all the way… things change and I know that most try to stay true to the intent of BM. It’s incumbent on those of us that have been there to continue to teach those (or remind them) why we collaborate on this beautiful idea.

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  • Pantsless Santa says:

    There are a whole lot of assumptions being made here based on a post saying little more than “we had some productive conversations, read a lot of surveys, and will share our findings in a couple of days.”

    A whole lot of trolling, too.

    For fuck’s sake, people. I’ve participated in this process and the folks who have put it together are for the most part old school burners who hate plug-n-play and are using this process to get through to Org leadership (which has significantly changed in the last year).

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  • Ulan McKnight says:

    Since we are talking about culture…

    Is it possible to find a single picture with a person of color in it? It sure would be nice if someone at Burning Man felt like more than just white people are part of this event and desires to project that image in their media presentations.

    While representation of non cis-gendered white people may not come up as an issue for your media folks, it really does effect those of us who don’t see ourselves when you send out representative photos of your events.

    I realize this concern is probably low on your list, but I figured I would bring it up since it effects me and the multiple camps I participate with. A little non-white cultural sensitivity would be welcomed.

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  • Andy-Leon Smith says:

    As a Jewish person of color, I’m sincerely offended and disgusted by all of these comments. The web site has been reported to the ADL and the NAACP and the SPLC. Enjoy your ban!

    Report comment

  • Zed's Dead says:

    Is this a product launch? Or, has the culture of Burning Man been reduced to an academic discussion involving charts, graphs and polling data? Should we draft a dissertation of the sustainability of our culture in the face of current socioeconomic disparity, and can this be achieved without leaving some group out?

    Is Burning Man a discussion about disestablishmentarianism, or is it a place where one can go, get fucked up and see something that challenged there world view?

    Personally, I’d like an event where don’t feel like I’m being examined by a special interest and/or research group. I get enough of that shopping at Wal-Mart, thank you.

    Burning Man is what it is. It is what you make it. Academics are making it a commodity.

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  • Robert Verdecias says:

    Community rides from small art cars
    We have a variety of small art car that can help with Ice run, moving into camps & sharing a ride, Some what like a Uber. Great gifting when a car comes down the road stopping to help you with a ride.
    I camp with Cow-Man the last few years With his art car he offer people rides a number of times.
    I hope to do the same. SOME DAY

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  • Robert Verdecias says:

    Naked Gourmet With Cow-Man-camp

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  • Zippo says:

    I wear my DPW hoodie around San Francisco and people strike up a conversation with me and their first comment is invariably, “Now, it’s all about the money”. I can’t really disagree. Ever since the ORG came up with this idea to make Burning Man a “non-profit” in 2011, it’s been going downhill. C’mon, a 35 (then) million $$$ event calling itself a “non-profit”? And with it came the elevation of the 10 Principles into something resembling the Gospel of Burning Man–something that the ORG wanted to ‘spread around the world’.
    And then disaster struck with the first big plug-n-play camp, the infamous “popsicle camp”, which was established by Jim T, one of the non-profit’s own Board members, for which admission was $17,500.00. It blew up resulting in a famous press conference (I was there) in which Larry Harvey himself admitted that “the event is changing”, thus giving implicit permission for these things to proliferate. And it came down to Larry and the Board members inviting rich people to their dining tent to make a pitch to the wealthy for money to support “the mission of Burning Man”. So rich people gave the ORG money so they could write it off their taxes—wasn’t that the whole intent of the “non-profit” in the first place, and they got 6 million $$$ to buy Fly Ranch, and now Burning Man owns 10 properties in Gerlach. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. C’mon, folks, why don’tcha just buy the whole town?
    Now, 8 years on, the realization has dawned on the Org that the culture of Burning Man has changed, and not for the better, and in a flurry of focus-groups, analyses, pie charts, meetings and reports, somehow they want to “fix it”. But, BMORG, you created the conditions by which all this happened in the first place. The public’s perception of Burning Man is, at this point, pretty negative. Maybe you should hire one of those P.R. firms that do “damage-control” and “image repair” like Tyson Foods did when the chicken was contaminated with e-coli. That’s what a big corporation like yourself would do. Maybe you could do a “Product Re-call”. Hey, can we re-call Burning Man because it’s been contaminated??
    But seriously, folks, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle, any more than you can make San Francisco real estate affordable again, or America like it was before Columbus arrived. Just drop the pretense that you’re something you’re not any more. Take comfort in the fact that Burning Man can always sell 80,000, or 90,000, or 100,000 tickets to rich and not-so rich people who just want to party in the desert for a week. Oh, and by the way, buy more real estate.

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  • Mike Flenderson says:

    Close the airport!!!!!

    Imagine that would solve nearly all the problems and have a drastic environmental impact as well…

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    • Glitter says:

      Mike,

      I totally agree that shutting down the airport would get rid of almost all of the Instagram models, celebs, plug and play camps and other lazy non contibuting tourists. They can wait in line at the gate like everyone else.

      The airport provides easy access for the non-contributors.

      Glitter

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      • Sailorman says:

        Actual burners have been flying themselves in using 4-6 passenger planes and camping under their wings for years. The airport has been a part of BM a long time. It’s not the airport itself, but the charter flights which have proliferated in recent years that facilitate the tourists. The tourists on the charter flights have changed the character of the airport just as they have changed the event and many long time burner pilots resent the charters. The .org wants to increase charters ostensibly to reduce road traffic.

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  • Desert Dog says:

    If you have to have a focus group to decide what is wrong with BM then you have already failed. BM has always been about the creative people that attend, nothing more. It’s the people. If you want a change then it is up to the people to change, not a steering committee. There is a new culture at BM because BM has attracted a different culture of people.

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  • mnowab says:

    How do you expect to fix something without actually calling it by name?

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  • King of the north says:

    Here’s an idea… close the airport and shuttle service, inbound only once the event begins until it ends. We’d end up without the sudden influx of weekend warriors for burn weekend, and filter out those not committed enough to the whole experience, and of course, those committed enough can drive in. Closing the airport to non camping planes is a good second alternative.

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    • Rose Davis says:

      Wonderful idea, best one I’ve heard so far

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    • Moves says:

      I agree. Close the airport except for emergencies, get rid of cell coverage. We were fine without it for years. Get rid of the turnkey camps. There are a lot of people in this post who have given up on Burning Man. I haven’t yet. Make these radical changes and we can fix our City.

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      • Victoria Rose says:

        The airport is not the problem. The Instagram models I know show up in RV’s Thursday and Friday. There is a gate that is used for celebrities convenience…not the regular GAYTE. Many regular volunteers fly in. My cousin is a nurse that flies in. I bring her stuff in early. You are missing the point if you think the airport is the source of cultural shift.

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  • Stick RPG 2 says:

    great article, I was very impressed about it, wish you would have stayed next share

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