Burning Man 2021: The Great Unknown

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”  –Marcel Proust

The theme was previously released under the title “Terra Incognita.” When we learned that the phrase has a colonial history, and it reflected back some of our own implicit biases and default perspectives, we retitled it.

This year’s Burning Man theme is an invitation to emerge from our collective isolation, to explore the unfamiliar contours of a changed world, and to reimagine ourselves, our community, and our culture in ways that might not have been possible before this period of plague and pause. After a long year adrift in the Multiverse, beset by angst and uncertainty, it’s time to climb up out of our escape pods and look outside to see where we’ve landed. On top of a mountain, like Noah? At the bottom of a rabbit hole, like Alice? Or are we on a vast and endless plain, ringed by ancient mountains, the sort of unfathomable territory that once caused mapmakers to throw up their hands and write “here be dragons” at the margins of the known world?

Which, of course, if you’ve ever been to Burning Man, sounds a lot like home. Not the home where you’ve been hunkered down for the past year, not the place where you’ve been sheltering-in-place, but that other place, the home you think of when you say “welcome home” to another Burner, or they say it to you. That otherworldly place that there’s no place like, now or ever.

After a year without Black Rock City we’re all longing to reconnect – for a going home after all that staying home. Yet our enforced apartness has also served as a powerful reminder that the idea of home is just that – an idea – and not a particular place. Quarantine has led us to rethink the very meaning of place, and rid us of certain illusions about it – like the notion that our city was always there somehow, always a certain way, which was never true at all. It was always a figment of our collective imaginations, and fundamentally different each and every year.

“Reinvent yourself over and over and over and over and over until you find home.” –Malebo Sephodi

Our year apart has afforded us all a chance to step back and reconsider what it is we build and why. Are there things about the Burning Man experience you’d like to change? About your camp? About yourself? Do you want to make more art? Fill less landfill? Open up and cut loose or tighten up and go back to basics?  The city we return to will not be the one we left behind. But what will it be now?

The embarkation point of our journey is a place of sadness and separation, with millions gone forever and empty places in our lives where loved ones used to be. It’s a time of great loss, but also of rare opportunity: a chance to reevaluate, reconnect, and return to our roots, to the values that brought us together in the first place. After thirty years of growth and expansion, can anyone say that we are closer to embodying our 10 Principles? That we are demonstrably more inclusive, or leaving less of a trace? Or has our year of pause instead made it easier to pinpoint ways to get better at what we do, just as it has revealed so many structural cracks in our off-playa institutions, both public and private? Now more than ever, the work ahead is about more than Black Rock City. The qualities that we have practiced in ourselves, while far from perfected, are some of the same qualities the world needs most to reinvent itself. The generosity of Gifting, and the creativity of Radical Self-expression. The compassion of Radical Inclusion, and the proactive spirit of Participation.

“Whether we know it or not, our lives are acts of imagination and the world is constantly re-imagined through us.” –Michael Meade

When we first went out to the Black Rock Desert in 1990 we had no idea what we would find, and to a large extent that ignorance was purposeful.  It was a Zone Trip – a style of Cacophony Society event marked by a collective and willful disregard of everything one knows about a place, so as to experience it in a state of awe and wonder. Inspired by the classic Russian sci-fi film Stalker, in which an area known as “the zone” has been altered by some unknowable alien technology to render it totally unpredictable, it also recalls the Situationists and their exercises in “psychogeography,” for instance, navigating the streets of Paris using a map of London. The point being: if you already know what’s there, you’re never going to find anything. So once upon a time a caravan of Cacophonists stopped somewhere in the desert, drew a line in the dust, and with the words, “it’s up to us what we create,” stepped into the Zone that we now think of as Black Rock City. Let’s recapture that spirit, reset our psychogeography dials to zero, and prepare to be surprised and amazed all over again.

“When we cross this line, move into this desert, nothing will be the same. Everything will be different. And it’s up to us what we create.” –Danger Ranger


Cover image and theme graphic design by D.A. of Black Rock and Tanner Boeger.
Additional images and inspiration by Sig. Serafini.

About the author: Stuart Mangrum

Stuart is the director of the Philosophical Center of Burning Man Project. His first Burn was in 1993.

61 Comments on “Burning Man 2021: The Great Unknown

  • Papa Penguin says:

    Wait! It’s not unknown any longer! Appropriate, interesting, reflective, argh!!!1 Time to get to work!

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  • Gonzo Grenache says:

    Dust. Fire. Angst. Revelation. Fellowship.
    Same as it ever was!

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  • Very exciting!!! Finally the wait is over

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  • CORY GOLDBERG says:

    Art is free. Love is earned.

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  • Cool theme for co-creating the future we’ve been dreaming about for decades!!!!

    Inspiring Fly Ranch content online and the astounding design submissions have kindled interest in regenerative thinking.

    If any readers would like to understand more about regenerative development and design, please review an article of mine recently published. Thanks.

    https://thisisreno.com/2020/11/what-is-regenerative-development-and-design-opinion/

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  • Yer Mahm says:

    I can find no evidence at all that “Terra Incognita” is exclusively associated with colonialism. It’s a better and more interesting theme, in my opinion. “The Great Unknown” is kinda bland and colorless in comparison.

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    • Chaotix says:

      Terra incognita or terra ignota (Latin “unknown land”; incognita is stressed on its second syllable in Latin, but with variation in pronunciation in English) is a term used in cartography for regions that have not been mapped or documented.
      The implication here is that a region, territory or land is unknown or uncharted territory unless European explo- *Checks notes* European colonist discovered the land.
      So the original name for the Upcoming thing in the desert (which I have no intention of participating in until further notice) was indeed colonist-esque and the fact BMORG didn’t take this into account initially when coming up with the name further outlines the problems I (and so many others) have been addressing for months nay for YEARS and shows how whiite washed BMORG still is.

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      • Techno Fairy says:

        While I understand the association with colonialism that some people are making, I don’t fully agree.
        And the terminology does not bother me. And mind you I’m from South America, product of the colonial exploration and currently living on a land that was back in 1500 called Terra Incognita.
        The term simply means unknown territory / unknown land. If the theme was in English instead and said “unknown territory” would people also be associating it with colonialism? Because in my own language that is what I read and what it means today still. If we’re keen on the principles and thinking about radical inclusion and diversity – perhaps we have to mind also that the way English speakers interpret certain things is not necessarily the same as Latin rooted language speakers would. Thus the reason why it was no offence to me at all.
        While I also recognise that the BM community is still far from perfect when it comes to diversity & inclusion, we must also acknowledge that there are many efforts in place to work on it and improve. Which is much more than what we see in the rest of the default world. As part of the “marginalised” minority community, it is my duty to engage and participate to help build and improve these efforts, so we can one day get to that dream place.
        I fear however, that we’re now going through a moment when everything is exacerbated, easily polarised and turned into conflict – when really all we need is a little more love and compassion.
        So I beg for more empathy, understanding and TOLERANCE from all. That is the only way we will be able to overcome this and create a truthfully diverse and accepting community. The journey is long and arduous, but getting to explored those uncharted territories is in itself the prize! Looking forward to being part of yet another great unknown! Love, peace & light to all

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      • Luke Garner says:

        Interesting that so many are so conscious to not be harking back to European expansionist/colonialist period speech but only on that front. Never do you hear anyone show concern to be sensitive when it comes to historical speech segments of any other region of the world. When you apply “sensitivity” to only highlight past trespasses of one area or one people or one period or one anything, you have become what you are pretending to be against.
        Sensitivity isn’t a cut and paste or a convenience option, that is pandering and targeted and contrived. Regurgitating popular trend without equality throughout is just more of the same, convenient sensitivity to highlight one past.
        And speech is not violence. Speech is freedom, unless of course you have the exclusivity of holding a speech police badge conveniently given to you by yourself and bought at the local campus where you were convinced it is yours.
        Come tell me that a term or word or phrase spoken by anyone else but Europeans bothers you and make sure you are equal, even and genuinely concerned about all past injustices.
        Otherwise you are just a pawn of someone else’s agenda.

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    • Brian Shire says:

      Since you had trouble finding resources, here is a link to a research paper discussing the historical use of this term by colonizers. Also just because a term isn’t used “exclusively” doesn’t mean the point isn’t valid. Plenty of really offensive language hasn’t or isn’t always exclusively used in that way.

      https://www.academia.edu/805812/Terra_Incognita_Terra_Nullius_Modern_Imperialism_Maps_and_Deception?fbclid=IwAR13S7SWrFHXyLi6vBqjDqzX_lxy8_asd5EVgsJEva2ALDCfR769v_Mcvnc

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  • Supernovae says:

    As it always is every time we cross the gates.
    The great unknown
    Awesome theme!

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  • Bowtie Bill says:

    The past is a different country: they do things differently there. (Hartley, 1953) There’s no going back and Black Rock will be different when next we meet. It will offer new dimensions so embrace the Great Unknown. I can’t wait!

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  • WordNerd4Life says:

    Terra Incognita:
    Etymology:
    Terra: Latin for ‘earth’ or ‘land’.
    Incognita: from Latin cognoscere ‘to know, be acquainted with’ (negated by the prefix ‘in-‘), which is related to English “know” and Greek γνῶσις gnosis ‘knowledge’.
    ——————–
    Woke: (/ˈwoʊk/ WOHK) is a term that refers to a perceived awareness of issues that concern social justice and racial justice.[1] It derives from the African-American Vernacular English expression stay woke. Implicit in the concept of being woke is the idea that such awareness must be earned.

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  • Tom at Camp No-Name says:

    I hope this doesn’t violate all or any of the rules (guidelines) regarding posting on this site. Then again….calling all burners not to forget having fun is woven into those 10 thing-a-ma-jigs. Love y’all.

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  • Allowiscious says:

    It can be a real big risk, but Burners are known as real big risk Mitigators, we will do what is necessary to get vaccinated, wear masks, keep distance from dodgy situations/people and celebrate our souls.

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  • Julia says:

    With over half of the people on the planet dead or dying from this plague, I find it difficult to celebrate anything. I spend all day crying for the dead, laying in the mass graves.

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    • Bowe says:

      Death is a part of life. The finality is what makes it precious and to be celebrated. We make the most of what we have, and even in our own lives, we have many deaths and rebirths in our understanding, of who we are, what we believe, and how we live. Do not miss what life is about by focusing only on what is no longer. Celebrate that your journey is still ahead as well.

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      • Julia says:

        That’s beautiful, Bowe. It helps me to think about other things instead of the billions of dead people. They would want me to celebrate in their memory. I need to party 10 times harder because I’m one of the lucky ones. Let’s rock the playa hard, baby!

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    • Juanita Max Bill says:

      This plague will last forever. Our only hope is to learn to love living indoors and not getting within 6 feet of other people. Personally, I can’t wait for the vaccine. I dream about it. I would get vaccinated twice if it didn’t mean keeping the extra dosage from someone in Africa or China, or New Jersey.

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    • Scott says:

      3% mortality…WHO figures

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    • Brian says:

      Over half the people dead or dying of the plague? You’re trolling, right?

      A few percent of people who get it die, and not everyone even gets it. That’s very different from over half dead or dying.

      Not to trivialize, it’s still quite bad. But it’s not even remotely that bad.

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      • Philip says:

        @Brian
        This is a global pandemic, and now is not the time to question every statistic reported on its devastating effects. Questioning the science and statistics casts doubt in people’s minds and may cause them to not practice social distancing and delay or even (god forbid) forego vaccination. We need every man, woman & child on the planet to be injected with this wonderful, and 100% safe vaccine.

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    • Julian says:

      Ascribe personhood to all living beings on the earth, and this comment is pretty spot on. Devastated, humanity points at covid. Devastated, Julia points at humanity.

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  • Enrico says:

    So is burning man 2021 happening for real? When will we know for sure?

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  • Felix says:

    Seems like https://www.terraincognitamedia.com didn’t get the memo, though. Let’s tell them! It’s time to stop using all the words which unenlightened predecessors used in the past. They are tainted now.

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    • Brian Shire says:

      They are using the term specifically to enhance this point. Please read their FAQ:

      https://www.terraincognitamedia.com/terra-incognita-mission-faqs

      Where Did the Name “Terra Incognita Media” Come From?
      “terra incognita” means “unknown land.” This is a phrase cartographers would use to label areas that were “undiscovered.” However, this American myth of the land being “undiscovered,” led to the ongoing process of European colonization and the continued genocide of Indigenous peoples. We use this phrase to draw attention to this erasure, as well as the many other myths our country insists on.

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  • Just Be says:

    So much remains unknown…

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  • Mimosa says:

    Dust. So many people lost in a dust storm. Well put Stuart. Miss you all.

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  • Nadi says:

    This theme feels not quite like a BM theme tbh. There is a lot going on in terms of collective transformation in the world. How about something that reminds us more of who we are, what we are here for and how transformative these times are and how transformative Burning Man can be?
    Like “Substance”, “Core”, “Catarsis”.
    Taking it further – talking about “The Great Unknown”, how about stepping into “The Void” in order to free ourselves?

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  • Watson says:

    Incredibly well written and reflective

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  • Dusk Rider says:

    Nope.
    You got this one wrong. There was no need to change the theme. But, because you acquiesced, you have unwittingly gutted the heart and soul of your organization. As you now spend hours agonizing over (non-offensive) “word-choice”, you may very well regret what you’ve done here.

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    • Chaotix says:

      Terra incognita or terra ignota (Latin “unknown land”; incognita is stressed on its second syllable in Latin, but with variation in pronunciation in English) is a term used in cartography for regions that have not been mapped or documented.
      The implication here is that a region, territory or land is unknown or uncharted territory unless European explo- *Checks notes* European colonist discovered the land.
      So the original name for the Upcoming thing in the desert (which I have no intention of participating in until further notice) was indeed colonist-esque and the fact BMORG didn’t take this into account initially when coming up with the name further outlines the problems I (and so many others) have been addressing for months nay for YEARS and shows how whiite washed BMORG still is.

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      • WordNerd4Life says:

        “Implication”?
        Anyone can put whatever perspective or opinion on the definition of a word, but it doesn’t change the *fact* of a definition.

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  • Dylan Eliot says:

    That was well put.

    Self reflection is something we all should do as one resets the clock to zero. As we analyze the unknown, we should consider sharing notes rather than beating on each others’ heads with church bells. As the world shifts to adapt to the unknown while stepping back, even the concerned flipizens & medical of flipside, I hear you and the lesson will not go overlooked. It will take time for all sides to consider why and what concerns, the other flipizens & the like, have.

    As we adapt to “the zone” and the things that come out of it, even I recognize that I maybe bad at spotting the things that come out of it. As one tries to analyze and understand the artifacts that created the alien technology, one should consider how and what it is applied to as well as be certain that it isn’t malfunctioning. If it is malfunctioning alien technology, please consult a expert & professional who has to work on the tech they found.

    As safe usage of the technology is not all known to any one of them, the collection of their minds will likely come up with a solution that doesn’t throw a person down a rabbit hole with no way out in sight.

    Their is more to the mind than one can imagine and sometimes their are things that sit in our blindspots.

    As we consider the adaptations needed to keep things from clouding our imagination, we also have to consider the things that could set a brain on fire or grind its gears to a halt as well as what goes into making a brain, what gears go into the brain one must use. Asking questions about what causes one to presume before or instead of diving down the hole after Alice.

    In time, their will be a way to see behind the golden curtain. If one has a answer to life that isn’t 42, why not share ones brain without throwing the first punch?

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  • Mystry says:

    Complex and completely relatable.
    Thematic satisfaction. A great place to explore.
    Thank you! Xoxo

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  • Stupendous Stevocide says:

    You mean that at an event where a human effigy is burned ceremoniously someone might feel uncomfortable with the theme name being in Latin?

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  • Elizabeth says:

    Nice change. Appreciate the willingness to listen to feedback and change.

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  • Brent says:

    It’s actually happening.

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  • Pelar aka Kim says:

    My first burn was 1999. I remember unique moments, multi-transformational experiences, inclusion, extremes in emotional reactions, Black Rock City in environmental tests of endurance, the glory in the year of the lunar eclipse and always seeing our Milky Way in visual abundance, art-making, Bling, camp groups, individuals who created profound impressions on my psyche, and the ever-longer list of life-enriching moments. Forever grateful for what Burningman has given to me each and every year. All these past years of Themes blend for me. They do set my art focus, but it’s just a title to unite with step one in a thousand steps. Can’t wait for the next.

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  • Justice says:

    Acquiescing to virtue signaling – are you serious?
    So, the loudest bully gets their way here too?

    The last refuge to the noise of the world has been infiltrated: Burning Man and the Default World merge.

    I don’t care about the name of the theme – the implications of why you changed it though, is another matter.

    To be inclusive also means to be able to be very open about what the discussions are about.

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  • Julia says:

    I’m offended.

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  • Java says:

    Trying to find information on colonial roots of the phrase “terra incognita” mostly just has a lot of hits about BMORG changing the theme. These sorts of faux controversies do nothing to further actual issues, and probably actually hurt us. Things like this make us look silly and feel rather masturbatory, frankly.

    And if you’re going to change it, at least use what would have been the english cartographic equivalent: “parts unknown.”

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    • Philip says:

      The phrase is in Latin, and the Latins were colonialists and enslaved Africans. At one point in history they controlled most of the Free World, bringing their ideology of hate, leading to death and destruction. During the 12th Century, the king of the Latins was King Solumi Agustini. He enslaved millions and denied them voting rights, and the women and children were not allowed to work.

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      • Chaz says:

        King Solumi Agustini marched his army of child warriors into Macedonia. He bestowed rulership of the city of Skopje to a 12 year old boy who later became Alexander the Great. Alexander the Great became the king of the Latins and enslaved 75% of the population of the entire planet in 900 BC. He was a racist and homophobic misogynist, and invented the ideology of National Socialism, and used children as human chimney sweeps.

        We are grateful for the BMOrg for realizing the error of associating with such toxicity from our past.

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      • Techno Fairy says:

        If we follow this line of thinking we should never be using any other Latin terms for anything ever and my language along with that of the entire central and South America, Iberian Peninsula, Italy, France, parts of Africa and other places would have to be banned. What should we speak then? English? Hum…. wouldn’t that be just another form of colonialism?
        Switch your perspectives and try to see things from other people’s shoes before making statements like these, placet fac!

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      • Java says:

        Did all of your history lessons come out of fever dreams? There are a couple real names in there, but that’s about as close as you got to reality.

        To the larger point, though, if words and phrases are off limits because someone at some point who spoke the language did something bad, then you’re going to very quickly be unable to speak, at all. I understand that sometimes a phrase can become linked to historical trauma. As far as I can tell, though, “terra incognita” is not one of those phrases. What you are doing is carrying these connotations ad absurdum, and I think it only harms people trying to have real conversations.

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      • Philip says:

        @Techno Fairy
        Yes, that’s all true. We don’t want to offend anyone, and spoken language itself can be considered hate speech. And hate speech is violence. The new global, universal language will be sign language. It’s the only way not to offend anyone, especially People of Color and Women & Children.

        Reminder: Get your vaccination as soon as possible.

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  • Juno says:

    Deep thanks for a thoughtful and inspirational theme, Stuart. You’ve done it again. Especially this: “The qualities that we have practiced in ourselves, while far from perfected, are some of the same qualities the world needs most to reinvent itself. The generosity of Gifting, and the creativity of Radical Self-expression. The compassion of Radical Inclusion, and the proactive spirit of Participation.” We have work to do, and new terrain to explore – both internally and collectively. Thank you.

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  • cuteboi69 says:

    The reason more minorities don’t attend Burning Man isn’t because the phrase “Terra Incognita” triggers them. It’s because they don’t have the time, energy, or money to attend a weeklong party in the desert due to the fact that they’re constantly being fucked over by a government that doesn’t give a shit about them.

    Changing the name from something that only people privileged enough to have the education to even know what it means is a useless, empty gesture. AKA, White Nonsense.

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  • Jaguart says:

    We just miss you a lot Larry!

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  • Bob Jenkis says:

    I wanted to post a picture of the Flammerian Woodcut, but it doesn’t seem that pictures are accepted as Commments.
    Please take a look at the Wikipedia page … I think it’s an image highly relevant to this year’s theme:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flammarion_engraving

    See you all in the dust! <3

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  • Matthew Tippett says:

    Another theme like a seed planted in our imaginations. Thank you for the nimble and well intentioned change. Just making the change allows for another necessary conversation. The acknowledgement should remind us all that we must make change happen when we can.

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  • cuteboi69 says:

    Perhaps instead of meaningless gesture like changing the theme and asking dumb questions on camp questionnaires like “how are you trying to be more inclusive?”, you… Lower ticket prices?

    It’s not on camps to be more inclusive. They already are. THAT’S THE ENTIRE POINT OF THIS WHOLE THING. It’s on the org to lower the bar of entry (i.e., LOWERING TICKET PRICES) so that more people have access to it. If they actually cared. Which they don’t.

    This is just them bowing to pressure from minority tech workers (who, by the way, are too oblivious to notice that they themselves are educated and privileged enough to Burning Man’s PRETTY HIGH bar of entry) trying to feel important, and patting themselves on the back for doing absolutely nothing meaningful.

    Get off my lawn.

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    • Java says:

      They already offer low income tickets, and–let’s just be real honest, here–$450 is an absolute bargain for what you get out of the week. Travel expenses, prep costs, all the stuff that really ups the price tag for going, BMORG has no control over. I get that ticket prices aren’t pocket change, but the event. costs. money. Now, could we talk about maybe providing more low income and increasing normal prices? Sure, those types of conversations should always be on the table, but just slashing the price is not viable.

      I do believe that a possible way would be to change the way tickets are allotted. No more hovering over a button at noon and 0.0001 seconds. Register, then draw a lottery. That way, so many people that simply can’t take the time to babysit a computer for hours in a weekday can have a fair shot.

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  • Johnny holga says:

    I have a semi simple request for consideration…. I miss the days when we were young. I miss heading to center camp in a dust storm to hang with dust covered live relics from homes unknown. I miss struggling to center camp in the rain. The trip was hell. Hell was met by the realization another hell would be heading back to home camp.
    And then there are the people of center camp. True magic, happiness, kindness, sharing and burning man. The energy alone is worth reaping. Center Camp is a home, a refuge, a beginning and maybe new understanding.
    Please consider 2 (two) center camps. One at 4 o’clock a late afternoon pause. A second one at 8 o’clock early evening opening.
    Maybe there are rickshaws running between the two….. maybe…… maybe…..
    This would give more burners center camp.
    Third to the burn, second to the chaple and first to it’s self.
    Center Camp

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  • Babe says:

    We need Burning Man to happen more then ever now. Please let it continue on for 2021

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  • Urs schmid says:

    The place has a high energie. This energie can heale

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