Maybe You CAN Bring It Back From the Playa: AREA15 and Omega Mart

This piece is authored by a community member and does not represent the official views or opinions of Burning Man Project. Because we value Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, and Participation, the Burning Man Journal has always been a space for sharing the many diverse voices, unique experiences, and colorful stories within our incredible global community. If you are interested in sharing your perspective, please submit your story for consideration here.

“It’s not easy, having a good time…”  —Tim Curry

Burning Man is often transformational. The vortex of whimsical, engaging, and sometimes tortuous effort of building camps, art cars, and the fantastic art installations it is known for, is infectious and often produces a “camaraderie by ordeal” bond between Burners.

Michael Beneville, a somewhat legendary developer of product ideas and corporate identity constructs in the forlorn berg of New York City, attended Burning Man in 2008 on a lark with a friend to help with a mutant vehicle project. The prevailing organizational model on the project impressed him, as there wasn’t one.

Accustomed to executing carefully developed strategies and precise designs for campaigns and products with a tightly controlled “top-down” command structure, he was astonished to see the ‘hive mind’ approach to complex and demanding builds in punishing conditions. “I was amazed. Everyone just seemed to know what to do, and the important calls were made by a quick consensus. The exact opposite of how we did things, and it worked.”

Michael Beneville, outside of Area15 (Photo by Dan Baker)

When he met another Burner, Winston Fisher, who was running a prestigious New York real estate development company, that Comrade Burner part kicked in and they became friends. Like many others, Michael and Winston wondered, “What if?” What if you could somehow transplant some of the wonder of Burning Man to the default world?

“I don’t believe there is any way to reproduce the majesty of Burning Man and yet, I think once Burning Man has transformed you, it’s impossible for it not to affect all that you touch and create.”  —M. Beneville

Winston’s real estate outfit bought a very large parcel of land in Las Vegas, adjacent to the strip, in 2008. The economic melt-down iced development plans for some time, and the age of the mall was coming to a long overdue end. Whammo. What if? The AREA15 is a new 250,000 sq. ft. building perfectly suited for large gatherings and mixed-use creative activations. 

“Inclusivity is a central tenet of AREA15. We don’t have a demographic, we have a psychographic. I want all kinds of people to feel welcomed and within this world.”
—M. Beneville

Let’s do a walk-through:

Burners of the world rejoice! The arrival area is a large open area with a rotating collection of art from previous Burning Man events. Michael plans to provide this space for Burning Man artists to display their work for acquisition after Black Rock City. Reno and other communities have already adopted several large works from Burning Man.

Currently the prone giant robot Mechan 9 by Tyler Fuqua (built originally thanks to an honoraria grant from Burning Man Project for the 2016 Burn) and the beautiful geometric steel and acrylic Pulse Portal by Davis McCarty are there. A smaller version of the stunning chromed steel couple in love — In Every Lifetime I Will Find You by Michael Benisty, from the 2018 Burn — instantly engages people. You feel at home before you even get through the doors.

Art in Motion

The first thing you see upon entering, in the bar area, is a small-scale replica Michael commissioned of Tree of Ténéré*, a popular 2017 Burning Man installation featuring 15,000 multi-colored LEDs on a large tree, created by Bay Area artists Alexander Green, Zachary Smith, and Patrick Deegan. The whole place is a wonderful experiential adventure like that. 

The ground floor from the entrance starts with an incredible boutique, the Wild Muse with wearable art that will guarantee you a win in the Burning Man costume arms race. Outrageously creative wearables, hats, platform boots, and sparkly stuff that can be hard to find are here for those Burners who deserve a treat for the playa. Big fun.

That I recall, I’ve never sat at a bar before and watched people zing over me on one of the longest indoor zip lines there is: Halley’s Comet. Michael is very proud of this, as it was hideously expensive, unparalleled, and a lot of fun. (Sound familiar?)

Art in Motion

Maintaining the theme of wildly creative and first-class presentation, the restaurant is a special project of one of America’s leading and innovative chefs, Todd English. The Beast restaurant is like walking into one of those hanging dinosaur skeleton displays at The Smithsonian. The art is fabulous, and the place just opens up to you. The menu is memorable. Korean corn dogs, space tacos, and smokehouse sandwiches.

On the experiential side, the upper floor has several quite large experiences. I wasn’t able to do the Birdly VR flight simulator, but it was a big hit. It’s so good that some people had to take a break because of air sickness. (Gotta love that.) I was able to try the Halley’s Comet dual-track zipline. What a scream! It’s kind of like being a ghost and flying over people. It’s fast too. There is far too much on the second floor to detail here, and the installations will be revolving.

The best part was seeing so many people have fun, after such dark times.

“What inspires me about Burning Man is how so much of the architecture is suggestive rather than actual. There’s the suggestion of a permanent marble temple and the reality of an ephemeral wooden one. I’d like to think that AREA15 suggests rather than dictates its form and the experience one should have in it. Burning Man is not a prescribed journey. I’d like to think that AREA15 isn’t prescribed either.” —M. Beneville

Michael and Winston also wondered how you could possibly get the exhilarating experience of dancing on the playa at night, under the stars, to the world’s best DJs, into the default world without alerting the Anti-Fun Committee. Whammo. Lot A.


Lot A is next to the building, very large, secured, and features the best prevailing DJs and other acts working today. I haven’t attended one of their big parties yet, but I can close my eyes and see it. I suggested they bring a couple of big truckloads of playa dust down for the surface part. Probably wouldn’t be a hit with the glass high-rise neighbors when the desert winds blow, but would be perfect to dance on.

And now for the hard part to explain. 

Meow Wolf is the anchor tenant at AREA15, and their Omega Mart installation is an absolutely astonishing achievement in surrealistic art and dark fantasy storytelling.

You might ask yourself, “What would happen if one of those pesky neighbors who go way, way overboard on Halloween building a house of horrors collided with funding, and a posse of creative monsters?” Well, it happened.

Meow Wolf began in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2008 with about 10 artists and “good and bad weirdos,” in the words of one founder. Little-known fact: In 2012, Burning Man Project, then operating as Black Rock Arts Foundation, provided a grant to Meow Wolf for an early iteration of Omega Mart. They went on to turn an old house inside out with bizarre surrealistic inventions, which has become one of the most popular attractions in the state of New Mexico.

The Omega Mart project is almost unimaginable. With 56,000 sq. ft. of space and over three years of intense development, they’ve successfully created that much sought after “Twilight Zone” genre of experience, where mystery and fantasy are a mere blink away from mundane normality.

You walk into Omega Mart like any other big box store with garish signs, bright lighting, and workers who are dressed in glaring colors. Then the details begin to jump out. All the products are “slightly out of round,” strange in some tiny whispering way.

AREA15-Museum Fiasco-Cluster-Anthony Mair.jpg

When you open the cooler and step into the passage to the second floor you need to take a deep breath. You are now inside the vision of highly creative artists who want you to go somewhere, somewhere strange, challenging, and really fun. And, into the dark and swirling story of corporate power, avarice, greed and worse. Aliens. Yippity yippers. Story as art is way cool. 

I don’t want to get into detail here, as it is more or less impossible to describe. (You can take a look at the videos of OmegaMart here and Meow Wolf here.)

What was most memorable to me was the degree of execution, for both AREA15 and Omega Mart. The art is beautifully rendered, displayed, and carefully thought out to pull you through a world that has a way of ending up in your dreams.

“I’m inspired every day of my life, but when I go to Burning Man, I’m humbled. As I leave each year, I ask myself: Is there some piece of this non-replicable experience that I could take into the world? Creativity and imagination are sacred to me and I believe that one should never be possessive of them. Inspiration must flow.” —M. Beneville

*The tree was named after the Tree of Tenere, an Acacia tree in the Sahara Desert that was 90 miles from the nearest living plant. A truck driver ran over and killed it in 1973. Its roots extended over 100 feet to water.

Cover image of Area15 (Photo by Smugmug) | Additional photos and video provided with permissions by Smugmug

About the author: Dan Baker

Dan Baker

Dan A. Baker is a writer in Dublin, CA, with interests in geo-politics, history, science and human behavior. He wrote and published the first novel on gene-based aging reversal Forever and Ever in 2012 with a scene at Burning Man. He is currently writing a sequel, and developing a script about aliens going to Burning Man to learn the elusive attainment of fun, mirth, camaraderie by ordeal and the mystery of art. He has also worked with Profiles in the Dust and wrote the forthcoming Ebook The Lost Operas of Burning Man. He finds Burning Man a great affirmation that the world really does belong to the imaginative and the givers.

22 Comments on “Maybe You CAN Bring It Back From the Playa: AREA15 and Omega Mart

  • Patterpaws says:

    How does this align with the principle of decommodification? Is this being run as a not-for-profit? What is it giving back? It claims to be supporting artists, but it would be wonderful if that was a little more transparent – what does that support look like? How is this any different to Disney World or a supermarket looking for a ‘unique-selling-point’ to capitalise on? I’m asking these questions as from looking at both Area 15 and Omega Mart websites there doesn’t appear much information on the ethics or social values behind them – leading my first impression to be that these are effectively commercial enterprises (which seems at odds with the values of Burning Man) – and I would love to be proven wrong here as we need more art in the ‘default’ world.

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    • Dan Baker says:

      Area 15 and OmegaMart are commercial enterprises conceived built and operated by Burning Man Alumni.

      There is no linkage between their operations and Burning Man.

      They gratefully acknowledge the influence BM has had on their professional lives, and many influences from BM are evident in this experimental and revolutionary entertainment venue.

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      • Claus says:

        Keep in mind that most Burners are communists now. Please don’t feel you need to redistribute your wealth to them. They’d only waste it on more Che shirts and the new Iphone.

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      • Doug Lippincott says:

        And Burning Man is promoting them with JRS.

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      • Paulo Miasma says:

        This is pure parasitism and appropriation.. plain and simple. Pockets are getting lined.

        I expect our culture will be re-written to conform to the avaricious graspings of your cohort.

        Capitalism is excellent at taking a great idea and turning it into a shitty way to make money.

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    • `zx says:

      great points.

      “Burning Man Playland” and it is absolutely disgusting

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  • Applesauce says:

    Going to Omega Mart on the way to Gerlach to clean out our storage trailer was the highlight of last summer! Thanks for capturing that memory and also for the story behind it all. I can’t wait to see everyone at home this year…..finally!!!

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  • Rebecca Tatarsky says:

    It’s a burningman themed bar. Disappointing.

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  • Not Fooled says:

    This is deeply wrong.

    Historically, many Burning Man artists have gone on to sell their work, but typically it gets bought by cities and displayed in free public spaces or bought by private parties who keep it to themselves or use it in non-commercial contexts.

    This feels substantially different, because, although they are careful not to use the Burning Man name, Area15 are clearly cashing in on the (often inaccurate) sensationalism that surrounds Burning Man art, music and costumes (especially amongst non-burners who only know about Burning Man from tabloids and exaggerated Instagram influencer profiles), cheapening the art and Burning Man name itself in the process.

    The fact that Area15 chose to place absolutely iconic and globally known Burning Man works outside their front door makes it even more blatant that they are commercializing Burning Man in every way except by name.

    It’s safe to assume this space will eventually play host to corporate events and parties where evil robber barons will hump the authenticity of Burning Man (even if not by name) to try to cleanse the filth off their own corporate bodies. Why build a space and bring in well-known Burning Man art to help them do this?

    It is viscerally painful to watch the “Area15 Brand Video” where we see Burning Man art form the backdrop to commercial cafes and gift shops.

    What’s even weirder is that the Burning Man org allowed what is essentially a gushing, uncritical ad about Area15 on their own official Burning Man Blog.

    The so-called “blog post” (it is an ad…get real) doesn’t even try to address the obvious commodification here. If the Area15 folks are really Burners, wouldn’t they even mention that in their text?

    I DO NOT BUY BM’s disclaimer that this material is suitable for this forum because it is “sharing the many diverse voices, unique experiences, and colorful stories within our incredible global community.” Over the years, LOTS of people have tried to cash in on the Burning Man ethos (with or without the name) and they would NEVER be allowed to advertise on in a million years: why is Area15 being allowed an exception?

    Are they perhaps a shadowy donor who kept Burning Man alive during the COVID years and this is a quid pro quo? I can’t think of any other reason.

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    • Not Fooled says:

      To help keep the discussion focused, here’s a followup on some key points:

      First, let me make it clear that my comment is exclusively directed at the management of Area15, not its customers or the artists.

      I’m sure many customers have had a great experience at Area15, having fun, not feeling it is overly commercial, and often opening their minds to new forms of radical art they had not even imagined before (especially if they have never been to the playa), and I agree that is a good effect.

      And I even agree that there will be a significant group of people who can only experience that mind-opening at a place that is cheaper to go to than the real playa and a place that requires a smaller commitment of time than going to the playa, and that that too is a good effect.

      I am not saying any customer is “doing it the wrong way.”

      Second, let me be clear that artists deserve BOTH to be respected and have their work displayed in a respectful way, AND to be rewarded economically. I am an artist and I live below the US poverty line, so I am certainly someone who holds this belief authentically. I am NOT in any way advocating to restrict the economic benefits that artists should be able to enjoy.

      My comment is not meant to deny the existence of any of these good effects that Area15 could potentially have, regardless of the management’s intentions.

      None of that is material to my argument. My argument is strictly referring to the intentions of the management of Area15. My argument does not in any way depend on how much good people experience from it.

      Lots of people enjoy visiting Disneyland, but the existence of their enjoyment does not IN ANY WAY let Disney Corporation off the hook for the many evil things that they do. The ends never justify the means. No amount of good effect should EVER be allowed to cover up or excuse bad intentions or bad actions.

      Similarly, I believe the Area15 management has very clearly expressed their intentions for Area15 in their Brand Video and website, and that it is crystal clear that they intend to make a lot of money by appropriating the long-earned authenticity of Burning Man (even if not by name) to sell tickets and book expensive gigs, all with Burning Man art in the background. The Brand Video shows us not what is going on now (as reported positively by some other commenters), but what the management of Area15 intends the place to be…the goal they want Area15 to end in.

      I think that any burner who watches the Brand Video will be deeply uncomfortable about seeing Burning Man art poised behind a commercial cafe with products lined up, with a crass and flashy presentation that emphasizes all the worst sensationalist tropes that reflect the general public’s perception of Burning Man without any nuance or attempt to express the authentic, risk-taking, non-commercial spirit by which the art/music/performance got made and the unusually tolerant and positive environment in which it got made. After all, that spirit and that environment is more important than the art itself. All of that is lost in the way Area15 wants to use the art, as demonstrated in their Brand Video.

      Some may read my comment and think I am being elitist because, by censuring Area15 (and implying that it should be shut down or limited in some way), I want to deny people the opportunity to have the great experience that they did on their visit, especially the many people who could never afford the money/time to go the playa.

      I thoroughly reject this argument, because it is based on a false choice.

      We don’t have to settle for either the extremes of “we can only see Burning Man art on the playa” or “we can see Burning Man art at Area15.”

      We don’t have to accept the way of exposing and exploiting Burning Man Art that Area15 has clearly declared they want to do in their Brand Video.

      We can, and should, FIGHT against these two false choices just like we should fight against Democrat vs. Republican or Capitalism vs. Socialism.

      We can get all the positive effects mentioned above (including supporting artists economically AND blowing non-burners’ minds with new ideas) WITHOUT also letting Burning Man art be used to make Chevron look hip despite massive pollution or letting Burning Man art be used to distract Google engineers from their company’s misdeeds in China or their work for the Defense Department.

      Artists and the venues which show their art DO need money to survive and DESERVE the money, but the money does not have to come from crass commercialization TO THE EXTENT shown in the Brand Video.

      This is not a black and white situation. It is a question of balance and nuance. Area15 has shown in their Brand Video that they want a level of commercialism that is WAY off balance, to a degree that I think almost any burner would agree with after watching the Brand Video and looking at Area15’s website.

      We do not have to shut down Area15. We can pressure them into treating the art and artists with more respect. Either outcome (shutdown or influence) would be better than just allowing ourselves to be forced to choose between the false choices. Ideally, the people in Area15 who want to abuse the art and the artists in the way shown in the Brand Video would be sidelined and/or fired, and other people inside Area15 who respect the art and the artists would gain influence, but this might be a tough call since the Brand Video seems to come from the founder…the culture there and the economic incentives might already be too spoiled to fix the situation.

      But no matter what, we should FIGHT for the interests of the artists and those of customers who want to introduce themselves to Burning Man art! Nobody is going to fight for us. We don’t have to accept what Area15 gives us on a plate!

      I don’t know, but I suspect that at least some of the artists whose work is featured at Area15 are probably feeling surprised and regretful about how commercially Area15 has used their work, and are perhaps feeling that Area15 misrepresented what they were going to do with their art. I’d like to hear from some of the artists, but everyone please remember that many of the artists featured at Area15 are in a precarious position…because Area15 has become their patron, possibly their only or main patron in many cases, there is a power imbalance. The artists are not in a position to complain, just as an abused employee is not in a position to complain about their boss…the artists stand to lose future patronage from either Area15 or from other potential buyers of their art.

      The art world itself is a giant scam by which artists’ work is very often disrespected and used (“humped”) to allow rich people to dodge taxes and make untold money in what is essentially a rigged market (excellent video explaining how this works here: ). We don’t need to ENCOURAGE and FURTHER ENTRENCH this model of artist abuse by being uncritical about Area15. We should FIGHT AGAINST overcommercialization, and we can do it in a way that still leaves artists supported AND leaves non-Burners’ minds positively blown by new ideas. We don’t have to accept Area15’s shitty tradeoff.

      Some may try to equate Area15 with other venues that display art and economically support artists, such as aquariums, zoos, museums, and other cultural and educational public spaces. This is a false equivalence. On the whole, those other venues present the art in a respectful way that does not cheapen the art with commericalism but DOES support the artists economically. They strike a much better balance. We need MORE venues like those and FEWER venues like Area15.

      Some may point out that the “robber barons” have always been at Burning Man. That is true of course, but irrelevant. Even though the robber barons have always been AT Burning Man or running Area15, WE DON’T HAVE TO FURTHER EMPOWER THEM! We can fight against over-commercialization by criticizing and not spending our dollars at venues that over-commercialize art and complimenting and spending more dollars at venues that display art respectfully and still reward artists economically.

      Those interested in Burning Man art DESERVE to have a better venue than Area15 to see all that art…a venue that has not displayed its intentions in a Brand Video to demean the art by over-commercializing it.

      I am not being idealistic. Such a venue is possible even in our capitalist world. We consumers get to choose what we want, and the artists can still be rewarded.

      As a consumer, I don’t accept Area15’s selfish bargain by which they want to exchange exposure of mind-blowing Burning Man art ideas for crass commercialization of Burning Man art. And I think any burner who watches the Brand Video would also not like that tradeoff either, regardless of what else you saw at Area15 on the day of a visit.

      We don’t have to choose from the shitty options offered! We can fight for something better that leaves artists supported AND respected! This is no different from any other social or economic group fighting for power, economic sufficiency, and respect.

      Some may ask “Why are you whining? It’s just a museum with Burning Man art. How does this actually harm your day to day existence?”

      Great question. It affects the existence of all people who have spent 30+ years building up something amazing at Burning Man, including (especially) all the artists.

      What is happening at Area15 is not just “a museum with Burning Man art.” It is crystal clear from their Brand Video what they intend to do with that art, and it is demeaning and cheapens the art to the point where people no longer appreciate the art and where the art becomes a crass commodity, like plastic costume jewelry, that no longer has any economic value in our capitalist system.

      THIS HAS A DIRECT ECONOMIC EFFECT ON ARTISTS! When I say that Area15 wants to “hump” the art, I mean they want to do a Truman Show-type treatment of Burning Man that will allow Area15 to cash in big-time and short-term while its customers enjoy the titillating spectacle, but since the show is just superficial and doesn’t include any of the real honest feelings or intentions of the artists, after the cash-in is done, the customers will find that the titillation fades away, so the customers move onto something else. Meanwhile the art itself is left with no meaning and the artist can no longer sell their work because it has essentially become like plastic costume jewelry—it has become commodified. The symbol of their art has become re-defined from what it really is into something titillating but ultimately unsatisfying, and once that damage is done there is virtually NO WAY to recover the original meaning (that’s why we use words like “hump” and “degrade”). As a symbol in society it now represents the short-lived titillation and not any of the honest intent that the artist originally had on the playa, and so it no longer has any economic value. It is EXTREMELY RARE for a symbol that has been humped in this way to recover its original meaning, at least in the lifetime of the artist whose work has been demeaned this way.

      That affects me in my day to day experience because I make art and I want to sell it to pay for my food but still have some respect and self-respect! And it affects the artists whose work is currently being humped at Area15 even more. I’m quite sure that after watching the Brand Video they are quite worried about this. I want to help make sure that possible bad outcome doesn’t happen, to help them, help myself, and also help those who want to experience Burning Man art do so in a way that is affordable, easy, and gives them an authentic understanding of the art and the sincere spirit under which the art was created.

      We can be capitalist while we do this, but we should not settle for the awful imbalance that Site15 is offering us. We can and should fight for something better.

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      • Java says:

        On the contrary, I’ve been to Area 15 and know many, many other burners who have, as well, and we all loved it. These ridiculous diatribes smack more of jealous experience hoarding rather than any actual concern for artistic integrity.

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    • Trolly says:

      The last refugees are always the most idealistic. Some imagination that there are guiding principles at work because you read it somewhere.

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  • Adam says:

    There’s a very similar space in Santa Fe also, Meow Wolf.

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  • Marion Borst says:

    Better to do the real thing than pay for this event space experience that does not give back to the community as intended by burning man ideals.

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    • Xray says:

      That’s right. Area 15 should work as hard as you do to give-back to the community. They need to put a popup shade structure over a couch and call it a ‘chill space’ and hand out warm PBRs until the case is empty, then go around asking for donations to keep the bar alive.

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  • GloryHole says:

    This is messed up. Tiny replicas of burning man art sold to the public. Capitalism has gone too far this time.

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  • Paulo Miasma says:

    I strongly endorse vandalism as the most appropriate form of interactive engagement at Area 15. No spectators.

    We recognize parasites trying to suck our blood.

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  • Greg says:

    Do they only sell ice and coffee? Otherwise this is BS. Too many connected to Bmog are cashing in. Same people allowed to rent broad patches of BMan for campers, electricity, sushi chefs. F this.

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  • Weezer says:

    If you’re reading this you know Burning Man is a global phenomenon and the world is curious. Area 15 sells the BM experience to those who can’t afford the time and money to get to BRC . So let them sell a taste to the proles and let’s keep TTITD the exclusive elitist event we love.

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  • Java says:

    Oh noes! Artists get to decide what they do with their art and what businesses they associate with. Whatever shall we do?

    All of you acting as if BM somehow owns all the art and ideas that have shown up on playa or the minds of its participants.

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  • Casper says:

    And whats worse, there is virtual golf here. Jesus.

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  • ChooChoo says:

    I visited Area15 and Omega Mart. I can assure you that nothing burned down on Saturday night, there were no 8 hour whiteouts with entire camps flying past my head, no one fed me hyperwhiskey, I didn’t come home with dust saturating everything I own including stuff I didn’t even take there, or any unexplained injuries. Also there was a general lack of bondage gear. Verdict: It’s not Burning Man.

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