89.1 WEMU

As Burning Man Goes Virtual, Organizers Try To Capture The Communal Aspect

Sep 3, 2020
Originally published on September 3, 2020 2:01 pm

Burning Man — the dazzling, days-long, annual arts and lovefest drawing 70,000 to the dusty Nevada desert — was cancelled this year. But organizers are trying to capture the quintessential, communal arts experience online.

For this year's theme, Multiverse, teams have created 2D and 3D virtual experiences. The program runs Aug. 30-Sept. 6.

The chaos and creativity of Burning Man usually involves thousands of artists and volunteers trekking to the vast, windy, barren desert to build enormous, eye-popping, often whimsical sculptures. This year, you can turn on your webcam or virtual-reality headset to attend an art class or DJ dance party — or even join a virtual group hug.

In the desert, the Burning Man Temple is typically a place spacious enough for people to walk into and reflect, grieve or leave an offering. This year, you can sort of do that at the Ethereal Empyrean Experience with a mobile device, desktop, or VR headset.

Ed Cooke, one of the creators of SparkleVerse, says that to recreate the desert experience, burners — as attendees are called — have set up tents in their living rooms and dressed up in costumes.

The Multiverse Ethereal Empyrean Experience, by Laurence "Renzo" Verbeck and Sylvia Adrienne Lisse, was selected as the official Black Rock City Temple for 2020.
Kye Horton / Burning Man

"Getting up and dancing in front of your screen, bothering to put on a costume, jumping around, these things are extraordinarily powerful in terms of taking you into new realms of experience," he says. "Radical self-expression" is one of Burning Man's 10 Principles.

Cooke admits that online he doesn't experience "the sense of awe of the scale of things" he experiences in the desert, but he's convinced the kind of joyful, communal experience he's had there in the past can be achieved virtually.

Other burners are having none of it. "It's not the same thing," says Douglas Wolk, who's been going to Burning Man for 20 years.

Wolk says he keeps going back to Burning Man because he believes in its principles such as no advertising and immediacy, which organizers describe as seeking "to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers."

Wolk says, when everyone is off the grid together, the relationships are unlike anything else. "All kinds of people meet in this difficult, sometimes frustrating environment and they're pretty much all there to help each other," he says. "It's really not the same thing to be sitting in front of your computer."

Longtime Burning Man artist Jennifer Lewin has mixed feelings about this year's virtual festival. While she thinks it's "a very interesting experiment," she misses the opportunity to "test the limits" of her large, interactive, public sculptures.

With the dust, heat, wind and thousands of people ready to play, "Burning Man is the best place possible for me to go to test interactive sculptures, says Lewin. "If your work can survive Burning Man, it can survive anywhere."

Computer images of Lewin's work Cosmos, now on display in Tokyo, are in the DustyMultiverse this year. Lewin says, while they are "perfect conceptualizations" of the work, they don't face any "real world problems."

Burning Man curators know they can't fully replicate the uniquely communal and physical experience of Black Rock City. Kim Cook, director of creative initiatives at Burning Man Project, says the goal this year is "connection and creativity and sharing experiences." With some 90 events taking place around the world, she says "the ethos of Burning Man is not restricted to one location."

The culmination of the festival is the burning of the giant sculpture of the Burning Man. This year organizers will stream videos of people doing burns in their backyards, fire dancing, or even just lighting candles.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Burning Man is an experience. Yes, 70,000 people gather for whimsical art and music in the Nevada desert - but also body paint and bartering and communal living. It is not the kind of thing that's easy to recreate virtually, but the pandemic has forced organizers to try. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has the story.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: At Burning Man, thousands of volunteers usually work together to help artists build enormous sculptures out of glass, metal, wood. The chaos and creativity of building the festival's temple in 2018 was captured in a recent documentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Go, climbers. Go. Go. This one looks good here.

BLAIR: The Burning Man Temple is typically a place spacious enough for people to walk into and reflect or grieve. This year, you can sort of do that with a mobile device, desktop or virtual reality headset. In a live webinar, Burning Man Associate Director Katie Hazard invited viewers to imagine they were entering the temple.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATIE HAZARD: And we'll walk forward metaphorically together, all of us here on the call, and see this picture, this gate in front of you. And together, let's all move through that gate together.

BLAIR: Burners are true believers in participation. This year's theme is Multiverse. Different teams have created 2D and 3D virtual experiences. Turn on your webcam, and you can attend an art class or join a virtual group hug or go to a party.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ED COOKE: Welcome, everybody. And thank you so much for coming along to the SparkleVerse.

BLAIR: Ed Cooke and a team created the SparkleVerse. He says, to recreate the desert experience, people have set up tents in their living rooms and dressed up in costumes. Radical self-expression is one of Burning Man's 10 Principles.

COOKE: Getting up and dancing in front of your screen, bothering to put on a costume, jumping around - these things are extraordinarily powerful for kind of taking you into new realms of experience.

BLAIR: Cooke admits, online he doesn't experience the sense of awe he gets in the desert. But he's convinced you can create the kind of joyful communal experience he's had there. Other burners are having none of it.

DOUGLAS WOLK: It's not the same thing.

BLAIR: Douglas Wolk has been going to Burning Man for 20 years. He says he keeps going back because of the principles, like no advertising and being off the grid.

WOLK: What's so special about Burning Man for me is that it's really immediate, and it's not like anything else. All kinds of people come and meet up there in this bizarre, difficult, sometimes frustrating environment. And they're pretty much all there to help each other. It's really not the same thing to be sitting in front of your computer.

JENNIFER LEWIN: I think the Multiverse is a very interesting experiment.

BLAIR: Artist Jennifer Lewin has mixed feelings about this year's virtual festival. Burning Man is where she goes to test the limits of her work - enormous, interactive public sculptures that need to survive all kinds of weather and lots of people playing on them.

LEWIN: If a sculpture can survive at Burning Man, it can survive everywhere.

BLAIR: Computer drawings of her work Cosmos are in one of the multiverses. The culmination of the festival is the burning of the giant sculpture of the Burning Man. This year, they're streaming videos of people doing burns in their backyards or even just lighting candles.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAYTRANADA'S "CHANCES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.