For the first time in 19 years, I didn’t spend the month of August living in the harsh desert of Nevada, helping to produce Black Rock City for Burning Man. Personally, I was expecting this year to be different, since I left the organization last year to dive headfirst into creating experiences in mixed reality, but little did I, nor the Burning Man organization, realize they would be following right behind me into this new digital creative canvas for humanity. The pandemic has forced Burners, already some of the most innovative and creative people on the planet, to innovate even further using new technologies and online gathering tools.
Admit it, you’ve probably wanted to go to the Burning Man event in Black Rock City, or at least have been curious after reading a mixed bag of sensationalized hype about it, or listening to a friend who wouldn’t shut up about it for months. Maybe you tried to go, but couldn’t get tickets, or life circumstances prevented you from making the trip.
The good news is now that Burning Man is virtual in 2020 (August 31-September 7), everyone and anyone can have a chance to see what all the fun and fuss is about. With remote participation, no or low cost for entry to most of the 10 different multiverses, and no hoops to jump through to get tickets, access to BRC in 2020 is more democratized and decentralized than ever before, albeit virtual.
Will this be the same experience you would have if you made the pilgrimage to ‘the playa’ or one of the over 100 official events that take place throughout the year around the globe? No. It won’t be.
You won’t have to trek across the state, or halfway around the world with all that you need to survive crammed into an overstuffed bin, in an overstuffed vehicle with people who are destined to become old friends forever (even if you can’t stand them by the end of the week.) You won’t wait in line for hours in that overstuffed car and then have to find and set up your campsite in the dark. You won’t get to experience playa dust up your nose and every other orifice imaginable. You won’t live in sweltering heat in a tent, you won’t need sunscreen, you won’t live off beef jerky for a week, you won’t get to experience the aroma of porta-potties, and you probably won’t see yourself and your friends trying to keep it all together in a dusty euphoric state of sleep deprivation.
I know I’m making it sound so glamorous, but the shared struggle and marathon of inconveniences is half of the fun, and a key to the transformative power of Burning Man. Burners don’t do it because it’s easy. Congratulations to those of you who hop on board this year, this time you get to do it from the comfort of your own couch. You can even wear feathers and trash your campsite for a change, assuming that campsite is an epic pillow fort you created in your living room.
The history of Burning Man has been marked with many milestone moments. One thing is for sure, this is about to be another entry for the record books. Burners love to talk about being present for historical moments… on the beach, back when it was dangerous, when the man burned early, etc. and now a whole new era of Burners and soon-to-be Burners can say they were participants at the first globally online and free Black Rock City!
If you dare to join, you can pretty much be assured that you will spend some of the next few weeks, months, or forever talking about what you did, where you went, what you loved, what sucked, what was silly, what platforms crashed, who you met, what you wore, and what you are going to do differently next time. This is how Burning Man grew to become a global cultural movement and pivotal inspiration of our era. The whole experience is participatory, and aesthetic judgements aside, it’s great art… it’s evocative, engaging, inclusive, and makes for great dinner conversations afterwards.
There are 10 different official multiverses to choose from. Ranging from immersive VR worlds to 2D browser-based experiences. You can participate at home by creating your own effigy and (safely!) having your own mini-burn. It’s taken a myriad of technical wizards and organizers working behind the scenes and late at night to make each of these possible. Thank you!
There will be workshops and dance parties and yoga classes and fire spinning. You can try a different multiverse each day, or you can try them all at the same time. Honestly, that may be the closest you can come to the real Black Rock City experience. There are too many options to do it all. Someone turned on all the channels, pointed the speakers out into the yard and now you get to dive in and find out who you are when you come out the other side of the wormhole.
Generally speaking for Burning Man IRL or online, you need to leave your expectations at home. Good thing you are already there? But here are a few safe bets.
- This will not be a polished conference, a single youtube channel festival, a solo Twitch stream with a hieroglyphic emoji stream flying by, or a highly rehearsed political convention.
- This will not be network entertainment made with big budgets and Hollywood production values (though some of it might be surprising and amazing, never underestimate Burners!)
- There will be technical glitches.
- There will be ridiculous adventures.
- There will be silly over-the-top characters.
- You will have to navigate a sea of webpages, apps, instructions and forms to participate.
- You will get lost somewhere along the way.
- You will get found somewhere along the way.
- You will find things that you love.
- You will find things that aren’t quite your jam.
- There will be a temple where you can honor the immense losses of this year.
- You will get more out of the experience if you pull out your augmented camera filters, silly hats, disco lights, blinky light toys and costumes.
- You might have a deeply personal and highly transformative experience.
That last one is up to you though. Your Burning Man experience has always been, and will always be up to you. What are you willing to give? What are you willing to give up? Are you ready to step out of your comfort zone? Will you give folks a chance? Will you push the buttons and play the games and dance like nobody’s watching? Are you going to participate, or are you going to sit back and criticize everything and everyone, even though you didn’t do anything other than turn on your laptop and open a web browser? The choice is up to you, but I can tell you that when you go with it, and have fun with it, miraculous things can happen. You may make a few new friends along the way, especially and including yourself.
Regardless of how this week of virtual events, and this new experiment in temporary online community plays out, Burning Man, the 10 Principles and the global culture which has emerged from the event in Black Rock City, have left a positive trace on the world. It is a celebration of human creativity. It is an opportunity to step into a bigger and brighter version of yourself, and to be welcomed into one of the most innovative (and admittedly quirky) communities on the planet.
It is also a reminder that creation, collaboration and celebration can bring us together across political parties, race, gender, country borders, and even help us get through pandemics. Sharing experiences like this and engaging with each other in fun, productive and inspiring new ways are what we need to survive and thrive on this planet.
The Burning Man event this year does not require tickets, nor is it being orchestrated as a fundraiser for the nonprofit. That said, I’m personally encouraging you to consider what this community has brought to you, your friends, or to immersive, experiential, monumental creativity and colorful humanity on this planet. How much would you have spent to rent a movie online each night this week, or how much would you have spent to make the trek out to the desert? Have you been inspired, or have you at least gotten some good fodder for opinion around the dinner table? If so, consider making a donation.
As someone who was deep on the inside of the organization for many years and has a relatively well informed opinion compared to many voices on the internet, I hate to say it, but it is not certain if the BRC we all knew and love can come back next year, or even in the years after that. The need to convene, organize and grow the community via online tools has been and will continue to be a huge priority for organization. As former head of tech, I can tell you that is a very complex undertaking and one that will require some resources, patience, support and a sense of humor along the way.
If you are like me, you’ve been practically chained to your desks on a marathon of Zoom meetings and calls for months, so facing another week of screens might not sound that entertaining. I get it, but Burning Man is about reaching deep and then being deeply rewarded for your efforts. That’s why I’m encouraging you to spend some time this weekend pulling out the costumes, move your computer into the room with the grooviest lights, shake it off, go for a big cleansing hike, stretch it out, and stock up on the beef jerky. I think we’ve all earned a little time off from this crazy ride. Consider this as your invitation, your permission slip and a note for your boss.
Play hooky next week and come to virtual Burning Man with me.