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

BRCvr was created by Athena Demos, Doug Jacobson and Greg Edwards, who are longtime burners.
Kye Horton
Burning Man
BRCvr was created by Athena Demos, Doug Jacobson and Greg Edwards, who are longtime burners.

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.

"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.

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Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.