By Ed Fletcher
For the first time in its 34-year history, Burning Man won’t be happening — or at least not how anyone has known it.
Burning Man has gone virtual, but not by choice. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the in-person experience. But rather than going dark, organizers decided to lean into “The Multiverse” theme, which was named months before the pandemic was declared.
“Burning Man will happen this year wherever Burners are living the Burning Man spirit — both in physical space and virtual space,” Burning Man Project CEO Marion Goodell told participants in June.
Since its 1986 origins at San Francisco’s Baker Beach, Burning Man has grown into an iconic experience that attracts 70,000 participants from around the world, who create a temporary city of eclectics and the largest outdoor art museum on the planet.
Much like the annual counterculture event, this year’s foray into virtual spaces is an experiment.
Rather than creating its own platform or naming one winner, The Burning Man Project has authorized eight official virtual Burning Man universes and a virtual temple. They are also encouraging people to live stream their own burns in their backyards.
Each of these worlds varies in technology. Some don't require expensive virtual reality headgear. All of the content — virtual and real-world — is available through a Burning Man website.
Sacramento art lover Kathy Zwern, who has been going to Burning Man for more than a decade, says she is struggling this week. “For me, personally, it’s very challenging knowing I’m not going to be out at Burning Man,” she said. “It’s like being stuck in a hospital … every part of you really wishes you were out there with your friends.”
Leia Amirsadeghi, with the virtual reality team behind BRCvr, says this year’s virtual platform allows people across the planet to connect.
“What BRCvr is enabling is that social connection between strangers and friends,” said Amirsadeghi, a longtime Los Angeles-based burner and artist.
Just as Burning Man requires creative input from artists and individuals, the virtual worlds are collaborative efforts.
“There are theme camps. These camps will be hosting events at their space. They might have DJs playing all day long, similar to what you would see on the playa.”
At Burning Man, attendees ride bikes to visit art and explore the city. In the virtual world, guests can teleport around by clicking a few buttons.
Zwern says she will explore one or more of the virtual worlds, but says it’s hardly a replacement for direct human interaction.
“What the multiverse can’t give me is the ability to be in-person with a human being — actually physically being in their presence can not be replicated online. While I may dabble in some of those multiverses it to me is not a substitute for being at Burning Man,” Zwern said.
Ed Fletcher’s nonprofit Sacramento Valley Spark is inviting people around the world to put the Burning Man principle of “Leave No Trace” into action on Saturday, August 29, when the group will coordinate a trash collection day.
Check out Ed Fletcher’s Burning Man art tour from 2018.
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