The theme of “Multiverse” has, I think, been changed by the pandemic. Before, the Multiverse was something we aspired to experience. Now we are trapped in it — each of us stuck in our own little worlds, growing more and more distant from each other, unable to reach out. That’s really the theme now.
But will a “digital Burning Man” help with that? Why go big? What purpose would a digital Burning Man serve that people can’t just achieve on their own with some Zoom calls? What would a successful event look like?
Those are questions, were Larry still with us, that we would have been debating and discussing in the Philosophical Center for weeks now. I don’t know the answers, and I can’t tell you what Larry would have said, but I can tell you what I would have told him at the beginning of that process.
Location, Location, Location
Burning Man happened in the first place, and grew exponentially in the first place, because it was offering people an experience that they couldn’t get, or didn’t know how to do for themselves in the rest of their lives.
Going to Burning Man is simply not something you can do anywhere else in the world. We all have to do it together.
Is that still true in a pandemic-mandated digital environment? If what we’re doing boils down to creating 10,000 individual “rooms” that are supposed to be analogous to “theme camps,” is that a different, better, experience than a bunch of San Franciscans putting together a party of 30 rooms for 500 people, most of whom will never get to all of them?
A similar issue comes up with another of the major reasons people go to Burning Man: to see their friends and long-time collaborators. That is also something that Burning Man offers that they can’t easily get elsewhere. But that’s no longer true with a digital Burning Man.
In what way will going to Virtual Burning Man be “seeing your friends” in a way that you can’t see them right now, using the exact same technology? If we’re just Zoom calling one another to hang out … what’s the advantage of 100,000 of us doing it at once?
There are a lot of conditions that, unless we specifically try to create them in some form, a virtual Burning Man will simply not possess.
- Pilgrimage: The journey to Burning Man is, as Anselm Engle once pointed out to me, a kind of personal Hero’s Journey. You leave the rest of your life behind and travel to a kind of underworld. Obviously that just isn’t happening with “shelter in place” Burning Man.
- Shared hardship: The vast majority of us engage in the same damn process of getting through the gate, waiting in line, baking in the sun, freezing in the night, needing to hydrate constantly … this is a major component of the Burning Man experience, and the way people relate to each other there. This, too, will be absent.
- Natural beauty: Black Rock Desert is a magical place. Anything you do in that environment gains an added significance and poetry simply because it’s happening there.
- Barrier to entry: Buying a ticket was actually the easy part. More important was the willingness to go someplace stupidly inaccessible with all your shit packed up. In a digital event, will there be a barrier to entry that isn’t just cost related?
A lot of what makes the experiences we have at Burning Man remarkable are not the things we do, but that they happen in this context. Many, many of the things that are magical when they happen at Burning Man will be mundane and barely interesting when they happen as links from a webpage. Even if we all are doing it at once while wearing onesies.
This doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing — but it does mean that there is simply no way to have an “experience of Burning Man” by doing a vague imitation of what we have done before at Burning Man.
“What” Starts With “Why”
So what are we encouraging people to do? What are we trying to achieve? What experience can we help people achieve that they are not getting in the rest of their lives right now?
I can think of two answers to these questions. Both have implications for what a “digital Burning Man” should be that have not been adequately thought through, to the extent they’ve been thought through at all.
It’s an Experiment
The first is basically that we are conducting a social experiment. Why not see what happens? Experiments are great. The original Burning Man — Larry and Jerry and their families down on Baker Beach — was an experiment. “Hey, what would happen if we tried this?”
But its genius was not that they were imitating something that they already did. They were in fact trying something new. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been an experiment; it would have been board game night.
It’s a Breakthrough
Burning Man was, ultimately, never about how cool it is to burn shit — although that sure helps. Burning Man is about creating contexts in which we relate to each other differently. We kept coming back, in large part, for that. And there is absolutely no reason we don’t still need that now.
In fact, I think we desperately need ways of breaking through our isolation and reaching one another. With so much of our ability to connect casually and intimately both gone, we crave new ways of reaching across the space between us, to be present and real to one another.
This is a very good reason to do something. But the truth is that while we are very good at helping people achieve breakthroughs in the context of Burning Man, nobody actually knows how to achieve breakthroughs in this new environment. How could we? We’ve never done it before.
Which brings us back to the need to experiment, but now it’s an experiment with a clear purpose.
So okay … what kind of experiment are we conducting that might achieve this purpose? What should we be asking people to do, besides buy a ticket?
How to Escape From the Multiverse — and Find Each Other
Yeah … I dunno. I mean, I’m right here with everyone else: I’ve never tried to make art in a global pandemic either. Frankly, whatever this event is, we are all going to be attending it as virgins.
All I can say for sure is that this moment is a calling, a struggle with a high bar that we are trying to be worthy of. Going through the motions, because that’s what we know how to do, is the surest way to fail to live up to our aspirations. Breakthrough moments require risk, and they require vulnerability.
What I’m Pretty Sure I Know
Thus far the most successful breakthroughs I’ve experienced and seen in this context have all started with Immediacy.
Organizers have openly acknowledged where they are, both physically and emotionally. They didn’t try to pretend their living room was an alien planet, or a secret government lab — they were open about the fact they were in their living room. Maybe they’d decorated their living room, maybe they’d done something physical and interesting with it — but there were no pretenses. They were honest dealing with what was around them. They were equally honest and open about their emotional state. They were isolated, they were lonely, it sucked.
The next most important element was Radical Self-Expression, but not theirs — yours. The successful breakthroughs I’ve seen and experienced have begun with Immediacy from the organizers, who focused on ways to get the participants to be Radically Self-expressive. They’re not trying to present something, they’re trying to bring something out. To coax, to convince, to delight in such a way that it encourages someone else to open up and express themselves in new ways.
This is absolutely true of many of the best Burning Man theme camps. But at a digital distance, trapped in the Multiverse, it’s often all we have.
When it works, this collaborative act of Immediacy and Radical Self-expression generally requires that a risk be undertaken. The experiences offered have an uncertain outcome, and ask that we push ourselves, open ourselves, or put ourselves in another’s hands. We can’t be together, but we can take risks together — and, amazingly, that can be more than enough.
Co-creating the experience of risk together is also a very powerful experience. The truth about so many Burning Man events is that the creators of the theme camps and art often have a much, much better time than the people going through it. A harder time, for sure, but often a better one. So how can you use the circumstances we’re actually in, to genuinely co-create? To offer equal Participation and Communal Effort? To make the experiences truly tailored to the individuals in it right now, even if — especially if — they’re all strangers?
Design for these things, and everything else seems to fall into place.
If you want to see some examples of what this looks like, I’ve offered a few here. I’ve since seen others I’m excited to share soon.
It Should Be Hard, Not Easy
Meanwhile, we return to the question: if these are the kinds of things that work to get us the experiences we need to have — if these are the kind of things that break us out of the multiverse we’re trapped in — then what is the role of a major “Burning Man” style virtual event? What utility is it? What does it add?
When dealing with the Black Rock Desert, Burning Man Project makes our presence there possible at on a mass scale: it helps us deal, up to a point, with extreme obstacles by handling government permitting, liaising with local law enforcement, bringing out porto-potties, making sure key infrastructure exists.
Those obstacles don’t exist in the virtual environment, and so the Burning Man Project isn’t needed to mitigate them. But those obstacles also make Burning Man what it is (hence the longstanding cry to “make Burning Man more inconvenient!”).
Ironically, I think the most important thing the Burning Man Project can do to make this “virtual Burning Man” more like an experience of Burning Man is to create barriers to entry and develop shared struggle. To do it artfully, and delightfully, but to make it harder, not easier, in ways that require people to participate and engage.
In creating a mass virtual Burning Man, the job of the Burning Man Project is to make it a pilgrimage instead of a series of clicks. To develop the hoops that everyone has to jump through to get there. And to make those hoops soul affirming, rather than soul sucking.
What could this look like? Well, again, I’ve never done this before either. At this point this is a thought experiment. But here are two ideas to start.
- What if some theme camps all over the world work with Burning Man Project to develop some breakthrough experiences that they start offering now, not during the event. And what if Burning Man Project were to create a map showing their location and links, and in order to get your ticket validated, you had to go through all of them before the event? Send yourself all around the world (in a manner of speaking), and go to all these theme camps and through their experiences before you could enter the big event. It would be tremendously inconvenient, but it would give us all a common set of experiences, a shared struggle, and a definite sense of what does and doesn’t work well before we got to where we’re going. As the theme camps stamped the participants’ digital passports, they could also add notes that would appear in people’s Burner profiles, creating a kind of scrapbook of experiences they had along the way.
- What if we reconsidered the function of the Gate and the Greeters for the new big event? As with all things, what you get out of an experience like this will depend on what you put into it. It actually seems to matter — not to the collective, but to the individual’s experience — if they have prepared the room in which they’re going to be looking through their screen. Instead of letting just letting people log in, what if we first send them to the Greeters or Gate stations, where the volunteers check to see: Is your space prepared? Are you wearing a costume? And if the prospective participant hasn’t prepared either, they say: “Okay, what materials do you have that we can make a little space for you together?” They say: “Let’s see your clothing drawers to try to piece a costume together for you?” The point isn’t to get them to live up to a standard; we’re not looking for quality, but to get them out of the mode of spectating through a screen. Intrusive, annoying, yes — absolutely. Risky — yes. But it’s also potentially a direct, intimate, human experience where you work with someone to co-create something personal. You take a risk, you deal with what your space really is and what you’re really feeling, are asked to be self-expressive, and only then get access to the big event.
Both of these cases make Virtual Burning Man unnecessarily difficult — but the whole point is that Burning Man experiences are often unnecessarily difficult. Both of these things are out of our comfort zones — we don’t mandate costumes! — but they’re certainly not more inconvenient than going to the Black Rock Desert, and the whole point is that we need to get out of our comfort zones.
The purpose of the Burning Man Project in a plague environment — I’m hypothesizing, I could be wrong — is to create these difficulties, and do so artfully, in a way that brings out our shared humanity, rather than smoothing them over.
Make Burning Man Inconvenient Again is more important now than ever. If we do it right, we break out of the multiverse and into a shared space, where we are connected once again.
That’s a good reason to do this.
Top photo: Crowds gather for a performance in deep playa on the first evening of Burning Man 2019 (Photo by Scott London)