Another week spent exploring the ways in which we reach out from our own isolated corners of the multiverse to connect with one another has yet to reveal anything that I think represents a good model for a “virtual Burning Man” … and, frankly, I’m quite sure that Burning Man doesn’t have that model yet either.
What’s happening here isn’t “Burning Man going back to its roots,” it’s Burning Man going to a whole new environment. Much as the Black Rock Desert came after Baker Beach, the virtual world is now — for the moment — what comes after the Black Rock Desert. And we don’t know what works there yet.
So every experiment in connecting at a distance gives us a clearer picture of what works and what doesn’t. Anything people do right now to reach out to one another counts as a win. But we also need to learn from it.
My own effort last week to create an at-a-distance experience was somewhat derivative, but it went pretty well. I got an excellent bartender friend and opened a virtual bar for her. When people came up to it, they were asked to provide a prompt for a drink: a word, a phrase, a concept, a memory, a hope, a wish … anything, the more from the heart it was, the better.
They then showed her (and everyone else at the bar) their kitchen and liquor shelf, and she instructed them on how to make a drink that answered the prompt they’d given. Meanwhile, I used that time (often relatively short) to write a story or a poem based on that prompt. When the drink was ready, the story or poem was read to everyone, the drink was tried, and sometimes magic happened.
It went a couple of hours, and we’re going to try it again soon. It was a success, but I ask myself a lot of questions about how it should be modified. As a man who has dedicated much of his life to writing, I’m much more capable than most people are at creating compelling work in a stressfully short (and variable) timeframe. But would it be better if everyone took a turn at writing? Or if the person who provided the prompt chose the person to do the writing?
I don’t know yet. I am convinced that only one person should be writing at a time, rather than having everyone write something and then share it, because the writing completely distracts from the act of sharing the kitchen and liquor cabinet, and engaging with the making of the drink, which can be surprisingly intimate acts and need witnesses to fully flower.
But there’s still so much to learn.
I’ll probably work up a post summarizing everything I think I’m learning, but meanwhile, here’s what I’ve learned most recently after another week spent attending every virtual party I can buy a ticket or wrangle an invite to.
Absurdism Still Works
Something so crazy, so stupid that people gape and say, “I can’t believe this is happening …” works just as well in virtual space as it does Black Rock City.
That does not mean “wild and crazy.” Wild and crazy is what you get when college sophomores shout “Wooo!” on the beach at spring break because there are girls in bikinis nearby. Wild and crazy does not make you laugh so much as it makes you sigh with the realization that, okay, we’re going through these particular motions again. Aren’t we having a good time? AREN’T WE? DANCE AND WOO, DAMMIT, OR ELSE WE MIGHT NOT BE HAVING SO MUCH FUN!
Contrast this with the most celebrated piece of absurdism to come out of a virtual event since the plague hit. It was a zoom room that simply contained images of potatoes, and a voice screaming over and over again: “POTATO! POTATO! POTATO! POTATO!”
What the hell was it? What was going on?
And what were the people in the room supposed to do? Some tried arguing. Some tried negotiating. Some proselytized on behalf of our new potato overlords. Weeks later, people are still laughing about it.
That stuff, so common in Black Rock City, still works.
Stick Around A While
Outside of a few examples of pure, uncut, absurdism, all of the really great distance experiences I’ve encountered have had something in common: they’ve involved people sticking around and going the duration.
For whatever reason, it seems to take a while for deeper, fuller connections to happen in distance experiences. Perhaps because we’re starting so much farther apart, it takes more time for us to reach one another. But whatever the reason, whenever I’ve been dropping into one “room,” and then checking another out, and then another, I’ve never had any really satisfying connections. And when I’ve been running events, the people who have been present for the truly exceptional moments, and contributed the most, are the ones who went the distance. Two hours, four hours, five hours … the magic seems much more likely to slowly accelerate over time, then go into overdrive, rather than all happening at once early on.
For these experiences to really work, my observation is that you need a cadre of people who are really in it, rather than bar-hopping conference calls.
This, of course, seems completely contrary to the spirit of Black Rock City, where we’re constantly wandering around, seeing what interests us, and engaging until the spirit moves us to wander again. Hell, one of my very favorite things to do in BRC is to wander the streets aimlessly, bumping into the weird and wonderful things people do, and then moving on. Why would this be so effective there, but not in a “virtual experience” made up of 100 “rooms” to look through and sample?
The thing is, all these experiences that we dip and sample and choose from are happening in Black Rock City, one of the most remote areas most of us will ever see, that we have all put down our lives to live in for a full week. We have already made a commitment to be together, in shared struggle, long before we ever got to the decision to make a left turn towards the blinky lights or a right turn towards the dinosaurs playing croquet. That level of commitment and presence was our passport to entry.
That isn’t replicated when you’re switching from conference call to conference call. Entering a virtual environment from your living room isn’t the same as entering BRC, because you’re in your living room.
As a result — it seems to me, and this is still preliminary, I have no more experience or expertise in this than anybody else — those intense experiences of connection require a different kind of commitment in virtual environments. A commitment that I’m going to be present, with you people, doing this, for the duration. Because that’s what it means to be in this together. In virtual environments, to drop in and drop out is to be a spectator.
Ask Something of Each Other
Similarly, in Black Rock City, we have all made significant sacrifices — at least of time and effort, often of money and sanity — to be there. And even then, when we engage with people we are often being asked to take risks, both physical, emotional, and “what the fuck is happening?” We receive a lot too — we are constantly receiving gifts from one another. Not only does the act of receiving something carry its own emotional weight, but the very act of gifting — when it’s done well — shows that someone has gone into their depths and sacrificed and worked to offer you something.
Virtual experiences can have this too, but they usually don’t because, well, honestly, we haven’t figured out how to really do that at a distance yet — let alone come up with a process that makes it as easy and common as it is at Black Rock City.
But this is a crucial element of “Burning Man” kinds of experiences. So without exception, the most powerful, wonderful, joyful, art experiences I’ve had at a distance during the plague have all been experiences that asked something of the participants. That asked them to take a risk, or to show parts of themselves, or try something they hadn’t before … to get creative in a way that meaningfully affected one another, to be responsible for something or someone. It often wasn’t heavy handed, in fact, I don’t think it ever was, but it was so much more than just hanging around for a while, maybe dancing, and then moving on. It was answering a call to create something together.
When creating experiences, I think these questions can be incredibly fruitful: “What can I ask of the participants? What barrier do they have to clear or sacrifice do they have to make to participate?”
Conservation of Effort
It is, I firmly believe it is, possible to create Burning Man experiences over video conferences and digital media at a meaningful level. But we have to try harder in some areas that we often take for granted. Burning Man, as I’ve written elsewhere, is often best thought of not as liberated hedonism, but as the iron shackles of art and culture that we willingly place on ourselves.
Perhaps there’s a kind of “conservation of effort” with Burning Man-esque experiences. When we go out to remote, beautiful, locations where we struggle to survive, it’s easy to create amazing experiences of art and connection. We’re there, together, in these magical environments, in shared struggle. But when we’re sitting separately in our living rooms, surrounded by all our comforts, able to tune out at the least distraction, we have to work much, much, harder. There’s a certain threshold of energy and difficulty that has to be crossed, one way or another.
Either way it seems to me that in addition to the questions we have habitually come to ask in offering Burning Man experiences — What can I offer? What can I give? — we need to add other elements. What can I ask of them? What productive difficulty can I provide? What vulnerability can we ask and offer?
Top photo: “Head Maze” at Sunrise by Matthew Schultz & the Pier Group (Photo by Dan Adams)