A Virtual Temple Made of Photons and Imagination

During a time when we’re apart physically, many are feeling the need for a healing visit to the Black Rock City Temple. Thankfully, the multi-talented and dedicated 2020 Temple team has created the Ethereal Empyrean Experience, a single-visitor, virtual journey meant to facilitate a meaningful solo Temple encounter. Read on for Burning Man philosopher Caveat Magister’s ruminations on the cultural meaning of the Temple in Black Rock City and around the world.


If the Man is the icon and the heart of Burning Man, the Temple is its soul.

I’ve talked with many Burners who say they’re okay with the Man not burning for a year. I’ve talked with plenty of Burners who say they don’t really mind taking a year off from creating their theme camps. I’ve talked to lots of Burners who, since they can’t see all their friends from around the world in Black Rock City, are going out of their way to connect with their distant friends online.

But most of these Burners have also said: “I don’t know what to do without the Temple this year.”

Like the Man, we discovered the Temple because somebody built something that was bigger than its own premise. Larry Harvey and Jerry James created the Man almost on a whim — why not take their families to the beach and build a life-sized wooden man, then burn him? When they did, people gathered, it became the center of collective dreams, so they kept doing it until it became the center of a common culture.

In 2000, as Burning Man was becoming an international underground sensation, artist David Best — one of Larry’s close friends — and Jack Haye came out to the playa and built a temple out of old jigsaw puzzle materials. One of their crew members, a close friend, had died before the event, so they dedicated the temple to the memory of those who had been lost. It was a place for sorrow and contemplation in the middle of a creative bacchanal, and we didn’t know how much we needed that until we had it.

We’ve had a Temple every year since, built by a wide variety of artists — no Temple has ever been built by a single person, it’s an endeavor requiring a collective effort. They’ve come in a dazzling variety of styles, from the elaborate and delicately filigreed structures that are David Best’s calling card to the jutting rock formations of 2010’s Temple of Flux (by far the most controversial Temple in their 20 years). My Temple, personally, will always be 2011’s Temple of Transition, by the International Arts MegaCrew — a massive structure of multiple buildings connected by pedestrian arches that brought me to tears when I first saw it from a distance, at sunset, while I was riding on the back of a flatbed truck with a group of half-naked new friends dancing and popping champagne corks.

But it’s not the beauty or the size or the scope of the Temples that matter to us: it’s what happens inside. That is where we grieve. That is where we contemplate the tragic and the ineffable and the lives we live within them. That is where tens of thousands of people go to attach pictures of their lost loved ones, and final letters, to the walls. To scrawl messages to the dead in marker. To sit and cry and mourn lost souls, and express our most personal sorrows, together. I have left final words to dear lost friends in four different temples: to Tigger, who died of cancer; Tom, who died of a heart attack; Stephen, who died of side effects from medication; and, eventually, Larry himself.

I have also attended weddings at the temple. In the midst of grief, you will find ceremonies celebrating life and transitions of all kinds.

Two years ago, I was shocked to discover that a close friend who had sworn she would never go to Burning Man had been secretly watching video feeds of the Temple burns for years. And when she formally transitioned to a male identity, he asked me to take something from his old life and leave it in the Temple for him, so that it, too, could burn.

Last year, a girlfriend and I walked through the Temple and sobbed, together, for all the sorrow in our lives that we were trying to leave behind, and we left images of ourselves stapled to the walls.

We were in the front row when that Temple burned, as close to the fire as the safety crew would let us stand, and we cried again, and then we walked back, and got lost at night, and sang and laughed, our burden lightened now that our images had burned. We will never forget that night.

David Best, meanwhile, has expanded his career to build temples in places around the world that have experienced tragedy. The most famous are in Christchurch, New Zealand, after a lethal earthquake, and in Derry/Londonderry, Ireland, where Catholics and Protestants who had once been at war came together to build the structure collaboratively; posted images of their dead; left messages, and then watched it burn: a fleeting monument to a troubled past and a spiritual investment in a better future.

Now, we are all living in a time of tragedy and loss. We need a Temple. But even if we built it, we couldn’t visit it collectively. And make no mistake: the kind of grieving we need to do only happens in community.

So the artists who were selected to bring their vision of a physical Temple to the playa — a beautiful structure named Empyrean — partnered with theme camp lead and digital artist Jeremy Roush to create a virtual version of that Temple. The Ethereal Empyrean Experience is a digital structure made of photons and imagination that we can all visit, place offerings within, and gather around together for the ceremonial burn. The building won’t be real, but the gatherings and messages and loss will be.

And that’s what matters. Like the burning of the Man, the burning of the Temple is a locus around which the community can gather and create.

Many questions emerge, the way they always do. How will a virtual temple work? Will it work? I don’t know, to be honest. But we didn’t know how the physical temples would work either, before an artist was inspired to imagine it. That’s the point.

That’s our soul.


Learn more about Temple 2020: The Ethereal Empyrean Experience.

Side Gate Ethereal Empyrean Experience 2020 Virtual Temple

Temple 2020: Event Timeline

Three phases of the Temple experience are planned to guide your journey:

Create a Temple Offering 

August 7-29, 2020

Visit the Temple Offerings Website to create your offering.

Learn how! Webinar: How to Make a Virtual Offering – August 10, 12 noon PDT

The Ethereal Empyrean Experience is open for visitors

August 30 – September 6, 2020

Experience a solo Temple journey as often as you like during Burn Week.

Temple Burn 2020

September 6, 8pm PDT

Join the community in witnessing the ceremonial burn of the Ethereal Empyrean Experience.

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

4 Comments on “A Virtual Temple Made of Photons and Imagination

  • Salvage says:

    Thank you Caveat for the well spoken words about the complexity of the temple and the reminder to give the first virtual temple the same creative permission to fail as the first physical temple. Looking forward to seeing how Jeremy (aka Mr. Ok) and the Temple team create the experience of such a well known space for all of us to share what it is that we want to let go before we go back to dancing in the streets with our friends again.

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  • Solarianos Artifex says:

    Thank you. I really enjoyed listening recently to Sylvia and Renzo talk about Empyrean recently. Virtual Empyrean is already beautiful, and a preview is available. But for me the Temple is a place of both remembrance and hope. And I have much hope for next year. We will see Empyrean again. Best wishes.

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  • $teven Ra$pa says:

    Caveat, his is SUCH a lovely and poignant reminder of the “soulfulness” of the Temple and its place in our community. The thing I have always treasured about the Temple is that it manages to serve people from every spiritual practice and walk of life–even self-proclaimed atheists, who perhaps believe in nothing more than the power of art and appreciate a dogma-free space for contemplation and remembrance. That the Temple can serve so many different people and needs at once and get to a place of beautiful sameness, is truly amazing. Each temple over the years has inspired awe and deep gratitude in me. Thank you to every temple team–from first to next–for such a profound gift of presence and ephemerality in our community.

    I see the Empyrean Temple crew carrying this noble tradition and torch into an even more inclusive frontier, and doing so with such care and love. Thank you!!!

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  • I was at the first Temple burn and have had many profound experiences at Temples since. I hope a link encouraging us to participate without forcing us to attend a webinar will appear here soon!

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