You may already be familiar with planning and logistics involved in bringing a real-world theme camp to the inhospitable Black Rock Desert. But did you ever wonder what it takes to pivot your theme camp from the virtual world into the Multiverse?
One afternoon during Burn Week 2020, the Kindling team was stumbling around Build-A-Burn when we ran into Andrew Barrett (aka Drew) from Black Rock City’s Celestial Bodies theme camp. We learned that Drew and some of the Celestial Bodies crew were running a virtual theme camp with three digital experiences in not just one, but (count ‘em) FIVE out of the eight Recognized Universes in the Burning Man Multiverse.
Known as ‘your STR8-friendly adult bar and lounge in the Burning Man gayborhood,’ Celestial Bodies is a legacy camp infamous for its Celestialscope, and for generous daily servings of the Playa Cosmo at its bar and lounge.
I figured it was important for us — the logistics fetishists in the room — to find out exactly how Drew and his crew imagined, planned, built, and ran a single theme camp with daily activities in five distinct, yet simultaneous Universes, all in the same week.
So I asked him.
K: Tell me a little about Celestial bodies — its history, evolution, and involvement in Black Rock City.
Drew: “In 1999 a group of friends just started doing Burning Man, there was nothing official. In 2001 the crew made a concerted effort to form a group. It was officially named Celestial Bodies by 2004. It was a placed theme camp in 2007. Three members of that original group are still very actively a part of the camp.
“We are passionate believers in radical self-expression and inclusion. We run family-friendly events on playa from 10am to 2pm every day, and we operate a bar every day from 2pm to 2am. We’ve also historically always been part of the Naked Pub Crawl on Wednesday. And then a lot of our bar shifts are themed. We let that bar crew, whoever’s running it, create the theme, or we encourage communal effort and invite other camps to take over the bar with their own staff and theme.
“Two activities have remained a staple. One is Water Truck Bill’s Celestialscope, which is very popular. It’s a life-sized kaleidoscope. He has mirrors inside of it and you place your favorite body part into it. Once he distorts it enough, he’ll take a Polaroid and gift it to you.
“And the other is Gustav — and Gustav will play a very important part of the story of the Multiverse. His playa name is Blondie, from Sweden. And he does Tattoo Tuesday. Let me tell you something about Gustav: the word gets out and people line up. He applies the tattoos on everyone. We get a different tattoo every year. And then he’s applying hundreds and hundreds and hundreds all day with his mouth, on people’s bodies. It’s incredible.”
K: You and your campmates ran Celestial Bodies in five out of the eight Universes. That’s remarkable. How did that come about?
Drew: “We meet once a month to plan the Burn. And when COVID hit, we decided ‘why don’t we meet every Sunday and keep each other company?’ That was really how it all started. That was in March. Then the Burn got cancelled. You could sense the melancholy across the universe. Around the beginning of June I said in one of our online camp meetings, ‘Why don’t we stop just meeting every Sunday to keep each other company and do something? Why don’t we move this melancholy forward?’
“Gustav had come to us and said, ‘I have a way of taking the tattooing and the Celestialscope and turning them into a digital version that people could do on a website.’ That’s where the alchemy happened. Gustav was able to accomplish the tattooing and the Celestialscope within a week’s time. And so he challenged himself: ‘I think I can figure out how to use audio and recreate the bar chat and people can leave recordings and listen to recordings.’
“Once we saw what he was doing — I had then become unemployed, this is now the end of June — I was reading Burning Man materials every time they sent out something regarding the Multiverse. I brought it up to the camp and I said, ‘Why don’t we spend a little time exploring these eight Universes a little more seriously and see, now we have this thing Gustav is doing, if there’s some way we can bring that into one of these worlds.’
“So Keith, who’s Starry Eyes on playa, he started to do the deep research, the technical research. What do each of the Universes require technically? What’s their timeline? Who are the contacts? He prepared a doc, and at that point I decided we were going to need a project manager. I come from a production background. What I saw was the equivalent of eight stages for a show. That’s where my brain immediately went. I started to think: What are the physical specs for each theater? What’s the timeline of load-in, load-out? …All the things you can go through when you’re producing. And then, how do we get the word out? That’s the other side of my brain, which is the marketing side.
“And that began the first week of August. And I reached out to the eight Universes. Which ones were willing to bring us on? We thought it was late. Little did we know we were arriving right when everybody else was arriving.”
K: What was your process? How did all the moving parts come together?
Drew: “It became my full-time job. I started to recruit more team members. Lance, who’s one of our camp co-leads, and Colleen, who came to the Burn for the first time last year, they became the focal point of the visuals. I also brought on from my old job this fantastic designer who’s in Serbia. Marko was on vacation and he said, ‘I always wanted to go to Burning Man. What can I do to help?’
“So Marko is in Serbia designing the look and user experience of the website. Gustav is in Sweden coding around the clock. The website would be the central repository of everything we would then distribute across the multiple Universes. Colleen and Lance are on the East Coast taking all of these sketches we have been submitting to placement over the years, all the 3D modelling, and using them as the foundation to build the assets that were required by MysticVerse, SparkleVerse, and of course Build-A-Burn (we were also in Multiverse and The Infinite Playa, but used their prefab assets). What Celestial Bodies looked like and how it functioned in Build-A-Burn and in the other Universes was because we had the basic foundations from what we were required to give to the organization every year for placement.
“I’m sheltering in place in San Francisco. Then we added Kathleen and Emma from London, UK. As top event producers, they offered their services to help schedule and coordinate all of the performers who were gifting their time and talent. They ensured that every person who had an event in our calendar felt like they were being produced, that it felt professional, that technical hurdles would not keep them and our online Burners from having an enjoyable experience.
“I’m amazed how beautifully it went. Every event was interesting and interactive and it ran smoothly. We had participants who were veteran Burners and people new to Burning Man. People were really pleased.”
K: I can’t imagine all the (digital) moving parts your team was managing at once.
Drew: “Not everybody knew all the pieces that were going on all the time. I haven’t even talked about our music yet or our Man Burn (by XXX-acto and streamed on Burn night via PORTL)! There was the3D animation, the communication with each of the Universes, building the events calendar, creating all of the graphics (shout out to campmate Sal, aka D-licious), building a social media calendar, promotional calendar, quality assurance of the website, organizing event hosts and volunteers, building the music component, collaborating on the technology of Zoom, OBS, Restream, Twitch, and YouTube into these Universes… and the schedulers that each Universe required you to admin yourself inside of their world, both for events and music.
“It was an extraordinary collaboration, but it was a lot to handle. I will say it was probably one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, because we had so many smart people willing and in it for all the best reasons. Everybody wanted to experiment, but knew we had a deadline.
“One of the most exciting aspects was creating a week of world-class DJ’s spinning live and providing us with pre-recorded live sets. Our campmate Nathan Morris (DJ Nate) from Sydney created something far beyond our on-playa experience that could only have been possible in this virtual Burn. For example, having DJ Tracy Young premiere a new two-hour set just would not have been possible on playa because of her schedule. These sets were streamed into Multiverse, The Infinite Playa, and Build-A-Burn. It was mind blowing.”
K: What does it mean to you, to bring Celestial Bodies into the Multiverse in the way that you did?
Drew: “My 13 years on playa, my passion for Burning Man and what it has done for my own life and who I am as a person has been galvanized in the past four weeks. I get to bring all of that knowledge, the 10 Principles, meeting strangers. I don’t know that any of this would have been possible had I not had 13 years of successes, mistakes, fights, joys, love affairs, surviving dust storms, all those things that come with figuring out ‘what is Burning Man.’”
K: You were in the lucky position to be able to prototype an experience that others can look at and say, ‘This is possible, and this is how it works.’
Drew: “If we didn’t have a good line of communication with each of the teams behind the Universes, we would have picked one world, and we probably would have executed exactly what we ended up executing, but just in that one world. But because of the excitement, these other worlds wanted to bring you in, wanted to see what this could be for them. I had the bandwidth and the sanity (ish), what the hell? You want our assets and we have programming? We just need to adapt to your technology? That we can do.
“I think these tech platforms were pioneers; we were thrilled to be a part of it and provide them relationships and content.
“When I pitched this to my camp, I said, ‘If you ask any Burner today who’s been to the playa if you could go to 1990 when they joined the Cacophony and left Baker Beach and went to the playa, would you want to have been at that Burn?’
“I am sure 100% of the people would have said yes. And because I’ve been in tech for as long as a lot of the people who were part of this week-long experiment, I had a sense that there was a new trek about to happen — from someplace that we were comfortable, to someplace we had no idea. That’s the first adopter paradigm. And I said, ‘You don’t have to come along for this ride, but just support us. Because there’s a few of us who actually want to try this trek out. We want to get in our trucks and we want to drive out there and see what happens.’
“I feel like we executed on that and I can now talk to people who want to know: what was that journey like in 1990 when we went to the playa for the first time? What was it like in 2020 when the entire world was in quarantine? I can tell you what a modest group of people who don’t have a fancy camp and a lot of money, what we were able to do in the Burner spirit with our commitment to the 10 Principles.
“The eight of us who were the core group from Celestial Bodies who had the time, we had a new Burn. We had a new experience that was a real Burn. And there is no question I’ve just gone through a decompression. The relationships that I’ve made are no different than the relationships that I’ve made on playa.”
Bring Your Groove to Celestial Bodies’ Monthly Salon Series
Celestial Bodies’ success in translating their on-playa experience into the Multiverse has inspired the creation of Accelerant, a free series of monthly Salons inspired by the 10 Principles of Burning Man. Hour one of Accelerant brings thought leaders together around a monthly theme, for discussion and debate with a respectful audience. Hour two features a world-class DJ and an invitation for everyone to dance. The first edition kicks off Sunday, October 25 at 2pm PDT on the topic “Decommodification in a Global Pandemic” with special guests Stuart Mangrum, Michael Garlington, and DJ Nate. (Psst… Accelerant is also a fundraiser for Burning Man Project.)
Cover: Celestial Bodies in Build-A-Burn, one of the Eight Recognized Universes in the Burning Man Multiverse
Photo: Celestial Bodies in Black Rock City, 2019 (Photo by Scott Lindsay)