Hey, how do transformative experiences work?
In February I led the first in a series of virtual panel discussions on how to create transformative experiences. The conversation was based on, but not limited to, the book “Turn Your Life Into Art,” recently published by Burning Man Project.
February’s conversation was amazing, but unfortunately we couldn’t get to every question. Three remaining questions were important enough, I thought, that we should try answering them here in overtime.
So … let’s talk about psychomagic — the whimsical, ephemeral process of bringing about transformational experiences through acts of ritual and imagination.
“How does one break through self-doubt and insecurity in order to create such works of art or experience? I find that on some fundamental level I often feel that I simply cannot achieve anything extraordinary…that I don’t have “it” whatever “it” is…my dream is to bring art to the playa one day and to be able to live an artful life off-playa…but feelings of inferiority get in the way and believing in oneself is so difficult.”
Yeah, I feel this. One of the things I realized my first or second year at Burning Man was that I had never really understood what gifts are or how they work. I’d always thought of “presents” as an obligatory thing you give a person when you’re supposed to, or just because you want to be nice. And here I was, in a place where people were giving each other weird and wonderful and bizarre things — giving each other unforgettable experiences! — just because. It was absolutely magical to me, and I wanted to do it too.
And I didn’t know how. I saw people doing it, I wanted to do it, and I had no idea how to get there.
There were some books that people could have recommended to me at that time that no one did — Lewis Hyde’s “The Gift” is always worth reading — so I mostly ended up doing trial and error. Trying to figure out how my art could exist as a good experiential gift on playa.
It took me about six years before I started doing things that were interesting enough to talk about, and another two years before I finally struck gold and got pretty good at it.
So I wouldn’t think of having “it” as an essential quality that either you have or you don’t. It’s something you can practice, and get better at.
How do you start? Well … not knowing you personally, I can only give you so much advice, but in general terms I’d start simply. Don’t try to design something big and complicated. Rather, find small ways to try and make what you’re doing already more psychomagical.
Do you go out drinking with friends? Or go to somebody’s house to play cards or board games? Practice by finding small ways to introduce psychomagical elements to these gatherings. Do you go for a walk in the park? What small things can you do to introduce psychomagic into these experiences? It may be hard to imagine at first, but review the design elements I’ve discussed. Can you make it more playful? More of a ritual? Can you create art through it? Can it become more honest? A little more dangerous?
The more you do that, the better your experience design skills will get.
Keep thinking about it, and don’t be afraid to try and fail — literally every artist who’s ever done this has tried and failed lots of times, especially at first. Remember that it took me six years before I started getting good at giving gifts.
“How does technology impact the experience, can the connection work through virtual meetings? or in VR?”
As it happens, my sections about this in the book were almost entirely lifted from experiences that I wrote about in the Burning Man Journal. You can read my summary of that here, and more of my posts about that here.
The short answer is: I designed psychomagical experiences over virtual meetings, so I’m confident that can happen. There’s no reason I can think of why psychomagic can’t happen in VR, but I don’t think we’re good at designing that yet. This isn’t because the medium isn’t conducive to it, but because many of the design elements we have are going to work differently in a virtual environment. How do you create a non-fictional experience in a virtual environment? What does taking a risk mean in VR? What is a non-benign experience?
I’m not saying it can’t be done — I think it absolutely can. But we’re only going to get there by working with the VR environment as its own unique experience, not by imitating what we do in the real world in VR. Attempts to say “we’re going to do what we do in the physical world, but digitally!” fall flat precisely because they’re not really engaging with the medium.
Every panelist felt this question deeply and really wanted to address it:
“I feel like being around others doing this type of work, finding some mentorship, would be invaluable to learning this type of artistic work. The scene can be secretive for understandable reasons…finding a way into such a community in ways besides going to the Burn seems difficult. Any advice for those seeking an entree into this world but who don’t know where to begin?”
These things can be SO much better in a community … and community can be so hard to find. Honestly, one of the things that so stood out about the San Francisco scene was precisely that it was an unusually robust community for things like this. That’s very uncommon — and a lot of psychomagical artists I admire are also looking for more community.
Which means that they might be interested in finding you! But if you don’t know where they are, how do you find each other?
By all means, do the usual things: go to the weird art shows and experimental events. Yes. But more than that …
Do it yourself. Start creating the kind of experiences you want to be part of, even if they’re just experiments. Offer people gift experiences in public. Talk about it. This will (somehow it usually does) pull in the kind of people who want to do it too. Sometimes they’ll be people who know less than you do, but sometimes it will be people who have lots more experience and are thrilled to find someone else who they can engage with.
If you want to be part of the conversation, join us on April 7!
Cover image of “Sonic Runway” by Rob Jensen and crew, 2018 (Photo by George P. Post)