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Burning Man Goes Online This Year

burning_man_playa_2.jpg

Associated Press

Nearly every large cultural gathering canceled this year due to COVID-19. But Burning Man is charging forward — sort of.

This week, the weeklong event in Northern Nevada with an annual economic impact of $75 million, is only occurring online. 

Instead of the Black Rock Desert, participants will be exploring -- and helping build -- the Multiverse. And, yes, there will still be a burn component to the festivities this year. 

But, for an event that is such a be-there experience, will it still attract the usual tens of thousands of participants if it’s on a screen?

Someone who works with artists and ideas for Burning Man year-round is Kim Cook, who serves as the Director of Creative Initiatives.

She said when organizers decided to move the event online, the burner community responded with a what-can-I-do-to-help? attitude.
 
"The ethos of Burning Man is so much about participation, communal effort, gifting - these things that are a part of our core muscle memory have created a community worldwide that is committed to active citizenship," she said.
 
Cook said thousands of burners offered to help develop the virtual festival. In fact, the Burning Man organization didn't organize the online festival. Instead, burners from around the world created their own spaces on the website, she said.
 
"The community galvanized around each other and that's bigger than a location, as much as we very much want to return to the desert," she said.
 
Burning Man is known for being an immersive experience where people spend a week on the playa interacting and connecting with other burners. Cook admits that experience can't be created online, but she said there are ways for some of those interconnected feelings to come through.
 
"Burning Man has been expressed and experienced in a multitude of contexts," she said, "There is something about the culture and the process of connecting and participating and self-expression that does and can translate."
 
Cook believes going virtual is an opportunity to explore the "frontier of interactivity."
 
She said the community of burners around the world created 10 different platforms to fill the Multiverse, with everything from areas where you get put into a Zoom meeting with four other burners to chat for a half-hour to totally immersive virtual reality spaces. 
 
"We are finding that people are disappointed to not go to the desert and also excited to discover that they can still find each other and have experiences that are meaningful," she said.
 
In addition to the traditional burners who have been several years in a row, the new virtual space is opening the festival up to people who have not been to the festival, Cook said.
 
"When people who think of themselves as being alien or uncertain about Burning Man come into the virtual spaces and have these delightful conversations and experiences, there's a connection, there's a spark and that is the essence of going to Burning Man - minus the ability to hug each other," she said.
 
Usually, Burning Man ends with the actual burning a large effigy of a man. The burning of the Man for many people is an important part of the festival and for some even spiritually transformative.
 
With the inability to gather in a crowd and watch the Man burn, the organizers decided to ask burners around the world to do their own end of the festival burn.
 
Steven Raspa is the associate director of Community Events for Burning Man. He explained that, first of all, safety is vital. The organizers do not want anyone to burn something if it is unsafe or against the law because of fire risks or air quality issues.
 
But beyond that, there are no rules for what can be burned and where. The only rule is that the burns will happen over a 24-hour period at 9 p.m. in each time zone, much like fireworks on New Year's Eve. 
 
"I'm looking forward to some of the wacky and weird and fun things that people come up with," he said, "But also included is footage from regional gatherings around the world, which I think gives an amazing sort of sampler of the different ways that the Burning Man event has spanned and encouraged art gatherings around the world."
 
Raspa said there are instructions on how to build a Man to burn for people who want a replica of the one used at the in-person festival, but he would like to see the creative things that people come up with for their own burns.
 
He explained that the person who came up with the idea has been going to the festival for 20 years, and he wanted to see a virtual campfire of burners from around the world.
 
"Instead of having one culminating moment, to have people gather for 24 hours and have a window into each others' worlds and communities," he said, "Some communities are not burning anything at all, and in fact, it is not so much about just about creating a version of the Man and burning it. They are sharing who they are and their imagination."
 
Raspa said if people watch the entire live stream, they will get a glimpse at how people from New Zealand to Russia to Shanghai to Europe have been doing.
 
Before the pandemic, the Las Vegas burner community met at a local bar on Mondays. Now they meet virtually.
 
Tiya Coleman is a regional contact in Las Vegas for the festival. She said losing the festival was difficult at first.
 
"There's been a great deal of people sorting out their feelings," she said, "This is a ritual that many of us have done for many years and suddenly your ritual has now changed."
 
Coleman said she personally mourned the loss of the festival but decided to move the energy she normally uses to create an experience at Burning Man and redirect it. 
 
"I did think to myself, 'You know, I want to take those same energies and see what I can do to turn them towards my community here in Las Vegas and friends and family,'" she said.
 
Coleman also noted that this year is just a small break and Burning Man wasn't supposed to be permanent anyway.
 
"That was one of the things that drew me to going to the event because art is temporary, life is temporary, beauty is temporary, and those were some of the concepts that drew me to Burning Man," she said.
 
It is not just burners who are trying to figure out how to approach this new festival. People in Gerlach, the town closest to the festival site, are going to lose thousands of dollars in business.
 
Raspa said organizers of the event are very aware of the impact the cancellation will have on the tiny town. He said many people in the organization are working on fundraising to help cover the gap.
 
Another important message the organizers want to get out is they really do not want rouge burners to visit the playa.
 
Raspa said they don't want people going, "because COVID-19 is real, and it's a matter of civic responsibility to not risk transmission in small towns along the way that just aren't equipped for outbreaks should they happen."
 
Instead, he is encouraging burners to enjoy this year's festival - virtually.

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Guests

Steven Raspa, Associate Director of Community Events, Burning Man; Kim Cook, Director of Creative Initiatives, Burning Man; Tiya Coleman, regional contact for Las Vegas 

 

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