As Burning Man Goes Virtual, Organizers Try To Capture The Communal Aspect Burners can attend an art class, DJ dance party — or even join a virtual group hug — via webcam or virtual reality. In place of statue burning, the event will end with backyard fires and candles.

As Burning Man Goes Virtual, Organizers Try To Capture The Communal Aspect

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Burning Man is an experience. Yes, 70,000 people gather for whimsical art and music in the Nevada desert - but also body paint and bartering and communal living. It is not the kind of thing that's easy to recreate virtually, but the pandemic has forced organizers to try. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has the story.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: At Burning Man, thousands of volunteers usually work together to help artists build enormous sculptures out of glass, metal, wood. The chaos and creativity of building the festival's temple in 2018 was captured in a recent documentary.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Go, climbers. Go. Go. This one looks good here.

BLAIR: The Burning Man Temple is typically a place spacious enough for people to walk into and reflect or grieve. This year, you can sort of do that with a mobile device, desktop or virtual reality headset. In a live webinar, Burning Man Associate Director Katie Hazard invited viewers to imagine they were entering the temple.


KATIE HAZARD: And we'll walk forward metaphorically together, all of us here on the call, and see this picture, this gate in front of you. And together, let's all move through that gate together.

BLAIR: Burners are true believers in participation. This year's theme is Multiverse. Different teams have created 2D and 3D virtual experiences. Turn on your webcam, and you can attend an art class or join a virtual group hug or go to a party.


ED COOKE: Welcome, everybody. And thank you so much for coming along to the SparkleVerse.

BLAIR: Ed Cooke and a team created the SparkleVerse. He says, to recreate the desert experience, people have set up tents in their living rooms and dressed up in costumes. Radical self-expression is one of Burning Man's 10 Principles.

COOKE: Getting up and dancing in front of your screen, bothering to put on a costume, jumping around - these things are extraordinarily powerful for kind of taking you into new realms of experience.

BLAIR: Cooke admits, online he doesn't experience the sense of awe he gets in the desert. But he's convinced you can create the kind of joyful communal experience he's had there. Other burners are having none of it.

DOUGLAS WOLK: It's not the same thing.

BLAIR: Douglas Wolk has been going to Burning Man for 20 years. He says he keeps going back because of the principles, like no advertising and being off the grid.

WOLK: What's so special about Burning Man for me is that it's really immediate, and it's not like anything else. All kinds of people come and meet up there in this bizarre, difficult, sometimes frustrating environment. And they're pretty much all there to help each other. It's really not the same thing to be sitting in front of your computer.

JENNIFER LEWIN: I think the Multiverse is a very interesting experiment.

BLAIR: Artist Jennifer Lewin has mixed feelings about this year's virtual festival. Burning Man is where she goes to test the limits of her work - enormous, interactive public sculptures that need to survive all kinds of weather and lots of people playing on them.

LEWIN: If a sculpture can survive at Burning Man, it can survive everywhere.

BLAIR: Computer drawings of her work Cosmos are in one of the multiverses. The culmination of the festival is the burning of the giant sculpture of the Burning Man. This year, they're streaming videos of people doing burns in their backyards or even just lighting candles.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.


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