You could have been forgiven for missing the announcement that actual physical Burning Man has been canceled for this year, if not next. Firstly, the nonprofit Burning Man organization, known affectionately to insiders as the Borg, posted it after 5 p.m. PT Friday. That, even in the COVID-19 era, is the traditional time to push out news when you don’t want much media attention.
But secondly, you may have missed its cancellation because the Borg is being careful not to use the C-word. The announcement was neutrally titled “The Burning Man Multiverse in 2020.” Even as it offers refunds to early ticket buyers, considers layoffs and other belt-tightening measures, and can’t even commit to a physical event in 2021, the Borg is making lemonade by focusing on an online-only version of Black Rock City this coming August.
“I am not here to tell you we are cancelling Burning Man,” Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell said in a video statement. “I am going to tell you that we are inviting you to come to the virtual Burning Man. Black Rock City 2020 is in the multiverse.”
That’s not (just) hippy-speak for the internet. Burning Man has had themes almost every year since its pivotal events in the late 1990s. That’s when it stopped being an unstructured gathering in the desert; it gained a city grid and a Department of Public Works to build it. Themes were intended as starting points for the event’s many artists, some more successfully than others.
The 2020 theme, announced earlier this year, happened to be the multiverse. Which at least turned out to be a fortuitous choice; you wouldn’t want a coronavirus-prompted virtual gathering to be saddled with the “American Dream” theme of 2008, for instance.
“We’re going to lean into [the multiverse theme],” the Borg wrote in its announcement. “Who would have believed it would come true? We look forward to welcoming you to Virtual Black Rock City 2020. We’re not sure how it’s going to come out; it will likely be messy and awkward with mistakes. It will also likely be engaging, connective, and fun.”
In other words, pretty much like Black Rock City itself. But whether the collective spirit of Burning Man can be replicated in any vaguely satisfying form online remains to be seen. It is, after all, not as simple as inviting 100,000 Burners to one Zoom party.
The multiverse takes shape
According to Goodell, the online gathering will be ticketed. Some 90 percent of the organization’s revenue depends on ticket sales. Burners who purchased early tickets already are being encouraged to hold on to them, and at the very least to see it as a donation to volunteer groups such as Burners Without Borders, which focuses on disaster relief and community resilience. (As the CEO points out, more than half of that ticket revenue goes to year-round cultural programs).
That said, the Borg is genuinely scrambling to figure out what an online Burning Man looks like. A site under the banner of “VBRC” — a pun on vacation rental service Vrbo — is gathering names (legal ones plus so-called “playa names”) of willing participants. A questionnaire then asks if they’d be interested in hosting “interactive events” such as art, dancing, yoga, meditation, or cooking.
Also mentioned as a model: Burn2, an event held in the old-school virtual world of Second Life every year since 2003. Every October hundreds of participants gather, Avatar-style, around a virtual Man on one of Second Life’s many islands. Which is pretty neat as simulations go, but has never expanded far beyond the niche Second Life community.
This is the problem the Borg has to wrestle with: The spirit of Burning Man is tied to its physical gathering in a thousand ineffable ways. It’s the playa dust in your hair, the blast of fire art on a cold night; it’s clever costumes constructed of EL wire and art you can touch on a vast desert canvas. It’s the random encounters and the generous gifts on offer in a city where nothing but coffee and ice is bought or sold.
And though we still don’t know what’s going to happen as the COVID-19 outbreak continues, the event’s Labor Day timeline may well place it beyond the point of lockdown and social distancing measures. Large gatherings could be on the table again by then, which could take the wind out of any virtual efforts.
It’s also worth noting that the Black Rock desert in which Burning Man is held is public land, administered by the Bureau of Land Management. It is the largest stretch of flat open space in the United States. Permits are required for events, but not for individuals who wish to camp on it. Smaller groups of Burners have been known to do so at other points in the summer. (It’s less hospitable in the winter, when rain can turn the playa back into something like the prehistoric lake it once was.)
Will the homing instinct of Black Rock City veterans be too strong? Will Burners gather in late August anyway, perhaps provoking confrontations with Nevada sheriffs and the BLM (but also perhaps pleasing the local economy, which relies on Burning Man for roughly $75 million in sales every summer)? The Borg’s relations with the BLM have been strained ever since Trump officials pushed to build a concrete wall around the event, amongst other onerous proposals. A Burner rebellion could bring them to breaking point.
All of which puts extra pressure on the virtual version to succeed. It’s all up to you, amorphous online multiverse.