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Burning Man 2020 Goes All-In On Virtual Reality With 'Multiverse'

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- This same time last year, tens of thousands of Americans were determining what they wanted to bring to an unforgiving desert and set on fire. It could have been a piece of paper, a memento, a sculpture, a wooden humanoid.

For a week or so at the end of summer, thousands would pack into their vans, campers and art cars to spend some of the hottest days of the year in the Nevada desert dancing, doing yoga, mingling, making art and, of course, burning the Man. This year, the community is taking to the virtual world -- or rather, eight of them.

Burning Man is another pillar of the artistic community in the Bay Area and beyond compromised by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It began on Baker Beach in San Francisco on the night of the summer solstice in 1986. The first "Man" burned was only 8 feet tall and, according to Burning Man pioneers Larry Harvey and Jerry James, the first crowd totaled 35 people.

After growing interference from San Francisco law enforcement, the first Burn in the Black Rock Desert took place in 1990, where it continued until this year. The organization's website offers a comprehensive timeline of the gathering's origins from a spontaneous meetup at the beach to a "city" the physical size of San Francisco with its own airport and hospital and dozens upon dozens of eccentric art communities and camps.

Burning Man 2020: Multiverse

In 2019, nearly 80,000 people from more than 25 countries congregated in the midst of over 400 art installations and the pyrotechnic Man standing 61 feet tall. None of that can happen this year but there will still be plenty to see and plenty of ways to safely participate in emotional immolation in Burning Man Multiverse: A global quantum kaleidoscope of possibility.

Burning Man's creative initiatives director Kim Cook has a hard time describing Burning Man. She's not really a Burner, in fact her first experience there was her job interview on the Playa five years ago. But she'd known about it back in the '90s when she was running a theater company in San Francisco; she let local Burners work on their art pieces in the company warehouse when it got too hot outside in the summer.

"People encouraged me to come; a lot of people I knew were going and coming back and raving about it," Cook said. "One of the things people often say is, Burning Man is so personal: every experience will be unique to that individual. It's really best to describe it to the personal and the particular and not the general."

Although, there are some universals: artistic innovation, crazy outfits, camping blunders, "mutant vehicles," yoga, alkaline dust everywhere, and camps purporting themes like pizza, choir, BDSM, and even a "Kidsville."

Cook says that the Burning Man board started mobilizing for a virtual launch back in early April, mere weeks after quarantine measures were put in place. Fourteen thousand Burners responded to a survey supporting a virtual Burn and, so, the Multiverse was born.

There's something for everyone, and all levels of access to technology. One world, SparkleVerse, despite broadcasting from the United Kingdom, just requires a computer and internet connection. These interactive parties began in early quarantine and use a mix of Zoom rooms and animation to host DJ parties, "erotic experiences" and opportunities to meet fellow Burners. Another, The Infinite Playa, hosts a hyper-realistic Black Rock Desert you can view on your phone, down to the cracks in the earth beneath your avatar's feet.

Athena Demos is one of the minds facilitating BRCvr -- Black Rock City virtual reality. The concept is actually not new. She and her collaborators Doug Jacobson and Greg Edwards came up with a virtual landscape to archive the art and experiences of years past back in 2014. When they brought the idea to the higher-ups, Demos says that "they didn't really get it" because, at the time, it was primarily an archive. Enter the coronavirus.

A week before they announced a virtual burn for 2020, BRCvr was uploaded onto the AltspaceVR platform.

"I call it Nostalgia Burn," Demos says over Zoom from Mexico, where she is currently helping coordinate the launch, set for Aug. 30. Every day, there are more pixels to render and more avatars to accommodate and more art to fit into the virtual desert; it changes daily, and unlike the physical manifestations, this Black Rock City can curate decades worth of art and layer people's experiences. Avatars can move between camps and art installations through designated portals, and guests are organized into 50-odd member groups to socialize. Apparently, you can even fly.

"Right now it looks like Burning Man 2014, based on that experience. It incorporates art from all the years, all the way from 2002. It feels like I'm home," she says, smiling.

Demos would know. She's been a Burner since 1999 and she calls herself a "99er." She's been a recognized regional contact for Burners in Los Angeles for over a decade, coordinating artists, orienting newcomers, leading Burners Without Borders initiatives and more. She is in the midst of slowly stepping down from her role; she says she has 14 replacements lined up to share her workload.

You don't necessarily need a VR headset to experience BRCvr, but it does help. Guests create avatars to represent them in dust-free, virtual space. Avatars "arrive" at the gate and have free rein from there, to explore, congregate or just wander. The group has talked about hosting virtual tours for first-timers but no decisions on that yet. The universe's press release states it "magically embraces the spirit, culture, and principles of the real-world event in an interactive VR-first expression that cultivates conversation, connection, and community."

The other five universes are: Multiverse, a virtual-reality experience with a photorealistic Black Rock City filled with 2020 Honoraria art installments, sound stages and hundreds of theme camps; the Bridge Experience, an XR universe that brings together three worlds - a water world, a green world, and a desert world; BURN2, a community built on the "Second Life" computer game; Build-A-Burn, an interactive online art project that only requires a web browser and a webcam; and MysticVerse, a virtual building experience from Cyberius Rex and Simeone Scaramozzino of Camp Mystic.

Amid a worsening pandemic, Demos believes we need connection and catharsis more than ever.

"The need to burn is very high this year," she says. "It feels like this is the rapture. This burn allows us to remember and reflect." The universe also offers tool kits for users to build their own worlds and even their own Man to burn at home, safely.

The BRCvr is a free experience and Cook has said that Burning Man has refunded $20 million in ticket sales that they could not provide the typical experience for.

"This has been a labor of love. We all have expenses. Please go to our website and contribute what you can. We also have a donate button for the organization, 100 percent goes to Burning Man," says Demos and the promise of a Burning Man 2021.

Cook is confident about the impending virtual odyssey, despite financial uncertainty.

"Whether or not people have a desert experience, I think it's possible to have an experience of generosity and surprise and delight, so the spirit of Burning Man I hope will convey itself through this extravaganza," she says.

© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. and Bay City News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed

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