Every year at Burning Man, more than 60,000 people descend on a dusty patch of the Black Rock Desert to erect a small town from scratch, collaboratively shaping it into their version of utopia. COVID-19 has rendered a mass gathering like that unthinkable, and the festival’s organizers called it off—but they didn't actually cancel it. Instead, they announced they’d be moving the event out of Northwest Nevada, and into "the Multiverse." Somehow, they’re going to try to recreate the Burning Man experience—of raging your face off for a week, setting a bunch of shit on fire, and then cleaning everything up and disappearing without a trace—online.
"We’re not sure how it’s going to come out," the organizers wrote. "It will likely be messy and awkward with mistakes. It will also likely be engaging, connective, and fun."
They haven’t released any details about what, exactly, a virtual Burning Man will look like, other than to say that they’re hoping to draw 100,000 participants, and that everyone will need "some kind of 'ticket.'" Even without knowing what that ticket would be for, several longtime burners told VICE they’re already willing to buy one. The Burning Man Organization might not have a plan for what’s going to happen come August, when the event officially kicks off—but the people who live for it, pouring months of preparation and thousands of dollars into it each year, have some ideas.
On Reddit and Burning Man blogs, they’ve kicked around a number of ways they could build Black Rock City online using Second Life, Minecraft, or some kind of VR software. But the burners VICE spoke to said they're most excited about the prospect of virtual Burning Man being, essentially, a directory of rooms on a video conference app like Zoom. Instead of entering an IRL "theme camp" like the 7 Sirens Cove, "a pirate bohemia where merrymaking, gypsy lounging, dancing rhythms, and mischief run aground," you’d join its video chat, put on an eyepatch, and drink a daiquiri—or log into one of hundreds of other themed rooms designed to replace traditional camps. At its best, virtual Burning Man would replicate the feeling of having an infinite number of parties to stumble into. At a minimum, it would give burners like Patrick Daggitt, who’s been to Burning Man five times, an excuse to put on some of their festival gear and let loose.
"Every burner has a tickle trunk full of their costumes. If I do anything on a webcam related to Burning Man, I'll have my faux-fur jacket on and my flame hat," Daggitt said. "I also got a Utilikilt last year—that might make an appearance too. It's this kilt that has these gigantic cargo pockets. All you wear is the kilt. You get the breeze up the underside of it to stay cool. It's like you're freeballin' with a fanny pack on."
There are parts of Burning Man you can’t replicate on video chat—like, say, splitting a bag of mushrooms with a stranger. But burners are creative people; for better or worse, there are workarounds.
"Should we all get together on our screens and drop acid to have the Burning Man experience? I think people will take that approach," Eamon Armstrong, who’s been to Burning Man ten years running, told VICE. "But we don't really want it to be the type of thing where 'we're going to have a remote Burning Man' means doing really large doses of drugs in your home, by yourself. Because that's dangerous. Also, where are you going to get the drugs right now?"
Some theme camps would be more difficult to recreate online than others. Take the "Orgy Dome," a literal orgy dome that burners looking for a safe, relatively clean place to have group sex have relied on for years. That's off the table right now, for obvious reasons—but that doesn’t mean the Dome won’t be a part of Burning Man in some form. For about a month now, Ethan Cantil-Voorhees, who's on the board of the Orgy Dome, has been throwing "Zoom orgies" to replace the in-person meetups he used to organize in San Francisco. The first one had about 70 attendees. In one side-room dedicated to food play, a woman slathered herself in caramel, and had her boyfriend smear cake on her body while she "got really intimate with a rolling pin," Cantil-Vorhees said. Meanwhile, someone else in the chat "ate a fresh-cooked steak off of their partner's ass." He’d set up a whole slew of kink-specific rooms: One offered tantric sex; another featured a "12-person puppet orgy." He’s thrown a handful of other sex parties on Zoom, including one that drew around 400 people. He told VICE he could see something like that being incorporated into virtual Burning Man, though exactly what it would look like is up in the air.
"We absolutely will have a presence at Burning Man," he said. "These parties have evolved a lot in the last four weeks, so five months from now, six months from now, you're going to see a lot more evolution."
Nick Farr, who’s been going to Burning Man since 2011, said that any virtual get together aside, he's confident burners are going to find a way to recreate some of what they do at Black Rock City in the real world. Maybe that means having a "social distancing silent disco" in a public park; maybe it means constructing a giant, wooden Man in your backyard.
"I think people are going to end up building big art where they live, and they're going to end up setting it on fire in places they never would've set it on fire before," he said. "I definitely think that people are still going to build art cars, and they're still going to drive them around."
For the uninitiated, art cars are basically DIY party buses—vehicles converted into elaborate moving sculptures, often complete with bars, dance floors, and DJ booths, that roam around Black Rock City picking up anyone who asks to come aboard. At its simplest, an art car might be a golf cart designed to look like a Pac Man ghost; at its most complex, it might be a Boeing 747 adapted into a roving, three-decker nightclub. Chris Saliture, who had planned to make his fourth trip to Burning Man this year, has spent months working on an art car. He calls it the "Ass Cream Truck": an ice cream truck "covered in asses," with "four mannequin ass-shaped disco balls in the corners," "painted asses plastered all over the vehicle," and a spiral staircase that leads to a roof deck, which would have a "giant ass-shaped canopy covering the top that shoots fire." Now that he can’t unveil it at Burning Man, he’s thinking about taking it for a spin where he lives, in St. Paul, Minnesota.
"We'll definitely play with it this summer," he said. "We’ll go drive it around the neighborhood. Throw our own party."
Beyond the art cars, beyond the drugs and orgies and massive bonfires, every burner VICE spoke with said they’re hoping virtual Burning Man shapes up to be a legitimately transformative experience: one rooted in the festival’s "Ten Principles," like "radical inclusion" and "communal effort," and not just an excuse to put on a costume and get drunk in front of a computer screen. No one seems to know exactly how to make that happen; no one really knows what "virtual Burning Man" even means yet. But for burners, that’s what makes it exciting.
"It's such an epic challenge. How do you replicate something that is such an immediate, in-person experience that's largely unmediated by technology—how do you flip that script, how do you create that kind of immediacy, that interactivity and that creativity, in a virtual space?" Farr said. "I don't really know yet. And that's the cool part."
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