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Burning Man 2020 is the latest cultural offering to go virtual

The eponymous “Man" burns on the Black Rock Desert at Burning Man near Gerlach, Nev. (Andy Barron/Associated Press)

This summer, artists, seekers, spiritualists and the culturally curious who have been planning to meet on the playa in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for Burning Man 2020, scheduled for from Aug. 30 to Sept. 7, will have to settle for a virtual conflagration. Out of health and safety concerns related to covid-19, organizers for the event, which draws nearly 80,000 attendees, have announced that Burning Man will take on a life of its own online.

Marian Goodell, chief executive of Burning Man Project, a nonprofit organization that oversees the annual Burning Man gathering in Nevada, as well as a number of other endeavors around the world, is mourning the loss of the event in Black Rock City — the name given to the metropolis that’s built there for the event — while also hopeful for what the virtual new dawn could bring. “I’m sad that Black Rock City went away,” she says. “And I’m engaged. I feel the energy of the opportunity to take what people want about connecting, and about Burning Man, about this moment in time, and bringing it together.”

Burning Man has been held every year since 1986, when about 20 people looked on as Larry Harvey and Jerry James set alight an eight-foot-tall wooden man on San Francisco’s Baker Beach during the summer solstice. The event moved to the Black Rock Desert in 1990, and the countercultural phenomenon has since reached bucket-list status for people who want to take part in a creative, community-oriented phenomena where a veritable city rises from the sand and then disappears just as quickly.

The rise of Burning Man: From a huddle of hippies on a beach to a city of 70,000 in the desert, here’s how a festival became a lifestyle.

Goodell says the inspiration to take it virtual actually came from people within the Burning Man community, or “burners,” who, in the last couple of weeks, volunteered to share their talents online. Rather than risking the in-person meetup, people with art cars said they’d do virtual demos; large-format artists offered to give online lessons; chefs said they could stream lessons on how to cook for a large crowd, as they would at camp; would-be attendees said they were still building their camps, only these camps would be in virtual reality. “It brings tears to my eyes,” Goodell said. “Because I had no plan except to give people hope. And people are coming up with their own plans. And they’re rising above it.”

This year’s theme, The Multiverse, was originally intended to explore the different worlds attendees navigate, between Black Rock City, their lives back home and other selves. Now, Goodell says, it takes on a whole new dimension, as it’s applied to the online event. “We’re redesigning ourselves to be helpful in a different state, in a different time than being on the playa,” she says.

While specifics are still in the works, Goodell says she expects the evolving event will consist of a number of different community-generated offerings and gatherings online, with no tickets required, but donations may be accepted. She says she’s eager for the journey that awaits, as Burning Man finds its own voice in this new format. She believes strongly that what happens this summer could play an influential role in shaping the organization and its events later on.

“I think the brilliance of this moment in time is that, across the board, we’re going to be changing,” she says. “The muscle memory on this one is going to stick for a while.”

By taking Burning Man online this year, Goodell hopes people realize it’s not just an event but a culture and community that they can tap into, anytime, anywhere, well beyond the Nevada desert.

“Only Black Rock City is canceled,” Goodell says. “Burning Man is alive.”

Silver is a writer based in Chicago. Find her on Twitter: @K8Silver.

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