Burning Man, the annual counter-culture festival that in recent years has drawn tens of thousands to the middle of the desert, has kicked off virtually again this year — but that’s reportedly not stopping renegade mega fans from trekking to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert anyway.
The festival organizers announced in April that they were canceling the official 2021 in-person event due to concerns over COVID-19.
The online event kicked off last week with participants using virtual reality headsets to replicate the in-person experience — everything from port-a-potties to hours-long traffic jams — The Wall Street Journal reported.
“Do you see this port-a-potty in front of us?,” Andrew Barrett, a creator of some of the so-called “Virtual Burn,” asked during a tour of the digital world. “If you look up, there are all these port-a-potties with art inside.”
It’s a much-improved experience from last year’s virtual event, which was thrown together in a month and led to confusion with some participants unable to figure out how to enter the various digital worlds, the Journal noted.
But after another year of remote work, school and other events, Burning Man and its community are getting the hang of things, according to Colette Crespin, director of Virtual Experiences for Burning Man Project, a nonprofit which organizes the event.
“We’ve improved on the technology because we’ve had a year and a half,” she told the Journal.
And the free virtual alternative to Burning Man, which usually runs $500 per ticket, has managed to draw staggering crowds of participants.
The Journal noted that half a million people showed up to last year’s Virtual Burner, compared with 80,000 participants at the 2019 Burning Man.
But there are some things that can’t be replicated online.
“Those [virtual] people have their conclaves and groups, and that’s cool,” Larry DeVincenzi, a bar owner in Reno who’s attending the unofficial in-person Burning Man this year, told the Journal. “But it’s not the same thing. Here, I can go up to a bar and get a free shot.”
Several thousand are at the unauthorized event this year, the Journal reported. But Forbes added that the event could draw a crowd of up to 20,000 people over Labor Day weekend.
Some attendants hailed the unofficial event as a return to Burning Man’s roots as a counter-culture movement where money is shunned and “radical inclusion” is extolled.
But the event has become so famous in recent years that it’s drawn celebrities, including billionaires from the worlds of finance and tech.
The unauthorized events, some attendants told Forbes, are more like the original Burning Man gatherings that started in 1986.
“Unlike Burning Man, there were no trash fences, no speed limits, no restrictions beyond those we set for ourselves,” longtime burner and photographer Scott London told Forbes.
“You could camp anywhere, kick up as much dust as you liked, go for a dip in the nearby hot springs, even make late-night beer runs to Gerlach. Gone were the turnkey camps, the celebrity artists, the mayor’s tours, the VIP lounges, the staffers with badges and walkie-talkies.”
Marian Goodell, CEO of the nonprofit Burning Man, added that, “We’re not dissuading people from going.”
“But I don’t think you should try to go if you’re not an experienced Burner. And if you last went in 1996, when we respected the dangers of the desert, and communal effort was key, this is your year.”