Presenting Art in the Virtual World: Life Cube Returns to Burning Man 2020

Friends have asked me: How was Burning Man this year? How did they handle all this Virtual stuff? And how was it, presenting interactive art in an online environment? Without the dust and face to face human engagement, did it actually matter?

First off, let’s be clear — after creating four Life Cube art installations in the desert at Black Rock City, I have not been back to Burning Man since 2015 — but I have continued to stay in touch, and engage with friends for whom Burning Man is a huge part of their lives. Also, once a Burner, always a Burner, insofar as that it can be more a mindset than an activity.

Furthermore, I was not initially interested in participating in Burning Man 2020 — for many valid reasons. We moved our household in July of this year, and got a puppy before that, so our lives have recently been turned upside down, even before considering what CoVid 19 has wrought.

I’ve been trying desperately to disengage from technology, as the pandemic created so much extra screen time, with ordering things online, tracking the news, and communication via Zoom.

So when it was decided that Burning Man would go virtual — I was like: “not interested. nope, nada, definitely not!” Then, as I heard more about their approach, and the corona virus quarantines had me twiddling my thumbs in terms of community engagement, I changed to: “I don’t think so. What do YOU think?” Then, as the CoVid situation continued. I wore out my puppy on long walks. I drove my wife Madeleine crazy with “whatcha doing?” I found that as much as I could be ok without leaving the house, the thing I missed most was community. My yoga community. My food friends (shopping for things at a fish monger, or vegetable market, or an italian grocery). Old and new cohorts with whom I met, shared meals, and took in the occasional concert or theater. I had been excited to join the chess club in our new town and start playing again, but the library was closed and chess is not an easily social distanced sport during a pandemic.

Out of a combination of sheer boredom, existential loneliness and curiosity, I went from “I’m not going to do it”, to “not really my thing”, to “maybe we should consider it”, to “ok, what the hell! let’s do it!” to “OK — let’s do it all!” And as Burning Man had decided that its virtual incarnation was going to exist on eight (8!) different platforms or “universes”, that would be some undertaking! And I am a Luddite.

A few years ago, I had a dream as to what a digital Life Cube might be — but decided not to execute on that vision, because the Life Cube Project was designed to incentivize people to get out, meet others in their community, play, engage, interact, and create — not just sit in front of the computers or on their phones. But these, as they say, are different times that call for different solutions.

And so began our journey. I called on a few friends, and got quite a few call-backs from folks who were really excited. It quickly became obvious that trying to do all the universes — was it 7, or 8? — with each using distinct technologies and approaches requiring separate solutions to presenting a digital art experience — was not practical. Being that one of Burning Man’s principles is radical self reliance, even with my little band of brothers ( sisters) working ‘round the clock, we had neither sufficient time nor the resources to accomplish that goal. So we focused on the platforms that seemed to make sense to me: Mysticverse, Sparkleverse, and Metaburn. And in the almost mystical way these things happen to me, the team and approach began to assemble, almost organically.

A friend’s son, having recently lost an architectural internship on his break from college because of CoVid retrenchments, offered to draw specifications and a rendering of the first virtual Life Cube. After long conversations, lots of talent and patience and a gazillion iterations, he did, and it was beautiful. He managed to take all that was in my head and put it down on paper (actually as a CAD drawing), after coming to the realization that when you’re designing something virtual that’s intended to circumnavigate the globe in outer space, the laws of physics don’t apply.

We also created a micro-site for participants to enter, engage and write down their goals and dreams, consistent with the Life Cube’s mission. Tony and Tyler from Zappos.com, who love love the Life Cube Project, became our angels once again, offering resources to help with the backend technology. Throughout, I had to consider what was it that would create community in a virtual space. What would the user experience be?

After considerable discussion, we decided that three types of functionalities could be translated to the virtual world. I had a ton of other ideas, but soon realized that saying all of them aloud made people less confident we could make this happen (scared them, actually). Of these three components, only one made it to fruition for this Virtual Life Cube Version 1.0 — encouraging people to write down and share their goals, dreams, and aspirations while interacting in the Life Cube space.

And then our miracle man Dave sent me a video message that he was “all in” — that he definitely wanted to become a major part of this. Dave had never been to Burning Man, and figured that this was as close as he might get for a while. His experience as an IT architect and team leader made him perfect to speak the lingo to programmers, and run the technology. And Maria, who’s been a devoted Burner over the past several years in her own right, stepped forward and volunteered her incredible talent and professional network to build and manage event programming for the week our site was up and running on the Burning Man platforms. Dave’s buddy Stefen offered to handle social media. And to build the front-end of the micro-site, we resourced a terrific programmer named Feliz working virtually from Bogata, Columbia, who was starting to read my mind by the end of the development phase.

So we had a logo, some tech, a few very skilled and dedicated team members and a lot of enthusiasm. Virtual or not, people who work on this project get crazy committed! Or could be committed, by the time it’s over ;-)

After an incredibly compressed and chaotic run-up, suddenly Burning Man was upon us! We successfully installed the art in three of the virtual universes. We were running 24/7, with participants in chat spaces on our site from all over the world. We hosted over thirty happenings and events over five days, from world-renowned DJs to top-flight yoga teachers and leaders of meditation and healing. We had sound baths. We had gospel! It was just incredible. And across all those time zones, we created magic. We had energy. Our goal was to create the biggest interactive, collaborative art installation in the world. (If you’re going to do something, you might as well dream big!)

Playa Magic. When folks come back from Burning Man to the “default world” they have a myriad of stories: things that happened in the middle of the Nevada desert that were weird, surreal, serendipitous, or just beyond the normal convention of personal interaction, mathematical odds and statistical probabilities. 

This version of Burning Man was no different. Dave-Who-Had-Never-Been-To-Burning-Man was blown away by the tech being created and the speed with which decisions were made and how the creative juices flowed. Maria, hearing that the BRCVR (Black Rock City Virtual Reality) was the universe the “cool kids” were at, decided that we HAD to be there! And she pulled it off, convincing a designer to create an interactive 3D model in a couple days using the architect drawings and photos of our previous Life Cube installations.

Despite the best of intentions, Stefen had unavoidable personal issues, and Sofia stepped in to take over our social media and absolutely killed it! Dave had a personal crisis happen while all this was going on (as well as co-parenting a new baby!) and managing the IT from early am on the east coast to late night in the west was a challenge. He found Odaliza, a virtual tech assistant who relieved the pressure, brought new energy and helped make our programming even better, zooming like a pro. Feliz spent extra time fixing something that nobody else had time to fix. And on the last day of event programming, one of our yoga teachers dropped out at the last minute, and I was encouraged to teach my first international online yoga class.

Madeleine, who’s been tangentially involved in all of my projects (Burning Man and more!) could see that we were all stressed about keeping up with what we had going on. She was smart enough to tell everyone not to add more happenings or develop any more stuff for the week (although I didn’t really listen) and relieved the team of some of the responsibility for editing, revising and posting the bios and event details on the universes and on the Life Cube Project website.

Me, I attended all the events and spent the most time in Sparkleverse, where I could converse and engage with individuals from all over the world came to the Virtual Life Cube. They asked questions about the art, I inquired where they were from and what else they’d seen, and we had discussions about all sorts of things, including their hopes and dreams. It was as close to community and serendipitous interaction with strangers that I have experienced since March!

Dave is excited about being part of virtual Life Cube Version 2. We have already had discussions with museums looking for programming for online events, education, and family days. We’ve spoken with teachers about engaging kids with turnkey art lessons on ephemeral, interactive art, offering our academic lesson plans for elementary school through university-level students. We have thought of “white labeling” this type of art for other cultural festivals. And one supporter suggested we could create virtual Life Cube Projects for organizations and companies about goal setting and how to go from idea to execution in a big way. 

The Life Cube Project continues to exceed my wildest dreams and expectations. I’m forever grateful to all the people who have helped create the magic, who have been and continue to “be part of the art!”

So the journey continues. 

/skeeter

PHOTO
Sunday schedule for Life Cube Project at Burning Man 2020


Story originally posted on Medium at https://lifecubeproject.medium.com/presenting-art-in-the-virtual-world-life-cube-returns-to-burning-man-2020-539b0b5867d9


Scott Cohen

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