Burning Man 2020 is buggy and fun as hell

Of all the in-jokes at Burning Man — and there are plenty in the 34-year history of an event with more than its share of merry pranksters — none has the longevity of “Daft Punk is playing at the trash fence.” 

Some context: The trash fence is the 10-mile perimeter around the event in Nevada’s Black Rock desert, part of Burning Man’s commitment to Leave No Trace. The Trump administration wanted it replaced with a concrete barrier; the argument was cut short when coronavirus canceled the physical event. In recent years, the in-joke has grown to the point where pranksters actually did “secret sets” as the helmeted French duo. The viral rumor seems as essential to the event as the ravens at the Tower of London. As long as Daft Punk is still said to be playing at the trash fence, Burning Man still exists. 

And reader, I am here to tell you that in 2020, I finally saw Daft Punk play at the trash fence. 

The secret Daft Punk set was part of BRCvr, one of eight online “multiverses” announced by the Burning Man organization in April as a replacement for this year’s actual Black Rock City. 

The experiences were designed by volunteer Burners themselves, so it is no slight to the org to say that many of these multiverses are a mess. The Ethereal Empyrean Experience crashed my computer. The app page for Multiverse IIR is full of reviews from Burners who paid $8 to enter but couldn’t get it to work. (Some multiverses are free, others cost a few bucks.) The Infinite Playa‘s paid experience is still “coming soon” at time of writing, halfway through the official event week. 

Artists with oversized ambitions that don’t pan out much of the time? That’s Burning Man!

BRCvr, however, is emerging as the brightest star in the multiverse. It takes place in Altspace, a free 3D platform that Microsoft bought in 2017 but has since left to its own devices. You get the richest experience using a VR headset such as the Oculus Quest, but it’s also accessible on a Windows PC (a Mac version, originally scheduled for early August, is reportedly arriving later this week).  

I’ve been wary of virtual reality platforms ever since an early look at Second Life in Oculus gave me horrible motion sickness. Still, I strapped on a friend’s Quest to give BRCvr a try, and found myself returning to it way more frequently than I expected. There’s a learning curve involved in moving around this virtual Black Rock City, which is often slow to load and occasionally glitchy. No more than 30 avatars are allowed in any space at any one time without special dispensation from Altspace. 

Still, it is fun as hell, and allowed me to interact with old friends and new Burners from around the world as much as if I were at the actual physical event. Receiving “hugs” and emoji from their avatars, corny as it sounds, has been one of the most cathartic experiences of a brutal year. 

Avatars meet at the "Hug Deli," a typically whimsical Burning Man structure.

Avatars meet at the “Hug Deli,” a typically whimsical Burning Man structure.

The customizable avatars are oddly disembodied, with no legs and gaps between their torsos and hands. But the heads and hands reflect what their owners are actually doing, and you hear their voices right next to you. The avatars’ cartoonish style means we’re not falling into uncanny valley here, but you still have a strong sense of being around fellow human beings. 

There are many objects you can pick up and toss around together, and I have fond memories of playing with bouncy balls in a lava pit near a crashed UFO with “Pan” from Los Angeles (who was just going to bed) and Stephanie from London (who was just getting up). A camp named Bubbles and Bass was filled with champagne bottles and glasses, a large dancing sculpture that recalls the classic Burner art Bliss Dance, and a DJ rig that anyone could jump on, causing soap bubbles to fly from the speakers. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon. 

Oh yeah, and you can fly. A Harry Potter-esque “wand” object, once spawned, can help you travel across the playa with speed. It’s a little difficult to master the technique, but once you have it, the experience is as cool as you’d expect. Here are views you never get of Black Rock City; even planes that land at its temporary airport don’t have this kind of close-up look, or get to hover right over the Man itself. 

I’ve had the experience of waiting for a friend to join me at the Man many times before, but I’ve never done so 60 feet in the air while chatting to a random dude from the Netherlands. (The friend eventually showed up, and we went on an expedition to check out the virtual version of Black Rock City’s controversial 747 art car.)  

A group of Burners on an art tour in BRCvr.

A group of Burners on an art tour in BRCvr.

The locations are all designed by Burners, which the nonprofit art group We Are From Dust helped herd into BRCvr. You get between them using portals, which some pranksters have inserted in models of Burning Man’s ubiquitous Port-a-Potties. Some are entirely imaginary, such as Cosmic Inflation, a series of platforms hanging in atomic space, where you can see the Man burn every five minutes. Some pay homage to well-known theme camps, such as Mayan Warrior, a camp where your avatars can dance around to music with flaming torches. Go to the BRC Roller disco, a Burning Man institution, and you can strap legs with skates on your avatar.

In such moments, long-time attendees like me can be forgiven for getting a weird kind of deja vu. This is enhanced by the fact that many locations move from day to night (on Pacific time, just as the event was). Some BRCvr creators have even included little dust storms that blow randomly through their camps; you can practically taste the gritty playa dust in your teeth. 

But as with Burning Man itself, it’s the people who matter more than the environments. One night I teleported to the replica of a theme camp where many of my friends tend to stay. I found two of them standing by a wonderfully ironic art piece (a geodesic dome with a sign saying “radical inclusion” and a bouncer standing outside). We teleported to a bunch of locations, not all of them inside virtual Burning Man — such as a world where an Altspace creator has replicated a bunch of rides at Disneyland. 

Without friends, this would have been an empty experience; with them, we were able to laugh about the fact that an event long described as “hippy Disneyland” had finally merged with the real thing. Kinda. 

Which brings us to the experience I had on my first BRCvr tour. “Wanna go see Daft Punk at the trash fence?” asked my guide, opening up a private portal to the show. And there they were, on a replica of the stage Daft Punk actually uses, blasting the empty playa with thumping French electronica. I couldn’t stop laughing at the in-joke brought to life. 

If Burning Man 2021 actually happens, a big if at the moment, may it be filled from one end of the city to the other with rumors of Daft Punk at the trash fence.    

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