Burning Man 2020 runs online through Sept. 7: How to attend and what to expect

Having trouble imagining what the desert fest will look like amid the pandemic? Here's a breakdown of the event themed The Multiverse, which runs from Aug. 30 to Sept. 7.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
4 min read

A preview of the Infinity Playa universe gives a sense of what Burning Man will look like when it's all virtual. 

Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

This year, you can experience Burning Man without getting a speck of playa dust in your eyes. 

The countercultural arts fest, which draws tens of thousands to the Nevada desert every year, will for the first time happen entirely online. You know, that place where you've probably gotten used to attending every other cultural event you've looked forward to this year. 

There'll be interactive virtual universes full of theme camps, art projects, art tours and live performances; a virtual temple; and a version of the climactic big burn, which involves setting fire to a 40-foot wooden structure of a man outlined in neon and stuffed with fireworks. Yup, that's the burning man in Burning Man. The burn of the man statue will look very different this year at the mostly free event, which runs from Aug. 30 through Sept. 7. 

Sitting in front of a screen, of course, can't replicate the experience of mingling with interactive art pieces and scantily clad dancing strangers in the sweltering late-summer desert. But public health concerns must prevail during the coronavirus pandemic, and Burning Man's organizers hope the virtual event, themed The Multiverse this year, will still deliver creativity, community and moments of serendipity. 

"We're not sure how it's going to come out," the organization said in an April statement announcing the cancellation of the event. "It will likely be messy and awkward with mistakes. It will also likely be engaging, connective and fun." 


Taking a virtual bike ride through the pixelated playa. 

Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

That Burning Man 2020 will rely so heavily on technology seems fitting given the festival's popularity with the Silicon Valley set. Scores of programmers, web designers, game developers and even millionaire executives regularly attend the event. Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have gone, as has Amazon founder Jeff Bezos

"Both Burning Man and the internet make it possible to regather the tribe of mankind," the event's late founder, Larry Harvey, told The New York Times in 1998.

Wondering what in the dusty heck a virtual Burning Man will look like? Read on for everything we know about this year's Virtual Black Rock City.  

When is Burning Man 2020? 

The event takes place from Sunday, Aug. 30, through Monday, Sept. 7. A virtual version of the climactic Man Burn is set for Saturday, Sept. 5.

What will Burn Night look like? 

This year, the burn is called Burn Night: Live From Home. You'll be able to download a blueprint for a 2-foot mini man or create your own burnable effigy and host your own small (and safe, please) burn. You can also upload your Man Burn to a 24-hour livestream. Burns will begin in New Zealand at 9 p.m. local time, and continue westward until it's burn time in Hawaii. 

How do I visit Virtual Black Rock City? 

All you need is a web browser, and Zoom (yes, more Zoom) for some experiences. And a virtual reality headset if you want to visit Black Rock City in VR and dance on an art car or make an offering at the official Black Rock City virtual temple

What makes up the Burning Man Multiverse? 

Eight ever-expanding interactive virtual universes currently being created by programmers, digital artists and modelers around the world will comprise the Multiverse, and you'll be able to pick and choose which worlds you want to explore, just like you would at the in-person event. You'll enter the universes via Kindling, Burning Man's virtual events portal, in some cases showing up as a 3D avatar.  

Among the universes, visitors will find Infinite Playa, a digital re-creation of the playa, where visitors can drive fully programmable art cars and take part in live performances, yoga classes, Zoom talks and anything else Burners create and update via digital files. The photoreal playa even has a cracked desert floor and surrounding mountains. And maybe an occasional dust storm. 

Then there's SparkleVerse, which is like a cross between a giant, 2D, browser-based digital map, a video game and an art gallery, with video chat. It'll feature art, camps, live performances, dance parties, group meditations and other Black Rock-ey experiences. Through Sparkleverse, participants will be able to hang out with other nearby Burners in a way that its creators hope approximates the serendipity that characterizes Burning Man. 

Multiverse, another universe inside the larger multiverse (yeah, it can get a bit mind-bending), will be a virtual Black Rock City simulated in its full seven square miles. It'll feature virtual sound stages broadcasting live music and other events and will replicate the actual time of day in the Nevada desert. Sign on at 2 p.m. and you'll get daylight. At 2 a.m., you'll see darkness.  

Can I share an idea or contribute a virtual event? 

This is very much a crowdsourced experience, as Burning Man always us. You can share general ideas for this new iteration of Burning Man here. And if you have a vision for an event with a live participatory element that also meets the 10 Principles of Burning Man, you can submit your ideas for content here. Check  the guidelines for each separate universe to see how you can contribute. 

Is it free? 

Most of it is, yes, though some experiences may require an entry fee. 

The pandemic has meant staff layoffs and belt-tightening cuts for the Burning Man Project, as it has for so many organizations. Since tickets to Black Rock City represent a huge chunk of the nonprofit's income, it's welcoming donations and suggesting that those who bought 2020 tickets donate the value of them, or a portion, if they don't request a refund.