The Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery's latest exhibition, "No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man", is a facility-wide show featuring sculptures, art, photographs, videos, costumes, and jewelry created for the infamous Burning Man festival, which takes place every year in the Black Rock Desert of northwest Nevada. Museum visitors and festival fans wanting a first-hand experience of the gathering need not travel to the Silver State: The virtual reality (VR) Android Jones Deep Playa Experience, by artist Android Jones and his immersive media company, Vision Agency, allows users to "walk" straight onto the desert and "see" what the hype is all about.
Situated on the first floor of the gallery, the two open honeycomb chambers made of aluminum and wood measure approximately 8 feet in height, and provide a defined space for visitors to turn and walk in while interacting with the digital experience. After a quick safety demonstration—be prepared to be a little disoriented—users are fitted with a headset integrated with VR goggles and noise-canceling headphones playing one of a few select soundtracks. Users also receive two wands that have finger pads to control navigation forward and backward for exploring the virtual landscape, and triggers that can be pushed to shoot out geometric and sparkling particles. The view from the VR goggles is projected on multiple mounted TV screens for onlookers.
To learn a little more about the technology and the motivations behind the VR experience, ARCHITECT caught up with Jones.
How did the project come about?
I’ve been going to Burning Man every year since 2003, and the last three or four years we’ve brought 60-foot dome art galleries. The last two years we had a 24-minute, 360-degree show in the dome.
When it came to the opportunity of showing at the Renwick, we wanted to turn that experience into a deep playa [the location of the Black Rock Desert where Burning Man is location] simulator. I felt that a VR experience would be a great way to communicate that feeling of being out deep in the desert for their first time. Things like dark cars, explosions, fire, and lasers everywhere give a taste of what it feels like to be out in the deep playa, which is a lot of people’s favorite part about Burning Man.
How does the experience work?
When users put the headset on, I take them into a model of the actual room where we are situated in the gallery to give them a bit of grounding. It is a little less jarring. Then they leave from one of the four doors that are in this room and they are right in the center of the deep playa.
Why the surrounding chambers?
Over the last two years, we have brought this to festivals including Burning Man, Lightning in a Bottle, Coachella, Panorama, and Boom Festival, and we leverage the feedback we get from seeing people in it and their reaction. We found that when you are in a public space and you put on the headset, it cuts you off from the rest of the world and that is a slightly vulnerable place to be in. We wanted to maintain the integrity of the experience by giving someone a space where they have real estate that is theirs, where they can let go.
When you pull the triggers [of the two wands], they emit cascades of geometrical particles, kind of like spinning digital fire or poi with sparklers. We like to encourage that sense of play, so we want people to get lost in the creative freedom. By defining a space, it gives them an area where they feel that they can express themselves. It also cuts down on the liability.
What components of the temporary Burning Man city did you include in the virtual architecture?
Out of respect for the intellectual property of different artists, only a few pieces are direct one-to-one Burning Man pieces, most of which I’ve worked on, such as the Space Whale. I was also part of the team that made Abraxas, the golden dragon art car. A lot of the pieces are homages to things I’ve seen.
Part of the playa and the esplanade is procedurally generated so every time the experience reboots, it builds a new version to increase the novelty of what’s happening so every experience is different. You could do this 20 times and every time, you would see different things and different zones.
What happens after "No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man?" Will the experience be available on other platforms for more people to see?
We are having conversations right now. This is the first time Burning Man organizers have given permission for anyone to make a Burning Man VR experience, so it will be based on [the organizers'] reactions and how people feel about it.
"No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man" is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery until Jan. 21, 2019.