by Sukanya DebAug 31, 2022
Every summer since 1986, a community of ‘burners’ religiously gather at the Black Rock Desert, Nevada for the Burning Man event, a celebration of art, architecture, design and community principles. For the first time, the event has been forced out of its ritualistic location due to the COVID-19 pandemic, taking it to an unfamiliar and intriguing territory - the virtual world.
Burning Man 2020 is now taking place in the Multiverse, where eight endlessly expanding virtual universes have been created by ‘burners’. One of these universes is the 'Museum of No Spectators' - an interactive museum space designed by architect John Marx and artist J Absinthia Vermut that redefines the museum typology, taking cues from the 10 Burning Man principles. Originally planned as a built exhibition, it has now been replaced with a virtual alternative.
With the click of a button, one virtually finds themselves surrounded by the dusty playa of the Black Rock Desert, facing the 'Museum of No Spectators', a timber structure punctuated by sharp angles. The mysterious building appears to be part machine, part creature with its abstract and surrealist form. A wide corridor links nine chambers that linearly progress through the space to culminate at the ‘Theatre of Participation’, the grand ending to the museum experience. Light and shadow guide visitors along the museum, highlighting the pathway and the displayed artefacts. The ‘gifting economy’ of Burning Man informed the decision of having visitors enter through the Gifting Shop, where they are encouraged to leave a gift before entering the museum.
The Museum of No Spectators intends to reinvent the perception of art through participatory engagement. The radically-inclusive museum invites ‘burners’ to immerse themselves in the experience, serving as a blank slate for collaborative artwork to nurture culture while playfully exploring the idea of what museums can be. “Museums are often perceived as elitist and exclusive. We believe that exceptional and powerful work that has a profound resonance with society can be created outside the museum‐industrial complex,” contends Marx.
The design is essentially a container where anyone can become an exhibiting artist simply by placing their work on the walls or even using the interior and exterior walls as a canvas. The museum offers visitors the freedom to add their own vibrancy to a communal space. The exhibits evolve during the course of Burning Man and self-expression continues as people spontaneously curate the exhibits. “Walking through a museum looking at someone else’s art is the definition of spectating,” says Vermut. “At the Museum of No Spectators, would‐be spectators are transformed into full participants”.
The exchange that began between Marx and Vermut, much before the event had to be moved online, extended into a virtual-reality project to allow people to visit the space before its scheduled construction in 2021. Tomek Miksa’s studio DOWNTOWN developed the virtual experience, utilising the UnReal video game engine, bringing the museum to phones and computers across the world. The virtual exhibition allows ‘burners’ to experience the space in new-found ways that are otherwise not possible in the physical world. DOWNTOWN also developed 360-degree pods to let users navigate around views of the museum on the playa at select points.
Marx, Vermut and co-manager of Burning Man, Jerry James, will enlist a volunteer team to build the 1,700 square-foot museum in 2021 where visitors can fully experience the space within Burning Man’s infectious culture. Until then, the museum can be visited online along with other spaces in the Burning Man Multiverse such as Andromeda Reimagined, an installation designed by Marx with Brian Poindexter, and Catharsis, an amphitheatre designed by Arthur Mamou-Mani.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the digital revolution in fields of architecture and design, catalysing the increased use of virtual reality and the explorations of what ‘architectural space’ can mean. While the pandemic will pass eventually, virtual experiences will continue to thrive in close partnership with the physical.
Click here for the virtual tour of the Museum of No Spectators.
(Text by Ankitha Gattupalli, intern at stirworld.com)