Spirituality, Remembrance, and Grief Management in Virtual Worlds
The Oral History of the Ethereal Empyrean Experience, Burning Man’s First VR Temple
Reposted with the author’s permission from the original article published by No Proscenium on August 19, 2021.
Every year, over 70,000 people gather in the Nevada desert and build a city from scratch, complete with a functioning airport, a hospital, and everything needed to survive for a week in the harsh environment of the Black Rock Desert. At the end of the festival, the city is taken apart and everyone goes home and resumes their normal lives. This event is known as Burning Man and has been happening every year since 1986.
In 2020, due to COVID-19, Burning Man was canceled for the first time ever and went virtual. No less than eight virtual worlds were created by Burners under the supervision of the official Burning Man Project organization, some of them could be accessed via the internet and a browser, others via VR headsets. Each was dubbed a “multiverse,” all under the banner of the “Virtual Burn.” In terms of effort and scope, the various multiverses were somewhere between the elaborate theme camps built on the Black Rock Desert playa and the “Regional Burns” that have popped up around the globe as Burning Man became a cultural phenomenon.
What follows concerns an experience that was built alongside those “multiverses:” the “Ethereal Empyrean Experience,” a digital adaptation of the 2020 version of the Burning Man Temple as originally designed by Laurence “Renzo” Verbeck and Sylvia Adrienne Lisse. My friend and colleague Jeremy Roush, a VR developer, became its Project Lead, and together with Sylvia, they tackled the incredible challenge of building a VR temple and crafting a space for communal rituals in virtual reality.
I met with Sylvia and Jeremy to discuss the making of the Ethereal Empyrean Experience (EEE) and their takeaways:
Celine Tricart: Can you please introduce yourself and your role as part of the Ethereal Empyrean Experience?
Sylvia Adrienne Lisse: I am the co-designer and co-director of the Empyrean project, the original physical temple chosen for Burning Man 2020. When Burning Man was canceled, I felt a responsibility to adapt it to virtual reality and help create its digital transformation. VR was an unknown for me so I reached out to the community and was connected by a personal friend with Jeremy. I was grateful to connect with him because immediately it was apparent that we agreed on what the values and purpose of the Temple were, and I knew what to build, and Jeremy knew how to build it.
Jeremy Roush: I have been attending Burning Man every year since 2005 as one of the founders of a theme camp called OKNOTOK. It’s actually through Burning Man that I became interested in virtual reality. I wanted to be able to design new ideas for our camp in VR before building it, and that was really successful. Afterward, I stayed involved in VR development, which I’ve been doing now for about six years. When Burning Man 2020 was canceled, I was actually looking forward to a quiet summer without the giant workload that I give myself when preparing for the event. When I heard about the idea of making the Temple in VR, I did not see much of a connection for myself. The dynamics of it just didn’t line up for me. But after some thought, I had an idea that became interesting and decided to pitch the idea to the people involved. I really tried to match as directly as possible the virtual version to the actual physical Temple experience I’ve had for 13 years. And they went for it! So that’s why I got involved.
Celine: As an artist and a storyteller, I had heard of Burning Man many times but I couldn’t quite understand what it was: an art celebration? A music festival? Or some fancy Instagram event for wealthy people riding around on their bikes naked? It wasn’t until 2017 that I had the opportunity to figure it out for myself — thanks to you, Jeremy — as we were working together on a VR project at the time. You told me you were spearheading a camp at Burning Man and invited me to join it. I then discovered that Burning Man was none of the things I thought it was — yet everything at the same time. It was in fact, whatever I needed it to be, which happens to be very different from one person to the next. To give a little context to the readers who have never been to Burning Man, it’s important to understand that every year, the event is different: different artists showcase their work, different musicians perform, and new crazy events are put together. However, there are two landmarks you will always find at Burning Man: The “Man” — the giant effigy with its arm stretched to the heavens that is also the face (and logo) of the event — and the Temple, a place of contemplation, rituals, and remembrance. Many Burners come to the Temple to write letters to the departed or leave offerings in what is described as a spiritual cleansing and a psychological release. Both the Man and the Temple (as well as most of the art showcased) burn at the end of the event and are rebuilt each year by a new team of volunteers following a new design.
Sylvia: My first Burning Man was in 2008. I had seen the temple but I didn’t quite understand what it was about. However, I could feel the magnitude of energy coming from it, and I felt intimidated. I actually avoided it for most of the week. When I eventually entered the Temple, I immediately felt that force that it holds, and it’s the kind of force that opens you up wide, opens up your heart, and takes you to a vulnerable place. I embraced the moment and I walked in, and I realized that this is a place that’s safe to unpack the grief that I had been carrying around. My twin brother died when we were 19 and I struggled with a lot of anger from that experience. I went deeper into the Temple and I allowed myself to let go of what I’d carried. I made myself available to allow this grief to transform into something else. That was an impactful and transformative experience that changed my life forever. That’s why I felt an obligation to support that energy, to support the Temple in the future, and provide an opportunity for transformative healing for someone else. The alleviation that I experienced from the Temple was the single most healing experience I’ve had in my life.
Jeremy: As for me, from 2005 to 2018, I appreciated the Temple as a creative effort and a specific service to the community and always kind of marveled at the fact that the burning of the Temple is the closing ceremony of the event. It’s not a big party, it’s not a celebratory experience, it’s a willful release of the event and whatever offerings people have made to that Temple. Up until 2018, I didn’t have any personal need for the healing power of the Temple. But in 2019, my mother passed away and a member of our camp passed away, both of them sharing the same name, Lynn. At Burning Man that year, I participated in a remembrance ceremony that also served as my personal ceremony for my mother. That changed my understanding and appreciation of what the Temple is.
Celine: I had the privilege of going to Burning Man in person twice, and there’s something absolutely unique to the Temple that is quite hard to put into words. The air is thicker. Warmer. The wooden structure around you is alive, in a very physical sense. Every day hundreds of offerings are added — photos of friends who passed away — letters to the universe — clothes and objects belonging to those who left us. It becomes an incarnation of human pain, loss, remembrance — yet it is incredibly beautiful and soothing. It’s not something I ever experienced before, even in places of worship, or at funerals. The challenge of creating a digital version of the Temple seemed like an impossible task for me. Can you describe what it is that you did?
Sylvia: The Ethereal Empyrean Experience presented itself as a real-time application that you download on your device (Mac or PC) that Jeremy built in Unity. First, you enter the Temple. You can see a 360-degree view of what we call the “Grounded Empyrean”. That was in fact the 3D model of the Temple we were going to build in physical form in 2020 in the shape of an eight-pointed star. There are eight altars in each of the eight points of the star, and when you approach the altars, you can see eight glowing, colorful spheres. Each one represents an offering someone created in our “offering workshop” before the Burn.
Sylvia: You take your cursor, and you can select an offering that opens up and reveals what we call a “venerated object”. It is a three-dimensional sacred geometry shape that holds the information entered by the person who created the offering in the first place, such as poems, photos, audio recordings, etc. You continue this process for each of the eight altars. Afterward, you and the offerings you’ve opened slowly arise and you reappear up in what we call the “Ethereal Empyrean” which is essentially the Grounded Empyrean turned upside down with the central flame and the central ring floating above it. At that point, the venerated objects open up and you can witness the images, the written words, the music that the person who created the offering chose for it. Once you have witnessed all of the eight offerings, you’re brought back down to the Grounded Temple.
Here is a LINK to a stream of someone who experienced EEE during the 2020 Virtual Burn.
Jeremy: We also published a multiplayer virtual reality version of the Empyrean in Altspace, a well-known social VR application. That’s where we managed to emulate the social and communal aspect of the Temple experience, as the EEE itself was more of a solitary, reflective journey. I wrote a custom Mixed Reality Extension (MRE) for Altspace that allowed us to bring in the offerings that people had made in our workshop so that they could appear in both the EEE and the Altspace VR version. Of course, some people didn’t want their offerings to be seen and in that case, they did not appear publicly. People could also set their offering to reach closure after a certain amount of viewings, which almost all of them did over the course of the Burn.
Celine: Because of the significance and the gravitas of the physical Temple, it seems like an impossible challenge to bring it into the digital realm and craft an experience that is about death and grief and healing with respect and authenticity. What were the most important principles that you wanted to follow in order to achieve this?
Jeremy: Destroy the data.
Celine: Burn the virtual Temple?
Jeremy: If we were set to build a weird, kinda-joke version of the Temple, I wouldn’t have done it. But a fundamental aspect of Burning Man’s Temple is that it burns during the last sunset of the event and with it, all the offerings that were left throughout the week. Considering this, it occurred to me, as a software developer, that software doesn’t really ever go away. There’s always a copy of it somewhere. But at the end of the Burn, the Temple really, truly goes away. It’s specifically put there to be destroyed. And so I thought: well, we just have to do the same thing. We have to destroy all the offerings and all the project files. Everything. I had never created a big elaborate piece of software and then deleted it after just seven days of use. But in the end, it was the idea of destroying the project that made it possible for me to be interested in creating a digital Temple. The physical temple builders have to do the same thing: they have to build this giant, complex structure that can stand up to the wind and be safe for people to visit alongside the specific intent of destroying the structure with fire just a week after finishing the build. That’s very unusual for large, complex buildings. And that’s the same thing for software. I’m wondering if another person or group is actually going to destroy the software at the end of the next digital Burn as we did. If not, the “digital Temple” is going to become yet another accretion of software permanence, negating the core reason why the Temple is temporary. But, on the other hand, it’s a huge amount of work to write everything from scratch, and that’s why I won’t do it again.
Celine: Did you push this concept maybe a little bit too far? Is there a way to make this more sustainable for future virtual Temples?
Jeremy: With a digital Temple, actually conceiving the logic and writing the code is the only chance to have a human involved with connecting with the raw psychological, spiritual energy the Temple intentionally channels. If you’re re-using last year’s version of the digital Temple, you’re just an IT person restarting a software service. But if you’re wanting to connect with the people who use the digital Temple as a channel for a meaningful experience, you’ve got to be in there with them. You’ve got to actually connect those digital dots for them, and writing the code that enabled that opportunity is what made it a real Temple-building experience for me. A temple is obviously unique to each builder, digital or physical. And there are just not many opportunities in software for this type of unique, artistically created projects that are used only once, so it’s hard to know what’s best: keep building upon last year’s version or to build anew each year? I’d say new each year, like the physical Temple.
Sylvia: What Jeremy’s saying is that it’s important for people to really be in the trenches, and be very mindful of every step that they take to construct this vessel. Because it is that mindfulness and that consciousness and that attention to detail that brings the magic to virtual reality. That also challenges the next group to find a solution that we possibly didn’t think of. Also, the technology they’ll have at their fingertips is one year more advanced than what we had.
Celine: So what exactly happened at the end of the 2020 virtual event? How did you “burn the virtual Temple”?
Jeremy: I transferred everything—the offerings, the project files—onto a mechanical hard drive, a spinning disk hard drive, and deleted everything off my computers, in the cloud and Heroku (the hosting service used for the database). And then, at the end of virtual Burning Man, during the time that the physical Temple would actually burn, we did a live stream of me disassembling that hard drive, taking it completely apart, and then mounting the pieces onto a canvas. As of today, the data is still conceivably reconstructed by the FBI or something, but the plan is to actually put this canvas in the next physical Temple to burn with it.
LINK to the live stream of Jeremy disassembling the hard drive.
Celine: What was your state of mind when you disassembled the hard drive? How did you feel?
Jeremy: It was hard. It’s still a point of trauma I have about the whole experience. It has nothing to do with anyone but me, it was me who suggested we destroy everything and I followed through on it. I still think about it. It was so intense, but in a good way.
Celine: What about you, Sylvia? Which core principles were important to you when creating the Ethereal Empyrean Experience?
Sylvia: It was important that the Temple be accessible to everyone and to not feel that there was some corporate gate they had to get through. Jeremy had the idea to have sort of a clever gate with a few questions to answer, a gate that would keep out spammers or people who didn’t quite understand the Temple but also wouldn’t create an obstruction like a password or a user ID. To enter the physical Temple at Burning Man, nobody’s giving their name. Nobody has to have a password. There’s no one with a clicker and a counter keeping track of who comes in and out. Similarly, we had no intention of collecting data on anyone for any reason. Decommodification for me was a very important principle when it came to bringing the Temple to a digital arena. We did have a lot of “tech bros” show up, wanting to put their name on it in a way that I felt exploited it. Both Jeremy and I were very protective of the Temple and spoke up for the spirit. It is a container to hold our community at its most vulnerable state. And that is its sole purpose. Hence the necessity to have unimpeded access, Decommodification, anonymity, integrity, and protection of what people are sharing. This is a space for people to transform. The Temple is not permanent. When it burns, the offerings brought by participants are transformed by the fire. The Temple is not meant for any kind of profit for any reason. Nobody’s name was on the application, there is no mention of Burning Man itself, other than a historical footnote. It takes courage and a real commitment to the established reality of the Temple to not pollute it with the things that tend to always appear on software products: “brought to you by,” “login now,” “verify your email,” and everything that we’re now all accustomed to.
Celine: As virtual reality is expanding and there are more and more people who have access to it, it really feels like this could become part of our lives. And I think you dodged a massive bullet in your approach to the Ethereal Empyrean Experience, and that’s the monetization of grief. We see things happening in VR space such as VR churches, VR funerals, etc. And there’s always this huge threat of putting a price tag on it.
Jeremy: Death and sorrow and release, all this is a standard part of life. And historically, they were and still are exploited for cash. But we can use the power of software to create digital spaces as vessels of true, 100% real emotions, like the Wikipedia of spiritual healing, a noncommercial version that you can make your own. The Temple represents some of the most challenging and high-energy experiences that humans have. At every other temple-like place I know of, besides the Burning Man Temple, they pass around the offering plate during ceremonies. Everyone is primed to give money at temples, it is just a part of it. But that doesn’t happen at the Burning Man Temple, and therefore we did not do it at all. There are no donation buttons, there’s no “support the Org,” nothing.
Celine: As a virtual reality storyteller, nothing interests me more than the emotional impact this technology has on people. I’ve seen firsthand audiences collapsing and crying while experiencing a particularly compelling VR experience. I’ve witnessed people creating meaningful relationships in social VR applications. Even though the experience is VR, the emotions and the takeaways are definitely not unreal. They are very much real, and you are very much carrying them with you.
Sylvia: When we opened the Temple in Altspace, we were there and we witnessed avatars that were in different parts of the world having their vulnerable experience together. Here they were, these cartoon-like characters doing exactly what they would have done in the physical Temple. One is having a moment and another one is consoling him/her/them. It was astonishing to witness that, in our subconsciousness, we’re accepting the digital experience as real—we’re all physically separate, but we’re together in a spiritual sense. It was a new illuminating aspect of what VR can do.
Celine: That’s another interesting challenge to tackle: The communal aspect of these moments of vulnerability and remembrance. In the physical Temple, it’s often full of people, strangers who cry, laugh, console each other. But it’s also a very personal and intimate experience. It feels like, through the different access points that you created for the Ethereal Empyrean Experience, you were able to bring both to the digital realm. In one, the downloadable EEE experience, you go through it alone. In Altspace, it was a multiplayer experience. But how do you build this and take into consideration all the ethical framework that comes with it? I’ve spent a lot of time in Altspace and VRchat myself, and sometimes you just have not-so-great experiences, right? There are trolls, there are people who are not respectful of the mood of the space…
Sylvia: When you are gifted the opportunity to build the Burning Man Temple, you are offered the services of a group of volunteers called the Temple Guardians. Their goal is to support the Temple artists in any way possible. At Burning Man, once our crew is done building the Temple, we give it to the city and it becomes under the care of the Temple Guardians. Their job is not to interact with visitors, but to be mindful of anything that could possibly be a problem, like people climbing on it, anyone possibly desecrating it, fire hazard, etc. When we started working on the digital version for 2020, they came to us again and offered their service. Jeremy created a way for the offerings to be viewed by the Temple Guardians so they could mark anything that was obviously spam. In Altspace, we also had Temple Guardians on shift 24 hours a day during the entire virtual Burn.
Celine: I talked to one of the Temple Guardians whose “playa name” is Cherub. He told me that from a Temple Guardian perspective, the ability to create, experience, and release offerings is an important service to the community. In the Ethereal Empyrean Experience, there were over 3,000 offerings created that might not otherwise have the chance to be communicated and released. 56 Temple Guardians volunteered over 1,400 hours. Having a virtual Temple provided the community of Temple Guardians the opportunity to connect, support each other, be supported, and serve the community — all essential especially in these trying times. He told me he would love to see a regular virtual Temple be available even when the physical event returns, as there will always be more Burners who are unable to make it to the playa than there are who do. It would be wonderful to have a way for them to share the experience of the Temple regardless of where they are.
Sylvia: Early in 2021, we were approached by Burning Man to ask what we were willing to do for a virtual presence this year. They had decided to continue the virtual Temple even if the physical event was happening or not. I feel so driven to provide a space for people that I didn’t want to stop. I think it’s so important to have a digital Temple presence and have someone who has experience with that to facilitate it and to create a protective space for it. So that’s why I’m still involved this year, I’m helping the new team bring the 2021 digital Temple to life. And when we will be able to come back in person, we will have the opportunity to build the Empyrean Temple in the real world, hopefully in 2022. We have been given a license to change the design according to what we’ve been through over the past year, also because construction materials have tripled in price since 2019.
Celine: Did you actually learn interesting insight from building the Empyrean Temple in VR? Being able to be in there with your avatar, looking up at the structure, visiting it, seeing people interacting with it, did any of this inform how you might change the design?
Sylvia: The whole journey of creating the EEE in the digital realm made me very aware of the actual heaviness of building a physical structure. The virtual build made me more conscious about the resources we’re using for the physical build, and the pollution that it has the potential to create. It made me wonder whether we should be building this in a physical form in this day and age and what could be done to better sustain that. It definitely slowed me down to ask more questions about how to be more responsible in our physical form.
Celine: Thank you both for taking the time to share your experience building the Ethereal Empyrean Experience.
A survey was done by the Burning Man organization about the people who participated in the 2020 digital (VR) event. It welcomed 90,000 overall joins during Virtual Burn Week 2020 and was able to extend the culture, principles, and creativity that make Burning Man what it is on a fully immersive social VR platform which was explicitly built for Radical Inclusion, accessibility, and interactivity.
Sylvia told me that over 80% of people who came to the virtual Worlds did visit the EEE, so about 70,000 people. That’s an impressive number. After Virtual Burn Week 2020, BRCvr continued to foster its digital community by offering access and interaction year round. Embracing the Burning Man Principles of Civic Responsibility, Communal Effort, and Participation, they continued to organize community gatherings and mini-Burns.
More than ever, the question of how we humans can experience healing and remembrance in the digital realms needs answers. A few times in the past six years that I’ve been involved in virtual reality was I able to experience something that directly touched my soul. Transformative experiences which created very real emotions, and directly affected me. I guess the keyword in “virtual reality” is “reality” because the actual physicality of things seems irrelevant when it comes to tackling spiritual challenges. In a world where we destroy natural resources at an alarming rate and where we become more and more disconnected from our inner self by sheer lack of time to reflect on our own emotions, the work of Jeremy and Sylvia and the other Virtual Burn teams seem more vital than ever. I truly hope that the values of Decommodification, unhindered access, privacy, and emotional safety for all participants will continue to be at the heart of all future digital Temples, and a source of inspiration for everyone who desires to tackle grief management and healing in the digital realm.
Now in its second year, BRCvr is in full swing for Virtual Burn Week 2021 starting August 29th. This year’s theme is “THE GREAT UNKNOWN.”
Will YOU join?
People who contributed to the Ethereal Empyrean Experience:
Sylvia Adrienne Lisse — Laurence “Renzo” Verbeck — Jeremy Roush — David Ballard — Larry Vallely — Will O’Brien — Laura Sibley — Mr. OK
How to Attend BRCvr:
● RSVP here to gain access (at no cost).
● After you RSVP, you will be sent a code that you will enter while in AltspaceVR to access the BRCvr festival area, where worlds and events will be displayed and discoverable for this year’s burn.
● AltspaceVR can be accessed via PC, Mac, and most VR headsets, including HTC Vive, Windows Mixed Reality enabled platforms, Oculus Rift, Quest 1 and Quest 2.
● Set up a (free) account, customize your avatar, and take the platform tutorial.
● Click here for step-by-step instructions on how to play in the digital dust.
About the Author:
Celine Tricart is an acclaimed storyteller who has developed a unique style involving highly emotional stories and strong visual artistry. She co-directed and produced Maria Bello’s “Sun Ladies” VR documentary about female Yazidis fighting ISIS in Iraq (Sundance). In 2019, she released “The Key”, an interactive experience which garnered critical acclaim, and received the Lion for Best Immersive Work at the Venice Film Festival and the Storyscapes Award at Tribeca. Celine served as the president of the International Jury of the Venice Virtual Reality section at the Biennale Cinema 2020.
Celine’s company, Lucid Dreams Productions, specializes in utilizing new technologies to further bold, unapologetic storytelling, and in empowering female voices in the filmmaking process.
This content has been reposted (in full) with the author’s permission from the original article published by No Proscenium on August 19, 2021.