“No Spectators: the Art of Burning Man” in Virtual Reality

Each year in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, a city of more than 70,000 people rises out of the dust for a single week. During that time, enormous experimental art installations are erected and many are ritually burned to the ground. The thriving temporary metropolis known as Burning Man is a hotbed of artistic ingenuity, driving innovation through its principles of radical self-expression, decommodification, communal participation, and reverence for the handmade.

Pink, green, and blue lighted mushrooms against a dark, cloudy sky in a flat desert landscape.
FoldHaus, “Shrumen Lumen,” 2016. Photo by Rene Smith.

From March 30, 2018–January 21, 2019, the exhibition No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man brought the large-scale, participatory work from this desert gathering to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery. The exhibition took over the entire museum building as well as the surrounding Golden Triangle neighborhood. The high level of public interest in the content of the exhibition, combined with sponsorship support from Intel—a company known for technological innovation—came together to present a unique opportunity: the possibility of capturing the entire presentation in 3D and making it freely available to the public as a room-scale VR experience.

Three long dress costumes on mannequins flank an arched doorway
“No Spectators: the Art of Burning Man” gallery installation view at the Renwick Gallery, 2018. Photo by Ron Blunt.

Over a series of weeks during the run of the exhibition, the entirety of the Renwick Gallery and the artworks featured in No Spectators were captured before and after-hours using photogrammetry and high-resolution photography.  The process was documented in detail by Intel, who ended up producing a popular web series about the 3D digitization process and the No Spectators exhibition.  The resulting product, a digital version of the Renwick Gallery, was published on a social VR platform, Sansar.  It was, and is, freely available to any who have access to gaming-capable PCs, with or without VR headsets such as the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, either on Sansar.com or via the Steam platform.  Sansar’s unique social capabilities mean that exhibition curator Nora Atkinson, via her avatar, was able to lead virtual gallery tours with visitors in real-time, with participants from around the country and the world.  Nearly all of these virtual visitors had not otherwise seen the exhibition.  In the times when Nora is not online, visitors are free to explore the full Renwick Gallery exhibition as their own pace and interests permits.

Animated, realistic female figure in a spacesuit, standing in a desert landscape near a large scale sculpture of a nude woman
The Sansar VR avatar for Renwick Gallery curator Nora Atkinson gives a virtual tour of “No Spectators: the Art of Burning Man”


Renwick Gallery curator Nora Atkinson as seen in real life, giving a VR tour of “No Spectators: the Art of Burning Man” at SAAM’s Washington, D.C. offices.

Although SAAM has been experimenting with VR since 2016, the No Spectators exhibition project is the most ambitious and innovative 3D digitization and VR project we have ever undertaken, and, due to the social component, is one that we feel is entirely unique within the museum world.

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