Inside Story of Interactive Audio Art

Penny Arcade has a great story about the trials and tribulations involved in launching a new technology product at Burning Man, which was also the creator’s first art project. Here’s an excerpt:

soundselfmonkBurning Man has always existed inside the DNA of SoundSelf. Robin Arnott, the game designer behind SoundSelf as well as previous experimental games such as Deep Sea, sees Burning Man not so much of an event as an opportunity, a uniquely optimal way to share his work with others. SoundSelf is a game you “play” by humming or chanting into a microphone, the visuals and sounds of the game loop back onto your voice and create a hypnotic, often beautiful experience. It’s not for everyone, but Burning Man? Yeah, that’s a good fit.

“If you think of Burning Man as a medium, as I sort of do, it’s a medium that contains incredible breadth of possibility, possibility which is multiplied by the breadth of possible serendipitous adventures in the desert that will bring an art object into contact with a participant,” he explained to me over a series of e-mails.

One of the stretch goals of SoundSelf’s Kickstarter was funding to bring the game to Burning Man, and Arnott was excited about bringing his creation to the environment that helped inspire it.

The process of doing so nearly destroyed him.

The goal seemed simple. Bring a structure out to Burning Man and allow people to play the game. The images would be displayed via projector, and the player would hold a microphone and chant, creating the patterns that make up the interactive experience to lead a sort of group meditation.

Arnott has also released a virtual reality version of SoundSelf, and it’s a tool I personally use many nights to aid in meditation and relaxation. There was $6,000 of Kickstarter money available to make this happen, and that sum ended up being not nearly enough.


The software, “Soundself“, was described as the best thing at E3 by Penny Arcade, who said “Soundself may be the world’s first chanting, psychedelic meditation exploration simulator”. It certainly looks trippy to me.

The tunnel of light is all you see, and it twirls and spins and undulates. I began by humming a low note, and suddenly everything came alive around me. I could hear my own voice brought through the microphone, amplified through the headphones until I was surrounded by it, and the tunnel and shape in the foreground moved and swayed along with my voice. I sang a slightly higher note, and everything changed, reacting to my voice.

Your brain begins to feel odd in this experience, your consciousness doesn’t go away exactly, but you begin to feel broader. As a younger man I had experimented with disassociative drugs, and this provided a very similar sensation.  Time became elastic, and I didn’t feel like I was humming, or chanting, as much as I was talking to the game. 

They built an art installation in Deep Playa, not far from the Temple, to showcase their interactive virtual reality experience. This turned out to be “biting off more than you can chew”. Luckily Burners stepped in to help save the day, and their project turned out to be amazing.

Arnott showed me a list of the equipment he needed to either procure or obtain, and the list was extensive, including everything you need for a large audio-visual installation as well as more practical supplies that come from living in the desert. There was a line that included supplies for fecal removal.

I sent back a single e-mail: WHY WAS THERE POOP?

“Deep playa installations sometimes get pooped in,” he explained. “We wanted to be prepared to clean it up.” He told me they got lucky on this account.

The structure itself was intricately designed, but they ended up only bringing one third of the original designed structure to the event, but even that ended up being overwhelming. They needed more people than they expected to put it together, and the wind conspired against them. Arnott’s significant other, Aviva Pinchas, described the bench inside the structure, and said it was indicative of the problems they faced getting everything set up.

“The bench was the symbol of everything that frustrated me about this project. It’s so beautifully designed, but so complicated,” she said. “There are five rings, horizontal rings on the bench, and then these vertical supports, and the part where you sit doesn’t really support your weight.” 

The bench was designed last, when their architect was already exhausted. As a piece of woodworking and design it was impressive, but nowhere near practical for Burning Man. In any other situation they could head to the local store to get a few $10 folding chairs, but in this situation there were no easy fixes.

The stresses and personal issues piled up. One of the members of the team was arrested on the way to the show, although Arnott wouldn’t provide many details of that situation. Another member of the team lost their job before the show began. Everyone was already exhausted, the project was way over budget, and the team was in way over their heads. Even the power tools they brought for construction proved useless, since they couldn’t be charged without a working generator.

It began to seem like a comedy of errors. Without a phone, they couldn’t find more power. Merely getting to the structure involved a three-mile round trip journey. They didn’t realize how many hands they would need to construct the installation.

Nerves were shot, tempers flared, and bodies began to give out. They didn’t bring any safety lighting, so when the sun went down the structure became almost invisible, and they were worried about someone crashing into it. Burning Man itself provided some cones and safety lighting. “Probably for the safety of others,” Pinchas said, laughing.

Arnott described speaking to one of the members of the team, when he began realizing just how badly things were going. “She had nothing left to give. She was wiped. I’ve never seen a person look this wiped,” he said, “She was empty.”

“There were so many people coming in to help us, and that helped us stay on track. One guy appeared out of nowhere, and it turns out he was a backer on Kickstarter, and he wanted to see the project,” Pinchas said. “He helped us for a day, getting on ladders, screwing things on, dust flying in his face, there were 70 mile per hour winds.”

“We would have failed,” Arnott said, emphatically. “It would have not happened unless a bunch of people appeared from the dust and helped.” They found a friend who was able to donate his generator for the event. Another team had finished their structure early, and came over with their tools to help construct the SoundSelf theater.

“I felt incredibly humbled by all this generosity coming out of the woodwork,” Arnott said. They saw multiple projects that never made it, and he was beginning to fear that their own project was doomed to fail. But then, with a help of those around them…

It worked, and it was amazing

The installation was far away from the city, and gave people a place to stop, play the game, and get lost in what amounted to group meditation. “People discovered it on their night-time adventures alone or in small groups. Its location ensured that whimsy and discovery were built into the player’s introduction to the experience,” Arnott explained.

It was also placed with respect to the Temple, the central space of spiritual community at Burning Man. “This means that a lot of people visiting SoundSelf would be in a more spiritual and emotionally vulnerable state of mind,” he said. Once the structure was constructed it provided a place for people to stop and being physically close to others, a communal and “cuddly” space.

“We know some fucking happened in the structure,” Arnott said.

And, by the sound of it, some blowing… of minds.

TED Talk about Burning Man

bear kat guitarBurning Man’s “Social Alchemist” Bear Kittay delivers a talk at TEDx Oaxaca, Mexico entitled “Burning Man, a Global Movement”. He talks about being in the desert without the Man, which taught him self-reliance. His first trip to Burning Man, he was reminded of how he found himself. He relates Burning Man to the layout of Cheyenne, Wyoming, a city of a similar size. He says there are more than 50 Burning Man events around the world, and the companies involved, even if they are non-profits, are tied back into the central Burning Man mothership entity via their by-laws. He outlines Burning Man’s plan to save the world, by creating networks of for-profit companies and civic action groups, and re-inventing the culture that governs technology.

It’s not the first time there has been a TEDx talk about Burning Man (as opposed to the TEDx Black Rock City event, that is held annually on the Playa). Michaela Rygrova gave a talk at TEDx Brattislava earlier this year. Sadly, no subtitles.



SECRET: For Aus-Eyes Only

dingo-puppies-playingDon’t read this if you’re in the US of A. Not unless you’re down with Crocodile Hunters and the Land Down Under.

My Australian friends first went to Burning Man in 1997. They proudly flew an Australian flag. This year my fucken prawn camp was over-run with dingoes. At least 3000 Australians attended Burning Man this year, maybe even more. And Burning Seed is coming up soon. Doof doof doof. Ken Oathcarn.

In other words, as the title predicted, this post won’t mean much to you unless you’re Australian. Like AMERICA’S CUP CHAMPION JIMMY SPITHILL. Karnt.


If you’re Australian you probably are with me at this point. If you don’t get it, well you’ll never bloody know if you never bloody go. LOL.

Here’s Australia at it’s finest. An inspiration to all of us, we’re all Aussies if our hearts beat in time with this guy and his family.



Burners Versus The Man

Last week we posted some aerial photos of Burning Man. The post was not very popular, being viewed only about 1300 times in total – most other posts here get ten times more views than that in a day. Perhaps Burners are all subscribers to Business Insider, and are reacting to the over-saturated coverage that rag has provided about our event.

Jim Urquhart

Jim Urquhart

The photos were taken by Jim Urquhart, a 3-time Burner who works under contract with Thomson Reuters. On August 8, 2012, Jim came to our Facebook page and said this about the cover photo we display (in which the Reuters copyright was acknowledged):

Jim Urquhart @sam bissell- I shot this pic last year while on assignment for Reuters. Here is a link to it. I will be back again this year to cover the Burn.

The photos were published in Business Insider. We provided links to both publications, and credited the photos to both the photographer and Reuters. We quoted some of the words from Jim’s blog, and gave him some props. The links to the photos loaded them from the Business Insider site.

It seems this was not good enough. Reuters makes money selling their photos to magazines like Business Insider. And Burning Man’s photo policy is suddenly meaningless, just like how Google is allowed to make all the money they want off any Burning Man videos people post to their wholly-owned subsidiary YouTube.

That’s right Burners. Want to use a photo taken at Burning Man for your camp fundraiser? Want to use the words “Burning Man”? No way. Want to link to someone else’s YouTube video on your Art Car web site? No way. Want to take photos of the event we make, and sell them to anyone you can? That’s perfectly fine, as long as you’re a big corporation with a big legal department. Want to make a movie about Burning Man? That’s perfectly fine, as long as you pay BMOrg. Want to do a Vogue or Town and Country glamour shoot? That’s perfectly fine, as long as you pay BMOrg $150,000.

What’s the big deal? Are Reuters losing money from our free blog, which discusses stories published by others on the Internet? Don’t they have enough money already? How much do they really need to milk out of Burning Man – and how can Burners.Me promoting their coverage hurt that cash cow?

Who actually owns the Business Insider photos? Is it them, because they pay Reuters? Is it Burning Man, because their photo policy states that they own the copyright?

Jim Bourg

Jim Bourg

According to the Editor of Reuters, Burner Jim Bourg, it’s Thomson Reuters. They’re free to make as much money off Burning Man as they like from their photos.

He’s a fan of Burners.Me, but not so much that he wants to share photos with Burners. You’ll have to go to his customers for that.

I would expect that you have A LOT of options for free photos of the Burn. There are PLENTY of Burner photographers out there who would absolutely LOVE to see their pictures featured in and be very very flattered by your using them. It is not that I do not appreciate your blog. I do. I read it all the time. It’s just that you have picked the wrong people to poach news pictures from by using Reuters pictures that you have no right to be publishing and just copying and pasting them into your blog and website. 

We messed with the wrong people, huh? What happened to Radical Inclusion, Burner Jim? What happened to Gifting? Decommodification? Civic Responsibility?

He lays down the law:

You are incorrect that the situation here is not as clear cut as any of the other photographs in our library. It is 100% clear cut. Thomson Reuters owns and retains 100% of the copyright in all of the pictures shot by our news photographers in all coverages and situations.
Yes, we have an agreement between Reuters and Burning Man. We retain 100% copyright to our Reuters images, just as we do in ALL of our news coverage around the globe. Reuters never assigns the copyright to our images to any other entity and this is just as true in this case as in all others worldwide. I have all the relevant facts of the case, as Thomson Reuters is very serious about the way we approach news coverage and intellectual property concerns. We make exceptions for no-one regarding the copyright of our images anywhere on any coverage.

The law, as in one law for the corporations making money off photos of our party. Another law for us Burners, spending our own money to make the party.

Money? Oh yes, Jim was quick to tell us that Reuters is getting paid beaucoup bucks for this:

it is entirely inappropriate and in fact totally against U.S. copyright laws for you to be copying and pasting our images and text from a news organization’s website who has paid properly to license them (Business Insider) and publishing them on your own blog without any licensing rights from Reuters.

In response to Jim’s email, we asked Reuters if we could license the photos. The contact Jim provided was on vacation, and the contact her auto-responder provided us didn’t get back to us. So it seems that this is maybe not even about money – it’s about power, and the need for Reuters to flex their muscles against the little guy. I hope the two Jims enjoyed kicking Burners.Me, and I hope in the future when they come again to exploit our efforts for their own financial benefit, the Burner community welcomes them with open arms.

It’s great to see that capitalism is still alive and well in this country, and Burning Man continues to take it to new extremes of hypocrisy. “Decommodification” and “Gifting” are just rules for Burners to obey, they’re not actually valuable principles to the Burning Man organization. Not something they look for in their business partners. “We own the intellectual property”, and “we can sell our intellectual property to anyone we want and stop everyone else using it” are the principles of Burning Man. “Burners pay, and volunteer, so we can pay ourselves” is the over-arching principle of BMOrg.

The ridiculousness of these rules has been protested by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who accused Burning Man of “snatching our rights“. It was well described by the San Francisco Chronicle:

Picture for a moment being in Europe and pulling into a quaint mountain village called Schwarzefelsenstadt, which has particularly photogenic people and attractions. But there’s a gate, and a guard tells you that before you enter you have to sign a waiver in which you agree to:

1) Surrender all rights to your photos and video to the town. 

2) Only show your photos to friends and family (no blogs, no Twitter, no Facebook beyond friends and family).

3) If you intend to show the pictures to anyone beyond friends and family — “any situation where the photos will be shown in public” — you have to register first for a license and get written approval from the bureaucrats of Schwarzefelsenstadt for each of the pictures you want to show people BEFORE you show them, not just now, but for eternity.

4) Never take a candid photo or video shot because you always have to ask permission first of each person in the photo, and get signed model release forms.

5) Not take pictures of any of the fabulous works of art or stunning architecture unless you first get written permission from the artist.

6) Immediately register with city bureaucrats ANY camera that can perform even the briefest of video functions which, in essence, is EVERY point-and-shoot and (wait for it) smart phone on the market.

While I’m not aware of any real city outside of North Korea that has these rules, this is exactly what participants agree to when they go to Burning Man at Black Rock City this week. This isn’t opinion; all of these rules are clearly stated in some 2,000 words of fine print at the event’s corporate website.

So it seems if you’re a huge fan of freedom of expression (except for photography and videography), a carefree community, a celebration of creativity, astoundingly talented artists (except for photographers), a generally high level of nudity and, possibly, substances that might or might not cure glaucoma, then Burning Man is an epic, potentially life-changing event.

From a photographer’s standpoint, Black Rock City is about as close to a fascist regime you can findAnd while I fully understand there are those photographers and videographers who tried to exploit and profit from the, er, um, free-wheeling dress code at Burning Man (thank you, “Girls Gone Wild”), this is about control.

The rationale of “protecting the people” has often been used to restrict and control information so that the public sees and hears only what officials want them to see and hear — although, frankly, that particular tool has nearly always been associated in history with swell folks such as Stalin, Pinochet and the Khmer Rouge. Interesting role models.

If having a corporation (Black Rock City LLC) tell you what you can and cannot do with pictures and video doesn’t bother you, go and have a great time. If you’re a photographer who loves to travel and share images of other places and other cultures, you’re better off almost anywhere else.