Burning 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.