Sarah M. Pike – Weeping Avatars and the Work of Memory in Virtual Burning Man Rituals

Sarah M. Pike
California State University, Chico

Weeping Avatars and the Work of Memory in Virtual Burning Man Rituals


Do Avatars Weep? Ritual and Sacred Space at Virtual Burning Man.
In April 2020, the organizers of Burning Man, a transformational festival in the western US, decided to go virtual. Some participants dismissed a virtual festival as a “video game version” of the real event, while programmers and artists quickly developed online venues that would facilitate transformation, a sense of community, and ritual activities, especially those around “The Temple,” the spiritual heart of Burning Man. Participants created and experienced sacred spaces and rituals through avatar bodies while their actual bodies wore virtual reality headsets. Based on twenty years of ethnography at Burning Man, including at this year’s virtual event, my paper will compare the event in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to this year’s virtual version by focusing on central themes that speak to the effectiveness of online rituals in the time of Covid-19: the meaning of sacred space and ritual, accessibility and inclusion, the tension between materiality and ephemerality. My presentation will draw on theories of ritual effectiveness as well as interviews with digital designers of the Temple and participants who visited the Temple in their avatar bodies to mourn their dead. Through a variety of embodied practices that elicited sensual memories and emotions of past experiences at Burning Man, participants transposed the face-to-face event in the distant desert to the intimate spaces of their living rooms and offices.

Biography of the author:

Dr. Sarah M. Pike is Professor of Comparative Religion at California State University, Chico. She has written numerous books, articles, and book chapters on contemporary Paganism, ritual, the New Age movement, Burning Man, festivals, spiritual dance, environmentalism, the ancestral skills movement, climate strikes, and youth culture. Her latest book is For the Wild: Ritual and Commitment in Radical Eco-Activism (University of California Press, 2017). Her current research focuses on ritual, spirituality, and the environment.