Robin Arnott

Lost in the desert: How Burning Man nearly destroyed SoundSelf creator Robin Arnott

Lost in the desert: How Burning Man nearly destroyed SoundSelf creator Robin Arnott

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.

This is going to be easy… right?

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.

“All these little unexpected expenses, and the bigger ones too, they add up quickly, and cut dramatically into the part of the Kickstarter that I'd allocated to cover my own living expenses,” Arnott told me. “There was a point where instead of dealing with the mounting costs, I just ignored them.” That was just the beginning of the mistakes made.

The structure itself was beautifully designed by the team’s architect, and created an interesting environment in which to play the game with other people. The problem was that it was too big. “You couldn’t assemble it with only five people,” Arnott said after the fact, “You had to have eight or nine people.”

Everyone had a part to play in putting the installation together, and there was never a point where they collectively stepped back and realized the scope was getting too big, or the components too expensive and complicated. No one stopped to think that this was all going to have to be transported into the desert, constructed, and maintained across the entire show. Instead, they went big.

Burning Man isn't for the faint of heart

Burning Man is a challenging environment for any kind of large scale construction or installation, and problems that would be easily solvable in the real world can be overwhelming onsite. You can’t leave and come back, due to the ten hour wait to get in. There is no cellular signal, nor is there WiFi.

Motorized transportation is heavily discouraged. The structure the team was trying to build was a mile and a half away from the team’s camp, so merely getting to the installation involved a substantial time commitment.

Planning is the single most important thing to a Burning Man project, with experience being the second. This project failed on both counts, and the first symptom of these issues was a generator that refused to work once it was transported to the site. Which meant they couldn’t use any of their power tools.

“We'd never built anything quite like this before, we'd never taken a physical installation to Burning Man,” Arnott said. “I was the only one on our team that had even been to the festival before. And so in these last weeks we were handling the overflow of unexpected work from prior weeks.” They were beginning the home stretch of the project, but everyone was already exhausted, stretched too thin, and overwhelmed. The hard parts were just beginning.

The expenses were already getting out of control. “Oh yeah, we're gonna need two 12-foot ladders, obviously. Oh yeah, we're gonna need 2,000 more screws. Oh yeah, to keep the generator sufficiently quiet, we need to build an $800 baffle box,” Arnott explained. These are things that seem elementary now, in retrospect, but at the time each one was an expensive, unexpected setback.

“I'd never really budgeted the project out… because I just couldn't imagine it going over the $6000 I'd allotted to it from our Kickstarter stretch goal,” he explained. “That was idiotic of me.”

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.”

Saved by the community

“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.

Lessons learned

Arnott and I talked over e-mail and Skype, video and audio, for about a week while I was working on this story. Some days he sounded like his experience at Burning Man was amazing, and then a few hours later he would talk about the strain it put on his friends, and his relationship with Pinchas. It was like hearing stories from your friend's vacation where everything was a blast, and then they just kind of bring up the fact that a few people may have died. He always seemed torn between the experience of playing the game with others, and the hell they went through to make that happen.

“I wouldn't be nearly so ambitious next time. Our team was way too small, and we over-scoped both in what we were capable of achieving, and how far we could stretch ourselves,” Arnott said, looking back.

“We didn't plan nearly well enough for such a large endeavor either,” he continued. “So in terms of putting on a large-scale production like this, I think the lesson is just not to do it. Not unless it's a small part of a much larger and more organized team who handles all the infrastructure and organization.”

Arnott was also clear about his role in this catastrophe, and accepts the responsibility for what could have been an expensive failure.

“I make it sound like I was just an idle observer to this, but I'd set up the machine for grand failure, and the way I personally dealt with the kind of stress we were under was to totally withdraw, not engage, and definitely not push back in places where leadership and push-back were needed,” he told the Report. “There was a point where somebody needed to step up and say that we need to step back, take a break, accept that we might fail, support each other, and make a plan, and I was too broken and afraid to do that.”

The structure burned at the end of the event, and now Arnott is just left with the rest of the structure, which will be used to show SoundSelf at future events, and a bunch of lessons that were hard to learn.

“It ended well, but honestly, looking at the cost of everything, and I don't mean the financial cost, the net cost of everything… the emotional strain that this has put on the relationships around me. I don't think it was worth it, to be honest.”

He held up the guest book from the event so I could see it, and it was filled with positive messages from people who played the game. He took a sip of his tea, and thought for a moment.

“The highs were amazing, but not worth the costs,” he said, finally.