Burning Man Live | Episode 64 | 02|08|2023

Athena Demos and the Principled Metaverse

Guests: Athena Demos, Stuart Mangrum

Athena is a wanderer, an adventurer, a muse. She is Regional Contact emerita from Los Angeles, founder of their nonprofit The LA League of Arts, and a founder of BRCvr — a crown jewel in the tiara of our multiversal experiences online.

Athena talks with Stuart about how Radical Inclusion and Immediacy foster human connection, and about how a balance of decommodified spaces and commercial spaces can lead to true Gifting.

She says that BRCvr conjured a tight-knit community of creators who love helping each other. See for yourself while you still can. BRCvr hosts events (like RE-BURN-23) on AltspaceVR, the social VR platform that’s about to have its plug pulled.

Hear her adventures from Black Rock City to South Central LA, and heed the call to infuse Burning Man’s Principles into the fabric of gatherings IRL and in VR.



The 10 Principles of Burning Man

Los Angeles League of Arts (LALA)

Burning Man LIVE: The 10 Principles in Modern Times IRL and in VR

Burning Man LIVE: Mike Zuckerman: Culture Hacking and Gonzo Humanitarianism

The Mutaytor


Our guests

Athena Demos is co-founder and CEO of Big Rock Creative (BRC), an award-winning XR experience company. After 20 years experience producing iconic events like the LA Burning Man Decompression, she transitioned to the metaverse to produce BRCvr (Black Rock City Virtual Reality).

BRCvr is an official virtual Burning Man Experience. Athena produced social impact projects such as Breonna’s Garden which premiered at SXSW 2022, and Pride Has No Borders which is a finalist in the VR Awards this year. She has developed a philosophical approach to guiding humanity to build a foundational fabric for creative collaboration in the metaverse.

Athena and the BRCvr team went to Black Rock City 2022 to film the community, art, event, and ethos in 360 and 180 3D formats to combine with the VR worlds and models they cultivated. She plans to deliver a new format for storytelling that brings them all together into one participatory experience.


ATHENA: I travel around the globe speaking at conferences about bringing the principles of Burning Man into the Metaverse. We had this 10-year experiment with Altspace, and it built a tight-knit community of creators that all loved helping each other. I would like to extend that idea and help people realize that these principles, they aren’t just Burning Man.

Larry Harvey wrote them as a description, a description of who we are, and it’s really a description of who humanity is when we’re at our best. We can extend it far beyond the trash fence, far beyond the regional networks and integrate it as a foundational fabric for creative collaboration to thrive on.

STUART: Welcome back to all my invisible friends, happy campers, to another episode of Burning Man LIVE. I’m Stuart Mangrum and my guest today is a good friend of mine that I’ve wanted to have on the program for quite a while. She’s kind of a thing in the Burner world. She’s been around our scene since 1998. She is a Regional Contact emerita from Los Angeles, California, founder of their nonprofit there in LA, “The LA League of Arts,” and more recently a founder of BRCvr — what I think was probably the crown jewel in the tiara of our multiversal Burning Man experiences online. 

And, I just learned this Athena; I knew you were an actor, but I didn’t know that you had been murdered 13 times in 12 horror movies. Tell me how that’s even possible.

ATHENA: Well, I am an actress and I love doing low budget horror films. They’re just so much fun. The rubber monsters, the puppeteers, the fake blood, the crazy ways in which people can die. It was just… I always loved the horror films. 

So 13 times in 12 films. I was in the middle of a murder scene; It was the opening sequence of a film called “The Crawling Brain,” and the actress for the afternoon showed up and my performance was so convincing that it freaked her out, and she ran down the driveway saying “I can’t do a film like this,” and disappeared. 

Then the director and the producer, they were all like, “Oh my God, what are we gonna do? We gotta find another actress by this afternoon.” They’re like having their own little freakout moment and I said, “I have a wig in the car. Why don’t I just put that on and pretend like I’m her role too?” And they looked at me and they were like, “You can do that?” And I’m like, “Well, let’s just give it a shot, and if you don’t like it, put it on the cutting room floor and reshoot the scene.” So I got the wig and a whole other outfit, and I shot the second scene and they left both of them in. It’s this little bit of fan lore. Most people don’t know I’m both roles in the movie. It’s kind of hard to tell. 

And it’s this crazy brain that’s on a RadioShack remote control car that somebody drives around, so it’s a brain with a brain stem, like a tail that goes around …

STUART:with a little spinal cord …

ATHENA: …dragging it behind it. It wraps its spine around your neck and strangles you, and then goes into the back and sucks out all your spinal fluid and then you die.

STUART: I know what I’m watching this weekend. I’m gonna go back and do a retrospective of some of your horror films. That title did jump out at me. There’s something about “The Crawling Brain” that’s kind of hard to ignore, that really reminds me of the ‘chiller’ films that I used to see when I was a kid growing up in LA, late night on Channel 13. 

I also noticed the most recent credit there is something called “The Elephant in the Room” which makes me think the elephant in the room right now with us is that BRCvr, on the business front, just took a pretty heavy body blow with Microsoft shutting down AltspaceVR. How are you guys doing with that?

ATHENA: We did. We took a body blow. We saw the writing on the wall many, many months ago. We used to be able to say, “Oh, the platform needs this,” and they’d be like, “That’s a great idea.” And then they would implement it.

They brought us on to do The Blind Burners Project, and to come up with accessibility tools to help people that were sight impaired have the platform be more accessible to them. And so we identified some really important tools. I sent them a list and they said, “Oh, we aren’t gonna be doing any of those. We have no budget for it.” 

That’s sort of a baseline thing that Microsoft always does. They do everything they can to build in accessibility tools so that everyone from any walk of life can utilize their software. So for them to say, “Nope, we’re not gonna do that,” I knew there had to be something wrong.

Then, we got the phone call where they told us they were sunsetting the platform, but that we couldn’t say anything until the official announcement came out. We knew right after Burning Man. We got together with our team and we’re like, “Okay, so we have all this footage. What’s realistic? When are we gonna do the next event?” And so we had already decided on the January event back in September before we knew the platform was sunsetting. So it was almost like perfect timing because we got to do this big celebration of everything that’s wonderful about Altspace. 

We are keeping the worlds open until the sunset date. So the main hub world of Center Camp with all the portals, and we are gonna be adding more to it, is gonna stay open. If you go to the platform under their featured worlds, you’ll see the BRCvr hub world. That hub world is Center Camp. You can go to it whenever you want and you can explore all the portals, and you have days left — days left — to explore everything that we created.

We were already in the mindset that we needed to diversify, that we couldn’t have everything just on Altspace. So when we got the news, it was kind of like ripping off the bandaid. Everything’s going to heal faster now, but it hurt initially. It just makes us have to let go of Altspace which, I hate to say this, is the best platform out there. Really, honestly, the best platform is being let go of.

STUART: I gotta know, how did that relationship start, between the production company, Big Rock Creative is your production company, right? and the Altspace folks? What was the nature of the relationship?

ATHENA: It’s a bit of playa-dippity. It’s a very big bit of playa-dippity. So when COVID was hitting, Doug, my business partner Doug Jacobson, he was getting ready to celebrate a big birthday. He knew he wouldn’t be able to do it in person, and he was already playing in VR. And one of our other team members, Lindsay Handren, who went to Burning Man for the first time after experiencing two years in a row digitally, she got to experience it physically

STUART: Oh, wow. 

ATHENA: So she had like this knew-where-everything-was, but-never-had-the-dust experience. So it was her first time at Burning Man, but she felt like she had been there before. 

STUART: Did she feel cheated that she couldn’t fly from one place to another?

ATHENA: Yes. Yeah. All of us were like, “I want my flight tool! I don’t have my flight tool!” 

STUART: Yeah. Especially when the dust is all up your nose, yeah.

ATHENA: You would love to get right up above the cloud. That would be amazing. 

So she and Doug started looking at different platforms and they found Altspace, and they were like, “You know, this community really feels like us.” 

Then Doug reached out to Greg Edwards, who was our third partner, and he had the playa. He had made the playa back in 2015 just as an art project, of something that he wanted to do. He had contacted me when I was the Regional Contact in LA to get the Burning Man org on board and to really develop it into something, but the technology was too nascent. It wasn’t multi-user, it was single user. It’s not Burning Man unless you have a multitude of people communicating with each other, and you just didn’t have that. So it kind of fell flat, but it still sat on a hard drive on the top shelf of his closet.

So when Doug called him, he literally blew off dust, off the top of the hard drive, and plugged it in and it spun up, and was able to take the file off and send it to Doug, and 20 minutes later they were standing at Burning Man together on the Altspace platform.


ATHENA: Then they called me, and I was in Mexico. I had just narrowly escaped Panama as the borders were shutting down, and I had landed in Mexico and was like, “Okay, I at least have a land border with the United States, should I need to get back.” But I didn’t want to. 

So I loaded it on my tiny little 13-inch Dell laptop. The fans were like buzzing like a jet engine, but I was able to get on, and there the three of us were standing on the playa. It felt like we were standing on the playa. It was a crazy experience. 

And that’s when I went down the Altspace rabbit-hole. Who is this platform? What do they stand for? Meeting the community, meeting the people, spending as much time on there as we could. When we first came on the avatars were like Lego creatures, like robots and very square. 

STUART: Like Sims? 

ATHENA: Yeah. Like Sims. They were just getting ready to do a new avatar engine, which was great. 

Oh, I read the community standards of Altspace. You know how you do a squeaky toy with a dog and it goes urrrr? I read the community standards of Altspace and I went urrrr? because they read just like the Principles of Burning Man without being the Principles of Burning Man. And I went, “Huh.” 

So then as the story started to unfold, I found out the creators of Altspace originally, back in 2013 — it was like way before its time — they were Burners and they wanted to build a place in the digital realm where like minds could get together, and communities such as the Burner community could find a home year round.

When they wrote these community standards, they wrote them based on what they knew and what they loved, so they read a little bit like the principles of Burning Man.

STUART: You and I have had this conversation before. We had a wonderful conversation in BRCvr with Steven Raspa about the Principles, and how they do, and perhaps don’t, apply inside created spaces. And I’m wondering if you’ve had more time to think about that, because two in particular that I hear about a lot: What do you say to people who say that Decommodification and Immediacy are both difficult or impossible to pursue inside of a virtual space?

ATHENA: I disagree completely.

Immediacy, the connection you have with another human being, is only in the immediate and cannot be repeated. That’s Immediacy. The look of the City, the artwork, that might, you know, if it doesn’t burn — we’re getting ready to have the biggest burn ever because we’re gonna burn the entire platform.

To have the environment stay open it’s like having a concert venue stay open. It’s like having artwork travel. You know, you can go to Vegas and see a lot of Burning Man artwork. There’s a lot of large scale pieces in Vegas. There’s a lot in Reno. There’s some in San Francisco. There’s some on Treasure Island. And they’re getting put all over the world. I think ATABEY by Nino is being installed in Puerto Rico right now. 

STUART: Yeah, it is. 

ATHENA: So you could go to other places and see Burning Man art. You can go to the Black Rock Desert. You can go year after year, and some of those art cars repeat, a lot of the art cars repeat, and they’re your favorites, and everybody you know goes to them and they build community around them; same with the theme camps that kind of look the same year after year after year. It’s the large-scale art that changes. 

But what is Immediacy? It’s human connection. Because that human connection cannot be repeated. And if you meet that person a second time, your connection is different. Immediacy lives within human connection.

STUART: And to be fair, I have heard a lot of people say that that ability to connect without having to go to the middle of nowhere, particularly for people who cannot, are not physically able to do it, is actually making an immediate experience more available to more people. It’s an interesting conversation.

What about Decommodification, though, particularly when it’s on a commercial platform? Your production company is a corporation, and yeah, people look at that and they’re like, “Where’s the money coming from for all this?”

ATHENA: So we have created a really good company culture around gifting and having the resources to gift. The resources to gift come from our commercial clients, and our gift is what we give to the Burner community: BRCvr. 

So that is why the BRCvr, up until this point, has always been free, anybody can attend. It’s very accessible. We help all the artists as much as we can. We don’t charge artists for bringing their work in, because we have clients like Microsoft, or the United Nations, or Ubisoft, or like, I could just run down a list of various different companies that have hired us to build virtual spaces for them, and to build their community for them within those virtual spaces. Yes, we can build your world, we can also do your event production, and we can film it and we can stream it. That’s Big Rock Creative.

But we didn’t come into this thinking we were gonna start a company. We came into this only to create something for the Burning Man community so that they could get together during the pandemic. After the first year, we started winning awards. We won the Audience Choice Award for best VR experience of 2020. We won the Producers Guild Award for innovation. 

STUART: It’s a big deal. 

ATHENA: And then we won the Array Award for creativity, and I love being part of that family. I just went to the awards in person this year, just great people. It’s in Germany. 

We won an Augie for Breonna’s Garden, which is another wonderful project that we created, sponsored by Microsoft, to bring to fruition to honor the life of Breonna Taylor, who was unfortunately killed in her home in Kentucky.

Another great project we did for Microsoft was around their Pride organizations, their LGBTQAI+ organization within the company culture. 

We created a museum world based on Christopher Park, and Stonewall Inn, and the original riots that happened in 1969, and then the first Pride Parade that happened the year later. 

All of those were able to afford us the ability to keep BRCvr going in the future. 

We do have future plans for BRCvr that are off the Altspace platform that we’ve had since before Burning Man. 

STUART: Can you give us any hints? 

ATHENA: Not only can I give you hints, I have to take you into Altspace and show you the sneak peak, cause what was amazing about RE-BURN is that we were able to show a sneak peak about what we’re getting ready to do. 

So we went to Burning Man and filmed in 360, and you’re part of it. 


ATHENA: 360 and 180 3D film formats. And then we took that footage and we meshed it with the digital assets that we have, so you have a fully navigable, explorable world. You can walk around this digital world. And you can go into a tent, you can go into Center Camp, and in the center of Center Camp is a bubble. And when you go into that bubble, now you’re in a moment in time that actually happened at Burning Man. And then you’re hanging out with other avatars and you’re talking, and you really feel like you are there.

The bubble worlds, we have 10 or 15 bubble worlds that have little orbs in them. So if you go into Altspace, to our hub space, you’ll be able to see them. And Stuart, I would love to give you a tour. 

STUART: Okay. That all sounds super exciting, and yeah. I don’t understand half of what you just said, but that’s okay.

ATHENA: What it’s ultimately gonna be is its own standalone app. 

STUART: Ah, I see. 

ATHENA: We think BRCvr really needs to be its own standalone app, mainly because of Decommodification. Because the Altspace logo is everywhere. We’ve worked with them quite a bit to see if we can remove it, and really it’s something that needs to change on the platform level, and it was too much of a hard climb to do. And we wanna be able to mesh the physical and the digital together in a fully explorable experience, that people can get together as their avatars and literally walk around Burning Man, having human connection.

STUART: And you got to throw a pretty good going-away party.

ATHENA:. And I got to throw a really great, great going-away party.

STUART: How did RE-BURN go? I was involved in it in a very small way, but overall, was it a success?

ATHENA: I think it was a great success.

STUART: Did you get a good turnout?

ATHENA: I don’t necessarily mark success in numbers. The numbers overall on all the VR platforms have been going down because people can go out and about, they’re not locked in their homes like they were before. So the numbers on Altspace were going down, which unfortunately is why Microsoft made the decision to sunset. I think it will go down in history as probably a bad decision.

I liken it to the idea that the Board of Directors of like MOMA are only looking at a spreadsheet of numbers and not looking at the effect that it has on individual people being able to experience the art, and the inspiration that it affords. It feels like they’re shutting it down without ever having gone into the gallery, and making the decision solely based on numbers that they decided to sunset the platform.

If I could give any of those people that made that decision a private tour of what is on the platform, and who, I think that it would probably be a regret in their life, that this is what they decided to do. There is nothing out there like Altspace. We have looked and looked and looked and there just really isn’t. 

STUART: Yeah, it’s too bad. Well, we can’t wait to find out what happens, so stay tuned for more news.

ATHENA: I think honestly, with all these layoffs, tens of thousands of people, software engineers being laid off, and platforms being sunsetted, you know, creativity abhors a vacuum; people are gonna get together and form their own companies. They’re gonna build their own platforms, and this is gonna be a time of great creation because people, they don’t have jobs, they have severance packages, they have time before they need to find a job; they have all this availability to just be their creative selves, and do what they’ve always wanted to do.

This is a prime opportunity. This is a moment in time in history that needs to be marked in the technology books, and paid attention to as we move forward. It’s also the dawn of AI. There’s like these two things happening at the same time. And I’m not taking that lightly at all.

STUART: That seemed like the timing was absolutely right, you mentioned that, for you to launch this thing. And it is an unavoidable conclusion that people are getting out of their chairs and are tired of staring into a screen. Do you feel like the demand, the public demand, for online experience is going to rebound?

ATHENA: I think so, but not like it was during the pandemic. We’re gonna find useful combining of the two. So at Burning Man, the physical event that happens in the desert at the end of August, we call “Burning Man” the overall community as well. And Marian Goodell said, “You can cancel Black Rock City, but you can’t cancel Burning Man” because it’s a culture. So Black Rock City can house 80,000 people. 

STUART: Right. 

ATHENA: We’re not gonna go above that. We would have to redo roads. There’s whole systems that have to change. For Black Rock City to have more than 80,000 people, there’s an entire system that has to upgrade, and that’s super expensive and probably not going to happen.

However. If you combine it with the digital space where you have AR and VR allowing people at Black Rock City to see the people in VR — and you know we did a little experiment with that this last year with the window, where we had a through portal between the digital space and the physical space, so the digital avatars and physical avatars could actually talk to each other through the window across the Metaverse, and it worked.

This is five years at minimum, 10 years most likely, away from us being able to do this. So the idea is, at Burning Man you would go to designated areas where they have the 360 camera and the connects, and you would put on AR glasses and you could see all the other avatars walking around in that bubble. And in VR, everyone’s in their headset (which will be super tiny and probably like a regular pair of glasses), and you would see the physical people that were also standing in the bubble, and you can talk to them, across the Metaverse. We could literally have three million people at Burning Man together, at one event, at one time. Can you imagine the type of human connection that would be possible to have all those people together? 

STUART: We had Zuck on the program a while back. I think we were talking about the same thing where he set up a VR environment at the refugee camp in Uganda that he was working at, and that was accessible to people inside BRCvr. Is that a prototype of the sort of bi-locational experience that you’re talking about?

ATHENA: Kind of. We created a digital twin of an Uhuru in BRCvr for 2020 and 2021. We did not have it at RE-BURN, but actually now that I think about it, we should put the portal out.

And he had people there, go into VR glasses while they were there at the refugee camp, standing in the place where they were standing, and then we came into VR and we could talk to those people. But then we taught them how to fly and we never saw them again. We were just here like, “Weeeeee! There they go.” Bye! Bye! I love teaching people how to fly.

STUART: It’s a rare treat in this world. It’s a dream. Literally it’s a dream. So many people dream of flying.

Hey, Athena. Let’s zoom out a little bit. I want to go back to 1998. You’re a starlet, a horror starlet in Los Angeles. Somebody convinces you to go to the Burning Man event in Nevada. And you must have liked some, something good must have happened because you decided to keep coming back and making that a big part of your life for the next 25 years.

What was that first year like? What happened that made you want to keep doing it?

ATHENA: ‘97 I bought my first ticket to Burning Man, and then I booked something and I couldn’t go. And then in ‘98 I also bought a ticket and something happened and I couldn’t go.

STUART: I see.

ATHENA: And in ‘99 I was like, “I don’t care about my career. I’m going.” I was already doing Moon Tribe and Rainbow Gatherings and raves in the middle of the desert, but nothing like Black Rock City. 

I went with a friend of mine and we took his brand new car and it was a convertible and I’m sure we destroyed it. And we parked. We were on the back street, but it was the D street because the city only went to D. I remember we parked, we got out and I was like, “I’m home.” I took off all my clothes, and I had sandals and a hat on, and we were unloading the car. 

This giant viking ship, with these people painted in gold, with horned helmets on, comes barreling down the street and they’re screaming, “Raise the Man! Raise the Man! Raise the Man!” And this golden god reaches over the side of the boat, looks at me and says, “Come with us!”

I raised up my hand and he grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me up like I was, barely a sack of potatoes. And next thing I know, I’m on this art car and my friend looks at me and I just wave to him: “Bye.” I have no idea where I’m going. I have no idea where I am, where I parked. I have been at Burning Man for less than five minutes. And now I am being whisked away. 

We went – a whole bunch of streets. We loaded up people. We went out to where the Man was. He was lying down and he had giant ropes on him and he was on hay bales. We all had to get on ropes and like true loving slave labor, we were gonna lift this Man straight up in a cantilever, and then they were gonna lock him in place on top of these hay bales. And it took a long time, but my first experience was raising the Man, being taken, and raising the Man.

I got hit over the head with the Kool-Aid. I didn’t drink it. I mainlined it.

And then while I was there helping pull the ropes, somebody taps me on the shoulder and tells me I’m too small, my 98 pounds, they needed somebody heavier on the ropes to pull it up. And I was sad. I was sad because I couldn’t help anymore and I had to find a way of helping. And that’s when I discovered art support, that I could be artist support, that I could bring sunblock around to people; water, food. I came running around with grapes and brought that to people. It was really quite amazing to help in that way, and it started me constantly helping. 

So we raised the Man and we were done, and then I’m like, “I don’t know where my camp is.” Somebody invited me to go back to their camp; they were gonna work on their art piece. Did I wanna help? And so I was like, sure. So I went back to their camp and I had some lunch, and then we went out and I helped them build their art piece. And they gave me some clothes. Then I helped these people who were having a hard time with the tent. And then I slept. For four days, for four days I wandered around the playa helping people, and then I finally found my camp. 

STUART: And are you still a wanderer?

ATHENA: Yes. I’m still helping people. I still love inspiring creativity and others to the core of my being. I’m a muse. That’s what I love doing. And Burning Man to me is jet fuel to my ability to inspire creativity and to help people be their most awesome creative selves.

STUART: So you couldn’t get enough of it, and you kind of brought it home back to LA, right?

Tell me about the startup of the LA Regional group and Decompression. Now, just to be clear, LA Cacophony was always a huge force in Burning Man in the early years, and some of the most dangerous and crazed art projects, like “The Small World” that Reverend Al Ridenour put together.

ATHENA: I loved The Small World.

STUART: It always brought a great, kind of a little bit harder edge to the creativity than we experienced in San Francisco. I know because I was the dual member. I had citizenship in both the San Francisco and LA Cacophony societies. But that original crew kind of dropped off the side of the road. So by the early 2000s, what was the scene like in LA, and how did that come together?

ATHENA: The scene in LA was a little chaotic. It was a lot of different groups and they didn’t really organize together. They did a little bit. There were a few warehouse parties that happened here and there.

Twan was the Regional Contact at the time. He was amazing, a really great human being. In 2002 I remember getting a phone call from Mark Bava. He owned a nightclub downtown called the Blue Bongo; it was a Burner hangout. Different bands and DJs and stuff would go there and play.

He called me on the phone and he said, “Come to the Blue Bongo, I wanna talk to you about something.” And so me and Mark Bava, Paul Carey, Wolfie, Twan, we all got together at the Blue Bongo and he said, “I pulled the permit for a big mess right along the side, and I have the change of use for my parking lot. What do you guys think about doing a Decom here?”

San Francisco had just done their first Decom. So he is like, “Let’s do a Decom down here.” And I’m like, “Yeah, sure. Let’s do it. What do you need us to do?” And he looks at me and he goes, “I need you to organize all the theme camps.” I’m like, “I dunno all the theme camps!” But apparently I did and started putting calls out. You know, this story is very similar to the BRCvr story. So I started reaching out to everybody that I knew and trying to get them involved. I was already in with a band called Mutaytor — Oh, Matty was the other person at the table. We were getting them involved and they were gonna run the main stage, and then we were gonna get art cars and theme camps and blah, blah, blah, blah.

We organized this crazy thing. So we had 800 people show up our very first year. We charged $10 at the door, but $5 if you were wearing some costume. We were right at the edge of Downtown and East LA so we had a lot of East LA locals coming. So it gave it this really rich flavor of the Burner art scene and the Latino art scene. We converged. And year after year it just got stronger and stronger. And with the Principle of Radical Inclusion, it wasn’t us and them. 

The police department would always say like, “Well, you know your community…” And I’m like, “It’s our community.” When we were in the park, they would say, “Well, we’re aware that there’s another community here,” and I’m like, “No, they’re our community.” It was this constant working with the police department to help them realize that once you pass the trash fence to come into the event, you’re us. 

It was 15 years of doing that, and it worked great having that attitude. We didn’t have crime and violence and all the things that so many other concerts have, because we didn’t view anybody else as a them. They were all part of us. 

But anyway, that’s how I got my start. 

And with BRCvr, it was the same. Greg made the digital space. Doug worked on making all the tech of it work. And I went out and called everybody that I knew and said, “You have to participate in this,” including individual Burning Man departments; Greeters, Rangers, Playa Info. I just wanted to get everybody involved. It was so much fun.

STUART: So tell me about the nonprofit, the evolution of the LA Regional group into…

ATHENA: LA League of Arts.

Yeah, LALA, so the name came… There’s always been a tension between San Francisco and LA, and the Burning Man office likes to sometimes tell the regions what to do. We felt like they’d like to tell us what to do a lot. And we had created a C-Corp, and we were gonna have all the members of the community, we were gonna give them all shares so they could all be voting members. We were gonna create this new corporate culture. And Burning Man told us they wouldn’t acknowledge a C-Corp because they could be owned by one person, but we weren’t gonna set it up that way. So we dissolved it, we set up an LLC and we went down the road for the 501.

And whenever Burning Man would tell us what to do, we would put our fingers in our ears and go, “La-la-la-la-la.” So we decided to name or not-for-profit, LALA.” And then we were like, “Well, what does LALA stand for? Los Angeles. We ideated for a while and came up with ideas, and then we came up with “League of Arts.” 

STUART: La-la-la-la-la.

ATHENA: Remember when we did the CORE project and we had the roach coach, we had the food truck?

STUART: No. Tell us about that. What was the CORE project that you guys put together?

ATHENA: The CORE Project was the Circle Of Regional Effigies where each one of the regions could create an effigy and put it around the Man, and they would burn all of them at once. Kind of a bad idea, but safety third is our way of doing things. And then the Man was in the center.

Our very first year we created one that was a food truck, because we have such a food truck culture in Los Angeles and well, we’re like a food truck, so it’s a roach coach. Well then what’s a really cool beetle? Well the scarab. So then that’s how we got our LA logo, our LA Burning Man logo is this scarab beetle. And then it has the Burning Man logo and it says LA and that’s our LA League of Arts logo, and SCARAB, we ended up making it an acronym, the Southern California Association for Radically Artistic Burners. We like taking letters and then turning it into an acronym.

STUART: Reverse acronymization, I guess. So LALA, for all of its funny naming, has gone on to do some great social benefit projects in LA, right?

ATHENA: Yeah. We decided to form a little bit of a branch of Burners Without Borders within LALA and then take 10% of all the monies raised from LA Decom and bring it into that pool, that we could then do public benefit projects. And one of the ones that I’m most proud of is our garden project in South Central. We built a beautiful food-producing garden at Carver Middle School in South Central LA, which is a food desert. There’s no grocery stores. People are buying their groceries at liquor stores and convenience stores. They’re not really getting good groceries. After the riots in ‘94 it just never really came back full force.

And by having this food garden in their — We took a section of the back end of a soccer field — it gave them a lot of different programs. You know, you think you have gardening and that’s horticulture, but then they started an afterschool business program, like a farmer’s market that sold the vegetables or sold some goods that they made in their kitchen, so they started a Home Ec program for cooking and commercial cooking so that you’re cooking for a large number in their cafeteria. So all these programs spun out from the garden being built. 

Some of them they had, but they didn’t have this tool set that they could sink their teeth into. And once they did, it was like, “Oh, well the business program is now gonna take on a farmer’s market, and the cooking program is now gonna take on cooking in the cafeteria.” All these programs just took on a little aspect of the garden to keep it going. And to plant the things that they know that the neighbors in the neighborhood would want, and they had this fresh vegetable garden and apple trees. We planted apple trees and apparently those apple trees are just going great. 

STUART: How appropriate for a school, which I presume is named after the great agricultural pioneer George Washington Carver, right?

ATHENA: Yes. And we had fellow Burner and amazing sculptor Jonathan Bickart sculpt a bronze statue that was sort of steam-punky of George Washington Carver to go into the garden. It was a bust, but it had like beakers and magnifying glasses and microscopes and all sorts of interesting things in the bust that symbolized the experimentation and science that George Washington Carver took on to save the cotton crops in the South from the…

STUART: The boll weevil.

ATHENA: Boll weevil by planting peanuts, and going back and forth between cotton and peanuts. And lots of other things.

STUART: Yeah, absolutely, a real pioneer and worthy of the name.

ATHENA: A friend of mine, a fellow Burner, who was also in Mutaytor, was a teacher. She taught at George Washington Carver. She was talking about how they would love to do a garden program. And so I was like, Why don’t we make this a Burners Without Borders project and have the LA League of Arts do it and bring the Burners in and build it out and, get the city involved and get, get the city council involved.

That’s how we picked it. And then it was like, wait a minute, George Washington Carver; this is the perfect place to put a garden. But that was an afterthought.

STUART: Like reverse acronymization.

ATHENA: Like reverse acronymization.

STUART: Vav, Let’s make that the title of this episode: Athena Demos and Reverse Acronymization

All right, what’s next on the Athena Demos show?

ATHENA: I am loving the life that I’m on right now. I live nomadically and I travel around the globe speaking at conferences about bringing the Principles of Burning Man into the Metaverse.

We had this 10-year experiment with Altspace, and it was hugely successful in the fact that it built a tight-knit community of creators that all loved helping each other.

I would like to extend that idea across as many social VR platforms as possible, and help people realize that these principles, they aren’t just Burning Man. Larry Harvey wrote them as a description. He wasn’t trying to define who we are, that there’s this thing or these commandments that we have to follow.

He was answering a question that I had, that Not-That-Dave had. I think there was somebody else that even that asked. We had to fill out permits and we had to say who we were, and who were the Burners. Well, who are we? It was a description of who we are, and it’s really a description of who humanity is when we’re at our best.

I believe that we can take these and extend it far beyond the trash fence, far beyond the Regional networks, and integrate it as a foundational fabric for creative collaboration to thrive on, in this thing that we are now creating called the Metaverse.

STUART: That’s a great note to go out on, but anything else that we haven’t talked about that you’d like to enter into the record, Senator?

ATHENA: Well, the one thing I didn’t touch on when you asked me about Decommodification is that I believe that you can’t have all decommodification or all commercialization, that there needs to be a balance, and that’s how they work. So as this Metaverse is being designed and built, we need de-commodified spaces.

What does that look like in the physical world? National Parks, State Parks, town squares, zocalos, the common places that people come together to gather, to share a coffee and a conversation, and you’re not barraged with sponsorships and advertising. It’s free to be. Central Park in New York, Boston Commons, Griffith Park in LA, Treasure Island in San Francisco, these are places that are de-commodified. It’s not just Black Rock City. 

We need to extend that into our digital spaces as well. Right now, Web3 is super popular, but that’s the e-commerce section of what we’re building as the Metaverse. We need to also build our public parks. And I think what we built with BRCvr is the precursor to the public park and the Metaverse.

So In early February I spoke to members of the House of Representatives, putting them in VR headsets and sharing our decommodified space. Sharing what it looks like when artists are given the freedom to create, not because they’re trying to sell a product, but just giving them the ability to try, and how important that is.

That’s my favorite thing about Black Rock City and about the Burning Man culture as a whole, is it gives people permission to try. And that’s what we did with BRCvr. People can just try. You figure it out and other people will help you and you’ll put a group together and communally you’ll make it happen and you’ll get better time and time again.

We have people that are making a living making digital assets because of BRCvr, they have this fully working economy within their lives.

STUART: And the new tools in their toolkit. Wonderful. I’m glad we dropped that in. Thank you so much for being on the program today, Athena. It’s been wonderful.

ATHENA: You are welcome. Anytime.

STUART: We probably will have you back on because I know you’re gonna be up to something that we’ll need to check back in on. 




STUART: All right, then that’s a show. 

Burning Man LIVE is, was, and shall be a production of the Philosophical Center of Burning Man Project. That is, in case you don’t know the nonprofit that’s responsible for the celebrated annual Burning Man event in Black Rock City, Nevada, as well as being a catalyst for arts and culture around the world and year round.

I’m Stuart Mangrum and I want to thank everybody who helped put this one together, you know who you are: Vav Michael Vav, ActionGirl, kbot, Rocky, and thank you, dear listener, for being out there to stick us in your earbuds. 

Thanks to any of you who once in a blue moon make a contribution to the nonprofit at donate.burningman.org. That’s what helps us keep the lights on and the dream alive. 

Thanks, Larry.