To most people in the US, the end of August is a chance to fire up the barbecue, hit the beach, and soak up the last few rays of summer. For the temporary citizens of Black Rock City, however, it’s the most magical week of the entire year: Burning Man.

The annual gathering is a celebration of art and community that draws tens of thousands of visitors — aka “Burners” — to Nevada’s remote Black Rock Desert (“the Playa”). There, they build Black Rock City, a temporary metropolis complete with community ethos, awe-inspiring art installations, and, of course, fire-filled festivities.

It’s an event you truly have to see to believe, which is why Burning Man Project webcast production lead, “Motorbike” Matt Reyes and his team live stream the event for those who can’t attend in person. This year, Vimeo has the honor of powering the live stream, which has already reached more than half a million viewers. We sat down with Matt to talk about community, art, and extreme live streaming.

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Screenshot of Burning Man Project live webcast

How long have you been going to That Thing in the Desert? 

This is my eighth Burn, seventh year webcasting, and sixth year as the Burning Man Project webcast production lead. Every year, I volunteer my services and cover most of the technology costs; it’s my gift to the participants who couldn’t make it to the Playa. The Burning Man Project returns the gift to me with access, tickets, a powered and air-conditioned 20-foot container, and a dedicated connection to the internet. 

When did you start live streaming the event?

Burning Man has had a live stream of some form since at least 2007, and possibly earlier. In 2013, I helped build the video system for a mutant vehicle called the Mars Rover Art Car, nicknamed “Dustiny.” One of my roles on the project was to build the Playa version of the Mast cam and use them to stream our explorations across the Playa. That year, the official Burning Man webcast was plagued with major tech problems that my system on Dustiny was able to fill in for.

Who watches the live stream? 

The demographic of who watches the live stream is amazing — most of them are outside the US. Last year, we had hundreds of people from 66 countries. Many of them are older or have a medical condition that prevents them from leaving their homes, much less for the Playa. The most memorable demographic are perhaps the parents of Burners trying to understand what their children are up to.

What comments have you gotten from viewers?

I get a range of comments and requests, from “Clean the camera” to questions about particular art pieces. We also provide a service where participants online send us heartfelt messages to deliver to the Temple that burns on Sunday. Every year, we receive hundreds of messages by email or social media from people who want to memorialize loved ones in the Temple. We print them out and deliver them on their behalf.

burner on the playa
Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

What does Black Rock City and the community mean to you?

I believe more of the world should understand and adopt the 10 Principles of Burning Man in their day-to-day lives. I also wish more people could make it to the Playa. That said, there are large obstacles to getting out here in the desert. It can be expensive, it can be challenging on your health, etc.

How does live streaming the event serve the 10 Principles?

Live streaming the event serves the 10 Principles in two ways. First, we share stories of how people here in the Dust have interpreted them and put them into practice. Secondly, we do our best to run the live stream in accordance to those principles. 

We encourage viewer Participation where they can take screen captures of the video and change them into artistic pieces. We also ensure that the video is ephemeral, in support of principle of Immediacy; if you missed it, you missed it. 

Much of the expensive parts of this Livestream exist today thanks to the principle of Gifting. And lastly, it’s incredibly important that we are no longer on YouTube as their advertisement platform had always been in conflict with our big Principle of Decommodification.

What advice would you give other folks looking to live stream events to their community?

Assuming you know all about live streaming and capturing video, the most important aspect of live streaming is immediate engagement with audiences over social media. Audience members who hear their names or social media handles become more and more dedicated to the cause because they have received public acknowledgement. This is the most labor intensive aspect of the job, so make sure you have time and stomach to handle that level of work.

What does Vimeo mean to you?

Vimeo means clean and pure artistic expression. I see Vimeo not as some robotic website, but as a service that exists with compassionate, understanding, and empowered people ready and waiting to make sure the content creator is taken care of. 

Featured image photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash.

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