Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Reconnecting Art and Life at Burning Man

Reconnecting Art and Life at Burning Man

This article was originally published in Raw Vision, issue 57, Winter 2006:

By Christine Kristen aka LadyBee

Burning Man, an annual temporary community in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, is the world's largest outdoor art gallery, featuring nearly three hundred art installations scattered across a barren, prehistoric lake bed known as a playa. For one week late in August of each year, nearly 40,000 participants gather to create a vibrant city based on self-expression, survival, sharing, and radical self-reliance. Life in Black Rock City is characterized by collaborative interactive art-making, gift-giving, performance, and costuming. The making of art is encouraged; anyone can display whatever they've created without judgment, competition, or censorship. Art is a vital part of the city; it is virtually everywhere - on the open playa, in the camping area, in the center café, along the trash fence which marks the boundaries of the city, in the small participant-run airport, along the entrance road, and within a pavilion on which stands the Burning Man, a 40' tall wooden figure that marks the center of the city, and is burned at the end of the event. The art is characterized by interactivity; it's accessible, hands-on, and meant to be touched, climbed, and played with, providing intense, intimate experiences not usually available in gallery or museum settings.

Here, art is not viewed as the sole province of trained, educated specialists, as it is in the institutionalized world; it is part and parcel of everyday life for the citizens of Black Rock City, nearly all of whom produce objects for use and display during the event, from costumes and small items given out as gifts to large-scale art installations. Art-making in this way seems related to earlier societies, where decorating one's possessions and making objects was a natural expression of belonging to a group, and a way of making daily life meaningful. At Burning Man, the do-it-yourself ethic is the community standard, and aesthetics are enthusiastically explored by everyone, not just artists.

Neither is art viewed as the work of the isolated individual; virtually all of the larger works at Burning Man are produced collaboratively, bringing artists, crews, and participants together in a rich, immersive and immediate experience. This kind of empathic social interaction through art-making generates community on the playa and beyond, as participants return to their homes and create their own regional events in the style of Burning Man. There are currently 65 regional groups worldwide. In addition, Burning Man's sister organization, the Black Rock Arts Foundation, funds interactive art outside of the event, much of which is made by untrained artists. This unusual situation has inspired engineers, teachers, techno-geeks, scientists, community groups, doctors, graduate students, carpenters - all sorts of people who would not consider themselves artists - to make art, many for the first time.

Steve Heck is a piano mover from Oakland, California, who saves all of the piano parts he acquires in his work, storing them in his crowded warehouse. At Burning Man 1996 he built a two-story enclosure entirely from piano soundboards and casings - 88, to be exact - the number of keys on a piano. Participants continuously played the exposed strings of the soundboards.

From 1996 to 1999, Burning Man participants were treated to unconventional folk operas performed on elaborate, fanciful architectural fantasies built by San Franciscan Pepe Ozan. In the early 1990's Pepe, born in Argentina and trained as a lawyer, started making playa mud lingams which functioned as chimneys. By 1996 these had evolved into complex structures with multiple towers and platforms upon which the operas took place, complete with an orchestra, a libretto, singers and costumed performers, and culminating in fire.

The Hanged One, made in 2001 by David Biggs, was a large tree made of driftwood hung with orange and yellow silk lanterns. The artist was a student at the University of Washington doing post-graduate studies in VietNamese irrigation systems. Inspired by trips to Burning Man, he designed and built a multi-cultural symbol of hope, using driftwood collected from the Quilute Indians of Washington's Olympic Peninsula, and lantern casings made by VietNamese tailors. The tree enclosed an altar which contained items typically found in VietNamese shrines, and where participants left objects meaningful to them. David had no training as an artist and learned to build the tree simply by doing it, encouraged by what he saw others creating on the playa.

In 2002 the Extra Action Marching Band, a group of Bay area performers, built a replica of a 16th century Spanish galleon over a working school bus. This beautifully crafted, ghostly vessel, moving slowly with the wind in its sails, seemed to sail the desiccated seas of the playa. Another group of friends with diverse occupations built an enormous yellow duck; by night its wing was raised to reveal a sophisticated jazz club within. A large egg nearby served as a token booth. The previous year, the same group built a jazz club in the form of two enormous red dice.

In 2004, the Alien Semaphore, an array of white fluorescent tubes attached to a central horizontal pole, attracted much attention on the playa. One could move the tubes into different configurations via an interactive control box nearby. I assumed that the artist, Hedley Davis, had been influenced by Minimalist sculpture, and I asked him if he was a fan of Dan Flavin. He looked at me blankly and responded, "Who's Dan Flavin?" Hedley is an electrical engineer and self-described "hobbyist" from San Jose, California, who tinkers in his garage on weekends. He came up with the idea of an interactive light display after helping friends to engineer their Burning Man project in 2003. Like many who contribute art to the event, Hedley was inspired by participating in someone else's art project. Burning Man has been called an "informal art school" where non-artists can learn basic skills and concepts by helping others. The collaborative nature of the art results in a great sharing of skills and ideas, from which the entire community benefits.

Rosanna Scimeca of Brooklyn, New York, was an artists' model and metal shop fabricator when she learned to weld by assisting the Madagascar Institute, a Brooklyn "art combine," with their 2002 Burning Man project, Creature of the Deep. The following year she created her first large scale installation, Cleavage in Space, a massive red chandelier with curving metal arms which appeared to have crashed into the playa surface from above. Rosanna was awarded a grant for this elegant design, despite the fact that she had never before attempted large-scale sculpture. Grants are awarded annually based solely on the artist's idea, and the likelihood of the project's completion. No resumes, exhibition histories, letters of recommendation, or slides are required - unheard of in the formal art world. Grants are often given to first time artists as well as to community groups working collaboratively, so virtually anyone may apply. This kind of support for untrained artists results in a wealth of unique art installations which may certainly be regarded as a kind of urban outsider art.

However, there is another genre of art evolving at Burning Man which also seems to fit the parameters of outsider art, despite the fact that its creators have been trained in art schools. These artists choose to work outside of the confines of the art world in a very free and collaborative environment. In this world they are not restricted by art world standards; they are not trying to impress a critic, a collector or a gallery. Someone once remarked, "Burning Man is like art without the money." These artists are not thinking about the likelihood of selling their work; rather, they are creating it as a gift to the community. Even a gallery artist may work unfettered by notions of market value. This kind of creative freedom seems to encourage collaboration and cooperation between artists, rendering competition somewhat irrelevant. Burning Man has spawned an entirely new genre of outsider art, providing a working environment completely outside of the professional art world. Art made under these circumstances tends to be unconventional and genuine; artists are free to disregard the pressures of public and professional approval. It's the immediacy of the experience that is important; the artist gets direct feedback from the community, without worrying about reviews or sales. San Francisco artist Jenne Giles, who created the Ribcage in 2000, says, "It is the art of a temporary community of people, for all people, that fundamentally reinvents their everyday experience and themselves through an organic art process to create a truly singular reality. Essentially, it comes full circle, since the Burning Man population is simultaneously possessed of great skills, sophistication and awareness of the art world (all the things that would disqualify it from outsider art), but puts all of these notions aside for a chance to reinvent what is possible in art. There is a defiance in its heart towards the art world and the "normal" world."

Petaluma artist David Best is well known for his sculpture, prints and art cars. Burning Man has inspired David to create huge, collaboratively built interactive temples which function as large-scale votive shrines. David is a master of recycling, using leftover wooden cutouts from the manufacture of children's dinosaur kits as the raw material for fanciful multi-storied temples with pagodas, hanging lanterns, arched bridges, onion domes and altars. Participants visit the temple daily, leaving behind inscriptions to departed friends and family, photographs, letters, and mementoes. The mood is somber and contemplative; many weep, meditate, and embrace. The temples have been a cherished part of Burning Man since 2001, and their ritual burns on the last night of the event hold great significance for the community. David and his volunteer crew work tirelessly for months to complete the temples, and they are burnt to the ground without any thought of exhibits or sales.

Berkeley sculptor Michael Christian has created elaborate metal sculptures for the event since 1997, most of which are experienced by participants who clamber around and up through them. He believes, "People don't travel great distances to an incredibly hostile environment to impress people with their abilities as 'artists'. They do it because they want and need to, and to enjoy the freedom of expression while it is available."

Dunsmuir, California artist Finley Fryer makes sculpture and buildings out of recycled plastic detritus collected by his local community. His Plastic Chapel was erected twice on the playa, where it served as a popular wedding site. San Francisco sculptor Dana Albany uses recycled materials, including animal bones and discarded books, in her large-scale installations like the Bone Tree and the Body of Knowledge. Baltimore artist Tim Kaulen fabricated an enormous inflatable woman from billboard vinyl cigarette ads; he drove her to the playa in the trunk of his car and inflated her with a household fan. Painter JennyBird Alcantara creates bizarre, psychological feminine images; in 2005 her paintings formed the entrance to the Funhouse, on which stood the Man.

A recent trend is the creation of large installations by community groups, only some of whose members are working artists. In 2005 Seattle's Stronghold Productions created the Machine, a 60' tall mechanical wood and steel temple, whose four arms were gradually raised by participants during the week of the event. As they turned three drive wheels, its transmission engaged gears that rotated its central core and upper platform, and spun and raised the limbs. Stronghold Productions is comprised of artists, designers, engineers, builders and fabricators, as well as arts administrators, writers, teachers, photographers, videographers, sound designers, and technologists. An enormous mobile flower appeared on the playa that same year, built over an articulated man-lift by two groups from Los Angeles, Abundant Sugar and the DoLab. Many of the group members work in the film industry. San Francisco's Flaming Lotus Girls create large-scale interactive fire art, such as the Angel of the Apocalypse, a 30' long reclining bird with a driftwood body surrounded by sixteen curving vertical wings made of stainless steel piped with propane. Their group is radically inclusive; anyone who wants to join may do so, and will be taught to weld and to work with metal by the professional artists in the group.

Burning Man has spawned a new genre of art, and whether we consider it "insider" or "outsider" art hardly seems important. Some of it is made by untrained artists, and all of it lives outside of the conventional art world. At Burning Man, art-making is inclusive and does not require degrees or the approval of critics. In one sense this genre is not new at all, but harkens back to a time when there was no separation between art and life. The remaining question, perhaps, is one of quality: is all of this democratically produced art "good"? Clearly, some of the art is very accomplished and would stand up well to art world scrutiny; some is less so. In a community where the art is not intended to be sold or reviewed, but to generate community and interactivity, its aesthetic merit seems somewhat beside the point. In Black Rock City art is not a precious commodity to be marketed, dissected by critics, or locked up in a museum. It is a vital part of the community, whose shared experiences in its creation and its life on the playa give it meaning and value.

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