Business as unusual
A first-time burner looks at the art and people of Burning Man and tries to glean just what was going on
The first thing I notice when I get to the Black Rock Desert Friday afternoon is not the art. It’s the dust. It’s the color of a vanilla soy latte, and it coats everything, including the naked backs of people riding bicycles in the afternoon sun along Black Rock City’s temporary streets.
It’s my first time at Burning Man, it’s Labor Day weekend, and I’m on a mission to observe the Borg2 experiment.
Borg2 is an organization formed last year by John Mason, Chicken John and other San-Francisco-based art instigators. The group formed in protest to some problems the artists had with Burning Man’s system for granting funds to artists. After drafting The Original “We Have A Dream” Petition, outlining what Borg2 members thought would be the most democratic way to decide how to allocate funds, Chicken John sent an eloquent, irreverent 1,663-word proposal to Burning Man founder Larry Harvey.
The proposal, titled “THE BET A Quick recap on the Burning Man drama of late… (more woo woo for your hoo ha)” suggested a process by which all artists seeking funding for Burning Man art make a presentation in-person in San Francisco. The proposals should then be put to a public vote by all current and former citizens of Black Rock City (i.e., everyone who’s ever purchased a ticket to Burning Man.) Borg2 committed to raising and distributing the money this year, aiming for an ambitious $250,000, in an effort to demonstrate to the Burning Man powers that be that it could be done, in the hope it would be adopted as the official method in the near future.
The proposal reads: “We, the mass of Burning Man creative agents, agree to reapply ourselves with focus to the creation of mind-blowing, I-can’t-believe-someone- actually-made-that, KNOCK YOU ON YOUR ASS ART.”
Harvey sent a 3,251-word reply, detailing the enormous logistical challenges that the process would involve. He made no commitment to adopting the process officially, but ultimately he gave his blessing to the Borg2 folks to go ahead and show the world what they could do.
Borg2 raised $25,000 in donations, using fundraising techniques that proved the group’s creative mettle, like the “burrito and a beer” pledge, where potential donors were reminded that no matter how broke one might be, it’s always possible to scrape up a few bucks for a friend’s dinner, and giving a few bucks a week to Borg2 would be just as easy. The group also sold merchandise on its Web site, including T-shirts and the ever-more- essential marketing tool, the “classic thong.”
Borg2 awarded its loot to 10 projects, including “Flaming Simon,” a larger, fierier version of the electronic game, and “Life Sized Mouse Trap,” a huge version of the board game.
Burning Man collected its art money the old-fashioned way—ladeling it off the up-to-$300 ticket price—and distributed about $250,000 for 31 projects. Large sculptures like the Colossus, with three rotating boulders, fit in with the already established Burning Man-signature, gargantuan-sculpture aesthetic.
Both organizations’ grant projects were characterized by various combinations of things fantastical, playful and introspective. Fire was a prominent theme on both lists. The biggest difference between the “official” projects and the Borg2 was in the language used by the grantees to describe their proposed artwork. Burning Man grant winners, even the bicycle rickshaw team, were obliged to link their projects to this year’s theme, which was “Psyche.” Borg2 strongly opposed the thematic requirement, and titles like “That’s One Tall Fucking Thing aka The Beanstalk” did the trick, as opposed to some more institutionally palatable moniker.
Beyond semantics, was there a new Burning Man art scene about to arise?
I went to see if I could find a qualitative difference between the original Burning Man curatorial approach and its charged-up stepchild, the Borg2.
The second thing I notice upon arrival is what Black Rock City looks like. Set in the flat expanse of Black Rock Desert with far-off mountains, enormous sky and that familiar, skin-cracking dry air, it looks something like Nevada. With 40,000 hedonistically charged, faux-fur-bedecked merrymakers, it also looks like its own homemade planet. The “city’s” concentric streets are filled in with trailers, temporary structures with parachute roofs, handmade signs and thousands of tents, from the enormous, circus-inspired Center Camp tent to efficient backpacker tents. It seems less important that there are varying levels of skill and expense applied to structures and art projects—and more important that everything is made or assembled by individuals. The lack of corporate logos, corporate sales and corporate anything make for a conspicuously refreshing environment.
The sporadically whited-out, dust-stormy air isn’t the only thing on the playa that’s hazy. Rules about art establishments are nowhere to be found, most art isn’t labeled, some of it is nearly impossible to find, and some is impossible to avoid, like the stickers and trinkets filling up my pockets.
In this context, everyone’s bearings are out of whack, including my own. The intensely concentrated creative spree that exists in this remote location for a week turns what I thought were my well-grounded expectations and preferences about art upside-down on their head. Things that would be trite or tiresome in a gallery, like an unassuming cardboard box full of supplies to make a map to wherever one likes, are delightful and funny at the Burning Man event’s perimeter fence, miles from the camps.
In Black Rock City, surprise is the order of the day; disorientation is the celebrated norm. From the huge sculptures and elaborate vehicles to do-it-yourself services (like the plasma-cut-steel T-shirt-painting stencil), random acts of creative exertion are everywhere. Out in the real world, some of this stuff would qualify as art, and some wouldn’t. I cease caring about the classification altogether, and by the looks of it, so does most everyone else. I don’t hear much comment about whether the art is good or not. When a young woman distributes photocopies of psychedelic smiley drawings and gives each recipient a hug in the pink glow of dawn, no one declines or complains like they would if she did this at a coffeehouse in the city.
The boundaries between failed projects and successful are more than blurred. They’re just not there. Chicken John had told me earlier, with conviction, that Borg2 was a success. In the same conversation, he said with an equal measure of conviction that it was a failure. Perhaps that’s the point.
Burning Man is something like a constant parade with no beginning, no leader and no route. Pedestrians, bicycles and all manner of customized vehicles roam the unpaved streets of the temporary city. A fleet of pedal-powered cupcakes and muffins scoots around. A 6-foot rubber ducky drives by. A wavy magic carpet, a shimmery, roving disco bus and a pirate ship stop wherever their drivers feel like picking up passengers.
A red bicycle with seats for seven riders, all facing inward, is piloted by a young man in red coveralls with dark goggles and good posture. He says, “Jump on.” I jump on and ride backwards for several blocks, then get deposited at a stage where a punk band is fronted by a woman wearing pants made of the mat from a Twister game. Later, when it’s dark, I admire the glowing arch at Borg2’s camp, sound installations that emit slow beeps and electronic dings, sculptures that spew fire, and “The Man” himself. The 60-foot icon is made of pink and green neon and rigged with explosives, and his base is a fun-house maze. The bicycle, the pants, the beeps, the arch, the Man and the maze all coalesce onto the same plane of artistic satisfaction, where assessment is futile.
Saturday, I go out in search of more “art,” whatever that may be at this point. In the “Talk to God” phone booth, I get on the horn to say hi. God, sounding younger and more casual than I would have expected, asks for a pizza and recommends the liberal use of sunscreen. Back out on the many square miles of open playa, there are running horses made of strips and shreds of tire, a shed-sized box lined with dark-orange mirrored steps. A Ferris wheel-like contraption that holds three riders rolls along the ground.
Some of these projects are supported with grant money, but the majority are unfunded acts of sculpture, sound, performance or experiments in participation. There aren’t markers or attributions to most projects. Some of Borg2’s work is in its camp, and some is scattered over a stretch of flat desert so big that individual pieces of art appear and disappear in the dust as I ride by them on my bike.
The task of comparing officially funded art with Borg2 art and non-funded art is a tall order for my few allotted days. The trek becomes more about the experience of happening upon something unexpected. Like the Fire Pendulum. It swings around in the dark spitting fire in rhythmic but irregular spurts, as if it’s always in the process of playing just the end of a symphony score, but with just one note: the whoosh from the blast of fuel that feeds each burst and warms the chilly night.
At some point, I happen across a guy carrying a bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough. He’s feeding people bites from a spoon, and his friend plays a guitar and sings about cookie dough. I hear someone say he’d just been in the temple singing “Amazing Grace” with Joan Baez. At the moment, those two seem like very similar experiences. On the streets of Reno, a Joan Baez sighting and a man with a bowl of cookie dough would have radically different meanings, but here, fortuitous coincidence is just fortuitous coincidence.
Speaking of fortuitous coincidence, I stop at a slightly tiki-looking structure to ask for directions to where I think some friends are camping. The folks inside don’t know, but they happen to be the “psychedelic surf trio” the Mermen, whom I’d regrettably missed at the Green Room a couple weeks ago, jamming on drums. They play three songs and give me some crackers with goat cheese.
The cliché is that there are no spectators at Burning Man, only participants. It’s true; it’s impossible to just watch. Everyone there is part of the show, whether they’re trying to be or not. By the same token, if there are better, more authentic participants making better art, I don’t detect a clear distinction in the three days I spend on the playa. But hey, more power to Borg2—and to anyone else with a dream, of pretty much any sort. On the Burning Man art scene, the more the merrier.