Even the realm of public art had an unpleasant aspect of separation from the communities for which it was destined. The most notable example of this is Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc. This project was selected by committee and installed in a public space. A great curved wall of steel suddenly divided an open plaza bordered by high-rise buildings, and the workers in these buildings had to walk around it, no longer able to enjoy the open space they had once used. Eventually the piece was removed and the whole incident caused a great debate in the art world about the nature of public art. Should educated art professionals decide what is “good” art and impose it on an unwelcoming public whether they like it or not? Or should a community have some say in the kind of art they are going to live with? This incident perpetuated the idea that the art world is detached from ordinary people and has an innate sense of superiority. Of course there are many other public art programs that take a different approach, sending an artist into a community to work with its members. In such programs the community members work with the artist and everyone learns and feels connected to the work, which has meaning to the community.
In any case, I felt a great deal of separation between the art world which I was struggling to break into, and the rest of the world around me. I didn’t see much cooperation or collaboration between artists, but a lot of competition which didn’t bring us together, but separated us. In an artificial world in which resources were extremely scarce, it’s not suprising that we guarded whatever we could get, and very carefully. In addition, the eighties was the decade of the great art-buying boom; the economy was very healthy and it became lucrative to collect art. Certain galleries started promoting very young artists, manipulating the market and driving up prices, and soon the twenty-something art superstar was born. For those of us struggling to make a living and to get our work shown, this was extremely demoralizing.
I began to question the value system around me, which was ultimately exclusionary, market-driven, and isolating. As I became more alienated from the world I had chosen to live in, I was no longer quite sure why I was making art anymore, and I stopped altogether and moved to San Francisco.
In August of 1995, on a whim, I drove to the Black Rock Desert with a girlfriend, with only a vague idea of what I was journeying toward, having seen Burning Man in a list of summer festivals in the Bay Guardian. I was dazzled by the setting and by the event, thrilled by the creativity, energy, and good will of the community, and delighted that I had stumbled upon something I knew would change my life. I found a group of people who were alienated not only from the art world but from the mainstream culture in general, and were doing something about it.
Out on the playa they were creating their own culture, which seemed to be based on humor, play, imagination, sharing, cooperation, and personal responsibility. I felt I’d somehow come home, and I proceeded to become deeply involved in the community back in San Francisco as well as on the playa.
There wasn’t much art on the playa in 1995, but as more artists created bigger and more complex installations each year, it occurred to me that a new kind of art-making was evolving, completely outside of the mainstream art world. On the playa, artists weren’t attached to sole ownership of their work, which was community-based and communally built. Groups of artists and friends worked together on projects, sharing resources and co-operating instead of competing. In this world there was no lack of resources; sharing seemed the natural thing to do. Strangers could come along and work on an installation merely because they liked the look of it; no one asked for credentials but welcomed anyone who seemed willing to help out. This art was a vital part of the community, embraced by all.
Most amazing to me was the sense that these artists were so far removed from notions of preciosity and market value that they were actually burning their work at the end of the event. They weren’t trying to attract a dealer or a collector; they weren’t trying to get into a gallery, nor were they looking for the attentions of a critic. They weren’t doing it solely for themselves – they were doing it for the experience and for the community.
In 1998 I was asked to help produce the first art exhibit about Burning Man, at the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery. The purpose of the exhibit was not to sell art but to show those who weren’t able to get out to the playa what was happening out there. After working with these artists I realized that I was much better suited to curating than to making art. After the isolation of working alone in the studio and the struggle to survive in New York, I was very happy to be involved with a group of artists who were working together in this unique community. For the first time I felt connected to something much bigger than myself, having found a nascent art world I could believe in and to which I could apply my skills in a way that felt positive and oriented towards a new vision of art making, one not driven by commerce and marketing but by the collective joy of creating together.