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 schoolbus. 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.”