Katie Hazard: Art is How We Got Here
Katie Hazard leads Art Management for Burning Man and the committee that grants more than a million dollars to artists each year to create art that’s first stop (and sometimes only stop) is Black Rock City.
She shares about some of the grant recipients that align with this year’s Black Rock City art theme (ANIMALIA). She and Stuart Mangrum discuss Burning Man’s art movement in relation to, and sometimes in opposition to, “capital-A art,” and the default art world’s manufactured scarcity and opaqueness. They explore how to grant accessibility and agency to artists, professional and amateur, personally and collectively.
“Many people come for the art, and they stay for the community.” ~Larry Harvey
Slides of the Art Projects Mentioned (in the order discussed)
Introducing the 2023 Black Rock City Honoraria (Burning Man Journal)
Katie Hazard (Burning Man Journal)
Desert Arts Preview: Artists of Waking Dreams (2022 podcast)
KATIE: I think people are looking for a sense of agency in their life, and so many things can feel like they’re happening to you. And when you start to come to Burning Man and see the way that the art is created there, the way that people live together in community there, you start to understand that you have more control over your life. This also extends into the creative realm.
STUART: Welcome back everyone to another episode of Burning Man Live. I’m Stuart Mangrum and my guest today is somebody I’ve wanted to have on the program for a while. She is Burning Man Project’s Associate Director of Art Management. She heads up our art department and she just finished up a long and interesting process of helping lead our Honoraria Grant Committee.
We’re gonna talk a little bit about art coming up this coming year. Welcome, Katie Hazard. Thanks for coming on the show.
KATIE: Thanks so much for having me, Stuart. I’m happy to be here.
STUART: Hey, before we get too much into the art, I wanna talk about you a little bit because I just read your bio on the Burning Man Journal. I learned that Hazard is actually your real name. Are you serious?
KATIE: I’m serious. People tend to think it’s a playa name. Katie Hazard. They’re like, ah-ha. Yeah, right. But really, you know, my dad is Steve Hazard. I had Grandma Hazard growing up. That’s my honest to God last name.
STUART: I know you’re married. So you kept your, you kept Hazard. Who would give that up if that was your name?
KATIE: I know. Yep. And you know my son has my husband’s last name, but we put Hazard in as his middle name.
KATIE: So we hope that someday he can joke that “Danger is his middle name.”
STUART: That is even cooler. Fun little fact about me: One of my Cacophony Society aliases was actually Trip Hazard. I got it off of one of those signs they put up on a wet floor. And I took a lot of LSD back then so it just seemed right.
KATIE: For me it’s the same. I certainly have gotten that nickname myself for the same reason.
STUART: Well, okay. A lot of people listening, I’m sure they’re like, “Wow, Burning Man has — what? — an art program, and somebody gets to run it?” You’re sitting in what’s probably a dream job for a lot of people, both in the Burning Man world and in the larger art world. Briefly, can you tell us how you ended up in that sweet spot?
KATIE: Thank you. Yeah, I really do feel fortunate to be in this spot. Sometimes I’m like, “Really this is my job? How did I get as lucky as this?” But you know, it wasn’t really just luck. There was lots of hard work and experience along the way.
My background is in art history and I grew up going to museums with my family. I was really into art and the art world. The first time I went to Burning Man it really blew my mind. It was 2000 and I was so accustomed to the museum type of art, and I was like, “Wow, you can make art out of books.
You can make art without labels. You can make art that people can climb all over. You can make art and set it on fire.” It just really opened my eyes.
So I was going to Burning Man for all of these years, really, especially interested in the art, because that was my background and my interest in my education. So I worked with museums and then I also worked at Harvard University for a number of years as a grants manager. So I had a lot of experience doing grants.
In 2012, I moved to San Francisco. I had had this really great job at Harvard and we moved here for my husband’s job and I was sort of like, “Hmm, what am I gonna do now?” It’s an opportunity for a real change. I had been doing the lights on the Man Base for a number of years, and so I was on this email list where I saw different opportunities through the art department. And there was a seasonal job opening that certainly didn’t use all the potential that I had possible, but, you know, it seemed interesting for a couple of months when I first moved here.
So I took that seasonal job in 2013 and really hit it off with the folks who were running the department then. And so when they had a permanent job open the next year, they hired me into that in 2014 as a project manager. Over the years I’ve gotten more and more experience in different areas of running the art department until ultimately starting in 2019, I became the head of the department.
It’s been a long journey, lots of years, more than 20 years ago that I first went to Burning Man. I’m just really grateful to be in this spot right now.
STUART: So another thing that people I’m sure are curious about is the Honorarium Grant Committee and the whole process. It seems like it’s long and it’s complicated. If you can sort of walk us through that, just briefly, what the steps are, who’s involved in it, how much money you give away, all that stuff.
KATIE: Sure, right. I’d be happy to. So the total budget is $1.2 million that we give away every year, plus another $100,000 for the Temple. So the art grant budget total is $1.3, but just for Honoraria it’s $1.2. The average grant is about $17,000.
The grant program’s been going since 1999, so quite a few years now. It’s developed quite a bit along the way. I was happy that I could bring all my professional grant making experience with me here and bring our program along quite a bit.
We have a letter of intent process. So the first step is to submit something, just kind of giving us a general idea of what your project is. We receive anywhere from 500 to 700 of those in an average year. Usually a little over half of the projects meet the criteria and we invite on around 300 or so projects to submit a full proposal.
And that’s a much more intricate, complicated, application process with detailed budgets and timelines and crew and all kinds of information about your project. We have a committee of six people who review each and every one of those 300 full proposals. It’s a lot, a lot of reading. There’s a lot of late nights where I’m looking at these wild ideas, but honestly, it’s so much fun and it’s such an honor to get to see, you know, what people are dreaming up.
And then we come together and have a series of pretty intense meetings where we go literally one by one through every project and have a chance to talk about it. Each member of the committee will say whether they would like to accept or decline that particular proposal. And then we work our way through and, you know, discuss and, and hone all of those down till we get to a batch of about 120 or so kind of finalists.
And then we print those out. We get together in a big room at the Burning Man headquarters office in San Francisco. We use the room called the Thunderdome, which is kind of funny because we’re all battling out for which ones we think should get the funding.
We take these printouts of the 120 finalists and we put them up around the room. Ultimately what we’re looking to fund is a good collection of things. We want things that will all work together: some small, some medium, enough fire, enough international, you know, the full range of things.
Because as you know, anyone can bring art to Burning Man. We don’t really have any control over the rest of what the work is that’s coming in; we’re not commissioning anything. And so here we really wanna make sure that if participants were only able to have this set collection of artworks, would there be something for most everyone?
So we take these pictures around the room and we group them and sort them. First we do small, medium, and large. And then we say, “Okay, do we have enough fire?” and “Do we have enough international?” And, “Uh-oh, we’ve got too many people that have never been to Burning Man before.” We certainly wanna fund some of them, but if there are too many, it’s just too much of a strain on my staff to try to help those totally brand new folks come along.
So there’s a lot of moving the papers around and people saying, “What do you think about this one and that one?” And, you know, also we have to keep an eye on our budget because if we really just picked our 75 favorites, of course it might be all the ones that were on the highest end of the price scale. There’s just a lot to think about. Ultimately we get ourselves to the final collection for the year.
STUART: That is fascinating. My interaction with your process usually happens around late September, early October when I get a series of increasingly urgent emails from you asking me “Where’s the theme, Stuart? What’s the theme going to be?!?” This year it seems to have caught. I mean, one of my goals in writing a theme is always to be, I think, number one goal is to make it something that’s accessible to the artists. Seems like artists have kind of hooked into this. Not that they didn’t already, before the theme was Animalia, but this year there’s a lot.
KATIE: Yeah. 45% of the projects that we funded this year are related to the theme, which I think if we were to go back and do that count from any other year, I can’t remember when we had such an interest. I guess “I, Robot” lent itself to some more particular concepts that related directly to the theme, but it’s been a long time since the people were this excited about the theme, I’d say.
STUART: Yeah. Not to critique myself too much, but we had too many themes that were a little too cerebral and did not lend themself to a visual interpretation as much as this one does.
KATIE: People were just really inspired by what you came up with this time. It’s fun to see the way that everyone has taken it.
STUART: My hope was that it would be fun and that artists would be able to express it and, oh my God, look at this list.
I wanna go through every single one of them, but we don’t have a lot of time. So let’s try something. Since you are a trained art professional, I’m sure you’re pretty conversant in how to describe in words a piece of art in a short period of time.
KATIE: I could be.
STUART: Okay. I’m sure you’re better at it than I am, but maybe together we can get through.
KATIE: Oh, fun. Okay.
STUART: You ready?
KATIE: Great. Yeah.
STUART: Alebrijes, which strikes me as Huichol style. Is that the right traditional culture?
KATIE: That’s right. An alebrije is a kind of a mythical creature from the Oaxacan tradition. it’s covered with a kind of beading that’s like a, it’s known from the Huichol tribe. And there will be a series of these alebrijes of different types, like a Pegasus and a turtle and, but a, a sort of mythical version of those.
STUART: Cool. By Laura Salcido out of San Francisco.
Next is Alight by Trey Watkins out of El Segundo, California.
KATIE: Yes. Trey was responsible for that really cool Wizard of Oz installation a couple years back that people really loved. This is a type of bridge that’s covered with a series of bird-like figures.
STUART: From this wonderful illustration it looks like a murmuration of paper cranes.
KATIE: Mm-hmm. Kinda origami style, right?
STUART: Yeah. Gorgeous.
KATIE: It’s going to do one of those ‘burn reveal’ kind of situations where partway through the week, some of it will burn and will reveal. I don’t wanna ruin the surprise, but it will change the form factor of the installation.
Anya and The Void Bunnies by Steffin Griswold out of Minnesota. What is a Void Bunny?
KATIE: Your guess is as good as mine at what a void bunny is. They submitted these really metal rock-like watercolor drawings, if you can imagine those two genres coming together in one place. They’re experienced welders, so it will be interesting to see. So far they’ve just created the superstructure of what the bunny will be, but one of the watercolors has these little bunnies, and then there’s a big bunny, kind of like Donnie Darko style, brandishing some weapons. So I think it’s gonna be an interesting mix.
STUART: Bad bunnies.
Next is our friend NiNo Alicea from Puerto Rico. ATABEY’s Treasure. This looks like some kind of fish of some sort.
KATIE: This is a traditional fish from the Taino tribe — I’m not sure if I pronounce that correctly — a kind of mythical, revered fish. And it’s about protecting and preserving our waterways. NiNo brought a version of this last year, but wasn’t able to fully realize what his vision was. So this year it’s gonna have a slide inside so you can climb up and jump into the mouth and slide out through the fish.
STUART: Axolotl: A Spirit Guide, by Ricardo Martinez.
KATIE: Axolotl is an actual, an honest to God animal. It seems like it might be mythical, but it’s a type of salamander. The artist is Mexican, but currently living in Belgium. He’s going to use the chassis of a car as this underlying structure for this project.
STUART: Burden of the Beast by Walker Babington and Sabatom Studios. This looks strangely a little like a Baba Yaga, but not.
KATIE: So it’s a buffalo on really elongated legs. So it’ll be about 30-some feet tall. And in the body of the buffalo is a kind of cabin-like house with really pitched eaves, and little lanterns hanging over the buffalo’s head. It’s all made out of wood and kind of this cool shaggy wood interpretation of the buffalo. It’s about immigration, migration, people moving.
STUART: It’s super surreal. Those elongated legs make me think of Dalí, and his giant spindly legged animals.
Conversation with a Squid, or is it with a Squad?
KATIE: A group of squid is called a squad, and so this project is conversations with a squad of squid. And this is brought by a woman from France, and there’s a mechanical squid in the middle that, as participants come and work with that, it will affect this whole group of other squid who are all on posts surrounding the main center squid. So it’s kind of a field-like experience and they’ll all have really lovely lighting at night, so they’re kind of like swimming through the air.
STUART: Go, cephalopods. Okay. This next one I think wins my personal award for the strangest and longest title:
Cradle to Grave, the Battle to Generate the Maximum Progressive Transformation
That sounds like a Frank Zappa song title.
KATIE: Doesn’t it? Right? Or some kind of book. Yeah. It looks like it’s gonna just be an owl, and they submitted this really beautiful drawing of this big owl. It’s 25 feet tall. But the magical part is that this owl mechanically turns into a kind of human figure. The wings turn into wings on the back of the human. Once a day this transformation will happen; owl to human and then back again to owl. And it will also have flame effects because, you know, it’s Burning Man.
STUART: Because fire. I totally need to see that one.
Crystal Evolution by Kay Sims and Kasey Minor.
It looks like an octopus that’s growing a crystal garden out of its head.
KATIE: Exactly. That’s a really good way to describe it. And again, with fire, with flames coming out of the ends of the tentacles.
STUART: That one looks really fun too.
The DraGong kind of speaks for itself. It’s a dragon, it’s a gong, by Michael Malecki.
KATIE: You know what I want to tell you that’s really cool about this one is: You know, those train cars that are sort of rounded, like they must carry some kind of liquid? This guy has cut the ends off of that, so you can imagine that kind of concave shape, or convex, depending on which side you’re standing on, and that’s gonna be the gong.
STUART: Oh wow. Okay. That is awesome.
Exquisite Animalus. This looks like a ‘make your own animal’ by rotating cylinders stacked on top of each other.
KATIE: It’s true. It’s based on the Dada principle, the exquisite corpse, and so if you’re not sure what kind of animal you wanna see at Burning Man this year, there’s any different combination. There’s one that’s kind of ears, and then, a face and a body, and then a tail. So you can come up with, you know, thousands of combinations by turning these big things. And it’s quite large, 24 feet tall. It’s also brought by Stefan Spins and his partner KJ Boheme, who are into spinning things. So it’s clever that they’ve turned that into an installation.
STUART: Fun. Okay, here’s an owl: Hubowl Telescope. A group out of de Diseño in Mexico.
KATIE: That’s right. It’s actually the HUBOWL Telescope. It’s a play on the Hubble telescope, but an owl. So it’s this kind of like a glitzy disco owl that has a telescope in it. So where the eye would be, there’s a giant actual working telescope so people can walk up and play with the Hub-owl Telescope.
STUART: Mr. And Mrs. Ferguson are bringing another bear.
KATIE: They are, they’re so excited about it. They’re bringing this time it’s called Lincoln Bear, it’s an interpretation of the Lincoln statue in Washington DC at the Lincoln Memorial, but again, covered with pennies, you know, of course also featuring Lincoln. They are collecting pennies. So if you have spare ones, we’ll have a place for you to send them in.
STUART: Yeah. Their fundraising is just pennies. Just collect, roll up all your pennies for it. They’re great.
Los Animales de la Playa, by a group in Forest Knolls, California.
KATIE: Yeah, this is a cool grouping of, I think it’s three or four different sort of rocking horses, but instead of a horse, it’s a mythical, really colorful being on the top. One is a kind of jaguar, one is a funny little armadillo. There’s a series of these animals on there that people can get on and rock back and forth.
STUART: It looks like they’re pulling on that same super bright color palette that the Huichol art that we talked about earlier.
STUART: I love it.
Quetzalcoatl: yet another Mesoamerican themed, beautiful looking piece of art.
KATIE: Yeah, this one’s lovely. Quetzalcoatl Reborn by a group of women also from Mexico, also new to Black Rock City. It’s just a gorgeous sculptural installation. It’s a quetzalcoati, so the kind of mythic feathered serpent beast. And it’s covered, each of its scales is kind of its own little diamond design that has different kind of insignia or each one different colors, different glyphs.
STUART: And this is 10 feet tall and 28 feet long, so that’s a pretty substantial feathered serpent. Nice.
Recyclosaurus. I guess we have to have a dinosaur in the mix.
KATIE: We have to have one dinosaur, and this is brought by the Reno C.O.R.E. folks who, this collective has been bringing art to Burning Man for, you know, 10 plus years. And this is a really fun metal dinosaur about 16 feet long, that kind of looks like a stegosaurus. And it’s got, flame effects coming out of each of the little fun spikes out of it’s back.
STUART: Spider Trap, by Josh Zubkoff.
KATIE: Spider Trap. Yeah. Josh Zubkoff and his collective Looking Up Arts are responsible for at least another previous animal, the Flamingo they did. And they did the Rainbow Bridge, and they brought a number of pieces to Burning Man. This Spider Trap is a big 20- or 30-something foot diameter spider that is overlooking its own web that’s a hammock. So participants can climb up into the hammock, and there’s another web just above them where, in the hammock there will be controls that they can control lights and sounds coming from the web just above.
STUART: I think that’s a hippie trap you don’t want to fall asleep in the dark and then wake up the next morning looking into this giant spider. But hey, you know, it’s Burning Man.
Council of the Animals parenthetically “What to Do About the Monkeys” by Quill Hyde.
KATIE: I love this one because it has a real narrative to it. There is a fox that’s kind of leading a tribunal. So there’s a polar bear, an elephant and a rhino, all really lovely welded work, these geometric triangles. It’s like the Council of Animals, that we’re all on trial for what we are currently doing with the state of the climate and the Earth right now.
STUART: Okay. So the monkeys are… yeah, us humanimal monkeys.
KATIE: Yes. We’re on trial.
STUART: As we probably should be.
It looks like it should be rolling. It looks like a giant hedgehog tank out of Ukraine.
KATIE: Well, it really is a giant hedgehog tank coming out of Ukraine, um, and we really hope that the artists are able to still create this and make it. It’s made out of the kind of barricades that they’re using there in the streets. So this shape of a hedgehog is all composed out of these barricades all together into the shape of a 50 foot long hedgehog.
STUART: I was just so blown away. It’s gorgeous.
The Journey Aquatic. These are, are they dancing sea turtles?
KATIE: It’s one giant turtle. It’s about 30 feet long and made out of a really shiny, lovely metal that will I’m sure look great in the sun in Black Rock City. This turtle is dancing or swimming. It’s poised so that it’s on its side and its weight is resting on its left front and back flipper, so it’s kind of up in the air so you can see its back and its belly. This artist brought a hummingbird last year that was really, really beautiful. I think it’s featured in the image of our theme for Animalia this year.
STUART: I saw that. Mark Dill is his name.
KATIE: That’s right. Same artist. Much bigger installation this year, so we’re excited to see that.
STUART: Terrific. I’m not sure if this one is an animal or not.
The Spirit of the Healing Siren
KATIE: The image that they submitted with the grant is just a really colorful, bright drawing of something that kind of looks like it could be a rooster or a chicken. It’s got some tail feathers and some wings and it’s got a human head spouting out of the top, but with faces on all four sides crowned by a sort of sun and moon crown.
This being, the siren, I guess, is the inspiration brought by a Mongolian artist named Turburam Sandagdorj, who is based in Reno, Nevada now. And last year he contributed one of the horses in Adrian Landon’s Wild Horses of the American West. This will be his first time creating his own installation, and one of the first times I can think of that we’ve had a Mongolian that we’ve funded, so I’m really excited about that.
STUART: Very cool.
Jen Lewin is back with us with A Pair of Bears.
KATIE: That’s right, A Pair of Bears. Last year Jen Lewin brought Ursa Minor, and then her signature LED panels on the ground that people could jump around on. This year she’s going in a slightly new direction, which is cool. She’s taking her Ursa Minor and pairing it with a new Ursa Major that she’s creating new for this year.
In the larger Ursa, Ursa Major, participants will be able to walk inside, and she’s making this really lovely display of all of the animals that have gone extinct just in the last year, which I think is such a powerful thing just to see since she last made her smaller bear, these are all the animals that are no longer on the planet, I think will have a lot of impact.
STUART: I’m sobered by the message of that piece.
Another turtle or tortoise?
KATIE: Another turtle! You know, when you make a collection of things, you think that you’re only gonna have one of this and one of that. And you know, this isn’t Noah’s Ark where we want two of everything. But the committee just really loved both of these turtles. And to be honest, we had many more turtles than just the two that we’ve selected for funding. I don’t know where it came from, but people were just really into turtles this year.
And so, you know, we had our jokes about “turtles all the way down,” but, I’ve sort of wondered about where I would place these two turtles when it comes time to think about where to install the work in Black Rock City. And if I could stack them in some kind of way, you know?
STUART: This is almost the metaverse theme popping up again, right? “It’s nothing but turtles all the way down.”
Another amazing looking mythical beast. Touch the Sky, Martin Taylor out of Oakland.
KATIE: Yes, this is a sphinx. It’s the body of the lion and the wings on them. Martin Taylor and Chromaforms did that really beautiful head that was right in front of the Man last year. So it’s a similar kind of style of work. it’ll be about 18 feet long and 15 feet tall. He just does such beautiful metal work, so I’m excited to see this lovely sphinx.
STUART: What is this one all about?
KATIE: Well, Stephanie “Paige” Tashner, who brought the Purr Pods a few years ago and makes these really lovely cat sculptures, has created one that’s called “Trust” because that’s kind of the position that a cat puts themselves in as they trust you, with their back arched and kind of sticking their tail up in the air. It’s a series of five cats all facing outwards in a circle. So if you’re in the middle, you get the business end of the cats.
STUART: You get the “razzle dazzle.”
One more that’s really caught my attention. Another one that looks like a mythical Mesoamerican beast. Yuluka, out of Mexico City.
KATIE: Ah, Yuluka. Yes, this is out of Mexico City. Do you know the animal that’s called the caiman? This is a two-headed caiman. So instead of having the sort of tail end, you’ve got the head on either end, and it’s 17 feet long, and it’s made to almost look like jewelry. It’s got all this really lovely, delicate gold filigree, all decorating along the body and across the tops of the heads of these beasts. And the mouths even curl up in kind of like a dragon way with this really lovely, detailed metal work.
We really leaned into the Mexican, Chicano, Latino, South American focus this year.
STUART: They certainly catch my eye. I’m a huge fan of Mexican art. I think it’s about time. I think we’ve been underrepresented by Mexican artists for a long time. You know, we have people who ship art all the way across the world, when we have our friends down, particularly in Mexico City where the art scene is on fire and has been for years. I’m really, really happy to see more Latino artists, more Mexican artists, more Chicano artists, bringing their stuff to Black Rock City.
KATIE: Yeah, I am too. And I really thank Kim Cook for doing a lot of work to meet a lot of Mexican artists in the last couple years, bring them to the Sotheby’s auction. A lot of the interior of the Man Base in 2022 was all Mexican artists. I’m really happy that our neighbors right nearby are learning about our event and wanting to share their creativity there.
We’ve got four projects coming from Mexico directly and then about another 5, 6, 7 coming from artists, either Mexican, but living in the US, or abroad, or South American.
STUART: Outstanding. Well, I’m glad to see some mythical beasts. I would’ve liked to have seen a few more cryptids though. I’m a little disappointed there’s no jackalope and no chupacabra, no Bigfoot…
KATIE: Well, the good thing is that this is 75 out of the 400+ art installations coming to Burning Man. So, you know, we’ve got 300+ more things coming our way, for all we know there 10 more turtles and who knows how many owls.
STUART: Bring me your Jackalopes. If you really love Jackalopes as much as I do, you should try to camp on J Street because that’s what J Street will be: Jackalope. No bees, but I think there’ll be some bees around the Man base.
KATIE: That’s what I hear. It looks like it’s gonna be this beautiful design that’s kind of a hive-like structure. And what’s really interesting is that within the Burning Man organization, the folks that pick the Temple, which is me and my team, are different than the folks that pick the Man Base design, which is part of the team that you’re on. And unbeknownst to us, we wound up selecting a bee-related Man and then a Temple that looks like a flower. It’s an upside down flower, this Temple this year. So I just love the way that that synchronistically has come together.
STUART: Coincidence? Maybe. Yeah. I’m calling the Man Base the “Honeycomb Hideout.” That’s a really old joke for anybody who’s over 55; you may remember TV commercials for a brand of terrible children’s cereal that would rot your teeth out.
KATIE: Yeah, I remember that cereal.
STUART: They used to go eat it in secret in the Honeycomb Hideout.
Now, wow, that’s only like half of the grants are given out. There’s more.
KATIE: Black Rock Station’s coming back, that amazing train station, way out by the trash fence. They’re bringing a couple new surprises as part of it this year.
STUART: Michael Garlington’s latest effort is a Tower of Babel, which I think probably should be a Man base. We should have had him build the Man base. I’ve wanted a tower of Babel for a long time.
KATIE: Oh, that would be cool. Yeah. That could be a theme even in itself. Yeah, the Chapel of Babel by Michael Garlington will be really the big standout project of this year. 60 feet tall. You know the work that Michael does, it’s architectural work, but it’s all covered with his signature black and white photography, really kind of surreal, unusual, interesting, unique, weird, cool work overlaid on this architecture. So it’s a whole tower situation and environment created by it, and it will also be the biggest burn of the year. It’ll be the Big Friday night burn.
STUART: 60 feet. Wow. And it looks like Charlie Gadeken is back, our old friend who’s been bringing art to Burning Man for as long as I can remember. A little bit bigger than his last project, right?
KATIE: That’s right. He’s certainly done a number of trees for Burning Man and it’s been great to see those trees crop up all around the Bay Area in different civic settings. This tree is called Elder Mother, and he wrote in his proposal that he considers it the pinnacle of his art tree creations. He thinks it’s gonna be the best thing he’s done. It’s pretty significant in stature, I think 40-some feet.
At Burning Man people love to bring trees. There was a stage when I was kind of over trees. There are no trees in Burning Man, so people wanna bring a tree, but you know, how many ways can you do a tree again? And then The Tree of Ténéré came along, and even that one, I was like, “Oh, another tree.” Then I was like “Oh, wait a second.”
STUART: That one’s a little different.
KATIE: Yeah. Okay. I need to open my mind back up to trees again. And so now I’ve come back around to embracing different varieties of trees.
STUART: There were quite a few silent forests last year. In fact, I got lost in the playa out on the Friday night before the Burn. It was a very, very intense white out. And I had managed to get nearly all the way out past the Temple out to the trash fence before it really struck.
So I limped my way back at like one mile an hour navigating by art installations. But at one point I was like, “Didn’t we just pass that glowing forest? Oh no. That’s a different glowing forest. We’re still going the right way.”
Hey, let’s zoom out a little bit. Let’s just talk about Burning Man art in a larger sense. I know you’ve got some philosophy in you, and you have some perspective that’s perhaps a little bit larger. I want to talk about Burning Man art in its relationship to the larger art world.
Where are we? There was a time when I was younger when it was very clearly strictly an outsider art movement that had nothing to do with the capital-A art world, and now it seems to be changing. What do you think the current state of things is between Burning Man art and the larger world, and marketplace of art?
KATIE: I would agree with you that in the years that I’ve been going to Burning Man it’s also certainly changed. You know, in the early years, people in the art world had never heard of Burning Man. Where I was living in Boston and working with museums there, you know, no one had heard of Burning Man.
And in the 10 years or so that I’ve been here, I would say there’s been a real kind of cultural zeitgeist, of a change in approach to the way that collectively people are interested in experiencing art that
for generations before us, we grew up with this idea of museum art and things behind velvet ropes and don’t touch things, and capital-A art, you have to have a certain amount of training.
You can’t just make something in your backyard and be an artist. You have to go to art school and you have to be recognized by the right gallery owners. And, that’s kind of been the history of art up until the last couple decades maybe.
And now I think Burning Man is unique in that we were just doing our own thing, just doing whatever we wanted. You know, you can bring out whatever you can call whatever you want art. You don’t have to have an artist’s statement about it. You don’t have to apply this vocabulary to it that other people can’t understand for the point of making it more valuable somehow. There’s something about the accessibility and the fact that it’s maybe a little bit less intimidating.
I think in general, people are looking for a sense of agency in their life, and so many things can feel like they’re happening to you. And when you start to come to Burning Man and see the way that the art is created there, the way that people live together in community there, you start to understand that you have more control over your life. This also extends into the creative realm.
The rest of our lives are a lot more hands-on than they used to be. You don’t have to have a PhD in something to, you know, advance in your field.
Some of the art of Burning Man, of course, is built by professional artists and built by a team of a hundred people and is something really intricate and involved. And some of the projects we’ve talked about today are like that. But there are as many, if not more, projects that are really built by a group of friends in their backyard; built by somebody, by themselves in their own garage; built by people that have other careers, you know, people who are designers or professors or carpenters or teachers.
People of all walks of life get exposed to the art of Burning Man and then start to think “Oh, I might be able to… I have an idea,” and we support them equally. I think there’s something too about the process of building that becomes more accessible.
Also the experience of coming up to an art installation. You know, the first time you’re at Burning Man, you’re not sure how you’re supposed to interact with something. Can I touch it? Can I climb on it? Where’s the label? Where’s somebody telling me what I’m supposed to think about when I look at this piece?
Instead it’s wide open. And I think people welcome that ability to think for themselves and really get hands on and try to figure out like, well, how does this work? And what is the artist talking about? And oh, I get it. Like, it’s an interpretation of that. And, you know, 10 people might all have a different idea about what the project means to them. But it does make it more personal to each person.
The other place I see a difference between Burning Man’s art and the capital-A art world art is that we are allowed to be a lot more experimental.
There’s not really a profit riding on this in any kind of way. We’re not trying to sell this work. We’re trying to support interesting ideas and create interesting experiences for our participants. So this year for instance, we paid a lot of attention to gender diversity. We really wanted to support a lot of women artists. This year, I’m really excited to say that 41% of our funded artworks are by either a woman or a non-binary lead artist, which is huge. I just saw this report in Artsy that the total auction market share in 2022, broken down by gender, that women and non-binary artists were less than 10% of the artists represented. So for us to be at 41%, last year we were at 36%, is phenomenal. And we’re able to make those decisions and say, “Look, this is important to us,” and we can have the ability to be nimble and go ahead and make choices like that, that then go on. I mean, nowadays artists that bring work to Burning Man are more often likely to have their work shown in something, anything from the Smithsonian exhibition we did to some of these current, traveling, immersive experience types of things with a lot of Burning Man art featured.
STUART: Yeah. It’s changing, and it’s no longer a dirty word to have on your CV. I have a few friends who have been working artists and Burning Man artists for a long time. One of the very, very candidly told me, he said that he wouldn’t admit to his Burning Man portfolio in his mainstream art pursuits because it was just viewed very contemptuously, either as folk art or as festival art, and somehow not legitimate and not real; being too representational, too easy to explain, and didn’t take a critical expert to figure out what it meant.
That really seems to be changing. I know a lot of people now with feet in both worlds are working both sides of the line, right?
KATIE: Right. The democratization I think is important, that we don’t need that critical expert. People don’t want to have to be told what something is, or need the expert to tell them what to think.
STUART: If you think about the lock on the marketplace (and it really is a market) that’s been created by experts, by the academy, and by the gallery system, it’s a market of scarcity. And Burning Man is all about abundance of art, and creating more artists, and putting more people out there with the tools to do it. So, we’ll see. It is starting to make inroads.
Here’s a question for the art history student. What is it, Burning Man art? Is it a style, is it a school, or is it a movement?
KATIE: Hmm. I would call it a movement, of those three. It’s not a school per se. We’re not training anyone how to do things, and you get so many types of methods of creation, in all the work you see of the 400+ sculptures in Black Rock City every year. It’s such a range that, I wouldn’t say a school, but it feels like a movement.
And it’s not just in the art world, it’s a cultural movement beyond the sculptural installations we have in Black Rock City. Burning Man as an experiential experiment is a movement. It’s about learning to live in a different way.
STUART: So why do people do it? I know that your department, just recently Brody Scott led up a big survey of Burning Man artists. And I’m really curious what we learned from that conversation with artists. Always, the interesting question to me is “why?” Why do you do this? If it’s not for the money, what is it for?
KATIE: Well, you’ll ask anyone right after Burning Man if they would ever do it again, and they would say, “Hell no. Hell no. It was hard.” But you give them a couple months and it’s time to apply for grants again, and they’re all right back in there because people just love the feeling that they get. I think part of it is that it’s not the capital-A art world, and we’re not telling people how to do anything. They can come up with whatever kind of concept they wanna come up with, and the only limitation is the time and the funding for it.
The environment that people build in Black Rock City is just the sky’s the limit.
When we did survey artists from the last 20 years or so, we heard such heartwarming stories of people who had, people really, the kind of quote that “Burning Man changed my life.” We see in numbers and in narrative through that survey how much it really did change people’s lives.
There’s a lot around both “hard skills” like electrical engineering and lighting and all the sorts of things that you need to know to be able to build something of that scale. And then the “softer skills” like: you need to learn to manage a whole team of volunteers, and you need to learn to be patient. There’s a whole range of things that go into bringing art to Burning Man, everything from budgeting to grant writing, to financial reporting. There’s just a range of types of skills.
So, people really do learn a lot out of that. You hear people who go on to have built their own tiny home as a result of having learned to build something at Burning Man, or people who changed their career because they’ve started playing with lights on their Burning Man project and got really into it and decided that they wanted to go into lighting design. So there’s a lot of intrinsic and extrinsic benefits to bringing art to Black Rock City.
STUART: So, where do we go from here? I’m already thinking about next year’s theme. You got any ideas?
KATIE: I’d love to brainstorm with you on some of that stuff. People always like to talk about ‘breakfast’ but no, not really.
STUART: Breakfast. You know, breakfast is already the most important meal of the day. Do we want to huff up its ego more and make it more important by making it the theme? I don’t think so.
KATIE: No. And honestly, I hate to think about what the art might look like if that were the theme.
STUART: That’s a 60 foot strip of bacon.
KATIE: Dancing waffles.
STUART: Bacon. Okay. Maybe we do want breakfast. All right, well let’s keep talking about it.
Katie, it’s been fabulous having you on the program. I love talking to you. And we will work together and figure out what next year’s theme is gonna be.
KATIE: I can’t wait to see. And I can’t wait to see what all the registered artists will be bringing, you know, that other 300+ things that are coming in, you know, will really be a fun range of an Animalia.
STUART: All right. See you in The ARTery, if not sooner.
KATIE: Cool. Thanks so much, Stuart.
STUART: Thank you.
STUART: Thanks everybody for listening. Insert credits here.
Alright, people, you’ve been listening to Burning Man LIVE. I would like to thank, as I often like to do, Vav Michael Vav. Action Grrl, kbot, Rocky, Deets, Kristy, and all of you my friends who drop a dollar every once in a blue moon through the slot at donate.burningman.org because: Hey, it’s a volunteer thing.
LARRY HARVEY: Many people come for the art, and they stay for the community.
STUART: This program is only made possible as an action of the nonprofit Burning Man Project through its Philosophical Center. I’m your host, Stuart Mangrum, and I will catch you next time.
And thanks, Larry.