Burning Man Art in the 1990s

A conversation with Larry Harvey by Darryl Van Rhey (1997)

Darryl Van Rhey: The system that has supported Art in America appears to have reached a crisis; patronage is disappearing, galleries are closing, even the NEA is under siege. Yet Burning Man has grown into a large-scale venue for new art. Why is this?

Larry Harvey: Well, I think you’re right. The folks upstream have raised their dams. The old patronage system, like so many other hierarchies in American life, is breaking down. Artists are perennial have-nots. I don’t think they can expect much in the future, but this may be a blessing in disguise.

DVR: Why?

LH: Because the old system doesn’t work. Artists are trapped. Very little money goes directly to creators. Most grant funding goes to institutions. From there it trickles down in little dribs and drabs. This has the effect of isolating artists. For one thing, it isolates them from their audience. It’s one thing to delight ordinary people with your work, quite another to “delight” a board of directors. Committees aren’t creative and bureaucracies haven’t a delightful bone in their bodies. Institutions, supposedly designed to disseminate art, often become the real clients. There are political tests, peer reviews, and the ever-present lust for institutional prestige. I’m not saying some deserving work doesn’t get funded, but grants and gallery berths are always in short supply. And this, in turn, leads to a second form of isolation. Artists are competing for scarce resources and this isolates them from one another. Everyone is desperate for individual distinction — “Choose me! Choose me!’. It creates a kind of mania. All over the South of Market district in San Francisco artists are waking up at 3 AM, covered with flop sweat, thinking, “Oh my God! What if I’m derivative?”. This is not a creative climate. Collaboration is the soul of culture, but the system divides people.

DVR: What is the alternative?

LH: Populism; an art that is immediately available to large numbers of people. Nothing’s going to trickle down. It’s time for artists to spread out. We need a broader public.

DVR: What are the characteristics of populist art?

LH: It is immediate and involving. It’s collaborative and it breaks down barriers between audience and art work. It’s based upon participation — it’s radically interactive — and it contemplates the facts of life. I’ll give you an example. Last year Ray Cerino created a public shower for us in the desert. He called it “Water Woman”. A stream of water spouted from between its legs. The piece itself was very elegant, but, beyond any question of form, it required an action. It was grounded in need. It was based on survival. People got naked — it was fun and it was funny. Another example is Pepe Ozan. Pepe’s based in San Francisco and he leads a troupe of sculptors. During three successive years they have created large-scale towers — hollow columns, chimneys, really — which they craft from rebar, metal mesh and mud. Last year’s lingam, as it’s called, was three stories tall. Pepe’s work is quite sensuous, very tactile, plastic, elaborately formed. Under any circumstances this would constitute a significant achievement. But to stop at the completed product is to miss the point. On Saturday night they filled the tower with firewood. It glowed like molten magma, spouted fireworks, and an elaborate operatic performance ensued. Moreover, more than five thousand people, many of them costumed or painted with mud, gathered around it to celebrate. The point I’m making is this: populist art, the kind of art we’re creating, convenes society around itself. This goes far beyond the concept of an exhibition. We see thousands of people who normally wouldn’t go near a gallery. And this is true for artists also. We give them a community in which to meet and work collaboratively with hundreds of other creators, and with a freedom and at a scale that they can find in no other place.

DVR: What can you tell me about the content of the art your project has generated?

LH: We dictate nothing to the individual creator. However, every year we create a theme. Last year our motif was Hell; the premise being that a supra-national conglomerate called “HELCO” was attempting to purchase the Project. It did a very brisk business in souls. We actually created a uniformed sales force that recruited customers. A sculptor, Al Honig, created a sucking device which extracted and processed people’s souls, and we transferred this theme to the desert in the form of a huge walk-through installation that was spread out over a quarter mile. This included a four story complex — HELCO’s world headquarters — which we eventually burned to the ground. HELCO sank into insolvency.

DVR: So the work was satirical?

LH: Satirical and satanic; the best of both worlds. This year we will satirize the New Age. We plan to stage earth and fertility rites. My favorite so far is Cruel Mistress Gaia — Mother Earth meets Venus in leather. She’ll be served by a court of very subservient vegetables. It will be funny, unnerving and weird, but, as with any good joke, we also have a very serious intention. We use our shows to create collective stories, myths which dramatize the life of our community. This year we’ll be moving to a new site; land on the edge of a smaller playa. We’re founding a new home, so some serious earth magic seems in order.

DVR: Can you elaborate on this concept of art as myth?

LH: Sure. It’s part of giving art a greater social function. Quite obviously though, since we’re not members of a pre-literate culture, we’ve had to look beyond received oral traditions for material. Our technique is to appropriate elements of mass culture, symbols that pervade popular consciousness. Our myths have a post-modern twist. It is a kind of guerrilla strategy. Pop culture and the media tend to parasitize authentic culture, transforming grass-roots art into commodities. We’ve simply reversed this process. We turn pop culture back into myth that expresses the life of an actual community. We appropriate the appropriators. It’s a survival tactic for the Nineties.

DVR: We’ve been talking about the survival of culture, but how does Burning Man promote the survival of individual artists?

LH: Throughout it’s entire history the Project has operated outside the system. We’ve struggled unfunded. We have learned to survive. What we’ve created is a forum where creators can connect and learn from our example and from one another. For one thing, we attract a huge public, thousands of participants. Remotely, through the media, this includes millions of people. We’ve been on CNN and we’ve been featured in the New York Times Magazine, the Village Voice — perhaps a hundred other periodicals. At our Web-site we’ve connected to 1,500 people a day and we’re organizing a gallery on the Internet that will feature individual artists. I think this offers a way out, a way to escape the art ghetto — what Tom Wolfe called “Cultureburg”; a smallish self-regarding town of galleries, patrons, and art administrators. I believe that what we’re doing is a model for the future; that it will spread by example and create new venues, a new kind of environment for work that includes a much larger public. The reason for our exponential growth is that we offer people something that they can find nowhere else. We’re reclaiming the social function of art and that’s a very powerful attractant. I want artists to come out and absorb the ethos and the style we’ve invented. After all, what have they really got to lose?

Larry Harvey is the founder and director of the Burning Man Project. Darryl Van Rhey is a journalist and long time observer of Burning Man.

Art Cars on the Playa

Unknown vehicle, 2000 (Photo by Harrod Blank)
Unknown vehicle, 2000 (Photo by Harrod Blank)

In 1995 I attended my first Burning Man, where one of the most surreal spectacles I witnessed was a large silver shark racing across the playa with teeth bared and tail flapping. This was Ripper the Shark, an art car made by Texas artist Tom Kennedy. Ripper and Tom resided at Art Car Camp, where I found myself spending afternoons chatting with the art car artists and helping to paint a car. The fledgling art car camp began a tradition on the playa, and in 2001, the camp, managed by art car czar Harrod Blank, swelled to 25 cars from Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas. Harrod is the creator of the Camera Van.

In addition to painted, decorated, and altered cars, the ranks of art vehicles on the playa have grown to include firetrucks, buses, bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, golf carts, and all manner of wheeled, mobile objects which serve as transport of some kind. One sees boats, pirate ships, rockets, living rooms, fish, ponies, insects, cats, couches, lobsters, giant heads, and flying saucers, among others. The perfectly flat and empty playa serves as a wonderful setting for the art cars, and the occasional art car parade is greatly enjoyed by participants. Because they are the only vehicles allowed to be driven on the playa, they are proliferating, but certain criteria must be met. Gluing a few tchotchkes on your car or covering it in glo-sticks does not an art car make. Your car must be approved by our Department of Mutant Vehicles and you must have a DMV sticker in order to drive it. Learn more about art vehicles on the playa.


Aardvark, 2000 (Photo by Harrod Blank)
Aardvark, 2000 (Photo by Harrod Blank)

Art Cars and Burning Man

by Harrod Blank

Normally art cars are on the fringe and considered alternative and kooky. At Burning Man, however, art cars suddenly become cool, and more, they are integrated into the community and celebrated as part of the event’s identity. The art car artist is thus made to feel more like a hero than a freak, a part of the inside instead of on the outside.

Ever since 1994 I have attended the event in my art car “Oh My God!” and helped to organize the art car theme camp. Moved so much by the new imagery and cutting edge art, I embarked upon making a documentary film on 16mm. I am still working on it today focusing on this creative energy that brings us altogether. Certainly many people are attracted to the nudity and the fire and the overall spectacle of the event, and granted, I too revel in it all — but what really gives me a charge is the fresh, challenging, dynamic, and contemporary public art. Burning Man to me is like a giant adult rated show n’ tell, a smorgasbord of art, identity, and passion of which the art cars are a big part. Granted I am coming from a very artcar-centric point of view, but in my opinion art cars are symbols of the spirit of individuality and freedom which is what draws people to the event in the first place. The real difference between the art cars and Burning Man is that once the man is burned and everyone goes home, the art cars continue to carry the torch year round… and against the flow of traffic!

Harrod Blank in his first car "Oh My God!", 1997 (Photo by LadyBee)
Harrod Blank in his first car “Oh My God!”, 1997 (Photo by LadyBee)

As long as the art cars have the right to be driven, to be mobile and given life, they will in turn give life to the event regardless of its size and location. It may not be apparent to the average viewer, but the art cars help to flip the definition of our sense of community and our values by placing artistic expression more at the top of the totem pole and manufactured unoriginal consumer images (cars) at the bottom where they belong. If only real life was like Burning Man in which only art cars were given permits to drive!

See Harrod’s Burning Man images at www.harrodblank.com.

Learn more about art cars at www.artcaragency.com.

The Art of Burning Man: an Illustrated Essay

By Darryl Van Rhey (1999)

“While some artists have never questioned the current marginal and passive status of art and are content to work within the reservation called the ‘art world,’ others have made conscious attempts over the last decade to combat the relentless commodification of their products and to reenter the ‘outside world.’ In the late ’60s, after a period in which most avant-garde art was drastically divorced from social subjects or effects, many artists became disgusted with the star system and the narrowness of formal ‘movements.’ They began to ask themselves larger questions. When they looked up from their canvas and steel, they saw politics, nature, history and myth out there.”

Lucy Lippard, Overlay (1983)

Avant-garde movements have historically originated among groups of artists whose work is devoted to new and experimental concepts that subvert institutional values. Such values are said to be marked by a concern for material interest and respectability, which inhibits expression. Any such regime, it’s held, is devoted to the status quo, to the preservation of appearances, and inevitably engenders an insincere and stultifying mediocrity of taste. It is the duty of the artist, as a member of a renegade class situated at the fringe of society, to challenge these philistine standards, thereby reclaiming the practice of art as a spiritual enterprise.

Temporal Decomposition by Jim Mason, 1997 (Photo by Holly Kreuter)
Temporal Decomposition by Jim Mason, 1997 (Photo by Holly Kreuter)

Judged by this standard, the avant-garde, in this latter part of the 20th Century, no longer appears to exist. Attempts to shock the middle class undoubtedly persist, but these actions, like so many other cultural elements of our contemporary scene, have been smoothly co-opted by a process of commodification. Madonna now affronts the bourgeoisie, as surely as Piss Christ and the concoctions of Jeff Koons, but such transgressive gestures are themselves merely artifacts of a marketing process. They do nothing to disturb the course of material interest, much less lead to any form of spiritual awakening. Art in America now originates within a system that is wholly institutionalized. The dead hand of bureaucracy is everywhere apparent, represented by a system of production which links art schools to an art industry — a complex of corporations, museums, and private dealers — that, in turn, controls the marketing apparatus that selects and distributes these privileged goods. Caught between the aridity of academia and the banality of this marketplace, it scarcely seems surprising that our art has lost vitality.

One minor chink remains, however, in the armor plating of this system, and it is found in the necessary concession that is made to “outsider” art. This novel category identifies art that is produced outside of the established system. It is, in practice, an extremely broad concept, including work produced within the unselfconscious vernacular traditions of folk art, “naive” work created by amateur or untrained artists, and contemporary popular productions, such as custom car decoration or graffiti art. These artists and their styles, once discovered by critics and academics, are appropriately bracketed by theoretic formulations and historical analysis. Transformed into a kind of intellectual property, this work becomes “art”, and may then assume the status of commodity within a market for “significant” work. That art might thrive, or even be said to exist, beyond the context of this system remains a moot point.

"Das Ammoniten Projekt" by Hendrik Hackl, 1997 (Photo by The Compulsive Splicer)
“Das Ammoniten Projekt” by Hendrik Hackl, 1997 (Photo by The Compulsive Splicer)

Nearly all of the art produced at Burning Man readily falls into the category of outsider art. Or rather, it fulfills the first requirement for inclusion in this category. It is frequently produced by unschooled amateurs who have little acquaintance with academic discourse. It is a “lay” art made popularly accessible to an ingenuous public. It has, to date, received only modest critical validation and it possesses little currency within the conventional marketplace. The work of many “serious” artists, who have exhibited their work in legitimating venues,
and who have devoted themselves over many years to their craft and calling, is certainly present in abundance at Burning Man. However, much of this work is burned in the course of the event and, most significantly, it is deliberately stripped of its normal marketplace context. The art of Burning Man, produced by amateur and professional alike, is created within and for a community, and, within this community, it is intended to be given away. This is work that’s generated by a way of life. It is an art, above all other things, that is devoted to social connection and, to understand its peculiar character, we must first consider how it is produced and the setting in which it is presented.

The social and economic world of Burning Man is created by gift giving. This forms a contrast to the “economy of scarcity” that prevails within the art world at large, in which a ceaseless competition for resources and recognition inevitably alienates artists from one another. The audience for art at Burning Man is superabundant, the venue represented by the open playa is virtually limitless, and acceptance of any work, regardless of accreditation, is unconditional. Moreover, these remarkable freedoms are counter-balanced by a disciplining challenge. The celebrated doctrine of “radical self-reliance,” by which participants are vested with complete responsibility for creating their personal visions within a severe natural environment, promotes a high degree of collaboration. Artists are simultaneously freed from their dependence on a validating system that controls their work and perpetually urged, as they assemble their resources, toward cooperation with others. This process, in fact, is directly abetted by the Burning Man Project. Utilizing the abundant resources of the Internet, it is possible to provide artists with a ready supply of volunteer aid. Furthermore, both the Burning Man event and the interconnective network formed by the Internet have been used to expose the work of artists to a larger and far more diverse public than is currently accessible within the self-limiting subculture formed by the established art world. It becomes possible for artists to directly market their work to interested individuals, thereby subverting the current marketplace system altogether. Burning Man, as a populist movement, has exposed thousands of participants to the uses of art who would otherwise be excluded by the social and economic constraints that currently oppress its practice.

"The Daughters of Ishtar" by Pepe Ozan, 1997 (Photo by Marla Aufmuth)
“The Daughters of Ishtar” by Pepe Ozan, 1997 (Photo by Marla Aufmuth)

The next phase of this process occurs in the desert. From its inception, Burning Man has encouraged interactive strategies of presentation. This is art, to paraphrase project founder Larry Harvey, that convenes society around the creative act. Participants in Burning Man are urged to literally lead la vie Boheme — to struggle at the edge of physical survival while giving everything for self-expression. The interior gifts that constitute the artist’s talent become a currency of social exchange. Art at Burning Man does not merely attempt to break down barriers between audience and art form, and between creator and participant — a long-standing aim of avant-garde movements in our century. It seeks to become the central principle that generates both social interaction and the ordering architecture of civic space.

The result of this emphasis on the socially generative aspects of art has produced work that is marked by certain themes and expressive techniques. At a practical level, much of this art requires an action on the part of participants to achieve completion. It is often premised on fantasies and participatory scenarios which seduce the erstwhile audience for art into assuming an active and interpretive role that often places them in a relationship with fellow participants. This principle is most immediately evident in what are called “Theme Camps”. These live-in interactive installations have multiplied in recent years until they now line the main street of Black Rock City, extending in an uninterrupted series over more than one linear mile of civic real estate. Almost as prevalent are art-based conveyances. A city-wide ban on motorized vehicles allows but one exception: mobile art. This has led to the proliferation of many ingenious devices, ranging from elaborately decorated “Art Cars” to motorized couches, chairs and lamp stands. As radically accessible and self-created worlds, these installations bear a remarkable resemblance to web sites on the Internet. The image of the desert as an anologue of cyberspace — as an interactive, spontaneous and anti-hierarchic medium — has profoundly affected the aesthetic of Burning Man.

Furthermore, these strategies of engagement and interaction have deeply influenced the work of the many professional artists who contribute to the event. A monumental ice ball entitled Temporal Decomposition was fashioned at Burning Man 1997 by artist Jim Mason. This solid sphere, measuring 11 feet in diameter, represented a complex meditation on the processes of time. Embedded with an array of clocks and watches, it functioned, in concert with four frozen obelisks, as an enormous sundial. Gradually melting over a span of five days, this frozen mass embodied geologic process, evoking Time’s passage as a medium of transformation. Sited at a public crossroads, it invited parched participants to rub against it and consume its substance in the form of flavored snow cones. This same year saw the installation of Das Ammoniten Projekt, a metal and canvas structure by German artist Hendrik Hackl. Measuring 10-feet-high and 70 feet in diameter, this sculpture was fashioned in the semblance of a giant ammonite. Participants were allowed to enter this coiled construction, creeping forward by degrees until they slithered out a narrow aperture located at its center.

"The Nebulous Entity" by Michael Christian, 1998 (Photo by Ladybee)
“The Nebulous Entity” by Michael Christian, 1998 (Photo by Ladybee)

An equally participatory work by Dan Das Mann, installed in 1998, took the form of a 25-foot-tall tree constructed from copper pipes. Titled The One Tree, it simultaneously spouted fire, water and steam from its branches. It soon became a community bathing spa. In 1996 a large-scale assemblage was constructed from 88 pianos by artist Steve Heck. The Piano Bell enabled participants to generate sounds by stroking the strings of exposed instruments. Another interactive work, conceived by Larry Harvey, designed by sculptor Michael Christian and equipped by Dr. Aaron Wolf Baum with an interactive sound system, appeared in 1998. The Nebulous Entity functioned as an interactive performance platform designed for mobility. The 30-foot-tall sculpture was outfitted with five airplane wheels attached to supporting armatures, allowing participants to push it across the desert floor. Moving mysteriously through the night, it recruited involvement, generating spontaneous processions throughout the city.

Certain other techniques and thematic preoccupations also characterize the body of work Burning Man has produced, and these can be divided into basic genres. The first of these categories relates to the practice of appropriation. From an early date, Burning Man has been influenced by San Francisco’s machine art underground, a movement pioneered by Mark Pauline’s Survival Research Laboratories throughout the 80’s and 90’s. In recent years, many of its members have formed independent groups whose work appears at the festival. Notable practitioners include Kal Spelletich of the SEEMEN and industrial artist Christian Ristow. Appropriation is a central tenet of this work. Industrial technology is excerpted from its functional context and converted to a wholly aesthetic, and often spectacularly destructive, purpose. The work of Spelletich, Ristow and others will be featured this year at Burning Man at a “disassembly line” located at 9 o’clock upon the Wheel of Time. These practices form part of a specifically postmodern aesthetic, a willful deconstruction of the economic and industrial apparatus which carthartically redeems these tools for expressive use. A prime example is a performance installation entitled HELCO, which formed part of Burning Man’s annual themed art pageant in 1996.

"The Sta-Puft Lady" by Tim Kaulen, 1997 (Photo by Cardhouse)
“The Sta-Puft Lady” by Tim Kaulen, 1997 (Photo by Cardhouse)

This performance featured the work of both Spelletich and Ristow and was conceived as a broad burlesque upon the themes of mass production and consumption. The elaborately premised drama transformed participating members of the public into “souls” within a quarter-mile-long model of Dante’s Inferno. This same grotesque sensibility is apparent in The Sta-Puft Lady, produced for the event by Tim Kaulen. This huge inflated plastic doll was constructed from discarded advertising signage and tethered to the desert floor. Bloated, dismembered and unnervingly cute, this 20-foot deformity loomed over the event in 1997, like some ur-monster gleaned from Goya’s late and dark imaginings.

Reconnecting Art & Life

Raw Vision (Photo by Don Jackson)
Raw Vision (Photo by Don Jackson)

This essay was written by Ladybee in Winter of 2006, and published as the feature article of Issue 57 of Raw Vision, the world’s leading journal of outsider art.







Reconnecting Art & Life

The city itself is a work of art!

The city itself is a work of art!

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 judgement, 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.

Temple of Gravity by Zachary Coffin

Temple of Gravity by Zachary Coffin

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.

The Piano Bell by Steve Heck. Made from 88 pianos.

The Piano Bell by Steve Heck. Made from 88 pianos.

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.

The Temple of Rudra, the setting for the annual opera, by Pepe Ozan.

The Temple of Rudra, the setting for the annual opera, by Pepe Ozan.

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.

Anatomy of an Honorarium Grant Project

In the winter of 2001, David Biggs proposed to us a project related to the Maze area of our theme, The Seven Ages. The Hanged One was intended to be a contemplative meditation garden where one could ponder the issues related to the Justice, the stage of life which invites reflection on one’s past and decisions about one’s future. After the event, David sent us this final report, which we feel is a good anatomy of a Burning Man grant project. It illuminates the challenges and rewards of creating an installation for Burning Man, and shows how a project can engage participants at our event, and also effect groups of people beyond our immediate community.

about this photoDavid writes:
The inspiration for this piece came about with my experience in previous years and from objects encountered during my stay in Vietnam. I decided to create a small environment within which participants could both appreciate the surrounding desert environment and meditate upon their own questions in a quiet, peaceful space. I allied this piece with the theme art connected to the Maze as the stage of life in the Seven Stages known as “Reflection.” I found the tarot image of The Hanged One to be particularly useful as a thematic reference because of the card’s implication towards surrender towards higher wisdom and the Greater Being as well as the visual reference of a person hanging upside down from a tree in meditation.

about this photoI modeled the tree after “cay da” or Banyan Tree from Viet Nam. This tree grows for several hundred years and offers shade and a common meeting place for people in a village. They are also planted outside temples and shrines because the spirit of this tree is believed to be a good, protective one. Particularly old trees are even honored with flowers and incense, and people living near the tree burn incense and pray to it for good luck and blessings.

about this photoWhile living in Hanoi this past spring I also contracted the sewing of the lantern skins with a local upholsterer in the city’s old quarter. These 36 old streets once were the location for the 36 major trade guilds of the city from roughly 1200-1800. Today residents still come here though the guilds have changed. The particular street where my friend, Mr. Thanh, worked specialized in upholstery and repair of motorcycle seats. Mr. Thanh was particularly helpful in suggesting improvements to the lantern design and transport. I traveled to an outlying village to collect the rattan and bamboo used in the construction of the lanterns. Thanh and his friend helped me cut the lantern pieces to correct length and dimension. I’m also working to find Thanh’s daughter an appropriate hearing aid as she is deaf. In the course of drinking beer after the final work was completed, he told me how he is trying to find appropriate hearing aids so that his daughter may be able to go to school.

about this photoUpon returning to Seattle with the lantern load in June, I began looking for a Seattle-based source for the tree section. After one scouting trip and several hours of phone calls to organizations on the Olympic Peninsula, I found the Quileute Nation to be particularly receptive to my request. In exchange for a lantern and a promise to send them some pictures of the finished project, they allowed me to collect a vanload of logs to complete the piece. It was at this point that I saw coming together a unique aspect of the project, the trifold sources for materials from my three homes-Hanoi (lanterns), Olympic Coast (wood), Black Rock Desert (rocks).

about this photoLadyBee was particularly helpful in sending me media packs to give the Quileute Nation upon my second collecting trip to La Push. Upon meeting members of the tribal council, I learned that to the Quileute and all coastal Salish peoples the red cedar is a tree with similar sacred values attached to it as the banyan tree in Vietnam. The red cedar is used to construct canoes, and canoes are used for construction of homes as well as all manner of canoes including racing and burial canoes. The trees washed up at St James island where I collected included hulking carcasses of 400 yr old trees such as this.

My sister was unable to attend the event this year but did fly down from Alaska to help my partner and I collect the wood. All in all, we collected about thirty logs such as this one weighing about 1.5 tons.

The Early Years: Reflections on Interactive Performance

By Larry Harvey

I am in love with this green earth; the face of town and country; the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet security of streets. — Charles Lamb

This essay was originally intended to answer a question put to me by Wendy Clupper, a doctoral candidate in the field of performance studies. She wrote, “Can you tell me what performing was like for you the first years on the playa? And what was your role in the 1996 Helco performance — what was it about?” Had she not asked about my personal involvement, I might have answered her with greater brevity. Instead, this caused me to reflect upon a chapter in the unheralded history of Burning Man. What follows is a partial account of our early years and the nature of interactive performance.

about this photoOur first years of performance represent a dialogue between the town and country. Our urban shows are now almost forgotten. In 1994, Pepe Ozan and I founded the first of these shows in San Francisco’s SOMARTS gallery. Our second effort was entitled The Odd, the Strange, the Weird, and the Wholly Other. We installed the Burning Man in an upright position beneath the soaring vault of the former foundry’s 4-story high space. We equipped the inside of the figure’s head with a microphone, a speaker and a video camera. These were connected to a microphone, a monitor and headphones discreetly located in a curtained booth near the base of the statue. A rope and pulley fastened to a ceiling beam allowed participants to clamber into a boson’s chair and be raised high overhead by their friends. This, of course, required that they trust these friends. Suspended immediately adjacent to Burning Man’s large triangular face, participants were urged to talk to this authoritative presence and put questions to it. Those who lurked inside the curtained booth below would then supply the answers. Our sound system automatically transformed their voices into a deep basso profundo.

about this photoThis installation provoked many absurd dialogues — most memorably, an exchange between a participant and Michael Hopkins (popularly known as Flash), my good friend and a veteran of Burning Man’s early days on the beach. “What do I love?” a participant asked the shoji screen face. “Your car! … you … love …your … car”, the Man intoned. Lowered to the floor, she turned to her companions, jumping up and down ecstatically. “I can’t believe what he told me!”, she breathlessly announced. “He told me that I love my car, and I do love my car! I do love my car!” The Man had once again reflected back to a participant what she projected onto it. Over the ensuing years, these urban shows increased in scope. They expanded to fill the entire SOMARTS complex and were eventually used to premiere Burning Man’s annual art theme.

about this photoThe idea of an art theme derived from our experience of the desert. The simple act of encounter in an immense open space can be compelling. I remember one of my own first experiences with a large-scale work at our event in 1992. The artist, Vince Koloski, had installed a sprawling geometric pictogram upon the ground, mounting it six inches above the playa’s surface. It was composed of neon tubing in contrasting colors. I still recall my fascination as I walked around it in the dark. With each step, it seemed to reconfigure. It felt as if this object answered to my effort, as if my progress through the space were animating it. It soon became apparent that the Black Rock Desert’s stunning vacancy allowed participants to appropriate artworks as an element of their unique experience.

about this photoWe also began arranging artist’s installations on an axis in space, and this evolved into a very basic interactive strategy. By placing installations in a row and traveling along it, it was possible to evoke drama on a grandiose scale. In 1994, this Avenue of Art, as it came to be called, featured a series of exploding clowns, created by arch-prankster Al Ridenour, known as the Reverend Al, and members of the Los Angeles Cacophony Society. This arrangement of artworks along a single vector, I now realized, could become a mode of narration, a story that unfolded in a spatial sequence.

Perspectives on Playa Art

Homeostatic Self Portrait, by Michael Emery, 2009 (Photo by Wendell DeLano)

The 1990s and early 2000s saw the birth of a new school of art, brought about by the altogether unique experience of the Burning Man event. Luckily, a number of observers inside and outside of the organization took to the keyboard to describe the phenomenon as it was happening.

The essays in this section provide a fascinating view into Burning Man’s early years, particularly the roots and evolution of Burning Man art. If you really want to understand what Burning Man is today, you have to learn how it got there.

Art History

Burning Man is renowned for its fantastical, massive and ambitious artworks — and yet, this seems to fly in the face of logic, given the challenges inherent in creating art for one of the most remote, forbidding and inhospitable environments on Earth. So how has it come to be that in Burning Man’s history on the Black Rock Desert, artists have consistently pushed themselves to create ground-breaking and mind-blowing art that (for the most part) will only be seen by a subset of a self-selected audience for a single week of the year?

“Big Rig Jig” by Mike Ross and crew, 2007 (Photo by Gabe Kirchheimer)

Artists coming to Black Rock City enjoy the rare opportunity to create artwork for a truly blank canvas, far from would-be critics, immune to market forces, independent of curators, gallery owners and collectors, and — perhaps most importantly — to be shared with an adoring and appreciative audience. In other words, this is their chance to express themselves as they truly desire, from the heart, unfettered by constraint. Add to this the lack of liability (thanks to the exculpatory language on one’s Burning Man ticket and the community’s agreement to embrace self-reliance), and opportunities for interactive participation in artworks abound.

The Guardian of Eden by Kate Raudenbush at the Nevada Museum of Art. Photo by Kate Raudenbush

Simultaneously, starting in 2001, the Burning Man organization worked to bring interactive, civic-minded artwork to the world outside of Black Rock City through the Black Rock Arts Foundation (now Burning Man Arts). This has served to enable more people to enjoy more artwork in more places around the world. In addition, many large-scale playa art installations are finding temporary homes at other festivals, and several have been purchased by cities and installed as public art. The city of Reno, in particular, has embraced large-scale art from the playa, and has permanently installed several pieces over the years, including Bryan Tedrick’s Portal of Evolution at Bicentennial Park, Kate Raudenbush’s Guardian of Eden in front of the Nevada Museum of Art, Tree Spire by the Iron Monkeys at Whitaker Park, Believe by Laura Kimpton and Jeff Schomberg at City Plaza, the Ichthyosaur Puppet by Jerry Snyder and the Pier Group at the Nevada Discovery Museum, Reno Star by Mark Szulgit at South McCarran and Virginia streets, Gift of Flight by Robert Boyer at the Robb Drive Roundabout, and Pan’s Perch by Ryan Jackson at the River School Farm. Check out this map of the installations.

Reno is also installing temporary art, including Gary Gunderson’s Pentamonium at the Lear Theater, and recently opened the Reno Playa Art Park, featuring six smaller interactive sculptures from Burning Man 2016. The Space Whale by The Pier Group with Matthew Schultz, Android Jones and Andy Tibbetts will be installed at Reno’s City Plaza in June 2017.

The Space Whale by the Pier Group with Matt Schultz, Android Jones and Andy Tibbetts. Photo by Coloursxart.

The San Francisco Bay Area has hosted many art installations, including work from the playa, via our Civic Arts Program.  Marco Cochrane’s Truth is Beauty  has been installed at the new San Leandro Tech Campus, where it can be seen from the local BART station. Two of Bryan Tedrick’s sculptures, Lord Snort and Coyote, have been installed at the Wilson Winery, on Dry Creek Road in Healdsburg. We’re now seeing art from the playa in other countries; Renaixement, a sculpture by Pink Intruder, has been installed in the Plaza del Doctor Collado, in Valencia, Spain. David Normal’s lightbox art, Crossroads of Curiosity, made for the Souk at Burning Man 2014, was installed at the British Museum in London from June to November 2015. As Burning Man becomes more well-known, its art is springing up far beyond Black Rock City.

Take some time to delve into the rich art history of Burning Man.

How I Fell From the Art World and Landed at Burning Man

Christine Kristen (aka LadyBee) was Burning Man’s art curator from 1999-2008. She wrote this essay in 2002. It grew out of the introduction to a slide presentation on the art of Burning Man given at White Columns Gallery, New York, on April 26, 2002.

A view to the Man from above the cafe, including (clockwise from left) theme art installations the Plastic Chapel, the Hearth, the Luminator, the Coliseum,the Chamber of Creation, and the Bike Carouse

A view to the Man from above the cafe, including (clockwise from left) theme art installations the Plastic Chapel, the Hearth, the Luminator, the Coliseum,the Chamber of Creation, and the Bike Carouse

As a child I loved to paint and draw and by the time I finished high school I had decided to devote myself to the making of art. I went to art school in the seventies and completed an MFA in sculpture from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, fully intending to pursue a gallery career, but I got sidetracked by my curiosity about African culture, which had evolved during several years of studying West African dance. Intent on living in Africa, I joined the Peace Corps and spent the next four years in Africa and the West Indies. There I had two experiences which probably were the beginning of my fall from the art world, although I didn’t know it at the time. While I was teaching art in a rural secondary school in Lesotho, Southern Africa, I noticed that sometimes one student would begin a drawing and would then pass it on to another, who would finish it. This fascinated me and went against everything I’d been taught in art school, where the cult of the individual was powerful and one wouldn’t dream of making a mark on another’s work. These students didn’t think twice about sharing their images, nor did they seem particularly attached to them after they were finished, often leaving their work behind without a care. It seemed that the only thing that really meant something to them was the experience of creating the work.

Ladybee ith the painter Twins Seven Seven and his family in Oshogbo, Nigeria, 1978 (Photo by Ladybee)
Ladybee ith the painter Twins Seven Seven and his family in Oshogbo, Nigeria, 1978 (Photo by Ladybee)

In West Africa I encountered a culture where artists were welcomed into the general community and worked side by side with everyone else; they created work that was used, sometimes ritually, by the community, and which was held in very high esteem. The community was intimate with the objects they made, and everyone seemed to feel connected to them and to genuinely care about them. This of course was quite different from the world I came from where most people had little or no interest in art objects, and where the artists felt disconnected from the rest of the culture. In addition, almost everyone here made some kind of decorative art object which was used every day, and there really didn’t seem to be much separation between art and life. Of course the purpose of this art was different than Western art, which is based on self-expression and the individual and not intended for any sort of practical use; nevertheless a kind of wholeness seemed to exist here, which was very attractive to me after experiencing the fragmented life of an artist struggling to survive in a culture which didn’t seem to place much value on art. However, I didn’t quite know how to work and survive outside the world in which I was trained and I returned to Chicago and continued making my work. I started exhibiting and selling my work, and after a few years I decided to move to New York, the great proving ground for artists. In 1984 I took up residence in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I spent the rest of the eighties.

In Chicago, I was surrounded by an intimate community of peers, but when I moved to New York I became one of thousands of painters and sculptors all struggling to get their work seen in an intensely competitive environment. I spent a lot of time, like everyone else, going to openings, dropping slides off at galleries, and trying to meet critics, dealers and curators. It occurred to me that all of us were engaged in this rather soulless pursuit that reflected only itself and had very little to do with anyone outside our immediate circle. It seemed as if the artists were making art for the other players in the art world, who had inside information on the nature of that work. For the general public, who didn’t have this special information, the work was confusing and out of reach.

Black Rock Solar

Black Rock Solar is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that promotes environmental stewardship, economic development and energy independence by providing not-for-profit entities, tribes and underserved communities with access to clean energy, education, and job training.

tile-culture-civic-brsBorn out of the 2007 Burning Man event (the theme for which was “The Green Man”), Black Rock Solar provides low-cost, high-quality clean energy services to clients in the non-profit, public, low-income and educational sectors, with a focus on rural and tribal clients. Funds generated from these activities and other fundraising efforts are used to support educational and job training programs; small grants for solar-powered art and community clean energy projects; and other activities to promote clean, renewable energy and energy conservation. Black Rock Solar has transitioned to Black Rock Labs. For more information, check out Black Rock Labs website, and get involved!

Here are a few great videos explaining what Black Rock Solar is all about:

Black Rock Solar Promotional Video


Black Rock Solar — Nevada News Channel 8


Black Rock Solar in Black Rock City

Burners Without Borders

Burners Without Borders  (BWB) facilitates community leaders interested in taking the Burning Man principles from the playa out in the world by gifting their time and talents to collaborate with others and better our world.

The Burners Without Borders website is intended to be the mouthpiece for this community’s efforts as well as a catalyst for inspiring new ideas.  Join us and get involved!

BWB is a grassroots, volunteer-driven, community leadership program whose goal is to unlock the creativity of local communities to solve problems that bring about meaningful change. Supporting volunteers from around the world in innovative relief solutions & community resiliency projects, BWB is known for the unbridled creativity they bring to every project they do.

Burners Without Borders coalesced from a spontaneous, collective instinct to meet gaping needs where traditional societal systems were clearly failing post Hurricane Katrina. Since that time, BWB has emerged as a community led, grassroots group that encourages innovative, civic participation that creates positive change locally.

Following the 2005 Burning Man event, several participants headed south into the Hurricane Katrina disaster area to help people rebuild their devastated communities. As the volunteer numbers grew, they focused their initial efforts on rebuilding a destroyed Vietnamese temple in Biloxi, Mississippi. After several months, that job done, they moved to another needy Mississippi community, Pearlington, to continue to work hard — gifting their time — to help those in need. Over the course of eight months, BWB volunteers gifted over $1 million dollars worth of reconstruction and debris removal to the residents of Mississippi.

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Burners Without Borders Promotional Video

Permaculture Action Day with Kiss The Ground from Empact Labs on Vimeo.

Burners Without Borders is not affiliated with Doctors Without Borders, which is a registered trademark of Médecins Sans Frontières International.

Civic Initiatives

Burning Man’s civic engagement initiatives are intended to foster civic responsibility and volunteerism in pursuit of a civil society, economic development and positive change at the local level. Join us here for stories of collaborative efforts in communities around the world.

People come to Black Rock City from all over the world and say ‘why can’t my home town be more like this?’ We say it can.

Peralta Junction

Ever wondered what might happen if artists joined forces with their community to turn an abandoned lot into something amazing? That question was at the forefront of the Peralta Junction Project, an experimental, carny-themed activation space based in West Oakland, CA, which took a grassroots approach to artful engagement and neighborhood transformation.

Peralta Junction on Opening Day. (Photo: Peralta Junction Project)
Peralta Junction on Opening Day. (Photo: Peralta Junction Project)

Once the event opened on October 4 2012 with an outdoor film screening, Peralta transformed the previously abandoned 24,000 square-foot lot at the intersection of Mandela Parkway and Peralta Street into an active community space filled with art installations, creative workshops, performances, micro-retail shops occupied by local artisans, Oakland-based food trucks, a tented gathering place, a pumpkin patch, and more.

Sugar Skull Workshop with The Crane and the Crow band. (Photo: Jill Sanders)
Sugar Skull Workshop with The Crane and the Crow band. (Photo: Jill Sanders)

Produced by Commonplace Productions, One Hat One Hand, and a swell of volunteers, each week featured additional programming – including the installation of Life Size Mousetrap on Saturday, Nov. 10 – creating a unique experience for event-goers week after week, through its closing on November 30.

Lower Bottom Blues Band. (Photo: Peralta Junction Project)
Lower Bottom Blues Band. (Photo: Peralta Junction Project)

In addition to pure awesomeness and alignments with our guiding principles – Participation and Communal Effort being big ones – what made this project so special is its ability to be replicated and customized for different neighborhoods in the future. Urban spaces all over the world have their share of abandoned corners like this one in Oakland, just waiting for people to turn them into something wonderful. One of our many goals in sponsoring this project, in addition to assisting in workshop curation, was to create documentation that will help people pull off similar projects in their neighborhood in their own unique way.

The project continued to revolutionize weekends in this historically challenged neighborhood through its closing celebrations Friday, November 30. We are very proud of our support of Peralta in making magic happen!

More photos at our flickr.

History & Timeline

Our interactive historical timeline will take you through the cultural history of Burning Man as it has grown from a small gathering on San Francisco’s Baker Beach into an international phenomenon.

You can also pull up a comfortable chair, pour yourself a cool drink, and delve into the depths of Burning Man’s historical archive. Pick a category and get started!

Community Events Archive

This is the archive of the community events that the Burning Man organization organized and hosted through the years. So many years, so many events. Here’s a collection of events from years past.

Checkout the Flambé Lounge Archives:

  • 2010 – MEGA-Precompression!
  • 2010 – Burnal Equinox Flambé Lounge’opolis!
  • 2009 – Precompression Flambé Lounge!
  • 2009 – Burnal Equinox Flambé Lounge!
  • 2008 – Burnal Equinox and Precompression Flambé Lounge!
  • 2007 – Burnal Equinox & Precompression!
  • 2006 – Burnal Equinox, Sk’bowling #2 & The First S.F. Fire Arts Expo!
  • 2005 – Our 1st April Fools Sk;bowling fun and Flambé Lounge!
  • 2004 – The Vault of Heaven Mad Scientist BBQ and Astronomers Ball
  • 2003 – Beyond Belief Flambé Lounge!
  • 2002 – The Blue Ball, Flambé Island, & The S.S. Blackrock Launch Party
  • 2001 – The Seven Ages & Foolz Ball
  • 2000 – The Head Dress and HeART Attack Flambé Lounge

Thank you to everybody who put in the hard work to make these fantastic events happen, and to the participants who made them what they were.