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.

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!

Black Rock City History

Black Rock City 2009 (Photo by Scott London)

Black Rock City 2009 (Photo by Scott London)

You could easily spend hours, if not days, digging through the Burning Man historical archives. Of course, these are mere artifacts — written and photographic echos — of the deep and rich cultural history of a community that can only be truly understood through the collective experience of its participants. But barring that, this collection serves as a solid starting point … and there are some amazing things to be explored.

There are the annual event archives from 1986 to the present day; the Afterburn Reports, which chronicle the events and activities that went into creating Burning Man each year; the MOOP Map, which show the results of our Leave No Trace efforts through the years; Census Reports which show the demographics of our community; Black Rock City Maps, mapping the evolution of our city’s layout; and our archive of theme camps, the cultural fabric of Black Rock City.

The other key part of Black Rock City’s story is our Art History.