Background: Burning Man is an astounding annual gathering in the remote Black Rock Desert of Nevada where up to 50,000 people create a temporary city for a week, which then vanishes. The city is devoted to art, creativity and radical self-expression. Since 1996, each year has had an “art theme” which provides inspiration for about a third of the art created that year, as well as the central Man. Burnin Man also has a strong non-commercial ethos you can learn about in other locations. In 2007, the theme was “The Green Man” which referred in people’s minds both to the folk nature spirit by that name, and also to environmentalism. The 2007 theme included a quasi-commercial pavilion around the Man, with exhibits ranging from a Tesla with the logos removed to demonstrations of algae production. Some of the themes succeed and some fare less well. Below was my review of the failings of the theme that year.
I have to judge the recent Burning Man theme “The Green Man” and the associated “pavilion” a failure. I don’t think this is particularly damning — something like Burning Man should be trying new ideas, and some should do better than others, and if none fail it means no risks are being taken. However, it’s worth examining the reasons for it.
The burning man organizers, who I count as friends (so don’t take this too hard if you’re reading,) took a lot of flack for even the quasi-commercialization found in the pavilion beneath the man. While the companies didn’t pay to be there, and could not put their names or logos on the exhibits, it could not avoid looking like a cross between commercial exhibits and, to be frank, bad science fair. It could not be avoided that people were coming to Burning Man for commercial reasons, that some people (aside from staff) were coming there as part of their jobs and being given center stage for it. In an event so devoted to non-commercial expression, there was no way this could not be seen as an incursion. And alas, the exhibits were not particularly interesting, somewhat heavy-handed and very sparsely attended. Due to the arson, the area was only open on Monday and Friday, and yet it had few people in it on Friday. In the past, the stuff around the Man has been a constant throng of activity week-long.
When I saw it, I could not help but say, “All that controversy and trouble for this?” Demonstration of interesting new technology is not a bad thing, but I think it has to be more natural, such as at the Alternative Energy Zone village, or implicit in an art car driving by showing off the technology for an artistic reason.
There was other, non-official commercialization as well. One Esplanade dome, rather than covering up the corporate logo as people have been encouraged to do, proudly declared it self to be “(Dome company)’s Earthdome.” This dome company, which I am not naming, did a number of promotional moves, trying to showcase their domes. They even asked one of the larger domes to be smaller so they could be the biggest! For the first time, I also had a Bayer rep (or so he claimed) hand me a packet of a Bayer stomach remedy after I ate some food being given away on the street. I have heard this has happened for several years.
I wrote early on in the year about how it was very difficult to have a green event because over 95% of the footprint of the event is involved in just getting there. Going solar or biodiesel (as we did) is just in the noise. Carpooling was the only way to be truly green at Burning Man, and there was a little of that, but not too much.
The theme of the Green Man was only taken as a “nature” theme by a few, and as an environmentalist theme by most. Little of the non-funded theme art pieces left much impression on me. And it seemed that the problem with environmentalist art is that it is likely to be “negative” art that is protesting something, rather than positive art exalting something. I have no problem with protest art, it is a vital form of art, but you don’t want the theme to be expressed overwhelmingly in one direction.
In addition, within a community like Burning Man, there is somewhat of an orthodoxy about environmentalism, and this made the art very unlikely to challenge that orthodoxy. Who was going to put up art that spoke to the folly of certain elements of the green movement. Instead, all the art could do was support the motherhood issues of environmentalism. The only controversy came from the event’s inherent ungreen nature — the irony of an art piece about oil worship burning huge amounts of fuel for our entertainment. Otherwise the theme could just as well have been “motherhood.”
There were, of course, impressive pieces, including in the protest art, like Crude Awakenings with its giant fireball. (Alas I missed my chance to take a panorama from the top as it opened late, had long lines and I didn’t think to use my photographer’s “juice” to get past the lines until too late.) Deeper in the playa, the most popular piece was Homouroboros, a strobe zoetrope featuring chimp-like proto-humans being fed an apple by a snake. (Last year everybody called Euchronia “the waffle”, and this year everybody called this piece “the monkeys” even though, lacking tails, they were not monkeys.)
As noted, the best pieces were funded. But this creates a problem of its own. The more that the most notable art on the playa is funded, the more it becomes a corporate exhibit. While the art budget is a small part of the ticket price, it gives the impression that people are buying tickets and this funds the art they will see, curated through a single channel. In the past, Burning Man art curation has been at most a gentle and remote assistance, but it is at risk of being a controlling force which decides, even if with the best of intentions and the highest impartiality, what the most noticed art will be. There is a danger of becoming an art show.
This is a tough problem. The increase in art funding came in part because people were generally disappointed by the level and quality of art in 2004. The Borg2 pushed for independent funding, voted by participants, and lots of it. Borg1 responded by providing even more art funding. We want to see a playa filled with impressive art, but the more we fund it the more it becomes a disneyland of funded artists and spectators. There may be no good solution.
The American Dream
The new theme “The American Dream” (and patriotism) is evoking strong reactions. I think it will produce better, more provocative work than the Green Man. There is a danger of orthodoxy here. As a counterculture, Burning Man inherently represents non-mainstream visions o f the American Dream. Will many artists represent more traditional images of patriotism and the American dream other than to skewer them? I have called Burning Man “the most American thing there is” because it represents the freedom that the USA has. Only the USA, it seems, would engender Burning Man. The ability to be free to do an event like Burning Man, with generally minimal interference, is a great expression of the American Dream.
But I suspect more will focus on the traditional meanings of it — success, buying a home, coming from afar and building a new life — and more cynical versions — conquering the world, making everybody whitebread in a house with a picket fence. Patriotism, I fear will be viewed largely in the negative. The official theme tries to remind people this is not to be about flag-burning, but there is a danger this theme could produce a lot of art that’s negative, and in line with counterculture orthodoxy. (And yes, there are orthodoxies in counterculture.)
But there is the chance for more, and I welcome it.