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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Burning Man 2010: Metropolis: an Art Review

Sure Burning Man is a survival adventure, a party, an anticapitalist civic experiment, a science experiment, a new Home. But for me, it is above all an arts festival. Where to begin, though, when addressing the art? It’s everywhere. It’s not just the honorarium installations on the playa, nor the unfunded ones either. People turn their homes into art (theme camps), their bodies into art, and merely in walking and biking around people alter the art, continue it, fulfill it, finish it. There is art that only functions when the people play it, such as a three legged crystal of glowing cubes with touch pad rhythms at the end of its tentacles.
There is art that must be completed by us, such as the communist bar lying towards the end of the playa—one bar, four bar stools with a hammer and sickle, a table and chairs, a bench, and saloon doors with no walls. It was up to various enterprising and generous artist/visitors (the line is blurred) to bring alcohol and man the bar, offering their best communist musings. There is the art of writing at Burning Man, in a little dome on the edge of town or perhaps an office desk and chair standing their alone in the middle of the desert.

The best I can do, then, is offer some musings on the swirling, changing art manifesting on the playa in expanding and contracting circles and layers.

- Playa walk #1, in the hot midday sun. I’m talking deep into the desert, far from the safety of the tiny, heat-blurred center camp. I pass a Marcusian vision—fish leaping out of the ground, baited by circuit boards, with a beach chair in the center. Each fish is painted uniquely, but each fish falls into the same technofetish trap. The spectator/fellow-artist sits in the beach chair to rest, forced to contemplate the kind of constant baiting going on even while we rest.

- Further out, we reach a feat of sacred geometry—a pentagon in the center, five of us sitting with our backs to a side. Across from the slanting sides were mirrors, so that we could see our selves and the other four fanned out around us. All the while, a machine hummed at a frequency almost too low for human ears. The frequency and the perfection of shape and color (perfect red and perfect blue) were supposed to help us find balance or grace or at least pause. It worked for me.

- I stumble along: there is a (fake) man in a biochemical suit operating a mine detector in front of a blooming flower. The flower seems fierce, defiant. In this Metropolis, Mother Nature often asserts its power, from these surprising growths, to honeybees transplanted to the desert, to the awesome all-consuming power of fire.

- I reapply my sunscreen and trundle on—there in front of me is the obelisk from Kubrik’s 2001. I think of Also Sprach Zarathustra, the symphony and the text, and the birth and rebirth of civilizations. Does Burning Man constitute a birth. Will it’s model ever spread? I come again, with this sun, with this earth, with this eagle, with this serpent – not to a new life or a better life or a similar life: I come back eternally to this same, selfsame life, in what is greatest as in what is smallest, to teach again the eternal recurrence of all things…" (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche, “The Convalescent”)

- Water from the camelbag. Scribble some notes in front of the obelisk. Mutter “Civilization lurches towards its destiny with the first weapon” to a woman who walks up, walk past a solar-powered upside down city, manifesting on the underside of a pop globe. I am too tired to walk over to that one. It occurs to me that no one curates Burning Man, nor are we ourselves curated by Burning Man. I make it to “The Heart Machine” : a giant underground heart, with four ventricles popping out of the dust further out. If three others placed their palms on the sensor at each ventricle, with enough energy we could speed up the heartbeat until the ventricles shoot fire. But alas I was out there alone.

- I turn back to look at the Man. He is perched on the pure Form of Skyscraper. Just the scaffolding, without the offices. When we burn this man we burn the skyscraper, too.

- I pass a small town park, everything symmetrical and in proportion, from the number of arched entryways to the position of the benches. It is important to pay attention to detail when the desert threatens to blow away one’s piece of precious meaning-making. Then I pass a temple dedicated to all religions. This, too, seems incomplete without our participation, so I perform a wedding ceremony between a woman and the world: “…Do you agree to progress from a mere twosome to a conjugation with the world itself, to love and to cherish, to live and to perish?...” Etc.

- After a conversation with a naked couple in their fifties, I make my way towards a large metal globe consisting entirely of city streets mapped over city streets, in three separate layers. Despite the lack of open spaces, I find it strangely beautiful, the criss-crossing designs formed by our attempts to connect everything. The piece works as a reification of our lived experience of metropolis.

- After so long I am grateful to find a shade structure. Shade structures at burning man combine aesthetics and utility. It is wondrous strange to finally reach a distant piece of art only to realize that you need this piece for shelter, recuperation, rehydration. Out near the trash fence is a double dome, so low to the ground you think there is no opening. But there is. Inside it is cooler, even with eight people crammed into the dome, most of them named Ted. There are pens and crayons everywhere for writing on the cloth interior of the dome. There is a dynamic of focused respite here in these shade strucutres, unlike the unfocused relaxation spaces we are used to. It may be focused towards beliefs, as the little house-shaped one with paper leaves on which we are supposed to write beliefs, and read others’. (One I wrote down: “The power of the boy overrides the mind. Enjoy.” I wrote: “I believe in believing.”) It may be focused on education, like the beekeepers’ dome. Perhaps it is focused on memory, like the tiny house playing a recording of someone’s memories. A gratitude emerges in all cases, perhaps even an anger on behalf of all those without shelter in our various Metropolises. In any case, I see a cloud of dusty hurtling towards me, swallowing all the art and people until they are gone. In these instances you know the dust storm is your destiny, that there is no direction to run. You affix your goggles and bandana and it hits you, until only the sounds of drum and bass remain, like the manifold heart of metropolis itself. I duck inside the serendipitous shade structure and wait it out, talking to six strangers about King Lear, which is what I am ‘gifting’ today in our gift-run economy.

In addition to the shade structures are the manifold cushiony areas to lay one’s weary, sun-stroked body. They may take the form of the Pleasuredome at our own Polyparadise. Perhaps it’s a massive dome filled with giant glowing mushrooms and crystals, or it could be a circle of hammocks suspended among willowing shawls. The important thing is that they are open to all, like most ‘private’ spaces at Burning Man. Indeed, Burning Man questions our American attachment to property and privacy. Only the gauche here talk about ‘my space’.

- Time to take the long walk home. Along the way I pass a pile of metal refuse, littered also with plastic easter eggs. The instructions say to pick one, take it’s treasure, and leave your own. I remove the glowing ring, put it on my ring finger, and leave in its place a Star Wars Valentine that says “Together we Can Rule the Galaxy”.

- Next piece: a cross between a graveyard and junkyard, with various plaster limbs and dismembered bodies. This world is still manipulatable, as you may stack stones, roll gigantic metal boulders, even arrange the limbs. But the joy of manipulative power is tempered by the sobering fragmentation of bodies. Is this piece a commentary on the disembodiment an dis-membership of capitalist society, with its shortage of embodied and whole activity, and its fruitless opportunities for movement and manipulation of our environment in a way that does not alter the fundamental stark reality of society’s organization?

And so on through the desert, reading Leonard Cohen poems with this group, handing out Star Wars valentines with epigrams my friends and I thought up. Each one of us in named ‘Ted’ here in the world of playa names, in a communist-absurdist theme camp ploy/play. I participate with the art, leaving a notebook that says “Lab rats have more meaningful careers than I do” on an office desk manifesting there in the deep playa. Perhaps it will be taken by someone, adding to his life—an exchange of goods occurs equally between art and public and between two people…with no market whatsoever! Perhaps it will remain an addition to the work itself. It’s hard to know what was ‘meant’ to be there. Nothing, perhaps.

Of course the playa art is not the only art. There are the theme camps, from the expensive collaborative projects to the hastily thrown together little havens on the edge of town—from sacred space villages to techno-lush domes; from Cuban beaches to teahouses. There are also the art cars, this year as fascinating as ever. A schooner which required passengers to don hot rubber fishing suits and was capable of depositing a 100 ft. diameter fishing net to ‘catch’ a fish art car. A futuristic tank with a 19th century drawing room as its inner compartment (always disorienting to be blasted with techno music within such a room). A land speeder from Star Wars, a massive, glowing, travelling 8-track recorder. The key here is defamialiarization. Sure, it’s always fun to ride a yacht. But riding a yacht across the desert, that moves the experience from relaxing to revealing. Aaron and I descended into the hold of the yacht to find a land of cushions and pillows, people draped in every style of repose. A man announced that he and his wife would perform for us, but she left. “She’s shy,” the husband said. Riding art cars is doing Burning Man in style. How much is better is the art when it’s viewed from on top of or within art?

It all ends with the temple burn, the temple wherein thousands wrote messages to the dead, deposited books of photos and stories, set up shrines and left diaries and artifacts. All of it up in flame, in a silent catharsis (it’s stunning how silent the playa becomes). When the man burns, we burn away that which in us is overripe, stale, needs to be purged. When the temple burns, we allow our grief freedom to leave us. Either way, to every thing there is a season, burn, burn burn. What are you going to burn next year?


Vanessa said...

Yes Ted, yes.

Maybe another Ted should write the blog about the social creative aspect of BM--in the same format. A day of meeting people, talking to them. How much we learn to let go our normal boundaries in the spirit of "radical inclusion." I LOVE your descriptions and interpretations here. You also remind me that many people spend a lot of the burn alone. I haven't, ever. Next year I'm going to take a long art walk like that, pen in hand. Thank you for generating this for the world.

Vertigo Crossing said...

I love your mind at work, illuminating all these fragments, memories, forgotten objects and moments. It's good to meet some Ted's in a trash fence dome. I'll chase done one line: all Burning Man art, from theme camps to rave domes, playa art to the Man, exposes exactly how shielded we are in our cities from interaction WITH the city. Tiny doors to enter through. BM antidote: a room with doors but no walls. Art so big, so solid, so metallic or stone, that we can barely touch it. BM antidote: tinytropolis. Nearly every Entrance in Rest of World involves expectation, purchase, presumption, lies. We enter with agendas, we interact with agendas, we carry agendas and wander almost never. I wander quite a bit. I need to take Burning Man eyes to do it. Thanks Ted.

Tedologist said...

Henry Miller did to Paris what Anth did to Black Rock City. He's another we can remember when our wandering gets stale.

k said...

Something that always frustrates me is the inevitable difficulty of justly relaying the ferocious beauty of Burning Man to someone who has not experienced it. Time and time again I've seen myself and others reduced to repeating the same phrase when explaining to a BM virgin why they should take the leap into the playa experience,"You just have to go. There's no way to really explain it". This blog is a valiant effort on your part and I believe that if anyone could turn the physical/intangible miracle (as in "an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment") that is BM into words, that person would be you. Yet, not having been there this year I can tell just by reading this and remembering my own experience that these words represent only a frustrated fraction of what you lived and saw there. BM is a creation of itself upon itself, built on on a empty dessert and leaving no trace once it's gone. This leads me to suspect that language might be too concrete a form to explain such an event. Explanations of BM might require a more diaphanous form of communication through which the listener could somehow see for himself what we are describing. A form of communication which does not yet exist and that, just like BM, will have to be created.

Anthony Cristofani said...

Yeah, k, that's why I call it an art review. Hard to do more. I think I'd like to see my friend Karine paint it, see Lindsey Kate sing it, see Vanessa theorize it...

polynucleore said...

I read what you write here, look at Burning Man pictures and I see curious beings who touch, explore, ask, smell, hug, to investigate what's intriguing, unknown. The art calls for participation. Outside BRC I see recognizable objects with a purpose, and only kids questioning their existence. I love your words of experience, and will come back to them for memories.

k said...

Understood. I'm not criticizing what you wrote. I'm just sympathizing with the inherent difficulty of doing it justice. Even the art at BM is not just art in the purely aesthetic and often elitist sense that we often refer to it in the "real world". Art at BM is an experiential, communistic and elemental part of the everyday. In other words, the way it should always be. Also, I agree with you, that maybe by making a mosaic of various forms of expressions we can create a more accurate picture of what BM is.

Cristofani, linz said...

What an impossibly ambitious project you have undertaken: to describe and dissect the art of the playa with words alone. I sometimes try to tell people about the "heart machine" or the "communist bar" and I just give up half-way through because it's truly unimaginable. It's easier to imagine a pink unicorn than it is to imagine a city in ruins that passersby may manipulate.
The pictures match the prose perfectly.
We've got skyscrapers cuz we've got the Teds. And we've got cities for the Teds.

MAX! said...

One thing Burning Man has done since it began was to format Ted. Ted was there, always there, and then Burning Man, with it's explosions and vacuums, sucked Ted into a whirlwind of being. Ted is a rather extreme example of the kind of being that the Man sucks out of its participants: identity is tossed lovingly into a dancing crucible and rendered like hog fat.

When I climbed out I was dizzy. Everyone asked me what the bands were like. I haven't figured out how to begin answering that question. Sometimes I say "there are no bands" and then I have to correct myself. Perhaps the most effective sentences I've used to describe Burning Man are these, which I gave to my grandmother: "some people have Christmas, some people have their birthday. I have Burning Man." I should have added, and I am had. Burning Man isn't the only ritual that matters, nor a singular event that makes life worth living, but it is a part of spacetime that looks and feels, and even sometimes sounds, more like the world I want to live in a thousand times more than the one I do, the next best one.

Anthony Cristofani said...


Isn't that the problem with all art reviews, though? I admire reviewers for this reason. They attempt the impossible. Max has achieved it above...

JanTed said...

What!!! WWWhhhAAATTTtttt!??!? Wait, excuse me??? I sucked at commenting a year ago, but was stuck in the read blogs and think it's ok to comment later.... well no longer!!! I love how fresh this is and how fresh this last burning man is. Love Ted Love!

The Sacred Dice - A Revolutionary Salon

The Sacred Dice is a salon of musicians, scholars, poets, sound sculptors, activists and artists of all kinds committed to art that is committed.  That could get us committed (to an asylum).  That disdain's art for art's sake and artists who have no idea why they do what they do.  We know why we do what we do--to create and celebrate community in a country still stuck in capitalist fantasies of individualism.  If you want in, you're in.  If you want out, don't worry--you already are.