AFTERBURN REPORT 2001The following letter was sent to jackrabbitspeaks after the 2001 event. Here, Larry Harvey address the question himself.
"I love your newsletters, and I love the thoughts of the participants first experience at Burning Man. I found the year 2001 theme hard to grab a hold of, and especially didn't like the passport part -- it constrained my experience and freedom in some ways. Maybe you'll ask about that in the survey? Anyway, i was wondering when and how you decide the theme for next year?
I'm sorry you didn't like the theme this past year. I enjoyed it immensely. This isn't surprising, since I'm the person who conceived it, wrote the texts that described it, and oversaw the curation of the art that represented it on the playa. I've originated our art themes since 1996, and I wrote and produced the interactive shows we used to do in San Francisco. This is my creative contribution every year and I love doing it. But not everybody likes a given theme. I suppose this is a question of taste. Previous themes, like The Wheel of Time and Helco, have had their adherents and detractors. I won't dilate on the merits of The Seven Ages, since my own opinion is doubly subjective, but we did get an extremely positive response from many people.
I do believe that an art theme is a positive thing. I think it creates a sense of commonality, forming a sort of meta-story or myth that can be shared by large numbers of people. Stories and their sharing are a kind of social solder that has always connected communities in the past. Almost all of the works we include in each year's theme are interactive, and I try to craft the presentation of the theme in a way that leaves any ultimate interpretation completely open-ended. I would hate to think a theme has constrained anyone. Art genres in any culture often cluster around well-known stories. This shared context leads to much interpretation and reinterpretation by diverse creators, and it inspires artists to imitate and emulate one another. It can make art more accessible to a larger audience. It also promotes collaboration between artists, a rarity in a market-based art world where all artists are competitors and therefore obsessed with distinguishing themselves from one another. Using art to engender social interaction is the particular obsession of the Burning Man Project, in marked contrast to the highly self-conscious, individual styles of art that are practiced today.
I confess I am tired of gallery-based artworks consisting of, say, someone's jammies, black-lit pictures of their parents, and scrawled notes in a miniscule hand about abusive relationships. Perhaps this judgment is also a matter of taste, but I yearn for art with a greater, grander, more inclusive scope. A story that all can share and interpret helps to recreate those social conditions that once made both the production and enjoyment of art more a part of everyday life. This was our intention with the The Seven Ages As thousands wept this year at the burning of the Mausoleum, I felt we had achieved something extraordinary. In a world defined by thousands of fragmented "lifestyles," I think this sort of connection is an antidote to the anomie and alienation that characterize our atomized consumer culture.
But perhaps I protest too much. You didn't say you disliked the concept of theme art. You said you didn't like last year's theme, and that you felt it was constraining. I do feel I should mention that fully two-thirds of the artwork on the playa was unrelated to our art theme. Burning Man is about radical self-expression, and artists are free to create premises for art that are completely unique. We would issue grants for these works too, if we had the means, but, in any case, I think we've achieved a pretty good balance between collective art and individual initiative.
You do specifically mention the passport system, and I will admit that we've received more than a few complaints about this scheme. It certainly was constraining in some ways, but I'll start by saying that our intention was to create an adventure. Using the promise of a splendid view from atop the Man's pedestal, we hoped to entice people out into the desert and encourage more widespread participation. In this broader aim, I believe we succeeded. But I think this was due to the interactive lure and the scope of the artworks themselves, not our passport game.
We instituted this system for another reason, as well-to avoid creating lines at the Temple of Enlightenment, which would have been dreadful. The passports were meant to create a kind of a benign filter. Real effort was required to obtain entry to the tower, but this selective process was in no way invidious. It merely required that people earn their passage by participating. No one was constrained from doing anything, unless they felt their ticket of admission entitled them to tower access, like an E Ticket. However, it's true that the great majority of people chose to merely enjoy the Maze, the Chapel, or the Mausoleum without reference to passports. In fact, those who attempted to get their passports stamped (as many did), found the feat very hard to accomplish. The stamping stations were primarily located at featured art theme art installations, and the artists involved were unable to tend to this chore. This was the first year for this scheme, and one learns. I am also informed, however, that theme camps, which were included for the first time in the event's theme art program, did a brisk business in stamping and interacted with many more people than ever before. This part was a great success.
Perhaps it won't please you, but we plan to try a similar scheme again-with improvements intended make it feel much less constraining. Again, no one need participate in our passport game, and every art installation, apart from the Man's pedestal, will be available to everyone. But we will make the process much less centralized, more collaborative, and much more ubiquitous-more like Burning Man. If these were your issues, I think we have a solution. Theme camps seem eager to get more involved, and I'm inclined to let them create their own stamps. As long as their themes are broadly (very, very broadly) related to the event theme, they can issue stamps in any way they please. This condition will allow much more freedom and more varied and personal interaction-less like a production line. We will not burden theme artists with the task of stamping passports, nor will we align all their art in row. With many more theme camps participating, I expect we'll see more people making the trek to the top of the tower (and, believe me, the view really is extraordinary, especially when it is earned). There will also be a way to avoid passports altogether and still gain access to the tower for those willing voyage into the Unknown in search of treasure (which we hope participants will create for us). What is this theme? I will give you one hint: Burning Man will stand on a lighthouse.