AFTERBURN REPORT 2007
ART OF BLACK ROCK CITY
2007 was a great year, and a tough year for art on the playa. The theme inspired a lot of interesting work – there were about 225 installations on the playa, 15 in the café, and in the Pavilion at the base of the Man - including the Mangrove trees, art and exhibits – another 60 projects, for a grand total of 300 installations. 220 were pre-registered, and 80 registered on-site at the ARTery. The fierce weather however, prevented some artists from showing their work and blew down some installations. Burning Man has been described as the “Olympics of Art”, and this year certainly challenged everyone.
The area underneath and surrounding the Man continues to act as a Mecca for our population, and this year the largest, most interactive space to date was installed. The Pavilion opened on Monday afternoon, but unfortunately due to the arson event early Tuesday morning, was closed for most of the event week. This closure was due to safety concerns and the Man rebuild. The tremendous amount of water that was used to douse the fire created approximately six inches of mud in and around the central structure of the Pavilion (the Man Mountain), and between the two other structures (the Foothills). There was also a concern about burnt and broken glass from the Man on the shade cloth. The section in this Afterburn report covering the Man and the Man rebuild discusses these and other issues more in-depth.
As alluded above, the Man base was composed of several different structures. The Man stood on what the Pavilion team called the "Man Mountain”. On the six o'clock and the twelve o’clock sides were two other structures, identified as the “Foothills”. The Foothills were the residence of the Green Man exhibits. Residing in 30,000 square feet of shaded space, the exhibits celebrated the Green Man theme, sharing a blend of interactive artistic, scientific and education endeavors generated to entice participants while teaching them how to live a greener existence.
Over 150 groups applied to participate in the Green Man Pavilion. These applications were evaluated using several guidelines. Firstly, no corporate branding was allowed. Every exhibit within the Pavilion was required to eradicate any corporate logos, messaging, etc. Another criterion for application was that a piece or installation must be interactive. A key tenet of the Burning Man ethos is participation, and installations surrounding the Man are selected for offering a participative way of educating and inspiring. These guidelines and others helped winnow the groups down to 30 exhibits. Ranging from steam power to ecologically-focused burials, the exhibits showcased some of the latest technologies and innovative strategies available today.
Surrounding the Man Mountain and Foothills was a ring of ’trees’, dubbed the “Mangrove”. Composed of almost fifty ‘trees’ created by twenty-five artist groups, the Mangrove created an arbor through which participants would navigate to enter the Pavilion structure. Almost all of the artists that created ‘trees’ received a grant from Burning Man. These grants reflected a small percentage of the overall honorarium budget, and acted as a celebration of smaller, more intimate art installations.
The ‘trees’ were amazing, and as diverse as our community. At the end of the four walkways were the Tree Spires. Created by a Seattle-based art collective called the Iron Monkeys, these ‘trees’ incorporated a bench encircling the structure, offering a place for rest and reflection. The branches were decorated with colorful lanterns, which played in the wind and light.
Artist collectives were a prominent theme for the Mangrove. Another collective was the one that created Refoliation, a group of five metal ‘trees’ created from scrap metal. These ‘trees’ exemplified the Green Man theme, as the trunks, branches and leaves were all created from recycled materials. Each leaf was created from trash bags fused together and cut out. Every sunset the Refoliation team would add more leaves to the branches, making them lush by the end of the event.
On the other end of the materials spectrum was Multi-Point Perspective. These ‘trees’ were constructed out of wood, and created an arc that aligned at sunrise and sunset.
One ‘tree’ called A Tree Undone used natural wood. Festooned with knitted leaves, participants could slowly unravel the leaves, leaving a trail of yarn still attached to the branches. This concept illustrated the ephemeral nature of Burning Man, and life in general.
Much of the Mangrove ring was affected by the arson, and a barrier of orange trash fence was installed just inside the perimeter of ‘trees’. This inhibited participants from having a chance to interact with and discover the beauty of each of the trees.
Burning Man funded 30 projects on the open playa in 2007 (in addition to the Pavilion grants), out of 250 grant proposals.
The competition was intense, and we were unable to fund many projects of merit. Of the 30 projects we funded, only one did not materialize: The Black Rock Glacier. It was a very good proposal, but the artist did not have adequate crew to build it. He brought the materials to the playa, but was unable to build the project, and will repay the grant funds to Burning Man. A second project, Mechabolic, finished very late and was not quite as functional as the staff had anticipated it would be, just on Sunday night of the event. We always endeavor to assess projects carefully, in terms of likelihood of completion, no matter how impressed we may be with the concepts on paper. We are looking into more detailed examination of building plans, which could involve having an experienced engineer evaluate projects we are interested in before we make decisions. We also need to assess the heavy equipment needs of each project to be sure that we have the resources to install them.
A few of the other projects, including Crude Awakening and Big Rig Jig, were ambitious and taxed the heavy equipment and art support services more heavily than we were prepared for. 2007 was certainly the year of the extremely large-scale, complex art installations. Two of the funded projects, Homouroboros and Crude Awakening, had huge crews of up to 200 people. We are very pleased to see collaboration and community involvement on such a scale.
The playa was dominated by several large scale installations; notably, Crude Awakening, which featured a 100’ tall wooden oil derrick which afforded grand views of Black Rock City from its upper deck. Its eight large metal figures featured participant-operated flame effects. On Saturday night, a smoke machine filled the area with haze as a very loud air raid siren wailed, summoning the community to the site. As the Star-Spangled Banner began to play, an over-the-top fireworks display began in front of the installation, culminating in a pressurized gas explosion which consumed the oil derrick in flames, and after which the tower crashed to the ground. Big Rig Jig astonished everyone, with its two reassembled oil tankers standing vertically, appearing to curl around each other like two mating caterpillars. It was a feat of engineering to make these big rigs stand erect; to see these heavy vehicles rising 60 feet into the air was disturbing, and even more impressive was the fact that participants could safely enter the trucks and climb inside the tanks nearly to the top, passing artificial greenery on their way. Had the oil run out? Had the plants taken over the contorted skeletons of the empty tankers? Clearly, the message that something was awry was effectively delivered.
Homouroboros, a complex circular zoetrope, was participant-powered by bicycles and drums, which when pedaled and beaten enough, produced energy which spun the mechanism. The illusion created was that of dozens of life-sized monkeys swung along by their arms while snakes slithered up from the center and delivered apples to the monkeys, who grabbed and ate them. The illusion was timed to last only briefly, so participants had to make an effort to see it again. It was a very popular and compelling experience, and a great example of alternative energy.
2007 was also the year of the Steampunk genre. Three funded projects were based on this aesthetic, which derives from early Industrial Age technology, and seeks to rejuvenate it in art and literature. Steampunk Treehouse featured a clubhouse decorated in industrial Victoriana, a calliope which activated steam whistles in its metal tree branches, a hand-operated mechanical vulture and a truck-tire swing. Its steam effects were provided by Kinetic SteamWorks, a 1920’s Case steam engine which pulled up to the Treehouse nightly and pumped steam through pipes in its branches. The Never Was Haul, a three-story mobile Victorian house on wheels, was parked next to a Victorian stage, where various performers entertained participants. Costumed project members demonstrated ‘green’ technologies including a solar distiller, a steam generator and a bio-peat mill.
Burning Man does not typically fund art by first-time attendees, but an impressive proposal by two architecture students from Karlsruhe, Germany convinced the Art Grant team to take a chance. The Cone was a very beautiful installation, featuring a latticed interior cone around which spun an exterior cone driven by the wind. Participants could enter the inner cone and lie within it, watching the outer cone spin around them.
A lovely rotating orrery of lights, Fata Morgana, graced the Keyhole in center camp. Dancing Trees, made of green rope lights, lined both sides of the Keyhole. These two light installations worked very well together. One funded installation, the Guardian of Eden, traveled to the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno immediately after the event, where it was installed in the front courtyard, where it will remain for several months. It is the intention of the organization to continue finding homes off the playa for Burning Man art installations.
The Green Man theme inspired many installations that explored themes of environmental destruction, recycling, alternative energy and climate change. Whale Skeleton, partially submerged in the deep playa, was made entirely of recycled materials, including 5-gallon paint buckets as vertebrae. Equatorial Encounter, two penguins from the South Pole met a polar bear stranded on the last scrap of northern ice. One artist’s unsold drawings and paintings were reconfigured into an interactive structure inspired by Buddhist sand mandalas. Other artists explored nature in all its myriad aspects. Two large-scale grape vines opposed each other on the walkway to the man: GrapeStem, and Dionysus. The Golden Spiral demonstrated how the Golden Mean is found throughout nature. An aerial piece, Skyline, demonstrated wind patterns via a single line of helium balloons suspended in the air and anchored on the playa.
Vandalism to the art was rampant this year. Radical self-expression does not include damaging other people’s art! All participants need to join together and make respecting the art a community standard. Of the funded projects, four were seriously damaged: Guardian of Eden was repeatedly vandalized, it was tagged, and also sustained damage to the metal leaves, the lighting components and the central disk. The crew of Big Rig Jig caught a tagger only twenty minutes after they opened the completed installation. Museum de Materiels Retrouve was heavily tagged, and Koilos was damaged by climbers who bent and broke its fragile skin.
The theme art suffered from vandalism this year, too. Damselfly was a beautiful metal insect which rotated on a central pole if spun by participants. One person could ride on the head. Most unfortunately, according to the artist, “three people loaded on to the front while some guy grabbed the end of the tail and repeatedly jerked it up and down until the tail buckled.” He had to take the piece down on Wednesday, preventing many participants from enjoying it.
Another arson occurred early Sunday morning, after the Man burn. The torched installation called America Empowering the World – Again, a 10-foot tall Statue of Liberty carved from wood, surrounded by smaller woodcarvings. The piece stood on a special trailer, which contained tools and generator, as the artist was carving by day so participants could observe his process. Someone dumped the gasoline from his generator onto the statue and ignited it. The statue was charred through and all of the tools and equipment were destroyed. This kind of malicious vandalism really must be stopped; it is never permissible to burn, tag or damage someone’s art installation – only one’s own. Some artists are so discouraged by this disrespectful behavior that some of them are reconsidering bringing their art to the playa again. This is a difficult problem to solve, and we need to address it consistently, this year and in the future, on a community-wide scale. The artists need to build their work to withstand some damage, but the community also needs to step up and stop vandals in action, and if possible, to educate them. The artists work very hard to bring their work to a hostile environment for the community to enjoy, and we should reward them with respect.
In 2007 we had more projects associated with the theme than ever before. The number of playa art projects remained strong, staying in line with the 2006 number, with over 175 projects pre-registered. Due to the challenging weather, several small projects were unfortunately not completed. Hopefully, the weather in 2008 will not impede artists from installing their work.
The playa art in 2007 raised the bar from any previous year! The installations accomplished a wide range of experiences, from Call to Prayer, which leveraged Islam to connect participants to their spirituality, to Playa Ruins, a tower of small bricks made of playa and water, standing five feet tall. One feature that could be identified though across the one hundred plus installations was interactivity. Each installation shared an experience to participants – experiences enjoyed and defined by them. One hugely popular installation was Shiva Vista. Created as an interactive play space for fire performers, Shiva Vista offers a venue for artists to play with and celebrate fire arts.
Light installations were very popular. Out of the nearly 200 installations pre-registered, approximately one third was light installations. This is a dramatic increase from the last few years. Hopefully this trend continues.
Christine Kristen & Beth Scarborough