Radical Art-Making at Burning Man
2015 marks the second year of MFA Programs' "Art and Survival: Radical Creation at Burning Man"
2015 marks the second year that the MFA Programs at CIIS have offered Art and Survival: Radical Creation at Burning Man. The 3-unit course covers the history of the event; the challenges of creating performances and large-scale public art; and strategies for documenting ephemeral art engagements, places, and sculptures.
Burning Man began in 1986 in San Francisco, when Larry Harvey and Jerry James built a 9-foot wooden figure, took it down to Baker Beach, and burned it on the Summer Solstice as an act of radical self-expression. In 1987, they did it again with a few more friends.
The next year, they went all in and built a 40-foot-tall structure. Harvey named the sculpture Burning Man. About 200 people were in attendance. In 1990, the event outgrew Baker Beach and the patience of the police. That same summer, A Bad Day at Black Rock was conceived by Kevin Evans, Michael Mikel, and John Law as a Dadaist temporary autonomous zone with sculpture to be burned and situationist performance art. The three were members of the San Francisco chapter of the Cacophony Society (defined as "a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society"1).
Harvey and James were invited to bring their 40-foot effigy to the event, and Burning Man moved to Nevada, where it has remained.
Burning Man takes place for a week in the late summer/early fall in Nevada's Black Rock desert, a dry lakebed northeast of Reno that participants refer to as "the Playa." Attendance is currently capped at approximately 68,000 people by the Bureau of Land Management, making it the third-largest city in Nevada during the event.
In addition to the Burning of the Man, the event features public art projects, including buildings, talks, workshops, and musical and other performances. "It's logistically challenging to bring students to Burning Man. It's inherently and intentionally risky. We want students to have an embodied sense of being part of the lineage of the Cacophony Society and other radically interdisciplinary artists from the Bay Area-because they are," says Carolyn Cooke, MFA Programs Chair. A group of 10 students, alums, and University of Chichester visiting faculty Louie Jenkins-and me-accompanied Cooke who led the course. It was her second burn.
The event is guided by 10 principles that cover personal and civic responsibility while encouraging self-expression and creativity-"gifting" being one of my favorites. Ninety-nine percent of BlackRock City functions without money. You can buy ice, coffee, and lemonade at special camps onsite, but you don't need money to participate in anything.
While there is a great deal of joy at Burning Man, there is also an annual Temple structure (this year, the Temple of Promise), where participants leave remembrances and expressions of grief. Artists David Best and Jack Haye created the first temple in 2000, The Temple of the Mind. On Sunday evening, the last day of the event, the Temple is burned.
Despite the Playa's natural beauty, the conditions there are inhospitable to human habitation. To say that a great deal of preparation is required to live there for a week is an understatement. The desert is known for its highly alkaline sand, which chaps feet, lips, and noses; extreme temperature shifts; and a healthy dose of midday dust storms. In addition to bringing appropriate clothing for these temperature extremes, all participants bring in their own food, water, and other supplies.
I had never been camping in my life before I went to Burning Man. Leave it to me to begin in a challenging desert environment like Black Rock City. Fortunately, the MFA programs joined an established camp community, Cosmicopia, created five years ago by students and alums in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness (PCC) program. Part of attending an urban school such as CIIS is that different departments have classes scheduled on
rotating days of the week. The crossdepartment fertilization happens less frequently than we all would otherwise like. Thus, the PCC-MFA partnership at Cosmicopia has been a wonderful benefit brought forth by the creation of the new MFA course.
In many ways, Burning Man is a metaphor for a career as an artist. Both require preparation, partnership, flexibility, creativity, and resilience. After taking the course in its first year while still a student at CIIS, I summarized the experience this way: "Nothing Went According to Plan.
Everything Happened Perfectly." Burning Man and an art career are both filled with moments of serendipity to be savored. This year marked my second trip, which, according to many friends, officially makes me a "Burner." I accept! As an alum and lecturer on the visual arts, I continued to help shape the MFA course (with Cooke). I presented a talk called "Deep Roots: Placing Burning Man Within the History of Utopian Communities and Public Art."
The talk included a review of the concept of Utopia stretching from Plato (380 BCE) to Sir Thomas More to 19th-century American Utopian communities such as the Fruitlands. I also discussed the history of public art, including memorials, from the New Deal through 9/11.
Students were given a checklist of questions to take with them when looking at the public art at Burning Man and asked to assess works based on scale, materials, special features such as light or sound, and observations of public interaction with the sculptures.
I shared a summary of my lecture at the annual gathering of "the Burning Nerds." The Burning Nerds are academics who use phrases like "ephemeral monumentalism" to describe the temporary, large-scale public structures that will ultimately be burned. The group has been incredibly welcoming to the CIIS faculty, with many interested in developing courses at their own universities and colleges.
"The MFA programs at CIIS aren't alone in seeing the potential for graduate-level art-making and research on the Playa," says Cooke. "But I think we're the only university at the moment to have organized this opportunity into a rigorous, for-credit course."
Since leaving the event, I have been collecting stories about instances of death and ritual in popular culture, through the lens of the annual Temple and my favorite sculpture this year, Totem of Confessions. Examples of the stories I have collected include a wonderful piece in The New York Times on recent work by founding Temple builder David Best, as he created a Temple in a Northern Irish city that was besieged by the Troubles and is still working on reconciliation.2
It turns out that actress Susan Sarandon also loved Totem of Confessions and chose to take the ashes of her friend Timothy Leary, the late psychologist and proponent of medical uses of LSD, to be laid to rest inside. The Totem burned Sunday at midnight after the Saturday evening Man burn--a beautiful, solemn event.
Although I never thought I would go to Burning Man, here is why I go back: building community-the intergenerational, interracial, multigendered kind; large-scale public art and lots of it; quiet reflection that comes from sitting still in a dust storm; and the acceptance of grief in the form of a Temple that rises and burns.
The event also affords me the personal challenge to make art and thrive in a distant desert-a great way to build the "art muscles" necessary for making public art and going out into the world as a
1. Retrieved from www.burningman.org
Cheryl Patrice Derricotte is an artist, writer, and cultural observer, and winner of the Museum of the African Diaspora's (MoAD) inaugural Emerging Artists Program award. She will be presenting her workshop, "Money Matters for Creative Professionals," in March.
Photo of Cheryl Derricotte by Nye' Lyn Tho.