This is post is part of a series written by members of the Operations teams that run the public infrastructure of Black Rock City. Check out the rest of the series!
I am sure there are hundreds of tales that tell the full story of the Art Department, but I will tell you mine.
Art was always part of my Burning Man experience. My artist friend Charlie Gadeken and I attended our first Burning Man together in 1992. Charlie, being a college-trained artist, decided to bring his own work to Black Rock City (BRC) the following year.
Charlie brought his handmade wire-sculpture necklaces in 1993, and gave them away to his growing number of campmates. The following year he brought a large wire Man sculpture to be smashed as the Burning Man fell.
At this point, BRC had no formal process for managing a growing art presence, but rather a very short list of projects handed out on a printed pamphlet.
All Fired Up
In 1996, the scale of Charlie’s art grew by leaps and bounds as he moved into the huge billowing paintings that became the Illumination Project. In 1998, Charlie and I worked together to use my new flame-throwing art burner to ignite one of his immense cloth paintings.
As we all settled in to see it burn, the Fire Department (which had not received the memo that things would be burning at Burning Man) rushed over and put it out with a firehose. The need to schedule and share information with others became clear.
In 1999, I joined Jim Mason’s crew to bring the Impotency Compensation Project (ICP) to the playa. I also worked closely with the newly formed Flaming Lotus Girls (FLG).
With fire fast becoming a signature element of the event, it became clear that someone would need to go into the nearby town of Gerlach to secure liquid fuels and propane each day to be burned that night.
And a Fuel Team was born! I was assigned a chop-top Bronco truck for transporting the propane tanks I would fill for each day of the event.
By this time, Crimson Rose (who would go on to be the first Art Director and is now a Cultural Founder) had realized that Burning Man needed to put a process in place not only for the few artists awarded grants, but for anyone who wanted to bring their creativity to BRC.
This meant that Burning Man now needed to have conversations with the artists before the event so the organization could understand what support to give the art (heavy equipment, etc.)
We also needed to track every aspect of the art, and make sure the appropriate staff members knew what was happening.
This would allow each fire art project to have its own space and a predictable timing for its burn or performance.
In 1997, Crimson created the first art map, which gave a top-down view of everything that was placed on the open playa.
The following year, Hail Mary and I began to organize the specifics and timing for all the fire art, which we would share with Rangers and the newly formed, all-volunteer Black Rock City Emergency Services Department.
The Hundred-Mile Stare
Now I was in deep, and it seemed like we were really cutting a path into the unknown by forming support teams to help artists create works in one of the harshest places for building.
I tell you now: those were the days when I developed a hundred-mile stare and pushed myself to places I never knew I could go.
The smile on my dusty, dry face would twitch ever so slightly with satisfaction as I delivered 10 propane tanks and a barrel of gas to an artist in an all-day whiteout. Rolling up to a burn perimeter, tossing in a flare and watching as the project went to a place of memory — that was a good day of work.
I was now part of an ever-growing team that had formally become the Art Department. I discovered the wonders of Microsoft Excel and Word as I churned out spreadsheets and documents by the ream.
I focused on both the fuel needed for the art, and an ever-growing infrastructure. To do this, we formed the BRC Fuel Department, which became the Fire Art Safety Team (FAST), tasked with the safety and logistics of burning art on playa.
It became clear over the next few years that (like all the other areas of Burning Man) the Art Department would need more sub-teams to help. ART Support Services (ASS) was formed to streamline artist access to resources and services.
The Fire Conclave came together to manage the huge fire performance that would signal the burning of the Man each year. The Temple Guardians formed to help manage the vibe and safety of those at the Temple.
Yes, we were there to help make the seemingly impossible, possible. Yes, it was a huge effort, but sometimes the awesome just needs a forklift, a few gallons of propane, a work light and proper placement to be awesomerrrr…
And if all of that fits on a spreadsheet or in a database, all the better.
The Art Department has grown to over 200 team members. The team is predominantly volunteer-based and filled with participants who wish to jump headfirst into an art experience at Burning Man.
In 2015, we worked with 326 projects, and 56 of those were based outside of the US. Art Support Services logged 1136 service requests with 22 team members each working shifts of 10 hours per day. The FAST Team managed 27 art projects that were set ablaze and hundreds of Flame Effects on art projects, mutant vehicles and in theme camps.
My smile still twitches when I think of all of that impossible made possible…
So What is New for 2016?
The Art Department has now joined a larger team that is focused on the full lifecycle of Burning Man art: from the playa to its future presence out in the world. The new team merges our Civic Arts Program and Burners Without Borders with the Art Department to form a new team that is simply known as Art and Civic Engagement (ACE).
Every year is a chance to get better and better at what we do, and I hope to be a part of that effort and growth for years to come.
Oh, and my friend Charlie? He now runs one of the last collaborative artist workspaces in San Francisco and travels the world displaying his art, both with fire and without. This year he will be returning to BRC with his project called Roshanai (Illuminate).
Yes, I think this Burning Man Art thing has come a long way and so have we.
Top photo: Peter Hudson’s Homourorboros (photo by Michael Holden)