This is a post in a three-part series about the Black Rock City rendezvous in Nantes.
On the hot summer evening of July 9, Les Machines’ larger-than-life elephant and spider were out in full force, along with the Serpent Twins by Burning Man artists Jon Sarriugarte and Krysten Mate, Android Jones’ Samskara, and a breathtaking photographic display of Burning Man by photographer Gilles Bonugli Kali. Thousands of Nantes residents and visitors also flooded the Isle of Nantes for an evening celebration.
Pierre Orefice, co-founder of the world-famous Les Machines de l’île de Nantes, and Nantes Maker Campus Organizer Bertier Luyt had a great deal to celebrate with their teams that night.
Not only was the 2016 event the culmination of their long-time vision to bring together Burning Man, Les Machines and Maker Faire, but it also marked the 10th anniversary of Les Machines’ presence in Nantes.
When I recently caught up with Pierre to reflect on that glorious weekend, he told me that his “favorite memory of the story of Les Machines” was the Saturday night spectacle.
Over the past 10 years, Les Machines has done much to revitalize and reinvigorate their hometown of Nantes, and to really raise the bar on civic art experiences. Back when Pierre co-founded Les Machines, Nantes was quite a different place than it is today.
“These types of shows are able to change the relationship between the inhabitants and town. They see their town with new eyes.”
The isle of Nantes on the Loire River, France, is home to large concrete and steel warehouses built in the early 20th century, which housed metalworking shops for the once-illustrious shipyards. When the shipyards closed in 1987, so began a steep economic decline for the area, and the city remained devastated for over a decade until revitalization initiatives began.
Les Machines played a big role in reviving Nantes by pioneering creative efforts. “We chose to build art where they used to build ships, where nothing was happening. [At the time], it felt like a new territory,” recalls Pierre.
From the outset, Pierre and his collaborators wanted to reinvent the Isle of Nantes as an artistic destination, a center for creativity. They were able to achieve this by creating incredible large-scale mobile sculptures unparalleled in size, scale, and majesty, and by opening their doors to the public.
Visitors on a typical day can ride the epic Carousel des Mondes Marines, a multi-tiered carousel comprised of dozens of unique machine sea creatures with interactive components.
The isle boasts a gallery and the Grand Éléphant, an awe-inspiring moving machine that can carry 50 passengers. Visitors are also invited to peer into the artists’ studios, observe the creative process and see the huge machines come to life before their eyes.
But what’s truly special about Les Machines’ artistic creations is that they can travel throughout the city, transforming the public sphere. I experienced their grandeur when I saw Kumo the Spider parade through the streets of Nantes.
“We were impressed with European showmanship, with large-scale mechanical art as theater. It was truly inspirational. No one was really doing that in the States.”
Bringing the machines out into the world has created meaningful, transformative experiences for Nantes residents and visitors alike. Such high impact is part of what motivates Pierre.
“We are sure that these types of shows are able to change the relationship between the inhabitants and [their] town. They see their town with new eyes.”
As the machines and Les Machines’ artistic ambitions grew larger over time, so did their reputation and draw.
“At the beginning, the people that would come to see Les Machines from outside Nantes were from the immediate area,” explains Pierre. “Now, 70% of the visitors to the Isle of Nantes are from outside the region and they come here to experience art.”
Those visitors stay in Nantes, spend money in local restaurants and hotels, and have inarguably contributed to the city’s economic resurgence. Despite Les Machines’ large draw, being an integral part of the city of Nantes hasn’t always been easy.
“[It’s taken] a long time…to arrive at this point in Nantes,” explains Pierre. “For 30 years, we have been building [the] relationship[s] [to make our work possible].”
During those same 30 years that Pierre has been paving the way for Les Machines and the weekend’s spectacle, Burning Man has grown from a small event on the beach to a vibrant city of dreams in the desert. And, it’s fair to say, there’s been mutual admiration going on for some time.
From a distance, Pierre has been moved by Burning Man and plans to visit Black Rock City in 2017. For many years, he has wanted to bring art to the playa. “I am sure that spending time at Burning Man will be a source of inspiration,” beams Pierre.
Likewise, Burning Man artists Jon Sarriugarte and Krysten Mate cited Les Machines as a major source of inspiration for their artistic journey. Their 50-foot mobile Serpent Twins sculptures Jormungand (Midgard) and Julunggul (Rainbow) delighted the masses during the Nantes Maker Campus weekend.
“We were inspired by Les Machines when we came out [to Europe] in 2007 to Robodock, a festival in the Netherlands. We were impressed with European showmanship, with [large-scale mechanical] art as theater. It was truly inspirational. No one was really doing that in the States. We went back to create the Golden Mean and that’s kind of how it all started,” says Jon.
“As I swayed back and forth with the wind and flapped my arms against the Aeroplume’s orange wings, I opened my mouth and sang songs to the sea of people below.”
Throughout that magical 10th anniversary night in Nantes, a giant ball of fire burned brightly, suspended from a crane. Pierre explains that it symbolized the creative coming together of Burning Man and Les Machines.
“I put that ball of fire there because Burning Man was there,” he beamed. And Burning Man will fire up the cannons when Pierre and his Les Machines artists make their way to our fair city in the dust.
My perspective on the 10th anniversary night was unique, to say the least. While elephants roamed and serpents slithered across the Isle of Nantes, I literally flew above the crowd of thousands like a big white bird, taking my participation in the weekend to great heights.
French artist Jean Pierre David contributed an art piece to the grand spectacle that served as my ticket to the stars. Part balloon, part flying machine, and part magic, the Aeroplume is built for one. On the big night, I was lucky enough to be that one.
As I climbed into the flying harness at showtime, it was almost as though I climbed into Pierre Orefice’s beautiful imagination.
From above, I saw a city full of gorgeous machines, a burning ball of fire heralding a future full of creative fancies, and a crowd of people staring in awe and rapt anticipation.
As I swayed back and forth with the wind and flapped my arms against the Aeroplume’s orange wings, I opened my mouth and sang songs to the sea of people below. As I sang, a great gust of wind blew me towards Kumo the Spider. I locked eyes with one of her puppeteers and smiled with pure joy.
In that moment, I swear I caught a sparkle in his eyes as he maneuvered a giant spider leg and I bellowed my song out like a bird. There we were participating in the creation of a civic art experience, and of magic. There we were helping bring to life a brilliant dream.
Burning Man Arts and the Regional Network collaborated with Les Machines to provide opportunities to share, learn, and advance the way Civic Arts can enhance communities. We are proud to have been present at the Nantes Maker Faire and acknowledge our gratitude to the French Burners, the makers, and the artists who participated to make it possible. An Honoraria Grant from Burning Man Project supported the participation of Jon Sarriuguarte and Android Jones.
Top photo by Hervé Photograff