How Can We Put Burning Man Culture in a Museum?

How We Got Here:

• The exhibition, which aims to tell the story of the playa’s limitless creativity, is a close collaboration between Burning Man Project and the Renwick Gallery that started in 2016.

• Large and small-scale Burning Man pieces will be spread throughout the gallery floors and the surrounding Washington D.C. neighborhood.

• “No Spectators” will feature installation art, jewelry, costumes, and photography, some of which were drawn from a call out to the Burning Man community by the Civic Arts department with the help of volunteer Affinity Mingle.

• The exhibition will be on display from March 30, 2018 – January 21, 2019.

This is the second post in a series about “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man,” the upcoming exhibition at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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I am so excited that Burning Man is going to be at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery for an exhibition of the culture, community, and most especially the art of Burning Man. It’s slated to open March 30, 2018. I have had the rare opportunity to work in the background getting ready for the exhibition. This is the most fabulous job I have had as a volunteer, which is funny since what I am actually doing is follow-up and spreadsheets.

My first task was to think about what the curator for this exhibition, Nora Atkinson, Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft at the Renwick Gallery, might like to see. Burning Man’s Civic Arts team prepared a long list of artists and took Nora on studio visits all over Northern California (stay tuned for a future post about this! — ed.), so I knew she had some background coming into this conversation. There is the art, there is the culture and community, but what I wanted to share with her was the breadth of material culture, so when she made her choices for the exhibition, she would be aware of the many options available. You know, all the gifts, a collection of patches/badges, pins, calendars, jewelry, and t-shirts collected over 17 years. So at home I pulled out every piece of Burning Man material culture I could find, which was quite a process. I felt like I gave her a visual understanding of what she might see in Black Rock City.

I think Burning Man material culture belongs in a museum because it reflects our fundamental value of Gifting. Gifting gives Burning Man participants a chance to interact, and that builds community, and we carry that experience home to the real world. My first Burning Man friend, a graphic artist, let me use his art to make t-shirt transfers for San Francisco Decompression in 2000. He is coming over today to help move some couches. And that is how community is built from the exchange of material culture. I think any display of Burning Man artifacts worth its weight in playa dust has to reflect that value.

(Photo and assemblage: Jennifer George)

I am also helping to catalog and date a necklace for the exhibit that is a collection of pendants and charms. So here I am, documenting artists, jewelers, and dates. Very fun and exciting, and yes, of course it all goes in a spreadsheet.

And then as a treat for me, I went to visit artist Michael Garlington — his partner, Natalia Bertotti, was not at the studio that day — and see the piece they are creating for the exhibition. I peeked into the piece’s shadow boxes, and this one was my favorite, “Two for Sea.”

(“Two for Sea” shadow box, photo by Michael Garlington)

I had no idea that the scope of this work was so amazing! It is going to be incredible to get to see it in a museum. I am excited to see so much big art — some of which has been commissioned for the exhibition, and some that will be familiar to BRC citizens — in a contained space. It will be a different sort of experience to see all these pieces that we would have to bike out to on the playa underneath a roof. I’m sure they will relate to each other in a way we have never encountered before.

I have had a lot of volunteer jobs in my 17 years at Burning Man. I am currently on the Volunteer Leadership Council, have been the wedding coordinator, the training coordinator, the social media coordinator for the Black Rock Arts Foundation, and have written over 90 blog posts for the Burning Man Journal, but I think this is the pièce de résistance as volunteer jobs go.

If you want to know more about the exhibition and the curator, check out the kickoff post in this series, an interview with Nora Atkinson.

Now back to work, and I hope to see you at the Renwick!


Top photo: Portal for the exhibition by Natalia Bertotti and Michael Garlington, photo by Michael Garlington

About the author: Affinity

Affinity

Affinity, a Burner since 2000, was legally married on the Playa in 2001, was wedding coordinator and then training coordinator at Burning Man, before becoming the Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF) Social Media Coordinator and an Advisory Board Member. An attorney, she served on the Board of Directors of the Western Pension and Benefits Conference. She interned with the Human Awareness Institute for 10 years. She writes about how art is envisioned, produced, created, installed and its afterlife.

8 Comments on “How Can We Put Burning Man Culture in a Museum?

  • CheChe says:

    The Renwick is one of my favorite museums in DC. It’s only a few Metro stops from my office, so I plan on bringing a few coworkers to see this. Really looking forward to it!

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  • Helen and Russ from the Bliss Dance Crew and Dang Gang says:

    Thank you Affinity for your part in ensuring the spirit and essence of this creative community is captured and shared. I am confident that the job is in good hands given your part in the ‘storytelling’! What a task! Hope to see you there in March. So excited!

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    • Quentin says:

      “Captured” you mean like a wild animal? And then put in a “Zoo” for the non-participants to gawk. Sounds great especially since that means that art at BM is now official near extinction, so just in time we can preserve it in a zoo.

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      • LadyBee says:

        Quentin –
        While I understand your perspective, isn’t it in the spirit of Radical Inclusion to show Burning Man art to the world? To those who have never been, or may never go to the event? It doesn’t have the Immediacy of experiencing the art in the desert, but at least the world can see what it looks like. Also – almost all museums show the work of living artists, so work in museums is hardly “extinct.” I think it’s pretty fabulous that the Smithsonian is showing our culture to the world.

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    • Wesley says:

      Hey Helen and Russ we are going!, See you in BRC!!!

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  • LadyBee says:

    It’s wonderful that so many people are being exposed to our gift economy and to our generous Maker community, and increasingly so! The publication of Jewelry of Burning Man led to an exhibit at the Fuller Craft Museum in Boston (https://journal.burningman.org/2017/02/burning-man-arts/brc-art/playa-made-jewelry-of-burning-man-at-the-fuller-craft-museum/) and many more pieces from our makers were included in Playa Dust, the Nevada Museum of Art exhibit. More pieces from our vibrant Maker community will be presented at the Smithsonian; even more of the world will see the beauty of our gift economy and the incredible creativity and range of inventiveness of our makers. Heartfelt thanks and Bravo to them!! Long live Gifting!!

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