How D.C. Burners Are Burn-ifying Their City for the “No Spectators” Exhibition

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 third 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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August 26, 2017

“Are you from Washington, D.C.?”

I’m standing in line for the noon Burner Express (BXB) bus at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport. I just introduced myself as Nexus to a new friend in line, which had prompted the inquiry.

“Yes,” I reply.

“Awesome! Two of my colleagues attended the screening of Taking My Parents to Burning Man you presented a couple of weeks ago. I work at the Renwick.”

First of all, whoa, small frickin’ world. Second, as you may have guessed (if you’ve been keeping up with this series), the person I had just met was Renwick curator Nora Atkinson. And third, whoa, small frickin’ world!!

Not only had we booked the same BXB departure time, specifically one with a shopping trip stop, but we just happened to end up standing right next to each other in line. Our conversation lasted the entire ride to Black Rock City.

After just marveling at chance or fate or serendipity or whatever you want to call it that directed our paths to cross, I remarked that, in my Burning Man experience, this is just going to keep happening. As if by magic, one will often end up at the right place at the right time to meet the people, whether old friends or new ones, that one seems meant to meet.

We also talked about how this doesn’t have to end when the event does. Nora had already begun dipping her toe into the global community, and I extolled how active and engaged our local community is the other fifty-one weeks of the year. We considered how that community could be a resource to help bring the “No Spectators” exhibition to life in a way that might expand beyond the initial concept.

It was an earnest dialogue in getting to know each other and trying to figure out what happens next. Neither of us was acting as a representative or spokesperson for our respective institution or community. But at the same time, relationships between such bodies can be built on conversations like this.

February 1, 2018

“I’m here for a 4 pm meeting with Karyn.”

I am a couple minutes late for a meeting at the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District (BID). They are partners with the Renwick for “No Spectators” and will be installing six Burning Man sculptures on the streets of the Golden Triangle area, which is basically the heart of K Street in Washington, D.C.

I am joining two of D.C.’s Regional Contacts to explore how the local Burner community (and through us the regional, national, and possibly global ones) can contribute to this programming.

We were also there to figure out how to convey that information to our community. We asked about the parameters of spaces and times, power and permits, and all the other logistics questions involved with event production in public spaces. Karyn Miller, Public Space Activation Curator at the Golden Triangle BID, shared some idea of how we could fit into the existing programming, but we also had time for a generative discussion about the kind of events Burners could implement if simply given the space.

Turning Point by Foon Sham

One question was how Burners and Burner aesthetics could be incorporated into walking tours of the sculptures to be installed. It could be anything from having a bin or rack of costumes for attendees to wear to having Burners participate or even lead tours while sharing personal stories related to the pieces. Another idea had to do with a program the BID calls Farragut Fridays, where the park invites people to hang out all day with some activities and programming. We’re tentatively trying to find a date on which Burners can takeover and provide the music, workshops, and other activities, so stay tuned.

Throughout all these conversations with exhibition organizers, I’ve appreciated the invitation to make room for the local community to come in, be heard, and participate. That makes this feel truly Burning Man. While we’re still figuring the details and next steps, it’s exciting to be able to activate the D.C. Burner community in somewhat “mainstream” spaces in yet another way, building on the presence and history of events like Figment DC and Catharsis on the Mall.

March 30, 2018

“I’m here for the opening of ‘No Spectators!’”

The exhibition opens today, and the line wraps around the block. I just walked over from the Golden Triangle area, where local Theme Camps have set up chill spaces, small-scale interactive art, contact and flow workshops, and a DJ booth with world beats blasting from the speakers. And I’ve managed to find a way to write a blog post from the future and send it back in time!

But in all seriousness, I cannot wait for this exhibition to open. And while I would’ve been stoked about it regardless, I’m thrilled by the degree to which the organizations and institutions presenting this exhibition have welcomed the Burner community to be active participants in figuring out how to infuse the art and the events with the local culture.

The planning conversations weren’t simply us asking for permission to do things. They’ve been engaging, robust discussions about actively partnering with the local community — What does that mean? How does it look? As Burners, we know what “No Spectators” means. It’s great to be in a position to help the Renwick Gallery and Golden Triangle BID not just tell their visitors about the concept, but have people in our local community who’ve lived it show them as well.

About the author: JR "Nexus" Russ


Nexus (he/him/his) was born and raised in the traditional territory of the Pamunkey and the Piscataway, part of which many of us now call Washington, DC. He is a queer cisgender man, who practices ethical non-monogamy. He received his B.A. in dance from the University of Maryland, College Park, and went on to American University for his M.A. in Arts Management. He is devoted to the District’s creative community, including volunteering as a board member on local performing arts organizations. He is passionate about building community through the arts, and unpacking issues around diversity and equity. One way in which this has manifested has been an ongoing storytelling project, providing DC Burners opportunities to tell true stories on stage throughout Washington. Beginning in 2014, this project now has a year round presence with seasonal performances and workshops at local and regional events. Nexus is particularly dedicated to naming whiteness and dismantling white supremacy in all his endeavors. He currently also volunteers with Burning Man as one of the five Regional Contacts for Washington, DC.

11 Comments on “How D.C. Burners Are Burn-ifying Their City for the “No Spectators” Exhibition

  • Kenny Reff says:

    Nexus, I had no idea that of the genesis of this amazing event, but finding out you were integrally involved, does not surprise me! How perfect Thank you for making this happen! Since attending my first GLC a few years back, I’ve felt this is truly a cultural movement. Seeing it honored by an institution like the Smithsonian validates that feeling. Bravo Nexus and all the Burners who are doing our community proud!

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  • Peter says:

    You never cease to bring me smiles. Thanks to you and all your local community for what they have and will do to help folks understand our culture.

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  • Nexus says:

    Aw, thanks Peter! But to clarify and share something I replied with on a friend’s Facebook post.

    This was just the beginning of a beautiful relationship between the Renwick and our local community, so to speak. The exhibition was well on its way to being since at least a year before.

    And it’s not that the local community wouldn’t have been at the table otherwise. Renwick certainly had begun to reach out by attending our screening of Taking My Parents to Burning Man a couple of weeks earlier.

    And Nora had all intentions of following up with DC Burners after the Burn. But nothing like the Playa to make something that would happen eventually happen sooner :-D

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  • Nexus says:

    Also, apologies as I realize my hypothetical blog from the future could be interpreted as a spoiler for an event that’s being planned!

    But as mentioned in the blog, we’re actually still in discussions to settle on a date. Also Farragut Fridays don’t start until May.

    So definitely stay tuned, as we figure out and see what is possible and happens next :-D

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  • Elizabeth Lieb says:

    Any chance you want a pewter casting workshop for participants? We’re coming down from Jersey, and would be happy to hold a workshop. We’d just need like two tables and some chairs.

    We do it at the big burn as Hookers & Makers and at PDF as Camp Scarred for Life.

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  • bcup says:

    Sorry (not sorry) to shit in the cereal here, but: please tell me how the opening event reflects the concept of “No Spectators?”

    I know it’s not styled as a Ten Principles event, but it’s celebrating a key piece of Burner culture: art.

    Hi. Decommodification, anyone?

    It’s a $120 plug ‘n’ play party with “preview of the exhibition, savory treats, open bar, valet parking, and tours of the outdoor extension Beyond the Renwick” and “an evening filled with entertainment, festive food and enticing cocktails.”

    VALET PARKING?!? Can I get Daft Punk to play my limo?

    (For reference, the nearest metro station is Farragut West, two short blocks away.)

    The attendees are LITERALLY SPECTATORS who will have zero part in contributing to or making community. The $120 ticket is kinda like a $1,200 spectator “pre-sale” ticket to Burning Man. Hum. Do the math.

    I dearly love the Smithsonian, and I love Renwick. I know some of the attendees will be Burners who burn and contribute year around, at Catharsis, and the big burn, and elsewhere.

    But this is gross.

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    • Nexus says:

      The event itself? Well while it’s pricier than the opening party they had in October for their Murder is Her Hobby exhibition, they also don’t have any identified sponsors (for the food, drink, etc.) for it…so that’s one way decommodification is in effect.

      Also, when talking about community, this is something that’s always resonated with me:

      “The physical space is more decisive in creating community than we realize. Every room we occupy serves as a metaphor for the larger community that we want to create. This is true socially and also physically. The room is the visible expression of today’s version of the future.”

      So by virtue of there being members of our local community in attendance, unless we keep to ourselves and only talk to others we know, we will continue to build community with every new connection we make that night. Because it’s not just about the art, it’s about the interpersonal connections that can be sparked by the experience of and interaction with art.

      In terms of the ticket price, I know for some annual regional Burner parties/one-night events, if you add up the ticket price and then the cost of drinks alone, $120 seems about on par for a special night out.

      But I guess what I would come back to is regardless of how you feel about the opening event, connect with our RC’s and join us to help infuse our exhibitions with our community, both at the Renwick but also in and around the Golden Triangle.

      Don’t let that one night define the possibility of the months in which our community’s art will be available and accessible for free to anyone who makes it to the Renwick.

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    • crE8 says:

      I understand that the Renwick has positive intentions, however they are part of Fedgov and have rules, lots of rules. They have to meet Smithsonian & ADA guidelines and the DC firecode.

      Im not even bothered by the $120 opening night gala issues since admission is FREE to the exhibit.

      I saw a presentation on this exhibit and came away saddened by the lack of alignment with the principles. Taking Burning Man, and constraining and contorting it to fit inside a hygenic Fedgov box is really counter to my understanding of burningman and the value of the social and creative experience.

      I will certainly smile when I go past the outdoor art pieces. Thats as close as I will get.

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  • PomPom says:

    This is wonderful – how can I get involved? I am from DC but have been living in London for all of my burning career and back for a few months of transition – would really love to help and get acquainted with the DC burner community ♥️

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  • Opal Essence says:

    From the photos I have seen and the amazing pieces by the artists, this whole installation looks fabulous. Kudos to everyone working so hard to make this happen. As a child I saw the costumes made by the Bauhaus at the Chicago Art Institute and felt it shifted my life course. I made a secret promise to myself that I was going live near people that made costumes and played music. This year will be my twenty first consecutive year to BM and I want as many people, children, tourists, aliens to see this art. Let’s share our amazing creative process with the world, let’s throw open the possibilities.

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