Come to Nantes for the Giant Machine-Spiders, Stay for the Urban Life Lessons

As announced in December, the fifth Burning Man European Leadership Summit will be held April 5–8, 2018 in Nantes, France. Burning Man Project chose Nantes not just because of the great connections we made at the Nantes Maker Faire in 2016, but because of our admiration for and kinship with its story as an art-city in its own right.

Let’s see if you feel any familiar vibes in this story.

The Great Elephant on the Isle of Nantes. Artist Android Jones and partner Martha Gilbert are standing on the very top! (Photo by Gilles Bonugli Kali)

Before it became the wonderland of mechanical animals it is today, the île de Nantes was a neglected post-industrial place in the center of the city where the shipyards used to be. The harbor didn’t have the depth to handle modern post-WWII ships, so business moved elsewhere.

A little over 10 years ago, Nantes made a commitment to invest in its creative industries, focusing its efforts on tapping the potential of this island in the center. Now it’s a destination with lots of annual visitors, boasting schools of architecture and film, and — of chief importance in assessing the cultural health of a French city — its own café culture as an artistic base of operations. (There’s also a certain planet-scale coffee chain opening there, which is a different kind of sign of economic health.)

One of the grandest expressions and primary drivers of this creative change is Les Machines d’Île, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Its founders, François Delaroziere and Pierre Orefice, responded to the city’s challenge — a call to arts, if you will — with these incredible, interactive machine-animals. Their collaboration combined two powerfully complementary backgrounds: Pierre studied economics and has a résumé full of large-scale events and production, François has a fine-arts background and founded La Machine, a theater company and workshop that now cranks out creations for Les Machines d’Île and beyond.

Their compelling creatures subvert the sense of scale in an urban landscape. These animals are larger than buildings, deconstructing the altered relationship to nature humans have constructed with all this… well, construction. Yet all the art can be manipulated by hand, interacted with, played with. They want children to grow up seeing magical, mythical beasts of incredible scale and yet still feel like they can get their hands on them and manipulate them — even make them — expanding their notions of what is possible.

Kumo, the spider princess moving through the streets of Nantes! (Photo by Hervé Photograff)

Does this art-city of Nantes remind you a little bit of Black Rock City?

Hopefully it comes as no surprise that Burning Man Project and Les Machines have struck up quite a relationship, starting with an initial Black Rock City rendezvous in Nantes in 2016, which united the makers, artists and artworks of these communities. Now we’re at a point at which Burning Man Project CEO Marian Goodell will be a “godmother” of Les Machines’ latest creation, the Arbre aux Hérons. This project, including its interesting model of ⅓ crowd-funding, ⅓ local government funding, and ⅓ federal funding, seems like a chance to learn about making really big, seemingly impossible things happen, and not just happen on the fringes but right in the center of civic life.

Black Rock City is different from Nantes in some clear ways: It arose spontaneously, and the entire place is temporary. But at this point in the history of cities, it’s an interesting corollary to the strategically built urban environment like Nantes. With such a strong community of French Burners — three art installations from France are coming to BRC in 2018! — it’s no wonder that Burning Man culture is starting to take root in places like Nantes. We’re excited to bring the ELS to Nantes this year because of how clear it is that home communities like this one have so much to teach us, too.

Top image: The Arbre aux Hérons by Les Machines d’Île

About the author: Jon Mitchell

Jon Mitchell

, a.k.a. Argus, was publisher of the Burning Man Journal, the Jackrabbit Speaks newsletter, and the Burning Man website from 2016 to 2019. He joined the Comm Team as a volunteer in 2010 and as year-round staff in 2014. He co-wrote a big story about spending 24 hours at the Temple of Juno in 2012. His first Burn was in 2008.