How Hard Is It to Be a Participant at the Smithsonian’s “No Spectators” Exhibit?

The Mission

Right now the Smithsonian is holding a major exhibit of “Burning Man art” called No Spectators. Everyone is impressed by it, but the question keeps being asked: just how “Burning Man” is the premier exhibit of “Burning Man art?”

I came to the Renwick Gallery, where the exhibit is held, to test a theory: what if someone were to go to No Spectators and try not to be a spectator?

I walked up to the Renwick holding a sign that I’d made the day before as part of a stranger’s art project at Figment Alpha, an unofficial but very much culturally compatible Burning Man event.

The sign said “Controversy NOW!”

 The guard at the door stopped me. “You can’t bring that in here.”

“Well,” I said, “Radical Self-Expression is one of Burning Man’s 10 Principles …”

He did not know what the 10 Principles were, and emphasized that if I tried to take it in, he would have to take measures.

“Okay,” I said. “Sure.” So I stepped back and over to the side, and asked a passerby to take a picture of me with the sign in front of the museum.

This sign/art piece, created at a Burning Man event, was too controversial for the Renwick’s Burning Man exhibit, and had to be removed from the premises.

When the guard saw what I was doing, he insisted that I take the sign off the property.

I stepped further away, stuck my sign around the corner, then went back to go into the museum. When the guard saw me, he demanded to know “Where’s the sign?”

“I left it outside,” I said.

“Where outside?’ he asked.

I gaped at him. “Are you serious? Out … there …” I gestured vaguely.

He stared at me for a while, then searched my bag. Then, reluctantly, let me in.

Now let’s spare a moment’s sympathy for this guy: he works here, and I’m a tourist, and if he had let me in with my sign and something had gone down, his ass would have been on the line. He could have been nicer, while I was deliberately polite, but of the two of us, I was much closer to being the asshole in this situation.

However … however … it is still relevant to point out that a piece of “Burning Man art” created by real Burning Man participants at a Burning Man event 100 miles away, less than 24 hours ago, was not allowed in the premier museum exhibit of Burning Man art because it might have led to an act of self-expression.

That seems relevant to me.

Fortunately, the guard hadn’t realized that the giant binder he’d glossed over in my backpack was also an art project. I was still armed and … dangerous? And I scouted my way through the gallery, to figure out where and when to offer strangers pieces of art as gifts.


The Exhibit


The signs say very clearly that you can’t climb on the art, so that’s out. One wonders if the Smithsonian is really the right model of a good museum for Burning Man art.  Perhaps – and I say this with no hint of an insult at all – a children’s museum would be a better model. The rough-and-tumble, play-and-playground aspect that children’s museums cultivate seems much closer to our mission and philosophy than the high culture gallery model.

That said … goddamn, this is special. It seems absurd to have to say “gosh, the Smithsonian is good at this museum stuff.” But really:  as people who care about the arts, we should go out of our way to tip our hats to masterful presentation. This thing is gorgeous, and in spite of myself I am impressed. It is, absolutely, the best exposure to many aspects of Burning Man that people who have no direct connection to it and no interest in looking closely at it will ever get.  It’s hard not to be inspired.  Good things will come to Burning Man because of this.  And it’s great for the artists in it.

My compliments. And there are many.

But it does have blind spots. The most significant is the exhibit’s clear veneration for its subject matter.

Aside from a few Cacophony artifacts, most of which are newsletters behind glass that can’t really be examined as they were meant to be, there is NOTHING FUNNY about this exhibit at all.  Nothing weird.  Nothing irreverent.  Nothing even especially outre, beyond a few costume pieces.

Given how much of Burning Man is spent laughing your ass off, given how much of it is spent on brilliant and amateurish nonsense, on jaw dropping absurdity, this is a fatal omission.  If they can recreate Bliss Dance, they can recreate “Free Mayo” – an art project (from 2005, I think?) which was a jumbo jar of mayonnaise left out in the desert sun next to a sign saying “Free Mayo.” Come on – that would be HILARIOUS just sitting there in the Smithsonian gallery! And I bet they could recreate it: I think the parts are available.

Free Mayo (photo by Bob Marzewski)

If they can recreate a temple, they can recreate the giant VCR constantly blinking “12:00” for no reason that was displayed at Burning Man in (I think) 2000.

If they can have Christopher Schardt’s magnificent “Firmament,” they can have a replication of Barbie Death Camp, or the Bureau of Needless Bureaucracy.  Or the “Disgusting Spectacle” – which is a human sized and powered hamster wheel that, if you run on it, causes a giant statue of a face and a hand to pick its own nose.

Or they could have “Ein Hammer” – or “Dance Dance Immolation” … well, okay, maybe not “Dance Dance Immolation.”  But still:  without these elements, the exhibit conveys the impression that the primary criteria for Burning Man art is aesthetic beauty or political relevance … and that is flat out wrong.

“But what other relevant criteria would there be?” I hear curators ask. Exactly. And those are the criteria, almost entirely absent from the Renwick, that Burning Man not only includes but often prefers.

Nobody was laughing at the Renwick, and nobody had any idea that they could be actively participating, right now – even forming their own communities. I bet a children’s museum version of the exhibit would have a “Make Your Own Theme Camp” station.

All of which is to say that the Renwick exhibit is magnificent and beautiful and a definite contribution, but it has given either no consideration or no resources to representing much of what people go to Burning Man for.

If any Smithsonian curators are reading this now, I beg you – I’m BEGGING you – find a space on the floor and include “Free Mayo.” I’ll even buy the mayo for you. I’d bring it myself, but I’m afraid I’d get stopped at the door.


The Gifts


My gift was a book of 100 unique, original, and individually bound stories, each of which is a page or less, that I let people choose from in a ritual designed to be at once funny and stressful. If you want to read more details about the project, you can here.

I set up shop on a bench in the Temple room (kudos to David Best on that), which didn’t seem quite right culturally, but which I justified by reminding myself that I am in the fucking very early stages of grieving for Larry, and that giving gifts to people was actually one of the ways I coped with the awful news of his passing, that first night.  Maybe, right now, my stories are my tears, and if I can give them as gifts that make people happy, then grieving is easier.  Less metaphysically, the room had the right kind of seating arrangements to make receiving this gift convenient, and allowed me to do it in a relatively out-of-the-way manner.  It also had plenty of slow foot traffic, to make it easy for me to approach strangers.

Over the next three-and-a-half hours, I gave 36 gifts away: since each gift takes about four minutes to give (it has a ritual process, remember), that was a fairly brisk pace of one every 5.8 minutes (on average).

It was exhausting. Really draining.

I’ve given this gift in a mass setting at Black Rock City, and that had been energizing and engaging and fun. This was sometimes fun, but I had not been prepared for the degree to which it would be very tiring work.

The reason should be unsurprising to to anyone who has tried to give Burning Man style experiences and gifts to non-Burners outside of a Burning Man context.  A significant number of people were suspicious and dismissive of a stranger offering them a gift.  They treating it like someone busking: as if instead of saying “excuse me, may I give you a gift?” I had been asking for a dollar to buy a sandwich. Of those who accepted my gift, a significant number did so with clear apprehension and even a little fear.  Even after they’d said yes, they had to be coaxed along gently through the process.  (One man seemed so actively frightened by the whole preamble to the gift that I actually told him it was okay if he didn’t want to do this.  But he steeled himself and said “yes, it’s fine.  I’m just really nervous.”)  About half-way through the explanation, however, a lot of people started to look delighted, and even laugh and get into the process.  No one seemed disappointed by the end of it.  A few people wanted to sit and talk about the experience afterwards, or at least how they were processing it.

A couple of people were clearly eyeing what I was doing from afar.  I always offered them the experience next.

Only one person was in anything resembling a costume, and he was not a Burner, though he said he’s aspiring to be.  I only met two people who identified themselves as Burners, a married couple, who reacted exactly like they would have on playa.  (The husband had a particularly surreal experience, because he reads the Burning Man Journal, and so not only knew who I was but also had read the articles describing what my gift is. “I’d actually wanted to do this at Burning Man,” he said.)

The most fun, the most delightful, were the small handful of people who had no experience of Burning Man but who jumped on the opportunity to have an interesting experience with a stranger. When I started to explain to one young woman that Gifting is a principle and a practice at Burning Man, she said “Oh, yes, I know!” and showed me her notebook, where she’d written down all the 10 Principles for later study. “I’m really excited!”  She asked me how to connect with local Burning Man groups.

Another young woman – probably my favorite encounter all day – was not only so open and so much fun to give a gift to, but became an even more active participant in the process by finding friends of hers at the exhibit and sending them my way with instructions to ask the mysterious stranger on the bench in the temple room if he would give them a gift. By doing so she was extending the experience, and making part of it her own.  This couldn’t have made me happier, and I think they’ll all be amazing burners if we’re lucky enough to get them.

One fascinating difference between giving at the Renwick and giving in actual Burning Man contexts surprised me. On playa, I would never, ever, consider a hug to be a gift.  Not really.  I mean, let’s have SOME sense of perspective, people.  But in the Renwick, when the very few people who asked if they could hug me did so, and when one person said “I have a gift for you: a hug,” it really did feel like a gift.  In this environment, that act of reaching out to a stranger you’ve just had an experience with was not pro forma at all:  it felt very much like a deliberately found opportunity for a shared moment.  The risk, and the impact on both of us, was real. I’m going to be thinking about the implications of that for a while.


The Gift Shop


The most controversial thing about the Renwick exhibit (at least as it’s been reported to me) is the existence of a gift shop selling art and trinkets: this is literally the antithesis of what it takes to make a Burning Man space. Gift shops are one color of our kryptonite.

Since it had been made so apparent to me at the very beginning that the exhibit was not a 10 Principles space, I had not expected the gift shop’s existence to really bother me.

I was wrong. I saw red. I marched in there, just as the museum was closing, determined to make a statement.

Sharp words set themselves on my tongue. My teeth barred.

At the last minute, I behaved like a Burner instead of a protestor. “Excuse me!” I asked the woman behind the counter, in a chipper tone. “Is this the gift shop?”

“Yes it is!” she replied.

“Great! Where do I leave my gift?”

She smiled back at me. “I would LOVE one, thank you!” then she thought better of it and turned to a colleague. “Wait, you haven’t gotten a gift yet, have you? Would you like to have one?”

“I would really like that,” her colleague said.

They were almost pros at this. Yeah, we were in a gift shop, but the Renwick staff nailed the authentic experience of receiving a gift.  They trusted Burning Man culture enough to let this moment happen – and thereby made it a genuinely good moment. We all left glad. And apparently D.C. Burners have been making a point of stopping by the gift shop to offer gifts, which is a perfect use for it and makes me very happy. The space is redeemable, and if we redeem it in practice, it will go a lot farther than lecturing people about the Principle.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it is up to the D.C. Burner community, and visiting Burners, to determine through their actions how much the experience resembles Burning Man.  Why would we think otherwise?




I left the Renwick after closing and retrieved my sign, glad that I hadn’t ended up leaving a trace. I walked across the street to a coffee shop. I stood in line and ordered a mocha.

The barista took my order. Then flashed me a smile. “Hey,” she said, “I really like your sign!”

“Right?” I said. “I just made it at a Burning Man event yesterday.”

“Oh, that’s awesome!”

“Are you a Burner?”

“Not yet, but I’m really hoping to be.”

“You totally should! I tried to take the sign into the Renwick exhibit, but, security stopped me.”

“Oh,” she dismissively. “The Smithsonian. Yeah, that would happen. But it’s hilarious. It’s perfect. So what did you think?”

“Well, I tried to give people gifts, art gifts …”

“Oh, that’s great! That’s a Burning Man thing, right?”

“Right. It’s …” I stopped. Tilted my head. “Would you like a gift?”


“It takes about four minutes.”

“Let me clock out!”

The Smithsonian has mounted a multi-million dollar exhibit including some of the most prestigious and beautiful examples of Burning Man art.

Across the street, at a coffee shop, a stranger was moved to comment on a stupid piece of bullshit art that I made myself, and it led to a moment of authentic human connection – one which deliberately put commerce and jobs and prescribed roles aside for a moment – and then a gift. It cost absolutely nothing, was in a mundane – even commercial – space, and felt easily as much like Burning Man as the world’s premier museum exhibit about our culture.

I think the lesson here is how that works, and how important that is.



Cover Image:  Museum of Cultural Appropriation and Dead Things (photo by RJ Kern)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

42 Comments on “How Hard Is It to Be a Participant at the Smithsonian’s “No Spectators” Exhibit?

  • john curley says:

    great great great great.

    And by that I mean you suck.

    No, what I really mean that this is great and that I wish I could be half as good at what you do as you are. Ok!

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  • Misa says:

    Caveat, thank you for bringing the glimpse of the exhibit and the feeling. Thanks for the SIGN.
    Also, you made me cry a little…
    Well put Mister!

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  • BrewHo says:

    Funny. I’ve made multiple visits to the Renwick exhibit since it opened, worked one shift as a volunteer and returned a couple of times with friends. Every time I’ve interacted with many Burners and wannabes, and have always seen at least a couple of folks in costumes (albeit never more than a few). Your report of meeting only two Burners made me wonder what kind of energy and headspace you were projecting, or if maybe your pre-occupation with your project (and your prejudices?) cut you off from them?

    Anyway, thought it’s a pretty good tale. Thanks for sharing your narrative.

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  • Buena Chica says:

    HA! Dear Caveat, guess you’ll never get one of my 108 FREE HUGS t-shirts as a GiFT on Playa…… IT IS AGIFT!!! But you have to empower the shirt and GiFT 108 hugs on the spot to receive one of my shirts……… stand on on spot and let that unconditional love flow!!!
    So next time you are on Playa, do go up to one of my 108 FREE HUG Burners GIFTing hugs!!! <3 < 3 <3

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    • Pooh Bear says:

      I would say this. The entire experience you provide is a gift. Getting the tee-shirt for the hugs is a transaction, but you are gifting someone all the good feels of the 108 hugs because you have created this transaction as a motivation for the person to engage in the hugs. The trick is they think the tee-shirt is the gift when in reality it is the hugs. It’s a clever little role-playing game and very burney.

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  • kubo says:

    These are impressions I have wanted to learn about the Renwick exhibit – thank you for this important writing!

    In particular, thank you for capturing what strange –and often exhausting and performative– work it is to try to share playa culture moments with non-burners in a public space.

    Sharing this article immediately with the FIGMENT community back home, where folks do the hard work of bringing interactive and participatory, deliberately absurd, non-commercial shenanigans to the public square. It certainly gets….. interesting.


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  • DhammaSeeker says:

    Brilliant! Thank you!

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  • Brody says:

    Fascinating. Thanks for the reporting, I’ve been so curious to hear what it’s like on the ground.

    We should talk sometime about the experience of hugs as gifts in the non-Burner world. I’ve had several weird experiences that were very similar, where the Hug felt like this big weird momentous Occasion and much more impactful than any gift-giving on playa has felt to me. It’s almost like the difference between eating food when you’re hungry as hell, and being at a buffet and continuing to pick at things long past the point when you’re full…

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  • Nicely done, Caveat. This exhibit is complex place and you’ve captured it well. I volunteer there every week for a 4-hour shift, and seeing the fascination and smiles on everyone’s face is so rewarding. I think all Burners who go should take the time to interact with the mugles; it woukd truly add to their experience.

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  • Nickster says:

    You rock Caveat, and as I recall from 1995, We Will Survive, and indeed thrive, with hugs and a bit o’ humor.

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  • Lauren says:

    Yep, all the more reason why the world still needs Burningman.

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  • MrXander says:

    Whenever I’ve seen articles about the Smithsonian Burning Man exhibit I questioned the focus of the photos – all about The Big Art – which to me is one Small Part of what TTITD is about. This piece verbalizes some of what I was sensing as amiss. Thank you.
    (Full disclosure: I am not much of a fan of museums; cultural artifact mausoleums; “art” indoctrinariums; storage units for the 1%, et cetera.)

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  • Kurt Zorch says:

    I love your insistence of constant reflection – it made so much happen in that museum. Thank you for pushing!

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    • Burner says:

      Why does Burning Man allow Peter Ruprecht to sell photos and so blatantly misrepresent the gifting principles? The phrase “When you take a memory of the Playa home with you by purchasing this photo, you will be participating in the Gifting principle.”

      No, no, no. That is completely and entirely wrong.

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      • peter ruprecht says:

        This is to explain why i sell photographs in the Renwick gift shop. I am not sure if you actually went there or so photographs of the gift shop and saw my photographs in those photos.

        Either way, let me explain what you might have missed. There is a sign that has this on it and each photo comes with a small card that explains what i am doing with each photo. Maybe you saw the sign and you still disagree… I dont know but at least ill give you my perspective.

        Each time a photo is purchased i donate the proceeds to The Burning Man Project and the artist whose work appears in the photograph.

        I always invite healthy debate, but i dont feel bacd about putting my photos in the gift shop to be able to donate the Burning Man and the artists.

        I realize that most transactions related to Burning Man that have $ attached to them in anyway are and will always be discussed and disputed.

        Personally i dont see how this mechanism for funds generation for the donation for a project that aims to Burning Man to the world as well as funds for the artists that provide some of the magic on the playa is a bad thing or commodification.

        I do understand that everyone will always have different opinions and i respect yours to disagree.

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      • Also, the discussion continues of what is art?
        Isn’t photography considered an art?

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  • Quality Control says:

    “The reason should be unsurprising to to anyone who has tried to give Burning Man style experiences and gifts to non-Burners outside of a Burning Man context. A significant number of people were suspicious and dismissive of a stranger offering them a gift.”

    Sooooo so true. We take my art car to events (art and otherwise, including corporate which are the worst) and sometimes people are so ridiculously confused. I’ve had to explain to people that music was for listening to, and dancing if you feel like it. Goodness.

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  • Hunnybear says:

    I love this. Thank you for your insight! I am very glad to read this before seeing the exhibit (I almost went the weekend of the MALC) because now I know to prepare better and not get sucked into being a spectator only.

    I wonder if the gift shop would object to giving out gifts to other visitors? Hmm….

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  • Dustin Fasman says:

    I loved the exhibit, especially the participatory little wood bits in the temple one could write on and stick somewhere amongst the wood carvings. No actual writing on the Temple allowed.

    My favorite moment was when I had to interrupt a docent who was telling a tourist the firstBurning Man was in the Haight in1969. I politely corrected him, then explained I’d been going since 2003. The tourist turned to me and delightedly exclaimed “A real burner! I’ve always wanted to meet one”.

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  • Angela says:

    very interesting! I also did some gifting when visiting the exhibit. At first I gave the Bman stickers I had brought with me to random people, but it felt kind of wierd and stressful. So I switched to what I do on playa, which is interact with someone first then offer my gift if it feels right. The giftees turned out to be a woman I chatted with at length in the line at the restroom, the meeter/greeter guy and the salesperson in the gift shop. They were all delighted, as was I!

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  • Randy Dell says:

    Really a great job.

    My girlfriend is a featured artist at the Renwick, so we were at the opening, which was totally a different experience. We gave away about 800 pieces of her work during the opening week. In the room that has all the pictures and pieces from BM, is a display of the 10 principals, and there are business size cards of the 10 principals, I gave away each piece of art with a copy of the 10 principals, and used it to reinforce the whole gifting experience. On Wednesday I spoke with Larry Harvey, and was also totally crushed when I found out he had the stroke, and then passed.

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  • Touché!! I was a bit surprised by one comment you made – not about the sign – the security guy was doing his job, but about the hugs. You said that at Burning Man you wouldn’t consider a hug to be a gift. They may be given freely, ubiquitously even, but EVERY SINGLE ONE is still a gift. Next you’ll be tring to tell me that the oxygen given to us by plants every moment is not a precious gift!!

    Gilbert Fowler wrote, ““As I look back over the truly crucial events in my life I realize that they were not planned long in advance. Albert Einstein said, ‘There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.’”” Whether Einstein actually said that is questionable but the point is well made.

    For the past nine years my wife Marcia and I have been offering Free Hugs to locals and tourists to our fair city alike. We’ve hugged people from 66 countries (that we know of). We’ve hugged people in great joy and we’ve held people in deep sadness. We offer, but we stand away from the sidewalk and people have to come to us. There are those who are almost willing to walk out into traffic to avoid us and those who literally run toward us. People ask us about our purpose for being there (kindness) and they offer us little vignettes into their lives. We plant seeds, and I can assure you that every single moment of connection is a gift. As those who guide me have said, “Perspective IS Everything.”

    Keep doing what you do. Give your gifts, whatever they are.


    P. S. More here:

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  • burner2TMGC says:

    Forget the Mayo! Where is hell is the interaction? Where is the art that you don’t look at, but interact in some way? Looks like a bunch of select artists were picked to have their brand polished, not really share what Burning Man is all about. Kind of a nice thing to put on their resume. The title of the exhibit “No Spectators” should be change to “come see what I made”. ;-(

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    • TomO says:

      Nice post @caveat. I agree. Where is the Communal Effort or Participation? Not sure I get the whole “no Specs” thing. Nice exhibit — just wished it had a bit more burning man culture to it.

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  • Tonda says:

    I am a three-time Burner and a regular weekly volunteer at the Renwick exhibit (every Tuesday – please find me if you visit, I do have my googles, mask and cup as any good Burner would so you should be able to spot me). I have very mixed feelings and have had great experiences and not so great experiences at Smithsonian’s version of Burning Man over the past month and a half. That said, I think it is important to remember that this is NOT Burning Man but a diluted, beginner’s guide to what we Burners all know and love. Unfortunately, it will never be more than that. Fortunately, it might give a glimpse into the world we all love to those who cannot or will not be a part of it in its full glory. I do think that they have done a great job in representing the art of Burning Man if not its culture. But you gotta start somewhere, and well, it is an art museum. It really bothered me initially that they do a “sweep” each day of items that are left in the temple other than the wooden index card sized writing platforms that they provide. I had left personal items to my dad and to Larry when he passed and both were removed (I’m guessing if they take down a memorial piece to the co-founder of Burning Man, then nothing is going to survive the daily sweeps!). But then, I considered that this exhibit is up for six months and won’t be burned at the end of one week. So I suppose in the interest of having the first visitor and the 40,683th visitor have the same experience, then perhaps the daily sweeps are necessary, not burner-like but necessary. After all, this is a museum, not the playa. I have had some wonderful interactions with visitors – and yes I do have some of my postcards made as playa gifts for the three years I was there that I offer to those who I chat with in the museum although I am not sure that is a sanctioned volunteer activity, but it has made for some delightful human interaction – and I have also had a patron tell me that I was rude for talking during the silent film on an art car when I was explaining to visitors what an art car is and a bit about the people that created the Capitol Theatre car for the exhibit (hey dude, it is a f*n silent movie! and besides, that is my job as a volunteer to explain things and answer questions!). Whatever. Nothing is perfect. All said though, I can not be more happy that Renwick has taken this on and done a decent job with it. Baby steps, my Burner compatriots, baby steps, neither Rome nor BRC were built in a day. Peace.

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  • Dr. Really? says:

    NO Spectators: Art of Burning Man is a curated exhibit in the Renwick art gallery. To experience Burning Man, create a work of art with your friends then take it to Burning Man.

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  • Wrench Wench says:

    Btw, Firmament is not at the Renwick, although a picture of it is. The piece at the Renwick is Nova, a piece that runs the same software, has the same number of pixels (21,600), but is about 1/5 the size. :-)

    I was also curious, as I’ve seen other people mention, how your attitude and expectations influenced your experience. Having walked through the Renwick a number of times, I can say with enthusiasm that I would not appreciate the addition of a sign being carried by someone through those crowds — no matter how locally made it was or under what circumstances it was created. It seems you made some assumptions regarding the reason for them not allowing the sign in that didn’t leave space for some of the practical aspects of their refusal. (Renwick being somewhat smaller than BRC.)

    I do wonder if your experience at Pete’s may have been easier because you weren’t holding as many expectations for how your barista would react to you. Certainly I’ve have experiences in BRC where I was not laughing, and many of those have an overlapping area on the Venn Diagram with situations where people were trying to manage my reaction in one way or another. (i.e. The woman who got angry at me for not accepting her gift of sausage, even though I was vegetarian at the time.)

    It’s really fun and challenging to discuss this exhibit with people. My own experience was one of feeling even more strongly “other” now that my home is on display in a renowned museum on the other side of the country. Talk about a growth opportunity!

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  • Abu says:

    As a native Washingtonian I was absolutely thrilled to have “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” come to my amazing city! The Smithsonian has been an instrumental part of my growing up as a inner city public school student, and has inspired me to become an artist and activist in my city. Since all of the Smithsonians are free of charge, thousands of families, children, teens and school groups are able to come and have free educational art/science/history/etc. experiences. Not only is it opening doors for younger audiences, but it is bringing more diverse audiences through the doors of the Smithsonian (age, gender, sex, race, ethnicity, socio-economic levels, political background… whatever other label we humans use), which in my opinion was much needed! While it does not perfectly resemble the Burning Man experience for many Burners, it is creating access to art that some would never have the privilege to see on the Playa. I hope the Smithsonian continues to inspire the next generation of artists…and Burners. Special Special SPECIAL thanks to Burning Man for collaborating with this institution! xoxo, very thankful Washingtonian

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  • DCLynn says:

    I’m visiting the Renwick on 6/6 with some burner-curious friends and really appreciated such a detailed story of your experience, or participation as it were. Immediately jotted down notes of what to wear and bring. When going to the playa, I would have thought of that months ago. Thanks for helping me appreciate the exhibit for what it is and for what it is not.

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  • El Tigre en Fuego! says:

    I’m so glad you did this. As a visual art space, the Renwick is limited in its own perspective. The large art pieces by people with “a body of work” make sense from a collector’s perspective and are impressive. It was too bad that the gift “trinkets” were so focused on items with the “man” logo.

    What I felt was missing was an invitation to make some art of one’s own while there. Also, more pieces focused on a year’s theme.

    Well done on making the gift shop a gifting space! You’re inspiring me if I get back there.

    I would have liked to have seen “invisible hand of the gifting economy” on display. I think there was humor and whimsy on display with the Flatmo’s piece and the theater car. What was missing to me is more emphasis of the “little pieces” that aren’t so museum-artsy, but are art by our standards and welcome.

    In a sense, this exhibit closes out the “Larry Harvey era” of BM. Glad he got to see it. This year’s burn will be a tribute.

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  • Theshah O'Firan says:

    As a supporter of the ugly veggies movement I’m glad there’s finally an exhibit (at the Smithsonian no less!) on the “found” art inherent in these transient food items.

    I’ll read your essay (don’t want to spoil my first impression) after I’ve been through “No Spec Tators” myself.

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  • SloaneAoife says:

    I just want to address the sign thing – it wouldn’t matter WHAT your sign said, it wouldn’t be allowed in any of the Smithsonian museums in DC (can’t speak for NYC), as signs are banned for the safety of the visitors. No, not because of messages that will perhaps seduce visitors into new thoughts, but because they are a potential safety risk. They also ban selfie-sticks at all of the Smithsonian museums.
    An interesting read – I can’t agree with all of it, but it’s interesting to see someone else’s perspective.

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  • Redraeven says:

    As a long-time burner (13 burns, starting in the mid-90’s) and a weekly volunteer at the Renwick, I concur with several posters here about expectations, and the fact that the Renwick or any museum is by nature constrained and can only offer a fleeting glimpse of such a sprawling, and ever-evolving event. I’m glad you enjoyed the exhibit and I wish I’d been there at the same time! There will always be conflicting opinions of the exhibit, and yeah, the curator is aware of the irony of having a gift shop in the middle of a Burning Man exhibit…it is what is is. I’m one of the camp that thinks it’s really well done given the limitations. But now I’m wondering about sneaking in a mini jar of mayo with its own mini sign….

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  • LadyBee says:

    A word on the Gift Shop: Several of the jewelers were asked to create NON-BMAN jewelry for the store, and were very happy to do so. There could be no references to Burning Man, just their own work they do apart from their BMan jewelry. So they had a chance to show other work and make some income – is that a problem? I think not! Our 2018/19 calendar was also sold there; again, why not? We sell it on our website, as well as books about BMan. Nobody was selling playa schwag, absolutely not. And the makers got some exposure, which is always appreciated. Here’s a story about this: A DC burner was outraged to see anything Burning Man in the shop, so she went around and removed the price tags from various objects and then put those price tags on pieces of art in the exhibit, thereby upsetting the makers AND the artists in the show….not amusing.
    The items in the store were very carefully thought out, and this was not commodification of event-based items. I was very happy to see all the books, the new calendar, prints, and jewelry I’d not seen from our makers.

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  • LadyBee says:

    Caveat –
    I agree with some of your impressions, but in fact there were some amusing artifacts in the history section, and the art did at least include Duane Flatmo’s dragon, which is pretty fun. The only area that I felt was misrepresented was the costumes; it made it seem that one has to get a designer to make your costume- not radically self-reliant. I’d like to have seen some outrageous costumes made by the wearer from recycled tchotchkes or old tires or other funky stuff. THe costumes they showed were all by designers; it makes sense as American Craft, which the Renwick focuses on, but doesn’t show the wild inventiveness of our participants’ crazy costumes, or communicate the idea that everyone can make a great costume, from anything.

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  • Tovia Bat-Leah (Godess) says:

    I took my aunt who lives in DC and was a nice way to share some of my experience of the burn without dragging her all the way out there. I gave a number of patches mostly to the guards and some museum goers and they were all received very gratefully but with very little interaction. And yes the gift shop was indeed disturbing as was the costume with a feather headdress. the rest was well done I thought

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  • hannah says:

    this is good shit. thank you.

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  • John Davis says:

    My wife and I are Burners from 2013, and I went alone in 2012… We were participating in the Memorial Day events last weekend and had a chance to see the exhibit. Being a photo guy, I took quickie shots with the iPad capturing photos of the artifacts of the early days which satisfied a lot of my curiosity about Burning Man history. We enjoyed the exhibits totally — and then the temple exhibit on the second floor made us homesick. We just haven’t been able to make it back since ’13.

    I hope this isn’t a total spoiler but I’m sure that there are many who just will not be able to get to D.C. to see the exhibit. So I posted the pics to a web gallery here:
    All downloadable at full rez.

    I thought the gift shop was some kind of cultural artifact of being in a foreign land… like not on the playa. These participants just don’t get it or haven’t had the proper training. I did buy the calendar since it was created with love by Burners for Burners.

    We hope to return home in 2020. Browse around on the web site for photos from ’12 and ’13.

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  • Marion Art says:

    Excellent for about the first year. I would give it 5 Stars initially, however in year 2 the performance went way down even after cleaning it. Since it was about 2.5 years old, it has been almost unusable. I spent a little over $100 for it in 2013. It is still cheaper than buying espresso, but I would have expected it to last longer.
    Appreciate it!

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