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.
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 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.
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.