The Joy of Small Art

By Steve Landis

I am not an artist. Let me get this up front and out the way, so you understand where I am coming from. But at Burning Man I get to be an artist.

One of my favorite things about Burning Man is that everyone is considered an artist. For real. You don’t need to consider yourself an artist, or have artistic ability, or have taken an art class. All you need to do is create something. Small, big, expensive or cheap. Just create something and bring it to the playa and poof! — you are an artist.

Yes, there is a lot of focus on the big pieces of art, which are fantastic! Lights, flames, sounds, really tall things, things that make smoke and sparkly things galore. What’s not to like and go “wow” when you see them?

But look around at Burning Man and notice what you see. Behind, or between, or maybe even nearby, there is lots of small art all around you. There are small pieces along the roads. There are pieces near and on the trash fence. There are pieces in Center Camp or even in deep playa. Not big, not flashy, not surrounded by large art cars, but that art is out there.

Sometimes the piece is funny — from the public fleshlights, to signs at camps talking about free gray water, to a sign saying, “This trash fence is paid for by Mexico.” Others are just creative and thoughtful. But each one grabs a hold of your eyespace and makes you stop, think and sometimes smile. This is small art.

My First Run at Art

In 2017 my art was flat packed inside a yellow-top plastic container and shipped from New York City. I then carried it in a backpack and installed it on the trash fence in deep playa. This small art piece was called #BurnerShaveSigns.

Burma Shave was a brand of shaving cream known for its advertising campaigns, which included posting signs along U.S. Route 66 to entertain and humour drivers who were exploring and discovering the United States.

At Burning Man, Burners discover new art and themselves, welcoming the sunrise and finding their own outer limits. Like Burma Shave, my series of signs sought to entertain those who walked, biked, hopped, skipped or ran along the trash fence.

Where did I get my inspiration? From running the Black Rock City 50k ultramarathon.

In 2015 I had plenty of time to think while running 31 miles and wondering what would entertain myself and other runners. At the deep playa trash fence, someone had placed a skeleton who had waited too long for Daft Punk. Each time I passed it, I thought this was a great art piece.

After I came home, I thought that an ultramarathon skeleton would also be funny, along with hashtag quotes next to it. I took our Halloween skeleton, which I promised my kids that I would return after Burning Man, laminated a sign and put it by the trash fence. I called it #DidNotFinish, and it got a great response from the 2016 ultra runners (and a chuckle from me each time I passed by).

In 2017 I brought back the skeleton piece, along with #BurnerShaveSigns. I was inspired to create this second art project after my 2016 ultra run as I thought about all the people who visited the trash fence and might need some entertainment.

Learning New Skills and Making Connections

The total cost of creating #BurnerShaveSigns was less than $75, and that included a new laminating machine. The beauty of this artistic process is that you can create anything you want and go with your gut or your left side of the brain to create it. It is all about your vision, and there is no test to say whether the art is right or wrong or good or bad.

Once you come up with your vision, then you create your art. Sometimes this means learning a new skill, which adds to the fun, or working with your local Burner community to create what is in your head. The good part is that often others are willing to help and offer suggestions, whether in person or by email, which makes learning and creating that much easier.

And then the art gets registered with Burning Man! This part felt strange. During my daily life, I am presented with things that create risk and liability and may result in a no. But in the Burning Man world, the answer is probably a yes and here is how we’re going to help you get there.

The ARTery folks want to help you succeed and safely bring your art to the playa. Their online form gives helpful tips and suggestions, along with mandatory safety requirements, which are practical and presented very clearly on the questionnaire.

Keep in mind that this team — which previously allowed a large flamethrower in an art piece — is not some corporate chieftain reflexively saying no. Follow the process for success, and you will eventually end up with your art piece on playa.

The ARTery Process on Playa

Once on playa, I bicycled over to the ARTery by Center Camp, answered some questions (mostly confirming what I had already submitted online) and then met a “Mapinatrix” to figure out where to place my art pieces in deep playa. We reviewed our options and then placed a piece of tape on the playa map with my art piece’s name and a green sticker dot. With that, I was officially placed.

I then got on my bike and followed an ARTery placer out to deep playa to confirm my location and the distribution of the floofie. These are pink plastic strings attached to a nail and repurposed CD Rom marked with the coordinates of my art piece. (Those coordinates later help confirm removal of the art piece and compliance with Leave No Trace requirements). I then installed my art.

Creating the art pieces for deep playa was great fun and a wonderful experience. Was it worth the hours in the hot sun to install and take down the art? Absolutely. I really enjoyed thinking about and making the art before and during the event.

It was also a great experience to work with people who want to help you bring your vision to life. Finding my name and art on the Burning Man website was icing on the cake, topped by later receiving a personalized thank you card from Burning Man for bring my art to the playa.

For 2018 I thought about the toll of coming to Burning Man and what impact it may have on travelers and an idea popped into my head while treadmill running. This piece will be bigger than my prior pieces, but still very small compared to what most people think of when they think of Burning Man art.

The bottom line is that Burning Man is a do-ocracy and we all get to be who we choose to be, or create the art and ideas that we create. If inspiration strikes now, register your art, or if it arrives the day before you leave for the Burn, make your art and register it live on the playa with the ARTery volunteers.