When I joined Burning Man in late 2015, I was just one month away from my first opportunity to facilitate the Honoraria art selection process. Legend had it that the process was contentious, with epic fights that could be heard from one end of the third floor to the other. In short, I could expect to enter the lion’s den.
I didn’t quite know the source of the battles, but I did know the valiant contenders included the giants of Burning Man: Larry Harvey, Crimson Rose and David Best. While other people are involved in the selection, these were the chief gladiators.
Just a few months before, when I was in the final stages of interviewing with Burning Man, I had a midnight call scheduled with Larry. It was midnight because I was in France for a circus gathering and Larry’s schedule in San Francisco would only accommodate calling me at that time.
As this was the last interview hurdle, I was happy to be flexible. I’d spent time talking with Larry in San Francisco in early October, sitting on the Burning Man headquarters rooftop as he talked about how his reading, discovery and intuition helped him formulate an art theme.
At midnight in France, I was waiting for questions but was instead privileged to hear him read the text of the next year’s theme, da Vinci’s Workshop, which he had just finished drafting with Stuart Mangrum. Reading aloud to me, a little conversation about the writing, a few admonitions from Larry about how things run at Burning Man, a mention of a staff member he thought was extraordinary, and that was how we spent the hour.
I learned from this call that Larry was someone who shared: shared ideas, shared generously on behalf of others and shared opinions about what mattered to him.
The Art of Selection
And then I was hired, and one of my first responsibilities was to support an art selection process.
I knew that we did not curate. And I knew that it was important to make sure that the Honoraria art was representative of a range of possibilities. If we did our jobs well, we would create a frame and landscape of artworks that represented vertical things, horizontal things, things created by newcomers, things created by well-known artists of Burning Man, artworks that came from international destinations, serious work and playful work — and, above all, work that was interactive for the community.
In my first art selection process, my goals were simple: make it fun, make it joyful, make it eclectic and dynamic, make good financial choices. Crimson had warned me to not award all the funds — things would happen on the way to Black Rock City and we would need last-minute resources — and she was right. That year we had to bring in a last-minute 90 ton crane for a 20,000 lb. pick (among other things).
Brody Scotland, who supported the art team’s data and logistics, had also warned me that selecting 90 artworks was too much for the team. So I was clear I wanted to spend wisely and fairly but on not so many artists. How would that go over with Larry? I didn’t know
I learned rapidly that each year our first session should allow up to 1½ hours for tech rage, with Larry stabbing his finger at the iPad and insisting it didn’t work properly. I also learned to send someone to his home to help him get on his wifi by looking at the back of the router and reminding him of the login and password.
Breaking the Spell
At the end of the 2016 art selection process, I asked Larry if there were artworks he was happy with and he said yes. I asked Crimson the same, and she said yes. I asked them both if there were artworks they didn’t like, and they both said yes. I said “brilliant” that means it’s eclectic! We laughed, and Larry remarked, “That was not altogether painful.” We had broken the spell — no fighting and yelling during the Honoraria art process.
The next year, 2017, there was a lot of laughter, along with the annual tech rage, and at one point there was a little bit of yelling. Larry said I was a bureaucrat that was ruining Burning Man because he’d caught on to my effort to give more funds to fewer artists — making the artists’ lives and our own lives just a little more manageable.
The number of funded works went up that year — but we were better equipped as a team to handle it — and Marian helped me support a larger Art Support Services presence on playa, so we were okay. And, luckily, I didn’t ruin Burning Man.
This year, 2018, Larry had mastered the iPad, and we’d gone to his house early enough to help him set up his wifi access. So when we started our first meeting, he was 130 proposals ahead of Crimson in his reading, something that had never happened before.
Art team member Kye Horton felt victorious for having achieved this milestone. Larry was already ready to roll and we gained 1½ hours normally dedicated to tech rage. David Best was there with a twinkle in his eye, ready to help me navigate the sometimes tricky waters, Crimson was eager to roll (she’s always ready to move forward); and we had plenty of snacks. We were off and running.
I didn’t know this would be the last time I had the honor of joking, playing and talking at length with Larry. I didn’t know that this would be the last time that Larry and Katie Hazard would go on a long philosophical tangent about the art and, in this case, artificial intelligence. I didn’t know that this would be the last time that Larry and Brody would tease each other about “Brody’s picks”.
Brody doesn’t actually pick the artwork, but Larry delighted in knowing her opinion (which is how we got Mucaro the owl in 2017, but she couldn’t persuade him to fund the huge Rainbow in 2018).
Sharing His Joy
Now, as we head to playa, I’m still wrestling with the inconceivable idea that we won’t be seeing Larry again, that we won’t be joining together in January 2019 to select art, and that we won’t have the familiar laughter, provocative conversations and occasional testy moments.
Since very few people get to hear these conversations, and since we will all be at the event together this year, Marian asked me to share some of the artworks Larry loved the most and to describe what I heard him say about the work he loved.
Larry seemed to love the artists — the effort, the sublime and the ridiculous all had merit for him. But as I consider the artworks that Larry cared about this year, I see two themes emerge. Larry loved the idiosyncratic, and he was incredibly loyal to artists that have been part of Burning Man over time.
We had a small computer glitch this year, and as we were reviewing the final artworks to be funded, it was Larry who called out, “Where is Michael Christian’s piece? Where is Dana Albany’s piece?” He looked for and remembered when the Burning Man artists of many years were submitting work. However, he was equally excited about new artists, silly projects and things that might be a bit of a poke in the eye.
At the bottom of this blog, I’ve listed some artworks to look for on playa this year, which Larry was enthusiastic about. I can’t say they were his favorites because I don’t think he had favorites. There are also lots of artworks that didn’t get funding that I know he loved, and that we would have loved to support.
In the end, the great breadth of work, the diversity, the whimsy and the serious artworks were all part of Larry’s envisioned panorama for the desert.
Lunches Without Larry
At the Burning Man office, the staff have lunch together on Tuesdays. It starts out hectic with lots of full tables and clinking silverware. Larry would wander through, perhaps eating right away, perhaps not. Often I would find him sitting at a table after lunch began to taper off, sometimes alone, sometimes with his compadres, Stuart, Andrew, Caveat or others.
I would linger, delay going to my next meeting and stay at the table, talking about the work, the art, the desert and, at times, playing around with ideas for next year’s theme.
Today, as lunchtime moved to a close and the room got quieter, I felt like he might wander by. I wanted to go look for him at a table and talk: discuss what was coming this year and what he was mulling over for next year, and indulge in the joyfulness of being in the presence of his mind — quixotic and fierce, unpredictable and funny, the lodestar and the wellspring, the uniquely Larry.
2018 Honoraria Art: things Larry seemed to love
- 404 Technical Support
- Cirrus — A musical robotic soloist who pulls inspiration from the weather
- Digital Dalang: Shadows Out of Time
- In Case We Miss Each Other
- Joke-a-tron 5200
- Pan Genius
- Robot Resurrection
- Step Forward — Joining Minds
- With Open Arms We Welcomed That Which Would Destroy Us
- Worm Watch
You can preview these pieces and more here.
Top photo: Michael Christian’s Oid, 2016 (Photo by Scott London)