From Going There to Knowing There: A Curator’s Shift in Perspective

“Burning…what?” I said, some 17 years ago, sitting in my office at the Oakland Museum of California as my colleague recounted his recent trip to Burning Man 2001. He described an arts event in the middle of the Nevada desert with few boundaries and complete freedom of creative expression. It sounded intriguing to be sure, but not an event at which I naturally would find myself, given my overscheduled lifestyle, limited vacation time, and nonprofit salary.

Fast-forward to 2016. Now at Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts, I come across the “Burning Man Jewelry” book, written by Karen Christians and featuring the collection of Christine “Lady Bee” Kristen. Flipping through its vibrant pages sparked memories of that California conversation 15 years prior. Tales of an ancient lakebed, wild sculptures impossibly at home there, and willing participants transported by what they encountered at Black Rock City came rushing back. Unbeknownst to me, this book would set in motion my own Burning Man experience.

This chance encounter with the “Burning Man Jewelry” book led to Playa Made: Burning Man Jewelry, a 2017 exhibition at Fuller Craft Museum that I developed with Karen, LadyBee, and photographer George Post. This passion project was fueled by an appreciation for the cultural significance of Burning Man’s maker community and a belief that the event’s popularity would attract visitors. Indeed, curious museumgoers came to see the exhibition, and we were grateful for the increased attendance. But for me, it was the Burners I met during the process that validated the exhibition. Most were deeply entrenched in the community, and while all were eager to extol the virtues of Burning Man, it became clear that one had to “go there to know there.”

My chance to “go there” came in 2018, with an invitation from Iron Monkeys, a metalworking collective based in Seattle, WA. Brilliant creators of the sculpture Over/Grown — a tipped birdcage entwined with vines, flowers, and outfitted with a swing — the Monkeys graciously offered me a spot in their camp. Filled with hardworking individuals of all experience levels, creative talents, and professional pursuits, it was the best spot I could’ve landed.

In the months leading up to Burning Man, I planned as best I could, stockpiling and shipping supplies out to the playa. Yet despite the comfort that focused preparation can bring, panic set in as I approached Black Rock City on the Burner Express Bus in whiteout conditions. A veritable baptism by fire, my arrival in a dust storm left me with no choice but to leave the relative comfort of the bus and set out in search of my camp at 5:15 and C.

(Side note: I am 47-year old mother of two teenagers, living in a small town outside Boston. I like indoor plumbing. I like being clean. I really, really like my bed. Simply going to Burning Man, let alone navigating my way in the middle of the dust storm, was very much outside my comfort zone.)

Here I was, intent on being part of the legendary event I had studied from the comfort of my climate-controlled museum office. I was ready to finally experience the radical self-expression I had seen in photographs and on video — the art installations, the art cars, and the jewelry, all of which represented the collective creativity that is the beating heart of Burning Man.

Like most first-time Burners, what I witnessed over the course of the week shocked, challenged, and delighted me — the outrageous camps, the wild costumes, the willful play, the extreme conditions, and much more. But what really shifted my perspective was the way in which people engaged with the art.

I’ve spent my career promoting cultural access. However, my curatorial charge includes protecting and preserving the works of art under my care, often by maintaining a physical boundary between people and the objects. Human beings, with their unpredictable limbs, clumsy hands, oily fingers, and questionable judgement can wreak havoc on fragile objects. And so, I wear white gloves while handling artwork. I use vitrines and locked cases to safeguard the objects. I administer heat/humidity controls. I restrict any physical touch or bodily engagement.

This precious approach, while necessary in museums, had no place in Black Rock City. I quickly realized it’s the people that bring life to the artwork at Burning Man. Unlike those found in a museum or gallery, the creative achievements of the playa were conceived and constructed with the intent of human interaction. They were created specifically for climbing, touching, marking, wearing, giving and receiving, and in many cases, eventual destruction. They exist as sites of photo shoots, weddings, dance parties, transportation, wayfinding, sexual encounters, sleeping, bathing, mourning, and more. So rather than being protected from the masses, the artworks relied on them to achieve full actualization. And this was a curatorial revelation.

As I look back on my earlier experience with Playa Made: Jewelry of Burning Man, I wonder “Would I do it differently now, having been to Burning Man?” Maybe. Maybe not. But what I know now, that I couldn’t have realized then, is this: the objects in the Fuller Craft exhibition, so carefully positioned in the display cases and sealed off from human hands, are about so much more than the material, scale, form, and technical skill with which they were articulated. They are about the people that made them, those who received them, and the connection between the two.

About the author: Beth McLaughlin

Beth McLaughlin

Beth is a Massachusetts-based curator, Burner, and mom of two kiddos and a kick-ass cat named Beastie. Over the course of her career, she been driven by a passion to make the arts more accessible to all populations. As Chief Curator at Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts, she has developed a number exhibitions focusing on alternative modes of making, including Playa Made: Burning Man Jewelry and Revolution in the Making: The Pussyhat Project. A first-time Burner in 2018, Beth was blown away by all the unfettered creativity she witnessed on the playa and looks forward to finding more ways in which to spotlight the Burning Man arts community.

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