On January 25, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Americans for the Arts gave long-time Burning Man artist Kate Raudenbush the 2019 Citizen Artist Advocacy Award. Here, we share the speech she gave at the Honoring Leadership in the Arts Breakfast, which was part of the 87th US Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Conference of Mayors and Americans for the Arts — thank you for honoring my art in this way. This is thrilling.
Mayor Schieve — it is amazing to see the cultural renaissance of Reno evolve with the creative force of Burning Man art behind it.
It is a total joy to have my parents here. Peter and Helen Raudenbush, I adore you, even though you told me 20 years ago that chasing this obscure thing called Burning Man was totally irresponsible and escapist behavior! However, what I learned was that self- transformation occurs at the growth edge of risk.
Burning Man is not so much a place to escape your reality, as it is a place to create your own alternate reality. Twenty years ago I had no idea how to weld steel, but I did have an overwhelming desire to enter into a creative dialog with the epic themes put forth by Burning Man.
Each artwork had a near impossible timeline requiring massive collaboration and sharing of skills and resources. The desert was a vast canvas to shape an alternative reality — and that is what artists are born to do.
In our best moments, creative expression is a living representation of our human identity, our human story, our fears and our glory. If history is any measure, creativity is one of humanity’s greatest gifts. It can not only shape who we are, but also envision who we want to be. At Burning Man, where nothing is for sale, the currency is creativity, and that leads to a paradigm shift.
I saw that the mind-blowing art created in this space was a catalyst for human connection and therefore social change. Art was not just a thing, but an experience of communal creation by a city of 80,000 people.
And when you have an audience that large, I felt compelled to make art whose ideals were in service to something larger than myself: ritual self-empowerment, technological sustainability and, most importantly, humanity’s relationship with our Earth.
Like my sculpture ‘Futures Past’, which was installed right here on the streets of Washington DC for the Smithsonian Museum’s Burning Man exhibition, I hoped that each public interaction with the art and its meaning could be an opportunity for an expansion in consciousness about a sustainable future.
Consciousness shifts come from beyond Burning Man, of course, and in 2008 I had a startling conversation with a nine-year-old girl named Grace. Barack Obama was on the cusp of winning the presidency and our dialogue was about the environmental issues we faced. I asked her what she thought her future role would be, and she looked at me with a heavy conviction. “To clean up your mess,” she said.
I was struck by the fact that an entire generation of children across the world are acutely aware of this burden we have given them, because they will have to deal with the consequences of our action and inaction. And Grace is now old enough to vote.
So, I have one thing to ask of you, but I’ll do it in Burning Man style: I would like to put forth a epic theme to you, Mayors of this country.
There is an environmental reality to face, and two-thirds of the US population are moving into your cities. The weather shifts and catastrophes of Mother Earth are showing us that we are completely irresponsible and escapist.
But there is an alternate reality waiting to be created, with a near impossible timeline requiring massive collaboration and sharing of skills and resources. This country is a vast canvas on which to shape an alternate reality. And, from what I’ve seen this week at the Mayors Conference, this is what leaders like you are born to do.
When Grace shows up in your life 10 years in the future and asks you about your legacy as Mayor, I hope you tell her that you were the pioneers that ignited the critical paradigm shift to finally create a sustainable way of living in this country. Together, we will be living proof that creative and societal transformation happens at the growth edge of risk.
Top photo: Helios by Kate Raudenbush (Photo by Scott Williams)