Hola, Bonjour, Priviet, Nǐ hǎo!
Let’s talk about the international community and, more specifically, about artists coming from all over the world to build art on playa!
In 2018, at least 12% of registered art in Black Rock City came from 20 different countries. That’s compared to 17% from 24 different countries in 2017. These numbers do not include contributions from international theme camps or art car teams.
These numbers reflect that a significant portion of BRC’s total registered art is being gifted to the playa by our global community. In keeping with this year’s theme of Metamorphoses, it may be worthwhile contemplating what the expanding global reach of our event entails, and how we might appreciate the inherent value of what the playa can become: a beautifully diverse and principled global community of artists, co-creators and participative citizens.
In 2018, the project ‘ICHIRO — Sacred Beings’ brought to us a stunningly ornate replica skeleton of the Velafrons Coahuilensis, a dinosaur from the Cretaceous period decorated in the art of the Huichol, an indigenous tribe of Mexico. From Indonesia we saw ‘Digital Dalang’ combine digital projection mapping with the ancient tradition of Wayang Kulit shadow puppets.
We also had the incredible ‘The Color Wheels’, a gathering of a dozen metallic wheels that have crossed the five deserts of the five continents, activated by 15 performers from France, and brought to life in Black Rock City with the help of volunteering dancers for daily sunset parades.
In 2017 we were introduced to the Kogui community, an indigenous ethnic group that lives in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, Colombia, through the art piece ‘Aluna’. We witnessed the wooden snail ‘Hurry Up Slowly’, which symbolized the slowness of consensus democracy, built and brought to us by the community of Freetown Christiania in Denmark.
There was ‘Solipmission’ in which three Dutch artists locked themselves in a box for the entire week, physically drawing a virtual facsimile of Burning Man on the inside of the walls. They were guided only by the stories that people would relay to them when they visited the art piece, a seriously intense project!
From Finland we were given the chance to send messages to our neighbouring galaxy Andromeda via the piece ‘Munanen (The Cosmic Egg),’ which included a satellite ground station used for monitoring satellites orbiting the Earth and listening to cosmic background radiation.
What it Takes to Come from Afar
Let’s take a step back and have a closer look at what it takes for anybody to bring art to the playa. Leaving aside the mammoth step (especially for first timers) of packing all the gear necessary to survive and participate for a week in BRC, imagine having to think about designing, planning and building an art support camp, an installation or even a performance. It’s a huge undertaking!
For international artists there are even more added complexities involving things like crossing borders, figuring out how to import materials, deciding where to build, sourcing materials in a foreign country and even finding places to stay and work whilst in the US.
Artists work hard for months on their projects and some of them don’t even get to see their art standing in the dust because their visa got denied (as it did with the Indonesian artists from ‘Digital Dalang’), or their container gets stuck in customs, or any other problem from a myriad of obstacles that the whole process can present.
Last year, the shipment containing all materials for the Russian art project ‘The Intersection’ did not make it on time to playa despite being shipped in June. The artists had to rebuild the project entirely from scratch in record time and replace its original asphalt with plywood and rubber. Miraculously, they made it and they are coming back this year with ‘The Intersection X’, a similar work but displaying the toll of a year’s age and its associated metamorphosis.
We hear all kinds of stories about the hurdles that sometimes devastate projects, budgets and hearts along the way. But there is hope! It is truly incredible to witness the struggles that artists overcome.
Turning Obstacles into Opportunities
Their resilience and determination often result in their projects becoming reality, albeit possibly in a slightly different form than initially conceived. As with any creative process though, perhaps it is the way it was meant to be, informed by obstacles and strengthened by the need to adapt, change and find creative flow amongst rocky paths.
Looking more specifically at the international perspective of art on playa, we see international artists coming from different cultures and backgrounds embracing Burning Man culture whilst also adapting to American culture professionally, linguistically or logistically.
The Burning Man event takes place on American soil, federal land to be precise, and yet the event appears to transcend borders in that it becomes a city full of diverse nationalities, cultures and ideas. This transcendance of mere physical location is evidenced by the multitude of Burns sprouting up all over the world; like an organism, the ideas, experiences and principles are becoming more globally witnessed.
Coming back to more practical concerns, it is obvious that with greater distances we see increased financial hurdles that artists must overcome. The reality of an unbalanced world economic situation means that the possibility of attending the event for artists from certain areas of the world is almost impossible.
Also, in some countries, projects can be affected by sudden fluctuations in exchange rates. Some expenses such as transport, shipping or insurance can hardly be lowered; however, there are expenditures that can decrease thanks to the help of the community and its share economy. For example, camp installation, housing, workspace, tools and materials can often be shared resources.
Although financials play a large part in decisions regarding International Art projects, they are by no means the only solution to the challenges that artists face. Indeed, it is for the most part the non-financial solutions that ignite an empowered creativity and more beautiful encounters with the community.
In 2016 I began working with Burning Man Project in order to address specific needs pertinent to the art department and international artists. As an International Artist Project Manager the remark I have heard the absolute most from artists (and it always registers a wry smile) is:
“This is the last time, never again!”
But somehow, as if by magic, something happens in the dust, a spark, a very special moment can occur, whatever it may be, and in that moment those artists are inspired to try again. They are willing to endure the hardship and the obstacles to bring these creations, these gifts, back to Black Rock City and it’s truly beautiful to behold.
So with all of this in mind, what can we do? Can we change things? Can we understand that for our international artists the metamorphosis from concept to actualization is difficult and perhaps requires us to take extra supportive measures? Yes, Oui, Si!
I would like to call on all of you to open your doors to our international community and its artists who are trying their best to bring these gifts to the playa. A couch to sleep on, a delivery address, professional expertise, being “adopted” into a theme camp or perhaps just an open offer to help in any way you can. Any of these ideas go a long way and could ultimately save the day.
It is also important that artists reach out the other way. It is a sign of strength to ask for help! The metamorphosis of dream to reality via creation and participation.
In summary, what I hope to have said here is that we are seeing a metamorphosis, almost constantly. As with any evolution, questions and ideas are constantly reworked, considered anew. What began on a beach in 1986 has become a global initiative in a hyper-connected world, and today it is informed by numerous cultures, artistic perspectives and most importantly by the continued participation of its proponents.
You are the community, and when you come to understand this, deep in your heart, you know that the metamorphosis from what has been, to what we will become, is entirely in our hands.
Top photo by Typhaine Sotés