On August 15, 2020, Burning Man Project will release our new documentary film, “Burning Man: Art on Fire.” The film is a miracle in itself. The result of two years of hard graft, it was bootstrapped from the start. I undertook the gargantuan task of pulling together a 90-minute, cinema-quality film with no budget and an international coterie of unpaid but very talented film professionals. The making of the film about the making of art became a Burner-style exercise in itself: an expression of creativity as a labor of love.
While Burning Man may have a titillating reputation, its attraction for me has always been the art. I studied history of art and Italian at University, focusing on the rise of 16th century Italian monumental sculpture, and I see playa art in this tradition. Burning Man culture is also the latest iteration of the American Maker movement. As the film says, for one week a year, Black Rock City is the largest open air art gallery in the world. I have been a Burner for more than a decade. I kept getting drawn back as the art, in my view, has become stronger and stronger.
A Book About Burning Man Art Inspires a Film
The idea for a film was conceived at Trinity College, Oxford, during “Homo Ludens,” a workshop on the intersection between art, play, science and society, hosted by the Chilean anthropologist, primatologist and Burner, Dr. Isabel Behncke. Burning Man Project Board Treasurer and author Jennifer Raiser was among the futurists and change makers present. I was blown away by her presentation on her art book, also titled, “Burning Man: Art on Fire.” I immediately realized: this has to be made into a film.
“Art on Fire” is the first film I’ve produced in 21 years. My last one, “Smoke Rings” (there’s a theme here!), was a BBC Inside Story investigation into the illegal distribution of British American Tobacco (BAT) cigarettes by Chinese Triad gangs. I’d spent many years in Afghanistan and Pakistan, tackling warlords and gem smugglers and working to bring Afghan women into the 21st century economy. The intensity of life in a war zone is difficult to surrender. It took the death of a close friend, pulled out of her car by the Taliban and assassinated at the side of the road, to wake me up. I needed a good, fun, challenge to get my head out of Afghanistan and into a new, more sustainable life.
In March 2018, I attended the opening of the “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Museum in Washington DC. Inspired by Jennifer Raiser’s book, the exhibition recognized Burning Man art as a major movement in its own right and set the stage for the documentary. I’d hoped to interview Burning Man’s legendary founder Larry Harvey there, but he was feeling unwell and left early. It was an opportunity lost.
The Quest to Document Significant and Challenging Art Projects
We wanted to find the right artists to document for the film. We searched for projects that were significant and challenging, to show what it really takes to make playa art. Naturally, we spoke to Scottish artist Andrew “Haggis” Johnstone, who was designing and building the Man Base. Haggis is funny and warm and plays his bagpipes at times in the film. Handsome and articulate, the London-based, French-Tunisian architect, Arthur Mamou-Mani, was the perfect character to highlight for the ambitious Galaxia Temple build. And we were entranced by New York sculptor, Kate Raudenbush, who decided she had to make a last tribute to her mentor, Larry Harvey.
Larry’s death gave the film a new urgency. This was to be the last art theme and Man Base that Larry chose. The art at Black Rock City in 2018 acquired an added layer of tribute.
Assembling a Film Crew, One Volunteer at a Time
In the months leading up to the playa, I scrambled to find an entire film crew who would work, like the artists and volunteers, for the sheer sake of it rather than a salary. Through some miracle, I assembled a team of two cameramen, two sound engineers, an intern, and a hyperlapse photographer. Everyone brought their own equipment. Since some of us were coming from London, we asked local friends to share their extra tents, baby wipes, costumes, food and supplies. The Burning Man Communications team, in particular, Megan Miller and Dominique Debucquoy-Dodley, secured us the access we needed as the Temple and Man Base Crews were arriving.
Fortunately, I knew a very experienced and reliable film director, Gerald Fox. Gerry specializes in art films and has won every award under the sun. He cut short a family holiday on a ranch with his buddy, (Prime Minister) David Cameron for a first foray in the desert. A first-time Burner, I knew he would bring a fresh perspective to the story.
Like every playa project, we had our share of setbacks. We secured a precious ticket for an accomplished cameraman who somehow found his way into a luxury concierge camp and decided he didn’t need to work, when he could play. On day three, we realized our sound equipment was not up to filtering out the desert winds that dominated every audio track.
We had to advertise for and interview professional soundmen, not easy from the desert where there is only intermittent WiFi connectivity, at best. When we reached the Galaxia Temple build crew, we learned that the team leads, Arthur Mamou-Mani and his bride Sandy, had no RV and were looking to sleep in a dusty tent. So we naturally surrendered one of our caravans. That left us short of space for the film crew. And no privacy.
There was large turnover in the volunteer crew, with people buckling in the heat and dust and departing. When we weren’t filming, we were frog-marched to the build site and strong-armed into actually building the Temple. I became a dab hand with a pneumatic drill. But there was never enough time to accomplish everything, and we often felt guilty leaving the crew working late into the night to go back to our air-conditioned RV to clean our equipment for the following 18-hour day.
Crew HQ by Day, Communal Sleeping Quarters by Night
Thank goodness, Gerry had been insistent that we secure a decent RV for the team. It was crew HQ by day and sleeping quarters at night. With four unshowered men and me, plus a load of film equipment, clothes and provisions crammed inside, it became our smelly, dusty, canteen/oasis/screening room/collapse-cabin. Every few days, I would dump everybody’s stinky clothes into a duffel bag and head out to the laundromat in Gerlach. That’s the job of the Producer, right? (To be honest, it was for my own olfactory salvation.)
Each night, we would huddle in the RV and decide what to film the next day. There was so much to choose from. How was this film going to build a narrative arc while showing the challenge of making playa art? Peter Hazel was remaking his giant jellyfish, which he hadn’t completed the previous year. Dana Albany, Shane Evans and Christian Ristow’s projects presented themselves on the playa. Dana’s partner, Flash Hopkins, turned out to be our jester and guide, regaling us with tales of Gerlach and the early days. Every film needs a Flash!
A Mad Dash to Capture All the Best Stories
When Gerry joined us from the ranch he took Jonathan Clark, the New Zealand Director of Photography, and Phillip Cherichenko, the Russian Camera Assistant, on art tours with Jennifer Raiser to ensure we captured the best stories. This was, after all unscripted and we needed to be in the right place at the right time — always. Of course this isn’t always possible and we very nearly missed some of the poignant highlights of the film, such as the moment when Flash lays the memory of his adopted son to rest in the Temple, or the moment the sun rose in the heart of Larry Harvey’s cut-out silhouette, at dawn.
There were also moments when the team was just simply too tired to leave the RV and I had to grab the camera and get out into the dark by myself. Thank heavens for auto focus. Then there was the moment when we were not informed that the camera crew needed to take a Fire Protection course before the Man Burn, and was forbidden from entering the inner circle. I was facing the prospect of losing one of the key moments in the film. If you look closely, you’ll notice the camerawork on Haggis’ face and the sound is somewhat… fly-on-the-wall. Gerry smuggled his handheld camera in as Andrew’s guest and grabbed what he could with what he had at hand. It reminded me of the undercover filming I had had to do in China all those years ago. Watching Andrew watching Larry’s last creation burn is one of the most powerful sequences in the film. It’s not perfect, but we got it in the can.
A Challenging, But Necessary, Transition
We are so fortunate to have made this film when we did, when the mourning for Larry was fresh and raw. It seems right to bring it out this month, when we are all yearning for the infernal dust, the bone-weary fatigue, the ravenous meals of granola bars, electrolytes and jerky, the chance encounters with magic, the things that make Burning Man matter to us.
After decades of grueling work in dusty war zones, I must say, I had thought a month in the desert would be a way to ease into a new life. It turned out to be one of the most challenging projects I’ve undertaken, but one of the most necessary. It helped me let go of my previous life in the Hindu Kush, and move into a new phase. I engraved “Afghanistan RIP” into one of the rafters of the Temple, and as it burned, I watched the spell evaporate.
Our Offering to Artists, Volunteers and the Community
The film is cinematographically beautiful, the creation of many who have donated their time and their content. From the start it was all hands on deck, and even the artists contributed. Haggis introduced us to our director of photography. Kate introduced us to the composer, Haana, who designed the music score. Arthur allowed us to embed with his Temple crew and shared much of his valuable time with us. Flash provided us with his super deluxe camping trailers “another dream come true for somebody!” Not for us. But that’s another story. Sadly, not all of it could make it into the final cut. But hopefully most of our many supporters appear in the credits.
My favorite sequence is the final one, when all the participants have left and only the hardcore remain, sifting through and clearing up the ashes. There is a beautiful drone shot that pulls back showing the fallen Temple, collapsed in perfect geometry. Then, we fly off into the open desert.
Given the constraints of time, lack of resources and primitive working conditions, the film, like so much Burning Man art, is no small achievement. Why should our playa art project be any different from other playa projects? Hopefully it also reflects that same passion for Radical Self Expression, Communal Effort, and Leave No Trace. “Art on Fire” has become our offering to the artists, to the volunteers, and ultimately our playa gift to you. We hope you like it!
“Burning Man: Art on Fire” premieres August 15 and 16, 2020 with two online screenings timed to capture viewers in time zones around the globe. Visit Kindling, Burning Man Project’s live event portal, to register for one or both screenings.
Photo: Sophia Swire on playa with her camera at sunset (Photo by Darren McGee)