Maybe big art gets all the beauty shots, but there is magic in the small and whimsical works of art we stumble upon on playa and throughout the city. Steve Landis has been bringing small interactive artwork from New York City to Black Rock City for a few years. He is here to empower YOU to build that thing — no matter how small — that’s tickling your imagination. Whether in Black Rock City or elsewhere, we know you can do it. Steven has also previously written about “The Joy of Small Art.”
Making small art is (relatively) easy. The hard part is coming up with the idea of what to make.
You may be thinking, “But I don’t have tools or knowledge of how to build things, or even a way to get it to Burning Man.” Good news! Small art can be simple and need not be complicated, which allows even a novice to create playa art. As for the inspiration, that can strike easily or it may be the result of much pondering, group input, or taking someone else’s basic idea and making it your own in some new or unique way. I’ve used all of these methods at one time or another, and YOU can, too!
Everyone’s source of inspiration is different — from relying on a muse or being inspired by past playa art, to working independently or as a group to hash out ideas. You may have your own method to help clear your mind for kickstarting the creative process. For me, in order to begin the process of coming up with an art idea, I start by just letting my mind go completely blank (which seems counterintuitive to creating something when you have nothing, but it seems to work for me). I’ve also seen a piece of art and — all on its own — my mind sparks and fills with ideas for something else.
For my first small piece of Burning Man art, I saw a Daft Punk skeleton and thought of a dead Burning Man ultramarathon runner who didn’t finish the race. Thus was born a piece called “#DidNotFinish”:
By comparison, my mind was full of anticipation and boredom while waiting on Gate Road to enter Burning Man one year, as the line moved slowly. I thought about how to entertain myself and others, and recalled seeing signs along Gate Road in years past — reminiscent of highway ads from the 1950s called Burma Shave signs which provided witty sayings for drivers’ entertainment as they drove by. Thus, I made interesting and funny signs to hang on the trash fence to read as you passed by, called “#BurnerShaveSigns” (examples of which can be seen on the right).
Other times, inspiration came come from out of nowhere, seemingly random in nature. My next piece’s source of inspiration came while running on a treadmill after watching the movie comedy Blazing Saddles. (For those unfamiliar, there’s a scene where the main characters quickly build a toll booth in the middle of nowhere to slow down the corrupt sheriff and his posse.) At the time, I wasn’t looking for Burning Man playa art inspiration but the idea popped in my head that a tollbooth in Black Rock City would be funny. In Burning Man ethos, which discourages commodification, I twisted dimes into wishes, hopes and dreams to put in the basket in order to pass. Thus, the Black Rock City “Playa Wish Toll Booth.”
I installed the “Playa Wish Toll Booth” on playa in 2018 — the purple wood structure stood out, drawing Burners’ attention and providing immense satisfaction as I witnessed my simple idea bringing joy to others.
FROM CONCEPT TO DESIGN
Once you have the inspiration and idea, and have registered your project with the Burning Man Art Department (prior to the late May deadline), how to build your small art piece comes into play. For most people I’ve spoken to about making small art, this seems to them like the biggest hurdle. I know it is hard to believe, but it is neither hard nor difficult. The short answer is that design and construction help is available for you from many different sources, which gets explained below so that you can turn your idea into reality. There are many choices about how to build the art and the various options of materials to use, from wood, to EMT poles and decorated vinyl covering, to fabricated metal, and whether to include electrical elements and lighting. Remember: easiest is the simplest, which is what I’ve tended to do for both budgetary and shipping purposes.
In the end, my idea for “Playa Harvey” (a critical response to “PlayaBarbie Photo Box” by Mike Anglin and PlayaBarbie Camp) was brought to dusty life using very non-threatening and very non-difficult items that were only three plywood sheets, 2’x4′ pieces of wood, some screws and paint. While my first small piece of playa art fit inside my backpack, this art fit (mostly) inside the back of a minivan (with plenty of room to spare for my four yellow-top bins). Having small art built with so few pieces isn’t unusual — many other art pieces on playa are small in size but big in imagination.
As for designing and building things, I have limited knowledge — I’m not what anyone would call ‘handy.’ But I work well with what I have, know how to ask questions, and I am eager to learn new things, all of which works out well when you don’t know exactly what you’re doing.
MATERIALS AND CONSTRUCTION
From building the “Playa Wish Toll Booth” I learned about basic framing and construction materials. Out of curiosity, I also previously took photos of the interior of some playa art pieces to learn from their ideas and structures. When in doubt, there are online video tutorials galore, plus Burning Man Hive for other tips and tricks.
Informal networking and developing friendships with other Burners can help create a natural support system to build art. While I’m a strong believer in Radical Self-reliance, there’s also something to be said about asking for help when needed. I reached out to fellow artists with similarly-constructed small art (thanks again to “Hug Deli” and “Talk to God!”) to ask about shapes, sizes, wind, and lag bolts — they were happy to answer questions and help with suggestions, in true Burner spirit. This wisdom and assistance created a better and more detailed design, which then got further refined by an architect friend (kudos to Mark Richards!) who I also met at Burning Man. Because after all, Radical Self-reliance doesn’t mean you have to do everything alone, it takes a village (even to build small art)!
Need help finding a team, information, or just unsure where to start with your idea? There are many resources available to you within the Burning Man community: there’s the Burning Man Art Department who support playa art and its placement; Burning Man Hive, an online resource for ideas and knowledge; or the Facebook group Burning Man Builders & Makers.
Once I had a team for “Playa Harvey,” we were cooking with gas. While build space can be hard to come by for big art, small art lends itself to living rooms, backyards, garage space or even driveways. Since I live in NYC and have limited apartment space, I reached out for help and found a suburban friend with indoor garage space (and bonus, tools).
Even with expert help, mistakes often get made along the way — take it as a learning experience for next time. Asking the store’s orange vested staff about each material I needed was helpful; however, none of them had specific Burning Man art experience to know how each material might survive the playa dust, wind, and alkaline environment. So I asked more questions, learned more, and guessed where I had to (paying close attention to safety along the way).
Once we got our items, we worked to transform basic construction supplies into a piece of Burning Man playa art. We measured twice, cut once, and checked our sketches to avoid mistakes and extra expenses. Since Burners like to touch things — and rough edges make for unhappy Burners at emergency services — we sanded and rounded every edge to reduce potential injury and splinters.
One of the biggest sources of MOOP is wood bits and pieces. Our goal was a clean playa, which meant putting everything together ahead of time, then taking it apart entirely and having it ready to go with no further work to be done on playa. All screw holes, lag bolt holes, and attachments were drilled in advance to avoid a wood mess on playa and to make sure they all fit together. This process will help ensure an easy set up, with no muss and no fuss (or MOOP) once you arrive in Black Rock City.
GETTING YOUR ART TO BLACK ROCK CITY
This is potentially an expensive part of bringing art to the playa (unless your art somehow fits in your pocket or luggage). Some folks rent a car or truck and drive directly to playa, but I have the benefit of living in NYC where a bunch of Burners share costs and organize 4-5 giant shipping containers to bring gear directly to playa.
Elsewhere, for example in DC, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, and other big cities, there are similar group container deliveries, or it’s done by Burners on a small group basis. If you live near Black Rock City, there’s always a box truck share among various artists (the ARTery or Burning Man Hive may be able to help connect you with nearby artists but ultimately it’s on you to make the delivery happen). Delivery of “Playa Harvey” to the New Jersey drop-off point again raised the issue of the barely fitting pieces into the back of the minivan (and later scraping bright green paint off of the car’s interior). As expected, the flat and nested pieces helped with the cost and ease of loading into the shipping container.
After I arrived on playa, I checked in with the ARTery, learned “Playa Harvey”’s placement location, and got the OK to start the installation process. A few minor paint repairs later (as a result of the pieces getting banged up in the shipping process), we carried “Playa Harvey” to its placement location. Our advanced planning paid off; everything fit together perfectly.
The installation team helped lift the heavy wood and the cutout head, which was hard to balance in the wind. Then, voila! The piece was ready for Burners to interact with for one glorious week in the Black Rock Desert.
THE BIG REWARD OF SMALL ART
Having an idea transform into a physical piece on playa was the best part and made the whole process worthwhile.
Watching others approach and interact with the piece, and point as they understood what “Playa Harvey” meant, created joy for them and myself. You’ll feel wonderful by exercising your creative (and perhaps hidden) genius. It seems hard, but like attending Burning Man for the first time, once you do it you realize that it’s do-able and there are ways to make it an even better experience. It’s hard to overestimate this value, or to put the feelings into words, but there’s a firm reason why so many create art at Burning Man and why so many place the art as one of the top reasons to attend Burning Man. Big art may get more of the publicity, but there really is joy in the small art.
So get creative this year, and PARTICIPATE! Because small art helps our community bring back the mirth and magic of Burning Man.
Cover image of small art created by Steve Landis (All photos courtesy of the author)