“OVER RULED,” a large-scale art installation led by artist Cody Smith is coming to Burning Man 2023 from San Francisco’s Looking Up Arts collective, asks us to explore a few questions:
What’s the worst mistake you’ve ever made? What would your life be like if you had to be forever defined by it? Everyone makes mistakes; everyone deserves a chance to make amends. But in our imperfect society, not everyone is given that chance. Is enforcement equitably applied? Do punishments build us up or break us down?
Taken at face value, the 12′ structure installed on playa will spell out a cheeky provocation, “NO DANCING,” clearly legible from afar. But as the viewer approaches, each of the large block letters will reveal a story, a testimonial from a real person about a personal experience with unjust rules. Smith sees the piece as a call to awareness of social injustice and the power of restorative justice.
Smith, 40, gained his own awareness through unfortunate personal experience. He has twice been entangled with the legal system, once early in adulthood and once again a decade later, both times for non-violent infractions — alleged crimes, but ones without any victims.
In the latter case, he found the experience emotionally harrowing and deeply destabilizing. For a year he remained trapped under the weight of an uncertain legal outcome, at times hearing that he could be facing a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison. “Over the course of about a year,” Smith describes, “I went in and out of thinking, maybe I’ll be in prison next year — maybe I’ll be in prison for the next decade.”
Unable to share details about the situation with friends and family as the case was ongoing, Smith felt completely isolated. “[I was] trying to function normally in life, but with this crushing fear of having it all taken away.”
A white man with considerable privilege, Smith eventually negotiated reduced charges. This echoed his experience with the legal system in his youth, when a lawyer told him in no uncertain terms that he was only facing charges because prosecutors thought he was Black. He knows this is reality in America, where Black people are five times more likely to be stopped by police without cause than white people, are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people, and are six times more likely to face imprisonment than whites for drug charges despite similar rates of use [NAACP].
His experiences and awareness of these stark racial inequities underpins Smith’s hand-in-hand beliefs in racial justice and restorative justice. Many systems responding to wrongdoing today, beginning as early as childhood in schools, result in what he describes as “a cycle of breaking rules and being punished, a downward spiral. If the punishments make things worse for you, then your likelihood of being punished again later goes up.” Instead, restorative justice is the idea that “that cycle could lift you up” — that wrongdoing could be met with consequences that help rule breakers grow and improve, instead of pushing them to worse depths over time.
“OVER RULED” project team member Pui Ling Tam, whose work on the project so far has focused on gathering the testimonials that will be featured in this piece, also hopes the art will be a healing opportunity for the individuals whose voices are featured. In the face of the deep isolation many experience at the hands of the myriad systems built to enforce rules, sharing one’s story, in Tam’s words, is “calling out across a void; you don’t know who’s going to receive your story.” But, she continues, “if you’re willing to put it out there, for someone who’s never had your experiences,” it might have a profound impact on them, one that bridges that divide.
In the next couple months, the “OVER RULED” team will undertake this challenge, building the nine letters that spell NO DANCING out of a welded steel frame, covering each one with upcycled billboard fabric, and emblazoning each with one of nine testimonials. In doing so, Smith and his team hope to build a piece of work that combats injustice and isolation by centering those people’s stories, and by calling in the entire Burning Man community to witness them, develop empathy, and reflect on how we might collectively create a society with more upward spirals.
With this tall order ahead of them, the Looking Up team sees a couple key needs for support from the Burner community. The most obvious is fundraising; the team has recently launched a Kickstarter, and would appreciate any and all donations towards constructing the art. But second, and perhaps more crucially, “OVER RULED” hopes the community will help with the storytelling dimension. The team currently has a call for testimonials that will be featured in the art piece. If you have an experience with rules — formal ones, such as laws; or informal ones, such as norms and expectations; ones that you broke or ones you blindly followed — that left an important impact on your life, the team asks that you fill out their brief survey. In the words of Tam, “your story is as valuable as any donation, or as our ability to physically build it.”
Note: A previous version of this piece was published with edits that were not properly communicated to the author, and consent for those edits was not given by the author. The section connecting the artist’s experience with and perspectives on social and racial injustices is central to their story, and we apologize for the omission. The piece is now restored to its original version.
Cover image of an artist’s mockup of what the completed project will look like (Rendering by Kyle Matlock)