Playafying Places

In 2018 Burning Man’s creative culture continued to make an impact beyond the playa, with more cultural, public, and private institutions seeking to learn from our community. The Smithsonian entered Burning Man into the historical record of American art. Google asked Burning Man Project to help bring interactive art into a public space in its hometown of Mountain View, California. Meanwhile, a partnership between Washoe County, local nonprofits, and Burning Man Project continues to activate community through the Washoe County Art Trail in Northern Nevada.

On March 30, “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” opened at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in Washington, D.C. The free exhibition of installation art, jewelry, wearable art, interactive digital art, and photography threw open the doors to Burning Man’s maker ethos and delighted audiences from across the United States and around the world. Renwick curator Nora Atkinson and her team worked hard to activate the Burning Man approach to art within the limits of a museum’s four walls, and exhibition partners such as The Golden Triangle Business Improvement District provided public space near the Renwick for six large-scale sculptures.

Over 740,000 visitors, many of them children and young people, saw the exhibition before the end of 2018, giving a wide variety of people the chance to engage with our ethos and aesthetics — an opportunity many would not have had otherwise.

On September 14, a day-long storytelling symposium hosted by the Smithsonian American Art Museum celebrated Burning Man’s verbal and visual culture. Co-founders, artists, leaders, and local community members shared personal tales of change that emphasized the deep sense of connection and belonging they had gained through Burning Man, as well as the permission they felt to live life to their choosing. Many also shared how their sense of personal fulfillment sparked a powerful desire to give back through public service and supporting others.

In March, we announced Burning Man Project was invited to facilitate the creation and installation of five artworks for a two-acre public plaza in Google’s new Charleston East Plaza Campus. The project aims to create a plaza that is inclusive, dynamic, interactive, fun, and memorable, offering delight, inspiring curiosity, and steering away from formal “don’t touch” experiences. The project will also create new opportunities for Burning Man artists to do their work in the world.

In addition to facilitating the selection of artworks, we’ve spent the past nine months undertaking highly participatory community engagement for the project. We’ve held public meetings to listen and learn about local aesthetic needs, and run two human-centered design workshops encouraging participant teams to consider: “How might we create a place where people gather, linger and feel ownership?”

We also continued our work on Nevada’s Washoe County Art Trail project, a 200-mile interactive trail highlighting art, history, and culture of this part of Northern Nevada. In 2017, we put a call out for artists to create two installations for the trail, which evoked a sense of home. In 2018, we selected a collaboration between Reno artist Davey Hawkins and the “ROAM” group to install two rammed-earth sculptures at each end of the trail, one in Crystal Peak Park and the other in Gerlach.

The project is about more than installing art; it’s also about making meaning and activating culture with project partners, stakeholders, and community members. Burning Man Project facilitated a series of community story circles in Reno, Sparks, Gerlach, Verdi, and Nixon. Miners, ranchers, and other community members in attendance had precious history to share. These stories will become part of an augmented-reality app that will enable people to connect with the 16 selected sites along the trail.

We also co-hosted a meeting with representatives from Gerlach, the Nevada Art Commission, the Paiute Tribe, the Nevada Museum of Art, and the Reno Arts Council, where we began the day by sharing an item and story that represented our connection to Washoe County. This helped turn the room into a “we,” rather than a presentation by “us” to “them.”

Working with Burning Man Project isn’t “business as usual,” and we’ve encouraged this year’s partners to do things differently as we seek to create environments that enhance common bonds and generate authentic human connections. As we move deeper into this partnership work, we continue to learn how to best influence institutions beyond our playa world.

Talks about Burning Man Art and Placemaking

Nonprofits, businesses, government entities, and universities are eager to hear about the opportunities and challenges faced by this evolving cultural experiment. One common way outside organizations demonstrate their interest is to invite members of our staff and community to speak or present at meetings, conferences, festivals, and other events. In 2018, Burning Man Project staff were invited to give presentations on topics varying from organizational culture and leadership styles to technology, community management, and urban design.This year, a range of institutions wanted to learn more about our approach to art and creative placemaking — both in the U.S. and abroad.

At the High Desert Museum in Oregon, Burning Man Archivist Christine “LadyBee” Kristen shared her insights into the development of Burning Man art. As Burning Man’s first art curator, LadyBee spent 10 years supporting and connecting the event’s early artists, helping to grow the art and the ambitions of its artists. She told the audience that many artists now premiere their ideas at Burning Man, where the freedom and support to create means they can both play and innovate in ways they can’t do elsewhere.

In Sweden, Burning Man Director of Art & Civic Engagement Kim Cook spoke at Planetary Protocols, a cross-disciplinary talk series in Stockholm that focuses on architecture, design, identity, and statehood. Kim talked about how design can determine our relationship to spaces and each other — either limiting or enhancing our choices, and either bringing us together or creating more isolation. She highlighted the way Black Rock City provided the space and scale to experiment with these relationships; the opportunity to continually iterate, learn and grow each year; and the springboard for taking this out into the world.

In Serbia, Burning Man Project board member Jennifer Raiser gave the keynote address at the October Salon Belgrade Biennale, which kicked off four days of art exhibitions and performances with the theme "The Marvelous Cacophony." Jennifer’s presentation was based on her public talk at the Smithsonian Renwick Gallery, "Burning Man: Movement or Moment?", which posits the theory that Burning Man art is an art movement like Impressionism or Surrealism.

Burning Man co-founder Crimson Rose spoke about the Burning Man art spirit at the Synergy Art Forum in Moscow, Russia — just three months after CEO Marian Goodell was the keynote for another conference in Moscow. Crimson also traveled to Spain and spoke about fire and art at the Alicante Film Festival, after she was invited by the team that built the famed two-story high “Euterpe” doll that Burners enjoyed on playa in 2017 and 2018.

In Guatemala, the Volcano Summit brought together leaders from various fields including digital, financial, telecom, cyber, energy, mobile, sustainability and more. Burning Man Project’s Director of Philanthropic Engagement Theresa Duncan delighted the largely Latin American audience with her provocative talk about what makes Black Rock City and other Burning Man experiences spark innovation, generosity, and personal transformation.

Back in the U.S., Nora Atkinson, a curator at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, echoed Jennifer’s thoughts on art movements in her TED talk, “Why Art Thrives at Burning Man.” She told the audience that Burning Man artworks and artists were part of an important movement where art’s value was not defined by its price tag. Instead, it’s defined by the emotional connection it creates between artist and audience, the benefit it gives our society, and the fulfillment it gives the artists themselves.