The Art Paradigm of Burning Man – and Implications for Sharing It In Default
by Sunshine Daydream – 9/9/2017

Burners often say the playa transforms us, and we say we transformed the paradigm for art, but what do those mean? Maybe you saw the answer your virgin year, but it took me 15 burns making lots of art. And then, a giant puppet finally whacked me on the side of the head with the answer hard enough to make me spit it out – but before describing the secret she shared, there are some big red herrings on the playa without tickets that need ejection!

The Red Herrings of Scale, Awe, Fire & Light:

Some feel we changed art paradigms through large-scale commissioned public art, such as David Best’s temples or Flaming Lotus Girls’ fire sculptures. While large-scale Burning Man-commissioned installations are breathtaking and amazing to experience at the event and elsewhere, spectacular large-scale public art cannot possibly represent a paradigm shift as it was practiced by the Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks seeking geometric perfection, then Gothic cathedral builders competing to go tallest (like Burners), then Renaissance men striving for perfect beauty, followed more recently by Gaudi, Gehry, Christo, and others. The challenges of constructing large art on playa are orders of magnitude smaller than these artists faced, and our works are far smaller to behold.

Similarly, many cultures have burned effigies large and small so our Man and Temple are not paradigm shifts. Meanwhile, no patent examiner in the world would call adding sequenced LEDs or propane accumulators to public art “unobvious” once such components existed. Surely Burning Man would not be the same without our big art, lighting, and fire, but our scale, visceral impact, media, and construction approaches do not comprise any paradigm shift, merely evolution in materials and methods. And most of all, as any old timer knows, BRC was already deeply transformative when LEDs, propane poofers, and Org-sponsored art first showed up!

So, “Where’s the Beef”?

To begin to sense the real art paradigm shift of Burning Man, one may imagine our big art in a different context – would experiencing Firmament’s LEDs be the same in a city parking lot without a hundred trippers trapped beneath it blinking back? Were Peter’s Monkeys the same in San Jose as in BRC, or Aurora the same in Palo Alto? Not even close!

Why not? At BRC, each large installation can only be experienced while fully immersed in a chaotic milieu of other art surrounding and inside it – in fact, we each experience hundreds or thousands of other individual artworks at once, every moment. Unlike any other art ever exhibited from San Fran to Amsterdam, it is literally impossible to see one artwork at a time in BRC unless you get too close to focus on it – but even then, your other senses will remain in cacophony.

In our city unlike any other, our homes and furniture are art; our businesses (theme camps) and government offices (Org departments) are art; the vehicles we ride or drive are art; our clothing, makeup, hair styles, hats, jewelry, and personal survival gear are art; and, perhaps most importantly, our interpersonal interactions are art, from our ad hoc stories and shtick to the thousands of intentional performances to be found at any moment from DJs to rope suspensions.

In BRC, we’ve created the first city in history that pushes Shakespeare’s “all the world a stage” mindset to its absolute limits theoretically, politically, financially, culturally, and existentially, to the point where our city becomes a fully-immersive experience of “everyone an artist and everything an artwork, all the time”. I propose THIS as the art paradigm of Burning Man.

All the World A Stage – Really!

Like any useful scientific theory, this one explains seemingly unrelated facts we can observe, such as how and why newbies become “transformed” their first burn – they have never previously encountered a city where everything everywhere is all art all the time including themselves. THAT is what transformed me from zero interest in art to an intense desire to make art in just five days – and then into the playa’s most copied artist 2 burns later and likely forevermore.

Perhaps the last previous example of intensely pursuing Shakespeare’s vision was sponsored by the Medici family, yet all they could accomplish was small quantities of grand art, just as Burning Man Arts grants can. In any city where a large majority of the population must invest most of its time surviving at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy rather than on self-actualization, obtaining a level of artistic immersion anywhere close to ours would simply be impossible.

At BRC, we have the first city in history where no one need worry about earning their daily bread except a few cops and poop pumpers – for a week or two each year we all become artists and the art itself, 24/7. As a result, Burning Man art is not about the few Michaelangelos or Guadis or Peter Hudsons of the world making amazing art because that is not new; what is new is everyone else being art not audience! commissioning large works does not create that, but our “no spectators” attitude and 10 Principled culture does.

A New Paradigm of Art Demands a New Paradigm of Experiential Curatorship:

Turning to implications for sharing the art of Burning Man in default, our “All the World a Stage” paradigm poses an intellectual threat to the conventional artistic curatorship approach – it is impossible to describe “The Art of Burning Man” as a curated list of six artworks in a museum, nor three hundred artworks on the playa, nor three thousand works nor even three million! With 70,000+ artistic experiences occurring every moment at Burning Man, each comprised of hundreds or thousands of simultaneous artworks perceived per person, any attempt to categorize our art based on a list of works rapidly becomes mathematically infinite. Yet we lack a better descriptive model! In what direction might we seek one?

The art of Burning Man that we call “interactive” is actually “experiential”, and thus perhaps better described from the recipient’s point of view than from the provider’s point of view. When everything is art, beauty really does exist in the eye of the beholder, not in each component of what we behold.

This paradigm shift from source to receiver is analogous to one pioneered in the 1990s, when “virtual reality”, “augmented reality”, and “virtual presence” were new terms and new terrain to be explored. As a VR pioneer, I helped advance a field seeking two things: 1) suspension of disbelief at far greater levels than any movie possible, via sensory immersion using technical devices to trick the human mind into believing “you are there”, and 2) a new computing paradigm that replaced computer-centric worship at a mouse, keyboard, and monitor with a human-centric model where we point, speak, or turn and the computer responds with whatever media generation is needed to optimize the illusion – we defined entire multimillion dollar R&D efforts starting from the recipients of the sensory perceptions (ticket buyers), not the sources of those perceptions (artists and their gear). Might this concept also apply to bringing BRC to the public without the dust?

Our paradigm was no longer about the source of the experience (a computer, software, and peripherals) but about evoking an experience so powerful you forgot the source. The holy grail of this paradigm shift was the “Holodeck” of Star Trek fame, which science is still far from achieving – two decades on, we can easily stimulate the visual and auditory senses to the point of suspension of disbelief and sensory immersion in a non-existent scene, but we still do poorly on touch/haptic and motion/balance, and taste/smell remain essentially non-starters. Luckily, visual and auditory inputs are sufficient to “take us somewhere that does not exist” – perhaps somewhere like Black Rock City, even when it does not exist.

An Experiment In Large-Scale Artistic Immersion:

What are some practical implications for presenting “The Art of Burning Man” in a non-dusty venue to those who have never experienced BRC? Stated another way, how might we shift the gallery curatorship paradigm to begin delivering the “art experience of Burning Man”, not just sanitized examples and artifacts of a city no longer there, just like ancient cities are presented?

I believe standalone installations and trinkets on display can present examples of Burning Man art much like we can present examples of Etruscan art in a display case, or a reconstructed Egyptian temple in a giant museum gallery – but no single installation can deliver the experience of the art of Burning Man. Conventional curatorship approaches risk ensuring that our works come across as experientially stale as the 30th room of statues in the Vatican collection.

To achieve “the art experience of Burning Man”, we need many things. Part of the solution involves starting from the notion of creating full immersion in a virtual Burning Man art experience that retains as much fidelity to the original as technology, resources, and imagination enable – let that be the goal, and the measure.

By definition, no one ever really knows in advance how we might achieve a paradigm shift, so just as Burning Man calls itself “an experiment in temporary community”, we are faced with the challenges of “an experiment in large-scale artistic immersion”. This experiment knows no bounds and but three overriding principles may begin to scratch the surface of this new paradigm:

1) Sensory Immersion:
To truly deliver “The Art of Burning Man” in a user-centric manner enabling “the art experience of Burning Man” we must take explicit and experientially powerful steps to suspend disbelief, and immerse the audience deeply within a world that is all art all the time.

2) Compelling Interactivity:
Providing an authentic art of Burning Man experience requires going beyond suspension of disbelief and sensory immersion, to a place where each member of the audience is part of creating the artistic experience for themselves and others – “no spectators”.

3) Focus on User Experience, not Artworks:
Instead of (or at least in addition to) organizing an exhibition as a list of artworks, consider starting from the desired user experience – perhaps curate a temporal sequence of experiential flows sought in the audience, then work backward to define what artworks and presentation methods will support the desired experiential goals at each point in the visit timeline.

One approach to this might be inverting classical VR digital immersion techniques: while the augmented reality field has long focused on “projecting virtual information over the real world you see to enhance the here and now”, we might consider “projecting the real world over virtual information to enhance immersion in the there and then” – success would mean the big commissioned art feels like it does at Burning Man.

Specific Examples – Scratching The Surface:

Taking this from the theoretical to the practical is not easy, and may require much brainstorming. Here are some initial approaches that may be worth considering:

1) If a large commissioned installation will be presented in a gallery setting, the experience can be made far more immersive and realistic if the audience is surrounded by the full visual and auditory experience of Burning Man, with all its distractions and chaos. For example, obtain 360-degree immersive background footage video from a static location on playa, edit it down to a 30-minute loop (that lacks faces near enough for identification to ensure privacy), and project the immersive video to fill all four walls surrounding a marquis commissioned piece, along with surround sound. Obtaining visual/auditory immersion in this manner rather than surrounding an installation with curio displays and white walls seems the most powerful way to achieve “presence” for a large commissioned piece within a gallery. In short, we actually need that loud art car driving by while audience members are writing on David’s temple, or it is just not the same. Several media artists obtained permits to shoot immersive video at BM17 and could be approached to participate.

2) Ensure that every visual aspect of each gallery supports the artistic context and paradigm of Burning Man: everything art. I’ve proposed an approach for handling furnishings, but there are other critical aspects – for example, just as all furnishings can be art, all lighting can be art: starting with a clean slate of imagining all museum lighting disabled, invite lighting artists to illuminate each gallery in appropriate (blingy) manner.

3) Make as many installations as possible truly interactive, such as audience-driven lighting effects.

4) Allow the Burning Man community to costume the museum staff, guides, food service workers, and anyone guests might see or hear while within the exhibition. This could be as simple as a “call for costumes” and someone facilitating wardrobe.

5) To help the audience feel part of the melee, obtain image galleries from photo artists who shoot full-frontals of Burners in their playawear, and use them in a simple green-screen masking tool that enables audience members to put their own face on a costume to see what they like. To kick this up a notch, save the composite images, and display audience members dressed for playa in various locations as they meander through the galleries.

6) If immersive 3D virtual reality content exists for Burning Man at sufficient visual fidelity, allow audience members to visit dangerous places at BRC in complete safety – climbing tall structures, getting close to a fire, etc. To instantaneously suspend disbelief, it would not be difficult to shoot a completely safe blast of hot air at someone watching a propane flame effect in a virtual world.

7) Provide bins of playawear at an early point in the exhibit for participants to wear and return at the end – a simple RFID tag in each item can prevent theft. Perhaps Black Rock Boutique or Costume Kult would assist.

8) Hold a playa fashion show at opening of the exhibit, and project a video loop of the show at 1x scale during remainder.

9) Insert some charred wood into the ventilation system to cause a background level of “burn smell”. This need not be intrusive, nor include actual smoke, nor include any aspect liable to cause respiratory reactions – just a scent hint, to drive primal memories via a most sensitive human organ that is generally overlooked at museums.

10) Include random “poofers” in the galleries, consisting of bright momentary lights and large-scale video/audio of a flame effect plus a hot air blast. Without some “shock and awe” such as what Flower Tower pulled off in 2017, attendees cannot be “shaken loose” enough to transform.

11) Turn the vending products such as food into art, or at least meals reminiscent of Burning Man. Avoid logo/branded cups, and ensure all utensils are compostable. Perhaps colored sharpies or other marking tools at eating tables could enable personalizing a “playa cup” that visitors can keep.

12) Initiate explicit brainstorming sessions via group meetings or even social media to solicit other ideas for “experiential immersion in the Burning Man art experience” along with those who can execute them. We have tens of thousands of creative out-of-the-box thinkers that can be invited to participate in many ways. And for every large-scale playa artist who gets commissioned, there are five thousand of “us” creating the art milieu of Burning Man who would never consider seeking an art grant with a straight face.


It Is All In Our Heads…

At our city in the desert, I believe the ultimate artistic experience lies in our heads, not physical installations plopped on the playa – exactly what I argued to LadyBee in 2005 “The Psyche” by demanding curatorship of a brand image I created in participants’ heads instead of the brand’s love seats placed around a burn barrel. A dozen years and 10,000 art installations later, I finally realize I foresaw a truth larger than my work or anyone else’s: the overwhelming mental stimulation generated by complete artistic immersion explains “The Art of Burning Man” better than any alternative paradigm description I have seen.

In any exhibition of the art of Burning Man, we can evaluate and critique how well the audience’s artistic experience simulates the original context, because unlike historic exhibitions we can visit and participate in the authentic experience. In that authentic experience, tens of thousands of artists who will never be “in a show” nor build a large installation are what create the art paradigm of Burning Man, and bringing that to default with any fidelity is a great challenge. Inviting radical pARTicipation is one approach to facing that challenge.

I hope this document stimulates ideas to support curatorship of future Burning Man exhibitions that present themselves nearly as uniquely and experientially as Burning Man itself, and that become potentially transformative for the audience at least at a level evocative of the event. Our 10 Principles demand that we at least try! Thank you for considering these views…

About the Author:

Sunshine Daydream is not an artist, has no art training, and fails at all conventional art media. Despite these and physical disabilities, he has led 6 large-scale playa art installations and 2 Man base projects, ignited 3 CORE effigies, built 2 mutant vehicles, founded a major theme camp, performed live music on playa, co-produced (with BRAF) installation of a giant monkey zoetrope in downtown San Jose, and instigated nearly 10,000 slotted plywood art installations through a spoofy online performance art platform called Playatech. But he’s really a maker not an artist, so it took him awhile to understand the meaning of that magic we really make out there in the desert together…your meaning may differ, but Sunshine’s is more fun.