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All The News That's Fit To Burn : 2003 Summer Newsletter

Burning Man and the Art Press
by Jason Thompson

Media coverage of Burning Man has steadily intensified since the event began its annual incarnation in the Black Rock Desert in 1990. It is reported every year in newspapers, magazines, and on television. The event's media profile this year features increasing attention in the art press. In 2003, four major national and international publications have reported on both the art of Burning Man and the movement as a whole. The art press coverage testifies to a deepening impact of our community in the wider culture.

Earlier this year, Burning Man was featured in the spring issue of Modern Painters magazine. The July/August issue of Art Papers magazine contains an article entitled "Public Art at Burning Man." Leonardo, a publication of MIT Press, has hosted an online gallery of Burning Man art and artist statements since May. A print version of Leonardo's Burning Man feature will be available in October. Art in America magazine will also be covering Burning Man later this year.

Leonardo focuses its coverage on art that uses science and technology in innovative ways. The journal was founded in 1968 by kinetic artist and astronautical pioneer Frank Malina. Managing Editor Pan Grant Ryan was particularly fascinated by the ability of Burning Man artists to create technologically sophisticated works for presentation in a harsh desert environment. The magazine's online gallery features a retrospective of Burning Man art from 1993 through 2000, including work by Vince Koloski, David Best and Jack Haye, Pepe Ozan, Zachary Coffin, and Dan Das Mann. An introductory essay by Burning Man art curator LadyBee emphasizes the collaborative, social dimension of the work.

"There is a yet unnamed art movement that may prove to be of some significance, and Burning Man is close to its center," LadyBee writes, quoting veteran Burning Man artist Larnie Fox. "It is a movement away from a dialog between an individual artist and a sophisticated audience, and towards collaboration amongst a big, wild, free and diverse community."

London-based Modern Painters was one of the first art magazines to commission articles from writers outside the art world, such as novelists and poets. The spring 2003 issue features photographs of artworks at Burning Man 2002, including David Best's Temple of Joy, and an interview by novelist and critic Geoff Dyer with Burning Man founder Larry Harvey. Dyer tells the story of a curator in England who, on the basis of a single newspaper photograph, informed him "with evident delight, that the art of Burning Man was rubbish." Some time later, Michael Light's Full Moon exhibition of lunar photography was shown at the Hayward Gallery in London. The curator told Geoff how much he had been impressed by Michael's exhibition. Dyer pointed out to the curator friend that Full Moon had, in fact, first been exhibited at Black Rock City in 1998. Geoff assumed that "the argument had been definitively settled," but when he told the curator that Light had exhibited his latest piece, culled from government photographs of nuclear bomb explosions, at Burning Man 2002, the curator said, "I bet Light is the only artist worth his salt at Burning Man."

Dyer recounts this episode as background for asking Larry Harvey why Burning Man would elicit such reflex hostility in the art establishment. "It's because they earn their bread and butter working for institutions whose purpose is to validate art," Harvey replies. "People gather around institutions and accept the professional advice of people whose job it is to institutionally validate the art product. Burning Man, on the other hand, is devoted to immediacy... We view art outside the frame that the contemporary art world puts around it. We tend to look at it as an instrument by which to create social relationships. It's basically the connecting glue that holds this little experiment together and that's a much larger agenda."

Art Papers is an Atlanta-based arts publication, established in 1976, that widened its focus from reviews of local gallery openings to national coverage of wide-ranging topics. The magazine's July/August issue includes the transcript of a speech given by Larry Harvey at the Woodruff Art Center in May, sponsored by Art Papers and the Metropolitan Public Art Coalition. Larry's talk explains Burning Man's principle of radical expression, the gift economy, and the noncommercial, communal nature of art production at the event. "Burning Man revives art's culture-bearing, connective function," he says. "It encourages art that is designed to be touched, handled, played with and moved through in a public arena, even as it encourages collaboration between artists. It blurs the distinction between audience and art, professional and amateur, spectator and participant."

The art establishment has traditionally played an important role in determining an artist's perceived value, by both critical and commercial measures. Art critics and curators act as gatekeepers to gallery or museum exhibitions. The art press helps shape the public perception of an individual artist or artistic movement, often moving avant-garde or alternative movements toward mainstream recognition. In fact, such widening recognition can often mark the waning of an avant-garde movement's iconoclastic power. But despite expanding awareness, the art of Burning Man seems unusually resistant to commodification because it is so site-specific, socially interactive and community-generated. As Geoff Dyer speculates, Burning Man's growing profile in the art world might not mean that its art will find acceptance at MOMA. Instead, perhaps more mainstream artists will come to Burning Man to make a different kind of art and experience a different kind of relation to their audiences.

Black Rock City is a long way from the nearest art gallery or museum, and the huge expanse of the desert allows us to redefine what art means. The desert is a "stunning tabula rasa, its perfect blankness uninterrupted by birds, bugs or bushes," as Larry Harvey puts it in Art Papers. "This context of no context makes anything leap to the eye, as if its identity shines out of it. In a primal way, it also makes people shine out of themselves — which, to me, means they become artists."