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All The News That's Fit To Burn : 2004 Summer Newsletter

The Art We Breathe

Art and participation are the life and breath of the Burning Man experience. When we have walked even a few feet on the cracked, dry lakebed many of us call home or helped erect the ever-morphing, definition-defying mirage that is Black Rock City, we know that many of our memories are shaped by these artistic visions.

So why should we confine this experience to the playa? Why should we share these experiences only once a year? Is Burning Man merely an entertainment event, a festival, a fun-filled holiday? Judging from the passion and conviction of over three thousand volunteers each year, it often becomes much more than that. It is a state of mind. It is a way of relating to the world and to one another that we can apply anywhere. It evokes a part of us that is at the center of our being as social animals — expression and connection.

Every year, the Burning Man Project provides seed money for many art projects on the playa. This practice has helped keep art at the forefront of the event, transforming Burning Man into the largest outdoor interactive art event in the world. Now, as Burning Man communities proliferate throughout the world, this mission is expanding. In 1991, the Burning Man Project founded the Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF). This not-for-profit organization raises funds for the purpose of promoting interactive art and community activism outside the annual event.

Larry Harvey, Burning Man's director, states, "BRAF is meant to serve our regional communities. From Texas to Wisconsin, from New York to New Zealand, from Los Angeles to London, these communities are now creating hundreds of local events. We believe that BRAF can connect these separate efforts and help knit them together into a worldwide community."

"In order to accomplish this goal," Harvey says, "BRAF is contemplating two initiatives in the coming year. The first is a program through which interactive art created by participants can circulate across the country from community to community. We want people to see what others are doing. We want groups to form relationships with one another."

Another BRAF project described by Harvey involves the creation of a facility that will be separate from the Burning Man event. This permanent meeting ground will allow community members to gather, to talk, to think, and to forge deeper, broader, year-round alliances. "Black Rock City is a big place," he states, "it's intense, but it exists for only 8 days each year. It is a grand initiation for thousands of newcomers. But it's hardly a place for more meditated and more intimate kinds of experience that could help bring community members together."

A related program, the Burning Man Network, lies at the heart of this organizational effort. 75 volunteer regional contacts, located in every U.S. state and several other countries, now serve participant communities. It is their mission to help participants communicate, cooperate, and share resources locally (for more information about the Network, see the Burning Man website: www.regional.burningman.com).

Each regional contact or co-regional group is responsible for supporting the many hundreds of independent groups that have arisen spontaneously as a part of Burning Man's culture. A good example is provided by the efforts of David Peterman and Dave Martinez, Seattle's two co-regional contacts. A recent story in the Seattle Post Intelligencer quotes Martinez, "I came back [from Burning Man] feeling that I had to give back to the community."

The article continues, "He thinks what attendees learn there — and bring back — can affect positive change. As he talks about his efforts in helping create a more interactive local group, Martinez, who works for a telecommunications company, wears a Zen-like smile. While it might seem easy to dismiss this sort of (almost) starry-eyed idealism as the fevered cultish ramblings of a New Ager, it's just as easy not to, because the Burners zeal is contagious. Perhaps this says more about the contemporary disease of cynicism than anything else, but their optimism — this belief that positive social change is possible — makes them different."

Over 3 years, Martinez and Peterman have worked as regional contacts, knitting the local Burning Man community together. Previously, Peterman observes, individuals had coalesced around theme camp projects that existed independently of one another. Frequently, they found themselves in conflict. Resources went unshared, and plans were not coordinated. He urged his fellow Burners to cooperate. After all, he reasoned, participants behave this way in Black Rock City.

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That he and Martinez have succeeded is borne out by statements in the same article. Matt Conlon, a Burning Man participant and an organizer of Lower Level, a local arts cooperative, states, "...various camps — each with its own theme and/or art projects — routinely hold fund-raisers to offset the costs of supplies for their projects. Previously, these camps didn't do much to see if there were scheduling conflicts. Now, says Conlon, local Burners are big on making sure no one's fund-raiser steps on anyone else's toes. In fact, because they're aware of each other's projects, they show up, ready to help others with man power, tools or supplies."

"Two years ago," Conlon is quoted as saying, "that wouldn't happen. We've developed some complicated pathways that people are familiar with." He goes on to explain that Burners in Seattle see themselves as members of 'a service-oriented arts community.' Further proof of local community building is furnished by a succession of impressive artworks that have appeared on the playa, such as Trial by Fire by Chico Raskey, and Spheres of Transformation by Dan Cohen and David Kitts. This last piece formed an enormous gateway at our city's Center Camp keyhole in 2003. Four new grant-supported projects are arriving from Seattle in 2004, including The Gravity Bowl by Lars Linden and Brady Forrest. The spread of Burning Man's culture is contributing to an artistic renaissance in Seattle, as artists aid each other and solicit volunteers via connections formed through the event. A large and diverse community, inspired by our culture's ethos, is growing and spreading in many different directions.

Larry Harvey sees the Black Rock Arts Foundation and the Burning Man Network as working in close coordination. "Our Regional Contacts automatically become members of BRAF, and a representative group of contacts will serve on its art grant advisory committee. We want to learn from them firsthand about what the greater community needs. When we first broached the idea of a Network, some folks thought we were creating a franchise or a means to tax local event revenue. Others said we'd throttle self-expression. We haven't done these things. I think people were speaking from their fear of losing what we've all created together."

"The truth is that we only want to use our size and reach and public reputation to promote and protect Burning Man's culture as it grows. We really do know a lot about this sort of thing. The Black Rock Arts Foundation can furnish this movement with funding. The Burning Man Network can preserve its spirit. We're simply doing what we've always done, but on larger scale. Really, from my point of view, Burning Man today is where it was on Baker Beach in 1986. It is now moving out into a much wider world. We need to take our courage in our hands. If we trust one another, if we learn to work together, I'm convinced we can affect history."

To become a member or learn more about the Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF) visit www.blackrockarts.org or send a message to Black Rock Arts Foundation. For more information about the Burning Man Network and how you can participate, please visit regionals.burningman.com