• Burning Man: the art of maker culture

    An annual festival in a particularly bleak and remote part of America, Burning Man is often portrayed by the media as a hedonistic bacchanal, a drug-fuelled rave, a hippie gathering, a playground for the technorich, a huge party, a wealth-generating tool for its owners. Those conceptions are accurate in some ways and inaccurate in others, but for me the primary lure of the event has been something more essential: the remarkable art installations that rise annually from the plain.

    And the results of this annual journey are encapsulated in my new book, published this summer by Taschen: Art of Burning Man.

    The Burning Man figure himself, photographed backlit by the sun during a dust storm. Burning Man 2010.

    The temporary city of the Burning Man festival, out on the vast plain of Nevada's Black Rock Desert. Burning Man 2011.

    In a century's time, when art historians look back at the complex legacy of this uniquely American event, I hope one thing will stand out. I hope it will be remembered as an event for doers and for makers.

    Western art of the twenty first century follows an intensely institutionalized and corporate model. Art is mostly the product of a kind of professional underclass, churning out product for resale as glamorous collectibles for the wealthy, or perhaps décor for corporations to line their boardrooms. Artists go through art schools and colleges, honing their skills and developing marketable personal signatures.

    Art isn't really seen as a form of personal expression for the individual. We may be encouraged to draw and paint as children, but in adulthood most of us experience art only as passive viewers and consumers.

    Even voices of rebellion are tied to a kind of professional infrastructure. I was struck by this recently, visiting Britain's Royal Academy for an exhibition of dissident Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei. The work was remarkable, powerful, and moving. But I also couldn't help shake the fact that most of it wasn't his own personal handiwork. It was mainly constructed by legions of skilled artisans and craftspeople, following his directions. I wouldn't say that this lessened the impact of his work, exactly, but it did lend a sense of detached distance.

    The art of Burning Man is different. Nearly all the work is made by the artists themselves. Individuals, teams of friends, collectives: all hands-on makers and creators. The art may be a bit rough and raw, mostly lacking the kind of professional polish seen in the work of someone like Ai. But there's also a certain emotional purity in the work of a team of unpaid friends and enthusiastic volunteers, rather than the product of a bunch of paid workers.

    And this changes things. At its best, the work can embody genuine honesty and emotional intimacy, since labour and skill are freely given. You can help out your favourite artist as she struggles with her work in an unheated warehouse. You can chat with him as he gazes on his installation, placed in the desert for the first time. You can be inspired to produce your own work and haul it out to the Burning Man site, known as a playa, yourself. (more…)