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Monday, September 5, 2016

The First Burning Man I Ever Attended as an Artist, I Wasn't At

When I was in my teens (I'm 51 now) I became a coordinator for Hands Across America. For all you young ones, this was a one-day event that tried to create a people chain, holding hands from one side of the United States to the other. My role was to organize and coordinate people going from Lansing Michigan to the staging area in Peru, Indiana. We had one mile to fill, and even though I was only 18 at the time, I pursued it with gusto. And you know, we did it. Our mile of that thousands of miles of people had no gaps and stretched out through Peru into an Indiana cornfield and beyond. 

I couldn't tell you how many people we brought down there and I recall very few of the details of the event now. But there is one thing that sticks with me to this day; the hours right after the event ended. We'd all worked so hard and so long to bring it about, and we'd all become very close. And we just didn't want that feeling to end. 

We knew that we would never be together as that specific group again and we clung to each other in those final hours. And I think we all cried when we knew it was time to depart and go to our respective homes. It was heartbreaking and it was joyful and it was a whole lot of other emotions that are hard to describe. 

So here I sat in front of my computer over 30 years later listening to the words of a man I'd never met, hearing the same emotion in his voice that I felt once. As the live feed for Burning Man 2016 came to an end and the screen went offline, a tear came to my eye because I knew exactly how he felt. I'd felt it and was again feeling it at that very moment. 

Over the past week, the live feed was a constant companion in my studio. While I wishing I was in the Nevada Desert with all those folk, I watched, I listened, and I did participate in my own way. I was there in my own way.

We live in a duplex. We live on one side and our studio is on the other side. When I would leave the studio I would crank up the sound on the computer so that when MotorbikeMatt would start to speak, I'd hear it through the wall and come back to listen and watch. It became a joke between my partner and me when Matt's voice would be heard muffled. Matt's back, we would say, and I'd happily go back to my studio, work on my sculptures, take some screen shots of whatever was going on, and listen. 

Now my partner has no interest in things like deserts or blowing dust storms, but he knew my heart was out there on the Playa and would only smile when I'd trot off to virtually attend some event that I knew the Live Feed would be showing. He knew where my spirit was and that it would eventually be back from the desert. 

There are lesson to be learned. One is that we truly are no longer limited by the fact that we cannot travel directly to something like Burning Man. The amazing people at Media Mecca used their skills and their own special arts to make it real for all of us who could not physically be there. People like MotorbikeMatt, Ralph, Huckleberry, RonJon and all the others made this year's Burning Man different from all the rest because they allowed us to be there. For that we are eternally grateful.

But as an artist, it gave me a glimpse of a future that I've been preaching about for several years; mainly that this is the rise of the Interactive Artist. We are no longer limited to a gallery showing our work. We make our own opportunities, whether they are live or virtual. There is a model here for the future of how artists should be interacting with the world around them. 

We have to stop thinking in the terms that defined what an artist was and start thinking in terms of what we are becoming. An artist's life is now as much virtual as it is physical. Everything we do now online is extending our lives past the physical barriers of life. It's all out there for anyone in the future to find. 

Consider that much of the art created for Burning Man is set on fire before the event ends. Someone asked me "what's the purpose then? Why go to all that work just to set fire to what you created?". But that's just the point. It's not gone. It's out there in a thousand forms still. Nothing is truly ever gone for good anymore. 

Art by its very nature changes and evolves. It adapts to its environment and teaches us new lessons constantly. Just because it is there one moment and gone the next doesn't mean it is gone forever and doesn't mean that it hasn't taught us something or may not still teach us something in the future. Look at the paintings they are finding with x-ray technology layered beneath Leonardo Da Vinci's paintings. Did he ever think anyone would ever see them? But they live now. He's still teaching technique in each of those hidden layers.

Just prior to the start of the 2016 Burning Man, our studio was broken into and robbed. Besides the equipment I lost there, was also about 6 months of art that hadn't been backed up yet (yes, bad of me). I was very sad to have lost so much digital art and the archival photos of work already created in studio and departed to buyers. But Burning Man reinforced for me that the work created is never really lost. We carry that work around with us in our spirits. And as technology changes, even work burned is still alive in some computer somewhere. I'd like to think this is much like the human spirit. Once the body is gone, the spirit is still very much alive.

If we as artists do not accept the new reality of being a Virtual Artist, we will get left behind in the dust (forgive the pun, Burners).

Would I like to be on the Playa someday as an active participant in a future Burning Man? Damned right I would! But until such a day comes along, even participating virtually was a wonderful experience. 

It is my hope that the staff of Burning Man consider these things in future planning and make each successive festival even more interactive for those who are unable to be there in person. This is the evolution of art, and those who create this yearly event are on the cutting edge of that evolution. 


The Ghosts of Burning Man's Past

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