Innovative Art of Burning Man Ditches the Desert to Find New Life in Cities

September 13, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Burning Man -- once a small, alternative gathering in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada -- has evolved into America's largest arts festival. KQED's Thuy Vu reports on how San Francisco's arts and technology communities have influenced the annual celebration and how their installations are finding new lives beyond the festival.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The nation’s largest outdoor art festival, Burning Man, and how it’s massive sculptures are popping up beyond their annual desert home.

Our report is by Thuy Vu of KQED Public Television in San Francisco.

THUY VU, KQED Public Television: Every year, thousands of artists make the trek to Nevada to display their work in one of the most extreme environments imaginable.

For one week, five square miles of the Black Rock Desert is transformed into a more than 300-piece exhibition of radical self-expression.

TOMAS MCCABE, Black Rock Arts Foundation: It is like the greatest museum ever. You have your piece there. You don’t see any other pieces around it and you see this vastness of the desert. Being able to see the change in scale from something from a distance, and then being able to get right up to it and climb on top of it and actually touch it is amazing.

THUY VU: Core to Burning Man culture is its noncommercial nature. Nothing’s for sale here. It’s purely art for art’s sake. Many of the desert playa’s most awe-inspiring pieces are no temporal flights of fancy. Structures like these require months of painstaking and carefully planned design, most of which happens in the place where Burning Man got its start, the San Francisco Bay area.

TOMAS MCCABE: There’s definitely a community of artists that I’m not sure would exist, at least not in this form, without Burning Man. And it’s become a mecca for people to come here and be part of this scene.

THUY VU: A prime example, the Box Shop Artist Collective in San Francisco, a hub of creative innovation year-round.

Tell me what we’re looking at here.

MAN: This is all steel. It’s disassembled at the moment, but all these pieces fit together on the structure.

THUY VU: It’s main tenants are a female-driven group who collaborate on jaw-dropping kinetic sculptures for Burning Man.

POUNEH MORTAZAVI, Flaming Lotus Girls: Flaming Lotus Girls is a group of 200 individuals. And we make art together. We teach people, particularly women, how to do all parts of the art-making process through this one big group sculpture. If you can get into it, you can never leave. It’s addictive.

THUY VU: Part of that addiction, a decade-long fascination with fire and designs that push the limits of interactive mechanical art.

POUNEH MORTAZAVI: One thing that we believe in is making immersive environments. You actually walk into and become part of the art.

THUY VU: This year, they’re crafting one of their most ambitious pieces yet. Xylophage is a giant tree stump with enormous mushrooms that spout fire and sound effects. It takes hundreds of hours of volunteer labor to bring such an intricate design alive.

Jackie Britton flew all the way from London to be a Flaming Lotus Girl.

What am I helping you with?

WOMAN: We are making bark for big stumpy. So you start with a flat bit of metal, you bend, you cut it like this.


WOMAN: And then you smack it with a hammer. It’s not massively dangerous. But…


THUY VU: Good to know that it’s not massively dangerous.

Jackie’s what the group affectionately calls a minion, ready to take on any task that’s needed.

WOMAN: I think that’s suitably barky.

THUY VU: Suitably barky. Hey, you know what, two down, 100,000 more to go.

One week later, Xylophage makes its debut at Burning Man.

WOMAN: You kind of have an idea of what it’s going to look like, but it always turns out different, and it’s really the road there and creating something a lot of other people are going to enjoy.

THUY VU: Like the Burning Man himself, much of the art here goes up in smoke at the end of the week. But over the past decade, the influence of Burning Man has spread, as an increasing number of these sculptures are finding new homes in urban settings.

As executive director of the Black Rock Arts Foundation, Tomas McCabe helps fund community-based interactive art projects, all with a Burning Man aesthetic, like Future’s Past by Kate Raudenbush.

TOMAS MCCABE: Future’s Past is obviously like a Mayan temple. This is all modeled after circuit board and circuitry.

THUY VU: The foundation’s first project was a David Best temple in Hayes Valley.

TOMAS MCCABE: We set up the temple and people started writing on it, and in the beginning police would stop people from vandalizing. We had to like actually acculturate the police and the local residents: Well, that’s what it’s for.

THUY VU: Over the past eight years, the Black Rock Arts Foundation has supported more than 30 civic arts projects in the Bay Area and beyond. One of the best known is Bliss Dance on Treasure Island.

TOMAS MCCABE: There is an iPhone app where you have a photo of the sculpture on your phone and you can slide your finger up and down the sculpture and the lights will change according to which colors you select.

Marco Cochrane has been working for years with life-size bronzes, and he’s taken this classical art form to a whole other level of scale and technology.

THUY VU: Palo Alto will soon be home to artist Charlie Gadeken’s Aurora, a piece he’s shown at multiple festivals across the country and is readying to install outside city hall.

TOMAS MCCABE: This will have technology that the city can use to change lights according to energy usage or the weather or whatever the city wants to do.

THUY VU: The Black Rock Arts Foundation is not the sole champion of Burning Man artists.

TOMAS MCCABE: I think the biggest example of Burning Man art making itself into the mainstream art culture is Leo Villareal’S Bay Lights. So he took a bridge that was nearly two miles long and created an entire LED art piece on that bridge.

THUY VU: The installation was privately financed to the tune of $8 million. Donors included Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, among a new crop of Silicon Valley patrons of technology-based interactive art.

And, soon, pending final approval by the city, the San Francisco waterfront will boast yet another former Burning Man creation, this one courtesy of the Flaming Lotus Girls.

POUNEH MORTAZAVI: We have very successful in this kind of couple-year cycle where we will make the piece for Burning Man. We will break it at Burning Man, and then bring it back and work on it and make it perfect. But, definitely, Burning Man for Flaming Lotus Girls, at least, is where we were born, and so that is a special place for us.