What Makes Art Worth A Community’s Time?

What Makes Art Worth A Community’s Time?

by Caveat Magister

I first met two Burning Man living legends on the same night, when I mouthed off to one of them about art.

In 2007, legendary showman and Burning Man apostate (a man whose very name makes eyes roll at Burning Man headquarters) “Chicken John” Rinaldi was running for mayor of San Francisco. He was really running, but it was in many ways a stunt campaign – running for mayor as a work of interactive art – and so his campaign events tended towards the bizarre and outré.  I was a political reporter back then, and it was the most fun I’d ever had in that job.

Chicken John (Photo by Scott Beale)

Since the incumbent mayor, Gavin Newsom, didn’t want to debate any of his challengers, they were left to debate each other, and the first night I ever saw Chicken John in person was at a debate, at his warehouse, against another mayoral candidate, a blogger named Josh Wolf.  Since they both had animal names, the event was billed as “Chicken Vs. Wolf.”  First they took questions from a moderator, and then they took questions from the audience.

They each had very simple messages.  Wolf, who had spent a record breaking amount of time in jail for refusing to turn over materials to the police, was advocating for transparency:  he promised that, if elected, he would wear a 24/7 webcam so that literally everything he did as mayor would be reviewable by the public. Chicken, who sometimes claims to have founded Burning Man’s Department of Public Works (he didn’t) but was an influential figure in its early days, wanted to talk about making art:  weaving as many aspects of community life into making art as possible, looking to making art a first line of defense for social problems, and supporting local art and artists at every turn.

When it came time for the Q&A, I raised my hand.  I was called on.  I stood up. And I said words to this effect:

“Chicken, you’ve prioritized art as a solution to many problems, but it seems to me that in the decaying side-of-the-road carnival that our common culture has become, art is a warped funhouse mirror.  That making art is as much as anything an excuse for narcissism and self-indulgence, rather than a real attempt to solve social problems or make a better world.  That focusing on art can be an excuse not to meet your neighbors, not to engage in civic improvement, not to look beyond the self.  That it prioritizes ‘how I feel’ about an issue over the issue itself, and that if anything what we really need in our culture is an anti-art movement, in which we are all told to shut up and stop making it about ourselves and to do something useful.  How do you respond?”

The room was suddenly divided.  Half of it was booing me, half of it was applauding.  A man with a beard stood up and clapped forcefully, giving me a standing ovation:  I would later learn that he was John Law, one of Burning Man’s key founders and its leading apostate.  Much later, he and I would become friends.

John Law, hangin’ out (Photo c/o John Law)

But right now he was the leader of a cheering section in a fairly hostile room, as Chicken stared daggers at me from the stage and finally, when all the noise had subsided, said: “you’ve been waiting all night to ask that question haven’t you?”

He couldn’t have been more wrong:  it was honestly what had occurred to me, listening to him talk about “art” as the solution to what I thought of as municipal policy problems.  Much later, he and I would become close friends.

I’m telling you all this because I imagine the main objection that comes up to a project like We Are From Dust is more or less what I told Chicken.  An eye-rolling “Is Art really worth the time?”

And I’d like to take this moment to officially apologize:  I was so wrong.  My question had it exactly backwards.

Michael Christian installing Asterpod at Point San Pablo Harbor (Photo by Elizabeth Scarborough)

At the time I asked that question, I thought that “Art” was what I had been taught in schools:  a mostly solitary pursuit in which each of us picks a medium and tries to be a genius, to stun people into thinking and feeling through the singular force of our vision.  Art without a lone genius at its center was hardly worth doing – practically failure by definition – and to pursue it without such an inspired vision was tantamount to self-indulgence.

Art can, of course, be self-indulgent – but it is when art is the avocation of people trying to be lone visionaries, desperately trying to tell the world something important, that it is at its most likely to be narcissistic.  Some lone visionaries do good work, to be sure, but they are much more likely to be the problem rather than the solution.

I learned this, over the years, by experiencing participatory art.  By realizing it was changing my life.  By realizing that the healthiest communities, the most fun communities, the communities that did the most for each other, had this kind of art at their center.

Far from getting us to focus on our own experiences in an isolating way, community art projects – especially interactive ones – most often get us to focus on our own experience in a relational way.  They get us to imagine new ways in which our own experience impacts others;  new ways of being in the world;  to imagine new approaches and capacities, to envision ourselves mastering skills we’d never realized existed before.  And to do it not just as solitary individuals, but as communities.  To follow our own unique visions together.

Michael Christian installing Asterpod at Point San Pablo Harbor (Photo by Elizabeth Scarborough)

The reductive term for this is “innovation,” the darling virtue of Silicon Valley and disruptive industries. And it absolutely is true that stirring the imagination the way community and participatory art does is a way of generating innovative ideas.  But “innovation” is a limited term for the experience that happens when people get together and engage in art.  Participate actively in art.  The experience is far more personal, and connective, than “coming up with new ideas” suggests.

I don’t know how to explain this except perhaps to say, as an artist once told me about her work, that we focus too much on the physical product or the moment of performance. Such things are not the “art” itself, but a demonstration that art has happened.  Community art, participatory art, is as much the process that you go through to get to that point.  The moments of inspiration followed by the negotiations between inspirations bouncing off one another and then the decisions about how to make these ideas real, and then the unpredictable – even serendipitous – interactions that happen once they are.  These activities change you, together, and your experiences, making them richer and deeper and more alive.  The real value of the art is not the thing you see or touch, but the process that gets you there, and that people who experience it then take with them.  And that can be shared with others in a way that even the object itself cannot.  “Hey, let’s do something together” is a far more profound act of sharing and connection than “hey, come look at this.”

Asterpod being enjoyed at Point San Pablo Harbor (Photo by David Hill)

It’s astonishing how many good things come out of that.  It helps you meet your neighbors, find joy in civic improvement, and look beyond the self. It’s enough to change a city. Enough to change the world.

But we need to stop appreciating it abstractly and get our hands dirty doing it.

[Caveat Magister is often mistaken for a fictional character. A long time writer about Burning Man and a member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author, most recently, of “The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities“.]

Don’t Listen to the Experts

Don’t Listen to the Experts

by Míša Rygrová

The fact that I would never be an artist was sealed before I reached the age of six. Living in communist (at that time) Czechoslovakia meant that a committee of “experts” would come to the kindergarten, examine a child, and deliver the verdict to their parents. And so it was. Two ugly people came, observed us for a minute or two, made us do a few tasks, and after our every move or answer wrote something down in their notebooks.

Portrait of the artist as a young woman (Photo c/o Míša Rygrová)

Raised eyebrows, eye-rolling and whisper-like speak was ever present as I was standing in front of them. They were not amused. They snickered when snatching a drawing from under my little shaking hands. They were not smiling. The verdict was quite straight and harsh: no talent at all, no recommendation for any of the music or art club for kids. Useless. Done. My mum looked at me softly, caressed my hair, and we went home. The result? I couldn’t be enrolled in any State-organized after school art or music class — and in case you were wondering, no, there were not private ones. Since then art was not for me to make but to watch, and both my parents and I were wholeheartedly convinced of it.

Things started to change when I was bit older (around 6th or 8th grade). Communism was gone, the system had changed, and I would “art” at home more and more often to the point that I collected all my courage and went to art class after school and asked if I could stay for the lesson. I was older than the other kids there. I didn’t have a paper signed by my parents, as they didn’t know I was there at all. I didn’t have money to pay for it.

Míša working on an art project (Photo c/o Míša Rygrová)

The teacher said yes. I loved it. It was different. I was free and happy. I was surprised by my own creations. I never would have guessed I am capable of such things. At the end of the lesson I asked if I could come again and the teacher handed me a form for my parents to fill out and sign, and they asked me to bring money next time. I was very nervous asking my mum — after all, I was not a match for art. It was clearly said by “experts” that I should keep my hands very far from any of it. To say that my mum was surprised when I handed her the form would be an understatement, but she didn’t hesitate, and she supported me. The family budget was tight, but she made it work. How? I do not know. Art stopped being the thing to “only watch” for me and my mum still has several of my pieces hanging around the house.

I experienced my next big artistic milestone in 2010 when I first came to Black Rock City at the age of 28. Sure, I’d seen big art before. For sure I had encountered some interactive art before as well, though I could barely remember it. But I didn’t see THIS coming.

Míša on Orion Fredericks’ “Exsucatare Triectus” at Burning Man (Photo c/o Míša Rygrová)

I was mesmerized. Not only by its beauty and creativity, but what it did to people. They were coming together, strangers were becoming friends while admiring the pieces and playing (!) with them. Later I learned that also happened while people were creating them, too. The adults were playing with art like kids with no shame, with huge excited eyes and opened hearts. The art was changing people. It transported me to the time before I was condemned not to be an artist, before I met the “experts”.

Creating art for Black Rock City (Photo c/o Míša Rygrová)

Interactive art became the “new normal” for me. Over the years it integrated into my life so much that I started to share my own ideas with others, and even my own creations. (Heck, I even got a grant from the Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF), which until today is one of the most insane things to happen to me.) This “new normal” enriched me not only through unforgettable experiences, but through the people who expanded my circles, many of whom became my extended family. I’ve seen adults turn into kids, kids turn into engineers, silly ideas turn into dreams, and dreams turn into reality. I’ve seen unexpected connections made despite differences in language, nationality or religion. I’ve seen the insane and impossible to turn into “Hell yes let’s do this.” Just pure joy moving mountains for art to come to life and delight others.

Míša, Larry Harvey and Marian Goodell enjoying Misa’s “Project Suitcase” project (Photo by Margo Trushina)

For me, We Are From Dust embodies all of this. It is a means to spread interactive art around the world, to put it close to people, and let it change them — to eliminate the voices of the “experts” in people’s minds which say they should stay away from art. Let people touch, feel and play with the art. Experience it. Then they can decide how far they really want to go. How far do you want to go? Will you participate?   





Welcome to We Are From Dust

Welcome to We Are From Dust

by Yomi Ayeni

There are many things that can affect or influence personal growth, and for me that’s always been art – be it music, performance, or the most impactful big art. What started out as a quest for a new experience has allowed me to grow, and without this change, I would not be the person I am today. It was as if there was someone sleeping inside my body, every once in a while I’d get excited and that person would stir, toss and turn, but fail to wake up from a dreamlike state.

Photo Credit: Arin Fishkin

Being exposed to what I would call a mind-breaking creative influence gave me the mental bandwidth to see beyond the immediate. The artists that have impacted my life are not ‘magical unicorns’, many are not entitled, most are ordinary people like myself who’ve been supported and given the space to develop their skills and craft. I am pleased to say that their work inspired me to think differently.

I first encountered participatory art in a desert event setting, which can be off-putting for many. Where some see the dust, heat, loud music, lack of creature comforts as liberating, others find the conditions harsh and hostile, and we understand the delicate balancing act required to address these concerns.

This is why we created our new non-profit We Are From Dust, in hopes it becomes a gateway to amazing art experiences hosted in public spaces.  Our team has amassed over 120 cumulative years of working for some of the most cutting edge events on the planet, and we have both a deep love of art and a clear understanding of how it has impacted so many lives.

Our task is to replicate the magic that has changed us, but to do so in places you’d least expect to find world-class art. We seek to curate spaces for you to have personal and unique art moments.

Our inaugural sculpture park in Point San Pablo Harbor in Richmond, California is the start of something new: a new mission and a new model for bringing participatory art to public spaces. We are collaborating with a great team to make Point San Pablo Harbor an activated destination through art. And with the realization of our first exhibition — a longstanding dream made real — our launch event was truly an emotional experience. I wanted to share with you the talk I created for the event.

We Are From Dust; we hope you support us.