Placing Art in Black Rock City

[Christine Kristen (aka Ladybee) was Burning Man’s art curator from 1999 to 2008, where she dealt with all things visual and aesthetic, including managing the art and the art grant program, photo-editing the Image Gallery, writing art content for the Burning Man website, working with the ARTery, managing the archives, and lecturing and writing about the art of Burning Man. She has a MFA in sculpture from the Art Institute of Chicago. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

Authorities are Baffled, by Vince Koloski
Authorities are Baffled, by Vince Koloski, 1993

Integrating hundreds of art installations into the layout of Black Rock City is a challenging task which has evolved over the years from very little management back in the mid-90’s, when art was scarce, to a complex system that accommodates all art installations on the open playa, installations with flame effects in theme camps, and art placed in the city infrastructure, including the Keyhole; the airport; the 3:00, 4:30, 7:30 and 9:00 plazas; the Man base; and the Center Camp Café.

The Bone Tree, by Dana Albany, 1999
The Bone Tree, by Dana Albany, 1999

In 1999, our theme was “The Wheel of Time,” and for the first time ever, the newly-formed Art Department decided to map the art in a theme-based pattern. We created a map that represented a clock face, with the Man at the center, and twelve major installations mapped at the hour locations just off the Esplanade. On Friday night we staged a series of performances, starting at 6 PM, at the 6:00 position. Dana Albany’s Bone Tree led participants around the clock face, where a performance awaited them every hour, on the hour. Of course by about 3AM it was freezing, and the weather put an end to our grand cavalcade of performances. We did learn, however, that arranging the art installations in some sort of logical pattern added theatrical significance and prominence to the art. In 2000, the art was mapped in the shape of a gigantic human body with the Man as its navel, to reinforce the Body theme. Russell Wilcox’s laser installation illuminated this body, although perceiving it from the ground was a bit abstract- aerially it would have looked like a large stick figure in laser beams.

Temple of Tears, by David Best & Jack Haye, 2001
Temple of Tears, by David Best & Jack Haye, 2001

Between the Keyhole and the Man is a walkway (called the 6:00 Promenade) lined with lampposts; in 2001, we started to place theme-related installations on either side so that participants could have an engaging walk to the Man, experiencing theme art along their way. Our Seven Ages of Man theme featured installations representing each of those ages. Birth, the initial age, was the first piece on the walkway to the Man, and Death was represented by David Best’s mausoleum, the Temple of Memory. We placed it far beyond the Man on the same line of sight, extending the walkway all the way from the Keyhole to the Temple (and dubbed the 12:00 Promenade), as it remains today.

Colossus, by Zachary Coffin, 2005
Colossus, by Zachary Coffin, 2005

The Keyhole, the area above the Café through which one enters Center Camp, has always been reserved for a high impact, elemental, interactive installation. In 2003 we placed there a large tower, the Spheres of Transformation, and discovered that a tall, large-scale piece highly visible from anywhere in the city was extremely effective, as it anchors the city and provides orientation from across Black Rock City. Zachary Coffin’s Colossus followed in 2005, and its combination of interactivity and scale was dramatic. Interactive fire art is also very effective here, like Charlie Smith’s Fleeble Flobbler (2008) and Kiki Smith’s Egeria (2003). Bryan Tedrick’s Minaret will grace the Keyhole in 2010, and is very apt for the Metropolis theme.

Art placement near the Esplanade is related to the theme camps that produce the art; typically, if the camp needs to maintain and keep and eye on its installation, Esplanade placement of both camp and art is relevant. The Flaming Lotus Girls have camped at 4:30 and Esplanade for several years, and their pieces have been placed halfway between their camp and the Man. This placement also makes their projects accessible to participants, who can easily walk to the piece from anywhere in the city.

Cleavage in Space, by Rosanna Scimeca, 2003
Cleavage in Space, by Rosanna Scimeca, 2003

Many artists request placement in the Deep Playa, the area of open playa beyond the city itself, in order to gain space and a certain isolation from the other art. It’s always a bit of a challenge to visit these pieces, especially for those without bikes or with physical limitations. In 2003, this area was called “The Wholly Other” and we mapped some of the more fantastic theme art installations there, including Rosanna Scimeca’s chandelier, “Cleavage in Space”, and Zachary Coffin’s “Temple of Gravity.” The placement of several spectacular (and very popular) large-scale installations here encouraged participants to trek out to the deep playa, and participants have continued to explore the far reaches of Black Rock City.

Those who find this difficult can take an ARTery-sponsored Art Tour – a tour of select art installations in the comfort of a mutant vehicle. Many participants love the deep playa, as it provides a more authentic desert experience, far from the intense energy of the city itself.

Message out of the Future, by Jan Kriekels and the Uchronians, 2006
Message Out of the Future, by Jan Kriekels and the Uchronians, 2006

The process of mapping the art – making visual and aesthetic sense of a very large space and a lot of art installations – was always a wonderful, challenging process. How our community would experience the art was a primary consideration. When leaving Center Camp, which art would people first encounter? How would the installations unfold as they walked down the road to the Man? To the Temple? How did the installations relate to each other? How was the theme reinforced across Black Rock City? The curatorial process was in fact carefully thought out, at least to the degree it could have been once 50,000 people showed up with all their creative output.

Crude Awakening, by Dan Das Mann and Karen Cusolito, 2007
Crude Awakening, by Dan Das Mann and Karen Cusolito, 2007

Standing on top of the Man base or on one of the tallest installations and surveying the city with all its art and activity is always a powerful moment. It’s easy to be deeply moved by the unbridled creativity of our community and the immense efforts that went into creating, transporting, and installing huge and complex installations – all for the enjoyment of our citizens. We started referring to our process as “The Olympics of Art”, deservedly so … everyone who has made the incredible effort to bring their art to the playa deserves a medal!

About the author: Christine "Ladybee" Kristen

Christine Kristen (aka Ladybee) was Burning Man's art curator from 1999 to 2008, where she dealt with all things visual and aesthetic, including managing the art and the art grant program, photo-editing the Image Gallery, writing art content for the Burning Man website, working with the ARTery, managing the archives, and lecturing and writing about the art of Burning Man. She has a MFA in sculpture from the Art Institute of Chicago.

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