Michael Garlington: “The Horror and the Wonder”

Totem of Confessions by Michael Garlington. Photo by Dean Brian Baker
Totem of Confessions by Michael Garlington. Photo by Dean Brian Baker

Walking across the open playa near sunset, I was caught in an inconstant dust storm that would block the whole world out for minutes at a time, then suddenly part and open up, allowing a distant glimmer of the strange and surreal structures dotting the desert landscape.

This was the first time I saw the Totem of Confession: when it appeared before me, a tower of impossible images in black and white, then vanished again when the world disappeared in dust.

The Petaluma studio of Mike Garlington and Natalia Bertotti is just as variable and changing as the playa landscape, as they constantly move and rearrange both finished pieces and in-progress designs on a weekly basis. Their credo is to do whatever inspiration calls them towards at the moment – but working like that comes with a cost.

“We’re constantly having to clean up the studio because everything moves so much, and we need a clean environment to work in,” they say. “Honestly, art is 90% sweeping up.”

The day I visit, a large crew photo of the Totem of Confession was posted on a wall next to a concept draft of their next architectural project: the Spire of Babel, which will debut in Virginia in 2017, and which will be used as the prototype for “The Chapel of Babel,” to appear at a future Burning Man. A few meters away a dressmaker’s dummy stands alone, with the beginning of what will be Garlington and Bertotti’s next project, to be displayed at Art Basel: a pair of dresses which, when finished, will be as much baroque decoration as clothing, to be worn by the same model. It’s dress making turned into sculpture, turned into photography.

The magical and bizarre black and white photographs which circle the rest of the warehouse studio are the work Garlington is best known for, and represent that blurring of boundaries between art forms.

“With our photos, we’re building sculptures. Even just a person in an outfit, every created backdrop becomes a sculpture in a sense. So first we build it, even if it’s just out of cardboard and tape, and then we photograph it,” Garlington says.

It may be hard to believe, but everything you see in a Garlington photograph is really in the frame. “We are using Photoshop now, and it is very tempting to start putting on third arms and eyes, but so far everything is you see is really there,” Garlington says. Often that makes for novel and interesting challenges.

"Balloon Horse," by Michael Garlington
“Balloon Horse,” by Michael Garlington

“This picture,” he said, “is called ‘Balloon Horse,’ because obviously … and what happened was, I had the model here, and asked her what she liked, and she said ‘horses,’ and I said ‘how about a balloon horse?’ And then, as soon as I said it, I was terrified, because oh, now I have to actually do that. So we put together this set of balloons to look like the shape of a horse she was riding, and I spent all this time to make it look like it was actually floating above the ground.”


Can Burning Man Balance the “Art” and “History” in “Art History?” Should It Have To?

This is a picture of the burning of Savonarola, making him a "Burning Man!" Get it? Get it? ... I should be ashamed of myself.
This is a picture of the death of Savonarola, which made him a “Burning Man!” Get it? Get it? It’s a history joke! … I should be ashamed of myself.

Though almost all the feedback I’ve heard about Burning Man’s 2016 theme (“Da Vinci’s Workshop”) has been very positive, I also thoroughly enjoyed art history Ph.D. student Stephen Mack’s critique in the Daily Dot: “Here’s Everything Burning Man 2016 Got Wrong About the Renaissance.”

Mack brings a careful, and quite accurate, level of complexity to the topic – although I can personally verify that when he asks questions like “does Burning Man know about Savonarola?” the answer is an unambiguous yes. (In fact, in my experience it’s easier to get Larry Harvey to talk about Savonarola than it is to get him to stop talking about Savonarola. Burning Man’s Chief Philosophical Officer is somewhat obsessed by the fact that Savonarola visited Lorenzo de Medici at his deathbed – a symbolically fraught historical moment if ever there was one)

It should also be noted that, as the text itself states (at the bottom), what Burning Man has written so far is intended to be the first in a series of posts about Renaissance Florence, not the last word.  The idea is quite definitely to delve into the complex reality of the historical situation.

As well it should be.  My very strong take is that the complexities inherent in this topic – and for that matter in any topic that isn’t bland and anodyne – are a strength, not a problem: to the extent that Florence was a democracy more in name than in practice, to the extent the rich were subverting art as well as developing it, to the extent that Florence was as much a fucked up cauldron of intrigue as a shining beacon for the future … does that detract or add to its urgent relevance for our own time?

If we can’t take the topics that our community has passion for and fear about – the place of art and artists in a world dominated by money, the role of governing bodies, the capacity of people to govern themselves – and use art and self-expression and community to discuss and play and advance and heal … well then, what are we doing here?

Let’s walk towards the taboo, and make art about it. Abso-fucking-lutely.

But if I have no arguments with what Mack has brought up, I do have a question. Implicit in his article is the critique that Burning Man – an art event – was inadequately representing history. It’s a fair critique: I’ve made a similar one in the past. But what responsibility to historical fidelity do people engaged in creating an artistic endeavor have?


Experimenting with Burning Man Literary Culture — Is This What Success Looks Like?

Munney and I were walking around the Totem of Confession, marveling at the intricacy and imaginative power of the surreal black-and-white photos that covered its façade. On the side facing away from Center Camp and out towards deep playa, we saw two metal chairs had been incongruously placed inside one of the alcoves.

“Hey,” Munny said to me, “let’s sit inside the art.” So we did.

The dust started to kick up, so we put our goggles on.

I got out two cigars, and we smoked in our goggles in the dust, sitting in the alcove of the Totem of Confession.

We must have been a sight, because people walking by started taking pictures of us. I kept thinking someone was going to say “hey, get the hell out of the way of the art so I can see what’s behind you!” but no one did. Our own incongruous image was now part of the experience, an encounter with an impossible moment that makes Burning Man so potent.

No one, that is, until a dark haired woman in a white dress walked up to me and asked “Excuse me, but, could we get you to move in about 10 minutes so I can get married here?”

I puffed on my cigar and turned my head to face her. “I dunno,” I said. “Is it important?”

It was a moment balanced on a knife blade – was I being funny, or an asshole? Sometimes you’re the last one to know.

She burst out laughing. Everyone around us took their cue.

Her playa name (if memory serves) was “Black Johnny,” she was in a high-five themed camp, and we were suddenly best friends. I offered her a cigar while we waited for the rest of her party to make it through the dust, and she sat on my lap, proclaiming “I want yours to be the last lap I sit on while I’m still single.” We kept laughing.

Then I said “Can I offer you a wedding gift?”


How I Fell Out of Love With the Latitude Society — and What Burning Man Can Learn from It

Latitude ID card (front)
A well worn Latitude Society ID card. It’s not just a prop – it could literally open doors.

I’ve wanted to write about a piece examining Burning Man through the lens of The Latitude Society (or vice-versa) for some time. But I’m the kind of old-school that believes that when you join a secret society you goddamn well don’t go around saying “Hey, have you heard about this cool secret society?” Because dammit, words mean things. Maybe not when they’re written on t-shirts, or bumper stickers, but, otherwise.

However, now that The Latitude Society’s architect has opened a series of meetings up to a reporter for LongReads.com and gone on record about his plans for expansion – because apparently it’s damn hard to expand your secret society if people don’t know about it – I consider honor satisfied.

(UPDATE: Between the time I wrote this and the time I’m publishing it, The Latitude appears to have also shut down. More on this at the end.)

So hey, what do you think Burning Man can learn from an experiential arts community centered in the same place, involving many of the same kinds of people (or the very same people in many cases), but that does everything almost entirely differently from Burning Man?

I don’t have any data on this (The Latitude is a secret society, after all), but I’d be stunned if a working majority of its hundreds of members weren’t Burners. Literally every member of The Latitude I know personally (myself, obviously, included) has been to Burning Man and has at one time been active in Burner culture.

So the appeal, to at least a sub-section of Burners, of an organization almost wholly unlike Burning Man is clear. This isn’t a problem, exactly: most Burners belong to some organization that does things differently from Burning Man. The Republican Party. The Democratic Party. The AARP. Harvard. The SEIU. Christianity – Burners belong to a whole host of cultural institutions that have little in common with Burning Man, and that’s fine. That diversity, in fact, is both a strength and a precious commodity.

But The Latitude Society is an organization that is, at some level, dedicated to the same purpose as Burning Man: creating extraordinary arts experiences that will, over time, change the world. That mission statement doesn’t fit either organization exactly, but it’s certainly close to the heart of both. And it is in that context specifically that The Lattitude takes a 180 degree swing from Burning Man’s approach to … well … just about everything.


Forget the Legal Questions About Sandwiches — Are Burners “Consumers?” Or Are We Something Else?

After every Burn, there is a storm. A media storm.

After 2013’s Burning Man, the big media storm was about whether there were so many famous people at Burning Man that it was ruined. After 2014’s Burning Man, the media storm was over whether the existence of Plug and Play camps – one in particular – had ruined Burning Man. And now, in 2015, the big media storm is about whether a Pedophilic Sandwich Company running an advertisement has ruined Burning Man.

(I know, I know, you think Subway is the actual Pedophilia Sandwich Company. And that’s understandable. But it turns out that this sandwich company had a senior executive arrested for soliciting sex with a 13 year old waaaaay before Subway. So I think the name fits, and I encourage everyone to use it from now on. And if the Pedophilia Sandwich Company objects? Hey! It’s a parody! They believe parody justifies anything, right? No harm, right?)

I don’t know if going from “celebrities are destroying Burning Man!” to “pedophilic sandwich advertisements are destroying Burning Man” is progress, but I do think that under the surface these media storms are really all about the same thing:

The lines between “Burning Man Culture” and what we used to call “The Default World” are blurring into non-existence. All this is what happens when these cultures collide.  And not only has it gotten weird, it’s going to get weirder.

In fact, the weirder it gets, the more successful we probably are.

Weirdness is good because it means that the cultures are running into each other in unexpected ways, and unexpected is what we want because – let’s be honest here – the expected way that counter-cultures go is that they end up with high end boutique product lines at some of our nation’s hippest online retailers. Expected is quite literally buying the t-shirt.

“But isn’t that what’s happening now?” I hear so many people ask.

To which an honest and straightforward answer is: Dear God no! Where did you get that idea?

Since 2013 Burning Man culture has had an active discussion about how it can get fewer celebrities to come to Burning Man, and if they do come how to get them to shut the hell up. Now tell me: what other part of our world is clamoring for fewer celebrities? Who is planning events wondering: “How can we keep celebrities from taking their pictures with us?” Who else is asking “Can get celebrities to stop Tweeting about us?”


Seen Today

Last night I watched the Mazu Temple burn, a glorious shower of fireworks followed by a beautiful flower of fire that left a steel column holding a lotus blossom behind.

This morning, I saw the DPW finally – after a week of delays – use their trebuchet to launch a flaming piano into the air.

Then, on my way back to camp, I saw a grown man with a young girl who was holding a basket full of candy.

“Ice cold M&M’s!” the man called out.  “Get your chilled M&M’s!  All you have to do is take candy from a strange child!  Go ahead!  Take candy from a strange child!  It’s all right!  You can do it!”

Who says kids have no place at Burning Man?

I thought you would want to know.

Barking up a (Dust) Storm

“Ladies and gentlemen, put down your glow sticks and prepare to be dazzled by the light of adventure and discovery!”  The carnival Barker calls out from behind the counter set into a wall at the Midway.  “For tonight and tonight only you have the chance to experience not just the greatest game in the Midway but perhaps the most extraordinary art experience ever to come to Burning Man in all its long history!  I refer, of course,” he points to the sign above his booth “to:  Knock Out!”

His tone darkens.  “But beware, for while it is an experience of joy and whimsy never to be exceeded in a generation, it also has the terrifying potential to break even the hardiest man’s spirit!  Why, I’ve seen grown men cry, marines bleed from their ears, and boxers fall to their knees from the incredible pressure that comes not from failing, but from winning:  KNOCK OUT!  But step right up one and all if you dare …”

A small line forms.  As the game goes on … it’s mostly patter … the crowd grows bigger.

There are many ways Burners can participate in the Midway.  The Regionals were invited to create displays and experiences;  there was an open call for ideas;  there are two stages with performances going on all week (I took advantage of that one).  You can harass innocent, well-meaning, Burners as they try to make it through the maze (okay, that one too).  And then … then … there is “The Wooden Nickel Carnival.”

That’s my favorite.


Playa visions

Garlington's "Totem" appearing in the distance.He is having trouble putting one foot in front of the other. The wind whips at the back of his head, and he can’t even see what it’s pushing him towards.

He has left a camp where they said he was always welcome, to walk into the desert. Into a dust storm. There have been heavy dust storms for days, but this is a prolonged white out punctuated by moments of sudden clarity. He cannot see the Man. He cannot see the other side of the city he is trying to reach.

At sundown, a procession will leave the other side of the city to go to the temple and bury a friend.  He thought he had enough time to get there. He’s walked through dust storms before. He has cut through the open desert on foot many times.

He cannot see the temple. But for a moment there is a break in to the dust, and he can see a strange and intricate wooden structure. It is full of people. Someone on the second floor says something, and they begin to cheer. Then the wind picks up again, and they’re gone. Even the sound of them lost.

He isn’t sure that he’s walking towards the meeting place. He’s not certain that this is even the right direction. For a strange moment, he’s not clear that there even is another side of the city waiting for him across all this dust. The trip is taking longer than he remembered. He turns around. The wind stings his eyes. The place he came from has vanished. The people who said he was always welcome are gone.