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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dust Notes

I'm still playing a bit of catch-up with last semester's gallery events, and wanted to at least post a few quick notes on the Burning Man show. If something happening twice is the minimum threshold for it to be considered a "tradition," then the show could be framed as the continuing tradition of having students enrolled in the Burning Man class metabolize their experience at Black Rock, via the creation of artwork and a debriefing to the rest of the community on What Went Down. The last time the class took place, two years ago, most of the students were going to Burning Man for the first time; many of the students who were in on that initial experience participated in the second round, so there was a sense of continuity and guidance from the "grizzled veterans" to the newbies. There was also a decided shift in the artwork that was produced in response to the Man.

I have to admit, purely on the level of "artwork" and artifacts, the prior Burning Man show engaged me more. That first reaction to the Man seemed to express itself in a variety of installation objects and approaches; this time, it seemed less about the the objects than about creating a space for socializing. The focus was on creating an environment where interaction could take place, rather than on making things that attempted to riff on the sorts of art-objects that could be encountered on the playa, bending those sparks of inspiration to one's personal sensibilities. This year the environment itself was more explicitly tuned to the low-impact sustainability ethic that Burning Man attempts to cultivate -- the attempt to re-imagine our vast quantities of cultural detritus as the raw materials of a next phase of communal social organization.

However, the discussion at the opening was, I thought, more interesting than the one two years previous. It was less like a panel presentation, and more like an open-ended discussion on the issues -- artistic, social, political -- that Burning Man raises. It was a lively seminar on the ethics and aesthetics of the Man, and how they might (or might not) apply to a wider order. A principle from Burning Man that seemed to hold great charge for the students was the ethic of "gifting." A mode of exchange not entirely governed by the tit-for-tat equations of capitalism; the students found it liberating.

[Below: Nick's shoes, still impregnated with playa dust. Several of the students retained articles of clothing whitewashed with the playa dust, as if the dust were precious as gilding. One presumes their lungs are equally gilded.]

Logan framed Buring Man as an exercise in "ephemeral community" -- I tweaked him a bit on that, wondering whether "ephemeral" and "community" were two concepts that could be considered in opposition. Logan replied that Burning Man creates networks that last beyond the event itself; to restrict the notion of community to the temporal and spatial confines of Black Rock is too narrow.

And shortly after it hit me that this picture of "ephemeral community" -- where semi-structured intimacies occur, where people produce work that leaks outside the normal logic of supply and demand (while also not being entirely apart from that logic), where models of social organization are essayed in an experimental fashion, and where the participants, after a while, depart to their own lives, hopefully sustained in part by some of the ripples generated at the epicenter of the experience -- can more or less find an echo in what is called, for lack of a better term, "college life."

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