DC is Burning

Thoughts on the exhibit “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” in the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, Washington, DC. Open until January 2019. 


A single stream of sweat trickled down the side of my forehead as I turned the corner of 17th and G Street. Even though it was the beginning of May, the temperature soared into the 90s and the humidity clung tight to the pavement all over Washington, DC that weekend.

“Look how they’re painting over the walls,” my friend had pointed out earlier in the metro station. “So much for preserving brutalist architecture.”

I followed suspiciously behind him as we entered the Renwick Gallery, sulking about how I would rather grab a cold drink and nap until the afternoon sun disappeared west into Virginia.

“Come on, it’s a really cool exhibit about Burning Man,” he encouraged. “Haven’t you always wanted to experience what it would be like at a festival in the desert for at least a day?”

No, actually, I thought. Outdoor music festivals have at least two of the ingredients required to turn what might be an enjoyable experience for the normal person into a complete horror for me: crowds and hippies — or, I suppose crowds of hippies counts as just one, but either way, the combination inspires in me an acute sense of dread. And Burning Man, at least from what I know of it from a Netflix documentary I once saw, has an abundance of anxiety triggers, not least of which is dirt.

Upon discovering the museum was air conditioned, I acquiesced, my objections slowly subsiding, and decided, however begrudgingly, to see what the fuss over this exhibit was all about.

My first impression walking up the cold marble stairs to the second floor of the gallery was a large, dimly-lit room resembling, at least in my mind, the inside of Noah’s ark. The walls on all sides were completely covered by ornate carvings of recycled plywood, and as I drew closer I made out a row of altars illuminated by soft yellow uplighting. Hanging delicately from the ceiling in the center of the room was a structure suspended from metal wires that seemed to be a wooden spaceship of sorts, like a carpenter’s life-size rendering of a model aircraft from Battlestar Galactica.

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Photo by Zach Shultz

An upside down obelisk pointed down from the base of the spaceship floating about six feet above our heads. I waited for another patron to move out of the way so I could position myself squarely underneath its tip in order to capture the perfect Instagram-able angle with my iPhone.

A sign next to me explained that the room was a re-creation by veteran festival-goer David Best of a temple you would find at the “Playa,” the name “Burners” use to affectionately refer to their erected city in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, where the weeklong annual event is held. The sign asked us to be quiet and respectful of the other guests, as the temple is a sacred place for reflection and meditation.

Specifically, the temple was installed in the gallery’s Grand Salon as a monument to all of the friends and family members we’ve lost. A table stacked with thin wooden squares and pencils invited us to write messages that we could then stuff neatly into the cracks of the altars lining the walls. Even though the exhibit was packed with tourists, including groups of school children and their adult chaperones sporting unironic fanny packs and visors, the temple nonetheless managed to preserve an aura of serene reverence existing somewhere in the spiritual space between a funeral home and church sanctuary.

Photo by Zach Shultz

My friend had long disappeared into another part of the gallery, so I took the opportunity to linger around the altars. I didn’t write anything myself, but being the nosy social observer I am, I gave into my morbid curiosity and began reading a number of the messages left behind. There’s something so innately and perversely human about bearing witness to the pain and suffering of others, I suppose.

Some of the inscriptions were clearly written by teenagers with inane phrases typically reserved for bathroom stalls. “GP waz here. 2018.” Someone else had scribbled on another block — inexplicably — a reference to the recent Kanye West controversy: “Slavery was NOT a choice.”

A part of me thought to myself, smugly, “You didn’t expect the general public to take this shit seriously, did you?” Then my eyes scanned slowly over the top of another square that seemed to have a coherent paragraph scratched across its surface. I leaned in closer to make out the words: “It doesn’t feel real yet/ I’m still convinced you’re/ going to walk through/ the door someday soon/ Love you Matt.”

The words were written out in five lines without punctuation, like a poem in free verse. I couldn’t shake them from my mind for the rest of the day. The raw emotion they evoked, the disbelief inherent in losing someone close, like it’s all a bad dream you’ll eventually wake up from until that sinking feeling settles in the pit of your stomach, bearing the tragic weight of reality. It reminded me how death always contains some element of surprise, leaving those of us still living to mourn senselessly, shell-shocked by both the inevitability and immutability of it all.

What struck me as most intriguing was how Matt left his message intentionally ambiguous — Who is the intended recipient? How were they connected? — as if he found a way to preserve the privacy of his mourning even as he put it on display for our public viewing pleasure. And, to a certain extent, isn’t that how all of us mourn? Wearing grief like a mask that performatively satisfies the expectations of others while keeping locked in the deepest corners of our hearts — remote, at times, even to ourselves — the most intimate and fundamental ways loss changes us?

I eventually extracted myself from the magnetic pull of the temple, led unwittingly by a glow emanating from an adjacent room where enormous multi-colored mushrooms expanded and contracted at timed intervals activated by standing on sensor pads. The installation, called Shrumen Lumen (2016), was created by a San Francisco-based art collective named FoldHaus. In an interview with artsy.net, the artists claim the “possibility of participation — not being a spectator, but a participant — is such a big part of the magic of Burning Man,” a magic they hoped to instill in the guests with their shrooms welded together by giant pieces of corrugated plastic.

Another part of the exhibit conformed to more traditional museum conventions with a carefully curated display of found objects from past festivals: jeweled necklaces with jade stones woven together with miniature copper Burning Man figurines; raver costumes mixing the styles of Victorian evening gowns with LED accessories, as if Marie Antoinette had been plopped down inside of 2001: A Space Odyssey; jars of charcoal, ashes, and dirt labeled by successive years, containing the remnants of the “Man” after his ceremonial burning. The items were trapped behind glass casings as if they were relics from the past, archaeological artifacts telling future generations a story about the absurdity of the present.

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Photo by Aníbal Rosario Lebrón

In another room, some of the larger floats, dubbed “mutant vehicles” by the Burning Man Organization’s website, had been brought in and reassembled. One was an enormous tin tractor in the shape of a dragon made almost entirely of baking sheets and cookie cutters. Another recreated a cinematic fantasy world inviting the spectator “down the rabbit hole” of history into the Golden Age of Hollywood. The vehicle was part vintage trolley in the front, and in the back, a wagon bed converted into a small theater displaying classic black-and-white films.

In order to complete the illusion of casually strolling through the streets of the dusty Playa, there were road signs on a poll imitating a city intersection. Each street name contained one of the core tenants harking back to the festival’s anarchist roots: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy — philosophical principles we might do well to try and live by outside an artificial world created by a week spent at a festival in various states of altered consciousness.

Rabbit Hole
Photo by Zach Shultz

A plaque on the wall put into words more beautifully than I ever could the utopian vision guiding the founders and followers of Burning Man. After detailing some of the event’s history, it explained, “In the new industrial revolution, Burning Man counteracts the anxiety caused by the fast-paced American consumer lifestyle and combats the loneliness of the digital age and the passivity of ‘convenience culture.’”

Later that evening, from the comfort of my friend’s newly renovated apartment, I googled: How much does it cost to attend Burning Man? There was a complicated list of handling and delivery service fees for tickets along with taxes and tiers of access; but the short answer was $1,200, without VIP access. Even an anarchist festival, it turns out, is not immune to the hierarchical logic of late-capitalist society.

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Photo by Aníbal Rosario Lebrón

As I tried to make sense of what it means to bring an exhibit called No Spectators to our nation’s capital at a time like this, I thought back to the faces of people lying on top of a circle of cushions in the center of one of the rooms, staring trance-like at a screen on the ceiling in the shape of a star. It was emitting patterns of multicolored pixels waving in sync to some ambient music, like a digital opiate for the masses.

I also thought about how the Renwick Gallery is just blocks away from the White House and Capitol Building — a stone’s throw from our country’s literal centers of political power — where the president tweets threats taunting North Korea’s “little Rocket Man” into a possible nuclear war. This is the same world where I watched the Internet celebrate Netta Barzilai’s Eurovision win on Saturday night for Israel, in a song she hailed as an “awakening of female power and social justice,” and woke up the following Monday morning to reports of over 50 Palestinian protesters dead at the Gaza border following the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

But never mind all that; No Spectators is supposed to offer a respite from the alienating polarization of the outside world, a space free from all the messy politics that drive us apart. As curator Nora Atkinson told the Smithsonian Magazine, “This is a show about breaking down that boundary between people and saying, everybody can be an artist.”

Similarly, David Best, the artist behind the temple, spoke frankly into the camera in a promotional YouTube video for the exhibit stating, “The temple is a non-denominational temple. It’s open to Democrats and Republicans, atheists and people with tattoos and people with straight ties on.” Inside the sacred space he’s created, we’re invited to suspend our disbelief about the world in which we live, check our differences at the door, and place our faith blindly in the ethos of Burner aesthetics.

Upon leaving the exhibit, my friend and I discussed the ways that countercultural movements have a lifecycle where they all eventually become co-opted by the mainstream and thus bear little resemblance to their radical origins. “A perfect illustration of Gramsci’s idea of how hegemony works,” he said.

However, No Spectators brought another Frankfurt School theorist to mind for me: Theodor Adorno and his “culture industry.” Responding to a political crisis that is strikingly similar to our own, this loose group of German Jewish intellectuals studying at the Institute for Social Research in the wake of World War II attempted to interpret the meaning of cultural production and its relationship to ideologies supporting the ruling class. While their focus was mostly on forms of mass communication in the mid-twentieth century — namely, television, radio, and film — in many ways the Frankfurt School’s critique of the ideological apparatus sustaining capitalism, i.e. pop culture, is even more relevant in today’s digital consumer society.

From this perspective, it could be argued, the art of Burning Man simply sells an illusion of radical politics, offering little more than a colorful theme park of escapism. Its consumers put on the costume of anarchy for a week with tripped-out faces staring at LED light displays, too distracted or ecstatic or self-indulgent or high to be bothered with a real working-class revolution, while factory workers in China slave away for meager wages in order to keep up with the demand for all our Apple products in the West.

Alex Ross, a music critic for the New Yorker, connects the prescience of the Frankfurt School philosophers more directly to the present, claiming they knew well before the rest of us that a Trump presidency was imminent. “As early as the forties, Adorno saw American life as a kind of reality show,” he writes. Then quoting Adorno directly: “‘Men are reduced to walk-on parts in a monster documentary film which has no spectators, since the least of them has his bit to do on the screen.’” (Emphasis added.)

Whereas Atkinson, speaking again to Smithsonian Magazine, envisions the idea of no spectatorship as a challenge to the “separation between museumgoers and the artwork in the museum,” Adorno sees our participation in the culture industry as a way to keep us too passive to revolt.

Taking a second look at the photograph I voyeuristically captured of Matt’s personal message of pain, I noticed that another visitor had written a response on the block directly above it, something I had missed while at the museum that day. It said: “It will all work out for you ❤.”

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Photo by Zach Shultz

I imagine the author would have included a heart emoji if the medium weren’t pencil lead on plywood. The quote is baffling not only for the faux sympathy expressed but, more staggeringly, for how it misses the point of why we grieve and what it means to lose a person we love.

Perhaps the entire exhibit has missed the point as well.

If burning the Man and putting him in an interactive museum is the best response to an era of looming fascism in the United States we can come up with, we are all in serious trouble. I’m left with the feeling that — in spite of our best intentions and sincerest expressions of regret — it won’t, in fact, all work out. Not for any of us.

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