Burners Run Art Haven

By Lisa Autz

Photo courtesy of Raquel Baranow.

Standing in the desert amid the grueling sun and sweeping alkaline dust reels are majestic wooden sculptures that decorate the sky. It’s alien, yet sort of magnetic as more than 60,000 people come together to watch these plywood structures feather off into flames.

Perhaps it’s one reason people decide to live in one of the harshest conditions on Earth in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

If you haven’t caught on by now, Burning Man is the sandy metropolis built up overnight, ornate with elaborate and grandiose installations of wooden temples. It’s a weeklong festival built on the foundation of unbridled self-expression, radical self-reliance and being a damn good neighbor.

So who builds these gestures of inconceivable art?

Well, like everything at Burning Man, it’s a collective effort of people creating the seemingly impossible for no money or status, but as part of the gift-economy that operates in this makeshift city.

As fascinating as the aesthetic of hundreds of visual extravagances are, just as interesting are the people constructing the installations, such as the flammable 88ft Spanish Galleon in 2012 that crashed into a 130ft pier.

The Pier Group is one of these collections of artists that bring the “gift” of breathtaking designs to the burning city.

Matt Schultz, a Pier Crew leader, speaks to BTR about his work creating large-scale structures built to burn and his attempt to transfer the principles of Burning Man into a 34,000 square foot collective art space called The Generator.

“I went out for my first year [to Burning Man] in 2008,” explains Schultz. “I was really compelled by seeing this environment where everyone was welcomed to create on their own accord and I had been an artist for years but I was always working in the commercial arts field.”

After years working in the business of art where design follows more of a fast-food mentality in that the cheaper and faster, the better, Shultz decided he wanted to break into the fine arts world.

Burning Man was a place he could freely exercise his curiosity in refined artistry and learn new skills within the barter economy. He began making his own artwork, which evolved into massive projects in conjunction with other creatives, that according to Schultz arose from an inherent desire to contribute and involve others in art.

“We did it for no other reason but because we enjoyed it and we wanted to share it with people,” remarks Schultz. “That idea simply grew as we built large projects facilitating a need for bigger and bigger spaces.”

Schultz was responsible for leading a project called Embrace for Burning Man in 2014. It was a 72-foot sculpture of two people embracing each other from the waist up. It had a realistic shape with an exterior made of delaminated plywood and an interior of an ornate, inner cavity equipped with chandeliers of human hearts the size of a small car.

The cavernous pieces began to demand a space of an even larger scale, so that’s when The Generator came into play. It started by the success of big donors to create an enormous space in Reno, Nevada, as a mission to support all artists creating and making inventions at any caliber.

“It’s basically a big, giant warehouse that’s free for everyone to come use and is meant to be a place that has all the resources you could ever need to build whatever you want,” claims Schultz.

It’s a dream utopia for any artist. The space, which opened in 2013, has been able to successfully establish Burning Man ideologies in the real world: radical self-expression, self-reliance, and a barter system of skills. Anyone can walk in and be a member, they just need to sign a waiver and start building.

Skills are exchanged a bit like a school where everyone is both a student and a teacher. Artists are teaching paint strokes to carpenters and technologists are teaching seamstresses how to use a laser cutter.

It is inspired by the “Self Organised Learning Environment” as proposed by Sugata Mitra for children, which refers to the adaptation of teachers encouraging learning in a community system promoting inquiry and access to information.

Photo courtesy of Raquel Baranow.

“We are proponents of the idea that everyone has skills to teach and we don’t live in a society where people are really asked to share their ideas and knowledge,” reasons Schultz.

The fact that no applications or applying methods are in place for The Generator also helps ensure that a diverse group of individuals are welcomed to the space.

Schultz openly admits his concerns and disappointments with the current Maker Movement taking place in America and hopes to bring more inclusion in places it lacks.

“To be completely a-political, the Maker Movement is really a white, middle class thing and I think that kinda sucks,” confesses Schultz. “I want to have kids from immigrant families learning how to do really incredible things and sitting next to someone whose successfully executed their life and is now retired and wants to share their skills.”

It’s not the only ambitious sentiment Schultz has to share. The Generator is also working on its largest project yet–The Generator Phase 2 will be a sculpture park filled with community gardens and art studios to create a new ecosystem of industrial art space.

“We are trying to change the way we look at the interface of art, gardening, parks and education,” asserts Schultz. “We want a space where if a kid comes to the park and they see something that inspires them, they can simply walk inside the building and have free access to the tools to start to execute their idea.”

Whether the idea is to create small figurines of horses out of welded metal or an octopus blasting huge jets of flame, The Generator is the space to make those surreal visions come to reality.

Currently, Schultz is working on roughly 30 projects for the next Burning Man. Some double as political commentary, such as life-size green army men symbolizing the militarization of police and police brutality in the US.

It’s a chance for anyone to claim themselves as an artist and take part in a project that burns boundaries and propels possibilities.

“If we can get all these adults to all share their skills and increase their general knowledge, and then get those exceptional adults up at the top to push forward new ideas and new concepts,” envisions Schultz. “We can all accelerate learning together.”