Burning Man and the New Face of Art

by Taslima Ahmed

Chris Kraus says that the biggest challenge facing art is class.1 However, it is not exactly class that is the issue as you can already see it can be easily hosed down with the scale of newly acquired wealth or the liberty that a new social class can use to develop its own culture instead of relying on preconceived norms.

For example events like Burning Man (situated in the Black Rock Desert, 120 miles north of Reno, Nevada) could now become more important for art’s future than for instance the Venice Biennale because it is a playground for a new class to express completely different cultural values for their own purposes and offers a gateway to understanding the sorts of aesthetic experiences that suit their taste rather than assimilating to art historical conventions. Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google have been attending Burning Man for ten years – the first ever Google doodle “was an homage to The Man”, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Reddit’s Alexis Ohanian, Dropbox’s Drew Houston, Musk and others all have visited the event. If these individuals, who control so much of the world’s fortune attend Burning Man instead of Art Basel or Venice as their cultural venue of choice, then it is clear that their definition of culture is somewhat different to the art world’s pilgrimage sites of old.

According to an article on the Cato Institute in 2008, Paul Oskar Kristeller is quoted as saying “There were important periods in cultural history when the novel, instrumental music, or canvas painting did not exist or have any importance.”2 This attitude would not be incongruent with the culture of Silicon Valley which, one author describes:
“Both Black Rock City and Silicon Valley embody a similar cultural ethos... a disregard for the status quo and how things have been done before, and the self-reliance to change the world around you for the better.”3

This would explain the cultural popularity of Burning Man as the artistic event of the year for the tech community. That the art there is very different from the art that we are more familiar with in museums and institutions is a cultural necessity and needs to to be understood as a new direction, unashamedly indulged in as a higher form of experience. The art is interactive – the main attraction, “art cars” – are vehicles that are temporarily parked in the desert that often offer some sort of entertainment such as light shows, bars, domes and totems. Many of these art cars, and other installations, rely on a heavy user participation element – such as mazes, pods where your heartbeat is measured and encouraged to synchronize to a group heartbeat through a mobile phone app or light shows that also allow you to plug in your phone and manipulate them. There is also camps that are meant to encourage better health, smudging and aura cleansing, yoga classes and group meditation.

BioTronEsis installation at Burning Man in 2014

Still from a promotional video of the Further Future Festival

Take for instance the reconstruction of a Boeing 747 that will take place at Burning Man this year. According to the Guardian “To enter the plane itself, participants pass through an “insecurity checkpoint” and check their so-called “emotional baggage” before going through TSA – which stands for either Total Self Acceptance or Touching Sensitive Areas.” This I believe would be a quintessential art installation for the new definition of art that is emerging to suit a different sort of top end prosumer and demonstrates a developing of their own art for their personal needs. The project is funded by an ex-Google executive turned angel investor for a six figure sum, it is massive in scale and the concept is inherently social – a forum for where people can “let go” and experience “radically inclusive exclusivity”.4 For them something like the Venice Biennale would symbolize the “old order” which does not cater to their needs and would actually be a format that they would instinctively want to “disrupt.” “Unless you are breaking stuff ,” Zuckerberg said, “you are not moving fast enough.”

Installation at the Further Future Festival 2016

I would like to describe some of the key elements that make up these new cultural values and give examples of how this takes place. I would like to suggest that this change in values would almost be like a paradigm shift from modernist art forms (such as art as static and reified idols, designed as status symbols) to an example of a late modern (perhaps post-modern) art form (which entail experiences, interactive journeys and environments designed for mass consumption and social harmony). I would also like to give this art movement a name – libertarian relational aesthetics (LRA) – as there are clear connections to the ideas of libertarian utopianism, relational interactive art and relational aesthetics; and aesthetics as a gateway to higher states of consciousness. It is entirely different to relational aesthetics but shares a common thread and perhaps its common taste problems. As a side point it is no wonder for instance that e-flux editor Anton Vidokle, one of the key protagonists of art networks online (e-flux’s weekly online journal, 90,000+ mailing list, the new .art domain services) and formerly a key relational aesthetics advocate, would now be a transhumanist – a very popular technorati ideology.5

Influences such as Da Vinci, Wittgenstein, Rachmaninov, reverse hour glasses, portals, fractals, fire as metaphor (in the form of fire shows, flame installations), temples, mathematical wonders such as the Fibonacci sequence and helices become more popular than contemporary art references such as Duchamp for the LRA genre. One baby burner describes their “favorite art cars – mine is the golden dragon Viking ship, the monkey chanting workshop, whether we’ve gone inside the Orgy Dome or not (there’s an orgy dome and it is what you think it is). It’s both of our first time here. Neither of us can help but notice how intrinsically intertwined tech is to the art and experience of this event.”6

Another still from the Further Future Festival

Installation by Carsten Höller at the Tate Modern, London

The article continues with an interview with another attendee of Burning Man: “You can see it when you look around at the amazing works of art that people are driving around. This is where we see human ingenuity and creativity at it’s finest,” says Ryan Parks. “Silicon Valley is a lot like this”, he adds. “It’s the epicenter of the makers of the world. And the makers will remake the world in the digital age.”

Another example is how painting is conducted. It is more of a thought process that gathers speed on the canvas instead of referring to art historical narratives. Diagrams, key words, “flow” and conversation points unfold to leave traces. According to painter Brendan Murphy his interest lies in “journeys” and “getting into the zone”, “concept” “executing the concept” that requires “a tremendous amount of honesty” to “improve your skill set”.

Brendan Murphy in front of one of his paintings at Google Talks

One wonders how this could be fit into the narrative of the history of art that we consume in the art world – it harkens somewhat back to Dada and Fluxus, “happenings” and of course the peak of relational aesthetics when slides were put into the Tate Modern and artists who made cafés won the Golden Lion. If we are merely to understand the artistic drive that propels the culture to value art in terms of LRA we have to understand the appeal of a giant praying mantis or a golden “Like” sign in a similar vein to how relational aesthetics was understood in the 90s as a proto-utopian experience within the institution, but this time outside of it.

Like4Real by Dadara, exhibited at Burning Man in 2013

The main difference can obviously be seen in LRA’s use of science and flows of capital as its real world application rather than say a museum. LRA doesn’t just mean art necessarily, it is more or less a lifestyle choice/tool extending from neuroscience, real estate, sea-steading, underground bunker design, fashion and political ambitions.7 One example is the training of the brain to neuroplastically change to optimize brain cell usage that in turn creates higher aesthetic experiences. Thus there is much investment in meditation programmes that stimulate the brain using VR, consciousness hacking and big data.8 One researcher claims that using inputs of meditators hour by hour, the computer can tell if the brain is reaching higher states of consciousness or not – which in turn can be measured to create a feedback loop which will eventually guide the user towards those states of mind through stimuli. You can also see the cultural in uence of LRA play out in how high end real estate in California has been recently marketed – for instance the short film produced by Nile Niami for the sale of a $100 million LA penthouse – specifically focusses on decadent, fantastical, burlesque virtual and real experiences within the property.9 Another example would be the design of the “start-up fantasyland” in Las Vegas.10

Stills from a promotional video of Opus - a $100 million home in Beverly Hills

It would be naive to suggest that events like Burning Man or Further Future Festival, or even the recent flop Fyre Festival are not related to a rejection of traditional art formats such as museums or white cubes. For a new prosumer, formats and hierarchies like these hold no value as they ultimately disempower new-comers. Although there are attempts to reach into the field of art by Silicon Valley such as Artsy or online art sales branches of ebay, Christie’s and Sotheby’s and even Arthena, an app promising “to double the normal 10% annual returns on art investments”, recently raising $20 million in VC,11 there is a high scepticism of the art market that both Silicon Valley and to a large degree China partake in. I believe the traditional Western model has to fight a battle on two fronts to Silicon Valley and to China if it is to continue its status. It is up to the art world to reach beyond its claim towards cultural authority into these new territories and cultures with their best methods.

Criticisms of traditional art sales in the tech community have been that the works are not correlated to price, the art doesn’t seem relevant to their culture, other markets have more appeal such as cars and real estate, collecting art wasn’t a priority, the art market seems intimidating and that the artworks themselves do not elicit as much pleasure as other commodities.12 Similarly the Chinese market tends towards pre-Raphaelite painting, their own art and Ming/Song vases. In fact the race that is facing the Western art market in China is a matter of what comes first: the education of the rising middle classes and wealth classes to a Western style taste or the Western market adapting to the preferences of Chinese clientele. Similarly in Silicon Valley it is clear that a lot of post-internet art will not appeal to the tech world because it doesn’t actually share the same cultural values which fit them – the Circe du Soleil, the Californian Ideology or even Damien Hirst’s exhibition in Venice may actually look more like the kind of liberty they actually want to feel.

Burning Man, 2016

1“Class is the secret undiscussed subject right now” she said in a recent interview.
2www.cato-unbound.org/2008/06/24/rasmus- eischer/movies-major-art-or-minor-art Rasmus Fleischer is talking about movies “ “Movies,” in the narrow sense of the word commonly used today, will not remain a “major” art form forever ” however the same can be applied for traditional media such as ne art de nitions of painting and sculpture.
5 www.e- ux.com/journal/82/134989/cosmic-catwalk-and-the-production-of-time/
7Amidst the rumours of Mark Zuckerberg running for President, he has endorsed a policy of Universal Basic Income “to give everyone a cushion to try new things” www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets- and-tech/news/mark-zuckerberg-universal-basic-income-harvard-commencement-speech-facebook-presi- dent-bid-a7757781.html
8Another key popular cultural element at Burning Man is recreational drug use particularly psychedelics, ayuhuasca, iboga and LSD. This seems to be in keeping with recent research that LSD activates the entirety of the brain.
9www.laist.com/2017/05/05/soft_core_home.php As an important side point, two Damien Hirst paintings are sold with the house.
12 www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-02-01/why-silicon-valley-s-young-elite-won-t-invest-in-art