Embracing Burning Man Bureaucracy

October 9, 2014

Embracing Burning Man Bureaucracy

Interview, article, and photos by Stacey A.

It's been a month since Burning Man, and even as a 7th year Burner, my most vivid memory to date is of the massive art piece, Embrace, 72-foot wooden sculpture of two people, Alpha and Omega, embracing one another.

Embrace concept simulation

I was initially excited to interview Embrace’s creator, Matt Schultz, to find out more about the concept behind his art. Schultz, of the Pier Group, is responsible for past large-scale Burning Man projects like the 2011 Pier and the 2012 Pier 2. He also founded an inclusive art space in Sparks called the Generator. However, our conversation took an interesting turn as he explained the poltics behind the entire project.  Schultz isn't happy with the bureacracy of the Burning Man art committee, and he isn't afraid to say so.

There was drama surrounding Embrace since the beginning. 

Originally, Embrace was designed to be the Temple at Burning Man 2014, a sacred, non-denominational place of worship where Burners go to give gratitude to important people in their lives, especially ones they have lost. It's considered a huge honor to be chosen to design the Temple, more so than to create the wooden man, for whom the festival is named.

In September 2012, Schultz and the Pier Group were fairly confident their application would be accepted, as they had both the funding and momentum for a temple. They had already raised $96,000 from Kickstarter, fundraisers, and private donations by the time the announcement was made that they did not get it. 

With three main Temple contenders for Burning Man 2014, there was a whole host of “unofficial” versus “official” word from the Burning Man organization regarding who would be selected. Beyond that, there were significant conflicts of interest involving the artists and who sat on the voting committee, according to Schultz. Schultz said the Embrace crew was grumpy for a bit after the letdown but decided to keep building.  

The completed project hours before it was closed off to the public to prepare to be burnt

The second conflict came in April 2014 when they were told they wouldn't be able to burn Embrace because of concerns over the dangerous ember cast from the Douglas fir exterior. At this point, the team had been building for over a year, and it was too late to change the materials. They decided to keep building with the hope that they would eventually be able to burn it, as it would be virtually impossible to tear down.
Schultz recounts that during a meeting with the heads of the Burning Man organization, it became apparent just how obsessed the organization is with their own rules. He quotes one committee member as saying, "This is a problem when we break our own rules. We made those rules for a reason. If we break our own rules, it sets a bad precedent for everyone else."
In his head Schultz was thinking, "Who am I talking to? Why are the people who founded Burning Man trying to tell me that breaking rules is bad?"
"This whole project had been about stubborn persistence," Schultz admits. 
There were contigency plans for everything. The team wanted to finish the project no matter what. They built the heads first, so that even if funding didn't come through, the piece would be complete, just not as tall.
The Embrace team thought it was absurd that they couldn't burn it, and Schultz says he played a very active game of cat and mouse with the Burning Man organization when the team arrived on the playa to start building in early August. They were originally told that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) didn't want them to burn Embrace. But after talking to the BLM, the team realized they had been used as a scapegoat. As it turned out, the BLM was very supportive of the burn. The BLM talked to their higher ups who talked to the Burning Man organization, and without their original excuse, the organization relented. The team was granted permission to burn Embrace on Friday of the festival at 7 a.m. While Schultz had wanted to burn Embrace on Sunday morning at sunrise, at this point he was happy to burn it at all.
Schultz publically aired his opinion on the entire process in the Thursday edition of the Black Rock Beacon stating, "The second this becomes Safety Man is the second it's completely uninteresting." He pointed out that one of the strengths of Burning Man is that there is an inherent risk of danger, even death.
The ember cast prediction turned out to be wrong, and Embrace burned without any safety concerns. 

Firefighters surround the burning artwork
According to Schultz, it's not just the burn process that's bureacratic, it's the entire art grant process. Schultz isn't the first artist to publicly criticize Burning Man's art grant process. Ross Asseltine, who backed out of the Temple 2014 due to problems with the Burning Man organization, wrote a 63-page essay on everything wrong with the process, available online here.
Despite problems with communication, timing, insurance, and the application itself, the biggest issue seems to be with funding. Large-scale artists feel underappreciated and inadequately funded, being awarded at most one third the cost of the art project from the organization. Currently, Embrace artists still need $25,000 to break even on their $240,000 project. Click here to donate. 
In general, Schultz and other artists feel the art grant process is overwhelmingly bureaucratic. Schultz used the example of how it took nine long forms to get approval for Embrace at Burning Man in comparison to two short forms for the Generator to be approved in Sparks. 
"Sometimes Burning Man creates a better set of circumstances than the real world, and sometimes you find that they're really bad at it. For example, you spend less time in the real world DMV than at Burning Man's," Schultz said.
Schultz's interview wasn't all negative. The conversation shifted when I asked him what it felt like to watch something burn after years of hard work and conflict. He admitted it was an emotional experience. 
"You put all this time and effort into something and it absolutely changes your life, and other people claim that it changes their life too, and you're thinking, how do we take this home with us?"
Schultz thinks the strength of Burning Man is having a place to make culturally significant items but that Burners aren't good at bringing that freedom of expression back home from Black Rock City. 
"I think it's partly because we basically destroy everything that we build out there."
For that reason, Schultz is taking a break from Burning Man for the forseeable future to focus on a new vision of bringing big art to cities.

Schultz reflecting on Embrace's burn and plans to rebuild the structure in Reno
"If you want to make big art, you might want to consider making it in the city you live and not in this temporary city. It's not as hard of a process as we're led to believe."
Schultz is talking to the City of Reno to get approval for a large-scale sculpture garden. The 2011 Pier is dissembled outside of the Generator along with countless other Burning Man art pieces, and Schultz wants to change the Reno landscape by placing them all on a large plot of land. He says this also includes reconstructing Embrace.
Schultz's vision isn't far from reality. Many communities do value large-scale art and its cultural contribution.
The City of Truckee initiated a plan in 2006 to include public art in Truckee and provide momentum for future art. The most notable addition is the 2010 flower sculptures at the Pioneer Trail roundabout that cost the city $15,000 and created a decent amount of controversy as highlighted in this Sierra Sun poll
Schultz will be at Coffeebar in Truckee this Wednesday to talk both about Embrace and the potential for big art in Truckee. Event coordinator and Truckee Town Council candidate, Morgan Goodwin, says Wednesday's event is to find out who wants to participate in making art right here in Truckee, taking the creative energy of Burning Man to the community year-round, much like the Generator in Reno.

Event flyer by Jeremy Crimboli

For more information on Big Art, Big Ideas, refer to the Facebook event link here.

Insider Intern, Stacey Alonzo, is an outdoor enthusiast, yoga instructor, aspiring journalist, Burner, and lover of food, drinks, live music, and travel.