In 2012, for the first time, I got a “fluffy.” It was a proud moment for me, and I felt more validated as an artist than when I received my B.F.A. in painting and sculpture.
The “fluffy” is nothing more than a silver disk, actually a CD, with a construction nail and a tuft of pink plastic whiskers. On the disk are written, in black magic marker, the name and number of your art piece. On the vast surface of the desert at Burning Man, the fluffy’s importance is to show where your art goes.
By the time you’ve gotten your fluffy, you’ve not only created a large piece of art, you’ve documented that art. You’ve made sketches and submitted a written description of it to the Burning Man organization. You’ve told them how you plan to light your art and keep it safe, and how you will make sure it doesn’t leave “moop,” or trash, behind on the surface of the playa.
Based on your written submission, the art team has decided where to situate your piece. That way, the city is totally full of art, without it being concentrated in one place. They also give a map to every person who comes through the gate, showing where all the art is.
To get our fluffy, my artistic partner, MacGyver (aka Philip), and I went to a place called “The ARTery.” Like a real artery, this place is the lifeblood of the event, yet we take it for granted. We were greeted by volunteers who treated us like royalty, who made it clear that our title is Artist. They reviewed our submission and showed us where they’d placed us on a large map. “Is this OK?” they asked. After we asked to be moved further away from the loud sound stages, a couple of field operatives armed with a GPS took us out in a golf cart.
When we arrived at our spot, they again asked, “Is this OK?” We nodded, and then they handed me the fluffy. I personally drove the nail into the ground with a mallet, and when I stood up, we had a little ceremony of congratulation, with hugs all around.
Of course, this simple, exhilarating moment was followed by three days of exhausting setup in driving dust storms.
It was worth it, because I like art. I like it a lot. I like to make it, and talk about it, and look at it, and play with it. I like to encourage people to think about it. I love to inspire it. I’d worked hard to inspire this art — it wasn’t just mine.
Many artists listen to music while they work. In 2011, I had an idea to take that one step further. Just as we convert music into dance through our bodies, I wanted to convert music to art, and then take that art to Burning Man.
The progression goes like this: An artist chooses a song that inspires them to create a piece of art. A passer-by chooses that piece of art, which starts the music playing. That music, combined with some intriguing lights, inspires them to dance. Now we’ve merged music, art, and dance into one experience. What will come from that merged experience?
With this in mind, I created a list of 30 eclectic songs, ranging from the Weiner Blut waltz to the Hokey Pokey. I sent them to artists and photographers, and eight people began creating art for the installation.
For myself, it was exciting, as well as completely intimidating, to sit down and make “real” art on paper. Despite having a degree in painting, I haven’t given myself permission to do this in many years. But Burning Man is about giving ourselves permission to try all kinds of things. I even gave myself permission to fail, knowing that I might have to tear something up and start over.
As I was finishing up my last painting, the other pieces of art began to arrive, and I was completely awed. Wow! I wanted everyone in the world to know about the incredible artists I had discovered, who had been inspired to make beautiful pieces simply by sounds. I was the proudest curator on the planet.
We sent the art out for high-quality scanning and had it reproduced on special material used in the sign industry, so that it could be backlit at night. To my surprise, when it came back, the images were vivid both ways, with or without the backlighting. Now, instead of a nighttime-only installation, we had art that could be enjoyed 24 hours a day.
The problem was, playing music without the dancing lights didn’t make sense. So I contacted the artists and asked them to record an artist’s statement that we could play during the day. The recordings I received were not only thoughtful and interesting; some were theatrical and others poetic or lyrical. In them, I heard the same creative spirit that inspired the art.
In August, I turned my attention to signage and final painting of the installation. I needed something that would draw people’s attention and give them some instructions, but I didn’t want to upstage the art itself.
I’d originally envisioned a big sign at the top that said “Mating Shadows,” but as the time came to create it, I dragged my feet. I later ran across this quote, by Tom Price of Burners Without Borders, that explains exactly what I was struggling with:
“(Burning Man) is the epitome of an unbranded event. It is the anti-brand.”
How could I make a sign to attract people without branding the art? That’s when a bolt of inspiration struck me:
It was so simple! In just two words, I could provide the instruction: “Come over here and choose a piece of art” as well as deeper meaning: “Choose art as a way of life.”
To avoid creating a brand, I accidentally created a movement.
As I designed the lettering and did the woodworking on the sign, something inside me was changing. I gave myself permission to play the piano every day. I gave myself permission to sing. I got up and sang a solo, a capella, in front of 50 people. I wrote poems. I made theatrical recordings layered with music. I danced. I didn’t just appreciate the creativity of others, I reveled in it. I was the poster child of Choose ART.
Once the art was installed at Burning Man, I went to visit it every day. It was far out in the desert, but it was never lonely. Every time I went out there, people on foot, bicycles, and art-cars came to look at the pictures and talk. Often, they snapped a picture of the Choose ART sign.
We’d had some t-shirts made, and I noticed thoughtful smiles and nods when people read the words on the front: “Choose ART.” We began to talk about where we could set the installation up after Burning Man. We began to talk about how to improve it, keep it new and fresh. We began to call it “Choose ART,” instead of “Mating Shadows.”
The movement was taking on momentum.
Today, it is still gathering inertia. We’ve modified the design to make it easier to set up in a variety of environments, and tweaked the electronics to make the lights work better. You can sit at home, view the art, and listen to the artists’ statements right here on mepsnbarry.com.. I even made a CafePress store where you can buy a shirt or a canvas bag to show off your favorite piece of art and spread the Choose ART message.
How do you Choose ART? Do you make it, talk about it, look at it, play with it? Let yourself be inspired by our project. Give yourself permission to create, and watch what happens.