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Burning passion

posted Feb 25, 2010, 2:32 AM by squishelle peacock   [ updated Feb 25, 2010, 2:40 AM ]

Fourteen years ago, Vancouver artist Naomi Singer travelled to Black Rock Playa in Nevada to attend one of the first Burning Man public art

festivals. She saw thousands of people gathered in the heat of the desert sun to build a wild and diverse community, create art, perform, and celebrate, all culminating in the burning of a giant wooden structure, shaped like a standing human, which gives the festival its name. Singer was transformed. She met Burning Man founder and organizer Larry Harvey, watched what was going on at the festival, and decided "to bring something like that home to Vancouver."


Fourteen years ago, Vancouver artist Naomi Singer travelled to Black Rock Playa in Nevada to attend one of the first Burning Man public art festivals. She saw thousands of people gathered in the heat of the desert sun to build a wild and diverse community, create art, perform, and celebrate, all culminating in the burning of a giant wooden structure, shaped like a standing human, which gives the festival its name. Singer was transformed. She met Burning Man founder and organizer Larry Harvey, watched what was going on at the festival, and decided "to bring something like that home to Vancouver."

She went on to create some of the key public art events now held in the city. This month, Singer received recognition for her work from the British Columbia Achievement Foundation, established by the provincial government to celebrate excellence in the arts, humanities and community service.

As artistic director of the Secret Lantern Society, which organizes the annual Winter Solstice Lantern Festival, Singer personifies what she prefers to call "community engaged art," wherein members of the public get involved to make crazy stuff that brings out the best in participants.

Singer, notable for the giant purple Alice in Wonderland-like hat she wears, credits Burning Man for advancing her artistic vision. She's just one of many Vancouver artists who say the same thing.

Hundreds of Vancouverites, many of them artists and performers, have made the annual journey to Burning Man, which began on the beaches of San Francisco and now draws 45,000 each year to its oven hot Nevada location. They gather, experience community and create art that, in the words of local "Burner" and artist Rachel Proulx, "simply disappears." The experience is so compelling they are trying to recreate that community and vision in the much damper realms of the Lower Mainland.

They'll receive a boost May 10 when the festival's founder, Larry Harvey, visits Vancouver to explain the future of the event to past and present Burning Man participants from across the Lower Mainland. Vancouver documentary filmmaker David Vaisbord's classic cult film Juicy Danger Meets Burning Man, celebrating its 10th anniversary, will be shown.

The Burning Man phenomenon evolved from the idea that art brings people together and makes the world a better place. While Burning Man's crazy festivals, wild attire of its participants and zany art may evoke images of anarchy, the truth is quite the opposite. Burning Man principles emphasize giving, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, and participation.

"Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic," says the festival's official statement on its website. "We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve through doing. We make the world real through actions that open the heart."

The Burning Man festival, held each year from Aug. 25 through Sept. 1, has become financially successful and now funds community art groups from Alaska to New York, Amsterdam, Brazil, and South Africa. One example is Parking Day, first conceived by Oakland collective Rebar. It has become an annual celebration in San Francisco and is turning into a global phenomenon. The concept is that a parking space and a park have a lot in common, so artists, activists and neighbours take over parking spaces and remake them, for a day, into mini-parks.

Last year, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's personal parking spot at city hall was transformed into a mini-nursery, with plants in wheelbarrows. The artists who create the work ask viewers to take the bus or a bike to go see the displays.

Something of that same spirit is seen here in Vancouver. Rachel Proulx, 40, has been active in the Burning Man community in Vancouver for many years. She first went to Black Rock Playa in 2000 and is Burning Man's communications maven and archivist in Vancouver, helping create the local website A Kits resident for the past 20 years with a day job in marketing for a shoe company, Proulx wanted to recreate the "ethos and life-changing experience" from Black Rock into her daily life. When she's not riding motorcycles, dancing to psytrance or exploring the great outdoors, she organizes Burner events in the Lower Mainland.

"Here in Vancouver we have events like Recompression, which was held this year in April at Camp Elfinstone on the Sunshine Coast, with 300 Burners attending over three days," says Proulx. "We had art installations, fire performances, a big party, and then of course we burned the Man. Burning the Man at the climax means different things to different people. For some people it's a release, a celebration. For others it demonstrates the impermanence of life, but it's always about leaving no trace."

A new annual event has grown out of this passion for the environment, best espoused in a new spin-off called Burners Without Borders that began after Hurricane Katrina. On May 5 each year ("Cinco de Playa" in Burner speak) Burner communities around the world perform a different form of performance art. They gather for community cleanup projects and make art out of the subsequent collection. "Last year at Wreck Beach we removed lots of garbage and ended up with five bags of glass," says Proulx. "This year we will do the same thing, but we plan to make a mosaic of the glass we collect and install some sort of art at the beach. We are talking to the parks board about permission to install what we create."

"The Burning Man community continues to grow rapidly in the Lower Mainland," says official regional contact Michael Gove, who volunteers to track local Burners and make sure that they are following the principles of the movement. Gove says the official Vancouver "announce list" has more than 400 people on it, and the chat list 175 members.

"I'd say there are at least 500 Burners in the Lower Mainland and probably several hundred more who aren't connected officially," says Gove, whose day job is in the wholesale heating business. "The number is growing exponentially among people who are loosely connected to the movement in some way, usually through the creation of small art pieces. What interests me is the freedom to express yourself in any way you see fit. You don't have to be an artist to be in our community. You just have to show up and get involved."

Gove is interested in interactive art. "In the past public art meant statues in the park," he explains, "and art galleries where you went to look at other people's work. Now, what we are saying at Burning Man is: come out and play. We've just started a new non-profit that helps people get started, shares the wealth that we create at our events. The Vancouver Interactive Arts Society will be granting money to new artists who apply."

Since 2002 local Burners have held a "Burn in the Forest" event mid-July in the Elaho Valley north of Squamish (the event has been renamed Sizzle and moved to the Sunshine Coast). Smaller groups have been organizing

theme events, parties, town hall meetings, film nights and fundraisers all over the Lower Mainland.

If anyone has made the Burning Man ethos come alive in Vancouver, it's Naomi Singer. She's devoted to what people variously call public art, community art or celebration art. And she's a good guide to helping you know where to find it.

"Public art can be defined in so many ways," says Singer, tall, slim, and dark-haired at 51. "I think it's really about getting people who don't consider themselves as artists to participate in creative endeavours. It's also about moving art outside of art galleries, and spontaneous art and unstructured art forms. Then there are the performative public arts outside of the confines of the theatre like parades and festivals, and in events not always requiring a ticket. At the Lantern Festival, we say it's about transforming spectators into participants through celebration. It's a subversive process where people suddenly find themselves having fun and then they want to be more involved."

In 1994, the parks board funded an artist-in-residency project at the False Creek Community Centre on Granville Island, which was experiencing such a volume of visitors to the market that any sense of community was difficult for local residents to maintain. Singer received the residency and produced the first Winter Solstice Lantern Festival. It proved to be such a success that in 1998 Singer moved on to the Roundhouse Community Centre across the water in Yaletown, a neighbourhood then in its infancy.

"I think 'celebration artist' is what she should be called," says Susan Gordon, recently retired as coordinator of arts and culture for the parks board. "She creates magic in communities. She's an amazing artist herself, but her best skill is that she brings out the best in other people. Naomi does beautiful work."

Workshops at the Roundhouse taught lantern-making and artistic skills, with more than 800 people showing up in "a huge glowing mass" to celebrate the Winter Solstice Lantern Procession. Although professional performers, musicians, and artists participate in this annual event, the distinction between audience members and professional participants is purposely blurred. According to Singer, the process of making art, volunteering, walking in the procession, dancing or singing along opens up a whole series of possibilities for people to participate.

Another successful Singer project is the Halloween Ghost Train at Stanley Park. "There used to be the Christmas Train, then somebody came up with the idea of a Halloween Train. I put in a proposal and the park board said they'd never thought of anything like it," says Singer. "Anyone could have done a display with ghosts and bought props at Canadian Tire, but I proposed we hire real artists and create new images--nothing traditional at all. We did what I called 'a cabaret of the underworld.' We got so many teenage volunteers you wouldn't believe it, and when you get a 15-year-old to say they were blown away, you know you've accomplished something."

One of Singer's favourite public artists is Andy Goldsworthy, a sculptor, photographer and environmentalist from Scotland who produces site specific sculpture and "land art" situated in natural and urban settings. His art uses of natural and found objects to create sculptures which draw out the character of their environment. Materials used often includes brightly-coloured flowers and stone. For his most ephemeral works, Goldsworthy often uses only his bare hands, teeth, and found tools to prepare and arrange the materials.

Singer, in the true spirit of public art, is constantly moving forward with new projects. Impermanence seems to be a major part of the public art movement. "I think it's about creating beauty for its own sake, and letting go of ownership," says Singer. "Like at Earth Day, it was all about working with artists in the moment, leaving art behind and letting nature take its course.

We had local artists creating sand and earth mandalas, using mud and sticks to create organic art, inviting people to get involved. I like to use the expression 'permission to have fun.' Because the art is organic, it gradually fades away, its impermanent. There is a life lesson to the process. I think public art like this is gently subversive because before you know it, all sorts of people get involved and are expressing themselves in ways they wouldn't have before."

Singer and others have spread the word about Burning Man. A key festival evangelist in the 1990s was Vancouver documentary filmmaker David Vaisbord, whose film Juicy Danger Meets Burning Man has become a cult classic. He heard about the festival from Singer in 1994 and attended it with camera in hand in 1996.

"I went and shot footage, but it took me awhile to find a focus," he says. "Then I went to see a stage show in Vancouver called Juicy Danger, where they were using flame throwers and chainsaws--which got them banned from the Arts Club forever, I think--and I asked them if they wanted to go to Burning Man. We jumped into a car and off we went."

Vaisbord, 47, who in his capacity at Lightspeed Productions has made several documentaries including one about artist Attila Richard Lucas, had no funding except for a small budget from CTV. But he found a "crazy Aussie friend," maxed out his own credit cards and borrowed money from his mother to produce his film for under $70,000 in 1998. Its release on VTV introduced Burning Man to the entire country. TV Ontario bought broadcast rights, which helped Vaisbord clear his credit cards, and since has broadcast it several dozen times. It has also been shown on Bravo and NFB's Documentary Channel, and illegally pirated copies have been sold in video stores all over North America.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the film, Vaisbord talked Burning Man founder Larry Harvey into coming to Vancouver for a special event ( Harvey, who holds the same status among Burners as Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead does with Deadheads--with the added bonus that he is still alive--will be on hand May 10 at the Japanese Hall on Main Street.

"Guests will be treated to an evening of pure revelry, mischief, stunning media, and all-night entertainment," claims Vaisbord.

The idea, he says, is to turn the Japanese Hall into a sample of what's available each year in Black Rock Playa, with food, live music, fashion and, of course, fire. Harvey will speak about the future of the event. Vaisbord's film will also be shown.

"View the film that changed the face of the underground and creative community of Vancouver amongst the same colourful and energetic crowd that inspired it. Be there! Have fun!" he says, before adding the typical Burner statement: "Everyone invited."

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