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All The News That's Fit To Burn : 2005 Summer Newsletter

A Foundation for Community

By Kristin Hale & Leslie Pritchett

One frosty night in February 2005, David Best, Larry Harvey, and Andie Grace (known to many in the Burning Man community as Action Girl) found themselves in Ann Arbor, Michigan. David and Larry were scheduled to speak at the University of Michigan's School of Art and Design on "The Art of Burning Man," and Andie accompanied them as an organizer of the Burning Man Network that links all of our communities worldwide. After the talk, the group met with Burning Man participants at a party held in the huge old Leopold Brothers brewery.

As the evening wore happily on, the talk became inspired. David sat hunched at a table with Corky and Kurt and other members of the local Burning Man community. They talked about temples and art cars, two things David has contributed to Burning Man since 2002. Earlier that evening, he had shown slides depicting the elaborate temples his crew had constructed, and he had spoken of the power of these projects to engender social change. Naturally, the conversation turned to car parts, since half of the people in the room resided in Detroit, and suddenly a new idea sprang into being. Why not build a temple in Detroit? Why not make it from the single greatest resource Motor City can provide, discarded auto parts? Why not find a vacant lot, a wasted space, in the capitol city of America's Rustbelt, and dedicate this soaring chapel to America's discarded lives? Why not, indeed?

The road that led to this epiphany has taken several turns. David Best serves as a board member of the Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF), whose mission is to foster interactive art outside of Black Rock City. In that spirit, David had proposed another project earlier in the year, The Chapel of the Laborer, to be located as a temporary art installation in San Rafael, a small city in Marin County just north of San Francisco. The Chapel, some 30 feet tall, was designed for a green space beside the main entrance to a market in the Canal District of San Rafael — a neighborhood that is home to many Hispanic day laborers. It was conceived as a tribute to the courage and an acknowledgment of the hardship inherent in leaving one's home country with the uncertain hope of finding work in the United States. The project was also meant to honor those whose lives take place invisibly around us, neatly tucked behind the scenes of our affluent society. In talking about the project to the press, David said, "I wanted to break into a poor community, to build a central location where the laborers could reflect. This is where people come to buy groceries and make phone calls. It's a hub, and a place where someone can go and sit and cry about not being with family."

The Canal District community watched with interest growing from curiosity into awe as the Chapel structure rose and began to take shape. But, 1 day from completion, David and his crew learned that they weren't on solid ground. Permission to build the Chapel had been granted by representatives of the City of San Rafael as well as a storeowner who occupied the site. The landowner, however, had not been informed. Worried that "Nevada craziness" would jeopardize her property, she said the structure must come down. With that, the building department of San Rafael cordoned off the site with yellow tape and laid a red tag stop construction order beside the already accumulating offerings left by the people of the neighborhood.

A city official was dispatched to the scene to explain that San Rafael supported public art. In his presence, a Hispanic laborer approached the Chapel and asked David, "Senor, may I sit down?" David answered as he always answers citizens of Black Rock City, "The Chapel is yours," and let him in. Witnessing a person on the wrong side of the caution tape, the hapless official shouted, "You can't do that!" This occurred before a bevy of reporters, and a media frenzy ensued.

The Chapel was eventually disassembled, much to the regret of people in the neighborhood, some of whom openly wept, but when members of the San Francisco Arts Commission saw a front-page article in the San Francisco Chronicle detailing the rise and fall of San Rafael's Chapel of the Laborer, the Director of Public Art telephoned David asking the Black Rock Arts Foundation to help undertake a similar project on public property in San Francisco, a new green space at the intersection of Hayes and Octavia scheduled to open in June.

This invitation fits the Black Rock Arts Foundation's mandate hand in glove. The Foundation exists to help artists create interactive art experiences in places other than Black Rock City, particularly in civic contexts. While our well loved home in the Nevada desert provides ample opportunity for artists to bring their work to a receptive audience, the Black Rock Arts Foundation was born of the desire to help artists create the same genre of experiential art in the default world. Many of these projects will affect the daily lives of Burning Man participants in their home communities, and others will reach out beyond the known community of Burning Man in order to extend our culture to an even greater world.

As of this writing, the Black Rock Arts Foundation and the San Francisco Arts Commission are finalizing plans with David for the construction of this next chapel with the intension of uniting disparate communities within the city of San Francisco. Its inauguration will be part of an event that will host representatives from 43 different countries in celebration of World Environmental Day and commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter in San Francisco. The project will provide an invaluable test case, with opportunities for the foundation and the artist alike to gain experience working within the complex boundaries of city regulations.

Then, David plans to take to the road. First stop, Motor City. Can you imagine it — a chapel in Detroit built out of old car parts? David envisions a beautiful, rusted out tower of metal dedicated to reverence and respite. Resembling the sunflower of Allen Ginsberg's "Sunflower Sutra," whose roots are choked with the guts and innards of the weeping, coughing car, this chapel, like the one planned for San Rafael, will radically extend the Burning Man ethos. As an example of radical self-expression, it will give voice to those who have often felt voiceless. As an example of radical inclusion, it will recognize the work of those who are too often forgotten.

This was the idea sparked by that meeting of creative minds in the Leopold Brothers Brewery that cold night in February. Members of the Michigan Burning Man regional community were very taken with the idea and are working to draw together the resources — materials, people, and permission — they need to complete the project. "Let me know when you're ready, and I'll be there for as long as it takes to build it," David said that night. In direct response, the Michigan community has launched a number of initiatives intended to help them work effectively with local community groups and to lay the groundwork of knowledge and support that will allow them to take on this project with confidence.

"We build the roller coaster you've seen on the Esplanade at Burning Man, so we know something about working with big metal structures," said Kurt Zorch. He talked with excitement about the challenge of bringing their work into a new public context, and the positive things that are emerging as a result. As an example, the local Burning Man community has begun working with Blight Busters, a Detroit-based community group dedicated to the regeneration of their city and restoration of its landscape. Regional participants served as site crew managers for a cleanup effort spanning 55 locations over a single day and involving labor from thousands of college students. This commitment to improving their hard-hit metropolitan area appears to Kurt to be a preliminary step toward a greater transformation symbolized by an artwork whose aesthetic is a genuine testimony to the history of their city and a local way of life.

As plans for these projects take shape, the Black Rock Arts Foundation seeks to build its base of support both within the Burning Man community and among those working in related arts groups to raise the money and awareness necessary to help artists bring their own visions for community-based experiential and interactive artwork into being.

However, it's important to remember that the Black Rock Arts Foundation, contrary to popular belief, does not fund art whose sole and exclusive destination is the playa. Its aid to artists is intended to help a much larger and broader community. Since 2001, the Black Rock Arts Foundation has awarded funding to artists through an annual grant cycle. In addition to offering grants that range from $500 to several thousand dollars to artists whose work generates social participation, the foundation works to connect artists with individuals and institutions that can supply material, technical, and financial resources.

The foundation receives most of its funding from individuals and community groups (thank you Regionals!), and we are very much in need of financial support. Our success depends on your help! We want to make connections with people working in the arts in a public capacity, people who want to volunteer, people who can help with fund raising, and those able to make donations! Please give a gift if you can.

For more information about the Black Rock Arts Foundation, or to learn how you can help. Please visit: www.blackrockarts.org.

Heck! Step away from the computer and give us a call: 415.626.1248.

To donate to the Foundation, visit: www.donatetoblackrockarts.org