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Chicago Artists Mark “Rites of Passage” at Burning Man

Anita Birsa

Images by Philamonjaro

In a year of milestones and record-breaking spectacles, “Rites of Passage” was an appropriate theme for Burning Man 2011 and Chicago’s “Burner” artist community. For the first time in 25 years, tickets to the event sold out as Chicagoans journeyed 2000 miles to participate in record attendance and involvement.

Each year, tens of thousands gather in the Nevada desert to create the temporary Black Rock City for one week at the end of August. Not your average festival–some call Burning Man the world’s largest blank canvas, upon which radical creative expression and participation create both art and community. Burning Man’s founding principles include self reliance and “leave no trace,” which means that after tent cities and art installations are packed up, and after giant effigies are burned down, the desert is returned to its original pristine condition.

The windy city always creates a strong presence at Burning Man. Local burners volunteer with the media/communications (Media Mecca, BMIR radio), building the city (DWP) and safety (Rangers). Chi-town’s creativity impacted throughout: art installations, theme camps, mutant vehicles and countless performers and participants. Chicago’s Pyrotechniq Fire Troup members lit up the playa in the “Fire Conclave,” the spectacular circle of fire performers who entertain the thousands gathered to watch the pinnacle event of the “Man” burning. The “Conclave” is the super bowl of fire spinning—the largest gathering of fire performers on the planet!

William Close, formerly of Chicago, and the crew of “The Earth Harp” created the largest, and possibly most moving interactive experience on the playa. This “World’s Largest Stringed Instrument” was incorporated into the “Temple of Transition” – largest temporary wooden building in the world. Close is Founder and Artistic Director of MASS Ensemble, internationally renowned for large-scale instruments and kinetic performances combining music, dance, and visual arts.

"The Lighthouse," CORE Effigy built by Chicagoans and others from the Midwest

Chicago’s theme camp tradition continued, with established leaders like Campo Alegro, and Firewater Lounge among many. At Hookadome, Chicago aerialists performed to the beats of local DJs. Local members of Burners Without Borders camp contributed musical performances, live screen printing, and unveiled the “Music Box” project, a prototype mobile music studio, adding a cultural component to the organization’s disaster response.

Playa installations by Chicago artists ranged from Yva Neal’s’ “ROMPER SHROOM,” a giant inflatable mushroom bounce house, to “Monster Big Wheel Grand Prix’s” race track and tricked out vehicles by Chicago’s Creation Coalition. Most notable, however, was “The Lighthouse,” a large-scale installation created by artists from Chicago with five other Great Lakes communities. These are only a few examples, with apologies to the numerous other participating Chicagoans. Explore Chicago’s community: http://burningmanchicago.ning.com, and full playa art projects listing: www.burningman.com/installations.

The Lighthouse

A significant Rite of Passage this year was the launch of the CORE project (Circle of Regional Effigies), including Chicago’s “Lighthouse.” Teams of volunteers from around the world created large-scale art installations representing the official Burning Man Regional Network communities. A resulting sculpture garden of twenty-three effigies surrounded “the man” and in the inaugural CORE burn, went into flames simultaneously adding a new burn night tradition.

The Great Lakes reference is apparent, but creators Scott “Spotter” Potter and Steve “The Ghost” Casper, explained Lighthouse was also a fitting metaphor for this year’s “Rites of Passage” theme; “…indicating when one phase of a voyage ends, a new phase begins.”

Standing prominent, the Great Lakes “Lighthouse” was not merely art, but a functional place of shelter and gathering. The 20’ blue lighthouse tower and keeper’s house offered a safe harbor, a place to rest and take in playa views, as well as a beacon by which to navigate. It was built mostly from re-claimed material.

“Lighthouse” was uniquely the only multi-community collaborative effort in the CORE project, involving Detroit, Milwaukee, Western Michigan and Indiana.  At least 50 volunteers were involved from the Lighthouse’s initial design and construction to the on-site build, and eventual “leave no trace” after-burn duty. Even more people participated in fund raising events and left their creative handprint on the “Lighthouse” structure in the form of decorative artwork. I can’t verify that this was the world’s largest multi-community collaborative effigy project…but for Chicago Burners it certainly was the start of something big!