The Burning Man series I just completed focused on creativity. For one week in late August/early September, tens of thousands of people gather in a remote area of the northern Nevada desert to celebrate art in its numerous forms including sculpture, architecture, photography, mutant vehicles, painting, costumes and performance art.
While Burning Man’s vibrant creativity is what brings me back to Black Rock City year after year, the event is about more than art. A huge party, alternative life-styles, desert survival, focus on participation, community building, social responsibility, environmental awareness, personal growth, and a very long list of etceteras are all part of the equation that makes the event succeed.
Over the past two years, I have found my interest growing in what goes on before and after Burning Man— both in terms of preparation for the event and, more interestingly, the back story on the people and groups who participate. What brings them to Burning Man, how do they influence the event, what do they bring home, and how, in turn, does this impact their lives and the communities where they live?
Today, I am going to feature a 34,000 sq. ft. warehouse in Reno/Sparks, Nevada that is known as the Generator and has been responsible for some of the most striking monumental art to grace Black Rock City in the last few years including Pier 2 (a large pirate ship sunk partially in the desert), and Embrace. A few weeks ago I dropped by unannounced at the Generator and asked permission to wander around and take photos. “Sure,” one of the artists who was working on a project, told me. It wasn’t quite official, but it was enough. Off I went. I am going to share what I found.
First, however, I want to mention an event that took place in Londonderry, Northern Ireland in March. I’ve blogged several times about Burning Man’s Temples. Several of these were designed and built by David Best with a large crew of dedicated volunteers. This spring, David was invited to build a similar structure in Londonderry that would be burned, as each Burning Man Temple is. Not everyone in Londonderry thought it was a good idea. The Northern Ireland feud between the Protestants and Catholics has been tearing the city apart for what seems like forever, or at least since 1688 and things that burned were often related to fire bombs. As was noted in a New York Times article, “Burning a 75-foot-tall pagan temple in a Republican Catholic enclave on the loyalist Protestant side of town to ‘bring people together’ seemed, well, mad.” This could have proven to be, well, a gigantic understatement. But it wasn’t.
What happened was that the event turned out to be a powerful force of reconciliation, including bringing people together who had been dedicated enemies all of their lives. 60,000 people (half of the city’s population) came to the temple and left messages for loved ones who had passed on and 15,000 Protestants and Catholics joined in watching the Temple burn. The event is a powerful example of what I am talking about in terms of Burning Man’s impact outside of its home in the Black Rock Desert. I highly recommend reading the NY Times article.
I view the Generator as another example. Matt Schultz and his band of merry followers, the Pier Group, are the visionary force behind the Generator. “We’re an inclusive art space for anyone who wants to make art and be part of a creative community,” the Generator’s Internet site declares. While numerous Burning Man Projects are conceived and built at the Generator, the facility has no direct affiliation with the event, and many non-Burning Man art projects are also produced at the warehouse. Non-Burners as well as Burners are invited to become members. The process is incredibly easy. Just show up with a specific art project or dream of an art project. Discuss it with Matt or one of his cohorts, obtain approval, and sign a waiver. Welcome aboard.
There are no membership fees and no charges for using the facility. Members have access to an incredible array of tools ranging from large industrial tools to smaller hand tools. There is even a laser printer. The Generator houses a wood shop, a metal shop and a tech shop. There is also a sewing room, a stage, a lounge, a library filled with how-to books— and a small green house! More importantly, there is a warehouse full of creative types who inspire creativity and are more than willing to offer a helping hand when asked.
The readiness to contribute is an underlying principle of the Generator. “We are looking for people willing to share their time, skills and resources to help build a greater community together.” Such sharing might come in terms of offering a workshop in an area of expertise, loaning out a tool, or even doing heavy lifting when heavy lifting is called for. There are also more nitty-gritty expectations such as keeping personal workspaces clean and helping to maintain common areas such as the bathroom and kitchen. I was somewhat amused to find that the Generator has an official “No Asshole Policy.” Members are expected “to be kind, honest and direct with each other.” “Hey birdbrain, why don’t you clean up your pigsty,” might meet the directness criteria but it fails on kindness.
While perusing the Generator’s website, I came across one of my favorite all-time quotes:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead
The website proclaims: “Our goal is to foster a community that spends more time pursuing creative endeavors of the mind and heart, inventing and building, and spending a bit more time enjoying the beautiful world we live in. By encouraging more thoughtful, creative interactions we believe everyone has the power to change the world! We are here to share knowledge, build our greatest dreams and laugh the entire time.”
I am a big fan of laughing.
Matt’s vision encompasses the surrounding community as well as the Generator. He is presently working with Reno’s City Council on finding a larger site nearer the center of town. His plans include building a community garden, creating small residential spaces for up to 25 artists, involving and revitalizing the surrounding community, and moving the Generator (expanding its size to 50,000 square feet). All of this, he states, will be done utilizing the latest in environmentally sound building techniques.
The most ambitious element of the plan is to utilize the pirate ship and Embrace, as the start of what would become a world-class sculpture garden on par with those of London, New York and Paris. All of this might seem a little naïve, perhaps a little pie in the sky… until you think about what Matt and the Pier Group have already accomplished.
As I wandered around in the Generator, I became a believer.