NOLA finds a place at Burning Man

Courtesy of John Valentino
With the event taking place in the Black Rock Desert, many people can
interact with the variety of artwork,and even use them as shelter from
the sun and fierce sandy winds. Many Burners at Burning Man
used John Valentino’sart piece for this purpose.
Manyothers took turns pulling it around
the playa of Burning Man.

Department of fine and performing arts professor John Valentino has attended the Burning Man festival since 2012 when a friend asked him for his help in creating a large-scale art project, which a group of artists from New Orleans were bringing out to the festival. The following year, Valentino applied for and received funding to create a project to represent New Orleans, named the “Altar of the Wetlands,” a 24-foot high piece that addressed the ongoing influence that humans have had on the wetlands of Louisiana.

“I go to Burning Man for the art. It’s the single most challenging art installation space I can think of,” said Valentino.

Burning Man is an art festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, where a temporary community of thousands of people gather to indulge in art, self-expression and more. Burning Man 2015 took place August 30 to September 7. The participants gathered in the desert and created Black Rock City, which was made up of huge art installations that were burned at the end of the festival.  

All art must be interactive, meaning visitors could climb on and inside the artwork. Valentino’s piece this year relied on participants moving it, either in place or across the playa, which is a word used to describe the dry lake beds in the American west desert where the festival takes place.

When Valentino learned this year’s theme, Carnival of Mirrors, he knew he wanted to create a Mardi Gras float, and since it is the 10th anniversary of Katrina, he combined the two themes and created his piece.

“I decided to create a Mardi Gras float that contrasted the recreational vehicles many Burners [people who attend Burning Man] live in while at Burning Man, while at the same time parodying the FEMA trailers many Louisiana residents lived in after Katrina,” said Valentino.

This was an exceptionally harsh year on the playa; due to high winds, dust created whiteout conditions during much of the event. Projects incorporated a shelter to protect visitors, a feature that was popular this year. 

“There’s a tremendous amount of cooperation involved in building, transporting and [when it happens] burning the pieces,” said Valentino.

Valentino likes Burning Man the most because unlike other art exhibits, interaction with the pieces is encouraged.

“Tens of thousands of people come here and approach the art with abandon, they engage it, climb on it, dwell in it; they really experience it,” said Valentino. “There is something liberating about creating a piece of artwork that will be enjoyed by thousands of people for eight days and then burned to ash. You don’t have to worry about whether or not the piece is going to sell in a fancy gallery for some collector; you are just focused on the viewers’ experience.”

According to Valentino, Burning Man is all about the seven days spent there, not about the next show, or the next sale. All artistic energy is focused on the residents’ experience on the playa, and it causes participants to focus on what is really important: the art and the viewer.

According to Valentino, when Burners first arrived on the playa, the entire world changes. From the ground underneath you, to the speed you are driving, it all changes.

Everyone is riding bicycles or walking because driving in cars is not allowed, unless it’s in mutant vehicles, also known as art cars, which have been adapted to be mobile works of art. Commerce is also forbidden, so you bring what you need with you or rely on the people around you to survive. This is all by design, as Burning Man is often described as an experiment in community. 

“The first time on the playa, I literally shouted that I needed to find a way to introduce this to the students I teach,” said Valentino. “All of it. I want to bring them here to learn, to grow and to incorporate this spirit into their individual artwork.”