The Journey is a reflective, interactive experience originally conceived for Burning Man 2017… This project comes alive as an ultra-sensory torus sculpture that encourages contemplation, interface, relationship, and wonder.
By: Amanda Qassar
How does a large-scale art project like The Journey set itself up to be thoughtful and engaging in the Burnerverse? Oddly enough, it turns out that the key lies in the Default World itself.
It’s not just about showing art, says Project Manager Lee Hemingway: it’s showing the public that Burning Man produces good art, and furthermore, that such art nourishes the community at large. Burning Man co-founder Larry Harvey describes this ethos as “the sense that you’re real in yourself and that what you have should and must be shared with others, and that your abilities, your gifts, can merge with the world.”
“The more that we’ve spilled out into other communities, we’ve seen that other communities can accept the Ten Principles,” says Lee. When presenting this ethical code to the world at large, it becomes all the more imperative to embody the principles in a palpable way.
The original Journeymen, eight friends gathered in artist Dan Reeves’ living room, knew intellectually that such civic engagement would be crucial. They were encouraged to seek out the public eye in order to net notoriety and garner support, both moral and monetary. But they didn’t realize how bringing The Journey out to the general populace would adapt the project into an organism with reach far beyond the playa.
“Whenever we talk about The Journey, I feel like I’m talking about a living creature,” says Arash Afshar, host and producer of Burner Podcast. It’s true – it sometimes seems hard to suss out what runs the show – the original intent behind the project, or the collective energy that has formed around it.
Jumping Without a Parachute
Lee says he’s been told, over and over: “You’re doing everything right.”
“I have no idea what ‘everything right’ means,” he counters. “It’s a sweeping generalization with, ultimately, no value… I’m the type of guy who just jumps and just thinks he has a parachute.”
With the Man set to burn in just a few scant months, such a devil-may-care approach is perilous when it comes to funding the ambitious project. Its elegant design is down pat, the fourth, and final, in a line of prototypes descended from the first full-sized ring wrestled up last August 10th. Its shape is a double helix, symbolically meaningful as a fundamental structure both susceptible to, and often made better by, outside influences.
“What presence it had has evolved quite a bit since my initial vision,” Dan says. “The biggest evolution in that was realizing… I could invite other artists to collaborate on a project and they could have an understanding of the lights and the audio that could bring more to the process… it’s an armature for bringing the community together, but it’s also a canvas or an armature of sorts for other artists to express themselves.”
Thus, for The Journey, ‘doing everything right’ seems to mean, paradoxically, remaining malleable and open to interpretation, reconciling rigidity to the original vision with pliancy in execution. There’s a core to everything the project undertakes, but it’s open to manipulation by the people who work on it and the environment at large: a continuing co-creation.
Dan admits that “this project has definitely taken the reins out of my hand and said, ‘Let go of outcome completely.’”
Nevertheless, though, there are constants: Lee consciously kept The Journey’s design work, branding, and logo consistent from the beginning. “That’s how people recognize who you are,” he says firmly. In turn, this continuity of branding supports the image that the sculpture itself presents to the public.
When Dan first presented his plans, Lee found the cost-projection spreadsheet laughably naïve (it only allotted a third of their current costs), and by reflexively expressing his concerns, naturally fell into the role of Project Manager.
His first task was to define the scope of the project, which he allowed to be “pie-in-the-sky” and “a bit esoteric.” This originating document has been pivotal in the project’s trajectory. It’s a foundational framework, their lodestone that provides clarity when faced with especially difficult decisions.
“That document has made decisions for us,” Lee says. “Setting something up like that in the very beginning is so important, because that’s your marching orders. We probably would’ve ended up off-track… but it keeps us in integrity and for me, that’s really, really important, to stay in integrity.”
Dan, Lee, and Financial and Build Coordinator Bret Gerber knew from the beginning that they needed to mobilize as an entity. “We formed an LLC called Super Core that acts as the governing body,” says Lee. “You have to form an entity of some kind, whether it’s an LLC or a corporation. I would recommend an LLC (not a non-profit it takes too long to get) because it takes any liability off of you and leaves it with the corporation. Because of that we were able to go to Fractured Atlas” – a nonprofit organization that specifically caters to the needs of artists. Lee urges hiring such a fiscal agent as soon as possible. It makes certain processes “quick and painless;” they can handle grant writing, write-offs for tax-deductible donations, event ticketing, and money management.
“We did fundraising from the very beginning,” says Lee, “through social media and friends and family. We just kept asking.” Their most recent digital push for funding is now through Fractured Atlas at The Journey Home .
The Journey was awarded their first grant as a proof of concept from San Diego’s Regional Burn, YOUtopia: $3500, on the condition that the project would fundraise to match it. The funds raised by YOUtopia not only finance San Diego CoLab, a collaborative arts space, but also provide the San Diego Collaborative Arts Project (SDCAP) with $100,000 a year to gift as art grants. Importantly, CoLab granted The Journey storage and workspace. In contrast with their former hub of production, MakerPlace, CoLab is more laid-back, “a social space where stuff gets done.”
The Journey also received $8,000 from SDCAP – the largest single grant the nonprofit has ever awarded to one project.
“One of the pushes we have this year is, the money we’re granting is staying in the local Burnerverse,” says Ken Simmons, an SDCAP Board Member. He sees the young people being inspired by projects such as The Journey as “our future artists, our engineers, our leaders. That is what we want out of SDCAP and our community.”
Though their application for a Black Rock City Honorarium was denied, Dan recognizes how staggeringly competitive the field was this year – 700 artists applied.
“It turned out, through our misunderstanding of the process, we asked for a large sum of money that put us in a different category of ask than what most people were looking for – in the ‘big’ category – and they can only fund so many of those. We didn’t realize there was an option for us to ask for several tiers of help,” he adds, “because, frankly, if they had sent five dollars in lunch money, it would’ve helped.”
Both Dan and Lee are effusive, though, in their praise for the level of non-monetary support they continue to receive from BMorg. A fortuitous side effect: the need to raise more funds makes courting new connections all the more vital.
Though the Maker Faire wasn’t necessarily a logical place for The Journey to make its first appearance, Lee says he intuitively knew it was somewhere they needed to be. “It was the first time we had to be ‘on’ in public,” he says. They brought a single full-sized revolution as well as model pieces that kids could use to construct their own small-scale projects. The event not only enhanced the community’s experience of the Faire, but it also enlightened The Journey crew. They were stunned by the complexity and creativity the kids brought to the table.
“They were making scorpions, chairs, dwellings – all sorts of things we never thought of,” Lee marvels.
After runs at YOUtopia and Palm Springs Pride (where the project was dubbed “The Thank You Tunnel,” and “The Happy Tunnel,” respectively), The Journey infiltrated another unexpected setting.
Late last year, crewmember Scott Ketcham had wondered if it’d be possible to tie the project into the San Diego Old Globe Theater’s production of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Journey put out feelers and reached Melinda Cooper, MiscreAnt and Arts Engagement Programs Coordinator at the Globe, who facilitated a partnership to instead complement Picasso at the Lapin Agile in February. Three rings flaunted a color palette that matched the set and pulsed in tandem with period-appropriate music. Another Balboa Park appearance ensued in April, at the San Diego Museum of Art’s Bloom Bash 2017, a fundraiser to augment the Art Alive celebration.
While Lee acknowledges that it works for some artists to take a purist tack, a “take it or leave it” modus operandi, The Journey functions in a more symbiotic way:
“You have to know your audience and how they communicate – their phraseology – and have to enter into conversation in a way they can understand. It’s not talking down or dumbing down; it’s really staying true to yourself while broadening the artist’s intellectual ability, broadening their scope of understanding what their art is about, without diluting the potency.”
He cites Andy Warhol as an artist who did this well. “He was a graphic designer. He could speak to any strata of American culture. There aren’t a lot of people who can do that – and I don’t think there are a lot of people that are willing to do that, willing to look for ways to engage different communities. It’s vitally important for us.”
In this spirit, The Journey strives to extend the Ten Principles to the general public. Lee recalls meeting a family at FIGMENT 2017, a family that spanned several generations. “They were so excited about the spin-art bike… that they got to make these art dresses for themselves. For me, that was really rewarding.”
There’s a palpable joy evoked by such chances to craft. “I think it adds value to people’s lives; more than a big shiny ring on a finger or a fancy car,” Lee says. It facilitates the realization that everyone is on the same creative playing field. “That’s the kind of understanding that will make the world a better place… and, quite frankly, that’s why I do it.”
Burning at Both Ends
Following Memorial Day weekend at All of Us, an LGBTQ burner retreat in Saratoga Springs, the project will make a trek out to the Southern Nevada Regional Gathering (SNRG) in Beatty, Nevada. After SNRG will be San Diego Pride. It won’t just be a cameo appearance: The Journey, with support from SD Burners, will be the center and progenitor of an entire ‘Burner Village’ for Pride attendees to enjoy, with music, spin-art, silk screening, and performers.
Robert J. Leyh, Volunteer Manager for SD Pride, hopes that The Journey’s presence in this year’s celebration marks the “unofficial start of a partnership.”
In this way, The Journey is not merely art that exists in a vacuum, an idealized concept emerging full-fledged from an artistic womb just in time to burn bright for a fleeting week. Yes, it was conceived to grace the playa; and yet, The Journey is slated to appear, post-playa, in a new incarnation at YOUtopia in October and at Washington, D.C.’s Catharsis on the Mall in November.
What’s really inspiring about being at Catharsis, according to SDCAP Director Stephanie Cucurullo, is that it’s placed in “the ultimate public square.” It’s a chance to say, “’Welcome to Burning Man culture’ to every passer-by in this heavily populated tourist area – all ages, all genders, people from around the world… strongly celebrating and sharing information and the participatory experience.”
Dan notes that, contrary to the common perception of Burning Man as a one-and-done bucket list item, attendees may well be irrevocably altered by “the opportunity to engage in a community that is sustainable and lifelong.”
“One of the unspoken tenets is: be a shining star,” says Lee. “Be a light… do good in the world, so people understand that’s what Burning Man is. For me, it’s always been important to be out and proud.”