Burning Man: Art on Fire is a documentary capturing the human spirit as displayed by the creativity, artistic expression and hope when people come together during the Burning Man festival to live and build up collaborative, sustainable communities during a two-week time period. The film takes audiences on a journey alongside various creators who embark upon the Nevada desert once a year, 2018 in this case. Burning Man enables them to build and release in order to experience connectivity spiritually, mentally and emotionally. Like most events, Burning Man was cancelled this year, and has formed virtual communities across the globe in order to keep the “burner” spirit alive. EXB’s Tech & Innovation editor Jewell Sparks was able to catch up with the film’s producer Sophia Swire and one of the main subjects, French architect Arthur Mamou-Mani ahead of the August 15 premiere on Burning Man’s Kindling Platform accompanied by two Q&A sessions.
I have heard about you from my tech and transformative innovation networks, but I had no idea you were into making films. Please share with us how you got into the business.
SS: I started my career in the City, at Britain’s largest and oldest investment bank – Kleinwort Benson. After three years of institutional equity research and sales, I took off to the Hindu Kush to create a life with more meaning and impact, establishing the first of 250 schools in a beautiful landlocked valley, high up in the Hindu Kush on the Afghan Pakistan border – a dreamy principality called Chitral. I went on to produce multiple current affairs, history and arts documentaries in the 1990s for the BBC, Channel 4, and others. But I put my life of filmmaking on hold because it was, as they say, a lifestyle – not a living!
What inspired you to want to create a film about the art of Burning Man and the artistic creators behind the movement?
SS: I was inspired to make a film about the art of Burning Man during Homo Laudenslager. It was a workshop on the intersection of play, work, science and art at Trinity College Oxford, hosted by Chilean Anthropologist Dr. Isabel Behncke and an Oxford scientist called Dr. Tamas Barrett. Among the futurists and creatives present was Jennifer Raiser, Treasurer of Burning Man and author of the book by the same name, Burning Man: Art on Fire. She shared with me that the Smithsonian Museum was about to host the first major Burning Man art exhibition at the Renwick Gallery which recognised it as a movement in its own right for the first time. The timing was perfect. I thought it was time to shoot a documentary!
The experience of filming Art on Fire and helping to build the Temple was all-consuming.
When was your first “burner” experience?
SS: I was first inspired to attend Burning Man in 2007 when a dear friend of mine sent me a photograph of herself from the desert with an extraordinary sculpture behind her – a series of lorries stacked in a giant S. I had never seen anything like it and I asked her what it was. I had never heard of Burning Man at the time but within hours I was packing the back of an SUV with an old mattress, some hiking shoes, and water bottles, and started driving towards the Black Rock desert! I hadn’t got the message about the costume trend and when she came to pick me up at the entrance, she was appalled to find me in a twinset and pearls. I soon re-emerged covered in chocolate powder, in a silver bikini and an orange wig!
Arthur, you told me prior to the interview that you first attended Burning Man in 2013 with some of your architectural students from the University of Westminister, who knew Burning Man was on the radar of academics. How did this journey become part of your curriculum?
AMM: Our first year, we brought 20 students (with my co-tutor Toby Burgess) and built “Shipwreck” (by Georgia-Rose Collard-Watson) and “Fractal Cult” (by Thanasis Korras). We were all ‘ virgins ‘ (the insider’s term for people attending Burning Man for the first time). It was quite a mission and we were all learning – this is why we called our academic blog WeWantToLearn.net. Two years later in 2015, we came back with three projects, including ‘Reflections’ by Lorna Jackson.
You are one of the main subjects of the documentary, right? How did you get so lucky?
AMM: I was one of the main subjects and the lead artist of “Temple Galaxia”, making sure everything was on track with the team and the project. A challenging role! I hope you will enjoy seeing the struggles behind the realisation of a piece of this size in the desert.
What message do you want viewers to take away from the film?
SS: Spirit, freedom, hope! Black Rock City is a new world in which there is equitable opportunity, where everybody is expected to participate and contribute and to be mindful of the impact they have on other people and the environment. It’s a world in which play and creative expression are at the heart of the human experience.
How did the experience change your life and is some of this captured through your lens as the producer of Art on Fire?
SS: I can’t say that it changed my life per se. Fundamentally, many of the lessons that Burning Man provides us is to live in an unattached, no-trace type of way. I’d learned through a lifetime of travel, adventure and work in conflict zones how to live in such a manner. In 2018, I had a specific mission which was to repurpose my life away from war zones and back into a more sustainable life in the west. The experience of filming Art on Fire and helping to build the Temple was all consuming. I engraved “RIP Afghanistan” into one of the rafters of the Temple and as it went up in flames, I felt free to move on.
As a participant you yourself are expected to become a work of art! It is absolutely not okay to stay dressed in default world clothing.
The film is centered around the building of Galaxia. What was the concept behind “Temple Galaxia”?
AMM: I used a so-called ‘parametric design’ which is a way of letting geometrical systems generate themselves in the computer based on parameters such as sun rays, structural resistance and mathematical constraints. Although it happens in the digital world, it paradoxically brings us closer to natural systems. “Temple Galaxia” first appeared in a project we developed for Virgin Galactic, it grew from simple recursive operations similar to the growth of seashells and galaxies. Together with the team and our engineers (Format Engineers) we developed the concept further to be built out of timber by volunteers. The project was grown from the bottom-up and protects itself from harmful sun rays, letting direct light in only in winter. This process is called parametric design, developing systems rather than finished forms.
And how did it come together on-site?
AMM: The year we built “Temple Galaxia”, two students built two projects first developed within our March University of Westminster programme (“Anahad” by Stefano Casati and “Error101” by Sofya Batsova) and a former student of ours continued his journey and built another project too (“Bebot” by Josh Haywood). By that time, we agreed that we would help students during the teaching hours but that students would go at their own risk to build it in the spirit of radical self-reliance (one of the 10 principles of Burning Man) and following the other principle of radical self-expression, I submitted “Temple Galaxia” which received the temple honoraria grant from the Burning Man organization, 140 volunteers joined us to build it.
How does a group finance such a massive project?
AMM: Projects are only partially financed by Burning Man, the rest of the money has to be raised. We did a whole crowdfunding campaign (video) and received half a million dollars in funding through these various sources, including fundraising events and generous donations from the community. Projects have to be volunteer-friendly as they are built by non-professional people, they have to be modular and fit the shipping constraints, they cannot involve digging deep in the playa nor can they involve any machinery that is not planned in advance and accessible. The temple had to be designed to be buildable in 18 days. We’re talking about a 60m wide, 20m high 100tonnes timber and metal structure.
In 2018, what was happening in the world of architecture, art, tech and film during the year of filming that impacted your artistic expression and the expression of your students?
AMM: The year of 2018 was the year AI really boomed in people’s minds. Burning Man’s theme was i-Robot in reference to Isaac Asimov’s famous book. The name Galaxia is actually from his Foundations series, a Galaxy in which everything is connected, minds to living and non-living beings. We are so worried as a species to let go, yet when we walk in the forest and look at a beautiful flower, it has happened without us, how beautiful is the fact humans are developing ways of letting things grow digitally without them. Reproducing the billions of years of evolution digitally will help us create designs that are as close to nature as they can be, with all the environmental efficiency that comes with it. Nature’s beauty is so humbling and attempting to come closer to its processes can only be beneficial to humanity.
It will always be a bit paradoxical to discuss sustainability when we burn a structure or bring people from all over the world to the desert.
What creative transformations did you see and experience throughout your years of attendance?
SS: Part of the fun of Burning Man is in the radical self-expression. I have to say that one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve had during my years at Burning Man was attending the wedding of a bitcoin billionaire where all the guests were dressed as unicorns. As a participant you are expected to become a work of art and delight and entrance everyone around you! It is absolutely not okay to stay dressed in default world clothing.
The spirit of letting go comes up a lot throughout various Burning Man conversations. How would you describe the building up of Temple Galaxia and then burning it down? What does this experience feel like?
AMM: The Burning Man temple was invented to mourn the death of people close to us. It is a secular temple with no established religion behind it. It is meant to be for everyone to experience a spiritual journey. I had never felt so much connection with other human beings as I did inside the Temple of Whollyness in 2013 at Burning Man. My parents come from very different backgrounds and met during the 1968 cultural revolution in Paris. Old traditions got challenged and I was born, no specific religion, born from a Tunisian dad and French mom. Spirituality is in the moment – it doesn’t have to be permanently imposed or structured. It can be re-invented. My wife Sandy and I got married in “Temple Galaxia” as we both felt that our love could be celebrated as we wanted it to be. Each couple is unique, each individual is unique, all our experiences are deeply personal and rich in diversity. Burning a temple is a way to give space to the next generation to re-invent itself.
A lot of people say that Burning Man is the epicentre of sustainability and smart city development. Is this true? How can some of these concepts be implemented across the globe and not just during two weeks in the desert?
AMM: It will always be a bit paradoxical to discuss sustainability when we burn a structure or bring people from all over the world to the desert. However, the idea of building a temporary experimental city under the principle of radical self-reliance and leaving no trace, pushes us to think about our waste and our energy needs. It is thanks to Burning Man’s constraints that Elon Musk and his cousin developed Solar City. As lecturer of architecture, I believe Burning Man provides a testing ground for an architecture that can undo itself similarly to natural systems – it helps us rethink circular economy in design and urban planning.
What’s next for you, Sophia? Another film in the making?
SS: My life returns full circle to finance! In the past 30 years, the financial services industry has evolved to consider purpose as well as profit and I feel I can return to the city without compromising my personal values. Together with a group of outstanding, mainly female company operators and venture capital investors, I am establishing a new investment platform – Gender Equity Diversity Investments known as GEDI. We are already conducting research on over 250 outstanding female founders who have tech solutions for the United Nations sustainable development goals. With a track record in education of course one of the verticals is reimagining learning and the future of work. But we are also interested in telemedicine and the future of mental health – innovative tech enabled solutions for people, for Planet and for profit.