La Victrola : Big Art and Introspection at Burning Man
By Lucie Duffort
Bring La Victrola Back to Burning Man, 2017! Donate Here
It’s July now. In under two months there will be swarms of people leaving the city for a desert in Nevada. Burning Man means a ton of things to a ton of people, a chance to go full weirdo in a dildo and tutu, to build a car that farts bubbles and hand out popsicles, to network with tech bros and bras and the companies that court them, to chase the neverending electronica dance party, to do drugs- lots of drugs- and wander the tundra looking for the next light-up thing… And of course, for those of us that stay home, basking in the availability of parking and space in San Francisco.
But there is something pretty cool about the creation of art- particularly huge pieces- just for the sake of this relatively small community. In reality it’s much more far-reaching. I haven’t been to the festival since 2001, but I worked for a number of years teaching English to grad students in Paris, and almost every semester a student would do a presentation on the art of Burning Man. So, as jaded as we can all get or as annoyed at the ever more expensive culture of Here and Now and cowboy hats and fake fur bicycles- this is a thing that is out there. It brings a little more potential for weird to the world, and weird always brings me hope.
So when some friends told me about this piece they had worked on last year, and were bringing out again with some tweaks, I listened. And when they told me it as connected to music and performance, I listened harder.
La Victrola is a 35-foot tall gramophone made out of steel and wood. Pictures do it pretty good justice.
It is an art nouveau sculpture, performance space, shade structure, and improbable harkening backward to a period of time and technology that is passed but immediately identifiable.
La Victrola is daunting, and currently lives in pieces at American Steel Studios in Oakland, where it is being worked on by roughly 30 wildly devoted volunteers led by a five-person management team.
The piece was born not only out of a desire to build Big Art, but of the core crew’s interest in creating an homage to the organic music. As a result, and with a lot of donated time, La Victrola will make it to Golden Gate Park this year for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Take a look around when you go, you can’t miss it.
I hung out with some of the people on the team, wanting to hear some of their stories. They are a committed but ragtag group, highly skilled in many different directions, and with a pretty coherent vision and sense of community.
I asked Peter Platzgummer, Project Director, what brought him on board. He had just finished his PhD in Switzerland and, having been to Burning Man before, wanted to get his hands dirty. With extra work-free time imposed by our government’s visa process in 2015-16, he was looking for an art project.
“I didn’t want to work on something that would burn down.” (In case you are totally in the dark, this is basically what happens at the end of Burning Man)
“And I don’t like too serious stuff… if another person laughs at La Victrola, that’s fine. I want to have pieces that allow snarkiness, fun parts… If you’re going to tell me that because of the way the (gramophone) horn is shaped it charges your shakra, that’s fine too but I don’t really want to listen to it.
“We have a really good crew- one that didn’t have a lot of experience building large pieces. And I appreciate that. Because that means it’s a learning experience for everyone. We learned together, and made mistakes together… The amazing thing is seeing people step up because you find they have hidden skills. They guy who looks like a shabby nothing and does welding is a Google executive. The girl who does metal work is a lawyer and can help with completely different things. You have a lot of people who can bring in good things and good ideas. “
According to Shing Kong, Volunteer Coordinator, the main volunteer team has a 100% return rate since last year. Probably in part because they feel ownership.
Art and Creative Director Tim Bremner says he’s “not a person who likes glory, I’m very much behind the scenes… Everyone else is Doing a Project for X or Y and you don’t hear about the 50 people behind it, and I think that’s fucking bullshit.”
Having made his career in commercial art, disenchanting aspects of dramas like negotiating leases and managing insurance can be deeply frustrating. So can ever-changing budgets and volunteer management, but Bremner is quick to specify:
“I appreciate the people. That has been the best thing. The glory of being able to put together a community of new friends … that buzz has been a bigger thing for me than the actual piece.”
I would be lying if I said I didn’t think about the usefulness of inspiring people to have passion for their creation. If you enable people, give them direction, they will either inspire you in a creative way or do exactly what you want, what you’d imagined.”
Enabling people to learn skills has been a huge part of La Victrola. The team has close connections to The Crucible, through Fundraising and Communications Manager Nick Flynn and other crew members who have come by to supervise and teach on the Oakland build site. This past Sunday, 15 team members were trained in anticipation of doing high-level railing welds. A large proportion of them were women.
The La Victrola Facebook page and Instagram account show a lot of women using their hands, wearing welding masks and working with fire and steel. The crew day I attended was evenly split gender-wise. Bremner explains:
“Well, we’re not assholes… For me it’s not weird at all because I love working with women. (It’s important that) that they feel comfortable here… A large part of that is Lara. Lara (Edge)was the build lead (in 2016) and she ran the shop and set us up with tools we needed. I think that brought a bunch of other women in, seeing that there was a woman there who hardcore knows her shit.”
The core team is still mostly made up of men, but the atmosphere and opportunity to work on large-scale art seems to lead to an impressively well-balanced team.
The central idea behind the building of a giant gramophone was, of course, music. A deadhead from the Midwest, Bremner made money to follow the band on tour, and found a love for design, by putting together tape covers and selling recordings, later became a musician himself as well as a heavy jazz fan. Production Designer Marcel Cadcac is a top level touring audio engineer in charge of all production and performances on the stage, such as the cabaret, which brings together music acts and burlesque dancers, as well as other performances including gypsy jazz, bluegrass, and a 40-person orchestra. As you might imagine, there’s a music connection to almost every member of the team.
Scott Theakston, audio engineer and producer, crew member and curator of the La Victrola Radio Hour among other things, describes the importance of La Victrola from a musical and social perspective:
“The period of time and the people that (La Victrola) represents is appealing in the current era of this festival that has been becoming further technologically complex in its 25 years.
The era the Victrola is harkening back to… from the 20s to the late 50s… it was really about (performers) delivering the goods… They didn’t have that luxury of sampling. Everybody stole , everybody borrowed, but it was almost like a problem only if you were being called out on it. You had to make it yours.
What I hope that this project can do for people is go back to this kind of thing that is craftsmanship and creativity and is participatory. And that’s what Burning Man is about, right? I mean the key factor of that event is that you are supposed to go there and do something. Spectators are not allowed. And unfortunately the movement of the culture is shifting much more to spectator from participant. It’s reflecting the culture at large. The cost of admission is becoming high enough that it’s excluding people who don’t have the means to do it. The organization tries to subsidize artists to go out there and do what they do… but it creates a huge divide.
But I do think that La Victrola is a way to be an outpost for creativity and participation and we need to be reminded of that. Because that’s what makes great art.”
The divide Scott talks about, the split between six-figured festival-goers and artists, is a big criticism of Burning Man today. The ticket price is ever increasing and the organization does what they can to subsidize art, but when you look at the price of a large art piece like La Victrola, it’s surprising that anything makes it out. With an Bring La Victrola Back to Burning Man Indiegogo campaign that closes Friday and is far from its goal, Bremner and the crew may have to modify their plans to raise the horn and the stage up on shipping containers and build the art deco railings and painted panels that could really transform the stage.
That being said, the piece will go up, and will join other pieces that are unlikely, surprising, destabilizing, incredible, thought provoking, shakra re-aligning, or laughable. Whether or not I ever make it out to Burning Man again, I have to appreciate a group of people working together to learn the skills needed to build this kind of piece.
Art keeps us human, makes us ask questions and consider new perspectives in ways that can be as larger-than-life as a 35-foot steel gramophone, peacefully set against a mountain range, welcoming human music and interaction into a techno-saturated chaos. The concept of group effort for art exists beyond Instagram and telephone selfies, and this particular piece brings it home to a more human and less tweet-dominated time. I hope they succeed.