by J Damrow
What happens at a burn stays at a burn, unless all involved give explicit permission, right? Most would agree that this is a clearly understood and entrenched concept.
So how would you feel if your intimate messages, inner most thoughts and written memories of loved ones scrawled on the Temple walls appeared in a fashion show? Your mutant vehicle and other Black Rock City art printed on fabric, then cut into clothes and paraded down a high profile catwalk, presumably for commercial gain?
This happened on a Paris runway during Paris Fashion Week in early February. And the story didn’t end there. The designer, Manish Arora is a six-year Black Rock City regular who is even having his Playa art displayed as part of a travelling exhibit curated by the Burning Man Project. He also frequently uses art and fashion associated with Burning Man on his Instagram feed. Hmmm.
Unsurprisingly, the folks from Burning Man did not take to this kindly. Whilst some artists who had their art car, sculpture or concept exhibited were indeed contacted and gave their permission, others were not. And surely it would be impossible to get permission from anonymous burners who left heartfelt writings on the Temple, only to see them again on the body of a model strutting her stuff in front of an audience and world-wide media attention? Admittedly, I struggled whether to include a picture from the show in this article, yet decided that it was integral to see, and also aware that anyone reading this would be likely to just google it.
It is also possible to argue that his show exposed the art and fashion to a wider audience. This article from “Sleek”, a European fashion and art magazine certainly does not seem show awareness that the sheer existence of this collection is an affront to many. In fact, the author – clearly unaware of the concept of decommodification – celebrates this display and highlights the bravery and funk of Burning Man style. She even hypothesises that this could give the goggles and faux fur hoodies associated with desert chique some mainstream cred, much like other avant garde fashion designers have done with counter culture movements such as grunge and punk.
Maybe there is some art, fashion and concepts that should be celebrated and appreciated by a wider audience? Art still belongs to the artist, whether displayed on the Playa or not and if they choose to use it to display, they can. It is a clear association with Burning Man which will get any artist into hot water, even if permission by the creator was given. And especially if there is a whiff of commercial association- in itself sometimes difficult to prove.
Burning Man is actively seeking to stamp out the rampant posting of artfully constructed photos taken for social media accounts as part of the Cultural Course Correcting for 2019. If images seem to have been published for personal gain, such as getting more followers, to sell or promote an item, or using specific areas at odds with their purpose (such as using Temple as a backdrop in a staged shoot), they most likely have no place and should not be associated with the Playa.
So far, no explanation has been received from Manish as to why he as an experienced and committed Burner did not see the dichotomy and conflict he was causing. Why he thought it would be OK to use imagery and art from Burning Man depicted on clothes for a major fashion event, promoting his brand, collection and image, is anyones’ guess.
These challenges are not limited to the art of Burning Man either. In New Zealand, there have been a number of cases of appropriation of design in the fashion industry, which have caused hurt and law suits. Read more here.