Document sits down with art world burners Yvonne Force Villareal, Fab 5 Freddy, and Thomas Rom to discuss the spirit behind 'Boundless Space: The Possibilities of Burning Man'

What does it mean to take the communal spirit and energy that defines Burning Man, and place it within a hallowed auction house like Sotheby’s? Does it expand on the countercultural spirit of that week-long desert happening, or constrain it? And what does it mean when artists like Richard Prince are presented cheek-by-jowl with artists who have no defined space outside of Burning Man, or even a gallerist to represent them?

We sat down with three influential art world figures—Yvonne Force Villareal, co-founder of the New York-based nonprofit Art Production Fund, legendary hip hop pioneer and artist Fab 5 Freddy, and the prominent art advisor Thomas Rom, all co-chairs of the sale at Sotheby’s, to help break down the intent behind Boundless Space: The Possibilities of Burning Man, an auction of burner art that wraps at Sotheby’s in New York tomorrow.

Aaron Hicklin: I want to start by quoting from an interview with Yvonne for Artnet, in which she said that for years, she didn’t want anything to do with Burning Man. She was certain she would not like the art, and she definitely didn’t want to spend late summer in a trailer, but all of those misapprehensions immediately vanished when she finally did go. “I started looking at art differently,” she said. “I actually really responded to a lot of it, even though it looks so different from art as I knew it.” One of the things I’m interested in is to understand the difference between Burning Man art and the ‘art as you knew it.’How does Burning Man as an artistic and aesthetic practice differ from what we might call establishment art?

Yvonne Force Villareal: My first burn was in 2008, but my husband had been going since 1994. I was like, “I don’t want to go to Burning Man.. My whole life was about art, and being taken seriously, going to art school, the dialogue with artists from its beginnings with cave painting to contemporary art. And when I saw pictures of the Burning Man art, I just thought, “No, this isn’t for me.” Finally, I decided to go8, and as soon as I walked into Black Rock City, I was like, “Oh, I’ve been so judgmental.” I started seeing that Burning Man art had its own dialogue… It was really about an expression of creativity at the highest level, and this incredible need to make your mark to communicate through this artwork. I believe in more creativity, period, as a result of going to Burning Man. We’ve got to get behind the creative spirit and all creativity, and anyone there can be an artist because it’s also your fantasy version of how you want the world to be. The art of Burning Man does have a dialogue in and of itself—perhaps with the theme of the year, or perhaps in dialogue with other Burner artists, I think it all feeds the energy, but they can be very singular experiences as well. Whereas the art in the default world, the art as I knew it is this incredible historical conversation that keeps getting added on to. An important artist in the contemporary art world here is one that is making another step in this important dialogue of art.

Aaron: Freddie, how did you discover Burning?

Fab 5 Freddy: My first burn was in 2010, but other than seeing the annual clip on CNN about the Burning Man, I knew very little about it. I arrived just as evening was coming on and everything was beginning to light up on the playa. It was amazing. I got a ride in an art car shaped like a ship, and my mind was blown. My second burn was actually kind of even equally significant for me. I’d just done a big art project with Art Production Fund, with Yvonne and I was hanging out in the office one day and just mentioned that I was thinking of going to Burning Man that summer. I didn’t know anything about Yvonne’s connection, but she gave me this whole talk and” I was like, oh, wow. Because most people I knew were, like, “You’re going to what?”

So, Yvonne gave me this whole talk and then she and Leo connected me directly with the core team and I reached out and that’s how I then met Marian Goodell, the founding Board Member and CEO.

Aaron: Tommy, can you add to that in terms of your first experience there?

Thomas Rom: I moved to America in 2005 and shortly after I arrived I read about Burning Man, and knew instantly that I belonged there. It just felt right—the whole idea, the principles, the energy of it. And, of course, there was the burning of installations that people worked so hard to create. I thought that sounded deeply cathartic and interesting. And then, somehow every year, the complication of making the pilgrimage, finding friends to go with, putting in all the effort—which of course is part of what makes it so special—held me back. And then in 2013, a friend called and invited me to join her at Burning Man. I prevaricated because I had made other plans, but she persisted: how many times is someone going to call you and say they have an RV and the tickets? So I came. We rented a trailer from a guy called Hippie Dave, who was supposed to connect us to the grid. He said he’s back within a few hours with cables and never returned. So we had no heat, no running water, nothing. We were five people in the same RV and couldn’t even figure out how to open the beds. I slept on the floor the whole week, covered in dust, with people’s costumes thrown over and around me. And it was honestly the best week of my life. I ended up founding my own camp and getting involved with the cultural development of Burning Man. It became pivotal to my practice as well as my personal life, and it changed and informed so many of my decisions. So now I run a camp of a hundred people, and I’m there every year.

Aaron: Freddy, Boundless Space… The Possibilities of Burning Man is in large part your initiative. I wonder what inspired you to take this on?

Left: Marco Cochrane, Bliss Dance. Right: Duane Flatmo, El Pulpo Mecanico Prototype.

Fab 5 Freddy: I’d been to four burns, and then Marian Goodellreached out to suggest a lunch. Not long after that she invited me to be on the Board, which was super amazing.. I figured they knew a little about my background as a visual artist, as a person who has been relentlessly trying to turn culture upside down. Then came the pandemic, shortly after my first Board meeting. We had to cancel the event, return the ticket prices to nonprofit organizations, and figure out what to do. We knew we had to fundraise, but we also saw this an opportunity to make this better, to focus on sustainability, and increase clarity and awareness around the organization’s mission.

A year ago, I was at Sotheby’s for a hip hop auction, for which I had donated a painting and the CEO came down to meet me. He knew I was a burner, and the concept of a Sotheby’s sale grew organically out of that conversation. It was an opportunity to do something unique at Sotheby’s with a lot of amazing artists, many of whom have no secondary market, but who create work that represents a lot of the energy and spirit of Burning Man. So it’s pretty cool.

Aaron: That’s a good segue to another question I have, which is how you take the art of Burning Man out of the desert, off the playa, and into the hallowed halls of an auction house like Sotheby’s without losing the original meaning or intent.

Fab 5 Freddy: With members of the team, particularly Kim Cook, who put together the Smithsonian Renwick Burning Man exhibit, I’ve learned that the vision of Black Rock City can be shared outside the space. This way this has been put together is about extending that. We’re not giving up anything to be in Sotheby’s; by bringing this work into Sotheby’s we’re shaking up what that can be.

Yvonne: I think the exhibition brings together artists, whether or not they’ve been to Burning Man, that are aligned with the ten principles that were outlined by [founder] Larry Harvey. And the idea is for those principles to live outside of the event of Burning Man and that is the ultimate goal of Burning Man. The event is one thing, but it’s also about all these other great initiatives that the community is taking. You don’t have to go to Burning Man to be a Burner any more, and I think this exhibition really exemplifies that.

Thomas: I want to expand on that as well. First of all, we always say that Burning Man is not just a week in the desert. It’s a way of living. It’s a way of thinking. It’s a way of approaching things, whether it be the principles, the intention, the energy, or the positivity of the movement. This is, undoubtedly, one of the biggest movements of our lifetime. There’s a reason why the Smithsonian gave it such a pivotal exhibition;, it needs to record these things as the archivist of American history, and this is a very big part of it. So we need initiatives like this to take those ideas outside of the desert and to connect with audiences that may find it hard to commit to a full week in the desert.

The artistic practice is pivotal to our identity [At Burning Man] in many ways, and for people to be able to experience that, and maybe even take it back home, is a way for us to spread the word and not remain insular. If you’re asking about what happens to the energy or the essence of these objects when they’re outside of the playa, that’s a great intellectual question that applies to all art, right? When an artist creates something within their studio and then it travels to an institution is it still the same art? Is it still the same experience? And certainly, when we think of heritage monuments and antiquity going into the Met, and looking at these beautiful antiquities, certainly within the context of the Met, I am curious about the questions it opens more than any answers it provides. I want to see people interact with it, I want to see people engage with it, and I want to see what’s on their mind. And throughout this week, all three of us spent a lot of time within the galleries talking to people and hearing their questions and feedback, and I think it was a gift for all of us to see Burning Man outside of Burning Man.

Fab 5 Freddy: To reinforce what Tommy was saying, when you see people engaging with these works in major museums and institutions, that’s what many moons ago was called “a happening.” That’s exactly what Burning Man in Black Rock City is, also. And we’ve brought a nice chunk of that here.

Aaron: How has the Burner philosophy influenced and infiltrated the art world at large?

Yvonne: You look at what’s happening in this default world, and outsider art is getting more and more and more recognition. All types of people who have incredible forms of unique creativity are making art, and finding markets for their work. So as you go around the gallery there are artists like Hank Willis Thomas or Shepard Fairey, Leo Villareal, my husband, and Fab who are both burner artists and default recognized as part of the art market. There is a lot of common thread within the principles, but the aesthetics are so incredibly different. There are so many multiple art worlds that are taken seriously now. It’s no longer mainly white men, as it was when I first started in the 1980s—not to put those artists down, as many are very, very good artists, but there are multiple art worlds now, and thank goodness.

Thomas: The only thing I can really speak to honestly, is my practice as an art advisor. And I think from the first burn, I could see a breakage in the systems and patterns of thought, and a complete change in my outlook—thinking about the artists that I placed in collections, the galleries and programs that I support, what ideas and thoughts am I furthering, and that became very important to me—relationships, conversation, the energy of the artists and the artworks. And I think when you’re in the desert, you can see things in their purest form. And that is something that I took with me when I look at art now.

Aaron: How would you say that Burning Man’s concept of radical inclusion is reflected and refracted through the work on sale at Sotheby’s?

Fab 5 Freddy: Well, I think one of the things that we had leaned in on during this downtime was to increase diversity and inclusion. That’s growing organically, but at the organization there has been an effort to assist that further, to make it more accessible and to work to get other people in. For instance, as part of this auction, every artist gets a ticket because many have never been.

Thomas: And we put a lot of emphasis on the diversity of artists, not just in terms of race, but also of nationalities and representation of developing countries, artists who have no auction record, who have not had a moment within the confinements of the establishment and the critical fine art world. We have artists of indigenous backgrounds. We have works that are not necessarily perceived as art, but there are different types of objects and experiences that we felt represent the principles. And I believe that for the first time in Sotheby’s, broke the barriers of what is perceived as being art, or art that is sold in an auction house.

Leo Villareal, The Man.

Aaron: The promise of Burning Man is a utopian one, in which creativity is freed or liberated precisely because it’s not about money, it’s not about commodity. How do you protect that when this legacy goes out into the wider world so that it doesn’t get warped by money? How do you protect the spirit of Burning Man from being corrupted or corroded?

Thomas: It’s a question that I ask myself every year after Burning Man: how do I make sure that every burner who experienced this amazing wonder is not going to be corrupted when he goes back into the world. But that is life. We can’t control that. It’s very easy to be a meditating monk in the mountains of the Himalayas. Try doing that in the middle of Manhattan. It’s a different story. So, of course, when we go back into the world we will be faced with many challenges, but we’ve got to be able to believe in people’s ability to prevail. We have to be able to believe that we have the power to make a difference and to change the culture around us. If some take something out of this that is not as pure or as clean as it was intended, that’s their choice, but if we affected hundreds or thousands, and hopefully tens of thousands, of people who walk through Sotheby’s and made them think, then this has done its job.

Yvonne: That’s beautifully put and you know, things like the gift economy—the idea that you can give a gift but don’t expect to get one back—are experiments. There’s a lot of play around what a gift economy is within Black Rock City. And here, too, in the walls of Sotheby’s, there is more gifting going on than there ever has been, through performance, as well as other things that have happened this week. So, through that expanded awareness, yes perhaps there’ll be a greater realization of how we can give within it. Also I want to add that artists were given the option to either donate all of their proceeds to the Burning Man organization, or to take up to 55 percent, because we know that artists, especially those that don’t have markets, have had a very hard year or so during this pandemic.

Aaron: I’m curious if you can identify an artist in the Sotheby’s sale that you’re particularly fond of, or a piece that you would like to own.

Thomas: Yvonne. I think you’re contractually obligated to say Leo.

Yvonne: Well, there’s so many great pieces. The spectrum is all over the place, but a piece that I really love—and the bidding is really healthy on it, so I might go for some of the artists that are less-well known—is by Shrine. I love him on the playa, off the playa. He’s an incredible artist. Kate Raudenbush has given an exceptional work, and my husband, Leo Villareal, has a beautiful work, the only representational work he’s ever made. He’s bringing in very early Burning Man videos he shot with a handheld camera before there were digital phones. I could go on and on.

Fab 5 Freddy: What I was really excited about, and I went to his studio when I was in Vegas a few months ago, is the Henry Chang art car. He makes these amazing steel, tubular shape forms, and I could definitely see having one of those on the Playa.

Thomas: We’ve been very lucky with very monumental works from the Playa and artists willing to donate them or to sell them. I love some of the crossovers we have. The Richard Prince drawing, I think, is very exciting. It has a bit of a Basquiat energy, which I like, and is maybe not what you’d expect from him. I love the Haas Brothers works, not only because they’re dear friends of mine but also seeing those mushrooms grow out of those beastly hands and create light is pretty much what we’re all about at Burning Man, an expansion of knowledge, our vocabulary around thoughts and ideas. It’s also cheekily titled, “Handy Darling,” and “Handy Warhol.” But I actually encourage everybody, as Yvonne just did, to look at the young and, and unrepresented or lesser known artists that we have at the auction, because some of those works are just phenomenal and really worth people’s attention.