Tell us a little bit about the piece you’re installing in D.C., and your background creating works at Burning Man.
Our installation is called Shrumen Lumen (2016)—a garden of three origami mushrooms with caps that expand and contract from a flat umbrella portobello into a bulbous cap when activated by visitors, creating a surprising and delightful experience. Nearly every one of the hundreds of parts for each mushroom were custom made by the FoldHaus team, an art collective based in the San Francisco Bay Area and currently led by Joerg Student and Jesse Silver. Many of the FoldHaus members work at, or have worked at, the design firm IDEO, where members spend weekends and evenings building and creating art. Each mushroom is made of 18 sheets of corrugated plastic, hand-folded and carefully welded together. A solid mechanical structure made of aluminum and steel defines the shape of the mushroom head, and an umbrella-like mechanism powered by an industrial actuator causes the cap to change shape. At night, over 1,600 LED lights create a spectacle for those near or far.
What does it mean for the art and culture of Burning Man to be exhibited at—and canonized by—a national institution like the Smithsonian?
The culture of Burning Man is impossible to experience outside of Burning Man, because it is all about people—their participation and contribution; their interaction with others; and their spirit of openness, sharing, welcoming, and helping, without even knowing one another. Even at Burning Man, it can take people a few days to embody this. During a short visit to a museum with other strangers, you can’t recreate that, but you can get a glimpse of it: It seems that even in the days the exhibition has been open so far, there has been more interaction and conversation between strangers than you might otherwise see in a museum. The experience of the art is, of course, different than on the playa—the context of the vast landscape, the dust, the fire, and the extreme conditions inevitably become part of the art itself. But many pieces can be experienced in a comparable way in the museum—they are just as joyful, interactive, and entertaining.
What do you hope visitors to the exhibition will walk away understanding about Burning Man?
We hope that the exhibition can help change some of the perceptions people have about Burning Man. It is often sensationalized as a big party involving lots of drugs. And while there certainly are wild parties, Burning Man is so much more than that. The art that is shown there is so unique and creative. We also hope people remember those feelings of joy, awe, and surprise that the art brings to them, as well as the feeling of permission—permission to touch the art, to interact with it, but also permission to interact with each other, with strangers. Lastly, we hope that the exhibition inspires people to discover that they can make art, as well. We’ve been especially excited when youth are asking questions about how Shrumen Lumen was made. Our works involve a lot of volunteers who are not full-time artists, and that possibility of participation—not being a spectator, but a participant—is such a big part of the magic of Burning Man.