Burning Snow Center

by Jeremy Berg

The first time I met Eric Griswold was in the middle of a desert, hundreds of miles and more than a year from the day I landed in Milwaukee, at a place just two minutes’ walk from his Burning Snow Center for the Experimental Arts. Named for the Burning Man festival that takes place every year at the end of August in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, Burning Snow serves as a home base for Snowflake Village (a collection of Midwestern Burners) and a place for anyone who wants to find out what this Burning Man thing is all about, anyway. As Griswold says, “you can preach to the converted all day long but there’s something about bringing it to people who’ve never seen it before.” “It” in this case refers to the unique nature of art at Burning Man, what Griswold calls “Art with intelligence added to it” or “the combination of art and engineering.” While static art exists at Burning Man, the participatory nature of the festival has led many to create things that move, change, and react to the environment. The unique challenges of creating such works are a focus of Burning Snow. Show up at a Sunday night planning session, and you’ll find people working to turn ideas into reality. At Burning Snow, people can “try out their newest and wildest and rawest ideas.” That might involve learning how to wire a motion detector, or a hat that contains several clocks. Or, it’s figuring out what shape a tent awning should be to serve as a combination entryway and marquee that can withstand a dust storm. For some people, it’s just coming down to check it out. As Griswold says, “those that want to go, our job is to find them, connect them, and bring it out here,” but “they don’t have to take the big step right away.” The big step is a big one indeed; hundreds of miles and hundreds of dollars (at least) stand between Milwaukee and Black Rock City’s once-a-year manifestation in the Nevada desert. Burning Man is a festival of “radical self-expression” that has grown from a few people on a beach near San Francisco to a temporary city of twenty-five thousand, watched over by the Man on his pedestal at the center. For those who don’t have the time, money, or inclination just yet, an evening at Burning Snow offers a taste of the art and mindset of the playa. Griswold hopes to expose new people to Burning Man and its ideas, but he believes in a two-way flow of information, and feels that the Midwest has as beneficial an effect on Burning Man as the festival does on the region. “If Burning Man will survive into the future, it needs to have some practicality and groundedness…I think the Midwest coming out there helps that.” He adds that an increase in practicality will also allow the ideas of Burning Man to filter into society more easily, and cites the wearable sculpture festival of the last few years as an example of that success. Like its inspiration, Burning Snow has continued to grow and change, incorporating earlier this year as The Institute For Thought, a non-profit organization that combines Snowflake Village with other alternative thinking exercises such as the Clevians, a composite of various mythical cultures that explores the utopian ideal, and Brain Box Television. The Institute will also host a lecture at UWM’s architecture and urban planning department this fall, and Griswold has worked with the sheriff’s department, fire department, and mayor to make it safe and legal to practice spinning poi (two kevlar balls at the end of chains dipped in flammable liquid and spun around, unsurprisingly popular at a festival that climaxes with the burning of a 40-foot statue of a man). No matter what changes occur, the motivating spirit remains the same. Griswold sees Burning Man as “a huge engine of culture. . .some ideas might help us get into the future better.” At Burning Snow, they’re doing their part to make it a very interesting future indeed. The Burning Snow Center for the Experimental Arts is located at 2578 N. Weil Street, and is open every Sunday from 7-11p.m., except during Burning Man. For more info see and WHY BURN THE MAN? So you think the U.P. is enough of a drive, a week of 115 degree days and 60 degree nights doesn’t appeal, and you already live in Riverwest — so why go all the way to Nevada for radical self-expression and experimental art? And why burn the man, anyway? The two questions share an answer: whyever you want to. I’ve known people who roam around the desert all day and people who stayed in trailers most of the week, people who camp with one or two friends and people who are part of a huge theme camp. New burners who walk around with their jaws hanging open and veterans looking to top whatever they did last year. Burning Man offers an alternative to regular society, and what you want to do with that alternative depends on who you are. Same goes for the man. It’s the straight world going up in flames! It’s your ex-boyfriend! It’s a really cool bunch of wood and neon exploding with fireworks! Why burn the man? Why take the time and effort? Because you want to. And whyever you want to is reason enough. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 8 – August 2003