2663 Urban Tumbleweeds, a Temporary Art Installation

First of all, I’d like to formally give a huge thanks to everyone who donated, helped, supported, and promoted 2663 Urban Tumbleweeds. Really, the outpouring of support we received was astounding.

Some artists could wait their whole lives to get as much support as we received. We happened to land it on our first endeavor. I know this has less to do with the project and more to do with the message — which was timely, informative, and a real-feel good piece. This was our intention, and we wanted to make a piece that touched on all those principals. We wanted to turn facts into art and connect people with the environment.

The thing I am most proud about with Urban Tumbleweeds is the number of people who’ve already made a changes in their lives as a result of just knowing about this project. To everyone who’s started using reusable totes, you really deserve a pat on the back.

The thing I am most sad about is that I really don’t have much to share with you as a result of our endeavors other than the lives changed, a few images, and this amazing video:

Tom Barbor-Might did an amazing job capturing the experience and the sentiment. This video is really a gift because it’s the only real record that the piece existed. You see, Tom came out and filmed me from the moment I began installing the chain on Sunday, August 24th. Although the bags were already linked, it quickly became clear that attaching it to the fence was going to take WAY longer than I’d anticipated. I suggested Tom come back in a few hours to get a better glimpse of the project.

Five hours later, I had only installed through the red section above and it was clear that I was going to spend the entire week on the piece. I figured I’d do a little every day, and watching it grow would become part of the installation. However, having an assembly line always speeds up productivity and with a little help from my friend, Playa Barbie, we were able to move the project from peril to just over half-done in one day. Below is a photo of our progress.

Everything was awesome. On Monday, August 25th, we got up early and with great focus, finished installing the chain. It was an amazing 1/2 mile long! You could see the blocks of color all the way from the festival’s city streets, which was miles away.

Sadly though, as I began installing the signs at the end of Monday, a giant dust storm kicked up and we had to take shelter. I didn’t even get to take one photo of the completed project.

By Tuesday morning when I went back to check on the project and finish the signs, it was gone. At first I was completely dismayed. It’s amazing to ponder how 6 months of work and 2 days of installation could possibly disappear overnight. I was in complete shock.

I spent the rest of the week trying to track down what happened to the project. Everyday I would go to the ARTery, which is the nerve center for all art at Burning man. Finally, on Friday I was informed that someone from the Department of Public Works had removed our piece.

I waited for him to come meet me to see if the piece was salvaged, but I knew in my heart that it had become trash itself.

When the ranger walked into the room he held my signs above his head in a crumpled pile and announced, “WHAT ARTIST HERE HAD THE AUDACITY TO ATTACH THESE SIGNS TO MY TRASH FENCE???” I instantly felt ashamed and belittled. What an introduction.

He then proceeded to tell me that I had done a “good job of daisy chaining” all those bags together, but that the zip ties were failing in the 40 mile hr. wind and the chain had broken from from the fence. Apparently it was snaking out in long strands beyond the perimeter of the festival into the playa beyond. Nothing too harmful, but there’s a “leave-no-trace” policy, and perhaps the bags would break free and on the other side of the trash fence nothing would prevent them from flying off into the great beyond.

He also felt that the bags were compromising the structural integrity of the trash fence itself. Due to our installation’s position, the wind was sweeping across the desert right into the bags themselves. Could the draw of plastic bags really pull down 7 foot rebar hammered into the ground?

His question to me was, “where did I get the idea that I could attach anything to the trash fence in the first place?”  “The ARTery”, I answered. “The application I filled out 6 months ago, the interview I had with the approval agent, the map and plan we submitted for the location, the GPS positioning we established with the ARTery placer on Saturday, August 23rd”. He responded with a short, “Well I thought it was a commando operation.”

So he tore it off the fence, and threw the chain of 2663 plastic bags away. He did, however, for some reason save the signs, which he returned to me.

At a 1/2 mile long, collated by color and bag type, with signage — at an art festival, no less — it seems to me that even a commando art piece deserved more respect.

I calmly tried to explain that I wished he had made one call on his radio to the ARTery to see if it was a registered work. The ARTery would of then contacted me and I could of  removed the piece within a 1/2 hr., thus saving the chain and months of work. I tried to explain that the chain had another destination after this festival and at the very least we were hoping to recycle the bags. I calmly explained that over 5 rangers and other border workers had seen me installing the piece over the past 2 days and if there was any of these concerns they should of been brought up then.

He responded by telling me that he had heard someone was attaching plastic bags to the fence, but he thought they were by good Samaritans for people to leave their trash.

It was clear that our project really just made him angry. Looking at a 1/2 mile of trash as art can bring out that emotion in people.  Looking at a statistic that paints America in an unfavorable light, will do that as well.

So sadly that is where my story and this project ends. I took this shot on Saturday after removing the last zip tie from the fence (leaving no trace that the project ever existed). The orange flag in the background is where the project started…I’m standing at the finish…it was VERY long, and impressive, but you’ll have to take my word on that.

We are still considering recreating the chain and installing it in a park in Boston. We are even considering recreating it again for Burning Man 2009. However, we’ll have to wait to see how relevant the topic is one year later. Perhaps America will make a positive change and plastic bag reform will make mass consumption of bags a non-issue. Wouldn’t that be nice?