There’s an Archivist for That! Interview with Christine “LadyBee” Kristen, Burning Man’s Archivist, Art Collection Curator and Photo Gallery Editor

Photo of Christine "LadyBeen" Kristen standing outside on asphalt with tall grass in the background.

Christine “LadyBee” Kristen.

This is the newest post in our There’s an Archivist for That! series, which features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect.  COPA member Rachel Seale, Outreach Archivist at Iowa State University, brings you an interview with Christine “LadyBee” Kristen, Burning Man’s Archivist, Art Collection Curator, and Photo Gallery Editor.

Christine Kristen (a.k.a LadyBee) is Burning Man’s Archivist, Art Collection Curator and Photo Gallery editor. She was Burning Man’s art curator from 1999 to 2008, where she dealt with all things visual and aesthetic, including managing the art and the art grant program, photo-editing the Image Gallery, writing art content for the Burning Man website, working with the ARTery, managing the archives, and lecturing and writing about the art of Burning Man. She is the co-author of “The Jewelry of Burning Man,” with Karen Christians and George Post, and the curator of the exhibition “PlayaMade: Jewelry of Burning Man,” which debuted at the Fuller Craft Museum near Boston in 2017. It opens at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Seattle in January 2020. She has an MFA in sculpture from the Art Institute of Chicago.

How did you get your gig?

I was an art-world dropout who left New York City in the early 90s, disgusted with the art world I experienced there; I stumbled upon Burning Man in 1995 and was instantly at home, attracted to the intelligent, creative outsiders who were doing radical creative acts in the Black Rock Desert. As I had an art background (MFA Sculpture, School of the Art Institute of Chicago) I was hired by Larry Harvey in 1999 to run the new art grant program; for ten years I did that as well as several archival tasks, like starting our Material Culture archives and our (at the time) physical archive of press articles, books, and magazines.

 

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I’m not trained as an archivist; I developed my skills by doing, in an environment that encouraged outside-the-box thinking. I left in 2008 to work for an arts startup which ran out of funding, and did some independent curating but realized that I only wanted to work for Burning Man, so I returned in 2012 as the art collection curator and archivist.

Tell us about your organization.

That’s a BIG task; Burning Man is complex and layered; basically it’s a temporary community in the Black Rock Desert that lasts for eight days each year — a city of 80,000 people characterized by art, creativity, generosity, gifting, and radical inclusion. This year we had over 400 art installations, scattered across a flat, barren desert. We have an airport, medical services, a DMV (our Department of Mutant Vehicles), several radio stations, two newspapers, a center cafe and performance space, ice sales, and lots of portable toilets. We do not have stages, hire bands, or put on entertainment; our community brings its hundreds of interactive theme camps, costumes, performance, and art. As Larry Harvey, our founder, said, “We create the hive, the participants bring the honey.” But it doesn’t end there; we are actively engaged in bringing art from the desert to cities; in addition to our art grant program for work on the playa, the prehistoric lake bed where Burning Man takes place, we fund temporary interactive art all over the world via our Global Arts Grants. We now have Regional groups in 35 countries all over the world who put on their own versions of Burning Man, with our guidance; there are over 100 such events annually. Within the Burning Man Project are two groups that do good in the world year round: Burners Without Borders, a disaster relief organization that helps out wherever they’re needed, and began when Hurricane Katrina struck during Burning Man 2005; and Black Rock Labs, which originally gave free or low-cost solar panels to schools within the desert event site area.

 

Burning Man is guided by our Ten Principles:

  • Radical Inclusion
  • Gifting
  • Decommodification
  • Radical Self-Reliance
  • Communal Effort
  • Civic Responsibility
  • Leave No Trace
  • Participation
  • Immediacy

They were crafted not as a dictate of how people should be and act, but as a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture as it had organically developed since the event’s inception. We are a global community of creative souls, doers, makers, gifters, artists and free thinkers.

Describe your collections.

I manage five archives; our press archive is now created digitally via the Meltwater Feed, a service to which we subscribe. Each week I archive domestic and international press, YouTube videos and TV and radio spots; all of these files are stored digitally. We also archive a few hard copies of magazines when it’s beneficial to do so. The second archive I manage is our library; Burning Man has allowed me to release my inner librarian! There are now 175 books in our library; these are books entirely about Burning Man, or with significant content about us. Our library also contains many magazines which have featured us, including National Geographic, Raw Vision, Wired, Leonardo Journal, Time, Architectural Review, Smithsonian, Rolling Stone, Forbes and Art Forum.

Shelves, that look like cubbies, with books.

Burning Man Library.

The third archive is our Internal Print Production collection, which I started in 1999; it includes the materials we hand out to participants on arrival in Black Rock City —  a city map, our What Where When, a guide to all playa events; an art map, and some logistical information. Also in this archive are the dozen stickers we produce each year, based on a design contest that participants enter; postcards/posters for our local events; tickets; programs from our annual fundraising events; and years of annual journals which are no longer produced.

 

The fourth archive is our collection of photographs and videos; we have flat files full of photographic prints back to our first year, 1986, and a large collection of digital files. Our Documentation Team is given assignments and covers all aspects of the event and related events; these are submitted digitally. We have VHS tapes from the earlier years, which have been digitized, and many DVDs of more recent videos; all of these have been digitized and archived.

The fifth archive is our Regional Archive, which contains printed materials from the 100+ events that occur worldwide including Afrika Burn in South Africa, Mid-Burn in Israel, KiwiBurn in New Zealand, Tropical Burn in Brazil, and the original regional burn, Burning Flipside, in Austin, Texas. They produce an event map and guide, like Burning Man, and also stickers, buttons, t-shirts and other memorabilia.

A wall of images from the 1990s, depicting history of Burning Man. Includes magazine covers and photographs.

The History Wall – images from the 1990s.

Large painting by JennyBIrd Alcantara , small painting, center, by Josh Coffy, organ and sheet music from the Church Trap by Rebekkah Waites, 2013

Large painting (left) by JennyBIrd Alcantara , small painting (center), by Josh Coffy, organ and sheet music from the Church Trap by Rebekkah Waites (art installation to the right), 2013.

What are some challenges unique to your collections?

Much of Burning Man is ephemeral and experiential, living on in participants’ memories, and in videos and photographs. Some of the art installations are burned at the event, never to be seen again. We are fortunate in that the Nevada Museum of Art maintains an archive donated by one of our founders; they created a historical exhibit that was included in the Smithsonian’s wildly successful show, No Spectators, which traveled to the Cincinnati Museum of Art, where it broke all previous attendance records, and is now at the Oakland Museum of California. Artists were asked to create work for the exhibit, which also features films, photographs, jewelry, costumes and an outdoor Temple.

What is the favorite part of your job?

My favorite task is curating and producing art for our World Headquarters (HQ) in San Francisco. Each year, post-event, I identify the best photos of the most interesting art, and a local burner and muralist prints and mounts them for us. I also seek artifacts from art installations, posters and items from our theme camps, and gift items from the event. I design the displays at HQ, and hang the art. I co-wrote the book, Jewelry of Burning Man, and I have a travelling exhibit, Playa Made: Jewelry of Burning Man, which I guest curated for the Fuller Craft Museum near Boston, and which will open at the Bellevue Art Museum near Seattle, this January. Each year I create a display at HQ of the jewelry I collect on playa; I have a maker group of over 90 people, and we meet each year at the event. My jewelry collection goes back to 1995. My style of display is far from minimal; I like to cover every available space with the art and objects from our madly creative community.

 

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All photographs in this post courtesy of LadyBee.

Stay tuned for future posts in the “There’s an Archivist for That!” series, featuring stories on archivists working in places you might not expect. If you know of an archivist who fits this description or are yourself an archivist who fits this description, the editors would love to hear from you—share in the comments below or contact archivesaware@archivists.org to be interviewed for ArchivesAWARE!

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