When we talk about who is making art for an event, we often talk about “the crew.” The term “crew” sounds very organized and committed; I was always intimidated. Really, though, art crews are just some people working together for a specific project. They’re usually disorganized and rarely have that much commitment.
“Members” make totally unequal contributions. Some people do most of the job, some do a little, some do basically nothing, and some really make negative contributions slowing things down and making the final deliverable worse.
Usually very few workhorses do most of the work, but no one wants to say that aloud because it discourages the others. Groupies bring enthusiasm, spread the buzz, and cheerlead. There are various archetypal niches, some laid out by Chicken John in his Book of the Un.
This essay breaks down art crews into specific “aspects” or “properties” or “dimensions” by which you can compare them. For example, we know how to do this with restaurants when we talk about “service” vs “atmosphere” or “location.” For art crews, we are missing this vocabulary.
Context / Assumptions
This is another essay about festival art, so consider watching my 5 minute video introducing festival art.
COVID knocked us off our rhythm. Before COVID, people just did this stuff. They weren’t even sure why.
After COVID, we wonder “why bother?” In a sense, we’re really asking, “is there a better deal I could get on fun?”
We have less momentum, less enthusiasm, and less believers. We have more questioning and doubt.
But, really, not much has changed. The same deals are available as before.
Making a Better Nightlife
Often people imagine their art (made for an event) is a political intervention, is high art for the world to know about, or will change the world in some way
Instead, I’ll pursue the framing that these events are “nightlife” and that people like to have fun with their peers in a situation that has more production value.
Better sound, food, decor, outfits, and guest lists makes for a better experience. Bars are the boring flavor of nightlife. Have drinks with people you know, try talking to strangers but it fizzles.
People have their own taste in what makes an experience fun, some like the fanciest speakers, some like sports cars, some like mental stimulation or spiritual exploration. I am mostly into nightlife with activities I can do with friends that delight us, teach us, and help us build rapport with each other. By making art for events, we are being the fun we want to see in the world.
You Are Not a One Hit Wonder
Most artists produce many works and get zero hits. A “one hit wonder” had one huge hit, which is way better than average
If an artist makes 2 works per month for 50 years, that’s a bit more than 1000 pieces. Most will be forgotten soon. Some will be total flops. For a typical famous artist, only about 20 of these works gets attention, with maybe 100 having any real value. (Snoop Dogg has hundreds of songs but only maybe a dozen you’d recognize, and that’s one of the most successful artists of our era.)
Pieces that are not a “hit” are still usually worth doing. Sometimes for social reasons. Sometimes for personal reasons.
But it’s also necessary practice to improve as an artist. You have to learn new topics, techniques, and materials. You have to see what works. You won’t make a hit without making a lot of other stuff first. Good artists have big trash cans.
Don’t expect much more impact than making a really good dinner for your friends. It’s still fun!
Categories for Analysis of Art Crews
To talk about crews comparatively I want to depart from the syntagmatic anecdote of “here’s my story with an art crew” and explore the abstract syntax of art crews in general.
What are interesting aspects of art crews? How does a specific crew look when considered purely in terms of this dimension? What are trends within this dimension? Which dimensions are correlated?
Please note that you can do this for any topic, such as smartphones where we easily talk about battery life, storage capacity, memory, or camera quality. To view something in terms of specific aspects is a very common part of affecting a rational sound.
As an example for each aspect, I’ll use an old crew I co-founded called “Fool’s Errand.”
The name tested the hypothesis that “all of this art we make for events is a fool’s errand; this is literally a waste of time.” Living it, Fool’s Errand was strong! The benefits were clear and it wasn’t a waste of time at all. People made friends, fell in love, got support from peers, found motivation and meaning.
Where do you exhibit work?
Fool’s Errand mostly exhibited at Burning Man and the San Diego regional burn. Some pieces made it to Figment, a free participatory art event in the city.
I’m mostly interested in crews exhibiting in festival venues. Often a Burning Man crew will only work for Burning Man and then work to bring the same piece to some regional events. At other parties, they only want fresh material.
Venue is a huge factor for art crews, because the opportunity to exhibit for that venue is often what motivates people to join the crew. Sometimes you can pitch the crew on similar venues, but usually the team won’t try to stretch very far.
How many people are “in the crew”?
This is hard to measure. Is it “everyone on the mailing list” (or equivalent)? No, that’s more people than actually step up. Is it “everyone who did significant work for the project?” Probably a better way to measure.
Fool’s Errand was about 10 people. Bigger than 5, smaller than 20.
Groups tend to expand each year they are healthy and active. In my experience, they mostly wither due to inactivity or fall apart due to drama e.g. a schism where some key people leave the group or try to split from the group.
Where’s the money come from to do this work?
Producing art requires some money. Some mediums are more expensive than others.
Fool’s Errand was self-funded, by people with fairly low incomes. We worked in paper, cardboard, paint, and found materials. Some crews work mostly in LEDs, metal, or wood.
Most art crews in my corner of the world are funded by members with tech jobs and limited family responsibilities. They pay to play because what else are they going to do with the money, their talent, and their free time? For some, it’s a compelling hobby.
You could even see these art crews as outgrowths of this labor market mismatch that has some people getting paid so much. This has an implication for diversity. If people are joining their friends, who are doing a cool project, and the project relies ultimately on someone with a big paycheck, then you should expect income inequality to color the final guest list. This implies a problem for socioeconomic diversity, which doesn’t always imply a diversity problem for race, gender, or other dimensions.
Some crews use art grants. I’ve found that the grants never cover your overhead, so can help a little but are never sufficient for starting a group or maintaining it over the years. Art grants can get some people to join up who are not comfortable paying to play and can help crews upgrade their production value.
Why do you make art together?
Most people join an art crew to join a party crew. They want to go to the event, with some friends. They may want to belong generally, to start a romantic relationship with other members, or to pick up some habits from the group that they find admirable or fun. Many people come along for the ride, because they are dating someone in the group or are roommates or good friends with the others.
Fool’s Errand was mostly a party crew, but people got excited by the low-cost conceptual art and wanted to make their own piece. It was a great vibe, but never resulted in large-scale art or cohesive offerings, as the basic motivation wasn’t to make one amazing piece and no one did the project management to transform spontaneous art production (“I’m building a magnet table!”) into a unified project (“you’re responsible for the fake plants on the back wall”).
Many art crews in my world are really just motivated to share infrastructure together at Burning Man, where you can join the team and get a better shower and kitchen.
Those focused on diversity should also consider what motivates art crews, because “joining the team” could be helpful for recruitment, but tends to reflect existing social segregation. An art crew with another motivation might have better luck with diversity.
What are your usual mediums?
This is one of those properties where empirical data would be great to see. I suspect that most art crews use wood, graphic design, LED lights, found objects, hand crafting, and performance. Some use metal, electronics, software programming, food, or writing.
Fools’ Errand used the cheap stuff. Many crews take a pass at a thrift store when organizing art for an event, just to see what they can grab at a low price that might fit the aesthetic.
How do you store your art stuff?
Participants see the art on its special day, when it’s out for display and doing its best. But after you finish an art project, it has to be disposed of, sold off, or stored. Most groups store quite a bit of it, which is a hassle and the art is generally useless for all the days it’s in storage.
The more storage space you have, the better you can reuse elements over time, produce large volumes of work, and take advantage of long-lasting materials (such as metal vs hot glue).
Fool’s Errand used backyards and garages of some members with larger homes (and, relatedly, higher incomes). We didn’t store much and tried to keep our projects really simple so they’re easier to replace. However, when members looked into moving, they wanted storage so they could hold onto more art and art materials!
A larger crew I was in had a makerspace, which was a huge advantage and let us store and reuse many things, including a big art car.
How long does the group last?
Not that long. Data would help here, but I suspect most groups die fast, with maybe 5% making it to five years.
Fool’s Errand lasted about three years.
Of course this is hard to measure because of the “Ship of Theseus” problem that the members in the group change, implicitly changing the group.
What vibes does the crew’s work usually put out there?
This is a very vague aspect of an art crew, but some always go for majesty, beauty, sincerity, or something else particular. One crew I know makes deep, confusing, small-group experiences. Another does slimy fake corporations. Another does twee hipster acoustic stages.
Fool’s Errand aimed at absurdism, nonsense, fun, and carefree symbolic play. One project had a metal box labeled “Hornets: Do Not Kick” hanging from a tree in a perfect place for you to kick it. Do you believe it’s hornets? Do you think they’ll get out? Do you kick the box?
Art crews are globs of people that can be considered relative to a particular abstract aspect, such as “longevity.” By doing so, we can learn and think new thoughts.
I am optimistic that such an intellectual approach has value. I believe that people could better organize themselves into art crews to improve nightlife, and thus social life, for those around them. I think it’s doable.
Recently, I had the experience of working with some actual adults, with no connection to my party scene, who wanted to come play. They came to a meeting to learn, said what they wanted to do, checked in about materials and shared progress, then delivered projects, or explained clearly why they could not before the deadline.
This is very rare. Most participants say they want to join up for the project, make it to one meeting, suggest new directions that probably won’t work, then don’t work on the ideas and don’t communicate. They often expect to show up at the event, and still see themselves as part of the team. This is hard to work with. Quite often, we recruit people because they’re fun at a party, not because they are competent.
I hope that, by better understanding the properties of art crews, we can become better at managing specific art crews to deliver art. I really believe anyone can contribute.
It doesn’t take much to learn about a project, come up with one decent idea, then deliver on it. It feels great and helps others. Instead, I find that most people are pinned down by media companies such as Netflix and Facebook, which are intent on extracting their attention and selling it for the benefit of stockholders and board members who are not cool, do not live near you, and who you would not actually want to spend the idle moments of your life hanging out with.
So, ideally, they’d put down the phone and do a cool art project with their friends.
Are you in an art crew?
What venues do you exhibit in? What’s your size and funding? What motivates your people?
Take this easy survey to build up a stronger sample set! Let’s get more data and go further!
Special thanks to Naomi Most for accepting the original presentation at her summit and Elise Liu for refining the ideas later!