Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Bowl Full of Problems

Since we're on the subject of Burning Man, I thought I'd share an art project I once did there that recently came to mind.

One of the rules for Burning Man is that everyone must participate in the community to some degree. While looking back, I realize that sacrificing my two-week vacation by volunteering my time as the managing editor of the daily newspaper--created and published in real time in the desert--was more than enough participation. At the time, I didn't think so. One of my dream jobs is that of a conceptual artist, the most existential of arts, and I decided to create my first conceptual art piece: Problem Exchange. 

Here is how it worked: People would write a problem they had on a piece of paper, fold it, and put it in the bowl, thereby ridding themselves of that problem forever. They would then take out someone else's--thereby maintaining life's delicate balance. The vision was that the problem they traded theirs for was not quite as serious as the one they got rid of. Or they would get a really serious one which would lead them to realize that theirs wasn't so bad after all. Or they would simply gain insight into the human condition.

I started things off by putting my problem in the bowl: "I can't get my boyfriend to stop needing me to need him," or something like that. Yes, at the time I thought this was a problem.

People seemed to like this concept. Needless to say, many burners (as Burning Man participants are called) were too happy to leave their problems without picking someone else's, thus upsetting world balance. At the end of the week, I ended up with a bowl full of problems.

Some were very real, such as the fear of foreclosure, or a loved family member with a serious illness. Interestingly, most of the problems centered around the theme of isolation and loneliness, particularly for first-time burners. A few people needed a ride home. Some had a friend or a partner who disappeared into the undulating masses of the event and couldn't find them again. (I wasn't worried about these.) Of course there were those who were disappointed to find that Burning Man was not the drug-fueled orgy they had expected it to be. Most, however, revealed a real and intimate view into their lives. I was surprised by how candid people were.

Save for a nice glass of Cabernet and a slice of anchovy-caper bruchetta, I'd much rather sit on my couch and read the intimate details of strangers' problems than endure the mind-numbing repetition of cocktail party small talk.

There was something satisfying about feeling so close to these people--whom I'd never met. And I felt a strong connection to humanity. Also, as I read these problems, I realized how little of life I had actually experienced, and I was grateful. I kept these problems for a long time, and I hoped that things had worked out for those folks.

As I continue my quest for "the real" (see the entry: Biting the Hand that Feed Me), I realize I had truly found it in that bowl full of problems.


  1. I am so enjoying your blog! There are some deep things here for my brain to chew on. Er, so to speak. I guess I think in terms of food all the time. Which is why, perhaps, a bowl of problems appeals to me. (Although I'm relieved I can't really eat my words. They would no doubt impart a lingering taste.)

    Thank you for sharing this thought of problems being part of the Real. No one wants problems to be part of life, but they are, and it would help us survive them to embrace them as what makes each of us unique.

  2. I am reminded of the Richard Farina song "Pack Up Your Sorrows (and give them all to me)." How truly artistic to transform problems in this way. What if problem bowls were as ubiquitous as pay phones used to be?