Interesting question. Do they, go on package tours? I should think not. If one calls one self an artist, and the title is highly contentious, then you can be sure they don’t relax in the way stressed-out office workers relax. They tend to be dubious of anything that manages their entertainment for them.
Burnout 2016 gave an indication of how artists spend their holidays. For some artists, their career is bound up with festivals and gigs. Their work, while not 9 to 5, entails chasing those slippery jobs that present themselves through promoters and curators. They put great efforts into putting something together for the punters. It could be a fire sculpture; it could be a burlesque performance or some form of intricate installation. Working as an artist is to put all your efforts on the line to get creations out there, to get a response. Going on holiday on the other hand is when you get the chance to do your shit without the pressure and distraction of the crowd. Where no one sees what you are doing except for a handful of other artists. Going holiday is an opportunity to workshop your ideas in a laboratory of your choosing.
Burnout is just this type of holiday village. It is quite literally an empty canvas where creations appear and function for no-body except for the person who makes it. Of course, there are other viewers present but they seem to take on the role of voyeurs. In the case of Burnout, the long skinny site is right next to an outback road, which is travelled by quite a lot of tourists and the occasional road train. The truckies blare their horns to get attention but the tourists, as they are wont to do, stop to look at what’s going on at the location. Most years there is nothing to see except for some enigmatic assemblages that creak and groan in the wind but every few years or so that changes.
Like so much detritus in the bush, these relics are slowly decaying into the sand. They follow the course of every other industrial imposition on the landscape from railway tracks to fence lines, from stone out-stations to redundant water tanks. A patina of rust wearies them and birds make nests in their remains. But every so often artists come out to visit their old creations or build new objects on site.
Others bring their music and lights, dragging them along the Oonadatta Track like some contemporary Bourke and Will exploration team; their cars overloaded with heavy and cumbersome sound devices, guitars and records, cables, generators and reams of stage equipment. They come and plug in, tune up and in an odd way, drop out. For several weeks they hang about at Mutonia doing not much at all. Every so often a vehicle departs for nearby Maree for beer or a home made sausage roll with relish.
For the retiree travelers that normally venture out here, the apparition of a somewhat motley collection of vehicles congregated around an old railway bed and scattered out across the plains is a very odd sight indeed. They stop, get out of their trucks, stretch their legs and pop into the caravan to make a cup of tea. With their beverage in one hand and a camera in the other, they stand there and marvel at this odd sight. A vista of expensive equipment scattered around old relics, tents and various smoky camps.
On their maps the site is listed as Mutonia or simply Plane Henge. A title that conveys little more than that of any listed ruin or attractions. The eponymous planes live up to their name but what about the large wooden structure that looks curiously fresh? What about the speaker boxes dispersed up and down the verge of land? What are those white towers with lpg bottles hanging off them? There are no clear answers with no-one around to answer any questions. What’s more, the entire display sits behind a fence, there is a gate with a piece of wire strung across it and a tattered sign saying something about the site being subject to Arabunna love but that’s about it. Some of the braver tourists slip under the wire and walk through the site taking pictures of the various ‘exhibits’ but they are definitely in the minority. Most just cluster at the boundary fence, ponder on what’s going on inside then get back in their rigs drive away to somewhere more inviting such as Farina a little further up the road.
You see, Mutonia is not really a pleasant place to hang out. It is a very exposed area of land, little tree cover and on most days beset by a relentless wind that blasts through campsites seeking to bury anything exposed. It forces all visitors to find shelter or wrap themselves up in scarves and goggles to get around until it dies down. Then the cold sets in. Once the weak winter sun drop behind the horizon in a blaze of purple, orange and red, the temperature quickly drops making any evening reverie of the stars twinkling like dandruff on a black velvet cloak, something only to be done around a campfire. However there is very limited supplies of firewood and to get it, one has to travel for kilometers up and down the track. Many campers don’t have much of it so give up and go to bed quite early. It is the only place at the sculpture park where you can get warm and stay warm. Oh yes, there isn’t any water except for artesian and not everyone likes it for their instant coffee.
There are definitely more pleasant places to stay. However artists on holiday are not looking for the easy option. If anyone were looking for an easy option through life they would not be doing art. Art needs adversity; it needs challenges, so the harsh climate of Alberrie Creek upon whose sandy banks Mutonia exists is perfect. But wait, there is a little more to this than a Bear Grills themed artist retreat.
Creators have been coming to this particular area for greater reasons then to merely get tough. They come because the Arabunna people, upon whose land Burnout happens, invited them to be there. They have been coming and going for nearly a generation and they continue to return to this day because many of the artists have a very close relationship with the owners. They have learned from them, they have shared conversations and a roasted ‘roo out of the campfire. In the process their works have been infused with the totems and dreamtime stories that make up the worldview of the Arabunna.
They put up with all the deprivations that come with such a harsh environment not because they are just looking for a place to camp in the great out doors, but because they seek to imbue their creations with a meaning that cannot be simply placed upon it like a label in a gallery. There are many examples of this throughout the world. The idea of a festival or colony for artists has been around as long as there have been people who make things for no other reason then to embody an abstract idea.
Burnout is yet another continuation of those type of festivals. However, its distance from Australian major capital cities is immense and to go to this gathering is to make a commitment that not many are prepared to make. Most other artist’s festivals around the globe play on their closeness to nature or removal from the urban but nonetheless they tend to be rather close to big centers. Burnout on the other hand is remote. Marree is the closest town but the nearest real city of any import is Port Augusta a mere 430 kilometers south. Its isolation serves as a filter and those that make the trip have to be pretty committed to the Burnout ideal.
Ideals aside, the result on the ground is spectacular. You have great monuments burnt to the ground, you have musicians playing their hearts out, there are designers at work creating temporal images on the scree, lights shows and fires shows illuminate the sky, Dj’s belt out sonic explorations and for who? No one. It is a giddying sensation to bear witness to such explorations in artistic folly, to know that if you were to see this at an east coast event you would be most likely be paying hundreds of dollars for the privilege. And yet here it all is, out on the empty plains, churning away for its own sake. There can be no greater expression in artistic practice then to make it so without the hoard to give it legitimacy. But that’s why artists go on holiday; to make art for arts sake alone.