“If You Build It, They Will Come”

How one man, inspired by Burning Man, built a life-changing movement connecting art and community.

I believe that if you write down what you want to accomplish in your life, it is much, much more likely to happen. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been writing down my own goals and dreams. I’ve seen it happen: the act of putting pen to paper and finding words for ideas flips on some deep-rooted switch for action.

Start small and dream big!

Writing down my goals was how I jumped on a Greyhound bus at the age of 16, leaving upstate New York to explore America. It was how I eventually landed on the West Coast, moving from one job to another, setting bigger goals each time. It was how I went from working in restaurants to working in sales, from sales to business development in media and tech, all the while guided by these ever-changing goals, written on hundreds of pieces of paper. And it was how I found myself at the Burning Man Festival in 2003, inscribing another wish onto a scrap of paper:

“I will come back to Burning Man, and create a piece of art for this place.”

I know what you’re thinking. Burning Man: home of hippies having sun-soaked naked adventures, and Silicon Valley drug users letting off steam, romping across a vast swath of sun-baked, barren desert, full of RVs and a carnival aesthetic. But to me, the place was magic.

I had never seen art free from the constraints of ropes and guards. But at Burning Man, art was not just meant to be seen at a distance, but touched, climbed on, poked and prodded. I was inspired to make a piece of art here too, for the little boy in me who had never connected to the pull of gilded picture frames.

When I was growing up, I seldom went to art museums. To a hyperactive kid, the art hanging on gallery walls seemed static and unchanging. Those hushed realms felt exclusive, carefully partitioned off from the day to day reality of my culturally challenged childhood. The last art class I took was in the third grade. In many ways, I am the least likely person to tell you that art has some higher purpose. But that’s exactly what I’m about to say.

In the movie ‘Field Of Dreams’, a deep voice announces: “if you build it, they will come”. After writing down my goal at Burning Man, it took me years to come and build it, but in 2011, I finally did. In this case, my “art” was an eight foot square wooden box.

Inspired by its design, we hoped that ‘Burners’ would write down their goals and dreams on postcards, or ‘Wish-Sticks’, and drop them into slots in the box.

We named it the Life Cube Project.

The Life Cube, version one. Photo by Tom ONeill

If at first you don’t succeed…

Did you ever create something and know, right away, that it wasn’t your best work?

My first Life Cube was like that — disappointing in almost every way. It was clunky and corporate-looking, like a convention display booth splashed with an array of inspirational quotes — it had all the creativity of a self-help book. What I had made certainly wasn’t art, or at least it was not art in the way that I imagined it would be.

Our one saving grace were the Wish-Sticks. Just when I was ready to tear the Cube down and pretend it had never existed, a few friends asked if there were any extra postcards, and started passing them around. Soon, people started writing down what they wanted to accomplish in their lives, and bringing it to the Cube. I had tried to make a piece of art on my own, but it was the goals and dreams of others that had brought it to life.

The first Life Cube Wish-Sticks
That was when the truth hit me: I’m not an artist. I have always known that. It’s a fact that I’ve proclaimed with a certain degree of perverse anti-establishment pride time and again. So why did it come as such a shock?

That could have been the end, but a few months afterwards, I began getting calls and emails. The goals and dreams that people had written down were actually starting to happen! Something bigger than me was brewing, and it was pulling us back.

I realized an essential truth: the Cube wasn’t about me at all. Like a fire needs oxygen, the Life Cube needed community to live.

Connecting art + community

So we went back to Burning Man, and tried once more. And the year after that, we went back again. Each time, we redesigned it from the ground up, making the project bigger, more creative, and more interactive. We went from a four person team, to 30, to 55, to over 150 volunteers; a crazy mix of artists, builders, planners, and dreamers, young and old.

In 2013 we assembled our biggest crew of ‘Cube-ists’ yet, to create a Life Cube three stories high! Its new design featured posts and pillars, climbable stairways, multiple platforms, interactive write-boards and live-painted murals. People came from across the Festival to paint on the giant wooden canvas we had gifted to them. For a week, there was no distinction between artist and observer. All were welcome to create.

Artists the world over contributed art that we curated and compiled into a gigantic, collaborative Tapestry Wall, twenty-four feet high.

The Tapestry Wall on the Life Cube at Burning Man, 2013 Photo by Tomas Loewy
When the Cube burned, thousands gathered to watch the flames and witness all those goals, dreams, wishes, and aspirations go up into the universe.

My Wish-Stick in the ashes. Photo by Madeleine Cohen
As the structure collapsed on itself in a blaze of ash and glory, I wrote yet another wish on a scrap of paper, and added it to the embers:

“Take the Cube to a city or museum around the world.”

Shortly after that, I read about Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, and the movement he initiated to bring positive change to Downtown Las Vegas. I was immediately drawn to his vision of creating spaces for communities to connect and create. We submitted a proposal to the folks at the Downtown Project in Las Vegas, thinking that nothing would come of it.

But I was wrong: they loved the project.

What happens in Vegas…

And so, that was how I ended up in Downtown Las Vegas in 2014, with an entire city block at my disposal and absolutely no idea what I was doing. With exactly one muralist committed to the project, we began to build the Cube. And as we built it, something almost otherworldly happened: they began to come.

The Life Cube for Downtown Las Vegas, 2014. Photo by Nancy Good
But the people who came weren’t just artists. They were mothers and fathers. They were children. They were regulars at the local bar. They were downtown employees coming on lunch breaks. Teachers brought their students, and painters brought their friends. At sunrise, people practiced yoga, and at dusk they brought their instruments to play. At night we lit bonfires, and watched as limos pulled up, carrying Vegas millionaires who sat side by side at those same fires with homeless men and women looking for warmth and companionship. Just as before, the Cube was open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week so that everyone could participate whenever and however it suited them.

The Life Cube artist on a school visit in 2016. Photo by Christina Hurt
I spoke to thousands of kids about writing down their goals, dreams, wishes and aspirations, and connecting art and community. We gifted smaller Satellite Cubes, art materials and free Wish-Sticks to every student at each school we visited.

Suddenly the Life Cube was no longer just an art project. It had become its own experiment in radical inclusivity.

Social practice art

Art has always been a mystery to me. On the rare instances when I would go to galleries, it was always the finished product on display, not the process. But at the Cube, I would spend days and nights watching art being created, moving from mind to hand to canvas.

On the last night of the project in Las Vegas, the Life Cube burned in a fiery blaze of lights and music. All that was left were the enduring connections made between the members of this vibrant community, some photos, lots of stories and a small pile of ashes.

As I stood sweeping up debris as the sun rose, a man approached and asked:

“Hey, are you the artist?”

“Sure,” I replied.

“I’ve lived in this city my whole life,” he said, “And you never get that many people together here without arrests or trouble. Seriously. It was amazing. Tonight there were gang members and there were homeless people and there were kids and there were Burners and there were families and people from the military. But there were no fights. Everyone was just here for this.”

The Life Cube burns in Downtown Las Vegas, 2014. Photo by Justin Tyler Gines
Like I said, I may be the least likely person to tell you that art can really do much of anything.

But that night, I wrote one more wish and placed it in the Cube before it went up in flames:

“Take the Life Cube across America. Then take it around the world.”

I don’t know when it will happen, but I have a feeling that it will. There are too many people out there yearning for connection. Art may not be able to save the world, but it’s not a half bad place to start.

“Dream” art from the Life Cube in DTLV, 2014. Photo by Madeleine Cohen

The Life Cube Project Team is starting to look at cities in America and around the world for the next Cube installation. If you have thoughts, we’d love to hear from you.
Original article posted with photos on Medium at https://medium.com/bman/medium1-f2247900b266
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Scott Cohen

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