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Tina Liu

Collective aims to build a cultural bridge between Burning Man and Chinese communities

on December 13, 2019

On Sundays, a woman wearing a red dress, a Chinese Lantern as a skirt and a golden hat adorned with two metal phoenix walks around the Oakland Museum’s “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” exhibition. She talks to people about the Burning Man experience and the underrepresentation of the international community, both at the festival and the exhibition. That woman is 50-year-old Tina Liu, the founder of Chinese Beyond Borders (CBB), an artists’ collective that found its inspiration through Burning Man and Chinese heritage. 

Burning Man is a week-long event where volunteers construct a temporary Metropoli with experimental art installations. It has 10 main principles: radical inclusion, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, gifting, decommodification, participation, immediacy and leave no trace. At the end, the installations and a wooden effigy are burnt. Every year, the festival, which began in 1986, draws around 70,000 people, each paying $425.

CBB aims to promote the cultural exchange between Burning Man and the Chinese community. The group creates “wearable sculptures” or “living pieces of art” that represent Chinese heritage. The architectonics designs—such as Chinese pagodas and palaces—and elements like lanterns have inspired the costumes. 

Liu created CBB in 2014, one year after she attended Burning Man for the first time, which she said changed her life.  Liu, who at the time was living in Taiwan, moved to Oakland just to be closer to the festival and its community. 

Liu has always been a creative person even if her professional career has taken a different direction. She attended boarding school in New Jersey and in Hawaii, then graduated from Cornell University. At the university, she learned about Chinese architecture and fell in love with its beauty. She decided to dedicate herself to cultural preservation and wanted to pursue a master’s degree in Chinese architectural history. Her father, however, wasn’t willing to support her financially, saying that she had to work for it or get married.

To pay for the program, she started teaching English to a hotel staff in Shanghai, China.  Five months later, she was hired as a public relations manager and communications manager. For the eight years that she lived in Shanghai, she pursued a marketing career and her dream of studying Chinese architecture wasn’t fulfilled. 

One day, Andre Nogues, a former classmate from Hawaii, contacted her through Facebook, inviting her to an annual meeting with the alumni. He offered her a place to stay and invited her to Burning Man. 

Before attending, Nogues and Liu stopped at a costume store to buy clothes for the event, the kind she normally wouldn’t wear. Because of how cold it was, she wore a jacket that kept her costume hidden, which made her feel like an “invisible tourist.” Just like a tourist, she took hundreds of pictures of everything around her. 

Still, Burning Man resonated. “That was my people and my world,” Liu said. “Creative people, unusual people. Those are the type of people I’m attracted to, but now I had found 60,000 of them.” 

After Liu watched the burning of the 40-foot wooden effigy for the first time in 2013, she didn’t want to go back to her normal life. “I had what they called a very serious decompression,” she said. “It’s what many Burners go through, which is the shock of returning to the mundane world that we live in after being in such a special place for a week. I had never been to a place like that. I was completely taken by it.” 

When Liu went back to Taiwan, she talked to Anita Lam, a professional designer and manufacturer based in Taiwan, who came up with the idea of creating a red lantern dress with scrap materials that she could wear at Burning Man the following year. Together, the duo decided to create a red dress so people could relate it to the Chinese Flag. “We wanted to have an iconic image that represents Chinese culture with just one look,” said Liu. 

The skirt has lights inside that glow like a traditional Chinese lantern. The lantern has a big yellow phoenix which Lam made with thread. The phoenix represents the name she gave herself during her second Burning Man: Phoenix Ashes. In the following years, the name changed to Jade Phoenix, then Jaded and Lantern Girl.

The following September, in 2014, Liu also took 15 people who had never visited Burning Man before with her. “They were from Taiwan, Singapore, China and New York. All Chinese, but living everywhere,” she said. They all created a Chinese themed camp, called “Chinese Beyond Borders.” (At the festival, camps are the spaces where attendants sleep and share facilities.)

After Liu’s second visit, CBB original members decided to transform the camp into a collective that creates Chinese art. The community, however, welcomes everyone who appreciates this form of art. “Anyone who loves Chinese culture are welcome to celebrate it with us,”  said Liu.

“I have seen very positive interactions,” said Tom Steele, a Burning Man collaborator for more than 20 years. “People are very creative, very special, very unique. People dress up with very general costumes, while Liu brings a cultural aspect of it. Really wanting to show people her culture and propagate that there are not so many Asian people at Burning Man.”

According to the Burning Man Census Population Analysis, 76.6 percent of event-goers are white/caucasian. The second most represented ethnicity is Asian, which makes up 5.8 percent of the attendees.

CBB isn’t the only collective promoting diversity. Que Viva is another camp of artists and activists that advocate for racial and socio-economic inclusion at the festival. They believe that radical inclusion, one of Burning Man’s principles, isn’t truly fulfilled. Que Viva is fighting for increasing the attendance of people of color at Burning Man and their representation in leadership positions. 

“Black people and other people of color are significantly underrepresented in this temporary desert city of 75,000 people. From 2013-2018, Black burners represented 1 percent or less of attendees,” wrote activist Favianna Rodríguez in a petition to the Burning Man board of directors. 

*****

In September, 2016, the third year Liu attended Burning Man, she married her husband Brian Krawitz in front of a 40-foot-tall structure that sculptor David Best designed. For the seven days of the event, she wore a white wedding dress. 

Liu and her husband are the brains of the concepts behind the pieces, but the dresses are designed by different seamstresses in Taiwan. Together, they created the Lantern Girls collection in which they created three other lantern pieces and invited more people to wear them. 

The Lantern Girls attend fashion and entertainment events, photo shoots and are more rarely hired as performers. As a Chinese tradition, Liu invites the collective’s members for dinner and pays their expenses. Other than designers and seamstresses, no other collaborator gets paid—unless someone hires the collective. 

“It’s a matter of relationship-building and community-building, rather than a straight paid off deal, which isn’t what Burning Man is about,” said Liu. “When I see talent, I encourage them and support them. And I do what I can to help them succeed.”

The collective doesn’t receive any external funding. Liu’s father supported her project for two years. For the next three years, her husband gave money for the collective until he lost his job. 

In 2017, Liu had a car accident that didn’t allow her to continue working at a global market research company. Since then, she’s been recovering on partial pay and working as a freelancer for other companies. “This is a typical Burner story. We sacrifice everything we have to create the arts and then it’s very difficult in the default world,” said Liu.  (The “default world” is what Burners call the world outside Burning Man.) 

*****

Liu wears the red lantern dress to the Oakland Museum to talk to visitors or “crash events,” as she calls it, where only museum members are invited. 

People look at her with surprise and admiration. Some think she’s a museum guide and asks her questions about the exhibition. Others think she’s the guard who stood outside the original piece at Burning Man. 

Liu answers every person’s questions with a smile on her face and asks them about their favorite piece in the exhibition. Then, she pulls out of a small pocket in her dress a red and gold envelope with Chinese drawings. Inside the envelope, there’s a sticker with CBB’s name and logo. Immediately after, she starts talking about the collective. 

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