The Museum of No Spectators has finally come to life, after having been postponed during the pandemic. The original idea for this different type of gallery space for displaying art has remained true to the way in which it was first conceived by co-lead artists John Marx and J Absinthia Vermut.

Project Name: The Museum of No Spectators
Studio Name: John Marx AIA and J Absinthia Vermut
Team: John Marx AIA, J Absinthia Vermut

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The Museum of No Spectators emphasises inclusivity while moving away from “art as an elitist sport”. It challenges the notion that museums are neutral spaces for exhibiting what artists do. Although many museums are actively seeking change, many are still perceived as being exclusive.  The standing these institutions have in the art world can make it difficult to get away from the notion of “museum grade art” as being above all other art, yet anyone who has been to Burning Man will know that exceptional and powerful work is being created outside the museum context, some of it work that has a profound resonance with society, redefining our perception of what constitutes art.

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As an architect, John Marx wanted us to rethink the notion of art museums. So out on the dusty perimeter of Nevada’s Black Rock City, Marx and Vermut shaped a museum like no other. Marx describes the ideas behind this collaborative project,

“Burning Man as an event invites you to experience art as not just something you might appreciate passively, but as a joint enterprise that unleashes your own creative potential.  This is why Absinthia and I thought that a museum on the playa that encourages all ‘Burners’ to make works of art in an un-curated and spontaneous environment has been an ideal way to reconsider what museums can be. It also raises interesting questions around the Range of Cultural Inclusion and how this might impact society in general.”

The Museum of No Spectators picks up on the wholly participatory nature of Burning Man culture. This is in sharp contrast to the default museum experience of the visitor who “consumes” art through blockbuster shows. At The Museum of No Spectators, the visitor is no longer a consumer, but someone entering a radically inclusive space where the creative process is a key element in how the art is shared with others – an inherently de-commodifying experience.

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Marx summarises the design concept for the art and architecture project,

“As you approach this intriguing and mysterious building with its unusually shaped galleries, appearing part machine, part creature, part abstract and surrealistic form, it may present as a blank slate, with an expansive exterior, the letters spelling ‘Museum of No Spectators’ hovering above. Its dynamic shapes emerge as otherworldly yet grounded. It is waiting for you to approach and to become a part of it . . . to participate.”

As a counter to Banksy’s critique of modern museums’ emphasis on “exiting thru the gift shop”, Museum of No Spectators is a study in decommodification, participants will enter through the “Gifting Shop”, where we have changed the use of the word “shop” to mean “to make” instead of “to buy”.  Here ‘Burners’ have been encouraged to make a gift of their own art created on the spot before proceeding into the main museum. In this new type of museum, the art has changed constantly as ‘Burners’ have come and gone, each able to fulfil their potential as an artist. During Event Week, art continued to develop with ‘Burners’ radically self-expressing themselves by adding to or subtracting from existing pieces.

J Absinthia Vermut recounts the background to the project,

“The Museum of No Spectators came about as John and I were talking about the Burning Man exhibit at the Oakland Museum of the Arts. I had attended and loved seeing the art on the walls but, having lived in Oakland and attended Burning Man as long as I have, I knew a lot of artists were not included. Exiting through the gift shop where I saw items I had been gifted on the playa, commodifying them just didn’t align with Burning Man principles. Walking through a museum looking at someone else’s art was the definition of spectating. Which was okay, because we were not at Burning Man. But what if we were? What would that look like?”

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This question was answered in the 1400 square foot Museum built of tube steel frames and aluminum Dibond panels by a team of 30 volunteers at this year’s Burning Man event held August 28th- September 5th.

In 2020, the design team developed an interactive digital version of The Museum of No Spectators as part of Burning Man 2020’s digital events series.

The Museum of No Spectators has been made possible as the result of a fundraising drive.

About John Marx, AIA

John Marx, AIA, is Chief Artistic Officer of San Francisco-based Form4 Architecture, responsible for developing the firm’s design vision and language.  He advocates philosophy, art, and poetry in the thoughtful making of place through the compelling power of form, aware that architecture is a balancing act between self-expression and collaboration.  He believes great architecture is part intellectual and part emotional, and results in spaces that are contextually appropriate as well as emotionally inviting.  Marx is the author of Études: The Poetry of Dreams + Other Fragments (ORO Editions, 2020), a compilation of his watercolors and poetry, as well as The Absurdity of Beauty (The Architectural Review, 2018), a treatise on 2nd-Century Modernism.  He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

About Absinthia Vermut

Absinthia Vermut is an artist, businesswoman, and entrepreneur with a passion for making things.  She is CEO and Founder of Absinthia’s Bottled Spirits, makers of the woman-made and distilled award-winning Absinthia Organic Absinthe.  She is Co-Founder and COO of Nickel Dime, makers of four award-winning cocktail syrups.  Vermut has launched a podcast called “Absinthe: Education,” and is a member of the Women’s Cocktail Collective.  Absinthia’s Bottled Spirits is certified as a WBENC (woman owned business).  Vermut earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts from New York University and her MBA from Babson College, Wellesley, MA.


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