For Ben Morieson's Burnout 2001 eight drivers performed a choreographed display of manoeuvres in customized cars, culminating in a giant 'drawing' made from indelible rubber streaks - or 'burnouts'. Staged in a barren docklands precinct, a sizeable audience huddled onto the stadium seats that surrounded a car park. Orange plastic flags fluttered nervously in a feral wind, an ambulance stood by, and personal safety equipment - nose masks, ear plugs and refresher towels - was supplied in a complementary show-bag. There was something tantalizingly illicit about the whole scene, a sense that we were all somehow complicit. It recalled James Dean's fatal car accident as re-enacted in Crash (1996).
Perhaps what made Burnout 2001 one of Melbourne's most anticipated events is that artist and organizer Morieson is also a TV art director. Promotion was perfectly gratuitous - art, music, adrenaline, noise and smoke were guaranteed to be a winning combination. Models had been pre-exhibited, ads placed, and since the event was also featured in non-art circles such as car magazines and the daily press, suburban rev-heads and their cap-wearing families mingled in unusually close proximity to art lovers. Everyone arrived on a bizarre Sunday afternoon for the democratic pleasure of watching a spectacle of beefed-up cars.
Seven men and one woman demonstrated their craft, one after another. They edged out in cars ranging from a ridiculous tractor-like 'Mad Max' to an unassuming 1960s willow green runabout. The cars purred and groaned, the smoke billowed, and tyres disintegrated. Occasionally, they seemed to veer out of control. But for the most part, the drivers were too skilled, remarkably restrained in planting their spirals of sickly smelling rubber. After a few minutes of controlled accelerator-handbrake action, the cars limped off-stage.
Mediated to the point of parody, the spectacle had its own internal feedback. A photographer in a sky-high cherry picker took stage-by-stage images of the 'drawing' as it formed, which were sent down to a computer, printed out and distributed to the audience for driver's autographs. In addition, Burnout 2001 was accompanied by a website with a live webcam, apparently now de rigueur for large-scale events.
Burnout 2001 was laced with the familiar strategies of avant-garde estrangement - the sort of disproportion, frivolity, nonsense and fantastic uselessness of which art is supremely capable. Thus a group of white lab-coated figures who flocked onto the asphalt after each burnout to collect samples of smoke and carbon rubber residue turned out to be a parasitic group of artists calling themselves the Pedagogical Vehicle Project - selling $1.50 deals of a doughnut and a vial of smoke at their white van.
This was art-as-entertainment at its finest, a family occasion à la Don DeLillo, a live, potentially disastrous spectacle available for collective experience. But more than an exercise in the abstract conferral of art value upon a mass audience, Burnout 2001 was an attempt to translate art sentiments into a kind of earnest homage to the expressions of street culture.
Morieson has previously demonstrated his fascination with what he calls 'gestures of territorial sovereignty' in a gallery exhibition, featuring slabs of tyre-marked asphalt, framed in timber map drawers. At the live event a commentator performed the work of framing, trying desperately to reconcile art with what was going on - with repetitive analogies of the burnout track to a canvas, obsessive references to the 'deft brushstrokes' of the driver-artists and other painfully ironic plays on the rhetoric of Modernist painting. There was something uncomfortably tragic about this effort to reconcile art with artistry, the art world with the public, and one can only wonder what the 'real' car lovers made of the insipid high art pretensions. Even as we might read the misplaced commentary as a comic testament to the openness of interpretation and inadequacy of any one language in the face of an event, it felt as much like a funeral for burnt-out art-speak than a social innovation.
So there it was: the stage-managed 'concrete canvas' took shape as an impressively dense set of squiggles and spins. Burnout 2001 was a success. Within days it was reported that Morieson was contacted by a member of the Guinness World Records team, who proposed a record for the 'largest drawing produced by tyre marks'. More PR art stuntery or reality - who can say?