London BRC is an ambitious project that aims to bring London’s most iconic structures to the playa in a symbolic representation of the human brain. When I first heard about it I thought it might be a little too ambitous to be realistic, but I dug around a bit and discovered that the project does enjoy support and participation from some known top players in the burner industrial arts scene in Reno and elsewhere. . . people who can and will, if anyone can.
I met with Alan McCann in Reno over coffee to talk about his vision and how he plans on bringing it into the world. Elizabeth Levine joined us via video conferencing.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: How did you get involved in Burning Man, Alan?
ALAN McCANN: My history with Burning Man is a brief story indeed.
Some friends of mine who I work with in the music industry have been going to Burning Man for nine, maybe ten years. I tour as a live sound engineer with bands, and I’ve been doing that for the last twenty years. When that time of the year rolled ’round, my friend Dave was always breaking away from the tour to go to Burning Man, then rejoining the tour. . . and I couldn’t imagine what he was doing, or what it was about Burning Man, because we spent our lives at festivals.
WTP: How could it be better than the tour, right?
AM: The thought of going to a festival for recreational purposes when we spent our entire working lives at festivals was unusual to me, to say the least.
Early in 2012, I had quite a severe illness in my legs. I went to Australia and got bitten by a spider. Apparently, the bacteria on the spider’s fangs went straight to my legs; I couldn’t walk for a month. I was on my back the whole time, in the worst pain I’ve ever experienced in my life. When I came out of that, I just felt very low, very down.
The rest of the year went by and Burning Man time was coming again, and I told Dave “hey, I don’t really feel like being in England right now, is there anything for me to do here? Do you want me to babysit your house while you’re in the desert?” and Dave said “sure, come on over.”
When I showed up there was a tent, a sleeping bag, a bike, and a ticket waiting for me. Not what I was expecting at all.
WTP: What could you do? You were surrounded. That’s a good friend!
Obviously I had no idea what to expect, at all. They set up camp, and basically just told me “there’s your bike, we recommend you just take yourself out and see what you see.”
That first day I was out for something like twelve hours, just wandering around, looking at the art pieces. . . and interestingly enough, but I had been told “when you go, you’re not going to believe how different it is from any other festival you’ve been to, because people are going to hug you and talk to you and you’ll meet so many people.” I didn’t speak to a soul. Absolutely nobody. I was like a ghost on my bicycle riding through it all. . . and I really liked it; it was great.
My friends went off and did the things they usually do, and after three or four days of being quite taken aback by all the artwork I was seeing in this sort of Mad Max world I’d been thrust into, I got off my bike one day and sat on the playa, and suddenly realized that all the stuff that I didn’t want to go back to in the UK was still going to be waiting for me when I went back, even though I was in this escapist world where you could filter out all your real problems. All these issues just came flooding back into my head and threatened to put a huge downer on the rest of the week.
WTP: You suddenly realized that you hadn’t escaped, you’d just gone on vacation.
So I was looking at the floor, at the cracked surface of the playa, and as I looked up and saw all the art pieces, everything I’d been told was going through my head, about how it’s all going to burn, it all has to disappear, and everything has to go back to just the blank canvas of the playa, with nothing left there at all. I thought it was really interesting that all these people who put so much passion and energy and creativity into all these art pieces were quite happy to just burn them after a week, and never see them again.
That thought instantly related to all the problems and issues that I was having in my life, and just my past in general, and I suddenly felt as though I was balancing on this big pile of jagged boxes with sharp edges, and each of the boxes was something in my past that didn’t really need to be there. I realized that I was concentrating more on keeping my balance on this shifting pile of troubles and past experiences than I was on what was going on around me. It occurred to me that if these people at Burning Man could put all that effort and passion into something and then just get rid of it, there was no reason I couldn’t do that with all the baggage of my past, good or bad, and just go back to a blank canvas again.
WTP: Like the monks that make the sand mandalas.
AM: It was a great message for me to receive, this sort of focus on non-attachment to all these issues and concerns in the back of your head. I mean, your past shapes what you are, but you don’t have to keep going back to it and being held back by it.
When I was sixteen, I was very creative and kept busy all the time, drawing, making things, building things, I loved it. . . but I found that as you get into adult life, that part of your brain gets turned off because you have to do adult stuff. I started a film company and started making experimental films and music videos, and then went straight into the music industry, touring. I just never had a chance to do any of that stuff anymore. . . and it was that part of my brain that just sort of exploded out there on the playa, sitting there and contemplating this vast recently-blank canvas that would soon be blank again. It was like I’d taken some incredible drug that hasn’t been invented yet; all these ideas came flooding into my head.
I felt like nobody would take me seriously, though. I mean, this was my first burn, I wasn’t supposed to be thinking about what I was going to be building out there.
We came back to Reno, and one of my friends was telling me about working on some art cars, and he said he would love to build something out there, something a bit heftier. I didn’t expect him to go for it, but I threw my idea out there, and he leaped at it. It was just the House of Commons at first, but within ten minutes we were fleshing it out, and it evolved into the Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, all the rooms started getting thrown in there. We had a meeting with some other friends and pitched the idea to them, and again I was thinking maybe it was a little too big. . . but they all said yes, fantastic, let’s build it.
Since that moment, I’ve done nothing but work on the project.
WTP: What about you, Elizabeth? How did you get involved with Burning Man?
ELIZABETH LEVINE: I’ve actually never been to Burning Man. I am the virgin burner of the group; Alan and I started dating shortly before he went to Burning Man, and he came here after he got back from Reno with all these ideas flowing. Seeing someone who I care so deeply about so profoundly affected by such a singular experience. . . I mean, he was drawing, he was engaged. We had a whiteboard in the living room; there were pages all over the floor. Things were just pouring out of him every day, and he was happy! Not that he was unhappy before, I just think that he had never had that part of him really awake and alive before he went to Burning Man. I figured, if Burning Man can do that to someone with just one experience, I couldn’t not be involved.
WTP: It’s transformative for a lot of people. You’re coming this year, right?
EL: Oh yeah! I have to make sure everything gets done!
AM: Beth is my “admin angel” as we call her.
EL: My background is that I grew up in New Jersey and Santa Barbara, went to college back East to study English Lit, and moved to Texas about ten years ago. I do college recruting on campuses, and work for the Man (the other Man) at an investment bank. I used to do a lot of charity work in Houston for Alzheimer’s, so I have some background in fundraising and in some of the administrative side of running a big project.
My role, pretty much, is to be the ball-buster.
AM: I’ll vouch for that.
WTP: I’ll keep mine covered. . . welcome to the community! Tell me about the project itself.
AM: Three structures, four segments. The House of Parliament will be eighty feet long, forty feet wide, and thirty-two feet high. It’ll have four floors, with one or two rooms on each floor. . . things like a TV media room, joke room, alehouse, cinema, etc., all kinds of different things to experience. Attached to that will be an open-plan version of the House of Commons, with all the pews, the green leather, Speaker’s chair, and unlike the real House of Commons, a balcony all the way ’round on the inside. I really like the idea of the discussions going on and people sitting ’round, hanging on this balcony, legs dangling down, just having a good time and listening in.
WTP: The peanut gallery.
AM: Yeah. So we plan on having planned debates; a chalkboard outside spelling out what people can talk about today, and open forums with nothing going on where you can strike up any debate you want.
Attached to the House of Parliament will be the Tower Bridge; fifty-two feet long, thirty-two feet high. The Bridge will open at certain points, at specific times of the day, for health and safety reasons.
WTP: Safety third! Not fourth, not fifth.
AM: So that will open up, and we want art cars to drive through it at certain points of the day. When it’s not open, the whole Bridge will be a platform for live performance artists, or anything you want to do. So you can basically walk out from the House of Commons, straight across the Bridge, straight into the Tower of London, which again, is thirty-two feet high, four floors, full of rooms. The very top of that will be an open-plan viewing platform which is 1600 square feet. And up there will be sofas and tables and chairs so you can dance, chill out, relax, whatever.
I’m also toying with the idea of putting a lift in both buildings. Some people have commented on the website that we should have disabled access. I thought “hmm, that would be quite a cool thing to do.” Especially with the viewing platform where you can just go and sit there and watch everything. I’ve already pretty much drawn out how I’m going to do it. . . it should be pretty easy to do; quarter-ton chain hoists with a motor, perhaps, and a wooden cage that goes up. So I’m toying with the idea of a lift.
EL: Has he told you at all about the rest of the team we’ve brought onboard? That’s one of the things that’s been kind of fascinating to me about the project, is that it’s appealing to long-time burners, and also people who’ve never gone to Burning Man. I was telling Alan, I went to a lunch today full of people who’ve never been, and they were getting online, watching videos, checking things out, and getting excited about something that they might not have touched that could then forever change their lives.
It’s really important to us to have people involved who have been there a long time, and then provide a really open environment for newbies to also get involved, so you kind of have that collaboration between the two. Even in our core group we’ve got some long-time burners, and then we’ve got some people who have always wanted to go, always wanted to get involved, but never really found the opening. . . this gives us a really good opportunity to provide that.
WTP: Have you fleshed out your crew yet, or are you still looking for skilled laborers?
EL: I think at the higher levels we’re doing OK; we’ve got three engineers on board, two structural and one electrical; we’ve got a lead carpenter; we’re about to nail down an on-playa build supervisor, and then a project coordinator in Reno, because someone really needs to be there on the ground doing that. We’re working on fleshing out the PR and fundraising side, which is my end, ’cause from what I understand we’ll need quite a few people to do that, and it’s going to be a full-time job. It needs to be out there in the stratosphere, all the time. We’ve got our art department lined up as far as decorating, and I think we’re currently working on some transportation personnel. Obviously, we’re also going to need a large group of volunteers later on.
WTP: How are you doing your fundraising?
EL: Right now we’re working with Please Fund Us (http://www.pleasefund.us) in the UK. We did a very kind of soft, under-the-radar sort of thing with them, just to kind of get our feet wet and test the waters, find out what kind of swag is popular, and so on. This was right before Kickstarter launched their UK site; since Please Fund Us is sort of the underdog, they really work closely with you. They call us, do conference calls, and give us a lot of hands-on helping.
We filed for non-profit status in Nevada in October, and we applied for fiscal sponsorship from Fractured Atlas (http://www.fracturedatlas.org). A couple of other projects have done that in the past and it was recommended to me as a way of falling under their umbrella and getting tax exemptions on our donations. We’re going to apply for our grants hopefully in the second or third week of January, ’cause I’d like to be early with that, and then the plan is to either launch a Kickstarter or an Indiegogo campaign; I’m kind of weighing the two right now. Kickstarter is very Burning Man heavy, but some of the people doing fundraising for some of the larger projects last year told me they feel safer going big on Indiegogo, because it’s not an all-or-nothing platform, and then doing very intense but localized Kickstarter campaigns, because they feel more confident of getting the full funding. Especially with the Reno crowd, because they tend to come into it kind of late in the game.
WTP: Tell me a little more about the artistic concept of what you’re doing. Why these particular buildings? How do they relate to Burning Man, to the world, to your audience?
AM: Initially, I can’t even tell you why it was the London structures at all; it literally just came into my mind. Once I had the basic idea, it just snowballed very easily and progressively and grew into what it is now.
There are more things I’m building into the structure which sort of accentuate this, but if you look at the two buildings and the bridge, they also could represent the left and right hemispheres of the brain, with the Bridge as the corpus callosum between them.
WTP: So London BRC will have a sort of logical, rational, orderly area, and a sort of crazy, artistic, inventive side?
AM: Yes, that is one of the main things I’m exploring with it. The other thing that is worth mentioning is that even though the title that is going out to the world is “London BRC,” the real title for me is “One of Seven.” My plan is to do another six pieces out there, which all go together. You won’t really see what the whole story is, until you experience number seven.
WTP: It seems like the Pier is doing something similar. I’m not privy to their plans or anything, but they seem to be adding something every year and I’m really looking forward to seeing where they go with that. They’re an incredible crew; the ship they did for 2012 was amazing.
AM: Oh, yeah! Absolutely perfect!
We’ve actually sorted out a lot of the. . . not failure stories, but what went wrong with other projects. We both felt very early on that if we study these problems, we can address them in our own project before they become an issue. We actually went looking for those “what went wrong” stories, and tried to figure out why it went wrong.
WTP: It’s a wise person who learns from the experiences of others.
AM: My basic premise is, when we get there I want to build the whole thing and hardly have Burning Man know we’re there. I want a very small footprint and no drama whatsoever, sand storms aside, obviously. I want it to go up so smoothly that people just look at it and go “when exactly did you build this?”
WTP: This being One of Seven, I assume you’ve got some overarching message or meaning to it that’s going to reveal itself in the fullness of time?
AM: Note that our crew is called “the Enigma Crew.” When you go into the buildings, no matter how long you spend in there, you won’t see everything there is to see in there, because we won’t let you. There are certain things that will be hidden, and we’ll open rooms and show you things as the week goes on. There’ll be something new to find out every day.
WTP: Sort of the subconscious of the Parliament of the mind. Getting to know thyself.
AM: And getting to know the crew behind the build, as well, in a very personal way. That’s going to be an essential part of what’s inside the buildings.
So hopefully, after the final project, people who are interested in Enigma Crew and what we’re doing will start to figure out where it’s going and why it’s going there. If we do get a chance to follow up London BRC with another project, there will always be clues in one project telling you what the next one will be, and looking back at the previous one as well.
WTP: It sounds like you’re externalizing a human mind, in the long term. . . that’s a complicated, wonderful, but also frightening and dangerous place.
AM: When you look at a piece of art, say a painting, you can either have an emotional response to it, where you go “it makes me really happy,” or really sad, or whatever, and you can take that feeling away. . . or you can go to a piece that maybe isn’t that artistically good, but you look at it and go “Wot? What is that all about?”
WTP: Like Duchamp’s urinal.
AM: We’re putting a lot of visual detail into this thing as well, making it look very very interesting. As an art piece and a sculpture it will be visually quite arresting and hold many things to discover.
WTP: But your goal is mainly to make people think, not just to give them eye candy.
WTP: Thanks to both of you, and good luck!
Until their US crowdfunding campaign begins, you can donate to the London BRC project at http://www.pleasefund.us/projects/londonbrc-project