Burners Invade Downtown Las Vegas

Tony Hsieh is the founder of online commerce mega-site Zappo’s. He’s also a Burner, and he’s been working with Marion Goodell and the Burning Man Project to bring Burning Man Art to Downtown Vegas. Here’s the latest story from the Las Vegas Review Journal:

If you love radical self-expression and huge, outlandish sculptures but hate getting dirty in hard-to-reach places, you’re in luck.

The Downtown Project, brainchild of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, recently signed a deal to bring elaborate sculptures and other artwork from Northern Nevada’s Burning Man festival for display in Las Vegas.

It’s an attempt to infuse Hsieh’s community-building project with the artistic sensibility of Burning Man, an annual event that draws as many as 60,000 people to a dry lake bed in the Black Rock Desert.

“Tony asked them to submit anything from small projects to large projects, but he likes fire,” said Mimi Pham, a Downtown Project contractor who has worked with Hsieh on personal projects for eight years.

At first glance the partnership between Burning Man, which is best known for bending virtually all conventions, seems incongruous with Las Vegas, a place most often known for artistic sensibilities that start with a sharply dressed Frank Sinatra and end at fat Elvis.

But people with a bead on Las Vegas culture say the city is more avant-garde than it gets credit for. Just look a few miles south of downtown, past the city limits at the Strip, where a replica medieval castle, reproductions of the New York skyline and Venice’s Piazza San Marco and a fire-spitting imitation volcano greet tens of millions of visitors annually. Those projects are audacious in their own right.

No one is allowed to call any idea stupid in Las Vegas,” said Dayvid Figler, a longtime Las Vegas lawyer, poet, cultural observer and frequenter of downtown. “We built this city on stupid and it is the smartest thing we ever did.

Leslie Bocskor, chairman of the Society of Experimental Arts and Learning, a group that supports collaborative community arts projects and oversaw a Burning Man inspired event downtown in March, said playa-inspired sculpture has surface similarities to ambitious Las Vegas attractions such as the Mirage volcano, but connects with people on a deeper level.

“Although on its surface it is spectacle, underneath it serves to bring people together,” he said discussing the blending of Las Vegas and Burning Man cultures.

Putting more Burning Man in Las Vegas is a move whose time has come, said artist Kirk Jellum of Salt Lake City.

He has shared his own work at Burning Man, including a fire-spewing praying mantis that can rise to 55-feet-tall and is now in Las Vegas. It’s set to be installed at a retail and night life center made from shipping containers planned for a vacant spot near Fremont and 7th streets downtown.

“Whether people know it or not, Burning Man has been penetrating mainstream culture for years,” Jellum said. “Lady Gaga, she wouldn’t get a second look on the playa.”

The agreement between the Downtown Project and Burning Man Project is for six months, although both sides expect to extend it, and contains several provisions.

Burning Man organizers will compile works of art for the Downtown Project to review for potential installation in Las Vegas, hire a liaison to live and work in Las Vegas and consult with First Friday Las Vegas on ways to enhance event participation.

“You will never re-create what they have done up there (at Burning Man), and that is not the intent,” said First Friday organizer Joey Vanas, who took oversight of First Friday events last year at Hsieh’s behest. “It is just to take some of the principles and some of the inspiration.”

The Downtown Project has agreed to explore ways to store and display hundreds of mutant vehicles, which are artistically modified cars that are popular attractions at Burning Man but impractical, to say the least, to drive on public roads.

“Whether we have to build a warehouse and store the art cars, these are just ideas,” Pham said. “We don’t really know how realistic this is.”

It’s also a chance for Burning Man organizers to share their values with a broader audience. Burning Man, founded at Baker Beach in San Francisco in 1986, is formed around a community that builds, populates and departs within a few weeks.

The temporary community was little more than a small encampment during the event’s early days in Northern California. Since moving to Nevada in 1991 it has grown to an outpost with tens of thousands of residents, complete with streets, neighborhoods, zoning, an airport and law enforcement, all of which is built and then dismantled by participants, leaving little or no trace in the desert.

By establishing the agreement with the Downtown Project, Burning Man can use Las Vegas as a platform for art and ideas, and to share its 10 principles, which include radical self-expression, decommodification and civic responsibility.

While Burning Man does have hundreds of regional ambassadors around the world, the Downtown Project agreement is a first, said Marian Goodell, director of business and communications for the Burning Man Project.

“It is pretty common that people go to Burning Man and want to manifest the culture outside of Black Rock City,” Goodell said. “It is not common that someone in an urban redevelopment endeavor contacts us to bring us into that endeavor.”

Las Vegas is already home to regional representatives, and in March the Society for Experimental Arts and Learning hosted a burn of its own when artists ignited a 20-foot wooden sculpture of a showgirl called Lucky Lady Lucy.

The event attracted tens of thousands of people to First Friday, showing the burner culture can be a big draw downtown.

“There is a strong community of them; it is getting stronger and stronger,” Vanas said.

By strengthening the connection, Hsieh says Las Vegas can add another layer of culture to the tech startups, small businesses, new residents and nightlife the Downtown Project seeks to cultivate.

“It is not about, ‘Let’s try to make downtown Vegas a mini Burning Man,’ ” Hsieh said. “It is really about combining all these different perspectives and so on that can help build a unique community for downtown Las Vegas.”

It’s not just Tony who wants to bring Burning Man to Vegas. Joey Vanas from First Friday, is determined to inflict further economic damage on already struggling Reno, to make Vegas the Nevada hub for Burners.

It’s not a publicity stunt. Burning the statue has a symbolic meaning for downtown Vegas.

“It’s the element of change. It’s the element of transition. I think it’s important that people understand it’s not a bunch of pyros, not a bunch of grownups playing with matches,” said Joey Vanas, the managing partner of First Friday Las Vegas.

The change he’s referring to is the evolution ofdowntown Vegas. Over the past 10 years the area has gone from being thought of as the “forgotten stepchild” to being recognized as a place with more than just the typical Vegas offerings. That effort was pioneered by the former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar B. Goodman, but downtown Vegas isn’t yet the butterfly that Vanas envisions.

“I’d like to see more creative people moving here for starters. We need to increase the population density. More people living in closer quarters bumping into each other all day, means more exchange of ideas and facilitates more action and more things happening,” said Vanas.

Flames of Change and Vanas’ goal for First Friday was spawned by Burning Man, a week-long event that takes place once a year in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Every year Burning Man attracts thousands of participants who congregate to build a temporary city founded on art, self expression, self-reliance and community. Vanas attended the event for the first time in 2011. He saw strangers helping strangers and realized that everything the event stood for was exactly what he wanted to see happen in downtown Vegas.

No matter who you are, where you come from, what language you speak or what you believe in, you can find like-minded people there (at Burning Man), and you can be accepted for who you are. That’s a huge thing,” said Vanas.

The experience was life changing and inspired him to take his current position as a managing partner for First Friday. He was first approached about the position by his friend and Zappos CEO and co-founder Tony Hsieh. Vanas had also previously worked with Hsieh.

Vanas’ experience at Burning Man made such a big impact on him that he wanted to get people in the Vegas community to create something that could be shared at Burning Man 2012. What he didn’t know was that there was already a team of Burning Man participants building a sculpture that could be presented and burned here in Vegas, the Lucky Lady Lucy Team. This is the second time the team has built a wooden showgirl. The first one was created for Burning Man in 2011.

Once Vanas realized the Lucky Lady Lucy effort was already underway, it was just a matter of First Friday teaming up to help support and market the event.

Not only does Vanas want downtown to embrace the principles of Burning Man, he also wants Vegas to become a new hub for the event during the 358 days a year when the festival isn’t taking place. Right now Reno is where many of the art pieces from the event are stored when not in use at Burning Man. One of Vanas’ goals for downtown is to find a space where those pieces can be on display for people to enjoy who don’t make it to festival in northern Nevada.

[Update 10/1/12. Thanks to Toburn for letting us know about some further coverage in the Deseret News of Tony Hsieh’s purchase of the Preying Mantis]


2 comments on “Burners Invade Downtown Las Vegas

  1. Pingback: “TED meet Burning Man meet SXSW” – Tony Hsieh’s Playboy Vision | Burners.Me: Me, Burners and The Man

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