A Matter of Control

by Whatsblem the Pro

The International Arts Megacrew is a crew of builders that has earned a massive amount of respect from the citizens of Black Rock City, in particular with the success of their very ambitious and brilliantly executed Temple of Transition in 2011.

The IAM has announced their project for 2013, a mysterious structure called THE CONTROL TOWER. I met with Irish, one of the group’s leaders, to find out more.

Whatsblem the Pro: Welcome back to the States! Tell me about the IAM.

Irish: Thanks. IAM is a loose collective of people from over twenty countries, of which the core group is based in Reno. The crew initially grew from a group that knew each other from working together at the Black Rock International Burner Hostel (BRIBH) camp from around 2005 onwards, particularly members of the leadership team: Kiwi, a master carpenter and general contractor from New Zealand, myself, an artist from Dublin, and Beave, a notorious international man of mystery from England. IAM has since expanded to include many other people, including our architect Ken Rose and a wide diversity of crew from Reno and further afield.

The BRIBH was a camp that sought to provide burners from overseas a means to integrate faster at Burning Man by providing a surrounding community and a shared project – camp construction – for them to get involved in, even in their first year at Black Rock City. Attending Burning Man from overseas is a daunting task, both psychologically and logistically, and the role of the Burner Hostel was to make the journey easier, allowing international participants to spend more energy on really getting stuck into Burning Man while knowing they had a sweet home base to return to whenever they needed. . . and this philosophy of providing accessible experience to international burners continues in our art projects today.

IAM crew distribution -- Image: Josh Simmons/IAM media team

IAM crew distribution — Image: Josh Simmons/IAM media team

The first big project we did, Megatropolis, grew from a whiskey-sippin’ conversation at Kiwiburn 2010 between Kiwi and Otto Von Danger, there at the time to build his Cow with Gun project. Too late to apply for a grant that year, we hustled, begged and borrowed to raise the funds required and drove to the playa on fumes, where, over the course of twelve hotdog-eating days, twenty-five of us managed to pull off a pretty big and popular project. Black Rock FX came in at the end to help us with an epic, pyrotechnics-intensive burn.

Our crew that year included people from New Zealand, Ireland, the UK, Australia, the USA, Hong Kong, Canada and Germany.

Megatropolis went so well that at some point during cleanup, Kiwi jumped to the next logical conclusion: building a Temple.

Megatropolis burning -- Photo: Chris 'Kiwi' Hankins

Megatropolis burning — Photo: Chris ‘Kiwi’ Hankins

This was a very different project – much bigger, far more complex – and being the Temple, required a lot more sensitivity and thought. With a crew that topped out at just under 400 volunteers from over twenty countries at Hobson Square, an awesome warehouse complex on 4th Street in Reno, we spent an extremely intense four months pre-building, then had an even more intense time with the on-playa build. . . so intense that we needed a year off to recuperate in 2012.

The Temple of Transition appeared to be well-liked by the community; afterwards we heard estimates that there were around 45,000 people at the Temple burn, which hopefully means it was a special place for a lot of people and that it performed its intended function effectively. The Temple is a well-understood, well-developed concept that had been explored and clarified over the preceding decade by David Best and other Temple architects and crews, and we tried our best to create and honor that same experience and feeling on our watch.

The IAM's Temple of Transition, Burning Man 2011 -- Photo: Scott London

The IAM’s Temple of Transition, Burning Man 2011 — Photo: Scott London

Whatsblem the Pro: Well done, it was a great Temple.
What is the Control Tower? What does it signify artistically, and what do you hope to achieve with it?

Irish: Where the Temple was serious, the Control Tower is designed to be fun, both for participants to interact with and for us to build!

Sensible grown-ups that we are, we realized that the theme is likely to inspire all manner of bizarre air and space craft, no doubt operated by a babbling smorgasbord of unlicensed, cantankerous, and demented pilots, all buzzing around Spaceport BRC in the most uncontrolled, abstract, and fundamentally irresponsible manner. Very dangerous! Very haphazard! So we figured we’d step up to do our civic duty and provide some modicum of air traffic control, provide landing clearances, define flight paths and so on. . . all of which can only realistically be achieved from sixty feet above the playa, high atop a flaming, laser-shooting Control Tower.

Aside from selflessly providing this vital public service, of course, we wanted to focus on two key principles this year: interactivity and collaboration. So every system on the tower – flames, lasers, lighting, sound – will all be interactive via a number of secret game-like methods which will have to be discovered upon visiting the installation. Many of these systems will be built by a rapidly expanding list of awesome collaborators including UV99, Mischief Lab, BambooDNA, Audiopixel, the Media Architecture Institute, Ideate, Play)a(skool, several 2012 CORE crews, and even some peaceful, softly glowing visitors from the Fractal Planet, so the project is shaping up to be a collaboration of epic proportions. We strongly believe that collaborations yield the best Burning Man projects, so we’re really excited about where the Control Tower project is going to end up by the time we actually get to playa!

The Control Tower. Not pictured: your mind exploding -- Image: IAM

The Control Tower. Not pictured: your mind exploding — Image: IAM

Whatsblem the Pro: What is the Org’s involvement in the project? Does it meet your expectations?

Irish: Sadly, we did not get a grant from Burning Man this year, which makes our lives a little more difficult. It’s hard to know exactly why they chose not to support a project that delivers so much interaction, collaboration, visual impact, and fire in a theme-appropriate way. The community as a whole clearly likes the idea very much, as shown by the massive wave of support we’ve experienced in just three short weeks since we launched on Facebook, and since we like those people so much, we HAVE to move ahead, grant or no grant! We built Megatropolis without a grant, so we know it can be done, especially with so much support gathering around the project already.

It’s also important to note that Burning Man supports its artists in more ways than just via grants, and this non-monetary support can be just as – if not more – critical to making a project happen successfully. Now that we have been given a very clear mandate by the community itself to build their Control Tower, it will be interesting to see how the Burning Man Org supports the project as it evolves. The fact of the matter is that we love building awesome projects at Black Rock City, and Burning Man loves awesome projects too, so I’m very hopeful they will work with us closely to ensure the whole community gets to enjoy the full, ridiculous magnificence of the Control Tower.

Whatsblem the Pro: What’s the plan for actually getting it built, and when and where will everything happen?

Irish: Well, we hope to start building in early May at the Generator, a new art space in Sparks, NV. Matt Schultz of the Pier project has very generously offered us space there, and we’re hoping the space will be quite the hive of Burn-related activity for the summer. We’re way into the family vibe that comes from working side-by-side with other projects, and it allows us to share our experience and infrastructure with smaller or less experienced crews. Our actual start date – indeed whether we start at all – will depend a great deal on how fundraising goes over the coming four to six weeks.

Whatsblem the Pro: What does the project need in order to succeed?

Irish: Like any other project, we need to assemble a mixture of four key resources to make the whole thing come to life: materials, funding, people, and clever ideas. We think it’s important to list materials ahead of funding because in the end, funds get used to buy materials anyway, and we really try to find free/cheap/donated material, equipment, and tools rather than spending on new stuff. However, even being super-proactive about using second-hand gear, we still think we need to raise just under $50,000, and we’re going to try to raise at least half of that on Indiegogo.

Equally, if we can come up with clever ways to avoid spending money by finding unexpected solutions to technical or organizational challenges, this helps reduce the fundraising load too, and that’s where the whole community comes in; we are always open to volunteers and new ideas. Across a community as big as Burning Man, we know there are people who have already developed a lot of the solutions we need to make this project go, and we’d love to hear from anyone who wants to get involved!

Whatsblem the Pro: How do people contact you to get involved, and how do they donate?

Irish: The easiest and fastest way to support the project is via our Indiegogo campaign.

We are fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas, an umbrella 501(c)(3) that provides tax-deductible status to qualifying art projects. This means donations of money, materials or equipment to the project are all fully deductible to the extent permitted by law. A list of materials and equipment we need is available here, and we can pick stuff up in both Reno and the Bay Area. We will work with donors to determine a fair valuation of their donations for tax purposes.

To volunteer, collaborate, contribute ideas, or get more info about the project, just visit our Indiegogo page.

Roll Like a Boss, and Fly to Burning Man

Burning Man is great, but it takes a long time to get home, and an even longer time to get home from home. Exodus took hours less last year, probably due to the reduced attendance. An unprecedented number of early access passes also sped up the entry for many. But still, we’re talking hours stuck in traffic and hours stuck in line, going in and then leaving.

airports not hereOf course, not everyone has to deal with the long lines and traffic. Black Rock City has its own airport, and the best way to arrive for many VIPs is by air. It’s less expensive than you might think. We just got the following email from the lovely Dionne, of Playa Air Express. She can arrange connecting flights from Reno, the Bay Area, LA, Vegas, and other parts of the country too.

It’s a great way to escape to the Grand Sierra for some pool time and spa treatments once you’re done. And it just might be the perfect gift for the Burner who has everything.

Burning Man| 2013 |Playa Air Express

Hello everyone. Playa Air Express welcomes you back to the ‘Homecoming’ event of the year-Burning Man 2013.

Even though last year there were some State and Federal regulatory challenges with those agencies trying to impose excessive rules & uncertainty to the event, I am happy to report the essence of Burning Man, namely artistic expression, independence, and creativity, will still remain intact so we can once again have a memorable ‘Party on the Playa’.

Playa Air Express will continue to offer round trip services from Reno, The Bay Area, Southern California, Las Vegas, and other neighboring States directly into Black Rock. 

We have worked diligently over the past several months to increase our aircraft fleet thus offering more options.  In addition, we have also partnered with a couple of RV service providers to accommodate those needs as well.

Playa Air Express welcomes back our existing clients, and we open our arms to the arrival of all the newcomers. We do appreciate your business.

I look forward to hearing from you soon to make your travel arrangements with us into ‘The Burn’. Please feel free to email me, or visit our website at:www.flypacificcoast.com for rates and availability.
Thank you for your continued support.

All the best,


Dionne Chinn
Playa Air Express | Pacific Coast Flight Solutions LLC.
Reno, NV. 89519

Here are the rates:

Departure/Arrival Cities

To and From BRC


Direct Service/Per Person

Round Trip

Direct Service/Per Person

Reno, NV.



Hayward, CA.



Van Nuys, CA.



Las Vegas, NV.




9 Ways to Die at Burning Man

by Whatsblem the Pro

The Craig Nielson Memorial Intersection at Burning Man - Photo: Danger Ranger
The Craig Nielson Memorial Intersection at Burning Man – Photo: Danger Ranger

The motto “keep Burning Man potentially fatal” is more than just humor; it’s a reflection of the fact that Black Rock City, for all its rules and regulations, began as an Autonomous Zone. Likewise, the warning on the back of each and every ticket: YOU MIGHT DIE, and that’s your responsibility.

It’s kind of an odd responsibility to have, given that the corporation that runs Burning Man ostensibly began as a response to a string of grisly deaths on and near the playa. You’d think that if co-opting an Autonomous Zone was a proper and necessary response to those deaths, the Org would want to explicitly take responsibility for people dying at Burning Man. . . but the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, so the Org gets to put a fence around everything and sell tickets and make rules, but the potentially lethal nature of the event is still your problem and yours alone.

Keeping Burning Man fatal means hanging on to as much personal autonomy as we can in the face of the continuing Disneyfication of the event; paradoxically, it is also what prompts control freaks and opportunists to come up with new and unwelcome rules for us to burn by. The heart of the paradox is that in order to keep Burning Man potentially fatal, we need to look after ourselves well enough that our deaths remain unusual or even rare occurrences. Failure means being swaddled in overprotective regulations that smother our culture.

The trick is to keep people who are likely to die away from the event. We don’t publish stories about how dangerous and uncomfortable Burning Man is because we hate Burning Man; on the contrary, we love the party and are committed to the culture, but we recognize that it’s not for everyone, and that encouraging just anyone to come is a Very Bad Idea. Radical inclusion shouldn’t ever be a matter of luring or dragging someone woefully unprepared into a howling wilderness where they will be unable to cope with the prevailing conditions.

Technically, you can be almost certain that you won’t die at Burning Man. . . because even if your heart stops or your head comes off or you otherwise cease to function metabolically at Burning Man, you probably won’t be declared dead until you get to Reno. The Org’s propaganda machine takes full advantage of this technicality, and conveniently does not include deaths declared off-playa in their tally of deaths at the event, no matter how or where the mayhem happened.

This is not meant – by a long shot – to be a complete list of the many, many deaths that have occurred in and around Burning Man. This is an overview, intended to give you an idea of what might be in store for the unwary, the feckless, and the star-crossed among us.


If ghosts really do haunt the places where they died, then the highway to and from the playa must be an ectoplasmic fiesta of epic proportions. Insane, horrible traffic accidents; battered, overturned, burnt vehicles; blood and body parts strewn across the asphalt.

The examples of typical, ordinary – but horrific – highway accidents are too numerous to pick a single example, but here’s an extraordinary one: Craig Nielson, a young man who joined DPW for his very first burn in 2001, never quite made it to Burning Man. Nielson died on the road, reportedly crushed in a vehicular accident that led to him bleeding to death on the way to do his very first load-out. Details are sketchy, but he may have been riding on top of an RV.

One of two Bonanzas wrecked at the '03 burn - Photo by Rigged

One of two Bonanzas wrecked at the ’03 burn – Photo by Rigged

Let’s not forget that Black Rock City has an airport, too, and that it handles something like a hundred takeoffs and landings a day during the event. In 2003 there were two incidents involving aircraft; in one, a Beechcraft BE-35 reportedly lost engine power on takeoff, severely injuring the four people onboard. One of the passengers had to undergo several surgeries to remove pieces of the plane’s control panel from his sinus cavity, and the pilot, Barry Jacobs, later died of his injuries.

Please drive (or fly your small plane) carefully, avoid engaging in highway hijinks no matter how boisterous your spirits get in anticipation of the burn, and keep emergency supplies – like water and a first-aid kit – in the vehicle. The road to the burn takes you into a remote area; if you have an accident there, help is liable to be quite far away. One of the reasons that Barry Jacobs died is that it took well over an hour for first responders to get to the plane and get him out of it.


The ban on driving anything but art cars and the five-mile-per-hour speed limit are not preventative measures; they are direct products of vehicular manslaughter on and near the playa. As Danial Glass reported in the Boston Phoenix, the 1996 burn brought some serious change:

Michael Fury, a friend of Larry Harvey and a creative influence at Burning Man, was killed in a collision while riding his motorcycle at night, playing chicken with a blacked-out van. Others died near a rave camp when a truck ran over their tent while they were sleeping inside.

In 1997, driving was banned on the playa, and fire art was prohibited in areas where people were camped. The admission ticket, which used to admonish participants to “Please keep weapons unloaded in camp,” now warned that firearms were banned within its borders. The county imposed its own restrictions as well. As Burning Man staff toned down the potentially destructive elements of the event, the rough-edged freedom waned considerably.

Those weren’t art car deaths, but the backlash made it a lot less likely for anyone to be killed by any vehicle at Burning Man that isn’t an art car.

In 2003, a burner named Katherine Lampman jumped off a moving art car because she wanted to get a closer look at the Temple of Honor. Somehow, she lost her balance and fell backward after landing, which placed her directly in the path of the car’s wheels. “I will never forget the feeling that surged into my hands through the steering wheel,” remarked Randy Emata, who was driving the art car that ended Lampman’s life. “My worst fears were followed by a myriad of terrified voices, screaming for me to stop the car. I ran back and discovered that the trailer ran her over. Her life was slowly coming to an end as she breathed less and less. Revival was attempted, but failure was inevitable. Someone grabbed a spectator’s bicycle and sped off to a nearby Ranger. Soon after, the Sheriffs showed up with an ambulance, taking her to the medical center. A helicopter was on its way. As I was writing out my statement, a deputy told me that the helicopter left without her and that she didn’t make it.”

3. DIY

There have been a number of suicides at Burning Man over the years, most notably that of Jermaine “Jerm” Barley, who hung himself in a Moroccan-style tent full of gym equipment at Comfort & Joy camp. The suicide went undetected for some time; as witness Don Davis remarked, “It looked like someone was playing a joke with a dummy.”

Rumor has it that a number of people saw Barley’s corpse hanging on a rope, and thought it was art.

Barley wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last. . . and there are also post-burn suicides to tally up. Some people can’t handle the coming-down phase of Burning Man; they return to the world outside Black Rock and everything seems so muted and washed-out by comparison. It can be a real downer. . . and it can and has led to suicides. If you count that as “dying at Burning Man,” then post-burn suicide accounts for more deaths than any other cause on this list. In at least one case, the suicide came several years after the actual event, but was very clearly related. Rest in peace, Paul Addis.


Drugs are like guns, kids. They’re just tools, and the important thing isn’t so much what they do to you; it’s what you do with them that makes the entire difference between use and abuse. Responsible adults use drugs responsibly, or not at all. Sometimes using responsibly means refraining from mixing your pharmaceutical experience with an overly-perilous environment. You don’t want to be wandering around in the middle of the desert alone with your head full of a drug like ‘cup,’ with its well-known side effect of dehydrating and disorienting the user. Even the effects of a drug as ordinary and seemingly harmless as Tibetan poon oil can lead to a serious health crisis on the playa, with your body in a constant state of overstimulated exhaustion and your environment sucking the moisture out of you like you’re inside a giant dessicant sachet.

Do we even need to talk about garden-variety overdoses? Your body is going to be taxed quite a bit out there, and you need to be sensitive to that fact if you’re going to chemically alter yourself in any way that might present a risk.

On the sunny side (along with sunstroke) there’s something positive to mention: although there have been drug-related deaths at Burning Man, burners seem to be quite a bit more responsible about their recreational substances than the average festival-goer. The 2011 AfterBurn report’s Medical section includes this comment from the emergency medical personnel that attended: “The numbers for alcohol- and drug-related patients continue to be remarkably low for an event of this size.”


There are two words you don’t say around Org people, or around your supervisors if you’re DPW: one is ‘rape,’ and the other is ‘murder.’ The Org doesn’t like these things – or any of the things in this article, for that matter – bandied about too freely. They actively instruct workers, both paid and volunteer, to stay mum regarding anything that might make them or the event look bad.

Johnson arrived at the DPW ranch wounded... and talkative

Johnson arrived at the DPW ranch wounded… and talkative

Happily, we don’t get a lot of murders at Burning Man (rape is another matter; they are depressingly frequent out there). That doesn’t, however, mean that nobody gets murdered. In 2003, Christopher Scott Johnson (aka “One-Armed Bandit”) showed up at the DPW ranch looking for work. His erratic behavior and his bragging about having killed a man prompted Will Roger and Ranch manager Matthew ‘Metric’ Ebert to call the police, who discovered that Johnson had indeed stabbed a man to death in a van on the road to the playa.


It hasn’t happened so far, but give it time; someone without a posse is going to crank up FREE BIRD at the perfect moment, and an angry mob of zealous whatever-worshippers – enraged at this insult to the highly-evolved and enlightened wisdom that allows them to live superior lives of peaceful Buddha-like tranquility – is going to nail the offender to a cross and toss it into the flames of the Temple. . . and then we’ll have two religions to contend with on the playa.


Plenty of garden-variety accidents happen every year at Burning Man; people climb things and fall off; people ingest spoiled consumables; people trip over tent stakes; people have bicycle mishaps. Once in a while, especially in a city of 60,000 souls, these things are bound to be fatal.

In 1999, Jim Keith fell from a stage at Burning Man and broke his knee. The week after the burn, he entered the Washoe Medical hospital for knee surgery and died in the Intensive Care Unit shortly after surgery was completed, when a blood clot released from his broken knee entered his lung. The coroner’s report listed cause of death as “blunt force trauma.”

The accidents can usually be avoided, if you’ll just keep your eyes open, keep your stress level manageable, and use common sense. You know how it works: one minute you’re stressing yourself out arguing with your campmates while building some large structure as the Sun beats down on you, and the next minute you’re taking it out on the work, pounding nails a little too hard, until you end up applying your claw hammer directly to your forehead on the bounce-back. Or maybe you’re just walking around, not paying much attention, when a truck full of ice swerves to avoid a pothole and tips over and falls on you. Maybe you’re tired and want to get home as soon as possible, so you stay at the wheel for Exodus and end up falling asleep on it.

Most fatal accidents happen in the home; most in the bathroom. Leave the bathroom at home and you’ll be safer. The dust is your friend.

Nobody knows for sure what killed 37-year-old Adam Goldstone. The East Village DJ hit his head on some rebar, suffering at least a mild concussion, and later slipped or fainted in the shower in his RV, injuring himself further and eventually dying. Emergency medical personnel were summoned, but were unable to save him. Goldstone’s father was of the opinion that his son may have been felled by a heart condition.

Even in the absence of an accident, you might just happen to be on the playa when your time comes. Sometimes there’s just no dodging that bullet with your name written on it.

Erika the Red died tragically young with no warning

Erika the Red died tragically young with no warning

Erika “the Red” Kupfersberger died of an aneurysm on the playa in 2011, for no particular reason that had anything to do with being at Burning Man. People have heart attacks and strokes at Burning Man, not infrequently, and not always because of any particular environmental factor.


The hot springs in the vicinity of the playa can be really wonderful, but they’re also perilous as hell to the incautious. . . especially Double Hot, with its twin maw of boiling danger. In 1849, a traveler by the name of Bruff wrote this about Double Hot:

Sept.22. In the first part we reached a pretty clear sparkling rill, about six feet broad, and a few inches deep; when to my astonishment the mules halted short at the edge, and refused in spite of the whip and shouting, to put a foot in it! I guessed there might be a vapor from it, but on putting my hand in, found it quite hot – not sufficiently to scald, however. So we had much trouble here, pulling and urging the teams over; and when they did go, it was accomplished by each pair of mules, in succession leaping over like deer, and thus jerking the wagons after them.

Next, on left, observed a cluster of hot Spring mounds, with their circlets of marsh and tall green grass.- In one lay a dead ox, apparently fell there yesterday; one hind leg in the basin of hot water, which had so well cooked it, that nought but white bones and tendons were left, of that limb, as high as the water had influence.

Some 150 years later, a burner gave the following report to Erowid.org regarding the local springs:

Probably the most dangerous hot springs is Double Hot, which is north of Black Rock about 10 miles. Great camping spot and really nice tubs, even a real bathtub at one location. The *usable* tubs are a hundred feet or so away from where the hot water comes up out of the ground and begins flowing downhill in a boiling hot stream. The tubs are holes dug to the side of the stream, and water is redirected according to the users’ comfort requirements.

The place where the hot water comes out of the ground is called the maw. There are actually two of them and they are incredibly beautiful, deep blue water and you can see down into the sweltering bowels of the earth several fathoms. The water is about 200 degrees. IF YOU FALL INTO THE MAW YOU WILL DIE. In 1994 I witnessed a family from Reno out on a little tour fail to exercise care around the maw. Their beautiful golden retriever–the family dog obviously for many years–thought she would go for a swim. I became aware of the disaster when the screaming began. The whole family was crying horribly as the father stuck his hands in the boiling water to pull out their pet. The little boy and the little girl were absolutely devastated and that is where my friend Louis directed his marvelous efforts to calm them down by telling them distracting stories, away from the scene. I helped the father who was cursing himself and crying uncontrollably. The dog went almost immediately into shock, as her skin began to slough off in patches about as big as my hand. Eventually most of the fur was gone. The family bundled their pet into a blanket and slowly made their way back to Reno. I am sure the father had second and perhaps even third-degree burns on his arms.

Note that the maw is not marked or protected by any sort of barrier.


Being burned to death at Burning Man, really? Sadly, yes. According to the 2001 AfterBurn report, “a participant who chose to run into a fire” later died of his burns in a Reno hospital. The incident apparently took place the night of the burn, somewhere on the deep playa.

You’re never going to know just exactly how much mayhem and death takes place at Burning Man, because the Org actively discourages anyone from talking about it, and discounts deaths that happen on the highway to or from the playa, or in places like Reno hospitals as a result of injuries sustained on the playa. . . but the number is probably much higher than you think it is. Please, don’t make a secret statistic of yourself. It’s your job to keep yourself safe and healthy out there, and the fewer who succeed at that, the harder it will become to keep Burning Man potentially fatal. Do a good job!