Swimming in Air with the Bones of God

by Whatsblem the Pro

Ichthyosaur skull -- Image: The Pier Crew

Ichthyosaur skull — Image: The Pier Crew

Jerry Snyder’s enthusiasm is infectious. His face breaks out in moonbeams as we hit the high points of the Pier Crew’s project for Burning Man 2013. We’re at the Generator, a fee-free community art space in Sparks, Nevada, where Jerry and the crew are building his brainchild: a giant wooden puppet of an ichthyosaur skeleton.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: This is a puppet? And there’s a sort of carny tent revival show, right?

JERRY SNYDER: Right. It goes with our premise of this guy, sort of an uneducated miner who finds these bones and thinks these are God’s image on Earth.

WTP: He wasn’t an archaeologist? He was a miner?

JS: Well, in reality, Dr. Camp was a UC Berkeley paleontologist who did serious work very painstakingly, over the course of years. . . he did science. The name, though, is way too good to waste. We figured, he’s Dr. Camp, let’s make him campy. We’re sort of reinventing him as this itinerant miner who wanders into Berlin, Nevada, an ignorant, uneducated guy who has this revelation that this is God’s portrait on Earth. This is the face, the image of God!

WTP: God looks like an ichthyosaur. Sounds legit so far.

JS: God is a fish-lizard! This is God’s message to his Creation! So he recreates this skeleton and goes around preaching to people from town to town in this sort of tent revival, saying “I’ve seen God, He saved me! He pulled me up from the depths of despair and sin and privation! He showed me His face! If you really believe, you may make the bones of God move, you may manipulate God Himself, become one with God, and make God’s bones dance across the desert night!”

WTP: Preach it, brother Camp!

At what point exactly does this story diverge from the actual story of Dr. Camp?

JS: Oh! Uh, entirely. It’s entirely made up. Dr. Camp was a respectable scientist who wasn’t a bit kooky, as far as I know.

WTP: Let’s talk about you for a minute. . . how did you get here?

JS: Well, my first burn was 2004. My first almost-burn was 1994, when I was an art student at UNR, and a friend told me “hey you should go to this Burning Man thing,” and I didn’t. Oops. Ten years later, we finally made it out there.

I’m from Yerington, Nevada originally. I lived in the Bay Area for a few years but moved back here in 2001.

Jerry Snyder and a rib for the Ichthyosaur Puppet

Jerry Snyder and a rib for the Ichthyosaur Puppet

When I was an art student at UNR, I always felt like Reno was right on the verge of something really big; it’s felt like that ever since. Things come and go, but it really has developed a lot. Burning Man has had a lot to do with that, and that fosters a very specific kind of art; it’s often very sophisticated outsider art, by insiders in non-art worlds. . . techies and geeks.

WTP: I think some of it could fairly be called craft, or even research, but I like the way it inflames the passions of the inner child in people.

JS: With the Pier, and the ship, and this project, we started thinking: let’s just build the stuff that we wanted to build when we were seven years old and weren’t able to.

WTP: Yeah! I know exactly what you mean. . . that’s why I wrote an obituary article when Gerry Anderson died.

So the Ichthyosaur is a marionette?

JS: Yes, it’ll be hanging from a 20’x20’x60′ structure. It’ll move in a swimming motion, the flippers will move, the head will move side-to-side, the jaws will open. . . of course, this is all dependent on how well we can figure out how to do all this stuff. No one’s really done this. . . it’s not like you can just Google “how do I build a giant dinosaur puppet” and find much on the Internet.

WTP: And you’ll have a live human playing Dr. Camp?

JS: Yes, I’ll play Dr. Camp; Ed Adkins will play Dr. Camp, I think Brandon Russell will play him, and so will Ian Epperson.

Some of the crew at work

Some of the crew at work

WTP: What sort of interactivity will it have?

JS: Aside from making the puppet move, Dr. Camp will be preaching and there will be hymns sung, pilgrims will come and be saved; basically, we’ll have a full free-form tent revival meeting going on. The rest of the time the place will be staffed by one or two people so that you can come and play with the puppet if you like.

We’re working on the hymnal; Brandon Russell, who wrote the ship’s log for our project last year, is writing our hymns, and they’re hysterical. A few of them are on our website.

WTP: Why do this? Will you burn it, or are you taking it home from Burning Man?

JS: (laughs) Because I want to see it. It’s in my head and it wants out.

What we’re thinking about is possibly donating it to Great Basin Brewery, if it’s technically feasible. They have a location that has a high ceiling, and I’m hoping we can hang it up there. They’ve been really generous and wonderful to us and to other burners so many times, we would really like to do something nice for them. We didn’t get a Burning Man grant, so Great Basin has been a godsend to us and really gone out of their way to help us out.

WTP: The Pier Crew is also running this build space, right?

Space, time, tools: The Pier Crew's gift to the Reno arts community

Space, time, tools: The Pier Crew’s gift to the Reno arts community

JS: Yes! It’s called “The Generator” and we’re super excited about this project. I just look around and smile whenever I’m here. . . we have an incredibly generous donor who foots the bill, and we’re going to be able to provide this amazing resource to the community, with tools, full metal shop, full wood shop, and so on. Anyone will be able to come down here and make art, when we’re all set up.

WTP: Tell me what you want people to know about the Ichthyosaur Puppet.

JS: In part, it’s silly. In part, it’s just making a giant dinosaur. . . but there’s also a sense in which I am totally fascinated by the intersection of art and religion, and this notion of them both being made-up stories that are trying to get at the truth. I don’t mean that to be insulting to people of faith at all, but I like playing with these notions of misinterpretation, and faith, and the ways in which we try to explain the world. Maybe the way we see the world is just wrong, and the things we accept as reality are something else altogether. I like putting characters into that particular kind of confusion.

WTP: Thanks, Jerry.

4 comments on “Swimming in Air with the Bones of God

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