Burning Man at Sea [Update]

barge container slip…so says the New York Times, speculating on Google’s massive floating barges made out of shipping containers. Google are famous for being Burning Man fans, and founder Larry Page said earlier this year that the company would like to have zones like Burning Man where they can experiment with new technologies.

bliss dance treasure islandGoogle has been developing a barge on Treasure Island for most of this year. Treasure Island has a strong Burner community; Marco Cochrane made Bliss Dance and Truth or Beauty there, and his Bliss Dance is on display in a public park on the island, with an amazing backdrop of the city. ekoVillages has office units on Treasure Island for rent made from up-cycled shipping containers, as well as art containers that they take to Burning Man. Peter Hudson’s Charon and Homouroboros Zoetropes call TI their home base, as well as a number of other art cars and art projects – including the largest electronic artwork in the world, an $8 million commission to Burning Man Project Board member Leo Villareal. The Disorient founder’s Bay Lights project covers the North-facing side of the Bay Bridge from Yerba Buena island to the city.  Treasure Island is a popular destination for Burner parties, like Ghost Ship and the Treasure Island Music Festival.

ekoVillages.com upcycled art container

ekoVillages.com upcycled art container

So if Google are thinking to make their Google Glass and other new technologies “cool” by getting a Burner vibe on their barges, they’re in the right place. Burning Man is a major user of shipping containers, containers and Burners go hand in hand. Will the barge be a Temporary Autonomous Zone? One that is free to set its own rules and laws, once towed out to international waters? San Francisco’s Bay could definitely use more cruising destinations for the 50,000+ boats kept here.

Here’s what the NYT had to say:

06bits-googlebarge-tmagArticleGoogle has finally commented on its mysterious barges floating near San Francisco and Portland, Me. But its comments do not shed much light on the mystery.

The barges, four stories tall and made of shipping containers, were hiding in plain sight until last month, when a Cnet reporter uncovered their cloaked connection to Google. Reports have speculated that the barges could be floating data centers, traveling Google Glass stores or showrooms with party decks.

On Wednesday, Google issued its first statement on the matter, hinting that the barges are showrooms for new technology, which could include Glass.

“Google Barge … A floating data center? A wild party boat? A barge housing the last remaining dinosaur?” the statement said. “Sadly, none of the above. Although it’s still early days and things may change, we’re exploring using the barge as an interactive space where people can learn about new technology.”

The statement brought to mind comments made by Larry Page, Google’s co-founder and chief executive, at its I/O developers conference in June. He acknowledged that people often have a visceral, fearful reaction to new technology and fantasized about a place to experiment with new products.

“People are naturally scared of change,” Mr. Page said. “We haven’t built mechanisms to allow experimentation.”

“There’s many, many exciting and important things you could do that you just can’t do because they’re illegal or they’re not allowed by regulation,” he lamented. “And that makes sense, you don’t want our world to change too fast. Maybe we should set aside a small part of the world — I like going to Burning Man, for example — that’s an environment where people can try out different things.”

So will the barges be a place for Google to ease people into new technology? Are they going to be like Burning Man at sea? And how far off the coasts would Google’s barges have to float to escape all those pesky laws and regulations?

The answer to the last question is 22 kilometers, or not quite as far as the Farallon Islands.

Google denies that the barge will be a wild party boat. Which, as a public company, they probably have to. Still, everyone’s definition of “wild” is a little bit different…I say let’s get some DJs, lasers and Funktion1’s and fire that bad boy up!

There is already a floating party in the SF Bay, the annual Ephemerisle at the Sacramento river delta. It is put on by the Seasteading Institute, who very much support the idea of Temporary (and Permanent) Autonomous Zones. There’s a great article about the event at N Plus One, here are some excerpts:

ephemerisle bubbleAt around noon, six of us took off in a small motorboat, speeding past Venice Island, a private sliver of land where Barron Hilton, heir to the Hilton hotel fortune, hunts ducks and puts on an annual July 4th firework display. Five minutes later, Ephemerisle came into sight, bobbing gently in an area called the Mandeville Tip.

It looked, at first, like a shapeless pile of floating junk, but as the boat drew closer, a sense of order emerged. The island was made up of two rows of houseboats, anchored about a hundred feet apart, with a smaller cluster of boats and yachts set off to the west. The boats had been bound together with planks, barrels, cleats, and ropes, assembled ad-hoc by someone with at least a rudimentary understanding of knots and anchors. Residents decorated their decks with banners and flags and tied kayaks and inflatable toys off the sides, giving the overall landscape the cephalopodan quality of raver pants. Dirty socks and plastic dishes and iPads and iPhones littered the decks. An enormous sound system blasted dance music, it turned out, at all hours of the day. 

floating citiesEach of the two-dozen boats at the party had a name—Bayesian Conspiracy, Snuggly Nemo, Magic Carpet, Mini-ocracy—and each name a personality to match, conveyed by the resident boaters’ choice of drug, beverage, or degree of exhibitionism. When I arrived, the Ephemerislers were partying in various stages of undress. They had been encouraged to make the space their own, to mind their own business, and to do as they pleased. This was, after all, a celebration of the laissez-faire life—an escape from the oppressive, rule-bound grind of dry land. In this suspended, provisional unreality, everybody was a planner, an economist, a designer, a king. Attendees were ready for everything the elements had in store, but knew escape was just a few clicks away, should the experiment go terribly wrong.

If it sounds a lot like Burning Man, that’s no coincidence. The founders of the Seasteading Institute are Burners, as is PayPal and Facebook Kingmaker Peter Thiel, who wrote a $1.25 million check to the Institute.

ephermerisle from waterEphemerisle was its own little beehive of decadence, a floating pillow fort saturated in sex and soft drugs. It billed itself as a “gathering of people interested in the possibility of permanent experimental ocean communities,” but felt more like Burning Man, if Burners frolicked in the tears of Ludwig Von Mises.

Ephemerisle got its libertarian streak from its founders: the event was originally conceived of by the Seasteading Institute, a San Francisco nonprofit that supports the creation of thousands of floating city-states in international waters. After overseeing the first Ephemerisle in 2009, the Institute handed over responsibility for the festival to the community in 2010—it turns out a raucous floating party costs too much for a tiny think tank to insure—and last year, the group consisted of 300 amateur boaters, intoxicated partiers, and a committed clan of Seasteaders.

ephermerisle labyrinthSeasteaders made up about a quarter of Ephemerisle’s attendees. If they took the operation somewhat more seriously than the young Californians who came just to party and build things, it’s because they dream of a day when they’ll have their pick of floating city-states to live on, work from, and eventually abandon in favor of a different platform when they get bored. Borrowing from the lexicon of evolution, the Seasteaders say that a “Cambrian explosion” of these new countries will bring about greater freedom of choice for individuals, stimulate competition between existing governments, and provide blank “nation-slates” for experiments in governance. Ephemerisle is supposed to distill the ambitious project into a weekend that would “give people the direct experience of political autonomy.” It combines its political ambitions with appeals to back-to-the-land survivalism, off-the-grid drug use, and a vague nostalgia for water parks. “There are no tickets, no central organizers, no rules, no rangers to keep you safe,” reads the Ephemerisle mission statement. It’s “a new adventure into an alien environment, with discoveries, adventures, and mishaps along the way.”

[Update 11/11/13] After we published this story last week, Google went to the Chronicle to reveal their plans for the barges.  Artist's rendering of the proposed Google barge, with sales. Image: By and Large LLC

The barge portion of the Google barge mystery is only half the story — when completed, the full package is envisioned to be an “unprecedented artistic structure,” sporting a dozen or so gigantic sails, to be moored for a month at a time at sites around the bay.

Documents submitted to the Port of San Francisco show that the barge’s creators have big plans for the bulky box now docked at Treasure Island.

When it’s done, the barge’s backers say, the 50-foot-tall, 250-foot-long structure made of recycled shipping containers will be flanked by sails “reminiscent of fish fins, which will remind visitors that they are on a seaworthy vessel.”

“The structure will stand out,” the team says, in what is probably an understatement.

By and Large LLC, which submitted the barge documents, refers to the vessel as a “studio” and “temporary technology exhibit space.” It says its goal is to “drive visitation to the waterfront.”

The barge’s exhibit space, it says, will be for “local organizations to engage with guests and gain visibility in a unique way.”

“We envisioned this space with community in mind,” By and Large says, “a surprising environment that is accessible to all and inspires conversation about how everything is connected — shorebirds, me, you, the sea, the fog and much more.”

Exactly who is By and Large? That’s a little unclear, but it’s reported to be firmly connected to Google. Some have noted that it looks like a play on the word “barge.”

Google has been largely closed-mouthed about its waterborne behemoth. After rumors circulated that it was going to be a showroom, a floating data center that could be used in the event of a natural disaster, or perhaps a big party boat, the company issued a statement Wednesday calling it an “interactive space where people can learn about new technology.”

Asked to comment Thursday on the planning documents, which we obtained from the port under the Freedom of Information Act, Google officials sent us the same brief statement they issued a day before.

Whatever it is, the barge’s backers expect it to draw 1,000 visitors a day as it sails from spot to spot around the bay. Among the envisioned mooring sites are Piers 30-32 and other San Francisco docks, Fort Mason, Angel Island, Redwood City and Rosie the RiveterHistorical National Park in Richmond.

The idea is to stay at each spot for a month. Eventually, the barge would sail off to San Diego and other West Coast ports.

San Francisco Port spokeswoman Renee Dunn Martin said the pitch, which By and Large submitted in September, was “part of a preliminary proposal. They haven’t come back to us with anything concrete.”

Talks appear to have stalled over the glacial permit approval process before the Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

As for the sails — By and Large says that in addition to reminding people they’re on a boat, they would “provide shade and shelter to guests.” They would be lowered in bad weather. One artist’s rendering submitted to the port appears to show the sails lit up at night.

“We believe this curious and visually stunning structure will be a welcome addition to the waterfront, an experience unlike any other,” the proposal says.

The design was drawn up by a pair of internationally known architectural firms — the San Francisco outfit Gensler, whose projects include Terminal 2 at San Francisco International Airport, and LOT-EK of New York.

And don’t even think about taking any souvenirs off the barge. It would be equipped with 50-plus security cameras.

“The artistic structure combines innovative architecture with a bit of nautical whimsy,” says the proposal, “creating a surprising environment that inspires conversation, community and ‘a-ha’ moments.”

 From the looks of things, it certainly will.

5 comments on “Burning Man at Sea [Update]

  1. Pingback: Burning for the Sea | Let A Thousand Nations Bloom

  2. I was excited by this post for a fleeting moment…
    I’ve been trying to build an Alt-fuel ship to take Alt-culture around the world in a Burning Man/Maker Faire -esque vessel that was to be launched as early as September 2008 from Treasure Island, SF!
    Sadly, people would rather fund wars, agriBiz, banal tech, and any number of worthless things instead of listening to a dreamer.
    I was hoping this google barge was going to be something greater than a floating ad, but as usual, I’m disappointed.

  3. Pingback: Dr Burner | Burners.Me Burning Man commentary blog

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