(As the East Coast begins its preparation to head West for Burning Man, I’m deeply honored to bring you an interview with Kevin Bracken, one of the low-key legends of the Brooklyn & Toronto party scenes. While the name isn’t familiar, if you partied in Brooklyn in the later oughts, Newmindspace & their dope Bushwick loft was a storied institution not to be missed. A member of Opulent Temple, he’s moved up to massive Pillow Fights, Bubble Battles, tangling with the Empire With Ears & bringing a big metal swan to the playa! He’s friends with Ryan & Erika from our first Why We Burn as well, so I hope you enjoy the chat!)
By Terry Gotham
1. What’s your favorite Burning Man memory?
My favorite memory was the first sunrise I spent with my wife Marie at the burn, a.k.a. the moment we started dating. I’m pretty sure we both knew even then it was going to turn into something magical 🙂
Not my favorite memory, but my most unforgettable moment: It would be hard to top Paul Addis burning the man early in 2007 while most people were distracted by a lunar eclipse. For those who don’t remember, that was the year that Burning Man allowed Tesla to put an unmarked prototype in the Green Man “Corporate Pavilion.” It was an unmitigated PR disaster that was magically swept away by the deranged actions of a sick man. And even though I do think what Addis did was dangerous and pretty messed up, a tiny part of me does think it was the final chaotic, anarchic action of a Burning Man most people will never experience.
2. Since you’ve lived in a number of Burner friendly cities, which scene off-playa do you think has it right, SF, Toronto or NYC?
So I moved to Toronto from New York for a very particular reason: escaping the Bush years and the War on Terror. When it comes to quality of life, Toronto is second to none. However, our Burning Man community here lacks one thing you need for a top-tier scene: massive old warehouses. As Jane Jacobs said, “New ideas need old buildings,” and our whole city is already condos. My wife Marie and I lived in San Francisco for three years until 2015, and SF is obviously the heart of the empire. When it comes to high-budget, mind-blowing Burning Man experiences, from block parties to art car throwdowns, SF’s got it going on. New York holds a special spot in my heart because even though it’s 3,000 miles away, and sometimes the costumes are held together with duct tape, there’s hundreds of underground warehouses, lofts, and spaces where people take inflatables, LEDs, aerial rigs, nearly-broken buses, and turn them into something beautiful.
3. As a member of Opulent Temple, what can Burners look forward to from one of the premier camps this year?
Glad you asked! We are going to have a ton of new things this year that you might not expect from a large-scale sound art camp, in the vein of workshops, talks, demos, and even a brand-new aesthetic. Another “unofficial” new thing OT will have this year is a shiny metallic swan art car. It’s gonna be one to remember for sure; come find us at 10 & D.
4. Do you think there’s something special about Burning Man that makes it so appealing to entrepreneurs? Or is it just a great event that everyone, including job creators, can enjoy?
There is, of course, the fact that the history of Silicon Valley and the history of Burning Man are inextricably linked, whether people like it or not. Not to be discounted, either: in America, only the self-employed or unemployed can really afford to take a week off of work to play in the desert!
5. Some people have taken the “Burning Man” mythos/branding/aesthetic and used it to throw for-profit events, some very successfully. Where do you think the line is between building a Burner-friendly event and profiting from the community?
To paraphrase Seneca the Younger, “Good ideas belong to everyone.” To further illustrate that Burning Man belongs to everyone, one need only consider the fact that the things you are paying to go see at Burning Man are not even provided by the people you pay (unless you really, really like the Man Burn Fireworks Spectacular.) I admire any creative force that people can muster, and respect event producers who start new things, oftentimes at their own peril. As an event producer I can tell you that putting on an event is often more of a “fun-raiser” than a “fundraiser,” and sometimes even the expensive festivals end up in the red. I am not offended when people try to make money from Burning Man-type events, as long as they don’t try to confuse people into thinking they are official Burning Man events.
6. Do you believe commodification & the growth of 1%/plug and play camps is a problem or just a symptom associated with the transformation of the Burning Man event from regional festival to global destination?
I have always believed that one thing people are not good at understanding is epidemics. People mistakenly believe that things are epidemic when they are not, and vice versa. If I’m not mistaken, there were 29,000 people at my first burn in 2006, and every single year has been different since then. The art gets bigger, every year there are more newbies, sometimes there are celebrities, but I don’t think Burning Man actually is becoming a playground of the 1%, they have simply become higher-profile. Silicon Valley’s history within Burning Man is deeply intertwined, Web 1.0 money actually built a lot of the things we know and love at Burning Man, but the Web 1.0 ethos of iconoclastic hackers has given way to a different attitude these days. I think the difference is purely aesthetic.
7. Why an art car? Why not a camp or experience or a regional?
My friends and I started talking about building an art car in 2007. We had decided that it was going to be a giant piece of sushi; tuna nigiri to be specific. It was going to have a seaweed band around it, and some chopsticks in the air that shot fire. The dream never died! However, the dream kept becoming “next year, next year, next year.” Finally, after a few people came back from gap years, and with new partners and relationships and artists, we finally amassed the talent, especially my friend and business partner Dustin, and cash necessary to make the dream come to life. We want to take The Prodigal Swan to as many events as we can, and the ability to simply tow it to a regional and have it come to life with its shiny skin and fire crown makes us very excited!
8. Were you able to survive the Empire Striking Back? What’s next after the Laser Saber, Pillow Fight & Bubble Battles?
For the first three months of this year, we were engaged in a very heated legal negotiation with Lucasfilm/Disney about our use of the word “lightsaber.” It was honestly awful, and no amount of stoic philosophy or meditation could really console me in the dark Toronto winter. Eventually we settled out of court, and honestly it could have been much worse. This year we plan to go even bigger, hit more cities, and bring the Glow Battle Tour (new name!) to the next level with performances, block parties, large art and soundsystems.
9. Besides Burning Man, are there any transformational festivals that you would recommend burners attend?
If you are looking for the perfect time to visit Toronto, come to Harvest Festival right after Burning Man. It is on a beautiful farm called Midlothian Ridge, with a massive, gently-sloping hill full of over 100 massive, concrete sculptures of screaming heads that look reminiscent of The Scream by Edvard Munch. It has three areas of sound, art that would fit right in at Burning Man, and a couple thousand of the nicest, most interesting Canadians you’ll ever meet.
10. If you could make non-Burners understand one thing about Burning Man, what would it be?
I have always said it’s not an event that you attend, but a city you visit. I don’t think people fully understand the level of city planning, police, fire, medical, and just complex urbanist principles that are involved in the event. Other festivals might take stabs at “organization,” and other festivals may have more people, but no other massive event has a higher “crazy stuff per person” ratio, anywhere in the world.
Bonus: Favorite mix/track of 2016?