THE POOR MAN’S BURNING MAN 2: The Glamorous Life of a Model

by Whatsblem the Pro

Houston, we have a Whatsblem.

Houston, we have a Whatsblem.

[Whatsblem the Pro is embedded in the International Arts Megacrew for the building of THE CONTROL TOWER, a sixty-foot “cargo cult” version of an FAA control tower, equipped with lasers and flame effects and other interactive features. This series of articles begins with The Poor Man’s Burning Man: Part One, and shows you how you can attend Burning Man even if you don’t sleep on a giant pile of money at night.]

The Control Tower project is still in fundraising/proof-of-concept mode at this relatively early date, which is possible because the actual build will be so much easier than a frame structure like the IAM’s Temple of Transition in 2011. The Tower’s main structural members are all bamboo, so there won’t be much to do for the hammer-swingers that made up the bulk of the crew for the Temple build. The Tower would represent a daunting challenge to an untested group, but it’s going to be a cakewalk of a build when compared with projects the IAM already has under its belt.

We proved that in the last week by assembling a twelve-foot 1:5 scale model of the Tower, to test the ease of construction and structural integrity of the thing. Ken Rose opted to go with lengths of bamboo that are actually only two-thirds actual scale in diameter; if these are sufficient to build a solid model, then we can be supremely confident that the real thing at sixty feet tall will be generously overbuilt in terms of structural strength.

The Tower uncrowned, at 1:5 scale

The Tower uncrowned, at 1:5 scale

The model went up like a dream. A little light tugging and measuring was necessary to pull it into true, and then lashings of hemp rope were applied at the intersections of the bamboo poles. Even with only the lower lashings in place, you can reach out and give the thing a good shaking, without it needing to flex more than about a centimeter to absorb the shocks. The Tower will be light, but incredibly strong and flexible, and should be able to easily withstand even the strongest gusts of wind we might encounter.

The crew is still a small core group, with casual labor on hand when needed, mostly thanks to locals from the 2011 Temple crew. Right now it’s a matter of pulling together the top technical people – our laser expert, our flame effects specialist, our Arduino guy, etc. – with IAM’s architect, Ken Rose, and letting them hash out the best ways to accommodate each others’ work.

It’s also fundraising time. This project won’t happen without funding, and the Org has chosen not to give the IAM a grant this year. All the money has to come from the generous contributions of burners who have enjoyed the crew’s past work, and want to see more. As I write this, we’ve got just half of the $25,000 we’ll need, with only eleven days left on our Indiegogo campaign.

At this stage, my role has mostly been related to that need for funding. The IAM is a non-profit organization with a 501(3)(c) conduit that allows us to give a tax deduction on most donations of money, goods, or services; I spend my mornings and the early afternoons on the phone and the computer, calling business owners and managers and asking them to kick something, anything, into the pot that we can use to defray our costs. Computer parts. Welding rod. Bottled water for on-playa. Stuff we can raffle off at fundraisers, like dinner for two at a nice restaurant. Food for our crew.

A lot of people say no, but a good many say yes. The local mom-and-pops are as good to us as they can afford to be. Some big corporations say yes right away, but they have protocols in place that prevent them from helping out too much. Every little bit counts, so we take what we can get gratefully; still, it seems a shame that a giant “big box” store chain with literally billions in their coffers can only give us a maximum of $25 worth of goods, while a struggling local business can find a way to make underwriting hundreds or thousands of dollars of our expenses a net positive for them too.

Sometimes it’s a total win-win when you call someone on the phone and ask what they can do to help out with your project, even if they don’t have a lot of ready cash. I chanced on a company that makes solar water heating systems using a patented heating element they invented themselves; they’re still a start-up, and poised to expand, so they don’t have the liquid assets to just dump cash on us. . . but when I mention Burning Man, they tell me they have been wanting to build a self-contained water-recycling shower trailer using their solar heaters, so they’ll have something to take to festivals and show off. After a meeting with the company’s partners, the CEO, a gentleman in his sixties and a deacon at a local church, comes to visit us at our build site. He likes what he sees so much that he actually ends up signing a site waiver and climbing up a twelve-foot ladder to help assemble our scale model of the Control Tower. As we break for dinner and part ways, he shakes my hand and tells me they’ll build their shower trailer project for our crew to use on the playa. I let him know that he won’t be able to do any kind of advertising out there, but he’s fine with that; he wants to see Burning Man for himself and will put off using the shower trailer as a rolling billboard until he can haul it out to some other festival.

Architect Ken Rose -- Photo: Mark Hebert

Architect Ken Rose — Photo: Mark Hebert

There are just two snags: one is that they’ll need a little help with the labor; that’s no problem at all. The other is that they don’t have any cash to put into the shower trailer project, and they are lacking the filtration system they’ll need to turn greywater from the shower’s drains back into potable water ready to be used again. They’ve got everything else necessary to build the high-tech closed system they envision, but we’re going to have to come up with two different types of filter on our own. One type we can make ourselves cheaply and easily; the other type that we’ll need will be expensive.

On my way home, I stop at a large pool and spa store, and the owner happens to be there and not at all busy. We have a friendly talk and I tell her about the Control Tower; she’s been to Burning Man and promises me that once I figure out exactly what size and type of filter we need, she’ll donate it.

People are pretty generous, and just plain great in general, when you give them a good opportunity to be that way for a cause that excites their imaginations.

Aside from fundraising, I’ve been pitching in on things like painting the wooden parts for the scale model, or doing whatever else needs extra hands, but that’s been pretty light work.

I’ve also been gearing up to do some indirect fundraising, by making swag to give to people who donate to our Indiegogo. I hand-carve and tool leather, so I thought I’d decorate some leather panels and stitch them around metal liquor flasks. I finished my prototype yesterday; you can’t buy one at any price, but if you donate $250 to the Control Tower I’ll make one for you for free. . . and if you come to the Control Tower to collect it on-playa, I’ll even fill it with Scotch for you.




The Poor Man’s Burning Man: Part One

by Whatsblem the Pro

People have some pretty crazy ideas regarding what Burning Man is all about. Even hardcore burners have a difficult time agreeing just what it is we’re all doing out there, unless they are wise enough to define it as something very open-ended that is many different things to many people.

One of the more common misapprehensions that so many people have about Burning Man is that it’s a hippie peace ‘n’ love (and sex and drugs) festival. While it’s true that every variety of hippie – from crafty, hard-working old ’60s-vintage radicals with tons of skills, to ragged young drainbows in tie-dyed Grateful Dead Army uniforms begging “the universe” for tickets and water – can be found in Black Rock City, that’s because it is a city, with many diverse streams of culture. Among the teeming masses of Nevada’s third-largest urban center, there’s plenty of room for quite a large number of every species of hippie without it being all about them. “Burners are hippies” as a meme is just plain mistaken.

Burners are people who tend to have certain things in common, but the commonalities are striped across a staggeringly broad spectrum of other cultures. . . so broad, that I would go so far as to say that burner culture is probably the most eclectic human culture yet devised, taking the worthiest bits and pieces from many sources and melding them into a tasty gumbo of mutual understanding and acceptance. Sometimes respect goes hand-in-hand with that acceptance, and sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s fine; we’re not a fundamentally hippie-based culture, and it’s fairly well-understood that we don’t have to love or even like each other to make room for each other and do what we do. The oft-heard playa sentiment “fuck yer day” does not generally mean “GTFO.”

Good. Very, very good. -- Image:

Good. Very, very good. — Image:

Bad. Very, very, very, very, bad. -- Photo: Shutterstock

Bad. Very, very, very, very, bad. — Photo: Shutterstock

Another very popular myth is that you have to be rich to go to Burning Man; there’s a persistent tall tale among non-burners to the effect that Black Rock City is populated entirely by elitist multimillionaires, which seems rather at odds with the notion that we’re all hippie beggars who eat out of dumpsters and hit up working people for spare change so we can buy weed.

I know a lot of financially challenged people who go to Burning Man. Not a few of them live well below the poverty line all year ’round, often because they are artists and because they donate a lot of their time and effort. I know a lot of non-artists who go to Burning Man and are financially challenged, too. . . and I don’t mean that their stock portfolio took a bruising when the housing bubble burst; I mean they have trouble paying the rent on time and feeding themselves decently, and sometimes have to spend weeks or months living in their vehicles.

There is, of course, an eternal and vital intersection that brings the rich into contact with the creative poor, transforms entire swathes of decayed cityscape in flurries of urban renewal, and foments patronage of the arts. . . and if Burning Man is representative of that intersection, it is the crossroads of an Art superhighway with Big Money Boulevard. The usual result of that kind of interaction is that some crumbling, dangerous neighborhood with cheap real estate fills up with artists looking to live cheaply, and the money follows them and eventually injects some hoidy-toidy into the area, driving the average rent up and driving the struggling artists out, to seek shoestring budget living elsewhere and start the process over again.

Burning Man is different. There’s no real estate market to sway, just ticket prices. . . so there’s no way for the money to gentrify us and drive out the funky low-budget players in favor of “white cube” art gallery snobs.

It does take a significant investment to render yourself playa-ready, obtain a ticket, and transport your ass and your gear to the Black Rock desert. . . and the cost can get much steeper if you happen to live someplace on the other side of an ocean. Your investment, however – and it is an investment, not just money blown on an expensive vacation – doesn’t necessarily have to involve much in the way of actual cash.

How, though, do the burning poor manage it, exactly? How can you do it too?

In a nutshell, the answer is simple: Find some burners who have more going on than you do, and make yourself useful. If you can manage to identify and fill a necessary function for an art project or theme camp or other conclave of burners, then you’re GOING, and that’s all there is to it. Take up the slack for your crew, make yourself invaluable, and your crew will take up the slack for you. This could mean a month or two of unpaid labor on some massive art gewgaw; it could mean signing up for some crucial role in an established theme camp, like cook, or art car driver; it could mean joining DPW and earning your patches (although you won’t typically get a free ticket your first year). For some, it might mean being pretty and sucking cock on demand in some venture capitalist’s swanky RV; if that’s an acceptable billet in your view of the world, more power to you; nobody can tell you you’re wrong but you, and I would like to respectfully request your phone number, please.


This article is the first in what will be a regular series that will show you one avenue to getting to Black Rock City in a very practical and detailed way: I am embedding myself with the International Arts Megacrew to work on their 2013 project, known as “The Control Tower.” Initially, I’ll be making swag and soliciting donations of essential equipment and materials for the project, and my role will change and expand as the project progresses and evolves.

I’ve already written about the Control Tower project, but I’ll begin by giving you some background.

The International Arts Megacrew is the group that built architect Ken Rose’s Temple of Transition in 2011. Their 2013 project, the Control Tower, will be built at the Generator, a brand-new community industrial arts space in Sparks, just outside Reno, Nevada. The Generator is managed by the Pier Crew’s Matt Schultz, and generously funded by an anonymous donor who has underwritten quite a bit of playa art over the years.

I wasn’t a member of the IAM’s Temple crew in 2011, but I did show up for the last few weeks of their build, and assisted the welders, mostly by grinding metal for hours on end in oven-like heat at the Hobson’s Corner site in Reno. I first became acquainted with the Pier Crew people while working on Burn Wall Street (sorry about that), as the two projects shared space at the Salvagery. When I saw how incredibly cool the Pier’s project was, I donated some old fencing swords I had for the skeletal crew of the ship they built, and served as humble shop bitch providing elbow grease and other assistance to the gentleman who designed and built the ship’s anchor.

The Pier Crew amazed us all in 2012 -- Photo: Jason Silverio

The Pier Crew amazed us all in 2012 — Photo: Jason Silverio

When I first visited the Generator, it was to interview Jerry Snyder about his Ichthyosaur Puppet project. Matt Schultz was there as well, and we got reacquainted with each other and spent some time touring the space as Matt gave me the lowdown on his vision.

“The Generator,” he told me, “is not just a place for Burning Man projects. This will be a space for the entire community, where anyone who is willing to pitch in and contribute a bit is welcome – without paying any fees whatsoever – to come and make art, learn new skills, and teach new skills to others. We’re going to have some serious tools here for people to use. They’ll have to bring their own materials, unless someone here who doesn’t mind sharing happens to have what they need.

“It’s an arts incubator,” he sums up. “A hive of creative people who share their talents, resources and ideas to make amazing new art.”

Schultz points to the freshly-painted walls of the gigantic open space, which is still brand-new and mostly devoid of any hint of tools or activity. “We put out the word, and a whole crew of volunteers came in here and did all that painting. That’s what I’m talking about when I say we need people to be willing to contribute. It’s a tribal thing; if you behave like a member of the tribe and don’t mind spending a little bit of your time doing things that help everyone, then there should be no problem with you being here and getting all kinds of benefits from the space and the resources in it.”

As we talk, I reflect on the welcoming nature of our community. It’s true that I’ve got a little bit of an inside track, but there’s no favoritism in play here; had I shown up cold, knowing nobody at the Generator and having no history with them, we would be having the same conversation, and I’d be given the same opportunity to participate.

“Is there anything I can do to help out today?” I ask.

Schultz shows me to a room where painting supplies are stored, and gives me instructions for painting the spacious bathroom, a job which someone has begun but not yet finished. He leaves the building as I get to work with the roller. . . to an extent, the trust here is given freely, to be rescinded if necessary, rather than earned. I spend the rest of the afternoon painting happily.

It's a lot less empty this week -- Photo: Whatsblem the Pro

It’s a lot less empty this week — Photo: Whatsblem the Pro

The next day I show up early for a meeting with the IAM’s leader, James Diarmaid Horken, aka ‘Irish.’ The space reserved for the Control Tower build, empty the day before, has erupted into a fully-equipped meeting and planning zone overnight, with pallets screwed together to support a large L-shaped expanse of whiteboard, a big desk at which Irish sits working, a model of the Control Tower in bamboo and wire, and a complete living room set, with artificial houseplants and decorative sculpture making the semicircle of couches and coffee tables seem warm and homey in the cold sterility of the giant warehouse.

As I’m waiting for the rest of the group to assemble and come to order, I stroll around surveying the other changes that have taken place while I was sleeping. There are more tools, more tables, more spaces marked off on the floors in chalk. Someone is setting up welding equipment and a really expensive professional-grade drill press in a large side room. The Generator is still mostly just a big empty industrial space, but signs of life are unmistakable, and it is booming and blooming with a palpable vitality.

Old friends and new ones drift in, gathering to find out what the Control Tower project is all about. I chat with Ken Rose, the IAM’s architect, about the computational architecture behind the construction techniques that will give the structure great strength using a minimum of materials. “Russian mathematicians came up with this stuff about a hundred years ago,” he tells me. “Open-lattice hyperboloids like the one we’re going to build offer very good structural strength using only about 25% of the materials we’d need to build a rectangular frame structure.”

Soon the meeting is underway, and Irish is giving us a run-down of the road ahead. He has made lists of equipment, supplies, and materials we’re going to need, and written it all on the whiteboards behind him, with other lists and notes that give us an idea of what skill sets are going to be required. The prospective crew members listen intently, their eyes focused on the whiteboards, or the scale model, or on Irish and Ken as they explain their vision and the rough timetable they’ve devised. They tell us about the vast array of programmable LEDs, and the flamethrowers, and the lasers. They talk about everything from the meaning behind the ideas, to hard logistical challenges that we’ll be facing.

When the meeting is over, we unwind a bit, eating watermelon and bouncing ideas and Nerf darts off each other’s heads. Other people on other projects are knocking off for the day as well. A small but spirited war erupts in one of the still-open areas; Nerf guns are more abundant here than is probably typical of industrial work spaces. As I’m minding my own business and looking over a coffee table book of art by Leonardo da Vinci, a Nerf dart strikes me directly in the forehead and sticks there.

The next few days are a flurry of activity. My mornings are spent doing research and making phone calls, trying to drum up support in the form of donations from local business people. In the afternoons I get my personal working space at the Generator set up, so I can work on carving and tooling leather to make swag for people who donate to our project. More artists and more tools are showing up, almost hourly. The first ribs of the ichthyosaur skeleton that Jerry Snyder is building hang on a huge rack. Someone seems to be constructing a dance floor in one corner; judging by the work, whoever it is must be a master carpenter.

Irish calls me on the phone one morning soon after the Control Tower meeting. “Will you be here this evening around ten o’clock?” he asks me. “We’re having a laser test.”

“Lasers?” I say, ears perking up. “Of course I’ll be there.”

When I arrive, two people are unloading some serious laser gear from the back of a truck inside the Generator. The fellow in charge of the lasers is Skippy, an Opulent Temple member who provides OT and other organizations and events with laser light shows, using an array of equipment mostly salvaged, rebuilt, and repurposed from discarded medical equipment. When he’s ready and his smoke generator is puffing away, we turn the lights out, and he activates his multicolored little wonders of science in a dazzling automated sequence that lasts over an hour.

We’re all friends, or at least not enemies. We’re working hard, and we’re having a blast doing it. We’re not just building art, we’re building a new world. One day, if humanity doesn’t destroy itself somehow and civilization manages to endure, the day will come when automation makes us all redundant as workers; when that day comes, everyone will be like us: doing only the types of work that they find worth doing. Soon come, soon come.

You can read Part Two of The Poor Man’s Burning Man at: