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:

Your Own Art Car? Wunder’s Rockbox on the Auction Block

by Whatsblem the Pro

Photo: wwardlaw

Photo: wwardlaw

Derek Wunder has been going to Burning Man every year for the last thirteen years; he’s going to miss 2013 because he’s got a baby on the way, due the week of the burn. You may have heard of Derek; if not, you’ve almost certainly seen his art car, the Rockbox: a giant ’80s-style boom box on wheels that holds roughly fifty people as it cruises the playa in search of giant cassette tapes. The Rockbox is twenty-four feet long, built on a 1987 Dodge one-ton van with a 318 V-8 engine, and sports a custom sound system designed for use on the playa.

I noticed this morning that the Rockbox is for sale on Craigslist, so I got in touch with Derek Wunder and asked him about it.


What’s the actual asking price for the Rockbox, Derek? That Laughing Squid article says $5,200, but the Craigslist ad says $13,500.


The price listed on the Craigslist ad is an error; the actual price is $5200 for the car, and $13,500 for the car and the sound system. I’ve also got a triple-axle trailer suitable for hauling the Rockbox, and I’m willing to let that go for $6500. Those prices are a lot less than what I’ve got in it; I’m not even breaking even by selling it, so I’m firm and don’t want to deal with any lowballers. I figure anyone who can’t scrape together my asking price doesn’t have the budget to maintain the car anyway. . . and I want to get it to someone who will give it a good home, and who has the means to bring it to Burning Man this year!


Why are you selling her?


A lot of reasons. . . with an art car of this scale there’s a certain level of commitment you have to put into it to make it work, and I’ve got a baby on the way. Plus, although I’m taking a break from Burning Man this year and my priorities are really focused on being a father at the moment, I do want to move forward and build something new when things settle down a bit. I’m very happy with the Rockbox, and I’d like to see someone take it over and keep bringing it to the playa – in fact, I’m hoping that whoever does buy it will want me to continue to be part of the project, although not this year – but I’m looking ahead and wanting to create something new.

Photo: chednugget

Photo: chednugget


Is there a lot of maintenance involved?


The Rockbox took five people seven months to build back in 2007. We ran it on the playa for four days that year, while it was still under construction. I didn’t do any maintenance to it at all that year and tried to bring it back to Burning Man in ’08 without fussing with it, but kept having mechanical problems. Before bringing it back in 2011, I did three weeks’ worth of preventative maintenance on it and had no breakdowns at all. . . so you do have to be diligent about doing some maintenance, but it’s really not that bad at all, and is easier if you do it sooner rather than later.

We never finished the lighting system due to budget and time constraints so we did a lot of daytime cruises in 2011. It lights up a lot better now than it ever has out on the playa!

You definitely have to be into working on the thing rather than just wanting to drive it around on the playa. There’s more to it than just driving it, and the biggest challenge is getting it home again when Burning Man is over.


Sure. We could have put a man on the Moon in the ’50s, but getting him back again would have been a problem.


Right. You need the resources to handle whatever unexpected thing might come up out there.


Is it hard to drive? Obviously it’s not street-legal, right?


It’s not legal on public roadways at all.

Driving it is not that tough; you can even DJ while you drive the car if you really think you have to, although I don’t recommend it. Backing up takes a spotter or two, but I have a camera system I’ve been meaning to install to allow the driver to see what’s behind the car, and I could throw that in on the deal.


Tell me about your next project.


I had the idea for the Rockbox in 2004, and came up with the idea for the new project – the Smiling Conundrum – at the same time. It’s a large-scale dicycle car with 12-foot steel wheels. One of the wheels has a big smiley face painted on it; the other has a frowny face, so it looks happy or sad depending on if it’s coming or going. It’s about halfway done right now, but I’ve got it on a back burner with everything else that isn’t a baby.

I started building the Smiling Conundrum with a gas-powered motorcycle engine, but decided to go electric with it instead. . . so it didn’t make it to the playa in 2010 because going electric meant rebuilding the drive train.

When it’s finished, it’ll be solar-powered, with an onboard gas-powered generator for emergency backup, and will also be capable of accepting a charge from grid power.


I hope to see it out there, and you with it. Thanks for talking with me; good luck with the new baby you’ve got coming.


My pleasure, thank you.

Image: Derek Wunder

Image: Derek Wunder

Image: Derek Wunder

Image: Derek Wunder

Image: Derek Wunder

Image: Derek Wunder

RUN, IT IS RISEN! A Burning Man Easter Story


by Whatsblem the Pro

On Good Friday, we reported that art car favorite El Pulpo Mecanico would be scrapped. Three days later on Easter Sunday, El Pulpo artist/designer Duane Flatmo commented on that article:

“The idea to decommission El Pulpo Mecanico has changed. El Pulpo Mecanico was in need of a newer, more reliable lower vehicle and a better, more precise fire system. We had decided to build something new in this process. Now after an overwhelming and heartwarming response, we have decided to bring her back this year with an even more detailed and beautiful transformation. El Pulpo Mecanico will be at BM 2013 after all. See you there and thanks!”

It’s a miracle! is proud to present:

A Burning Man Easter Story

For El Pulpo Cosmico so loved the world, that It gave Its only begotten Hatchling, that whosoever come too close to It should perish in everlasting flames. For El Pulpo Cosmico sent not Its Hatchling into the world to bore the world with tedium; but that the world through It might be delighted. (John 3:16-17)

And Its disciples went forth, and came into the City, and found It at the Embarcadero as It said unto them: and they made ready for the show. (Mark 14:16-17)

And as It did terrify the crowd and fill them with awe, El Pulpo Mecanico crushed an automobile, and blessed and broke it, and gave to them, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And It took the 55-gallon drum of petroleum distillates, and when It had given thanks, It gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And It said unto them, “This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many. Verily I say unto thee, I will drink no more of the fruit of the refinery, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of my Father. (Mark 14:22-25)

Then the policemen of the Mayor took El Pulpo Mecanico into the common garage, and gathered unto It the whole band of mechanics. And they stripped It, and put on It a scarlet tarpaulin.

And when they had platted a crown of barbed wire, they put it upon Its head, and a beer in Its right tentacle; and they bowed the knee before It, and mocked It, saying Hail King of the Cephalopods! And they spit on It, and took the beer away, and smote It on the head. And after that they had mocked It, they took the tarpaulin off from It, and put Its own raiment on It and led It away to dismantle It. (Matthew 27:27-31)

And as they led It away, they laid hold upon one Flatmo, an Humboldtian, coming out of the country, and on him they laid the fuel bill, that he might bear it after El Pulpo Mecanico. And there followed It a great company of people and women, which also bewailed and lamented It. (Luke 23:26-27).

And when they were come to the place, which is called Arcata Scrap & Salvage, there they dismantled It, and the malefactors, one on the right tentacle, and the other on the left. Then said El Pulpo Mecanico, “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:33-34)

Then the mechanics, when they had dismantled El Pulpo Mecanico, took Its parts, and made four piles, to every wrench monkey a pile; and also Its upper body. Now the upper body was without flaw, sturdy from the top throughout. They said therefore among themselves, “Let us not scrap it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be: that the Scripture might be fulfilled, which saith, They parted me out among them, and for my superstructure they did cast lots.” These things therefore the mechanics did. (John 19:23-24)

And it was about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And the Sun was darkened, and the vail of the temple was rent in the midst. And when El Pulpo Mecanico had cried out with a loud voice, It said, “Father, into thy many prehensile arms I commend my spirit,” and having said thus, It gave up the ghost. Now when Flatmo saw what was done, he glorified El Pulpo Cosmico, saying, “Certainly this was a righteous art car.” (Luke 23:44-47)

When the even was come, there came a rich man of Australia named Zos, who also himself was El Pulpo Mecanico’s disciple: He sent his emissary to Flatmo, and begged the body of El Pulpo Mecanico for a reasonable price. Then Flatmo responded not, and the body was not delivered. He wrapped it instead in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed. (Matthew 27:57-60)

And Whatsblem the Pro and all of Facebook beheld where he was warehoused. (Mark 15:47)

And very early in the morning, the Sunday of that week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the Sun. And they said among themselves, “Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?” And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great. And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a greasy coverall; and they were affrighted. And he saith unto them, “Be not affrighted: ye seek El Pulpo of Humboldt, which was dismantled: It is risen; It is not here: behold the place where they scrapped It. But go your way, tell Its disciples and all of Facebook that It goeth before you into Black Rock City: there shall ye see It, as It said unto you. (Mark 16:2-7)


Duane Flatmo just sent me this sneak peek of El Pulpo’s new front end!

Photo: Duane Flatmo

Photo: Duane Flatmo