The Poor Man’s Burning Man 4: The Shower of Tower

by Whatsblem the Pro

The weather cowers as the Control Tower rises. Flee, puny humans! PHOTO: Alan Macy

The weather cowers as the Control Tower rises. Flee, puny humans! PHOTO: Alan Macy

The International Arts Megacrew has been out on the playa for over a week now, setting up camp and working on getting their project, the Control Tower, assembled. As you may recall, has been following the construction of the Tower at the Generator, a community industrial arts space in Sparks, Nevada, with regular updates from on site. Whatsblem the Pro reports from the playa:

Since my duties with the International Arts Megacrew have been more oriented toward scrounging up necessary materials and equipment than working on the actual build, I stayed behind when the core builders of the crew headed out from Sparks to Black Rock City to begin construction. I did visit overnight for Early Burn to get my tent and gear set up before making a strategic retreat to Reno, but my Early Arrival pass wasn’t actually good until the 19th.

For the trip out to Early Burn, I traveled with Mr. Auguste Lemaire, President of Sunvelope Solar, a tech start-up based in Sparks. I first met Auguste just a few months ago, and pitched him on the idea of providing one or two of his company’s proprietary solar water heaters to the IAM so that we could rig up some hot showers for the crew. Augie, being as generous a human being as he is a brilliant engineer and inventor, took the idea and ran with it straight into the heart of my wildest dreams: he suggested that Sunvelope build a complete shower trailer for us instead. We kicked some ideas around and came up with a basic concept, which Auguste developed into a self-contained system small enough to fit on a spare trailer he had sitting around at his shop. Meanwhile, I consulted a water treatment engineer to figure out how to filter the graywater, so that Auguste could build a completely closed system capable of safely recirculating 500 gallons without any need for an evaporation pond. Using donated hot and cold water tanks from our friends at Twin City Surplus, a donated swimming pool filter and chlorine supplies courtesy of Patty LaDue at Sun Leisure Pools & Spas, and activated charcoal given to us by Sierra Aquatics, the Sunvelope shower trailer was designed to provide hot water for the entire crew to bathe in out on the playa, twenty-four hours a day, for the duration of the burn. On top of putting many hours and a ton of hard work into designing and building this massive boon to our comfort and sanity, Auguste was kind enough to haul the trailer (and me) out to Black Rock City with his company truck.

We planned to leave the morning of the day before Early Burn, but as we all know, plans are what people make while destiny laughs. All snags proved to be minor, however, and we finally rolled out of the Sunvelope lot in Sparks just before dusk. The final shower booth construction and plumbing would be finished off in camp, by our carpenters and handyfolk, so Auguste and I piled the pre-cut wood of the shower booths and stairs onto the sides of the trailer for the journey.

The delay may have saved us. As we approached Fernley and the turnoff from I-80 to NV-447, I checked the side mirror to see how the trailer was doing, and it was dark enough outside that I noticed a few sparks coming off of the trailer’s deck that I probably wouldn’t have noticed with the Sun still up. Augie pulled to the shoulder and we checked it out; the trailer was rated to carry more than the weight we’d burdened it with, but its leaf springs were sagging slightly with age and use, allowing one of the trailer’s tires to rub on the underside of the deck. The tire was smoking and gooey and trying to catch fire; it had actually burned a hole the size of an eye through the wooden deck above it, which was the source of the sparks I’d noticed. Thinking quickly, Augie opened the drain valve at the bottom of the cold water tank, drenching the trailer’s deck and the fitfully smoldering tire. Before we could roll again, we had to drain out most of the cold water and rearrange the lumber a bit, to reduce and redistribute the weight. “It doesn’t matter,” Augie told me. “The system will run fine with only half the water in it, although it would be best to get it topped off with cold water after we park it.”

The Sunvelope shower trailer -- PHOTO: Alan Macy

The Sunvelope shower trailer — PHOTO: Alan Macy

We took it slow and stopped to check the trailer often. By the time we got to the Miner’s Club in Gerlach, it was late night and we were the only sober heads bellied up to the bar. Augie and I talked it over and decided that we’d be better off spending the night in Gerlach rather than heading out to unknown conditions on the playa while it was dark out. I fortified myself with a modest dose of medicinal grain alcohol, swapped jokes and info with the DPW roughnecks getting their own drink on, and spent a reasonably comfortable night ‘camping,’ with Augie in the cab of his truck, and me cozy and warm under the stars and the branches of trees on a futon mattress thrown across the open section of deck at the front of the shower trailer. At first light we stowed our gear, hit Bruno’s for breakfast, and made the short run from Gerlach out to the playa.

Security seemed unusually tight given that it was still pre-Early Burn. Naked Bob (wearing clothes and looking unhappy about it) and a gang of Gate workers met us on the way in, frowning and fretting over who we were, what we were hauling, and when we would be leaving. After satisfying himself that nothing was too seriously amiss, Bob waved us on through and we started the long slow roll into Black Rock City.

At the Control Tower build site, we found most of the crew attending to two of the Tower’s three rings, which were set up on-end in alignment with each other. It looked like they were building an interdimensional portal for intrepid travelers to step through into some other, more exotic zone of existence. Not far off, the Temple squatted unfinished, a high-tech echo of Khufu’s great tomb in Egypt. The rest of the lots delineated by the newly-marked streets stood mostly empty, dotted only here and there with the advance camps and projects of other crews, and with DPW’s various facilities; we had entered a still-wild and only sparsely-populated frontier town that would soon burgeon and flower into the buzzing hive of happy activity we call Black Rock City.

Ken Rose, the IAM’s resident architect and designer of both the Control Tower and 2011’s Temple of Transition, he is even mentioned in Larry Adkin’s guide! They then directed us to our camp a few blocks away, where Auguste and I positioned the trailer for maximum solar collection, and made a thorough once-over of the shower trailer’s systems. We wouldn’t actually be able to test the thing until the booths were assembled and plumbed, but we were both optimistically hoping for the best as Auguste and I said our goodbyes, and he set off for the long drive home.

I busied myself for the rest of the day with setting my own camp up, helping here and there around the common areas, and visiting the DPW depot to say hello to friends. Both lunch and dinner with the IAM were outstandingly good, considering where we were and how early we were there. Thanks to a generous donation from Sierra Gold Seafood in Sparks, the crew dined abundantly on crab and smoked salmon. The weather was clear and perfect, the playa flat and firm, and I felt that all was well with the world as I bedded down for the night in the comfort of my little tent.

These colors don't run -- PHOTO: Alan Macy

These colors don’t run — PHOTO: Alan Macy

As it turned out, the weather held until after I made it back to the playa the next day. On the build site working with the crew, I noticed spectacular displays of lightning off in the distance, and was alarmed to notice that it was happening on all sides of us. In the middle of our efforts to assemble the Tower, we found ourselves caught in a serious dust storm that rolled across us with great suddenness, heralding the beginning of a brutal night of high winds that snapped one of the main poles of my tent like a toothpick. I spent half the night with my tent alternately collapsing on me to entomb me in nylon, and belling out again to catch more wind. I could have sought shelter in some sturdier structure, like a truck or an RV, but I really wasn’t ruffled and just didn’t feel it necessary to impose on any of my camp mates. In spite of the horrendous flap-flap-flapping of tent fabric snapping in a hurricane breeze all around me, I fell asleep easily with a smile on my face, and slept like a log until dawn.

The completion of the shower trailer was a real cause for celebration; Auguste’s experimental design works flawlessly. The closed loop system means that there’s no real need to conserve water, although we do need to limit use of soap and shampoo to Dr. Bronner’s only. Sunvelope’s solar water heaters crank out hot water at an incredible rate; in hindsight, the three big collector panels on the trailer seem like overkill. By the end of that first evening of hot showers, the entire crew was clean and glowing with the special happiness that comes from enjoying a serious creature comfort in a place where no such thing is ever guaranteed or even likely. The Devil be damned; we had successfully delivered ice cream cones to our friends in Hell.

Another wind storm hit the playa last night, and a little rain, but nothing even close to the three inches of precipitation that was predicted. There was enough warning for us to batten down our camp’s hatches pretty effectively; a few very fat drops here and there was the extent of it, and the squall passed much more quickly than the earlier all-night storm. By the time I was ready to sleep, the weather was once again placid and comfortably cool; rather than rough it in my half-collapsed tent with the broken pole, I grabbed a blanket and pillow and kipped out on a couch in the communal area. . . and lo and behold, the playa has provided: as of this morning, I have a new and much larger tent, courtesy of a camp mate with no need or use for it. Welcome to the Black Rock City Press Club, please remove your shoes at the door. Outside, the city grows by leaps and bounds hourly; friends old and new stop by in the leisurely hours of the day to share gossip and treats; everyone is busy but we all have that certain sense of joy you get when some of your problems are thorny, but all of your problems are worth having. We are beyond the First World here; we have only Zeroth World problems now.

As for the Control Tower, the interruptions in schedule posed by the weather and an initial abortive attempt to assemble the Tower upright are now behind us; architect Ken Rose says that the valiant crew is catching up very handily. They are playa-hardened and morale is high; nothing can stand in the way now that can’t be coped with.

See you soon!

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UPDATE: Reports of heavy police presence on the playa are true. We will have more information on specific law enforcement activities as soon as we have solid facts first-hand from reliable sources. In the meantime, if you’re on the playa, exercise caution at all times and assume you are being watched, particularly while driving a vehicle.

Ensign to the Bridge!

by Whatsblem the Pro

Useful is the new sexy

Useful is the new sexy

We’ve been covering the build of the Control Tower over the last month or two, and today we’ve got an opportunity for YOU to be part of the project on-playa.

Sevenn, the International Arts Megacrew‘s administrative angel, is looking for people to fill slots as “Control Tower Ensigns,” helping the crew keep the Tower manned and operational 24/7. There are a number of four-hour shifts available throughout the week that will give you a chance to get a look at the workings of this massive, amazing art project from an insider’s point of view. There may be swag involved, and you’ll also get to hobnob and generally rub elbows with the legendary builders of the IAM, creators of the Temple of Transition that wowed Black Rock City in 2011, among other major playa art projects.

“The Control Tower Ensigns will help support the crew and systems of the Control Tower during the event, serving as ambassadors and safety personnel,” says Sevenn. “There will be a Control Tower crew member on site at all times to train and help you. Thank you for your assistance and support!”

As a CT Ensign, you’ll be assisting an IAM crew member with duties such as keeping people from climbing the tower, recording any technical issues, acting as a liaison with Rangers and law enforcement personnel, ensuring the generators are running and fueled up, and more.

Sign-up for a CT Ensign shift is quick and easy; just visit the Volunteerspot page for the project and enter your information, then show up for your shift on the playa at the appointed time. You won’t have a hard time finding it – even at Burning Man, a sixty-foot tower loaded with lasers and flamethrowers and other implements of funstruction will be hard to miss – just go to 3:15 and Esplanade, and you’ll see it.

That's a 1:5 scale model of the Tower; crew members are actual size

That’s a 1:5 scale model of the Tower; crew members are actual size

The 1:5 scale model of the Control Tower shows off

The 1:5 scale model of the Control Tower shows off

Mischief Lab's fine work-in-progress on the Tower's flame capability

Mischief Lab’s fine work-in-progress on the Tower’s flame capability

The base of the full-sized Tower taking shape

The base of the full-sized Tower taking shape


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: