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.