Digging Ra Paulette

by Whatsblem the Pro

You think YOU'RE an underground artist? -- PHOTO: Ra Paulette

You think YOU’RE an underground artist? — PHOTO: Ra Paulette

If you’ve spent much time at all sitting around camp fires and burn barrels chewing the fat with people who go to Burning Man, then you know they tend to be fond of talking about buying land and forming intentional communities of one kind or another, building on the lessons learned by participating in the culture that has grown up around the event.

It goes without saying that they’re also rather fond of art, and uniqueness, and deserts.

Somewhere nestled in the big empty between Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico, there’s a burner daydream for sale: 208 acres of privacy and freedom to spread out on. . . and the property features two hand-excavated art caves.

Eloi need not apply -- PHOTO: Ra Paulette

Eloi need not apply — PHOTO: Ra Paulette

The large and intricately carved underground spaces – described in the real estate listing as ‘cathedrals’ or ‘meditation caverns’ – are the handiwork of 67-year-old Ra Paulette, who has spent the last quarter of a century working alone at digging out and decorating a series of mind-blowing sandstone chambers beneath the surface of New Mexico.

Describing his process, Paulette says “manual labor is the foundation of my self-expression. To do it well, to do it beautifully, is a whole-person activity, engaging mental and emotional strengths as well as physical strength.”

Armed only with hand tools and his trusty wheelbarrow, Paulette follows his own very particular star in a starless darkness whose sky lies beneath our feet. He seems to have developed techniques all his own that allow him to work with remarkable efficiency, accompanied only by his faithful dog.

“When digging and excavating the caves,” he elaborates, “I break down all the movements into their simplest parts and reassemble them into the most efficient patterns and strategies that will accomplish the task while maintaining bodily ease. Like a dancer, I feel the body and its movement in a conscious way. I’m fond of calling this ‘the dance of digging,’ and it is the secret of how this old man can get so much done.”

Paulette’s strange story and that of his long and solitary labor of love has been immortalized in a documentary that may just be on its way to an Academy Award nomination: director Jeffrey Karoff’s CAVE DIGGER. The film, which has been much-lauded at international film festivals this year, spelunks both Paulette’s artistic ouevre, and the artist’s difficulties in dealing with the demands of his patrons. Paulette’s clashes with those who would try to direct his artistic efforts in exchange for mere money have spawned a distressing number of unfinished projects and left the cloistered cave-carver determined to work only for himself as he completes his magnum opus over the course of a decade of digging.

“My final and most ambitious project is both an environmental and social art project that uses solitude and the beauty of the natural world to create an experience that fosters spiritual renewal and personal well being,” explains Paulette. “It is a culmination of everything I have learned and dreamed of in creating caves.”

According to the real estate listing, grid electricity and telephone lines are ready to serve the lot at its perimeter, and the gated property features roads that connect with New Mexico State Highway 285 for easy access. Along with Paulette’s underground cathedrals and their “candlelit niches, recessed seating and various breathtaking side rooms that are washed in sunlight,” the 208-acre homestead boasts “majestic mountain views” and “surreal rock formations throughout.”

See you there?

The trailer for Jeffrey Karoff’s Ra Paulette documentary, CAVE DIGGER

Destroy the Temple, Save the Village

by Whatsblem the Pro

Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Christchurch NZ - Photo: David Wethey/NSPA/AP

Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Christchurch NZ – Photo: David Wethey/NSPA/AP

A crew of volunteers in Christchurch, New Zealand, including five professional engineers and a draftsman from global engineering firm Aurecon, are coming together to build a temple for the earthquake-stricken city. . . and then burn that temple down a few weeks later.

The Temple for Christchurch project is inspired by Burning Man and the Temple built there each year, which attendees use for valuable catharsis by writing about their lost ones on the walls before the building is burnt to the ground. The people of Christchurch will be allowed to visit their Temple and write on the walls for several weeks before the structure is burned as a public event.

Photo: Kirk Hargreaves/Christchurch Press/Reuters

Photo: Kirk Hargreaves/Christchurch Press/Reuters

There’s some interesting architecture to the project, too; at 6.3 meters, the building’s height will reflect the magnitude of the biggest and most destructive earthquake in the recent spate, which devastated Christchurch on February 22nd, 2011. The lines of the building’s 40-meter length and 25-meter width will be designed to mirror the seismic waveform of the quake, as recorded at the monitoring station closest to the epicenter.

Hippathy Valentine, a leader of the project, said that the volunteers are driven by the city’s need for a little catharsis and emotional balm in the aftermath of the devastation.

“We plan to open to the public in June on the site of the old Convention Centre on Peterborough St. before [moving the Temple] outside of the city to be ceremonially burnt. We hope that people will share their earthquake experiences and use the Temple as a catalyst for reflection on how the earthquakes have affected them, their city, and their communities.”

Aurecon structural engineer Luis Castillo called the design of the Temple “right at the cutting edge of architecture for the new Christchurch.”

Some areas were badly flooded - Photo: Mark Mitchell/NZ Herald/AP

Some areas were badly flooded – Photo: Mark Mitchell/NZ Herald/AP

“The project gives us the chance to ‘think outside the box,’ to be creative while having a good grasp of the many technical issues that range from material properties to spatial vision,” said Castillo. “We created a balsa wood model to help crystalize our thinking.

“It was also a great opportunity for Aurecon staff to be proactive in bringing the city back to life and creating a means by which [local residents] can go out and enjoy it.”

The Black Rock Arts Foundation is lending some support to the project, and you can too. Get involved, or just show your support for the Temple for Christchurch with a donation of money, food, tools, or other resources, by visiting the project’s website, or by going directly to their Indiegogo campaign.

Good on ya for it, too. . . she’ll be right, mate, with time and hard work and a little good old-fashioned soul-cleansing fire.

Black Rock, Red Earth: Burning Man in Australia

by Whatsblem the Pro

A typical Aussie, hanging onto the Earth by his toes

A typical Aussie, hanging onto the Earth by his toes

  In 2009, a small gathering of about thirty people came together in Bellingen, New South Wales, Australia, to have an informal burn of their own. It went so well that it became an actual event in 2010, with over four hundred in attendance. Burning Seed was born, and with it Red Earth City.

  The event was moved to Matong State Forest, NSW in 2011, and it just keeps getting bigger, with over 600 burners making the trek in 2012, and considerably more than that expected this year. The site lies nestled in a forest of Cyprus pine and gum trees in the middle of the Riverina District of New South Wales, a huge agricultural center featuring vast expanses of lightly rolling pasture.

  I was privileged to work with some of Burning Seed’s prime movers on an art project in Reno back in 2012, so when the shadowy cabal of grossly amoral alien oligarchs that controls Burners.me from behind the scenes (exposé coming soon!) commanded me to investigate this new wonder down under or suffer their reptilian wrath, I cowered and tugged my forelock respectfully. . . and then I got in touch with Bradley “Big Deal” Ogden, head of Burning Seed’s Department of Planning and Infrastructure (DPI).

Bradley "Big Deal" Ogden, head of the down-under DPW

Bradley “Big Deal” Ogden, head of the down-under DPW


So tell me: what’s your role with Burning Seed, and how did you discover Burning Man?

BRADLEY “BIG DEAL” OGDEN I run the DPI (Department of Planning and Infrastructure), which is our version of Black Rock’s DPW. I work with different teams to deliver the town plan (we’re still a town, not a city yet), and all of the town’s infrastructure – marquees, generators, toilets, etc. – everything that’s not the Temple or the Effigy.

I was planning a trip to America in 2009, and a friend told me to go to Burning Man. “Trust me,” she said, “you’ll love it!” I trusted her, and I loved it.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO How big is your DPI crew?

BRADLEY “BIG DEAL” OGDEN The DPI is just four people pre-event, and two during the event.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO Aside from being that much smaller and on different terrain, how does Burning Seed differ from Burning Man?

BRADLEY “BIG DEAL” OGDEN There are lots of the same things going on, but as you say: on a much smaller scale. It’s a lot more tight-knit than Burning Man. . . you can really feel the community. We have all types there, with healthy participation of locals from the immediate surrounding area, along with the people who show up from all over Australia, New Zealand, and the world.

I must say, the quality of what is going on, for a small event, is just amazing. . . slick theme camps, great art, and this year we’ll see our first fleet of art cars!

WHATSBLEM THE PRO How do you apply the ten principles differently?

Burning Seed's Effigy loves you this much

Burning Seed’s Effigy loves you this much



BRADLEY “BIG DEAL” OGDEN We try to apply them in much the same way, actually.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO What kind of arrangements do you have to make with the authorities? Are you harassed by law enforcement? Do they even have a presence at your event?

BRADLEY “BIG DEAL” OGDEN Arrangements are made with the New South Wales State Forestry Department for use of the land. They’ve been hugely supportive of the event over the last three years, as has the local community.

Being in a State Forest and surrounded by farmland poses a few problems for us, namely fire hazards. Australia is very prone to bush fires; in fact, a lot of our native flora relies on it to reproduce. . . so we’re lighting up a 12.5-meter effigy in the middle of a tinder box. We work closely with the RFS (Rural Fire Service) and State Forestry to keep the risk down. I bought a fire truck this year, which will act as Red Earth Fire and Rescue’s first unit.

As for law enforcement, we have a minor police presence; two or three officers who just pop in and out over the course of the weekend. They also are supportive of the event!

All the burn, none of the dust

All the burn, none of the dust

WHATSBLEM THE PRO Who handles the money, and where does it go?

BRADLEY “BIG DEAL” OGDEN Phil Smart and Jodi Rivet handle the money, which all goes back into the festival. The financial info is made public everywhere; we donate some money to the local school every year, as well.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO How have things changed at your event since you began? What are the goals for the future?

BRADLEY “BIG DEAL” OGDEN Our internal organizational structure and processes have evolved remarkably quickly, and by leaps and bounds; our overall group of Team Leads has grown, in people and experience; event attendance has blossomed and continues to grow rapidly.

For the future, we’d simply like to stay on the track we’re on, and get bigger and better. Personally, I’d like to see this become one of the world’s great burns in the next five years. I think we have the right ingredients here, and more and more people come out of the woodwork to join us every year. It’s exciting times; we’re expecting 800 or more this year.

Seeing more collaboration in future between burner groups in Australia and New Zealand would be awesome too, both at our respective burns and in Nevada. That’s already starting to happen; I went over for KiwiBurn to work last year, and we had three of them over for Burning Seed in 2012. Two of us went back for KiwiBurn 2013.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO Tell me about the differences between Burning Seed and Kiwiburn

BRADLEY “BIG DEAL” OGDEN The differences between Burning Seed and KiwiBurn? [laughs]

Do I have to answer that one?


Dance party with Bruce, Bruce, Bruce, Bruce, and Bruce

Dance party with Bruce, Bruce, Bruce, Bruce, and Bruce

FACT: Australians also have asses, much like our own

FACT: Australians also have asses, much like our own

BRADLEY “BIG DEAL” OGDEN They’re two entirely different festivals, almost. Not totally, but the vibe is a lot different. There are lots more student/hippie types at KiwiBurn, and we’re a bit more Mad Max. I think our theme camps are better. . . much better, in fact. The crew on both sides of the ditch are awesome, though. So basically, we have fewer hippies here in Australia, although they’re still there.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO I wish I could make it! Maybe I could sell a kidney or kidnap an heiress or something for the airfare.

BRADLEY “BIG DEAL” OGDEN Yeah, who needs two? You’d be welcome, mate, come on down and we’ll find something for you to do.

Burning Seed 2013 will be taking place October 2nd to October 8th this year. First-tier tickets are going for AU$125, and full-priced tickets for AU$165 ($131.81 and $174 in U.S. dollars, respectively).