Elon Musk: “Burning Man IS Silicon Valley”

Mike Judge is one of this country’s comic greats.

As well as Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill, he made the classic movie Idiocracy.

Now he’s back with a terrific new show on HBO, a sardonic look at Silicon Valley called “Silicon Valley”. It has been called “Entourage with Asperger’s”. It debuted last night, I just watched it with a friend who also has a lot of experience in the Valley, and we both found it hilarious. They’ve totally nailed it, and I can’t wait for the show to develop.

Trailer:

Here’s the whole first episode:

spacex-headquarters-main-office-4Being San Francisco, of course, not everyone is happy about it: including Burner and Tesla founder Elon Musk, who has judged Judge for not radically including himself in our shenanigans. He should be a Burner more like Elon, who flies in by private plane to his plug-n-play Segway model RV compound. Does that put you in a position to be saying “Silicon Valley is Burning Man”?  Hey, when your plane takes off from your office which has 5 Spaceships and you bring the Lucent Dossier Experience to the party, that’s fine by us! You clearly know how to do it better than the fresh-from-Crimea virgins who (shock! horror!) wore a t-shirt with some sort of logo on it, or had to hitch a ride because they couldn’t score a vehicle pass.

Recode brings us the full story, of Elon’s comments over bacon and waffles:

If the crowd reactions at the Silicon Valley premiere of HBO’s comedy series “Silicon Valley” are any indication, the show will hit a nerve with tech’s power players.

Young programmers said they saw themselves in the show. Lawyers and venture capitalists were happy that people would finally see how much power engineers have these days. And Tesla founder Elon Musk, whose name was dropped in the first few minutes of the first episode, hated it.

vice-mike-judge-talks-beavis-butthead-2Created by Mike Judge, Dave Krinsky and John Altschuler, and filmed on location in Palo Alto, the show, which debuts on April 6, follows six roommates, all programmers, as they try to strike it rich in Silicon Valley. During the first two 30-minute episodes at Redwood City’s Fox Theatre, the audience of around 400 locals responded with laughs and sighs as the characters enacted the constant pitching, striving and inanity that felt familiar to those in the recent tech boom.

Afterward, the audience and cast filed uneasily together down Broadway to an after-party at the Fox Forum banquet hall, where a group of Silicon Valley lawyers and venture capitalists formed a tight circle.

“It was no more unreal than real life here,” said Selwyn B. Goldberg, a partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. “Since the last bubble, it’s been complete insanity.”

Simon Roy, president of Jemstep, agreed, and said the show captures the enormous power that engineers have today.

“In the ’90s, in the 2000s, it wasn’t like this.”

If the VCs and law firm partners were fans, serial entrepreneur Musk was less so. He sees the Valley through Playa-dust encrusted glasses:

Elon Musk, whose high-profile companies SpaceX and Tesla have made him a very big star of tech, recognized a friend in the VC scrum, and joined in.

“The truth? It’s stranger than the fiction,” Musk declared, as the large group debated the verisimilitude of the show and also tech versus Hollywood in general. “Most startups are a soap opera, but not that kind of soap opera.”

Musk did not much like the show and continued talking about the issue of truth versus fiction, in what was an instant television review of “Silicon Valley.”

The verdict of the digital Roger Ebert? Thumbs very much down.

“None of those characters were software engineers. Software engineers are more helpful, thoughtful, and smarter. They’re weird, but not in the same way,” he insisted. “I was just having a meeting with my information security team, and they’re great but they’re pretty fucking weird — one used to be a dude, one’s super small, one’s hyper-smart — that’s actually what it is.”

Musk continued his lively assessment, as waiters passed trays of sweetbread, truffled potatoes, Brussels sprouts and bacon and waffles around them, making larger points about the tech landscape and offering a kind of on-the-fly script notes session for those gathered.

“I really feel like Mike Judge has never been to Burning Man, which is Silicon Valley,” opined Musk. “If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it. You could take the craziest L.A. party and multiply it by a thousand, and it doesn’t even get fucking close to what’s in Silicon Valley. The show didn’t have any of that.”

An early Tesla prototype spotted at Burning Man in 2007

An early Tesla prototype spotted at Burning Man in 2007

Musk looked around the circle and asked who had been to colorful annual desert festival that is a favorite of tech’s elite. Not a one answered in the affirmative.

Then, Musk made the observation that the geeks are without the same social aspirations as those in the entertainment industry, an aspect which he thought the show completely missed.

“The parties in Silicon Valley are amazing because people don’t care about how they’re perceived socially, which I don’t think Mike [Judge] got. Hollywood is a place where people always care about what the public will think of them … and the show felt more like that,” he said. “I’ve lived in Hollywood 12 years, and I’ve never been to a fucking good party.”

Musk reached for a bacon waffle and proclaimed that he would take Judge to Burning Man this year.

We look forward to seeing a Beavis and Butthead art car (at least). Huh huh huh huh. These people are naked. Huh huh. Or at least, a Silicon Valley episode set at Burning Man. Starring Elon, natch.

If Elon thinks that there aren’t just as many celebrities at Burning Man as at your typical Hollywood party, then clearly he hasn’t been reading our coverage of the event.

After his film review, the twice-divorced billionaire Musk was forced to deal with the bevy of young hotties wanting to learn about the latest in SULEV technologies.

musk girl geeksDespite some misgivings about the show, it was clear that Musk was definitely more of a star than anyone present at the premiere. A coterie of millennial women, waiting for him to break away from the group, circled him.

Outside on the street, actor T.J. Miller was having a cigarette. Was he having a good time at the party?


“Yeah, but, and I’m not gonna name names, but if the billionaire power players don’t get the joke, it’s because they’re not comfortable being satirized,” said Miller, who plays a buffoonish character named Erlich, who owns the hacker house. “And they don’t remember that to be a target of humor is an honor — you have to be venerated to be satirized. Like, I’m sorry, but you could tell everything was true. You guys do have bike meetings, motherfucker.”

Also outside smoking was one of the show’s writers, Clay Tarver, who said he had been anxious about having the premiere in the heart of the Valley.

“We knew this would be either a lovely evening or the worst night of our lives,” Tarver said. “I’m still not sure which it is.”

musk_and_obamaTarver said he felt that Silicon Valley was a perfect topic for satire — and that the increasing public resentment toward tech means that the show didn’t even feel that mean anymore (after all, earlier that morning, protesters had vomited on a Yahoo shuttle in Oakland).

“When I first read the pilot, I thought maybe it was too harsh,” he said. “But even just in the last four months, the resentment toward the Valley has come through the roof, so I think it works.”

The HBO jet was docked at an airstrip nearby, and the media execs started filing out to head back to Los Angeles. By the photo booth in the back of the banquet hall, the stars of the show were dancing with their girlfriends.

“The Valley is a place that takes itself too seriously, and it has yet to be properly lampooned,” said lead character Thomas Middleditch. “So it’s time for … it’s time for a wedgie.

It sure is. And I can think of another San Francisco subculture of self-important hipsters who could use a wedgie or three also. Let’s hope Elon gives Mike Judge a LOT of inspiration at Caravansery.

Elon’s comments got some feedback from the show’s creators in the Hollywood Reporter:

producer Alec Berg was still trying to make sense of Musk’s criticisms. “I’m not quite sure what going to Burning Man has to do with anything that was in the show,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “I feel like [Musk] may have a slightly skewed opinion of people because he’s a billionaire and everyone wants to be helpful to him. It’s like he’s the most beautiful woman in the world and he’s saying, ‘Gosh, men are so helpful. They carry your bag and they get the door for you.’ If no one ever says ‘no’ to you and everyone is following around trying to help you, you probably lose perspective pretty f—ing fast.”

He added: “I also feel like the people that disliked it the most are the ones we were most going after, so it seemed like we probably hit the target if they got irked.”

Judge appeared less bothered by Musk’s remarks. “I would not claim to know Silicon Valley better than he does. I’m just going off of what I’ve observed,” he told THR, joking: “Maybe I’ll go to Burning Man with him and smooth it over.”

The show — which has been dubbed “Entourage with Asperger’s” by those involved — follows Richard (Middleditch), a young, socially awkward programmer who creates a search engine that allows musicians to see if their songs are too similar to existing ones. When a bidding war erupts between two tech billionaires over the algorithm behind the app, Richard has to decide between $10 million or taking a risk and possibly making billions. Judge relied on his past experiences working as a test engineer for a Silicon Valley start-up and a few tours of modern tech companies, including Google, to create the series.

While Musk may not have found the satire entirely accurate, he still was able to appreciate the humor. “Some of these billionaires, we have to poke fun at them. That’s the idea,” noted actor T.J. Miller. “They may not love that we’re pocking fun at them, but I said to [Musk], ‘Did you think it was funny?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, it was funny. I was laughing.’ ”

The biggest laugh at the Silicon Valley screening came with one of Kumail Nanjiani‘s (Dinesh) lines, in which he joked that Google co-founder Sergey Brin‘s partner, Larry Page, actually does nothing. (The line didn’t play quite as well with Thursday’s Hollywood audience.) 

“What was neat is all the inside-baseball tech stuff – all stuff we were thinking, ‘Is this right? Are people going to get this?’ – they got all that stuff,” added star Thomas Middleditchof a reception he found rewarding, acknowledging: “We were kind of nervous premiering Silicon Valley to the Silicon Valley.” 

Drone Bombardment Develops

Award-winning technology journalist Susan Karlin has written an excellent, in-depth article for Fast Co Create on drone use at Burning Man – something that is becoming increasingly popular, making some Burners disgruntled (of course!). You can also listen to this story on Los Angeles NPR station, KCRW.

Burning Man–an annual bacchanalian, clothing-optional experimental community in Nevada’s Black Rock desert–is regarded as a weeklong end-of-summer party and escape from the outside world. But it’s now attracting real-world attention for how it balances drone use with freedom of expression, privacy, invasion of space, and commercialism–issues that have been vexing the FAA, law enforcement, and municipalities as hobbyist flyers and commercial potential proliferate.

We’re kind of a Petri dish for what’s going to happen out in the ‘default world,’” says Graham, evoking the festival term for “real world.” “The FAA is looking at certain types of rules for civilian use of drones in the United States and we just happen to be a testing ground for them right now. The Bureau of Land Management is going to send in their aviation person to talk with our drone pilots and see what they can learn from it.”

Great news, Burners. We’re no longer just a petri dish for the social engineers and game theorists of BMOrg. Now the Federal Government is doing experiments on us too!

Currently, the U.S. is more restrictive than Europe on commercial uses for drones–also called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the more PC term used by flyers wanting to distance their hobby from combat use. “In the U.S., the FAA is supposed to implement rules that enable commercial use of UAVs by 2015, but it hasn’t happened yet and no one really has a sense of whether it’s going to,” says Sergei Lupashin, a postdoctoral researcher in aerial robotics at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Lupashin spoke at the first annual Drone and Aerial Robotics Conference in New York over the weekend.

“It recently approved two high-end UAVs that can be used commercially, but that doesn’t handle the 99% of people flying their own drones, who have to do it as a hobby,” he adds. “In Europe, you can actually make money as an aerial drone operator shooting for things like real estate, events, journalism, and surveying oil pipelines.”


(L-R) Video consultant Eddie Codel demonstrates his quadcopter for filmmaker Sam Baumeland NASA engineer Kevin Panik.

The BLM are taking a keen interest in drones, particularly for surveillance. You can bet their Pershing County Sheriff’s department special integration task force is looking at this too.

Back in Nevada, the Bureau of Land Management–which can’t comment on drone use for investigative techniques, like surveillance–is considering drones for firefighting, and is more interested in regulating safety than privacy. “As far as a long-term vision goes, you’re going to see the BLM state office and aviation manager taking a look at how this is run to make sure everything is as safe as can be,” says Mark Turney, the public affairs officer for the BLM’s Winnemucca, Nevada, district office. “We will certainly take lessons learned from this and perhaps incorporate it into a larger overview.”

Burning Man has always been a “hotbed of early technology adopters”. Perhaps – I know it was a long time before I saw a full-color laser out there. It’s not often that Australia leads Silicon Valley in technology.

The rise of the drones at this year’s event was hardly surprising. Burning Man has long been a hotbed of early technology adopters, applying real-world engineering to fire-spewing art cars, computerized LED-lit installation art and clothing, and solar and wind energy-fueled power grids. There are even science-themed camps, like Phage (offering science lectures), the Alternative Energy Zone (sustainable energy engineering tours), and Math Camp (invitations to “drink and derive”).

There’s always been an experimental technology undercurrent to Burning Man, and a lot of R&D that’s tried out here and taken into the default world,” says Eddie “Ekai” Codel, a live video streaming consultant based in San Francisco. Codel’s footage (below), which he shot from a DJI Phantom Quadcopter, went viral within a few days of posting on YouTube, with more than 1.4 million views. “Technology is used to further art out here. It’s a giant sandbox to figure these things out.”

You can build your own drone from scratch. And, if you thought feathers were bad on the Playa, look what the birds got to contend with now: skydivers, light aircraft, multi-rotor helicopters, General Wesley Clark‘s Blackhawk, Mark Zuckerberg’s chopper and now – now we got giant Imax blimps too.

Most of the UAV users here fly ready-to-fly models, like the $700 DJI Phantom Quadcopter, and add GoPro HD cameras and gimbaled stabilizers for steadier views. But there are also serious professional aerial photographers and hard-core DIY enthusiasts who build their own from scratch. This year, Ziv Marom, a professional aerial cameraman now in Bulgaria shooting Expendables 3, operated a Red Epic camera from his octocopter, “Big Mama” (see lead photo), while a European IMAX crew used an elaborate multicopter-propelled balloon to guide their footage.

“I think I have about $1,500 invested in all of it,” says Ed Somers, a retired Los Angeles sound engineer of his self-made quadcopter. “There’s the airframe, motors, motor controllers, computer, five different kinds of battery chemistries to choose from, the chargers, and on and on. I thought it would be an incredible education, by forcing me to learn all that stuff. I’m a tech head anyway, so this is right up my alley. It’s just a gigantic learning curve.”


Drones offer a particularly interactive way into the Burning Man art scene and unique views of the event’s five square-mile expanse. Artists Bruce Tomb and Maria del Camino used a UAV with first person view (FPV) technology–allowing folks on the ground to see the craft’s viewpoint in real time–to display giant ground drawings only decipherable from above.Death Guild Thunderdome, a Mad Max-like cage fight with foam rubber clubs, attempted close-up combat footage with a drone before accidentally smashing it in the process.

Aerial roboticist Sergei Lupashin and his self-made Fotokite quadcopter.

It’s the perfect Petri dish to test the technology in very harsh conditions,” says Lupashin, who flies a tethered quadcopter drone, called a Fotokite, that he hopes to commercialize. “The scale of the event lends itself well to aerial photography. Once you reach those high altitudes–50, 100 meters–you get a whole different sense of how huge this thing is.”

…Wayne Miller, a San Francisco event planner and handyman better known as Sweetie, attempted to project live video footage from his fixed-wing Dynam C-47 Dakota model cargo plane, Duststar, onto two giant screens at a stage at his camp, Dustfish. “I’m also pretty sure I’m the first person to do aerial bombardment,” he laughs. “I just dropped six plastic paratrooperson the Esplanade. I have lots of ’em!”

It turns out that Free Bird wasn’t the only Temple controversy last year. We got Whirly Bird as well.

Discussions about UAV regulations began last year after a buzzing drone disrupted a silent, solemn burn of the festival’s spiritual center, called The Temple. It prompted a flurry of angry emails to the Burning Man organization, which responded with a Drone Summit in July at its San Francisco headquarters and online. Roughly 140 participants expanded theAcademy of Model Aeronautics rules to include Burning Man quirks–among them, don’t fly over crowds, at the Temple burn, by the airport, during the playa’s frequent dust storms, or near the Man on burn day.


Retired audio engineer Ed Somers flies his DIY drone by his camp

“What they really don’t want is people flying UAVs where there’s a potential of hurting someone,” says Somers. “You have to realize that, even a 10-inch plastic propeller spinning at 10,000 rpm can cut up a person real quick.

This is as serious as flamethrowers people. A young guy was flying his drone helicopter in a Brooklyn park last month, and lost his head – literally. DUIs for drugged-out drone pilots might be difficult to dole out in the dust.

Other rules, such as registering drones with Media Mecca, the event’s media center, pertain to a grayer area of privacy. Despite the festival’s mantra of radical self-expression, Burning Man takes pains to protect participant privacy and commercialization. Professional journalists and photographers arrange photo passes and sales contracts with Burning Man granting different types of image use. Burning Man disallows sales to stock photo agencies, but takes a 10% commission on fine art sales, as well as joint copyright so it can stop inappropriate usage. It also urges all photographers to ask permission of subjects before taking pictures.

More secrets of BMOrg finances come out. They get a 10% commission on fine art sales. So much for no commerce on the Playa. The booming use of drones (140 people attended last year’s Burning Man Drone summit) also raise a controversial privacy issue – “I went to Burning Man and all I got was photographed”

You may not have a right to privacy out here, but we try to give people the opportunity to express themselves how they want, and sometimes it’s a balancing act,” says Graham. “A drone with a camera is separated from its operator. That’s why there’s this extra sensibility training that we do with the drone pilots and we let the community know about it as well.”

The UAV community falls on both sides of that line. Sweetie, for one, balks at privacy restraints.

“I think that anybody who comes to Burning Man and walks around naked or wears a dildo on their head or whatever silliness they feel they need to do, if they need to protect their privacy, I think that should be on them, not on the rest of us,” he says.

Then you have Sam Baumel, a Brooklyn filmmaker and UAV flyer who believes privacy rules actually enable expression.

There are a lot of exhibitionists. But there are also people like myself,” he says. “Yesterday, I went out to deep playa. I was completely by myself at sunset and got naked. I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to photograph me. But the reason I did it was because, how often do I get to just stand on this Earth, in my body, and nothing else? If someone were to have flown a drone over my head, it would have made me uncomfortable.”

Carlos Abler, the global manager of online content strategy for 3M in St. Paul, Minnesota, found his reaction running that gamut when a drone interrupted a wedding he attended there.

“We were embracing the couple as a group when we suddenly heard this buzzing, whirring sound, and saw this thing hovering over us with a camera,” he says. “At first, it felt like a violation–it was really disturbing and distracting. But then we realized, ‘Oh my God, this is the best shot ever!’ So now we’re pretty excited to get our hands on the footage.”

This year’s rules were a good start, but need consensus, considering the vitriol spewing on the Burning Man drones mailing list. Subscribers clashed on how to define a crowd, whether to designate special flying areas, and how to penalize rule-breakers, like the wiseguy who flew his drone over the Man on burn day. Turns out, it was our very own Sweetie.

“They said to me, ‘Don’t you realize you could have set off the remote detonators?’“ Sweetie recounts. “I said, ‘If I can set off the remote with an RC plane, you guys are amateurs!’”

Apprised of Sweetie’s comments, Graham shakes his head and sighs. “Sweetie’s got a lot of self-confidence.”

 

And so this tug of war over UAV rules continues, while being watched by the outside. But what happens in the desert will be only so useful to bureaucrats dealing with drones in the real world. Because at Burning Man, freedom of expression will almost always trump anything else.

“I’m not only operating a camera, I’m operating a remote-controlled flying vehicle,” says Baumel. “I feel like I’m playing when I’m using it, and in that space of play, that’s where I can be most creative.

 

[Images courtesy of Carolyn Marut (Top) and Susan Karlin]

The Eye in the Sky: Drone Views of Cargo Cult

From The Week:

aerial 2013When most people think of drones, they probably think of remote-fired missiles raining down on Pakistan and Yemen. But it turns out that drones — or, technically, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — are also a pretty good platform for capturing a flavor of Burning Man, the surreal celebration of fleeting beauty, self-reliance, generosity, and elaborate self-expression held every year in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

If, like me, you’ve never been to Burning Man — or, like Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, you just helicopter in for one day of the weeklong festival — these drone’s-eye views of the big party in the desert are certainly a better introduction than the photos on your friend’s smartphone or Instagram page. If you are a Burning Man regular, here’s a different way to relive the magic.

The video above was taken by Eddie Codel from a DJI Phantom quadcopter UAV. The one below was captured by Tugrik d’Itichi from a TBS Discovery Pro quadrotor. Both UAVs held GoPro Hero3 cameras.

Here’s some more drone footage from 2013:

SHOP LOCAL: Twin City Surplus Has Burner Needs Covered

by Whatsblem the Pro

1675 E. 4th St. Reno, NV (888) 323-5630 -- PHOTO: Whatsblem the Pro

1675 E. 4th St. Reno, NV (888) 323-5630

Every year, a mighty throng of burners congregating from all over the world passes through the Gateway to Burning Man: Reno, Nevada. In their wake they leave some fifteen to twenty-five million dollars in revenue for local stores that sell the supplies they need.

It’s a regrettable fact that Walmart takes such a huge slice of that pie; their stores in the Reno/Sparks area do a booming business just before and after the burn, at the expense of locally-owned retailers and wholesalers who rely on location and word-of-mouth to bring in customers, rather than million-dollar ad campaigns.

TWIN CITY SURPLUS has no advertising budget. They’re family-owned and have been since 1963, they have everything you could possibly need for camping in the desert, they brought; emergency means to water, fire, shelter, a bushcraft knife, loads of preperartion and their diverse staff of friendly employees has been working there happily for years or decades.

It’s not nearly as big as Walmart, but Twin City Surplus is familiar with the needs of burners and is well-stocked with everything you might need to hit the playa, aside from groceries. . . although they do have MREs (“Meal, Ready to Eat” – in other words, a soldier’s rations) and a small selection of camping/survival food if you happen to swing that way, cuisine-wise. If you just got off an airplane and have no camping gear, you can walk into Twin City and walk out ready to burn like a pro. They’ve also got gear that you won’t find at Walmart, like enormous Army tents, and military-grade shade materials on the roll, with modular pole-and-butterfly-nut structures for easy-peasy DIY shade of any size or configuration you like.

The building is comfortably crammed with gear, and the two outdoor yards (one in back of the building, one across the street) are marvelous troves of treasure for campers, artists, makers, tinkerers, handymen, and builders of all stripe. There’s a distinctly family vibe to the place, and expert help available with finding what you need. There’s some pretty exotic gear for sale there, along with all the essentials you’ll need, including clothing and footwear.

Sure, you could buy your gear and supplies at Walmart, or some other corporate chain store; you probably will have to buy something or other (like booze) from a Big Box retailer, regardless of how conscientious you are. If you spend more of your money at ethical family-owned local businesses, though, then the money tends to stay in the community, where it keeps on working to make burners welcome in the eyes of the townies. Burning Man has transformed Reno in many ways, and you’re more than just another tourist when you pass through the Arch on your way to the playa. The city and its business community have proven to be very accommodating to burners over the years, and have fostered a thriving arts community as well. . . so let’s show them that they’re doin’ it right and should keep on showing us the love.

Check out Twin City Surplus; you’ll be glad you did.

 

TWIN CITY SURPLUS
http://twincitysurplus.com/
1675 E. 4th St.
Reno, NV 89512
(888) 323-5630 toll-free
Se habla español

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The Black Rock Bijou: Cinema in the Zone

by Whatsblem the Pro

Meet me in the balcony and baise-moi -- PHOTO: Oliver Fluck

Meet me in the balcony and baise-moi — PHOTO: Oliver Fluck


There’s a moment at Burning Man that is etched indelibly into my memory: while biking out in the deep playa, I spotted a mysterious object way off in the distance, too far from Black Rock City itself to be seen from anyplace in town. Was it a mirage? The playa has no shortage of them, and they can distort distances to the point that it’s impossible to tell if something is ten miles away, or only a quarter of a mile or so. I pedaled toward the tiny enigma and watched it get noticeably larger, indicating that maybe it wasn’t so far away as to be unreachable. A little more pedaling in the arid desert silence, and the blip resolved itself into a rectilinear structure of some kind. . . and then, as I finally got close enough to see clearly what had drawn me so far from the mother of all parties, my jaw dropped. There, all by itself in the middle of that vast sun-bleached gypsum plain, there in the trackless, blank heart of a mercilessly empty land, was. . . a movie theater.

This was no makeshift, ramshackle attempt. Anyone can put up a screen and project movies onto it, almost anywhere, but this was different. The movie theater I was looking at was made of brick, and looked like it couldn’t possibly have been built anywhere else. It seemed to be a permanent structure, and it looked old and a little run-down, but who on Earth would build and maintain such a thing – who COULD build and maintain such a thing – in such an empty, godforsaken place, so devoid of people and so far from anything and everything?

The building was tiny, but looked like it was neatly sliced out of a larger theater somewhere, as though some dimensional anomaly had warped space-time, causing a discrete section of a cinema in the Midwest of the 1950s to extrude itself through some mind-shattering Lovecraftian shortcut to the Black Rock desert. The thing was truly, clearly a labor of love, with a lighted marquee sporting Art Deco touches, and regularly-scheduled films being screened on-time in a genuine theater interior furnished with real theater seats. They even had a candy counter with those big movie-sized portions.

The laborers of love behind the Bijou are a couple of burners named Release Neuman and Sam Gipson. Their shared vision and loving attention to detail has given a unique and landmark experience to every burner lucky enough to stumble across it while braving the depths of the wilderness outside Black Rock City.

When I read their Mission Statement at the Black Rock Bijou website, I was really impressed. The experience I had the first time I saw the Bijou was entirely what they’d had in mind for me right from the start. The Bijou is built purely to blow minds, and designed to be discovered accidentally. Release and Sam run a tight ship of a genuine theater in pursuit of that mind-blowing quality, knowing that some hokey half-assed Halloweeny mock-up would not achieve the desired effect in the minds of those who stumble upon their brick mirage. The attention to detail is remarkable. . . and the Bijou isn’t just a strange visitor from another place; it’s as much time machine as anything else. The films shown Monday through Saturday at midnight, 2:00 AM, and 4:00 AM are all films that might have been screened in the theater the Bijou is modeled after: the Royal Theater in Archer City, Texas, made famous in the film The Last Picture Show.

I got together with Release and Sam to talk about the Bijou in August of 2013.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO:
Release, Sam. . . how did a fully-equipped old-school movie theater come to be operating in the depths of the Black Rock desert?

RELEASE:
Here’s how it started for me:

Sean Penn: the Milk of human kindness

Sean Penn: the Milk of human kindness

The first time I remember hearing about Burning Man was around 1997. I met this kid who was just out of film school, named Lance Black. Lance won the Academy Award a couple of years ago for the Milk screenplay, but this was long before his fame and fortune. He said there was this festival in the desert that 10,000 people went to, where they burned a big man in effigy. Lance said it was a crazy and fun adventure, and since I was with an Internet company at the time that was very cutting-edge, making made-for-the-net TV shows and films, we commissioned Lance to go make a film about Burning Man with a friend of his. I’m not sure I ever saw any results of that project; apparently the trip had gone a bit chaotically and the footage didn’t get through post-production before the company went out of business. As it turned out, we were ahead of our time in a bad way anyway; serving up streaming video didn’t work very well on 56k modems.

At any rate, I was intrigued by what I heard. I had been into the EDM scene since the acid house days of the 1980s, and some of my more with-it friends had gone up to Burning Man as part of that interest. They came back saying I really needed to go.

In the Summer of 2003 I was in one of those agonizing reappraisal times of life, and I decided, for no particular reason, to check out Burning Man. Something inside me, I guess, said it was time. . . but I was very uncertain as to whether or not I would like it. I have never been a camper and feared physical discomfort. Moreover, I feared being trapped there, maybe not liking it and wanting to go home right away. A friend and I decided we’d only go up for one day and one night, to get a toe in the water. We planned on going in Saturday afternoon and leaving Sunday morning, and we really didn’t prepare at all; another friend, Morgan, told us that we didn’t need to bring anything, since we could just come to his camp, have dinner there, and spend the night.

We never found Morgan, or his camp.

We spent the entire night wandering around the playa, with only a few bottles of water in our backpacks. We were quite cold for much of the chilly night. We didn’t know anyone. We watched the Burn in astonishment, wandered from art piece to art piece and theme camp to theme camp, meeting the most interesting people. At sunrise we found ourselves sitting around a fire with a group of strangers.

Every minute of the experience was magnificent, and we had the time of our lives. . . and now I feel like an alcoholic talking about his first drink; I’m still trying to recapture the buzz of that first Burn.

Caught up in the sheer wonder of my first visit to Black Rock City – the art, the people, the city itself – the thought popped into my head of an old movie theater. I really don’t know why a theater came to mind, but it had a little to do with wandering into the front door of Paddy Mirage, an installation that had a funny front door painted like it was an Irish pub. You’d walk through this Irish pub door and find yourself standing on a dance floor the size of an acre. I liked the weird juxtaposition of that sense of a familiar kind of place (the entrance to a pub) with what you got when you walked through the door – and through the looking glass – into this unexpected, unfamiliar environment. Then and there, that first and only night of my first Burn, I thought that someday, I wanted to build a movie theater in Black Rock City. I thought it would stun people and evoke a sense of wonder, just like the Fishmobile and Paddy Mirage and the Ambience Ambulance and the tented bar whose name I forget that served “Pink Things.” They all left me in a state of awe and delight. I thought about it for a few years, but didn’t share it with anyone. . . I mean, who do you tell? “I want to build a movie theater in the middle of the desert!” It sounds insane.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO:
How about you, Sam?

SAM GIPSON:
Well, in between Release’s de-virginization and the birth of the Bijou, I was declining Burning Man invitations from him. This became an annual discussion I had begun to expect from him, thinking I knew this kind of thing wasn’t for me. I guess I had it in my head that this was some kind of trip to Yosemite (I love Yosemite, for the record) but definitely not something I wanted to go all the way into the desert and spend that much time doing. Life’s funny. . . I judged Burning Man for years, and now it has opened me up to taking on life’s little curiosities instead of judging them. It was definitely a rite of passage for me.

I finally gave in to Release’s seduction and met him on the playa in 2007. I was blown away. . . I had never seen such liberation, openness, and – above all for me personally – creativity. There were no boundaries, and when that many minds are firing off together with no boundaries, you have a culmination of genius. What I was seeing on the playa was genius. I was trying to rationalize, reason, make sense of it all. Who was this wizard behind the curtain making all this stuff? It took me a couple of days but I stopped spectating quickly. I wanted to throw myself in. I wanted this, I had been wanting this, and Release knew it before I did.

The next year, we were out in deep playa, and Release said something about how cool it would be if there was a fully-functioning old movie theater right there, far away from everything. I didn’t think about it much; I may have laughed. He kept going, though; he stressed that this wouldn’t be a screen and a few chairs, this would be the real thing. A mind-fuck for the deep playa traveler. Real movie-sized candy, a candy counter, real seating. . . a real theater. It was a fun conversation and that’s how I took it.

The next year we found ourselves at Burning Man again and he brought it up again. We had more laughs and thought nothing of it. A few months later, he called me and told me that he really wanted to pull this off. I hadn’t taken him seriously until that point; I didn’t realize it then, but I do now; that’s where the wizard behind the curtain of Burning Man is hiding: long journeys into the deep playa.

Once Release made the decision to pull the trigger, he gave the design and execution of the job to an artist who we’ll refer to as ‘Skam’ for a number of reasons. This gentleman had worked with Release before, and he had an impressive résumé that indicated he was well-qualified for this massive undertaking. I was going to come in and assist this guy in anything he needed, and together we were going to make the vision of a movie house in the deep playa a reality.

Unfortunately, at a point when we were already about $7,000 pregnant, Skam abruptly vanished. Spirits were very low; here we had this warehouse and all this equipment, but no foreman, just some vague and unreadable plans, and no real qualifications ourselves for pulling off a large art installation of any quality.

Release told me he was willing to just cut his losses and heed the sign that this may not be meant to be. . . but by that time, I was a little too excited about the project. I had enjoyed three years of Black Rock City at the cost of others getting their hands dirty, and I felt overdue. I literally begged him to stay with the project and let me take the lead. I told him I’d do the project with a cheaper budget than Skam’s, and capitalized on our friendship with the old “you know damn well you can trust me.”

Release was very reluctant. He kept asking me discouraging – but necessary – questions, like “are you sure you know what you’re doing?” or “this is a huge undertaking, you know that, right?” or “have you ever done anything this large before?” I countered with more cheap shots like, “as a friend, I’m asking you to let me have this. Consider it a token of our friendship!”

"Welcome to the burn! Are you mentally prepared to take a loss?"

“Welcome to the burn! Are you mentally prepared to take a loss?”

I think between the guilt trip he knew he’d have over it, and the determination I was showing, he had to relent. . . so we got busy redesigning, and started anew. I later found out that he was mentally prepared to take a loss!

We recruited two more artists to help with the execution of the Bijou: Matthew Pearson, and my brother, Rocky Gipson. What you see in the build video is three guys hammering it out for two months in a warehouse. That’s it. That was shocking information to everyone who asked that first year, and even I look back on it and say “what were we thinking?” I would never try anything that big again with just three people. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you’re ignorant, though. . . and now we have a group of over a dozen that help get things done, whether it’s painting, building a website, or bringing extra candy to the scene mid-week.

Basically, the road from the Bijou’s conception to its birth was a spontaneous turn of events that in no way could have been planned. It just worked.

RELEASE:
Ha ha, yes, all true. Sam is describing that first year of the Bijou: 2010. After that we gradually grew the team by word of mouth. What was especially fun in that first year is that the Bijou was a surprise to everyone, including the Artery and DPW. The DPW folks would stop by and look on in astonishment. One DPW guy wondered if the reason we were so far out in the deep playa was because were on some sort of punishment with the Org! We explained that no, it was actually part of our concept. In fact, if it were on the Esplanade, it wouldn’t be the same at all; it would lose its magic. The Bijou is designed to be stumbled across, and I only ever wanted it in the deep playa; it’s the only place I ever want to do any installation. The deep playa people are my tribe at Burning Man. We’re not the bridge and tunnel crowd.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO:
Why a theater in particular?

RELEASE:
I have always been interested in film and classic film, going back to my childhood. I enjoy turning the unfamiliar on to the magic of classic cinema, and the Bijou lets us do that.

Searching for the Bijou

Searching for the Bijou

One of the great things about the playa is that it’s sort of a continuous exercise in being in the moment. So in the moment, when you duck under the curtain and enter our auditorium and a big John Ford image from the Monument Valley envelops your consciousness, it’s quite an experience. Sometimes in that moment you rediscover the magic of cinema, or might discover it or recognize it for the first time. That’s what the Bijou is about.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO:
I love it! You’ve transplanted a physical cinema to what Cacophonists call “the Zone,” — a concept that itself sprung from cinema, especially Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker — where we are forced to look at it with new eyes, as though it’s something we’ve never seen before. . . a rediscovery via forced or voluntary unfamiliarity, providing the visitor with a pry-bar for the mind.

I also like that your theater is smack dab in the middle of such a blank geographical canvas. The playa itself becomes a sort of theater as soon as anyone shows up and starts doing things, making things, and being things on it. The Bijou serves as an avatar of the playa-as-theater; it’s a kind of meta-playa within the playa, or meta-theater within that larger theater. Thank goodness you’re not showing Synecdoche, New York or any films about Burning Man in there; you’d probably create a cultural black hole or something and destroy us all!

So, what’s the current state of the Bijou, and what are your plans for it for the future? What do you need to make those plans a reality? How can people get involved and help?

RELEASE:
As you may know from our Kickstarter, we are undertaking some significant improvements, and if we get enough support from the burner community, we’ll be able to afford all of them for this year.

Our tradition is to execute a giant mural on the city-facing side of the theater each year; each year the illustration ties into the theme in some way. For this year, in honor of the Cargo Cult theme, we will execute the most famous desideratum in cinema history: Rosebud. That famous logo from Citizen Kane will grace the wall in Wildfire blacklight paint, illuminated by a massive spotlight. If it turns out like we want it to, it should stop you dead in your tracks, thinking about Rosebud and your own desiderata.

We’re also going to double the size of the lobby. It’s just too small for the crowds that like to pop in and visit us, so we will expand it and create more of a social space.

Lastly, and this is the big challenge, we’d like to create a huge vertical neon sign, in the tradition of most classic movie houses, with the theater name: BIJOU. Imagine that radiating out across the deep playa, a beacon and a lighthouse for the deep playa traveler. It’s expensive to do right, so while we’ve only asked for $10,000 in our Kickstarter, we really need to go well past that goal to get everything done that we want to do. . . $15,000 would cover it nicely.

"Let's settle this in the Thunderdome!"     "No, let's settle it in the Orgy Dome!"

“Let’s settle this in the Thunderdome!”
“No, let’s settle it in the Orgy Dome!”

One ugly curveball that came our way – one of those “five minutes before the playa” shockers that always challenge an art project – is that our candy donor for the last two years dropped out. We have been so lucky, each of the last two years, to get 4,000 theater-sized units of candy – everything from Snickers to Skittles to plain and peanut M&Ms – donated gratis to the Bijou. This made it possible for us to provide candy for virtually everyone that walked into the theater. We are looking for another donor. We realize it probably won’t be on that scale, but any leads in that respect would be much appreciated. We must have candy at the Bijou, though we probably won’t have the supply of prior years.

People can get involved and help in so many ways. At this point the best way is the Kickstarter, as fundraising is the current priority. Donating is great, but we could also use some help getting the word out through social media for the short remaining duration of the Kickstarter.

As for the build, our construction team is assembled and will be heading to the playa a week from Sunday. It’s a bit late to join that group, as early arrival passes are all distributed and we don’t have the opportunity to expand that further. . . but if you’re interested in helping us to build next year, get in touch via our Facebook page and let us know. Also, there may be opportunities to help us with tear-down this year, which is a much quicker process and usually begins within twelve hours of the Temple Burn. We do have to MOOP and do that stuff; many hands make easier work! Just give us a shout and we can connect you.

Beyond that, we’ve made investments this year and last so that the Bijou can be a perennial playa installation. We now have two big storage containers with the Burning Man Org, which greatly ameliorates the hassles of getting the theater to and from the playa. Provided the fundraising ends successfully, this year we will take the marquee, the sidewall, and the lobby up a big notch. We have taken steps to expand the team, which was originally just us and a couple of close pals. We came to the inevitable realization that the Bijou is just too big an undertaking for one small clique, so we’ve opened the clubhouse to those who share our passion. . . which means, of course, that it’s not like it was before. I think it’s better!

Each year we will reassess and let our imaginations inspire us as to how the theater should evolve. That first year we didn’t even have doors on the front. Each year we keep improving it, taking it closer to the ideal.

In my fantasies, eventually the theater will have a bona fide balcony up on the second level, beyond our raised platforms. I’d also love to get that camp that makes popcorn all week to come out and provide popcorn. A soft drink machine may be over the top, but a boy can dream. . . and if I could, I would love to hire an actress who looks like that sad old lady who ran the Royal Theater in The Last Picture Show, and have her stand behind the counter, taking tickets and giving out candy. Someone who looks like this is her job, and like she doesn’t even know she’s at Burning Man; someone who looks like she thinks she’s in Anarene, Texas, and it’s 1951. That would be the ideal!

Lastly, when it’s time for the theater to go, I don’t want it to just disappear. I’d like us to return to the playa, build the exterior completely, board it up, stick a ‘CLOSED’ sign on the front door with an apologetic, hand-written note from the owners, lamenting that we were a victim of changing consumer tastes, and talking about how we just couldn’t compete with that new multiplex in Black Rock City anymore. I want graffiti on the building, so it looks as if it’s clearly been abandoned and has gone to pot. Then the next year, we’ll reopen it as a seedy porn theater. The year after that, we’ll board it up and graffiti it up again. Finally, we’ll have a deliberate arson staged as performance art. The theater will go up in flames, calamitously, as fire trucks from Black Rock City race to the deep playa, sirens blaring. That’s how I’d like it to end.