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:

A Matter of Control

by Whatsblem the Pro

The International Arts Megacrew is a crew of builders that has earned a massive amount of respect from the citizens of Black Rock City, in particular with the success of their very ambitious and brilliantly executed Temple of Transition in 2011.

The IAM has announced their project for 2013, a mysterious structure called THE CONTROL TOWER. I met with Irish, one of the group’s leaders, to find out more.

Whatsblem the Pro: Welcome back to the States! Tell me about the IAM.

Irish: Thanks. IAM is a loose collective of people from over twenty countries, of which the core group is based in Reno. The crew initially grew from a group that knew each other from working together at the Black Rock International Burner Hostel (BRIBH) camp from around 2005 onwards, particularly members of the leadership team: Kiwi, a master carpenter and general contractor from New Zealand, myself, an artist from Dublin, and Beave, a notorious international man of mystery from England. IAM has since expanded to include many other people, including our architect Ken Rose and a wide diversity of crew from Reno and further afield.

The BRIBH was a camp that sought to provide burners from overseas a means to integrate faster at Burning Man by providing a surrounding community and a shared project – camp construction – for them to get involved in, even in their first year at Black Rock City. Attending Burning Man from overseas is a daunting task, both psychologically and logistically, and the role of the Burner Hostel was to make the journey easier, allowing international participants to spend more energy on really getting stuck into Burning Man while knowing they had a sweet home base to return to whenever they needed. . . and this philosophy of providing accessible experience to international burners continues in our art projects today.

IAM crew distribution -- Image: Josh Simmons/IAM media team

IAM crew distribution — Image: Josh Simmons/IAM media team

The first big project we did, Megatropolis, grew from a whiskey-sippin’ conversation at Kiwiburn 2010 between Kiwi and Otto Von Danger, there at the time to build his Cow with Gun project. Too late to apply for a grant that year, we hustled, begged and borrowed to raise the funds required and drove to the playa on fumes, where, over the course of twelve hotdog-eating days, twenty-five of us managed to pull off a pretty big and popular project. Black Rock FX came in at the end to help us with an epic, pyrotechnics-intensive burn.

Our crew that year included people from New Zealand, Ireland, the UK, Australia, the USA, Hong Kong, Canada and Germany.

Megatropolis went so well that at some point during cleanup, Kiwi jumped to the next logical conclusion: building a Temple.

Megatropolis burning -- Photo: Chris 'Kiwi' Hankins

Megatropolis burning — Photo: Chris ‘Kiwi’ Hankins

This was a very different project – much bigger, far more complex – and being the Temple, required a lot more sensitivity and thought. With a crew that topped out at just under 400 volunteers from over twenty countries at Hobson Square, an awesome warehouse complex on 4th Street in Reno, we spent an extremely intense four months pre-building, then had an even more intense time with the on-playa build. . . so intense that we needed a year off to recuperate in 2012.

The Temple of Transition appeared to be well-liked by the community; afterwards we heard estimates that there were around 45,000 people at the Temple burn, which hopefully means it was a special place for a lot of people and that it performed its intended function effectively. The Temple is a well-understood, well-developed concept that had been explored and clarified over the preceding decade by David Best and other Temple architects and crews, and we tried our best to create and honor that same experience and feeling on our watch.

The IAM's Temple of Transition, Burning Man 2011 -- Photo: Scott London

The IAM’s Temple of Transition, Burning Man 2011 — Photo: Scott London

Whatsblem the Pro: Well done, it was a great Temple.
What is the Control Tower? What does it signify artistically, and what do you hope to achieve with it?

Irish: Where the Temple was serious, the Control Tower is designed to be fun, both for participants to interact with and for us to build!

Sensible grown-ups that we are, we realized that the theme is likely to inspire all manner of bizarre air and space craft, no doubt operated by a babbling smorgasbord of unlicensed, cantankerous, and demented pilots, all buzzing around Spaceport BRC in the most uncontrolled, abstract, and fundamentally irresponsible manner. Very dangerous! Very haphazard! So we figured we’d step up to do our civic duty and provide some modicum of air traffic control, provide landing clearances, define flight paths and so on. . . all of which can only realistically be achieved from sixty feet above the playa, high atop a flaming, laser-shooting Control Tower.

Aside from selflessly providing this vital public service, of course, we wanted to focus on two key principles this year: interactivity and collaboration. So every system on the tower – flames, lasers, lighting, sound – will all be interactive via a number of secret game-like methods which will have to be discovered upon visiting the installation. Many of these systems will be built by a rapidly expanding list of awesome collaborators including UV99, Mischief Lab, BambooDNA, Audiopixel, the Media Architecture Institute, Ideate, Play)a(skool, several 2012 CORE crews, and even some peaceful, softly glowing visitors from the Fractal Planet, so the project is shaping up to be a collaboration of epic proportions. We strongly believe that collaborations yield the best Burning Man projects, so we’re really excited about where the Control Tower project is going to end up by the time we actually get to playa!

The Control Tower. Not pictured: your mind exploding -- Image: IAM

The Control Tower. Not pictured: your mind exploding — Image: IAM

Whatsblem the Pro: What is the Org’s involvement in the project? Does it meet your expectations?

Irish: Sadly, we did not get a grant from Burning Man this year, which makes our lives a little more difficult. It’s hard to know exactly why they chose not to support a project that delivers so much interaction, collaboration, visual impact, and fire in a theme-appropriate way. The community as a whole clearly likes the idea very much, as shown by the massive wave of support we’ve experienced in just three short weeks since we launched on Facebook, and since we like those people so much, we HAVE to move ahead, grant or no grant! We built Megatropolis without a grant, so we know it can be done, especially with so much support gathering around the project already.

It’s also important to note that Burning Man supports its artists in more ways than just via grants, and this non-monetary support can be just as – if not more – critical to making a project happen successfully. Now that we have been given a very clear mandate by the community itself to build their Control Tower, it will be interesting to see how the Burning Man Org supports the project as it evolves. The fact of the matter is that we love building awesome projects at Black Rock City, and Burning Man loves awesome projects too, so I’m very hopeful they will work with us closely to ensure the whole community gets to enjoy the full, ridiculous magnificence of the Control Tower.

Whatsblem the Pro: What’s the plan for actually getting it built, and when and where will everything happen?

Irish: Well, we hope to start building in early May at the Generator, a new art space in Sparks, NV. Matt Schultz of the Pier project has very generously offered us space there, and we’re hoping the space will be quite the hive of Burn-related activity for the summer. We’re way into the family vibe that comes from working side-by-side with other projects, and it allows us to share our experience and infrastructure with smaller or less experienced crews. Our actual start date – indeed whether we start at all – will depend a great deal on how fundraising goes over the coming four to six weeks.

Whatsblem the Pro: What does the project need in order to succeed?

Irish: Like any other project, we need to assemble a mixture of four key resources to make the whole thing come to life: materials, funding, people, and clever ideas. We think it’s important to list materials ahead of funding because in the end, funds get used to buy materials anyway, and we really try to find free/cheap/donated material, equipment, and tools rather than spending on new stuff. However, even being super-proactive about using second-hand gear, we still think we need to raise just under $50,000, and we’re going to try to raise at least half of that on Indiegogo.

Equally, if we can come up with clever ways to avoid spending money by finding unexpected solutions to technical or organizational challenges, this helps reduce the fundraising load too, and that’s where the whole community comes in; we are always open to volunteers and new ideas. Across a community as big as Burning Man, we know there are people who have already developed a lot of the solutions we need to make this project go, and we’d love to hear from anyone who wants to get involved!

Whatsblem the Pro: How do people contact you to get involved, and how do they donate?

Irish: The easiest and fastest way to support the project is via our Indiegogo campaign.

We are fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas, an umbrella 501(c)(3) that provides tax-deductible status to qualifying art projects. This means donations of money, materials or equipment to the project are all fully deductible to the extent permitted by law. A list of materials and equipment we need is available here, and we can pick stuff up in both Reno and the Bay Area. We will work with donors to determine a fair valuation of their donations for tax purposes.

To volunteer, collaborate, contribute ideas, or get more info about the project, just visit our Indiegogo page.