Burner artists go bigger and wider

BrollyFlock at Electric Daisy Carnival, by the Flux Foundation. Photo by Jessica Hobbs

I’ve been covering Burning Man for many years — both for the Bay Guardian and my book, The Tribes of Burning Man — so it’s easy to feel a little jaded about another year of preparing for that annual pilgrimage to the playa. But then I plug into the innovative projects that people are pursuing – as I did last week for the annual Desert Arts Preview – and I find myself as amazed and wide-eyed as a Burning Man virgin.
And when the weekend came, I watched my old camps go bigger than ever – with Opulent Temple throwing a rocking Rites of Massive six-stage dance party on Treasure Island, and the Flux Foundation lighting up the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas with its newest installation, BrollyFlock – demonstrating the ambitious scale at which veteran burners are now operating.
Increasingly, burners are putting their energies into real world projects not bound for Burning Man, often with the help of Black Rock Arts Foundation, the nonprofit spinoff of Black Rock City LLC that funds and facilitates public art projects. BRAF’s latest, a project that is also receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, is The Bike Bridge, which pairs noted burner artist Michael Christian with 12 young women from Oakland to turn old bicycles and bike parts into sculptures that will be built at The Crucible and placed throughout Oakland.
“The Bike Bridge is the next evolution of our community-focused public art projects,” BRAF Executive Director Tomas McCabe said in a June 23 press release. “This educational and creative project is designed specifically to engage Oakland’s youth.”
Later that evening, McCabe and other burners gathered on the waterfront in Kelly’s Mission Cafe for the Desert Arts Preview, where he ticked off a long list of projects that BRAF was working on around the world, from the conversion of a bridge in Portland, Ore. into an elaborate artwork to a sculpture made of sails for next year’s Figment festival in New York City to a bus opera (written about bus culture and performed aboard buses) in Santa Fe to a cool interactive floating eyeball artwork that will tour Paris, London, Barcelona, and San Francisco to the BOOM Parade (combining bicycles and boom boxes) that will roll through Bayview Hunters Point in October.
But the most ambitious artworks are still being planned for that limitless canvas of the Black Rock Desert, where Burning Man will be staged in late August. This year’s temple, The Temple of Transition, is being built out of Reno by a huge international crew from 20 countries headed by a pair of artists known simply by their nationalities, Irish and Kiwi, who built Megatropolis at last year’s event.
“We built a city block of buildings and burned it to the ground,” Kiwi told the gathering, noting how impressed he’s been by a number of recent projects he’s watched. “When you start doing that, you feel challenged and wonder what you can do next.”
Irish said they were particularly inspired by watching the Temple of Flux go up last year, a project involving more than 200 volunteers that I worked on and chronicled for the Guardian, and said it made them want to bid to build this year’s temple. “That’s what inspired us,” Irish said.
The project includes a series of towers and altars, the tallest one in the center reaching about 120-feet into the air, a phenomenal height against the vast flatness of the playa. They said volunteers have been plentiful and the city of Reno has actively facilitated their work, “but our main concern is having enough finances,” Kiwi said.
The project got a grant from the company that stages Burning Man, Black Rock City LLC, which gave almost $500,000 to 44 different projects this year, but most didn’t come anywhere close to covering the full project costs. The Temple of Transition bridged its gap by raising almost $25,000 in a campaign on Kickstarter, which many projects are now using.
“It’s a great way to cut out the middle man. You guys are funding art directly,” longtime artist Jon Sarriugarte, who got a BRC art grant this year to build the Serpent Twins (with his partner, Kyrsten Mate), said of Kickstarter, where he was about three-quarters of the way to meeting his goal of the $10,000 he needs to cost his remaining project costs.
Serpent Twins is a pair of Nordic serpents crafted from a train of 55-gallon containers and illuminated with fire and LED effects that will snake their way around the playa this year, one of many mobile artworks that have been getting ever more ambitious each year.
“I love the playa. It’s a beautiful canvas, but it’s also a beautiful road,” Sarriugarte told the group, conveying his excitement at driving his art into groups of desert wanderers: “I can’t wait to split the crowds and then contain them.”
Another cool project that is in the final days of a much-needed Kickstarter campaign is Otic Oasis, whose artists (including longtime Burning Man attorney Lightning Clearwater) brought a scale model to the event. It’s a slotted wood structure made up of comfy lounging pods stacked into a 35-foot pyramid design that will be placed in the quietest corner of the playa: deep in the walk-in camping area, inaccessible to art cars and other distractions.
That and other projects that are doing Kickstarter campaign are listed on the Burning Man website, where visitors can get a nice overview of what’s in store.
One project that didn’t meet its ambitious Kickstarter goal was Truth & Beauty, artist Marco Cochrane’s follow-up to last year’s amazing Blissdance, a 40-sculpture of a dancing nude woman that has temporarily been placed on Treasure Island. But the crew has already made significant progress on the new project, a 55-foot sculpture of the same model in a different pose (stretching her arms skyward), and Cochrane told me they will be bringing a section of her from her knees to shoulders as a climbable artwork.

The Flux crew has been working for months on BrollyFrock, a renegade flock of flaming, illuminated, and shade-producing umbrellas that was commissioned by Imsomniac for its Nocturnal and Electric Daily Carnival music festivals, and it was placed at the the latter festival near Wish, large dandelions that were build near the Temple of Flux at Burning Man last year, as well as new artworks by Michael Christian and my beloved Flaming Lotus Girls. Flux’s Jessica Hobbs said burners artists have become much sought-after by the large festivals that have begun to proliferate.

“I really think a lot of these music festivals are looking at how our pieces make an experience,” Hobbs said, citing both the spectacularity and interactivity that are the hallmarks of Burning Man artworks of the modern era. The Flux crew was pushed to meet a tight deadline for the project, preventing them from doing a big project for Burning Man this year, but that’s just part of the diversification being experienced by burner artists these days. “We challenged ourselves and we came away with another great project.”

Tribes tour burrows into the Big Apple

Being canonized by Rev. Billy capped a beautifully blurry week in New York City.

Thanks to the help of burners from at least five different tribes that I’ve covered or camped with at Burning Man, my New York City book tour was a successful adventure in art and community, from the Figment festival on scenic Governors Island to exotic eating and drinking in the East Village and Queens to a great underground party at an old Catholic school in Brooklyn to getting canonized by Rev. Billy and his 25-person choir into the Church of Earthalujah along with SF-based performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña.

The June 7-13 trip was in support of The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture, my book chronicling how an event born in San Francisco has spawned a vast, well-developed culture and ethos that is affecting life in cities around the world, even seemingly impervious megalopolises like the Big Apple.

I arrived on the red eye Wednesday morning just as a heat wave was peaking in New York, showing up mid-morning at the Upper East Side apartment of Jax, a recent transplant from SF who I worked with on last year’s Temple of Flux project. Her air conditioner hadn’t arrived yet, so I sweated through a needed nap before surrendering myself to exploring the city.

That night was my Tribes launch party in a great spot called Casa Mezcal on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side. Fellow Shadyvil campmate Wylie Stecklow had not only arranged the venue, which is owned by one of his law clients, but he moved the weekly Big Apple Burners happy hour and the final planning meeting for Figment (an event he co-founded four years ago) to the venue, giving me a built-in audience of interested burners who seemed to really appreciate my reading and discussion.

Also joining the party were two NYC figures who appear in my book: Not That Dave, Burning Man’s NYC regional contact and a Figment director, and Billy Talen, the former San Francisco performance artist who transformed himself into NYC’s Reverend Billy, pastor of the Church of Stop Shopping, which evolved into the Church of Life After Shopping before becoming the Church of Earthalujah to reflect a mission that expanded from economic justice and anti-consumerism to environmentalism and a holistic way of looking at the perils of our economic system.

As I’ve been doing at some of my Bay Area book events, I read chapters that introduced them and then let them speak, and they each had lively, weird, heart-warming things to say. Several other New Yorkers who I know through Burning Man showed up at the event to join the discussion, wish me well, and buy books. The most surprising guest was Mike Farrah, former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s old right-hand man who did more to facilitate the temporary placement of burner artworks in SF than anyone in City Hall. He now lives in NYC and showed up late, so after talking SF politics and BRC art over beers, we wandered past some of the oldest tenement buildings in the city together as we headed toward the subway.

The city was sweltering the next day (although Jax’s air conditioner had blessedly arrived), so I spent over three hours in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which makes SF’s museums seem like mere gallery spaces. I walked through Central Park between the reservoir and the Great Lawn, which was being set up for that evening’s Black Eyed Peas concert, all the way to the Upper East Side and my reading at the Columbia University Bookstore (which nobody showed up for, a combination of school being out, the heat, and a freak thunderstorm that was just rolling in as my event began – my first flop after more than a dozen bookstore events).

But New York is a city for nightowls, as I was just beginning to appreciate, particularly after I made my way down to the East Village that night to meet a Garage Mahal campmate who I’ve known for years simply as Manhattan. He’s been living in his apartment for 15 years and the city for 25, developing a detailed knowledge of the best places to eat, drink, and otherwise indulge.

Manhattan won’t go to the Upper East Side, preferring to remain in “civilization,” as he calls the East Village, which earned its storied reputation as the center of the nightlife universe. We ate Japanese curry at Curry Ya, drank hard-to-find German Kolsch beer at Wechsler’s Currywurst, danced with saucy Armenian women on Avenue C, drank cold sake underground at Decibel, indulged in the most decadent fried pork sandwiches at Porchetta, mingled with beautiful young people in the Penny Farthing, and then drank cocktails on his stoop until dawn, the streets never going to sleep in this lively neighborhood.

On Friday in the early afternoon, I met Wylie at The Cube, a public art piece near the 8th Street subway stop, and we hopped a train down to the southern tip of Manhattan to catch the free ferry to Governors Island for the opening day of Figment, an art festival started there by burners in 2007 that has since expanded to Detroit, Boston, and Jackson.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city officials have embraced and facilitated the popular three-day event, which now includes art projects such as a treehouse built of old doors, massive steel sculptures, and an elaborate miniature golf course that will remain on the island through the summer. Most of the projects featured the interactivity that is the hallmark of burner art, such as a sound project in an enclosed courtyard in which passerby had to figure out how they were controlling the sounds they heard.

Wylie and I pedaled on borrowed rental bikes to cover all the projects on a large island that is a decommissioned military base with gorgeous views of the Manhattan and New Jersey skylines. Out on the Picnic Point lawn, with the Statue of Liberty looking on from the bay, the venerable NYC-based Burning Man sound camp Disorient hosted a rocking set of DJs under a massive wooden sculpture that they built for Figment and the playa this year.

Unfortunately, Figment is permitted only as a daytime event that ends at 6 pm, because the energy of the 100-plus organizers and volunteers could have driven this party well into the wee hours. Instead, they all gathered after the event at the 340-year-old White Horse Tavern to discuss the day, celebrate, and share endless ideas for new art projects and ways of measuring and directing all the creative energy that flows through their event and city.

After partying until dawn again, Manhattan and I climbed into his car (yes, a car, in Manhattan, the better to cover more ground, he says) Saturday mid-afternoon, picked up a friend near Wall Street, and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge headed toward Astoria, Queens. There, we drank pitchers of rich Czech beer at the 100-year-old Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden, run by the nonprofit Bohemian Citizens’ Benevolent Society, a fraternal order open only to those with Czech blood. With an outdoor capacity of almost 1,000 people, this place was like my beloved Zeitgeist on steroids.

On the way back to the East Village that night, Manhattan did a sudden U-turn and parked in a bus zone in front of a crowded outdoor eatery called Tavern Kyclades, muttering something about needing octopus and telling us he’d just be a minute. The wait for tables at this amazing Greek seafood spot was 90 minutes, but after less than 10 he was back with a to-go container with three long octopus legs, grilled, tender, and just insanely good.

That night, the plan was to hit an underground party in Brooklyn, thrown in a former Catholic school by Rubulad, a venerable party crew. It was after 1 am when we finally left Manhattan’s apartment for the party, catching the subway at Union Square and arriving to find the party in full swing, with more than a dozen rooms with different offerings: DJ dance parties, avante garde films, a piano bar, live music from a trio that had the beautiful crowd dancing hard and smiling. As the party wound down, I headed to Queens with a new friend and we watched a new day dawn on the Empire State building standing tall in the distance.

Sunday might be a day of rest for some, but not for me, not with the kind of roll I was on. So I caught the last ferry to Governors Island at 3 pm and spent the afternoon at Figment with some other burner friends, Shanthi and Patty, who came back to the East Village with me afterward for my third and final Tribes event: being canonized by Reverend Billy during the Church of Earthalujah’s regular Sunday evening performance at Theatre 80 on St. Marks Place.

I’ve been covering Billy and his crew for years, from their performances in San Francisco’s Castro Theater and other local venues to their film “What Would Jesus Buy?” to their work at Burning Man, including their touching sendoff of burner work crews to the Gulf Coast in 2005 to do cleanup and rebuilding work after Hurricane Katrina, an effort that became Burners Without Borders.

As I write in my book, Billy and his choir of several dozen were transformed by Burning Man, and they have returned that embrace of a culture that magnifies and perpetuates their values. And after being called from the audience and walking toward the stage during a rousing rendition of the “When the Saints Go Marching In,” I was warmly embraced by the entire 25-member chorus – actually, it was probably closer to a group grope – and I became Saint Scribe.

And after that, it’s all a bit of a blur, and a vibrant, decadent, Big Apple blur. Thanks, everyone, for a truly memorable trip.

Bound for NYC and Rev. Billy

Rev. Billy Talen did a fundraiser in San Francisco when he ran for mayor of New York in 2009.

Tonight I’ll be hopping on a red eye flight to New York City for the East Coast leg of my book tour for The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture. I must confess that I’m giddy with excitement, and to stir some anticipation among New Yawkers, here’s a recording of one on my recent presentations.

Tomorrow night starting at 8 pm, I’ll be doing a book launch party at Cafe Mezcal (86 Orchard Street) with the folks who will be putting on the Figment festival this weekend, a cool event that I profile in the book. Joining me on stage will be a couple characters from the book: Figment’s Not That Dave and Rev. Billy, the passionate pastor of the Church of Life After Shopping and the Church of Earthullujah.

On Sunday, I will have the distinct honor and high privilege of being canonized into Billy’s churches during ceremony starting at 7:30 pm in his church and performance art space at 80 St. Mark’s Place. In between those two events, I’ll be speaking Thursday at 6 pm at the Columbia University Bookstore and attending the Figment festival on Governor’s Island along with a couple burners and friends who I’ll be staying with: Jax from Temple of Flux and Manhatten from Garage Mahal. Thanks also to Wylie from Shadyvil for helping make this trip possible.

To set up my trip and explain one of the big motivators that drew me there, I’d like to share a chapter from my book about how burners responded to the Hurricane Katrina and the wreckage it left on the Gulf Coast in 2005, a chapter in which I introduce Billy.

Redemption and Projection

By burn day at the end of the week, Burning Man’s leaders – those with Black Rock City LLC and just the leaders among the random burner tribes – had developed a strategy for responding to the disaster on the Gulf Coast and it was publicized by word of mouth and through Black Rock Information Radio (BMIR, 94.5 FM).

Food, money, and supplies that could be used on the Gulf Coast were collected from departing burners, and some even blazed a trail for a more direct response. Matt Lindsay, a Temple Crew member from Seattle, helped spearhead an effort to drive supplies and equipment from Burning Man to the Gulf Coast, and was joined by his father, Phillip Lindsay, whose Seattle construction company he worked with.

The encampment they and others created would become an inspiring nine-month cleanup and rebuilding effort. It began mostly with the builders who had already focused on creating and breaking down Burning Man, including the Department of Public Works and the Temple crew, but would eventually draw more than 100 volunteers and spawn the group Burners Without Borders.

But first, burners came together on the playa in a special event on Sunday afternoon, promoted heavily by BMIR and led by folk singer Joan Baez (who had attended Burning Man several times) and the anti-consumerist collective Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping.

Billy Talen is a performance artist and political progressive who had adopted his alter ego of Reverend Billy, the charismatic, Jimmy Swaggart-like leader of a church devoted to critiquing hyper-capitalism. He had been doing some street-level political satire and small theater in San Francisco in the early ‘90s when he found his calling.

My mentor and teacher, the person who talked me into this was himself a priest, not a preacher, and his name was Reverend Sidney Lanier,” Billy told me when I visited him in New York City. “He took me out to lunch and he told me, ‘I’m not too sure about your play, but you have a prophetic note in your voice.’ And he said, ‘We now need a new kind of American preacher.’”

Lanier convinced Billy to use his theatrical skills to sound the alarm that there was something deeply wrong with the country – something at the intersection of political, economic, and religious power – and so he talked to Billy about his vision for Reverend Billy and led him to Times Square.

He brought me to New York and he placed me in front of that Disney store and he left,” said Billy, who began to preach, “Mickey Mouse is the anti-Christ! I want you to take that little tourist family and go back to Iowa! These are sweatshops products on these shelves, children. This Disney-fication of neighborhoods, it’s the devil monoculture!’ So, my theme hasn’t changed much in these 10 or 12 years.”

But there have been some key events in the development of Reverend Billy and his group that turned it from a performance piece to something like a real church. The first was the 9/11 attacks, when they counseled and consoled affected New Yorkers, and the next was their decision to come to Burning Man in 2003, where Larry Harvey and others wanted them to be a part of the Beyond Belief theme that year.

I got a call from Larry. He carved a Broadway-sized stage in the Man. And I started to get phone calls from burner friends saying, ‘You don’t know what this is. Say yes!” Billy said, noting how reluctant he had been to attend. “All my friends went, but I was like contrary Woodrow, and I’d say, ‘Fuck all of you,’ and I was going to the Aleutians or something. I was always a contrary guy, and I’d say, ‘You’re all just a bunch of lemmings going to the desert, I’m going over here.’ And I’d go to some other place. But we got talked into it and it changed our lives.”

Most newbies are profoundly affected by their first trip to Burning Man, but for Billy and his crew, the event went right to the core of what they were about, transforming them as they dealt with the usual playa adversity (“In the choir, everyday someone would faint and everyone else would save that person and take them to the medical tent.”) and forging permanent ties to the event.

We became a church at that point. We became a community about collective conscious and radical self-reliance. We became much closer,” Billy told me. Why, I asked him, how? “It’s the weather, it’s the beauty, it’s somebody running toward you in a fluorescent bikini and combat boots. Everything is extreme but it becomes ordinary after awhile and then you’re in the dream state,” he said. “We were transformed by our week on the playa. There were 43 of us that came out together.”

Most of that group has been together ever since, working together on new and ever more creative ways of bringing the ethos of the playa back into the world, something that Billy says has always been at the center of his connection to Burning Man (whose Black Rock Arts Foundation has helped fund some of the church’s tours, performances, and the 2007 film about them, “What Would Jesus Buy?”).

That was the message that I worked out with Larry Harvey back in 2003: What about the other 51 weeks of the year? Something very strong and honest and magical happens here and we have an obligation, don’t we, to see how it can manifest in our communities. When Katrina happened in the middle of the week, that was supposed to be our year off, but the Bests gave us their bus and said you can come out to the Temple on Sunday night, so before the Temple burn, and Joan Baez magically showed up and got on the bus with us.”

They spoke of love and connection and redemption and transformation, and they sang – together with a large crowd of burners – “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Amazing Grace.” And the Temple burned that night and soon everyone went home. Well, not everyone.