I've been covering Burning Man for many years, both for the Guardian and my book, 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 cover 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 latter festival near Wish, large dandelions that were built near the Temple of Flux at Burning Man last year, as well as new artworks by Michael Christian. 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."