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Peninsula well represented at Burning Man

'Burners' light up desert with other-worldly art bus


Published: August 30, 2013

THIS WEEK in the Black Rock Desert of western Nevada, more than 65,000 “Burners” are gathering to celebrate life and art at Burning Man. The annual event, now in its 27th year, is difficult even for regular participants to describe. One could perhaps say that Burning Man is sort of a future-tribal, Dali-esque, post-apocalyptic flaming-art social experiment that is very much like Mad Max meets Dr. Seuss … meets the Star Wars cantina scene … during Fourth of July … on Halloween … at Woodstock … on the moon.

The experience for the participants (and everyone at Burning Man is a participant) is meaning-saturated, constantly changing and impacts all the senses. For many, if not most, it is profoundly meaningful in deeply personal and unexpected ways that are transformative, even life changing. Freedom of artistic and personal expression creates an environment of social and spiritual liberation unlike anything else on the planet.

‘Self-contained and self-sufficient’

The week before Labor Day every year, Black Rock City arises from nothing but a dusty plane on public BLM land: An ancient dry lake, which Burning Man calls the “playa,” transformed into a fully functioning city with everything, from a Department of Mutant Vehicles, to a local postal service.

Once the Department of Public Works creates the infrastructure over a three-week period in early August, ticket holders arrive in their tens of thousands to come “home” to their favorite city on earth and create a self-contained and self-sufficient culture.

After a week, participants convoy back to the “default world” and the Playa Restoration Crew removes all signs of the event from the lakebed as part of a leave-no-trace policy (one of the Ten Principles that Black Rock citizens abide by).

The ephemeral nature of everything in our lives is reflected in the temporary existence of Black Rock City and all of its amazing, epic-scale, engineering-inspired art. Not only do monumental fixed structures grace the playa — like the Man and the Temple — but also many other magnificent, multi-story installations and whimsical creations of all sizes can be found inside the enormous arc of the city.

But the art is moving, too: Art cars in an unbelievable variety of shapes and sizes roam the playa with sound systems pounding while passengers dance onboard reveling in the sights of the city. Regular vehicles are not allowed to drive on the playa except to enter and park in the city, and not just anything will qualify as an art car. Every vehicle must undergo a thorough inspection by the Department of Mutant Vehicles for both safety and creativity.

This year a team of close friends from Big Sur collaborated to create a magnificent new art car: the sailing ship Anostraca, named after a crustacean that lives in playa dust also known as the fairy shrimp; the larvae can lay dormant for three years until there is enough rain for them to hatch. Chelsea Davey spotted it in the classified ads and fellow Big Sur native Kodiak Greenwood and best friend Warren Hacker then purchased it.

The Anostraca was an old school bus that had recently gone up for sale; after purchase, it was seen for a while across the street from the Henry Miller Library earlier this year, awaiting its resurrection into something completely different.

“When I found this thing on craigslist, I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” said Davey.  “And then the timeframe we had to do it in meant that we almost needed a miracle to make it happen.”

Reclaimed wood

The concept was to completely transform the vehicle into a wooden sailing ship complete with flaming mast, whale rib bones, LED lighting, a sound system, a bar and many organic and beautiful detail treatments with capacity for more than 70 passengers. Of particular importance was sourcing the materials locally and recycling whatever could be found into a stunning art ship — a principle perhaps best exemplified by the wooden panels, which were originally part of the skating rink on Del Monte Avenue that had been a Peninsula local icon for many decades. 

Building the ship took Greenwood and his friends three weeks at NIMBY in Oakland, an industrial yard where similar projects are developed and assembled. Impeccable attention was given to the nautical details, including the captain’s wheel, rails and LED sails. Brendon O’Halloran assisted with the structural assembly of the ship build.

“One of the design troubles we had was coming up with a system where the wooden panels could be easily attached and removed,” he said. “Being invited to help was an honor. I was not planning on coming to Burning Man, but after working on the ship felt totally compelled to be aboard for the maiden voyage. For a while I was actually depressed that they would set sail without me!”

Hacker, who was an integral part of the build team, added, “We always wanted to drive around the playa with our Big Sur friends. It was really fun building the Anostraca, but it was a big learning process for us; we had to do it on a wing and a prayer, pulling all-nighters on three consecutive weekends in Oakland, because we couldn’t find a place in Big Sur to do it.” 

The ship had to be completely assembled, tested and disassembled, and then the bus was driven to Black Rock City, while the wooden siding, mast and other components were brought in by U-Haul truck.

“In Big Sur people take wood for granted because it is everywhere, but here everyone is blown away to see a full-sized wooden ship on the playa,” he said.

A Big Sur crew of a few dozen friends has indeed pulled off a miracle in the desert: The Anostraca, the “playa fairy,” has emerged from the dust and set sail on a sea of dreams. Soon, once again, there will be nothing left on the playa except dust, wind and dreams … until next year.