The excitement is growing for an estimated 80,000 people to reunite at Burning Man this month in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. The “temporary metropolis dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance” takes place from August 28 through September 5 and is the first official gathering since the pandemic started.
This year’s theme is Waking Dreams, officially described as a chance to explore the transformative power of dreams, both literal and figurative, and celebrate the dreamers who channel this potent energy in eye-opening, often surrealistic, sometimes life-changing ways. According to the organizers of Burning Man, “After a long hazy blur of pandemic insomnia, unanchored in time and adrift between sleeping and waking, it’s time to start imagining the future again.”
One of the most outrageous and entertaining displays of futuristic thinking is the spectacular arrival of Mutant Vehicles and Art Cars, created and built by some of the world’s most talented designers and artists. Since vehicles are banned in Black Rock City, an approved amount of mutant vehicles are allowed on the playa if they are registered with Burning Man’s Department of Mutant Vehicles.
Burning Man has stringent regulations for Mutant Vehicles. According to their website, “A Mutant Vehicle is a unique, motorized creation that either shows little or no resemblance to their original form or to any standard street vehicle or is out of context from its normal setting (a pirate ship or space ship on the desert, for example). Mutant Vehicles can be built from scratch or are radically, stunningly, and safely modified from their base vehicle.” This year 829 applications were received, an enormous upswing from previous years.
In celebrating a return to Burning Man glory, I spoke with dozens of vehicle designers and photographers about their inspiration and long experience with the yearly gathering. Here are some of the greatest art cars past and present and why they matter.
Photographer Scott London
Photographer Scott London has been a veteran of Burning Man, having photographed countless vehicles and installations throughout the years; nothing surprises him from a UFO, a rhino, or even a fire-breathing dragon.
Scott tells me, “After sitting out for a couple of years because of the pandemic, there’s a lot of pent-up creative energy in the Burning Man community. Many of us are itchy and impatient to return to the desert. This is reflected in a large number of new art projects in the works, including many mutant vehicles that will debut at Burning Man 2022.”
“Not every car qualifies as a bona fide artwork, but many do,” he adds. “The works don’t come together overnight, and they tend to be labors of love that require dedicated teams, big warehouses, and sophisticated equipment to build. One art car project I’m especially excited about is the Y Knot Saloon created by Sean Orlando and his team at Engineered Artworks. It’s a saloon on wheels meant to evoke the 19th-century wild west. Stepping into it will be like slipping through a wormhole and finding yourself suddenly in 1895. But with a Burning Man twist, of course.”
London is currently working on an updated and expanded edition of the book “Burning Man: Art on Fire” (a collaboration with Jennifer Raiser and Sidney Erthal), to be published by Quarto next summer.
Photographer Alexandra Lier
Born in Frankfurt, Alexandra Lier is an award-winning artist working across various media. Over the last decade, she built a substantial reputation in fine art photography. Her dramatic and cinematic photos have been featured in three books she has published: “Speedseekers,” “The World’s Fastest Place,” and “Mutant Vehicles.”
I spoke with Alexandra about her history with Burning Man and her favorite memories. “I’ve been to Burning Man three times,” she said. “When a friend of mine returned from a then-small BM in 2001, he showed me photos. As a gearhead, I was immediately fascinated by what the artists build for driving works of art. I had never seen anything like it, so I decided I wanted to go.”
“I think this year will be special,” she adds. “It hasn’t taken place for two years now, and all the artists and mutant vehicle builders are full of energy and want to bring their new or old works. I am really looking forward to it. For me, Burning Man is the biggest outdoor art festival in the world, and I celebrate that. I think the atmosphere will be special after such a long time. I’m also looking forward to seeing my friends again.”
And what is her favorite mutant memory? “Every mutant vehicle has a story, and if you know it, every vehicle is wonderful. I think the Monaco is terrific. It’s a boat that a lot of people can drive, and the weird thing is that Greg made it so that you can actually sail the boat. Also incredible in the past has been Pulpo Mecanico, a giant octopus that spits fire to the beat of the music. It consists of many individual parts from the junkyard or were collected.”
Car Designer Keith London (Y Knot Saloon)
Y Knot Saloon is owned by JP Conte, Chairman and Managing Director of SF based Genstar Capital and built by Keith London and Sean Orlando.
Keith London tells me “JP had the idea of financing the creation of an Art Car for Burning Man a few years ago and asked me to be the Creative Director for the project. We discussed the possibilities… dragon, paddle wheeler, etc, but none of them resonated. I asked him to think about it, to look for something that was personally meaningful. Two days later he came up with the idea of a turn of the century old west saloon.”
“My first burn was in 2005 and I have been a Temple builder since 2014, where I joined David Best building “The Temple of Grace” he adds. “David and I have been friends since 1971. I’ve worked with him on a number of projects including but not limited to a Temple for the Parkland survivors in Florida, an installation at the Smithsonian, a Stupa in Kathmandu, and a memorial for Larry Harvey.”
JP Conte says “I remember going out there and people just did everything out of love. Everyone was just bringing their heart and soul out there. And then when you got out there and you connected with people and you really saw incredible people doing amazing things, it kind of renewed my hope in people in a way.”
“I’m supporting not only my own project, but several other projects at Burning Man” he adds. “I think art is one of the few things that separates humanity from the animal kingdom. It’s incumbent on people with means to help fund things they are passionate about. And art is one of the things I’m truly passionate about.”
“We built during the pandemic and we just made it more complex,” he said. “We added hydraulics so we could reduce the deployment costs. Then we added flamethrowers, and all sorts of features. When you see this up close, it’s a really authentic western saloon with the tin ceilings, with wallpaper and furniture from the 1800s. We’ve got old photos of my own ancestors and their connection to the West and it’s very personal. I’m going to go in early and help set up. We’re also building the Y Knot Saloon Camp. It’s like an 1800’s western city with a water tank that will look over the city.”
Designer Sean Orlando (Elektra Dragon, Y Knot Saloon)
“The goal with Elektra was to push the envelope of what was possible and use all resources available to produce a massive, spectacularly-illuminated fire-breathing creature poised to pounce or take flight,” says Sean. “We wanted to push the envelope of what was possible in scale and movement, to make something dynamic and lifelike.”
“I am an immersive artist who works in monumental dimensions, so I’m always seeking to use engineering and technology to create rich, vibrant sculptural environments for people to explore,” he adds. “In the case of Elektra, creating this dream involved designing and producing flexible, UV-resistant polycarbonate scales with embedded LEDs as well as a 3D mapping system for lighting design, engineering pneumatics for fully extendable and retractable wings, and integrating a state-of-the-art sound system as well as fire effects. These components are attached to or encased within a skeletal structure, with an airline tow tractor as the base vehicle; the final piece involved the collaboration of hundreds of artists, engineers, and technologists and weighs over 14 tons with the capability to transport 20 people on the playa.”
“I attended Burning Man for the first time in 2002, and it changed my life,” said Sean. “I know this has become a cliche about Burning Man, but my trajectory as an artist has been shaped by the idea of working intensely with creative communities in the implementation of monumental, immersive, and interactive sculpture.”
“Working with a group of like-minded artists and engineers who would eventually become known as the Five Ton Crane artist collective,” he continued, “I brought my first project to Burning Man in 2007–Steampunk Treehouse. I have produced large-scale works on the playa approximately every other year since 2007, both grant-funded pieces in collaboration with Five Ton Crane and works I made in consultation with private clients. This includes The Nautilus (2012), which is currently in the collection of the Bently Foundation.”
Designers Kevin Bracken & Marie Poliak (Metaphoenix)
Metaverse Arts is a community of builders and makers based in Las Vegas and Toronto. The art car project is led by husband and wife designers Marie Poliak & Kevin Bracken. The collective has built two previous cars: The Prodigal Swan, now permanently installed in downtown Las Vegas, and the Heavy Meta dragon (which features seven massive torches that become vertical flame jets, in addition to 10-foot constantly-burning flame knives on each wing.) Metaverse Arts also produces five annual fundraising events for its art and teaches the skills of metalwork and flame effects to an ever-growing community of builders, makers, and electronic music enthusiasts.
Long-time burners Kevin Bracken and Marie Poliak tell me, “To us, the past two years have been like a smoky nightmare filled with the burning down of many things we hold dear. We were all trapped in the purposelessness that followed pandemic restrictions pausing nightlife, entertainment, and the arts. The Metaphoenix represents a rebirth following the fires that took many of our livelihoods and cultural institutions, and waking up to create a new world of our dreams, where the arts come back stronger than ever.”
“Seeking a pathway forward, we decided once again to pick up the welding torches and angle grinders and make something bigger, brighter, badder, and louder than anything we have ever made before,” he continues. “To rise from the ashes, we will build the phoenix. As the world opens up and humanity rises from its pandemic slumber, the phoenix will ignite and become aloft in many people’s lives.”
“The build is just the start of something new: a large community that centers on a workshop, a space for rapid learning and experimentation. The workshop where we built the dragon became the home of two more massive mutant vehicles: Tarna the Jackalope and The Ark Car, and a half dozen projects inspired by the shop’s pressure cooker/incubator environment. Our mission is to make lives greater through art, music, and fire.”
Designer Duane Flatmo (El Pupo Mecanico)
Eureka-based graphic artist and designer Duane Flatmo created one of the most beloved mutant cars ever at Burning Man, the enormous Octopus called “El Pupo Mecanico.”
Originally inspired to build things with a lot of movement, Duane made a small octopus prototype while in Mexico. Along with his friend Jerry Kunkel who masterminded the electrical systems and flame effects, the result soon became a two-story kinetic scrap-metal octopus that shoots bolts of fire 25 feet into the air. The eyeballs bulge out, and it waves its flamed tentacles.
This year Duane will unveil a massive new surprise currently under wraps but sure to thrill everyone. Stay tuned for more!