Burning Man’s 747 plane art: mile-high ambition or corporate takeoff?

The Guardian – By Ana Furman – May 2017 – Re-posted Sep 05, 2018

Photo: Boeing for the gold. Photograph: Heidi Kaden/courtesy of Big Imagination.

A reconstructed Boeing 747 is a prominent piece at the festival, but some argue its six-figure budget makes it an egregious extravagance that doesn’t fit the vibe.

In 2015, a group of artists and engineers worked together to transform a Boeing 747 airplane into an interactive art project. Salvaging parts from an aircraft boneyard, they re-imagined the fuselage as a fur-lined, LED-lit lounge and transported it to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for the Burning Man festival. This August, the plane returns in its entirety with a full set of wheels, both wings, and a second-floor DJ booth.

The project co-founder, Ken Feldman, first attended Burning Man in 2008 and caught what he calls the “the art car bug”. “Mutant vehicles”, or art cars, form an unconventional transit system that carries people across the desert. When Feldman brought a flame-spitting, purple unicorn inspired by the popular YouTube video Charlie the Unicorn to the festival in 2011, he gathered a small following. The next year, he saw a bicycle comprised of airplane parts and “something just clicked”, he explains, and he thought “why don’t we build an art car out of an airplane?”

Feldman identifies as a “serial entrepreneur” and before working on the 747 project full-time founded several cloud storage companies. At the Mojave desert build site, he works alongside a retired nuclear power plant technician and high-ranking engineers from Nasa’s jet propulsion lab. Stationed at an aerospace test center where rocket motors are frequently tested and wind turbines dot the hills, volunteers weld together aluminum plates and brainstorm elaborate wing-reattachment plans.

Supported by a fundraising campaign that raised nearly $90,000 – Feldman established the nonprofit organization Big Imagination to fund the 747 project. Crowdsourced funds, however, account for less than a quarter of their overall budget. The project is buoyed by deep-pocketed investors such as venture capitalist Jonathan Teo, a former manager at Google and early investor in Snapchat. So far, the 747 project is the sole recipient of funds.

“To a lot of veteran burners, the 747 project is a symbol for the commodification of playa art,” explains Ben Ross, a film-maker and festival attendee. It’s the largest art car to enter Burning Man, and in years past, required a dedicated highway escort system to make the 900-kilometer trek from the Mojave.

Despite what some in the community might say, Feldman sees the 747 project as separate from the surging influx of investor-class money. “People think that this is just some rich person’s project, and yes, our budget is big, but we are not the most expensive project,” he explains. “We have one or two people who happen to be in venture capital but with VCs, all their money is wrapped up. They’re not, like, rolling in cash.”

Inside the fuselage, haphazard ladders lead to partially finished projects and windows are boarded up to keep out desert winds. There are ice coolers stocked with beers and whiteboards covered with illegible calculations. Repurposed jumpsuits, assorted drill bits, out-of-use electrical sockets, and industrial masks abound.

“Working on the plane is about working spatially,” explains Kelly Vicars, a volunteer logistics coordinator. “If you need a tool, you walk across the plane to get it.” Vicars has been going to Burning Man for the past four years, but this is the first time she has worked on an art car.

The volunteers stay in a nondescript, four-bedroom house with a view of the highway. Conversation topics range from the merits of microdosing to the ergonomics of Indian office furniture and the wild success of the television show Top Gear. Save for two rows of recycled airplane seats and some air mattresses, the house is unfurnished. On a poster board taped to one wall, alternative names for the FAA – the Federal Aviation Administration – are workshopped (example: Fucking Anarchy Association).

Photo: Burning ambition: inside the Boeing 747. Photograph: Heidi Kaden/Courtesy of Big Imagination.

The group functions like a “pirate anarchy collective”, as August West, a volunteer, says, “where people that live in their own spheres of freedom come together because they want to.” This freewheeling spirit resonates with the libertine culture of the festival – where money is banned and a gift economy is upheld in its place.

The volunteer crew on the 747 project tend to look past the project’s six-figure budget and see its value in purely emotive terms. To enter the plane itself, participants pass through an “insecurity checkpoint” and check their so-called “emotional baggage” before going through TSA – which stands for either Total Self Acceptance or Touching Sensitive Areas. Words such as transformative and inspiring are frequently used to explain the perceived value of the project.

“There are other ways to do this project that would’ve been easier and cost less, but they wouldn’t have had the same dramatic impact,” Feldman explains. Considering San Francisco’s ongoing homelessness crisis and the urgent need for reader-supported journalism (eg Mother Jones is raising $500,000 to investigate the Trump-Russia connection) there are no shortage of causes where a six-figure donation could make a real impact.

The egalitarian spirit of the festival is somewhat aspirational, as it is undermined by the barrier of entry: steep ticket prices (which cost between $400 and $1,200), job security that allows participants to take off nine or more vacation days, and the resources necessary to build an art car. For those that make it to the festival, “there’s no velvet rope, and you don’t need a wristband” to get on to the plane, Feldman says. “Everybody can come on board.” As a riff on radical inclusivity – one of the core values of the burner community – the 747 project espouses what they call “radically inclusive exclusivity”.

Just as libertarians perceive the world as devoid of power inequities, burners often envision the playa as an otherworldly place where class divisions do not apply.

PS Great idea and excellent art project for everyone at Burning Man to enjoy. Not thrilled when they have to shut down the power in the whole town to transport it back to it’s storage place 6-miles up the road in the town of Empire.

Posted by Teri Perticone


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