Burning Man 2016: What Burners Are Building Here

Aug 24, 2016

The 30th annual Burning Man festival kicks off Sunday, bringing with it new, immersive art installations. Reno Public Radio’s Noah Glick dropped by a local maker space to see what artists are bringing to the playa.

Artists, inventors and volunteers are grinding and welding steel into a giant 50-foot tall humpback whale and baby calf. They’re at The Generator, a co-working art space inside an industrial warehouse in Sparks.

One of those volunteers is Michael Roger, known simply as “Dreamer.” A few months ago, he and his fiancée were on their way to Oregon when they made a split-second decision to join the crew working on the project known as The Space Whale.

“We see the exit and it was literally coming up in a minute and we talked it over and were like ‘Ah, oh my gosh, OK’ and we took the exit," he says. "Our hearts were racing and we were getting excited. It’s cool to live a life when you can just choose things like that.”

The bus where Dreamer and his fiancee live and made their decision to come to Reno.
Credit Noah Glick

Dreamer and many others have put in countless hours over the past three months to build this true-to-scale whale.

“It’s basically our connection to nature, and to animals and that we have to be responsible in our actions because that affects other parts of the world as well.”

There’s been a lot of hype about this project, because it’s partly funded by electronic music producer Skrillex and will have stained glass designed by world-renowned artist Android Jones.

But it’s not the only large-scale installation being built at The Generator.

Andrew Benson, a New Zealand artist, has been working on an homage to his country’s largest insect, the Giant Weta. Think a big grasshopper with spiny legs.

Andrew Benson jumps into the back of the Giant Weta to do some welding, while his colleague watches.
Credit Noah Glick

“We wanted to do something that was uniquely New Zealand, and also was going to look really cool," Benson says. "And so this kind of fits the bill.”

Now picture that grasshopper 20 feet long, made of steel and with fire shooting out of its antennae. That’s this project.

But as Benson says, there’s actually more to it.

“So the mechanism that locks the back end—and I’m glad this is the radio so no one can see it—but there’s a hidden latch," he explains. "So if you can figure out where it is and get in, it’s not going to be obvious. You got to figure out how to get in there.”

A champion of this type of art is Christine Fey, who founded the city of Reno’s arts and culture commission 25 years ago. She says she’s been seeing more of these large-scale installations at Burning Man in recent years.

“The first time I went in 2000, there were fewer pieces of art and fewer pieces of really enormous art, art that’s 80 feet tall," she says. "It’s just the volume of people is so palpable and noticeable, but then also the creativity of everyone.”

Two people work on Tangential Dreams, a large wooden spiraling structure.
Credit Noah Glick

Fey says that at its core, Burning Man gives people a chance to not just view art, but to participate in it—something she’s noticing less of with the bigger crowds of late.

“When it was smaller, it struck me that people were more communal," she says. "And now that it’s so big, I have the sense that more people are out there as spectators.”

Back at The Generator, U.K.-based artist Arthur Mamou-Mani is actually counting on crowd participation for his project, Tangential Dreams. It’s a giant wooden spiraling structure assembled with thousands of vertical planks that have people’s dreams stenciled onto them.

Two workers on Tangential Dreams work together to put wooden pieces together based on a computer algorithm design.
Credit Noah Glick

Mamou-Mani says he hopes people will continue to write on the structure before the end of the week when it gets burned—a process he’s meticulously planned for.

“We have little gaps where we’re going to put bottles for the fuel, so it’s going to explode at regular intervals," he says. "So we’re almost designing this as a kind of performance piece to make it burn in a really beautiful, choreographed way.”

Purposely burning something you’ve worked on for months might seem stressful, but not for Mamou-Mani.

“I personally find it quite therapeutic," he says. "I feel like that’s the end of something. So I’m actually quite OK with it.”

After Tangential Dreams burns and the festival is over, The Space Whale will travel around the world to six countries. The Giant Weta will head back to New Zealand to take part in the regional Kiwiburn.

The Generator in Sparks is a shared art co-working space, nestled off the highway behind the Nugget Casino.
Credit Noah Glick

A look at the Giant Weta from a distance.
Credit Noah Glick

Images of The Space Whale are not allowed until it's unveiled at Burning Man, so this will have to do for now.
Credit Noah Glick