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Hundreds of art installations, many interactive, take over playa at Burning Man

Paul Boger/KNPR

Burning Man is now in full swing. The counterculture event in the Black Rock Desert is expected to draw more than 80,000 people this year for one of the largest “art parties” in the world. But, it’s not all fun and games. It takes a lot of work, and for many the art is incredibly personal.

State of Nevada’s Paul Boger reports from Black Rock City.  

It’s windy day on the playa of Black Rock City, as Elizabeth Fitzpatrick and her team begin to set up their installation, The Last Bet Motel. It’s an homage to a recently torn down weekly in downtown Reno as part of an effort to highlight the effects of gentrification. But, the message of the piece doesn’t matter right now.

Today, it’s all about setting up, and that’s no small task. The wind is blowing dust across the dry lake bed where the team is setting up, creating a white out. 

"It's windy, it's hot, and some of our build team has to leave tonight. So we're on a time crunch. But if anybody can do a weekend ...," she said.

A few yards away, Elizabeth’s husband, Joe, works on the electrical system of a massive 12-foot sign. The dust off the playa is particularly alkaline and corrosive. It stings as it hits your eyes. 

"Everything in here is IP-67 dust ingress protection, yay! And it will be mostly sealed up so like, it's kind of dusty in here now, but it's not going to be this dusty after a week," he said. 

The Last Bet Motel is one of more than 400 hundred art installations on the Playa, this year. And they come in all sizes. The Last Bet is one of the smaller installations on the playa this year. Others are larger… much larger. 

"Well, it looks a little bit like a spaceport, doesn't it? But it is a giant drum made out of recycled pallet wood. It's like the, you know, little music box that you turn the handle ... It's that, that giant."

That was Bibi Bliekendaal, an artist out of Holland, and one of the project manager for a piece called Tinkle Drum.

Like much of the art on the playa, it’s an interactive piece. People are encouraged to climb into the 12-foot hamster wheel and start running, the motion plays John Lennon’s Imagine. She was inspired to build it after her first Burn.

She even switched careers once she got home. 

"In 2018, I went to my first Burning Man, and that just made me think like, yeah, I want to stop flogging people products they don't need and start inspiring people with awesome work, because people at the event they just make mind blowing things, and it makes you realize that you can do that too," she said.

That’s a sentiment shared by Katie Hazard, the head of the Burning Man Organization’s Art Department. She’s among those who gets to decide what art installations will make it to the playa, and which projects are worthy of an honorarium — a cash stipend to helps offset the costs associated with bringing a piece to Burning Man.

She said that’s what makes Burning Man special, the inspiration sparked by so many artists. 

"Here we are, and we're seeing the product and we're seeing the, you know, almost 80,000 people that will be here enjoying the product. The capacity building, the skill building, the communities that farm the relationships that develop, as you know, most works are built in collectives of one sort or another and so, for me, that's really the most special part, that the people that are bringing art come away with so much more," Hazard said. 

Of course, the art at Burning Man extends far beyond the installations. Everywhere you look you see creativity in motion, sometimes literally. 

Chris Wollard drives a 1988 Ford Econoline into an inspection line before he can get the go-ahead to drive on the Playa at night. Well, it used to be a Ford Econoline. 

"It's a 20-foot tall robot shaped after the 1950s tin toys," he said.

The Auto Disco Dance Bot is just one of the nearly 800 vehicles that gets to drive amongst the art on the Playa. All of them unique in some way, and that’s what seems to draw people to them. Wollard said that’s why he hauls the Bot from Tulsa, Oklahoma to B-R-C, every year. 

"We give rides, it's how we meet people. Yeah, people we picked up, we've saved so many people in deep playa, they get stranded, they get you know, like, dehydrated, like they're tired. Three miles back to camp. So we give people rides. It's fun," he said. 

It’s not all fun, though. Robert “Wizzard” Marzewski was among those who lost his Paradise, California home in 2018’s Camp Fire. Marzewski said he was in a funk for months, but out of that depression came a desire to create. So he wondered through his neighborhood collecting items from neighbors that he could use in a new art piece.

The result, Arising Phoenix, is a sculpture made of old guns, saws, silverware and tools, welded together. Marzewski said bringing a piece with such personal significance has helped the healing process. 

"The fact that everyone's out here in full force and it seems like a really, really intelligent, good crowd of people that sort of understand that we're here to have fun with each other, and we're not trying to hurt each other and say, 'Well, yeah, this is important,'" he said. 

And at the end of the day, isn’t that what art is supposed to do, bring people together and help them feel? 



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Paul serves as KNPR's producer and reporter in Northern Nevada. Based in Reno, Paul specializes in covering state government and the legislature.