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Burning Car

We had discovered that relying on our cars to get around had reproduced a too-familiar world

By Novella Carpenter

By the time you read this, you will have missed Burning Man. You will have missed the blistering heat and dust on the playa, an ancient lake bed where revelers camp in the Black Rock Desert in northwest Nevada. You will have missed the various wacky theme camps with names like Barbie Death Camp and Wine Bistro or the Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet, and their attendant freewheeling sexual exploits and barter-society values. And of course, you will have missed the pyrotechnics that make Burning Man what it is--the torching of a giant humanoid sculpture. But most of all, you will have missed the art cars.

Burning Man started in 1986 at Baker Beach in San Francisco when Larry Harvey and his friend Jerry James ignited a wooden sculpture just for the hell of it. It became an annual event, and after four years it outgrew the space and was relocated to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. With the wide-open spaces and a flat playa that made a good racetrack, cars became a major element to the festival. But not just any cars: art cars, which can be defined as vehicles that have been modified to make a personal statement or expression.

In a new book, This Is Burning Man, one of the daddies of the festival's art-car presence, Robert Burke, is quoted saying, "My influence is in the art-car scene, seeing it converge with Burning Man, seeing what art can do if it moves." According to author Brian Doherty, Burke believes that the buffalo, the spiritual and material provider for the Native Americans of the plains, has been replaced in our culture by the automobile. And believe me, he isn't mourning this--he's celebrating it with his crazy art-car concoctions, one of which is a car in the shape of a buffalo,.

Other amazing car contraptions include La Contessa, a ghostly pirate ship created by Simon Cheffins, Mateo and the Extra Action Marching Band; and the 5:04 Earthquake Car, so named because it was crushed by the 1989 San Francisco earthquake but is still fully functional.

However, this year, with a predicted crowd of 25,000 people, new rules have been instituted regarding art cars. The organizers realized that Black Rock City was becoming a reflection, albeit a weird reflection, of the mainstream world. They now encourage people to park, then walk or bike, thus increasing community interaction. The 2004 "Burning Man Journal," has the following to say about the issue: "We had discovered that relying on our cars to get around had reproduced a too-familiar world. It was a world of personal convenience. ... People would elect to visit some attraction and then drive there in a metal isolation booth. Experience between points A and B became a view seen through a dusty windshield, fleeting and vicarious, like a television travelogue."

To avoid this lameness, the 2004 Depart-ment of Mutant Vehicles (DMV) joined with the Burning Man's art department to review applications and to award permits only to cars that "are safe, extensively modified and bring imagination and creativity to the playa. The vehicles you see driving should be as exciting as the other artwork people bring to Black Rock City." More than 800 cars were entered for the review process for the 2004 festival. These applicants were warned that it wouldn't be enough to decorate a beater car with paint and tinsel. They were also directed to ask themselves, "Am I willing to make my artwork interactive in some way that contributes to our community? Will I endeavor to create the most beautiful and visionary work possible? Am I ready to abide by all the rules that will help my community to live safely together in the freest (but not necessarily the easiest) city on Earth?" These are the questions we should all ask ourselves. To see photos of art cars at Burning Man, check out images.burningman.com.

P.S.: Don't miss the San Jose Art Car Show, Sept. 18, 11am­7pm, at the San Jose Museum of Art, which will include "Carthedral," a 1971 Cadillac hearse by San Francisco's Rebecca Caldwell decorated with stained glass, catacombs and flying buttresses.

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From the September 8-15, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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