Many Burning Man art projects — the good, the bad, and the ugly — have the same origin story. Invariably, one of the 70,000 attendees at the noncommercial desert festival start a conversation with the words “wouldn’t it be great if …”
The Big Imagination project began that way too — and grew into a group that raised and spent just short of $1 million to bring a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet (or rather, 3/4 of one) to Burning Man this year. But the final execution of its plan was unprecedented in the event’s 32-year history — both in its scale, and the level of controversy it generated.
Since this year’s weeklong event ended in September, Big Imagination has had to navigate some serious turbulence, largely expressed in Facebook and Reddit groups. Some of it was driven by a misleading local newspaper report, and a game of media telephone led to even more misleading videos claiming that the plane had been “abandoned” on the playa (Burning Man’s location, an ancient lake bed in the Black Rock desert).
Bad enough that the 747 managed crowd control with what some attendees perceived as a dismissive, elitist attitude. Now it appeared to be in violation of the event’s sacrosanct principle of Leave No Trace. A tiny minority casually suggested shooting, burning or dismembering the plane. One graffiti artist tagged it with the word “MOOP”, which stands for Matter Out Of Place and is the worst insult in the Burner lexicon.
For veteran Burners, here was an irresistible story that spoke to larger, worrying trends: entitled Silicon Valley types bring one of the largest, most Muggle-like objects they could find to a magical location, then toss it aside like trash.
The story was only slightly hampered by being entirely untrue.
‘They put their toys away’
Some of the opposition to the plane is more than warranted. There are real conversations to be had about the direction of Burning Man in the wake of its founder’s death this year; about whether any object, even a Jumbo Jet, can be art; about the increasing number of wealthy Burners and exclusive camps. And Big Imagination deserves to be dinged for poor communication with attendees during and immediately after the event.
Yet when you talk to the team behind the 747, a more sympathetic story emerges. It’s the story of an ambitious project that was funded by small donors and personal savings as much as by a few wealthy supporters; a camp of 200 people from all walks of life, exhausted by endless work shifts and beset by red tape; a genuine exit plan that ran into some last-minute hurdles; a plane that has been off the playa and sitting on private property for a whole month.
And it’s the story of a project that has the full confidence of the Burning Man organization, even now.
“It was out of our permit area on time,” says Marian Goodell, CEO of the nonprofit that runs Burning Man. “They were good citizens. Their timeline wasn’t what they expected, but that isn’t a crime. We’ve had that problem ourselves. They used the community, they used their campmates, and they put their toys away.”
No one, not even Goodell, knows if the 747 will pass the permit hurdles needed to return to the event in 2019. But Big Imagination intends the Jumbo Jet to be an evolving fixture at Burning Man in future years, and is eager to clear its name.
Here’s its story.
‘An ongoing joke’
In 2009, tech entrepreneur Ken Feldman, then part of a Burning Man camp called Robot Heart, saw some playa bikes made out of airplane fuel tanks. That one encounter sparked the project that would later consume his life.
“It was a ‘wouldn’t it be cool if’ moment,” Feldman says. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we made an actual ‘art car'” — the event’s user-made on-site transports, licensed by its Department of Mutant Vehicles — “out of an airplane?”
The next day, Feldman made a sketch of a Boeing 747 with the roof cut off and shade covering an open-air dancefloor. Imagine it: the only 747 operating entirely within the U.S., and it’s at Burning Man! The ridiculously large art car to end all ridiculously large art cars, six stories tall, filled with dance and art and dreams!
Like a lot of Burning Man dreamers, however, Feldman refused the call to adventure. The plane plan soon “became an ongoing joke,” he says.
Instead, two years later and for two years after, Feldman built and brought a popular art car based on a viral YouTube video: Charlie the Unicorn.
Then, on leaving Burning Man 2013, a friend happened to tell Feldman about an airplane boneyard in California’s Mojave desert. For enough scratch, anyone could buy a decommissioned plane and do what they wanted with it.
Feldman started pricing it out, called an investor friend, plotted fundraisers, and recruited the first of a team that would eventually involve more than a thousand people. Big Imagination was born.
And still, for two years more, the plane remained an ongoing joke — even within the camp, which was happy to share memes poking fun at their whole bizarre concept, and even create their own.
Burning Man takes place under the watchful eyes of three separate and somewhat interlocking authorities — local sheriffs, Nevada state police, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management — and throughout the process of bringing the plane to the playa, “they have been up in our stuff like nobody’s business,” Feldman says.
At the 2016 and 2017 events, beset by permit problems and logistical nightmares, Feldman and team were only able to truck up a portion the fuselage. The first year, a mere fifth of the plane showed up in the dust, like a 747 almost completely drowned in quicksand.
Given the full-plane plans lavishly illustrated on Big Imagination’s fully-funded $85,000 Indiegogo campaign, expectations were high — and the 747 suffered the wrath that comes to all products that overpromise and underdeliver. It was forever condemned as playa vaporware.
An artsy security theater setup for touring the half-plane — including an “emotional baggage check” — had some attendees rolling their eyes. Various pranksters at this most improv-friendly event tried to spruce it up by inserting plastic snakes into the overhead compartments, or “hijacking” the plane until Burning Man founder Larry Harvey met a list of demands.
Feldman was amused. His overworked crew weren’t always as receptive as they might have been.
There was a good deal of buy-in to help bring the whole thing, however. Feldman says he received hundreds of donations averaging around $1,000 apiece. There were a “handful of five figure donations,” he adds, but “most were under $10k.” (Reported backers include Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb, Singapore VC Jonathan Teo, Guy Laliberte, CEO of Cirque du Soleil, plus Tesla and SpaceX board members.)
No matter. Their money wasn’t enough, and Feldman needed to make up the shortfall. “I had to cash in my retirement money,” he says. “It wasn’t much, but it’s gone.”
Rather than being the rich asshole Burners imagine, Feldman says, he lives in a rent-controlled apartment in Venice Beach and drives a 10-year old car. “I would legitimately qualify for a low-income [Burning Man] ticket,” says Feldman, who used to run a service that tracks Bitcoin prices — but quit in 2015 to focus on the plane full-time. “I’m a starving artist.”
There and back again, a plane’s tale
For 2018, Feldman and Co. brought as large a plane as they were ever going to bring, its wings and tail permanently clipped. But it did not spring forth entirely from the Mojave’s airplane boneyard.
By June, the team had chopped all the remaining plane parts up into chunks, put the chunks into trucks, and reunited them with the parts that had been stored in the ghost town of Empire, 80 miles north of Reno and 20 miles south of the Playa, since 2016.
Reassembling the plane at the last possible point removed the problem of escorting a six-story, two-lane behemoth up the two-lane blacktop that stretches up from the I-80, over hills and around hairpin turns.
But that still left Gerlach.
The tiny town nearest to Burning Man, Gerlach has long since made its peace with the annual pilgrimage of the 70,000. Every year it transforms itself into a bustling, costume store-filled Burner bazaar boomtown — the last commerce zone before the commerce-free zone.
Still, that doesn’t mean Burners don’t wince when they see their outsize impact on this tiny, conservative community in northern Nevada.
To get the plane from Empire to Burning Man, Big Imagination had to do the whole road-shutting police escort thing through Gerlach — and also temporarily sever its power lines and phone lines. Which didn’t do much to endear the plane to Burners or to Gerlach.
Not surprisingly, Feldman was not keen to repeat the experience. But it looked like he was going to have to. He had a fully authority-approved plan in place to do the whole thing in reverse, in order to store the complete plane on the Empire property.
But that would mean if the plane was to come back to Burning Man in future years, he’d have to slice Gerlach in two every time. Twice.
It wasn’t supposed to be like that. Feldman had negotiated with the owner of land north of Gerlach to assemble the plane there, and store it there after the event. But as Feldman was on his way up from Mojave, the owner got cold feet. The Empire maneuver was plan B.
Feldman hustled hard for a plan C, and found one in July — another property to the north, this time one that you could get the plane to through the Black Rock desert itself, removing the need for highway transport after all. Perfect!
Just one problem. The very private, anonymous family that had owned the property for 80 years had never used it. They’d never even fenced it. They weren’t entirely clear where it began or ended. The last survey of the land in this most desolate corner of the American west had been taken in 1873. Could Feldman organize a new survey? Sure thing, he thought.
“Just like everything else on this project,” Feldman admits, “I had no idea how hard it was going to be.”
‘What the f*ck?’
Marian Goodell first heard of the 747 project in 2013 — either via email or at a party, she doesn’t remember. She does recall that her response was not unlike that of other Burners. “I laughed and said, ‘you’re fucking kidding me, right?'” says Burning Man’s famously salty CEO.
But over time, she became impressed with Feldman and the sheer chutzpah of the project. Sure, it was “a bit default world-ish,” Goodell admits. That’s Burning Man lingo for everything outside the Brigadoon-like confines of the event, which is remote from civilization in more than one sense. (It does have an airport, for very light aircraft — the opposite of 747s, in other words).
Don’t we see enough of commercial jets in our professional lives and default-world vacations? Who goes to Burning Man to be reminded of long-haul flights, things that generally please us most when they end?
On the other hand, some of the playa’s most loved art pieces included “default world” objects — such as 90-ft. oil derricks (‘Crude Awakening,’ 2011) and two 18-wheel tanker trucks welded upright together (‘Big Rig Jig’, 2007). A popular art car named the Christina is basically a redecorated 65-ft boat, transported to the desert from Lake Tahoe for eight years running.
Maybe the default world-ness of a 747 was a feature, not a bug. It’s MOOP and it’s proud. Maybe that’s what made it art, or a very subtle prank — and in the age of Banksy, what’s the difference? “It’s a ridiculous, amazing, hilarious, over-the-top project,” Goodell says. “It’s so gigantically, obviously out of place. But you ride your bike alongside it and it’s like being under a vast white rabbit.”
The interior of the plane was “definitely Burner-fied” in the manner of many art cars, Goodell says. Most of the seats save those in the cockpit were ripped out and replaced with blue fur benches. There was a DJ booth, a piano for the San Francisco Symphony’s pianist to perform on, and space enough for the Preservation Hall jazz band to play on board.
But as far as Goodell is concerned, the interior was “just the icing on the cake of having this huge creature out there and saying ‘what the fuck?'”
“It doesn’t make any sense,” says Feldman. “That’s the point.”
Nonsense or not, an estimated 5,000 Burners checked their emotional baggage, made it past the Total Self Acceptance checkpoint, and onboarded. The problem is, many more tried and failed to do so.
Every day the Big Imagination camp — tucked away in a low-traffic outer-ring suburb of Black Rock City, the name Burning Man adopts for the week it exists — would tow the plane out onto the open playa. Every day, long lines would form and require management. Camp members were told they had to take multiple shifts or they wouldn’t be invited back. The plane’s maximum capacity, including the balconies on the wings: around 500.
Long lines, hot desert sun, and little expectations-setting from the overtime-working crew: this was not a diplomacy-friendly cocktail of conditions. “People complained about waiting in line,” said Nikki Finnemore, Feldman’s indispensable “co-pilot” at Big Imagination. “We were like, ‘we’ve been waiting in line for 4 years.'”
Most days, the plane was open for 18 hours. That wasn’t enough for some attendees. Even when the 747 was safely back in camp, non-camp members “would try to climb up over the wings, past the ‘Closed’ sign,” Finnemore says. “They didn’t respect that.” She complained that a few dozen campmates had to miss private dinner on the plane to act as its bodyguards.
No surprise, then, if a certain kind of siege mentality kicked in. Or that both sides, the old-school Burners and the new-school Big Imaginationeers, began to feel the other was acting in an overly privileged manner.
Feldman, meanwhile, was dealing with a land survey process that was moving so slowly, it would be a month before the plane could move to its new home. And in the week before the event, the Bureau of Land Management asked to inspect the option C property, and required Feldman to apply for a new permit to move the plane there. That was on top of, you know, running a daily 747 service.
He was running on fumes, and you can feel it in his first attempt to address the 747 controversy on Reddit after the event. The facts are there, but the tone is petulant, arrogant, defiant, defensive — in short, perpetuating the cycle of outrage.
“If it’s a choice between communicating and getting it done, I choose getting it done,” Feldman says, still a little defensively.
Still, Feldman left the playa with great memories. For example, the time an unknown camp showed up dressed as air hostesses carrying trays of champagne, and decided to enter a fashion show that was randomly in progress.
He’s also grateful to two large old-school Burner camps, Distrikt and Mayan Warrior, who dropped everything to return to the playa a month after the man burned and give Big Imagination an assist in the Herculean task of moving the plane north.
“That’s how it’s supposed to happen, for fuck’s sake,” says Goodell, praising those two camps and chiding other attendees for reveling in Big Imagination’s month of delay. “This is a community of people that looks at the sky and imagines things. Someone trips in their 747 and you get the popcorn? That’s bullshit.”
The imagination level of bringing a 747 to the playa may not ever match its sheer out-of-place physical hulk. But maybe this is what Burning Man has to do next to stay relevant — try our radical new artistic directions, even if they aren’t the aesthetic the event embraced in the past.
“Let’s not go smaller, let’s go bigger,” says Feldman. “Let’s not get safer, let’s go crazier. Even if you don’t support us, support big projects. Because Burning Man is the only place on the planet where you can really go nuts and share the results with thousands of people.”
Wouldn’t it be great if … that continued to be the case.