Category Archives: Janus – the Mutation

Burning Man 2011 – Mutant Vehicle pro tips from a first-timer

Sadder. Wiser. Exhausted. Dazzled.

After building and piloting JANUS at Burning Man 2011 and living to tell the tale (Full build log here) I’ll go out on a limb to say this: Bringing a pre-approved mutant vehicle to the playa for the very first time in your life virtually guarantees that:

  • You will work your ass off
  • You will develop calluses, cuts, burns, bruises, muscle spasms and contusions in places you never thought possible
  • You will lose weight, grow muscle and pick up dangerous new skills (say, plunge-cutting plywood with a power saw just inches from your femoral artery)
  • You will empty your wallet far faster than you planned
  • You will – during that period – doubt:
    • your mechanical skills
    • the quality of your design
    • the solidity of your construction
    • your ability to finish in time for the Saturday burn, let alone in time to let you enjoy it at all during the week
    • your chances of escaping without a huge mechanical breakdown, catastrophic fire or horrible injury to your passengers, your crew or yourself
    • your ability to even get a grudging nod, much less a license from the mighty Department of Mutant Vehicles once you’re done
    • your sanity
  • You will show up on the playa having forgotten several critical tools, parts or methods for making it go
  • You will run out of screws, female plugs, butt splices or some other vital, impossible-to-find-on-the-playa supply
  • You will – after looking at other brilliant mutant vehicles around you – hate your design
  • You will vow never to let your hubris con you into such a foolish and exhausting enterprise again
  • You will finish hours – if not days – later than you had planned
  • You will make something bigger and more extraordinary in real life than you had even imagined during the design phase
  • You will be invited to bribe the DMV inspector – and out of desperation you will hope that your offer of a handmade gift-with-keychain-light is not too paltry when the signs say they clearly favor PBR
  • You will be told sniffily, “We’ll let you pass this year, but next year come back with more lights”
  • But you WILL get both your day and night licenses
  • You will remain completely sober (and swallow your tongue several times at the wheel) during the entire week, not because of the many repeated threats that law enforcement can bust you, confiscate your vehicle, kick you out of the event and send you to court in Reno. No, you’ll avoid any intoxicants – even a sip of beer – because at any second, without warning, deeply wasted Burners will lunge into your path, drive alongside you, climb onto your tailgate, bang on your vehicle, march around without lights directly in front of you, cause you to slam on your brakes and generally do everything suicidally possible within inches of your front bumper to ensure you have a heart attack or three
  • You will drive in tense, bitter silence for hours, hating shirt-cockers, sparkle ponies, propane flares, darkwads, moon boots, drum circles, techno, dubstep, neon, mutant vehicles and everything else Burning Man
  • You will vow never to do this again – and maybe skip Burning Man for the next nine years because it almost killed you
  • You will (however) slowly relax
  • You’ll smile – hey, I made it! People seem to be enjoying it! And – despite your charred, curmudgeonly attitude – you’ll start to really enjoy yourself too.
  • Burners will come up and interact with your vehicle – climbing happily aboard, playing your instruments, turning your little cranks, begging you to blast your flame effects (if you have ’em)
  • Kids will shout with joy on seeing you
  • Grownups will too – or at least they’ll say aloud “WTF is that???” and you won’t mind because at least you made ’em think
  • Other mutant vehicle pilots will honk (or blast) and wave, locking eyes with the look that says “I know what you went through – because I did, too.”
  • You will offer rides out to the majestic desolation of the unpopulated, art-free deep playa just because you can
  • You will climb onto your vehicle’s roof and enjoy the view, 20 feet off the ground – of your family and crew grooving on the waves of mutant vehicles, Burners, art and wildness surging around you at major burns (the scene at theTrojan Horse burn was particularly great)
  • You will happily give tours to total strangers, some of whom will thank you profusely and sincerely for showing them them things they never would have seen on foot or from the saddle of a bike
  • You will discover corners of Black Rock City you never knew existed
  • You will stand on your roof with family and friends on Burn night and howl with the glee of a 5-year-old and curse with the vigor of a drunken sailor as the Man goes up in a shower of fireworks, gouts of flame, and the boom of green-tinged propane bombs
  • You will spend 10 hours breaking down your mutation for transport (unless you were wise and rich enough to dedicate a non-transport vehicle to your project)
  • You will drive home wondering what the hell that was all about
  • You will immediately begin dreaming of your next design.

Here’s the full build log for the JANUS portion of XyloVan:

Below are photos of some other mutant vehicles (including the gobsmacking El Pulpo Mecanico, which hands-down WON Burning Man this year). I also posted photos of some of JANUS’ passengers, including the wonderful residents of Kidsville – and random bits of art.

Fifteen years and eight burns after I first tried to explain it, Burning Man still leaves me beggared for words. But building JANUS made me appreciate the worth of keeping my wrenches arrayed by size, making sure I had enough wire, and being deeply grateful for all the good friends who helped make this vehicle happen:

My long-suffering wife Kristina, David (the architect) and Marcelle, who generously donated heavy labor and painted the Janus medallions for front and back, Dave LaF, Alan and John for initial construction logistics; Marcus and Larry for on-playa muscle when I was about to lose it; Mac, Tina, Bernie and everyone at Big Art Labs for tools, welding, moral support and good cheer, and my right-hand kids, Cooper(Biomass) and Miranda (Hitgirl) for showing they know the value of hard work – thanks to all of you for supporting this whacked-out dream.

Burning Man 2011 – Panoramarama

The vast expanse of the plana lends itself to cinematic views. You find yourself wandering around the desert like David Lean, previsualizing shots for “Lawrence of Arabia.”

I used to hand-stitch photos together in Photoshop from whatever digital snapshot camera I was using, which was horribly time-consuming. This year, I discovered the iPhone app 360 Panorama – which lets you basically scan an entire 360-degree panorama within about a minute (or 90 seconds at night) and then automatically stitches the images together and uploads them. The results can be kind of kludgy at times – edges don’t mesh well if you spin imperfectly, or if your iPhone vignettes photos at night.

But I like the immersive feel you get when viewing them on the Web – or on your iOS device – it’s like a window into another world. Click the thumbnails here, then click-drag the images on Occipital’s site. (*hit the back button to return here)

360 Panorama: Self-portrait inside JANUS – Waiting for the Department of Mutant Vehicles to inspect and clear us for nighttime driving.

360 Panorama: JANUS and other vehicles in line in the DMV inspection lanes.

A quiet evening in Center Camp

360 Panorama: JANUS and other mutant vehicles at the Temple of Transition.

Another view of JANUS at the temple with the excellent submarine vehicle (at left)

360 Panorama: The Temple of Transition

360 Panorama: The Kidsville tour circles up between JANUS and the Temple.

360 Panorama: A romantic afternoon

360 Panorama: The Circle of Regional Effigies – wooden structures and sculptures built and then burned at once by 23 regional Burning Man communities from around the world. Our own Los Angeles was represented by SCARAB, a food truck that served snow cones and chips to burners before being burned on Thursday night.

360 Panorama: Before any major burn, mutant vehicles gather on the playa like fishing boats circling a fruitful patch of ocean. Here, JANUS and the submarine join others ringing the site of the Trojan Horse burn.

Thronged by burners and mutant vehicles, the Trojan Horse – all 5,600 pounds of it – goes up in flames.

360 Panorama – a sunny afternoon in Center Camp

360 Panorama – The Man, about to burn.

360 Panorama – the Man burns

360 Panorama – Tearing down JANUS and striking camp – a day-long affair. The work was long and hard (we went from about 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.) but the weather was gentle, and the dust not too bad.

360 Panorama – Exodus. Tens of thousands of vehicles stream towards the exit – basically eight lanes of cars, driving through the dust and the night towards a pinch-point one lane wide that lets them out onto the main road back through Gerlach. Timed right, you can be on the road in 20 minutes. Timed wrong – when most people are leaving – it can stretch to 3 or 4 hours. We stopped in Center Camp to get drinks right after the Temple Burn on Sunday night this year, and so escaped to the road in about 2 hours.

Music in the night

The beauty of sharing a huge musical mutant vehicle is that – at any moment – something like this can happen:

… or this …

… or this …

… or this …

Thanks to THAT Damned Band, Titanium Sporkestra,
, and all the musicians – trained, wild and accidental – who breathed life into XyloVan when we weren’t around to enjoy. You’re the reason we built it, and you’re welcome to play it any time you like.

Built, spun and burnt – first panoramas from Burning Man 2011

Back in Silver Lake two days after leaving the playa, and I’m still foggy and bedazzled: That was the biggest, hardest, most invigorating burn we’ve ever had in eight residencies on the playa since 1996.

XyloVan/JANUS took two and a half sweaty, sometimes lonesome days to build (my deepest thanks to David, Marcelle, Marcus and Larry for pitching in so hard), and once we got our DMV licenses, we had a blast bringing music, mystery and magical rides to the people of Black Rock City.

The city has changed, the culture has changed, and we have changed. Many more thoughts (and photos and video) to follow, but for now, here are some panoramas that show off XyloVan/JANUS in its natural habitat.

Bits and bobs – 3 days till liftoff

Because an art car is never finished.

I disassembled all the light arrays from XyloVan 1.0, and I’m reassembling them onto the light bars I made for JANUS. This involves testing all of them, including the flasher circuits …

… and then screwing them down. I’ll wire everything up later today. (It’s stupid-o’clock in the morning right now).

I also cut a stencil so that I can spraypaint warnings (PLEASE DON’T CLIMB HERE!) that discourage people from trying to scramble up onto JANUS’ “shoulders,” which are built to withstand the playa winds and sun, but not a 238-pound Java developer full of Fuzzy Navels and good cheer – let alone a 5-year-old child in a Wolverine costume.

I then cut a frame for the stencil out of an old TV carton and put the whole thing together with Gorilla Tape (accept no substitutes!)

I’ve also been drilling out a few discarded xylophone keys that I plan to mount with the drums that will be installed on the Cloud Deck so that people riding on top will have more instruments to play.


Mad dash to the finish

We have a deadline.

I have to finish this by 7/30, since other obligations will prevent me from working on it much more until the week before Burning Man.

So I’ve spent the past week solid (nearly) chopping through task after task. At right are the steel-conduit outriggers I installed at the top of the framework – this will give me something to hang light-bars and speakers from.

Here are the lightbars, cut from 1x4s and painted with a dull-silver hammertone paint.

David (our architect) spent much of last night using a cutting wheel (courtesy of the Disco Kremlin crew – thanks!) to cut out cloud shapes from the sheets of perforated steel that is usually used in plastering walls.

These will be screwed to the crown rail around the top of the pianos once we get to the playa.

Here’s another shot of the work, with the camera flash turned off. Much better.

Earlier, my son had silver-painted all the 1×2 pine furring strips we had, which I tacked up as proof-of-concept for a design layer on the pianos’ top edge. We’ll be getting more of these and painting them the week before the burn so that we can batten down the top and bottom edges of JANUS’ skin.

We then gave JANUS a healthy bath of Flame-X – a fire retardant chemical to protect the otherwise pretty-flammable cotton from following the path of combustion.

Then David and I stood back for a minute to admire our handiwork …

… and started the teardown. We basically un-built JANUS – stripping off the canvas skins, unscrewing all the framing, unbolting the foundational lumber, and then removing the hinge-pinned profiles. It took about two hours.

David peeled off for bed at around 1 a.m. this morning, and I finished up, stacking everything as neatly as I could on top of the van. I got done around 4 a.m., came home to catch a few hours sleep, and returned with a new set of come-along straps from Pep Boys to secure the load.

Ready to roll!

There’s still much to do, but we’ll attend to that the week before the burn – and on the playa:

– Wiring the light-bars
– Re-wiring XyloVan’s roof to fit JANUS’ light- and speaker-positions
– Sewing pipe sleeves into the rear fabric panels
– Acquiring 170 linear feet of furring strips for battens – and painting them silver

But for now, JANUS is complete.

I just want to give thanks here to some good friends, old and new, without whom this would never have happened – or would have ended badly:

– Dave LaFontaine, John Amussen and Alan Hagman for excellent company and assistance
– The crew next door building the Disco Kremlin bus – Mac, Bernie and Tina, for being endlessly helpful, friendly and generous. Thanks for the use of all the tools and materials that helped us solve more than a couple show-stoppers
– David Hoffman, who took my half-assed architectural ideas, and made my mutant vehicle design concept into a portable, reusable, customizable and easily-assembled reality.
– My kids, Biomass and Hitgirl, for lending a hand when it was needed most, and finally my long-suffering wife, Kristina, whose encouragement, support and patronage made it happen.

We built an art car in 30 days or less. Now all we have to do is get it to the playa.

Meat report

Various blisters: attempts to cut cloud shapes out of perforated-steel-sheet drywall lath using tin snips, burning self with melted blobs of nylon cord while attempting to keep it from fraying, sticky hands because I used oil-based paint but had no thinner at hand for cleanup, chemical burns from the flame retardant used on the fabric, etc.

Not as gory as last year‘s instrument-building. And – mercifully – no limbs lost.


Skinning JANUS

After sewing JANUS’ skin out of cotton dropcloths and then dyeing said dropcloths blue, I discovered the fabric had shrunk.

Yyyeah. All that fabric that I had meticulously fitted to the frame, and then sewn tightly together, was now smaller.

I remedied this by slipping the covers onto JANUS’ piano-keyboard “shoulders,” (which still – miraculously – fit), wetting down the fabric, and then stretching it, foot by foot.

In the end, it roughed out pretty nicely. We’ll be stapling all the top and bottom edges of the fabric to 1×2 pine furring strips (painted silver) on the playa, then screwing them to the crown rail at the top and the bottoms of the profiles a few inches off the ground.

Assembling the cloud deck

The security bars that I acquired turned out to be nearly the perfect size to fit XyloVan’s monster roof rack when turned on their sides – one pane wide and two panes long.

Alan and I spent most of Sunday measuring the bars and then drilling holes through them for 3/8-inch bolts.

We created a top-rail by drilling through 1.25-inch steel conduit and bolting it to the tops of the four side panes.

Then we cut an access hatch in one half of the rear pane, and cut notches in the bottom rail of the rear and front panes so that they could fit over the rack’s existing side rails. (the panes were 5’4″, order while the rack is only 5′ wide). Passengers will mount the deck by climbing XyloVan’s rear ladder and then ducking under the railing.

Huge thanks here to Alan for helping build – and to Bernie from the endlessly generous crew next door building the Disco Kremlin bus, for doing a little tack-welding to reattach a couple bars that came loose during cutting.

The long panes take two men to lift only because they’re bulky – they’re actually fairly light.

Once we loose-bolted it together on the roof rack, we realized that the security grates’ original mounting tabs stuck out and got in the way of things, wo we cut ’em off – then everything fit neatly.

Here’s Alan with our handiwork. I may paint it a pale blue so that it blends into the background better when we reach the playa.

The whole thing folds down to a stack only four inches thick, yet should be stout enough to keep even the burliest drunks from plunging off the van. Knock wood.

Observation deck, ho!

I’ve been running around like a madman the past week. I looked at my first post on this project – it was less than three weeks ago. I’m going to have completed an entire vehicle mutation within a single month. It’s a blur of hardware store runs, power tools and raw material.

Fencing worried me the worst. If there’s to be a cloud deck, I need something to keep the happy people from plunging off of it.

A contractor promised to drop off some recycled fence railing, gratis – and then he welched.

Fresh metal was going to cost at least $300 (yes, as a matter of fact, we are on a budget.) so that wouldn’t work.

So I dropped an ad into FreeCycle:

need about 35 linear feet of scrapped metal railings, the sort you see
on balconies, etc.

It can be rusted, bent or painted funky, but it must be at least 36″
high, with a top rail of at least 1″ thickness (round or square).

I will happily pick it up, and even help you clean up around it if it’s
buried among your construction debris.

Don’t own it, but know where I can get it? Let me know! I need this for
an art car I”m building – need to secure this in next 2 weeks! Thanks!

And lo and behold I got a call the next day. From a Burner.

Having just given birth a few months ago, she was resigned to skipping the Burn this year. But she had a whole slew of steel security bars that she just had taken off a building she’s renovating – and offered them up for free.

I cajoled the kids into helping scrub the crapola off of them

Next I’ll be bolting them together. They’ll be perfect. You’ll see …