TRANSCRIPT – Can Burning Man Change the World? | Andrew Johnstone

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LL: Hello Visionary tribe of EntheoNation. This is Lorna Liana here and it is that time of year where everyone’s getting ready to head out to one of the biggest visionary events of the world, otherwise known as Burning Man, which is the fourth largest city in Nevada for one week. So I am here today with Andrew Johnstone who is the British artist who designs the man.
Now he currently lives and works in San Francisco and for many years already, he has been responsible for designing the man, that iconic man that we see at Burning Man. Since 2005, he apprenticed under Rod Garret, the architect of Burning Man and when Rod passed away in 2011, Andrew was honored with the title, design steward of the man, and have served to carry on with the design of the burning man, man base.
This year, the theme of Burning Man is da Vinci’s workshop and bold design employing gears and human power has been devised to rotate the man in a style that would make da Vinci proud. So thank you so much for joining us today Andrew.
AJ: You’re so welcome.
LL: I can’t help but ask because this is such an incredible job to have. How on earth did you end up doing this work?
AJ: I was just lucky. I was just lucky. I started doing work with Rod — I used to do a thing called Virtual Playa, which is this 3D virtual reality burning man and you could switch it from day to night, got different years and you can drive around on a couch or fly through in a helicopter. I was actually back home in Scotland and I got a call from Rod and he said, “You know, I’m Rod Garret.” I said, “I know who you are Mr. Garret.”
He says, “I’ve been watching what you’re doing.” He says, “I’m designing next year’s man base and it’s rather complicated, and it could use — I could use a little help with visualization. If I send you some plans quietly, do you think you can pop the Z? X and Y, are the two axis and then there’s the Z, can you make it stand up?”
So I took his plans and I converted it into a 3d model and sent him some screen shots and then he got back and he said, “That’s great, can we put a set of stairs over here, can we move this contrast and sure, that’s great, can we make this a little taller and put a railing?” I told my dad, I said, “You know this guy is a luminary but every time he makes a change, it’s in the evening.” He says, “Well it sounds like he’s doing the design right now.” I was like, “My word.”
So what I did is I kind of became Rod’s sketchbook and we worked. We talked every day, if we went two days without talking, it felt strange and he was grandfather to my kids and we called him dad, my wife and I called him dad, and I’m proud to sit in his old office chair, that his widow gave me when he passed away. I loved Rod, he was my Obi Wan.
AJ: That is amazing. So let me just kind of dial this back here. This was not a Craigslist job posting? No.
LL: I’m sure they would have gotten if they had posted that job. It would have crashed the servers, right? Okay, so you already had this project that you’re working on, which sounds like to me it was like a software project, an animation project.
AJ: Yeah.
LL: And people had heard about it and so then Rod Garret had heard about it through the community.
AJ: Yeah, I think he’d seen it somewhere.
LL: That is fantastic, yeah. So you were just doing your thing and following your passion and then more and more people heard about it and then all of a sudden one day, this person calls you up and then you start just engaging with him, helping him out in real time on the design that he was working on at that moment, you became invaluable to him and then this turned into a wonderful apprenticeship and then when he passed, he handed you the torch.
AJ: Yeah. When I was doing Virtual Playa, I was always a year behind. I was always retro modeling the previous years’ man, I’d go out and measure it and photograph it and try and image of it and then build it as a 3D model. Then all of a sudden, we were working on it with Rob who was working on next year’s man and it became far more relevant and Virtual Playa just kind of stopped happening. I just had better things to do at that point you know?
LL: So did you actually have another job and you were doing the Virtual Playa as a side project and then all of a sudden this transitioned to a full time gig at Is that how that happened?
AJ: If you ask my wife, she’d tell you I’ve never had a real job.
LL: What was your job before?
AJ: So I’m an artist, I’m a painter, I’m a pretty well-known muralist. I do large photo real trompe l’oeil murals; restaurants, casinos, cities. So I was already working in kind of my 3D space in my head and then in the late 90’s when I got — when I started discovering computers, I had friends who were at Pixar who were working on Sims and they encouraged me to get involved with computer 3D because they knew that’s how my head worked. I kind of stepped into that. Of course I still make my living as a painter but I do a lot of work on the computers now.
LL: Okay, so in this work that you’ve been doing for Burning Man. How many times have you been to Burning Man and how many men have you designed?
AJ: This will be my 19th Burn this year, which is ridiculous.
LL: How long has Burning Man been in existence?
AJ: So they started on Baker Beach in 1986 with a handful of guys, Larry Harvey and John Law, and a few of the guys. They made a small eight foot man, took him out to Baker Beach at solstice and thought, “That was fabulous, let’s do it again next year.” Slightly bigger man, few more people and by 1990, it had grown to a large man and a couple of thousand of people and the police showed up and like, “Who is in charge?”
The deal was, “Well you can have your party but you can’t go burning stuff.” So A bunch of guys who were Cacophonists, do you know what the Cacophony Society is?
LL: Gosh, it sounds familiar.
AJ: Yeah, the Cacophony society came out of the thing called the Suicide Club. “You may already be a member”, was their catch phrase. They were avant grade artists, Dada-ists, they used to do these zone trips and one of them was out to Black Rock and one of the guys said, “We know this place where you can burn this thing. You could set an atom bomb off, and it’d be okay.” So we took the man out to Black Rock for Labor Day which is the next available day and it’s been in Black Rock ever since. We’ve made the desert our home now.
LL: How many man burns have there been?
AJ: So we burn the man every year so what is that? 1986? We’re coming up to 30 years. Yeah, and I got involved with Rod in 2005 I think. So it was Rod’s man from that point on and then when he passed away 2011 he died in August, so we were essentially on our way to Playa when he passed away. That man was already designed the rights of passage man. That was the same that year and we had kind of the working sketch for the next one which was the fertility 2.0 in 2012. After that, I have both feet in. So since 2012 I’ve been actively designing the man.
LL: So how many men have you designed?
AJ: 2012, ’13, ’14, ’15, this is my fifth. I’ve never counted them up yet, this is my 5th one.
LL: Okay, wow, great, excellent. Okay.
AJ: They haven’t fired me yet, so that’s the cool thing.
LL: Okay. So how do you figure out what the man and the man base is going to look like each year?
AJ: There’s a procedure. The founder of Burning Man, Larry Harvey, he comes up with a theme. Every year there’s a theme around which the event is based. This year it’s Da Vinci’s Workshop and what he does is he pitches me the thing. He says, “Hey, this is where we’re going with this, can you think about a man base?” What I have to do is I have to get that theme, I have to make it gel so it’s a little bit it’s the centerpiece of the event and it kind of sets the stage in the spirit for the event.
So it gives it this direction map. So that’s what we’re doing. This year, the Da Vinci’s Workshop. I happened to be in Florence when he gave me the theme last year, which is the home of da Vinci. So all of a sudden I stopped being a tourist and started being a researcher and kind of downloaded Florencian architecture, went to da Vinci’s birth place near Vinci and do fits and got close up to his work. If Burning Man explains itself as being a bunch of artists and ventures, creators, if we have a messiah, it must be da Vinci.
I think we’re all disciples of da Vinci. We’ve never had a theme where we’ve honored somebody, it’s always been American Dream, evolution, but we’ve never said, “Hey, this is about a particular person.” Da Vinci is, we’re honoring da Vinci this year and I think that we get one shot at doing it properly. And I really think that if da Vinci were around, it’s certainly be a burner, he’d have a camp out in the playa. He sure would. Well look how he dresses, he dresses like a burner.
LL: Salvador Dali would be out in the playa, it’s like the perfect place for him. Oh my goodness.
AJ: Right? He would so be there. But you know, I like to think that in a few weeks when we got this thing built, if da Vinci were to step onto the playa, he would feel very honored and feel very proud of what we’ve done, so yeah.
LL: Well so the thing that I’m always amazed by at burning man is all the effort that goes into creating just spectacular works of, gigantic works of art only to burn it down at the end of the event. Given the immense size of the man, how do you guys go about making sure that you can torch the man and it doesn’t end up killing a few thousand people that are dancing around in a frenzy or a few hundred fire dancers and all the people that gather around in one flaming column?
AJ: Yeah, we got 70,000 people standing around this giant fire. This is a solemn responsibility. What seems like chaos is kept on the side of reason by good planning and fabulous engineering. I’m an artist. My job is the aesthetic, “how is it going to look, how the experience is going to feel when you’re inside the structure and interacting with them?” I take that idea and I work with engineers and builders and they make sure that that structure is going to serve its purpose not only aesthetically but also structurally.
We always overbuild this things. If I take a joke, when we built the fertility 2 point man base which was really the first one that I can really kind of call my own. I was kidding with my wife, I said, “I’ve been in hospitals that aren’t built as ruggedly as this. It was extremely well built. When we get ready for burning, the last meeting that we have in San Francisco before we leave for the day is called The Council of Destruction. That meeting, there’s myself, there’s Larry, there’s Crimson who is the fire goddess. Dave X who is the pyro guy.
Joe the builder who is the construction manager for the project and a bunch of other guys, we all get together and come up with the plan of where do we throw the parameter, how do we weaken and compromise the structure so that it’s brought down in a controlled way, how does the pyro crew do their thing? So It’s pretty involved, the plans again going to operation at that point.
Also, we have to — we are guests of the Bureau of Land Management, this is federal land. And we are very respectful of the player, we are the largest “leave no trace” event in the world and that means when we leave, you can’t find the pistachio shell or a sequin when we’re gone. That also applies to the man. When we close off the man on the night prior to burn night, Friday night, we take out all the stuff that we don’t want to burn that will make accurate and poisonous smoke, we take all the electrical equipment down and wiring and things like that.
Also, we spread around the DG, which is disintegrated granite and what it is, it absorbs the heat from the great fire and also protects the desert from having a burn scar. If it were left unprotected, it would slightly vitrify the playa and would leave a burn scar. So we protect not only the people but also the environment when we’re considering the burn.
LL: That is so interesting and yeah, I think most people don’t even know that. It makes complete sense because the playa is white. All that stuff is burning, obviously with a big gigantic big huge black mark if you, I guess, didn’t do something about it. So let’s get an understanding of the magnitude of the structure that’s burning. How tall is the man in feet from the base to the very tip and then how many stories does that translate into and how much material, like how much does this whole thing weigh?
AJ: So the traditional man, the one that it’s typical, is 40 feet from his feet to the top of his head. A couple of years ago, we did a giant man, we’d always promised ourselves that we were going to build a giant man. So we did a colossal man that was 105 feet tall, the head was 17 feet, the whole structure weight somewhere around 70,000 pounds. This year it’s going to be 43 feet with the wheel. It’s going to be, if you can picture on your mind a Vitruvian Man on a wheel, the wheel will rotate vertically like a Ferris wheel and that will be human powered.
We’ve got somewhere around 9,000 pounds of mechanized gears and about 12,000 pounds of man and women. We’re approaching 20,000 pounds of man and mechanism but is about 50 feet off the ground. The base itself is 60 feet across, it’s 24 feet high, it’s an octagonal structure with a central oculus. An oculus, if you think of the pantheon, that’s got an oculus, it’s an eye, it’s an open space in the middle so that you can look up, and when you’re inside the man, you can look up and see what’s going on.
There’s a vertical shaft we’ll sink through the oculus and at the bottom of the shaft a capstan wheel. The wheel of pain if you’ve ever seen Conan the barbarian. It’s where everybody kind of leans and pushes and that will actually human power and turn the man. We’ve got an 11 to one a mechanical advantage with the gear system and the gear system is a very da Vinci set of gears. Using things like lantern gears and planetary gears. Sun and planet gears. It’s very cool looking, I can’t wait for this thing to hold. I haven’t seen it yet, I’ve seen it in computer 3D, we’ve made all the parts and I’ve seen the all the parts all scattered around in the workshop as we make them. But I haven’t seen it all together, this will be — it’s a prototype of one.
LL: Wow, okay. So you’ve got this incredible structure, so much energy goes into building it and making it like a completely amazing memorable and so then it’s the night of the burn and I remember many years ago, my friend and I, we found ourselves in like literally the front row. It was before Burning Man was tremendously huge but I think it was still several tens of thousands of people and then we were in like the first two rows of the man burn ring and we literally sat there in like two hours of a dust storm.
And then we watched the whole ceremony of burning of the man, the whole man burning ceremony where there were just hundreds of fire dancers going around the man and that was just incredible, it was so primordial and then all the art cars came out and then they started to shoot out their gigantic propane. Fire, huge jets of fire and they all circled around the man and then they torched it. That was like years ago, so is it the same? Or do you guys change it up or is it pretty much the same formula, same structure?
AJ: Yeah, well ultimately, the man’s going to burn but other than that, things change wildly. The man base is always different and this year’s a little different. Usually the overture right before the man burns is his arms will raise, all week, he’s had his arms by his side and right before we burn him, a signal is given and his arms come up and he assumes that pose of urgency, that he looks alive at that moment. This year we can’t do that because he’s on a wheel, his arms are already out stretched.
So we’re doing other stuff, I can’t tell you what we’re doing, we’re going to do of this stuff this year. It’s going to be a little different this year. People always ask me, you work for typically probably about 18 months. We work from getting the theme, an original concept all the way through designing, building, burning the man, that’s about an 18 month timeline. People ask me, are you not distraught, are you not disappointed?
LL: Right? Attached to what you created.
AJ: Everybody asks me and no, is like short answer. First of all, this is what he’s designed for, it’s like designing a ship and being upset that it’s sailing away. This is what you designed this thing for. The other thing is that in the back of my mind, I have feel responsible for a lot of things. Once the man is burned, nobody’s going to hurt themselves on him, nobody’s going to wake me up at 2 o’clock in the morning and say, “You’ve got to come to the [inaudible], we’ve got a problem.”
There’s no more meetings to be had, there’s no more budgets to deal with, there’s not more schedules to freak out about. So it’s like the ultimate line under project. I wake up on Sunday morning and all my problems that I’ve been wrestling with are now a pile of smoking ash. It’s such a relief. I couldn’t tell you, I’m the happiest guy in the world on Sunday morning.
LL: Wow okay. So before Sunday morning happens, okay? There’s the big ceremony and the man goes up in flames and all of a sudden there’s like this gigantic bonfire and like all this molten whatever it is like metal, like wood, I don’t know what it is and what’s crazy is — so I’d love to ask your thoughts on what is going on. So first of all, there is the whole like all of the stuff that’s burning, is that hazardous and should we wear gas masks?
AJ: There’s nothing, like I say, the night before we burn the man, we do a thing called the strike where all the stuff is like electrical equipment and things like that are all stripped out on to the man. So he’s fairly inert, there’s a little bit, there’s the few optical components because we keep the neon lit. So there’s a few transformers in there and also the neon. But we even go to great lengths not to use ply wood because we don’t want the glue to burn. So it’s usually dimensional lumber that we’re using.
What I do is the night of the burn, I always kind of throw up a handful of dust and see which way the winds blowing and make sure I’m up wind. You don’t want to be down wind of that because that’s where all the muck and the spikes are going to go. Just be smart is a good idea.
LL: Yeah.
AJ: A lot of people like to party on burn night, well every night for that matter. But especially on burn night, and just make sure you’ve got enough water, you’re hydrated, you’ve got somebody watching your back if you are a little kind of sideways. It’s a good place to go crazy, but you’ve got to watch, you’ve got to be self-aware. I think that’s the best advice I can give somebody is just be aware of your surroundings and look after yourself and watch your friends.
LL: Yeah, you know, Burning Man is definitely a hazardous party environment and you could get seriously hurt or die there. So I’m glad to know that you guys are making sure that the man is not contributing to any casualties but what would your advice be to people to make sure they don’t get killed or run over by an art car? There aren’t that many deaths per se but what are some good common sense things from a veteran’s point of view?
AJ: Yeah again, if you’re inebriated in any way, make sure you do that in a place that’s safe. Don’t be walking around the playa in the middle of the night with no lights on. That’s not the good thing. Make sure you’ve got plenty of water, if you need meds, make sure you got your meds with you and also make sure you’re lit. there’s nothing worse than some of these art cars, vision is pretty impaired because it’s got art car stuff all over it.
If there’s a guy in the middle of the night walking, all dressed in black with no lights, it’s pretty tough to see. There’s a very strict speed limit but you got to give people a chance. So yeah, be aware of your surroundings and be with a group, that’s always a good idea. Being with a group I think.
LL: Yeah, you know the personal blinky light thing is really important. I didn’t realize how important that was because I don’t like the glow sticks because I think they’re just kind of, they just end up — they’re environmentally friendly and all that. Then I realized, “Oh my god, if I don’t have something that’s lighting me up, nobody’s going to see me and I might get hit by an art car.” So yeah, it’s a big deal. You need to have something that’s shining a light on you or flashing or you know?
AJ: I think it also has it, the day time also has its hazards as well but there is the sun and people underestimate the power of the sun, constantly. I know this because we have guys who are working on our crews who over work themselves and are so focused, hyper focused on their task that they forget about their own needs. We have a few every year that we have to send to Rampart to get, because they’re dehydrated.
You’ve got to piss clear, you’ve got to be drinking enough water, dehydrated probably. It’s easy to forget when you’re having a good time. Also, alcohol is a diuretic, it drains you and I’m not a big fan of drinking on the playa, it’s never been my buzz. I’ll have a glass of wine or a beer or something like that, but I think getting drunk on the playa, it’s a bad idea.
LL: Yeah, yeah totally. I completely agree. You have to drink maybe like twice as much water that you would normally need to drink or even imagine carrying. So there’s definitely other mind expanding libations that are way better for an environment like Burning Man.
AJ: Absolutely. My drug of choice on the playa is adrenaline and excitement. I could drive a school bus out there. I’m kind of a sober guy out there. Maybe because I feel like I have a responsibility to be sober. I can’t have somebody knock on my trailer and I go, “Oh I’ll deal with that in six hours or so.” I got to be on my game and also being a dad. I got my kids out there, I can’t get sideways out there.
For as sober as my experience is, it completely psychedelic, just on the vibe, just on the spectacle of thing. If you can’t go to Burning Man and just be in your own mind trip, where are you going to be able to do that? You’re sitting there in a 40 foot high mechanical octopus goes past and you go, “Oh.” You know, how can you not react to it?
LL: One of the most hilarious things I saw was like a giant gumball dispensing machine that was like, that had a slide on the inside and people that were naked that had been spray painted red and like blue and green, sliding through the slide on this moving gigantic gumball machine.
AJ: See? If you dropped anything, you’d miss that. You’d miss the nuance.
LL: I can’t even tell you how many ridiculous art cars I’ve hitched a ride on. I remember this one time I was walking with a friend and it was like totally dark and it was like, I don’t know, three in the morning or something, we’re in the outer playa and then we started to hear the strains of Thievery Corporation playing Lebanese Blonde, which is one of my favorite songs and all of a sudden these big round cat eyes like emerge out of the darkness and then as the eyes approaching get bigger, it’s actually a beautiful replica of the six legged cat bus from the Japanese animation called My Neighbor Totoro.
So it was beautifully done, we rode around in this furry cat bus that was playing fantastic music and this people walking by were just seriously bugging out on this vehicle and it was just so much fun just watching people react to the bus. As much fun doing that and being in the bus. So yeah, lots of fun to be had. I want to ask you in the 19 years you’ve been going to Burning Man, how have you see the evolution of Black Rock city and the evolution of the man.
AJ: That’s another great question. So everybody goes, it’s almost a cliché, “It’s not like it used to be,” right? You hear that all the time, “Oh back in the day, it was the,” — for me, my favorite year of Burning Man is always next year. For me, it gets better every year. The art becomes more extreme, we get better at it, about the engineering and I’m always excited. Every year is my first burn. I do, I’m excited now. I got 19, this will be my 19th burn, I’m like a kid at Christmas, packing my trailer right now. I’m like, “Oh my god, two more days and I’m going to be on the playa.” It’s like that.
My heart skips a beat when I turn off the highway and get onto the dry lake bed. It’s very un-Scotland, right? Scotland is like — it is! Scotland is like green and rainy and lumpy and wet and gray and cold. Black Rock Desert is this white line and this azure blue sky and it’s hot, ad desiccatingly dry, it’s very un-Scotland and I feel so at home there. From the moment I ever set foot on the play I feel like it’s the second home. Love the place.
LL: So what does Burning Man mean to you after nearly 20 years of going there?
AJ: I’ll tell you what my first Burning Man meant to me, because it folds in. So when I went to a university, did fine arts and thought that I was an artist. Was making a decent living as a painter and then I had my first experience at Burning Man. Within a day, I realized that I was a crash land and not an artist. My experience of Burning Man made me into an artist. It made me think on a more diabolical and expansive level, I was less afraid of making mistakes because that’s the European system.
You’re taught to have a set of skills, that’s not created process, that’s a set of skills. My first Burning Man released my creative spirit and I never came — it’s always been out there now and my experience at Burning Man is that the day after the burn is like my new year. So my burn night is my New Year’s Eve. It’s my reset for the year, it stokes my fire and kindles those embers and sets things in motion for another year. I don’t know what I’d do without my experience of Burning Man. I find it very invigorating, creatively invigorating.
LL: I find that every time I go there, I find myself transformed in a profound way. Sometimes it’s hard to know where it’s coming from. I mean I like to gravitate towards a transformational camp. My home on the playa is Camp Mystic, it’s all these transformational coaches and we have workshops and speakers and really great music and stuff like that. There are these other really epic transformational camps like Red Lightning and then there is like the TEDx on the playa.
So I kind of feel that on a certain level, Burning Man is a culture hacking catalyst that’s transforming culture around the world. I especially love it when international people go to Burning Man and they are like, “Oh my god, we’ve never experienced anything like this.” They want to really bring back a lot of the philosophy and the practice and the culture and the lifestyle. So I’m curious to know from your perspective, what do you think that Burning Man can teach the world?
AJ: First of all, I love that expression, “culture hacking”. That really describes things very well. Yeah, some other people have said that the playa is like the internet in that its’ wide open expense of possibility that you can do anything in. With that in mind, I don’t think it’s — some of the great giants of Silicon Valley, Sergei and Larry from Google and Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. They all make their way out to the playa and they’re not going there for a sun tan.
They’re going there maybe to, again like I do, stoke their fires of inspiration. Also, they’re future creating. The future is always in the state of beta and I think that these guys have their fingers completely on that pulse. This is a good place to kind of test the waters with like you say, culture hacking. That’s a fabulous word, I’m going to use the shit out of that.
LL: So we’re coming to the end of our interview here and I’d love to ask you, of the many far out experiences I’m sure you’ve had, is there any far out memorable experience that stands out in your mind that you’d like to share with us?
AJ: I’ve seen lots of ridiculous things, some just amazing things. When I’m an old man and I’m old wrinkly and I close my eyes, my most profound memories would be ones that I gathered while I was in the desert. Some are very beautiful, some are scary, some are profound but for sure, taking my child and growing up with my child at Burning Man and experiencing Burning Man through the eyes of a child is something that’s just really powerful.
But without a doubt, the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced at Burning Man was a couple of years, my wife and I got married there, we’d been playing house for 10 years, raising two kids and we decided that we were going to get married and we got married underneath the giant 105 foot man that I designed and we were surrounded by hundreds of open hearts and beautiful spirits. The reverend Billy Talen did the honors, it was amazing. Amazing experience. We have the coolest wedding album in the world.
LL: Wow, that sounds so touching and yeah, I’m sure it was, what an experience to have. I know a number of people who have gotten married at Burning Man it’s definitely one of the most memorable places to tie the knot and declare profound love for your beloved.
AJ: Yeah. It’s a special place.
LL: Awesome. So how can people best stay in touch with you Andrew?
AJ: They can find me on Facebook, Andrew Johnstone. I’m sure there are others but when you find, when you run into a lot of Burning Man stuff, that’s me. The other way, anybody can drop me an email. I’m and always happy to hear from anybody unless they’re complaining about my designs. Then you can get lost, right?
LL: Awesome, thank you so much for sharing your stories and your time here and I just want to wish you an epic burn. I will be there with you in spirit. Have a great time.
AJ: Yeah. Think about coming out soon, all right?
LL: Okay, next year.
AJ: Next year’s going to be the best year did you hear that?
LL: No, wait, tell me why?
AJ: Because it’s always better. Next year’s always better.
LL: Right, okay. Okay great. I’m marking my calendar. All right, thank you, take care, have a safe drive out the playa. Buh-bye.
AJ: Cheers.