When you're converting a school bus into a 30-foot long, 18-and-a-half foot high, fire-breathing metallic dragon, you're bound to get some curious onlookers. That's just what's happening in an otherwise nondescript suburban Toronto alley on a Wednesday afternoon in April, as a group of about a dozen volunteers cautiously lift the beast's head atop the vehicle. After a few tense moments, as a few contractors look on bemusedly from a nearby rooftop, they successfully manage to attach it to the front of the Burning Man vehicle, and celebrate by shooting propane-fueled flames out of its sheet metal snout.
Dubbed Heavy Meta, the non-profit, volunteer-run art project is the brainchild of International Pillow Fight Day (which yes, is a real thing) founder Kevin Bracken, and his artist wife, Marie Poliak. After helping build a swan car for the 2016 gathering, the longtime Burners decided to construct their own pyrotechnic rig, following in the long tradition of modified vehicles at Burning Man. Last year, only 650 permits were granted by the Nevada festival's Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV), with the majority of the cars coming from the West Coast. Once it's completed, Bracken and Poliak hope to take the Canadian winged soundstage—which will also be equipped with a DJ booth, LED strips, speakers, swing, and a disco ball "heart"—to other festivals and events across North America this summer.
We recently caught up with the former at the warehouse where they're building Heavy Meta to discuss the project's impetus, his experiences at Burning Man, and why he hopes it'll inspire others to construct their own one-of-a-kind vehicles.
THUMP: To start, tell about Burning Man's history with these vehicles and why you decided to build one.
Kevin Bracken: Mutant vehicles are a huge part of Burning Man. They began as art cars in like the classic American art car tradition, so they would be like an El Camino with a lot of bottle caps glued onto it—very Route 66 Americana. As Burning Man got larger and more complex, and people continued to raise the bar on their art, people started to create these massive constructions. Over the years, Burning Man has encouraged people to modify their vehicles so they are less like a car, and more like the art. So in their words, they will only accept vehicles that are "radically mutated." You can't just stick a glowing sign on a car and say "that's my art, man."
There's a lot of different cultures inside Burning Man, but the one that we identify most is the sound camps. Those are people who bring big electronic music stages to Burning Man, and this goes way back to the rave roots of the Bay Area, Southern California in the 90s. This is the second art car that we built. The first one was called The Prodigal Swan, it was a terrifying, beautiful metal swan. It shot fire from its crown, but the problem was it could only hold six people, and the swan's in California. So we wanted to build one right here in Toronto that could maybe hold 25-30 people, and bring it as far as we can all over North America.
How many volunteers roughly help out?
So we have a private Facebook group and everyday we let people know when we're going to be at the shop. We work here seven days a week, roughly [from] 1-10. So we let people know exactly when we're setting up the shop, what we're doing today, and if they feel that they can help or they just want to see what's going on, then they'll jump in. Our group is probably about 100 people, and I would say probably 45-50 people have walked through the shop.
What does it cost to build a car like this one?
The budget for this is about $40,000 Canadian. That goes into the purchase of the bus, steel, insurance, flame effects, propane, diesel, generators, sound system, lighting, and all the random stuff that happens along the way when you build a giant project. Oh, and the rent for this warehouse too.
And so the way that we've raised it is one, we have some private donors. We also sold The Prodigal Swan, we're having an Indiegogo campaign that's launching really soon, and we threw a fundraiser party. Other than that, it's just a lot of personal money. We're just crossing our fingers that this doesn't bankrupt us for years. And you know, art cars definitely do bankrupt people, and we're very aware of the fact that this could ruin us financially. But you gotta make sacrifices for art, that's just how it is.
How long have you been going to Burning Man?
So my wife Marie and I started dating at Burning Man in 2011. I think that was probably my fifth burn, but Burning Man for me has been a constant in my life. I am 30 now, this is my 12th burn. I've basically been going since I was old enough to go by myself. The first time I asked my mom to take me, I was 11. She said definitely not. For me, it's like New Year's, it's the thing I could not possibly miss. So every year, when you step out onto the playa, the look of the playa at night is something that… It's a memory that fades quickly and it's something that I have to keep going back to see. Within all those points of light, there will be this dragon, and hopefully for other people, our dragon will be part of their experience.
What would you say to people who might have misconceptions about Burning Man, or have never been and are thinking about going?
I think it's important to view Burning Man in the scope of its larger culture, because Burning Man the event, it's only 70,000 people. The chances of any one particular person going are very small. But there are events in 50 countries around the world, and Burning Man as an organization puts on a lot of stuff outside of the event. It gives 1.5 million dollars a year in art grants. It has humanitarian missions in 20 countries through a sort of arm's length group called Burners Without Borders. It funds art classes in economically depressed communities in the Bay Area, and also installs solar panels in Paiute tribe land in Nevada. The party in the desert is such a small part of what it is.
You mentioned you also want to bring Meta Car to other festivals and events across North America. Why is that important, especially in a city like Toronto, which is historically not associated with being a "fun" city?
I think that it was not really in fashion to love Toronto until maybe David Miller was the mayor around 2003. In general, I think that Toronto is fairly reserved, especially compared to a city like Montreal that is very about loving to party. At the same time, I have found that with a little bit of imagination, you also become a magnet for all this creativity. Something we're experiencing right now is that as word of what we're doing spreads far and wide, people get really energized by this project.
This city has allowed a lot of our dreams to come true, and this is our way of investing in the city. We hope to inspire people and show them that you can do this, and we want there to be ten art cars in Toronto or 20 art cars in Toronto. We want to throw block parties, festivals, concerts with all the art cars that people can make. And we've heard people saying that once they've seen what we're doing here, they're like, 'You know what, I would like to do this.' And I hope they do.
Is there anything else you want to add?
One thing that we've been blown away by is the team. I call myself the "chief cat herder," but there are so many people on the team that have popped up out of nowhere to really help us. We have an incredible diversity of talent. One of the people on our team is doing her high school co-op with us. She's 19, goes to an alternative school in Toronto, and can weld way better than I can. We also have people like our chief fabricator Matt, who runs this house music collective called Secret Society, so he's curating our DJ talent. They have that "GSD" attitude—get shit done.
Find out where Heavy Meta will be this summer and donate on their official website.
Max Mertens is on Twitter.