The dust will sweep over the Nevada desert as it always does when Burning Man opens this Sunday. But this year, the fine dirt will swirl around something new on the playa: a Boeing 747 turned into art.
Volunteers have been transforming the 1980s-era plane into what they hope will be the world’s largest mobile art installation. They’ve been working long-hours for months at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the high desert, about a 95-mile drive north of downtown Los Angeles.
The tail has been sliced off. The wings have been clipped. That makes sure the plane stays steadily on the ground when the winds kick up in the desert.
Inside, it’s cavernous, having been cleared out by volunteers. The seats are gone. The walls are stripped down to the light green ribs that line the aluminum cylinder. You could turn cartwheels in here or as one volunteer joked, you could fit several smaller airplanes inside.
Only the top half of the plane will make an appearance at Burning Man this year, phase one of the 747 Project. The goal is to get the whole thing up there next year. It’s a tall order. Even cut down, the plane is a half of a football field long and three stories tall.
“How do you eat an elephant? A little bit at a time,” joked Ken Feldman, who came up with the 747 idea a few years ago, after he spotted two bicycles made from fuel tanks of fighter jets at Burning Man.
The whole thing started as a joke, sketched out on the playa floor. But seven years later, Feldman and his Big Imagination Foundation have brought the 747 Project to life, ready for takeoff.
The Big Imagination Foundation is the non-profit arts organization that’s helping to fund the airplane art, fueled by donations and an IndieGoGo campaign that has raised more than $86,000.
Feldman compares it to Levitated Mass, the giant boulder installation at the L.A. County Museum of Modern Art.
“This is sort of a moving Levitated Mass,” Feldman said. “They walk up to it and they go, ‘Oh my God! I can’t believe it.’ So there’s that awe, experience of awe,” just from the sheer size of the plane, sitting there in the desert.
It will be decorated with lights, with music and dancing inside. But it’s not just a nightclub. Like a lot of the art at Burning Man, it’s an interactive experience.
“You come up through the cargo bay and you come to another staircase and at the top of that is the ‘insecurity checkpoint,’ where our TSA agents — “Touching Sensitive Areas” — will pat you down and help you get rid of your insecurities,” Feldman said. “Then you move to the baggage check, where another flight attendant will ask you, ‘Do you have any emotional baggage that you want to drop off?'”
Then it’s on to the boarding zone, where a flight attendant asks where you are going.
“And if someone says, ‘Oh, I want to go to Disneyland,’ it’s like, no, no, no: Where, where are you going in life? Where do you want to go? And we give you a boarding pass, where you write down on the boarding pass where you are headed,” Feldman said.
Visitors then use a staple gun to place their boarding passes on the “Destination Wall.”
“The flight attendant gives you a little airplane wings, gives you a little hug and sets you on your way,” Feldman said, smiling.
The idea is to use this interactive art to inspire people to dream big, much like the plane itself.
“It’s not just an art exhibit in an airplane. The airplane is the art exhibit,” explained volunteer Nick Avila, who came down to Mojave from San Francisco to work on the plane.
On this day, he is fixing up the cockpit and screwing down the pilot and co-pilot seats. Eventually, the cockpit will have fake instruments that do all sorts of things when you press buttons.
“All this stuff is hopefully going to work. Like you can come and pull the throttle up, down,” Avila said as he moved around the throttle control. “Probably shouldn’t move the landing gear thing, but you can move that around. So it’ll be cool.”
The 747 Project is part of the Burning Man tradition of art cars, also known as “mutant vehicles.” People transform vehicles into moving art, so you can no longer tell that a bus is a bus or a golf cart is a golf cart. Buses become pirate ships. Airport transports become bees, which is the art car Avila worked on a couple of years ago.
“It was called Beezus Christ Super Car. My friend Honey Puns made it,” Avila said.
His friend used fabric to turn the cart into a little bee that buzzed around the playa. Avila said it was maybe “1/100th the times of the size” of the 747 Project.
“And we would serve honey out the back and preach the teachings of Beezus Christ over a megaphone,” Avila said. “So it was kind of like a fake religious thing and also we would just give out honey to people. You know, taste the body of Beezus Christ.”
Avila said he loves building stuff and loves airplanes, but really, it’s the ridiculousness of it all that takes the cake.
“To me, it’s about bringing cool things out that you built for no real reason, other than just to bring it there and share it with people,” Avila said.
Of course, Avila also has his own project at Burning Man. It’s a themed camp that serves coffee and spankings. It’s called Scarbutts, a riff on Starbucks.
Taylor Hoff has been helping out on the 747 Project. But the 25 year old who lives in Napa Valley has never even been to Burning Man before. He’s heard all sorts of stories from his parents though. And he’s excited to see the 747 in the desert and the art cars.
“These people put their heart and soul and their spirit into it,” he said. “It’s like the manifestation of their imagination.”
Hoff said what’s impressed him most about the airplane project is the people.
“Everybody’s family,” he said. “You meet someone and within a couple hours, you’re just instantly connected by this common thread of working on the 747.”
Next year, the Big Imagination Foundation plans to bring up the bottom half of the plane, bolt it back to the top and drive it around Burning Man with an airport tug.
Keru McKenzie of Ridgecrest is excited about it. He’s been putting in several days a week for the last few weeks, mostly welding stuff and doing whatever needs to be done. He’s a regular at Burning Man.
“It’s the people and the art and the interaction. It’s different than going to a concert or like a music festival where you sit in the audience,” McKenzie said. “At Burning Man, you’re actually out there being. You’re part of the theater.”
McKenzie called the plane a “traffic stopper,” referring to its 500-mile trek up Highway 395, up the spine of California to the Burning Man site. He said he’s seen everything from big boats and galleons to space ship-looking vehicles at the festival.
“But no one’s ever brought a big Boeing airliner of any kind,” he said. “So this is just great!”