The Changing Man

Every generation is subtly different. Different parents and different environments result in new choices and unpredictable results. Not that most observers would notice. From a distance the Burning Man appears unchanged, a single constant anchor amidst a city of no constancy.

But look closer and you’ll see evidence of a tale forever evolving. Organic, rife with mutations and competing ideas. Of refinements and failures; all the messy flotsam and jetsam of natural selection, packed into a single human figure. The journey of eons – the human journey – recapitulated in a spare wooden effigy.

As Adam might say, “Consider the rib.”

The Ribs (First Man, 2007)

The Ribs (First Man, 2007)

Originally carved by hand, the ribs were for a few brief years cut upon a CNC machine. In 2007 circumstance brought the process full circle, necessitating a quick return to traditional methods. During the rebirth – the heroic, on-playa creation of that year’s second Man – the ellipses that form the ribs were manually scribed by Red Ryan using only two screws, a length of string and mathematics. They were then hand cut by members of the Man KCrew and the DPW, as well as by the many citizens of Black Rock City who had joined us, unhesitatingly volunteering their labors to create Burning Man anew.

“All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.” – Cormac McCarthy, “The Road”

From the ashes of sudden loss arose massively collaborative Man, a thing of grace and beauty indeed.

Red Ryan cutting ribs

Red Ryan cutting ribs

The following year there was no question. The ribs would now always be cut by hand. But rather than scribing them using string – an ingenious but admittedly fiddly process – KCrew Lead Timothy O’Keefe proposed that we create an elliptical jig. In carpentry, a jig doesn’t refer to a lively folk dance, but rather a tool used to control the position or motion of another tool or workpiece. In this case, using two perpendicular slides to control the motion of a swingarm, such that it would trace an ellipse onto a sheet of plywood.


The ellipical jig

Devising and fabricating the jig took the better part of a day, but once completed we had a tool capable of describing every one of the Man’s seven unique ribs, perfectly and repeatably.

Ilo “Steeltoe” Kratins

This year, new KCrew Lead Ilo “Steeltoe” Kratins brought his own spin to process: the 20,000 RPM spin of a router blade. Often used for fine carpentry and cabinetry, a router is a high-speed rotary cutting tool that can – among many other nifty tricks – precisely follow the edge of another piece, a process known as pattern routing. By carefully creating a master template for each rib (for which we once again used our elliptical jig) and indexing the router along the edge of that template, it guarantees that the resulting rib pieces all precisely match the template, and one another. This is especially important as each final rib consists of two sheets of plywood glued together, and any irregularities between them requires tedious sanding & filling to correct. Routing their edges avoids this problem altogether.

A routed rib

A routed rib

Every generation is different. The changes to the Man’s genome that confer benefit – beauty, precision or speed – remain, while those that detract gradually die out over time.

Look closer. What appears to be static from a distance is actually every bit as mutable, as fluctuating as the city it inspires.

About the author: Aaron Muszalski

Aaron Muszalski

Aaron Muszalski (aka Slim) is an artist, photographer, and lifelong explorer of liminal spaces. As a member of DPW’s Man Crew, Aaron has helped design and build The Man since 2007. He is also an experienced startup founder (Threadable, acq.) and a Y Combinator alumnus. In January of 2016 Aaron was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. 2017 was his 23rd year attending Burning Man. In his own words, he is “not just surviving cancer, but surpassing it.”

5 Comments on “The Changing Man

  • BrotherMichael says:

    I’m loving this.
    Thank you for letting us see the progression of our man.

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  • Andie Grace says:

    T’was an honor to take up tools in the shop that were still warm from y’all working on the Man. Thanks for such an awesome contribution -love reading the story!

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  • Tiahaar Kurtheru says:

    Freakin’ coolest way to draw out an ellipse ever! Have known about the string method since jr. high geometry but never knew the slide method even existed. Brilliant clever KCrew!

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  • Dr. Mercury says:

    My first brush with the man was pulling on the rope to loft him onto the haystack in ’99. Since then, he’s grown a little distant, I think. Thanks for bringing us this blog and bringing him back down to earth!

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  • Totora says:

    Great inside look at the development of The Man. Have there ever been plans/tech drawings/blueprints of the man (basic or otherwise) published into the public domain? I would love the opportunity to create one in miniature scale.

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