This is a post in a three-part series about the Black Rock City rendezvous in Nantes.
At 11:45 am, I arrived at Cathedral de St. Pierre, where an excited crowd was assembling to witness the public spectacle that would commence at the stroke of 12:00 pm in Nantes, home of Les Machines de L’Ile de Nantes. This month marks the 10th Anniversary of Les Machines and to celebrate, they have offered up a weekend of large-scale performances of Kumo, le Grand Araignée. Kumo the giant 38-ton mechanical spider princess will soon crawl the streets of downtown Nantes through the focused control of a team of puppeteer technicians. Les Machines brings art into the center of civic life, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.
At precisely 12:00 pm, the church bells of the cathedral began to chime, and two giant cranes began to rise over Kumo while clouds of smoke billowed from beneath the great spider. One by one, Kumo’s puppeteers began to repel down through the air onto Kumo’s head, tentacles, and giant body. The all-ages crowd began to cheer, to clap, to watch with rapt attention. All of the sudden, Kumo’s eyes lit up, and the spider came to life.
As I gazed up at Kumo’s bright eyes and arachnoid form, I burst into tears of pure joy and excitement. The only time I ever remember experiencing this sense of wonder and awe was when I first set eyes on Black Rock City. I looked around at the faces in the crowd. Kids shrieked, old ladies giggled like little girls, and, as one might expect, most people peered through their phones, trying desperately to get a good shot of the grand spectacle before us. Luckily I had my phone, too, as I knew instantly that this experience was something I wanted to be able to share with my friends, family, and all of the Burners out there who would love to see something so epic. Though I was able to capture some photos and videos, it’s a poor substitute for immediate experience.
As Kumo journeyed through the narrow, cobblestoned city streets, Nantes residents perched on their balconies and gazed on from their rooftops, store clerks hurriedly left their posts, and I even saw a postal service lady stop in her tracks along her route and bust out her phone to snag a video. Kumo stopped to chew trees, crawled over bus stops and traffic lights, and made the march accompanied by a gorgeous, ominous and, at times, silly soundtrack, controlled by an adorable, unassuming man with an iPad who walked alongside one of the giant cranes. Turns out he was the conductor and composes scores and the machines’ sounds for many Les Machines projects.
Whenever Kumo reached a crossroads, the crowd hurried together through adjacent side streets in pursuit of seeing Kumo turn another corner. I wish I could have seen the spectacle from above. I imagine that we, the spider’s spectators, looked like a giant human web, emanating out with Kumo at the center, teeming with expectation and acting unknowingly as an essential part of Kumo’s performance.
I’ll never be the same again after seeing such a marvel. But for the locals, the lasting effect will be even greater. The people who work in the shops, attend elementary school, commute, and live along Kumo’s route will have something extraordinary flicker across their minds from time to time. How beautiful.
I think humanity is conditioned to act for a specific reason, with a goal in mind. Why parade a giant mechanical spider through the city streets? What purpose does that serve? I think the beauty lies in the ”why not?” Why not make our lives fun if we can? Why not infest the city with a spider to bring some humor, some playfulness to an otherwise normal day?
We create a temporary city full of awe-inspiring art in the desert that disappears without a trace, where wild dreams become realities, where transformations happen. I love that Les Machines has brought a wild dream to life in a permanent city and I feel that Nantes and the people in it have undoubtedly been transformed by this astounding spectacle. I want to see more art from the playa travel out into the world, to bring joy, laughter, and surprise to the everyday experience. And, it’s happening. Civic art has the power to change our human experience. I just saw it happen before my watery, wonder-full eyes.
Top photo: Kumo, the spider princess moving through the streets of Nantes! (Photo by Hervé Photograff)