This post is part of the Stories From the City series.
This post is part of the Stories From the City series.
In the spring of 2007, “Kernal Angus” sat in a restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia, with his friend and well-known Black Rock City artist Zach Coffin, discussing Burning Man, as they were often prone to do. Zach described some of the challenges that Burning Man artists with any reasonably-sized project face by explaining that they arrive on the playa during the week prior to the event’s official start, work 18 hours a day trying to build and/or install their art piece, and most of them, especially the smaller and newer crews, have little time or energy left to think much about food. Consequently, their energy, enthusiasm, vitality, happiness, and overall experience diminishes more each day as they feed themselves with whatever pre-packaged, processed junk foods they can grab, (if they even eat at all) until finally, they are so exhausted and burnt out that when the event actually begins in earnest, they are too worn out to enjoy it.
Kernal found it incredulous that artists would go through this ordeal without being recognized or fed. He called his good friend and professional chef, Jean-Pierre Weingarten (“Chef JP”), in San Rafael, CA, and described his idea for a grassroots program during the pre-event setup week, in which theme camps’ kitchens could gift meals to these artists and their crews as they were setting up their installations…
“Feed the Artists” was born.
The story goes that Burning Man founder Larry Harvey personally blessed the creation of FtA as an essential camp to support artists in Black Rock City. That’s a pretty good start and a great impetus to become a respected and recognized camp on the playa.
Since 2007 and its humble beginnings, Feed the Artists (FtA) has risen to become one of the premier “food as art” camps in Black Rock City. In its early years, FtA created a clever way of connecting artists who needed to be fed with camps interested in feeding artists. One of FtA’s missions is to support and connect artists and the general population of Black Rock City. A clever computerized reservation system became wildly popular and grew exponentially for several years. Artists would search the system for a camp offering meals, and connections were made to get them fed. After several years, FtA decided to pass along the reservation system to the Burning Man community as a gift of ‘Radical Collaboration.’
Feed the Artists then transitioned back to feeding artists directly, except now the gourmet dinners and entertainment were brought directly to the artists on site, at their projects. The concept was wildly successful; to this day, thousands of unsuspecting artists have been treated to FtA’s gift of food as art. As one artist said, “We were dead tired, working against impossible deadlines, in terrible conditions, and suddenly, out of the dark of night, appeared FtA with a gourmet dinner for our whole crew and a mini dance party to boot. It was just the reset we needed to turn our fortunes and attitudes around, allowing us to finish our project with smiles on our faces.”
Every night during Build Week, FtA ventures out from their camp to the myriad artists building their art installations in outer playa. These installations range from a few artists toiling over an intricate lighting project, to the mega projects with dozens of artists erecting multi-story creations. They all share one thing: they work tirelessly and selflessly, sometimes underfed and under-appreciated.
Feed the Artists is a collection of volunteers from all over the world dedicated to the creation of food as art, which is why those who gravitate to becoming a FtA volunteer range from professional chefs to amateur chefs, dabbler chefs, and those who just want to assist in some way. While food is obviously the driving force, the 10 Principles guide the whole endeavor. However, it’s an 11th Principle that inspires the FtA crew: Radical Collaboration, a concept that supersedes Radical Self-reliance.
But ah, the food… Feed the Artists meals are intricate, multi-course creations that rival plates at any high-end restaurant. Bold FtA chefs toss limitations to the wind and create whole meal experiences based on pre-planned themes such as: an Italian feast with opera singers; Indonesian rijsttafel with all its splendor; a whole roasted pig, lūʻau style; authentic Argentine gaucho grill extravaganza; Spanish paella feast for several hundred Burners. If FtA chefs can dream it, artists will taste it. All of this is prepared in an open-air kitchen, completely visible to onlookers. It’s all part of their food philosophy.
Preparation takes the full day, from early morning when that day’s lead chef and volunteers begin the multi-course creations, all hand-made on playa. Since 2007, the list of themed meals has run the gamut: North African, Mediterranean, Brazilian, Spanish, Italian, Indonesian, and classic American favorites. A feat that would be challenging enough to pull off even without the unforgiving elements of the Black Rock Desert.
When sunset rolls around, the camp meal is served at FtA camp headquarters. It’s a fancy, raucous, and connective event with boisterous presentations, accolades and introductions of invited artists. Wristbands, gifted to artists during the week, allow visitors to eat with the campers. Themed cocktails abound, while music accompanies the festivities.
Then a flotilla of mutant vehicles assembles in front of camp to help transport that evening’s meal to artists working feverishly on their art installations. An intimate four-seater dragonfly car arrives, followed by some mega art cars; Robot Heart or the Mayan Warrior may pull up. It’s quite a sight to behold, as dozens of FtA crew and mutant vehicles head off to outer playa to surprise unsuspecting, sometimes bleary-eyed artists with the victuals of the night.
Most artists rejoice at the offering, descending from their hammering or welding to partake of the gifted feast before them. It becomes an instant rave-esque block party, then the FtA crew departs as suddenly as it arrived, leaving the artists wondering if it was all a dream. The flotilla moves on to the next glimmering light in the distance, another artist crew working on their creation. And on and on it goes each night until the food is gone or the FtA crew reaches exhaustion. Then it’s back to camp to clean up, crash, or stay up longer to keep the vibe going, before dreaming of doing it all over again tomorrow begins.
Recently FtA began offering “Late-night Community Feeding” during Burn week. At midnight, FtA camp begins serving walk-up meals to those wandering Black Rock City. Step right up! Lots of food to share and connections to make. Yeah, that’s FtA.
The bonds built at FtA are strong and enduring, as happens in most Black Rock City camps congregating with a common purpose and passion. At FtA, it’s the passion for food and a desire to support the artists in our community who give so much to make Black Rock City alive with creativity. For FtA crew members, gatherings throughout the country are commonplace — the wafting of playa memories imbues each gathering, no matter its location.
Even during the non-playa 2020 year, a couple of intrepid FtA’ers, built a virtual FtA camp and participated in several virtual worlds. (It’s just a shame that the virtual world could not provide a virtual taste of what could have been cooking in the FtA kitchen!)
Maybe you’ll see us out on the playa next time we return to Black Rock City. Maybe we’ll be feeding your crew. If you do find us on playa, stop by and say hello. We always have open hearts, open arms, open minds, and of course an open table for the wandering artist.
Cover image of Feed the Artists logo, courtesy of FtA