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“It’s not easy, having a good time…” —Tim Curry
Burning Man is often transformational. The vortex of whimsical, engaging, and sometimes tortuous effort of building camps, art cars, and the fantastic art installations it is known for, is infectious and often produces a “camaraderie by ordeal” bond between Burners.
Michael Beneville, a somewhat legendary developer of product ideas and corporate identity constructs in the forlorn berg of New York City, attended Burning Man in 2008 on a lark with a friend to help with a mutant vehicle project. The prevailing organizational model on the project impressed him, as there wasn’t one.
Accustomed to executing carefully developed strategies and precise designs for campaigns and products with a tightly controlled “top-down” command structure, he was astonished to see the ‘hive mind’ approach to complex and demanding builds in punishing conditions. “I was amazed. Everyone just seemed to know what to do, and the important calls were made by a quick consensus. The exact opposite of how we did things, and it worked.”
When he met another Burner, Winston Fisher, who was running a prestigious New York real estate development company, that Comrade Burner part kicked in and they became friends. Like many others, Michael and Winston wondered, “What if?” What if you could somehow transplant some of the wonder of Burning Man to the default world?
“I don’t believe there is any way to reproduce the majesty of Burning Man and yet, I think once Burning Man has transformed you, it’s impossible for it not to affect all that you touch and create.” —M. Beneville
Winston’s real estate outfit bought a very large parcel of land in Las Vegas, adjacent to the strip, in 2008. The economic melt-down iced development plans for some time, and the age of the mall was coming to a long overdue end. Whammo. What if? The AREA15 is a new 250,000 sq. ft. building perfectly suited for large gatherings and mixed-use creative activations.
“Inclusivity is a central tenet of AREA15. We don’t have a demographic, we have a psychographic. I want all kinds of people to feel welcomed and within this world.”
Let’s do a walk-through:
Burners of the world rejoice! The arrival area is a large open area with a rotating collection of art from previous Burning Man events. Michael plans to provide this space for Burning Man artists to display their work for acquisition after Black Rock City. Reno and other communities have already adopted several large works from Burning Man.
Currently the prone giant robot Mechan 9 by Tyler Fuqua (built originally thanks to an honoraria grant from Burning Man Project for the 2016 Burn) and the beautiful geometric steel and acrylic Pulse Portal by Davis McCarty are there. A smaller version of the stunning chromed steel couple in love — In Every Lifetime I Will Find You by Michael Benisty, from the 2018 Burn — instantly engages people. You feel at home before you even get through the doors.
The first thing you see upon entering, in the bar area, is a small-scale replica Michael commissioned of Tree of Ténéré*, a popular 2017 Burning Man installation featuring 15,000 multi-colored LEDs on a large tree, created by Bay Area artists Alexander Green, Zachary Smith, and Patrick Deegan. The whole place is a wonderful experiential adventure like that.
The ground floor from the entrance starts with an incredible boutique, the Wild Muse with wearable art that will guarantee you a win in the Burning Man costume arms race. Outrageously creative wearables, hats, platform boots, and sparkly stuff that can be hard to find are here for those Burners who deserve a treat for the playa. Big fun.
That I recall, I’ve never sat at a bar before and watched people zing over me on one of the longest indoor zip lines there is: Halley’s Comet. Michael is very proud of this, as it was hideously expensive, unparalleled, and a lot of fun. (Sound familiar?)
Maintaining the theme of wildly creative and first-class presentation, the restaurant is a special project of one of America’s leading and innovative chefs, Todd English. The Beast restaurant is like walking into one of those hanging dinosaur skeleton displays at The Smithsonian. The art is fabulous, and the place just opens up to you. The menu is memorable. Korean corn dogs, space tacos, and smokehouse sandwiches.
On the experiential side, the upper floor has several quite large experiences. I wasn’t able to do the Birdly VR flight simulator, but it was a big hit. It’s so good that some people had to take a break because of air sickness. (Gotta love that.) I was able to try the Halley’s Comet dual-track zipline. What a scream! It’s kind of like being a ghost and flying over people. It’s fast too. There is far too much on the second floor to detail here, and the installations will be revolving.
The best part was seeing so many people have fun, after such dark times.
“What inspires me about Burning Man is how so much of the architecture is suggestive rather than actual. There’s the suggestion of a permanent marble temple and the reality of an ephemeral wooden one. I’d like to think that AREA15 suggests rather than dictates its form and the experience one should have in it. Burning Man is not a prescribed journey. I’d like to think that AREA15 isn’t prescribed either.” —M. Beneville
Michael and Winston also wondered how you could possibly get the exhilarating experience of dancing on the playa at night, under the stars, to the world’s best DJs, into the default world without alerting the Anti-Fun Committee. Whammo. Lot A.
Lot A is next to the building, very large, secured, and features the best prevailing DJs and other acts working today. I haven’t attended one of their big parties yet, but I can close my eyes and see it. I suggested they bring a couple of big truckloads of playa dust down for the surface part. Probably wouldn’t be a hit with the glass high-rise neighbors when the desert winds blow, but would be perfect to dance on.
And now for the hard part to explain.
Meow Wolf is the anchor tenant at AREA15, and their Omega Mart installation is an absolutely astonishing achievement in surrealistic art and dark fantasy storytelling.
You might ask yourself, “What would happen if one of those pesky neighbors who go way, way overboard on Halloween building a house of horrors collided with funding, and a posse of creative monsters?” Well, it happened.
Meow Wolf began in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2008 with about 10 artists and “good and bad weirdos,” in the words of one founder. Little-known fact: In 2012, Burning Man Project, then operating as Black Rock Arts Foundation, provided a grant to Meow Wolf for an early iteration of Omega Mart. They went on to turn an old house inside out with bizarre surrealistic inventions, which has become one of the most popular attractions in the state of New Mexico.
The Omega Mart project is almost unimaginable. With 56,000 sq. ft. of space and over three years of intense development, they’ve successfully created that much sought after “Twilight Zone” genre of experience, where mystery and fantasy are a mere blink away from mundane normality.
You walk into Omega Mart like any other big box store with garish signs, bright lighting, and workers who are dressed in glaring colors. Then the details begin to jump out. All the products are “slightly out of round,” strange in some tiny whispering way.
When you open the cooler and step into the passage to the second floor you need to take a deep breath. You are now inside the vision of highly creative artists who want you to go somewhere, somewhere strange, challenging, and really fun. And, into the dark and swirling story of corporate power, avarice, greed and worse. Aliens. Yippity yippers. Story as art is way cool.
What was most memorable to me was the degree of execution, for both AREA15 and Omega Mart. The art is beautifully rendered, displayed, and carefully thought out to pull you through a world that has a way of ending up in your dreams.
“I’m inspired every day of my life, but when I go to Burning Man, I’m humbled. As I leave each year, I ask myself: Is there some piece of this non-replicable experience that I could take into the world? Creativity and imagination are sacred to me and I believe that one should never be possessive of them. Inspiration must flow.” —M. Beneville
*The tree was named after the Tree of Tenere, an Acacia tree in the Sahara Desert that was 90 miles from the nearest living plant. A truck driver ran over and killed it in 1973. Its roots extended over 100 feet to water.