Embracing the Playa’s Breath with “Respirator”

Some of you may be familiar with one of Burning Man’s origin stories, about a party house in the Bay Area known only by its address — 1907 Golden Gate. Gatherings in its redwood salon during the late 1980s and early 1990s brought together members of the Cacophony Society, as well as some people who happened to be burning a Man down on Baker Beach. It was in this house that a handful of instigators hatched a plan to bring Burning Man from San Francisco to the Black Rock Desert.

This art story has its source in a present-day equivalent: a community called the 706. Originating around 2013 in a student dwelling in Beijing, apartment 706 nurtured a community of young people who communed, explored, and hatched new projects. From that one apartment, dozens of 706 communities emerged. Today you’ll find them throughout China, and around the world.

Meet Eva Yunqi Wei, a San Francisco-based architect and artist who is bringing an installation to Black Rock City in collaboration with the 706 community. Eva is the lead artist for “Respirator,” which she describes as a “living embodiment of the playa’s respiratory system.” Built from a transparent cube structure, openings in the cube will inspire “Respirator” to pulsate, breathe and interact with the wind and surrounding environment. 

Participants will be able to step inside to experience the wind squeeze from different directions, akin to forces that shaped the ancient playa. At night, illuminated fabric will reveal multi-colored chambers that resemble the alveoli of a living lung. 

“Respirator” by Eva Yunqi Wei (Rendering courtesy of Eva Yunqi Wei)

“The playa is like a living being, with an unpredictable temperament that changes from one moment to the next. As I wandered over the vast lakebed, I experienced its gentle caress and its fierce power, like a creeping cat one moment and a merciless hawk the next. The ever-shifting nature of the playa inspired me to create an art installation that captures its essence—a piece that is light, amorphous, and in constant flux, just like the swirling sandstorms that dance across the playa. I wanted to externalize the amorphous power that has been nurtured in this ancient riverbed and find a way for the public to breathe with it.”
– Eva Yunqi Wei

We spoke with Eva to learn about the inspiration behind “Respirator” and her roots in the 706 community.

I would love to hear your Burning Man story. How did you get inspired to go to Black Rock City in the first place?

Eva: 2022 was my first burn. Initially, Burning Man to me seemed like a gathering of peculiar people dressed oddly, camping in the middle of nowhere, going without showers for seven days. However, as I delved deeper into it, I realized it was much more than that. From the 10 Principles I can feel a radical aspiration to create a utopia on Earth.

It was a transformative experience filled with countless eye-opening moments. The desert itself left a lasting impression on me. The dust storms, the mountains in the far back, and the vast sky remind me of a famous poem that I know from my childhood, by a Tang Dynasty poet who was stationed in the frontier at that time: 

In boundless desert lonely smokes rise straight,
Over endless river the sun sinks round.
— “On Mission to the Frontier” by Wang Wei (Tang Dynasty)

It describes a scene that resonated with what I saw, even more than a thousand years later.

Tell us about “Respirator.” What is the inspiration behind it? How does the metaphor of the body and breath express an aspect of being on playa?

The playa is like a living being, with an unpredictable temperament that changes from one moment to the next. That inspired me to create an art installation that captures its essence — a piece that is light, amorphous, and in constant flux, just like the swirling sandstorms that dance across the playa.

Respirator is a 10’x10’x10 cube. Its transparent cube structure acts as both its protective skin and a display of its inner workings to the world. The cube’s openings serve as pores, allowing the wind to blow through and interact with the installation. The bubble is made out of soft fabric. Whenever the wind blows through, it takes on a different shape with the force of nature, like the breath of the desert.

It captures your eyes and invites you to pause and feel the wild breath of the land. It also invites visitors to step inside, which offers a more intimate encounter. As the wind permeates the bubble from various directions, it creates a tactile and sensory experience. Each breath taken within aligns with the frequency of the playa, forging a connection to the original heartbeat of the land.

What kind of fabric are you seeking to create that breathing effect?

Our ideal fabric needs to be lightweight, allowing it to move and respond to the wind easily. It should also be flexible, enabling it to stretch as needed. At the same time, it should be sturdy enough to withstand the windy conditions on the playa.

Currently, we are in the process of conducting fabric tests to find the best option. One that shows promise is the high-temperature pleated fabric, known for its use by Issey Miyake.

When tension is applied to the fabric, its pleats create a stretching effect that mimics the desired breathing effect, to some extent. We acknowledge the challenge of replicating the unique environment of the playa in the Bay Area. It is difficult to achieve an “amorphous” art piece without the same conditions on the playa. We have to deal with a lot of uncertainties.

We are actively seeking advice from professionals in the field of textile artwork. If there are individuals experienced in this area and interested in our project, please reach out to us: yunqi06102032@gmail.com.

(Photo courtesy of Eva Yunqi Wei)

You said you observed a lack of Chinese representation in Black Rock City. Tell me a bit about that and how it inspired you to create and bring art.

In 2022 I joined an art tour where we explored a diverse range of artworks. On that tour we saw beautiful installations by artists from various countries around the world, but I didn’t see one by a Chinese artist. This is the first time I felt a strong inclination to contribute.

Initially, I hesitated because I’m not a professional artist; I had no prior experience and had only been to the playa once. However, I eventually pushed myself to take on this challenge, realizing that the first attempt may not be perfect. It became more than just creating art. It became a way to inspire others in our community. 

If we can do it, others can too. You don’t have to be a professional artist or have years of experience.

We want to show that even without prior experience or considering oneself an artist, anyone can contribute and receive support. Through this, I hope to see an increase in the representation of Chinese artwork on the playa.

I was inspired by my peers too. One of my campmates from 2022 created a small piece called “The Conversation Collector.” It consisted of a post with a button. When they pressed the button, people were prompted to share a story, which the piece recorded. This gave me a glimpse into the process of bringing art to the playa and encouraged me to do it myself.

“The Conversation Collector” by The Collectors, 2022 (Photo courtesy of Eva Yunqi Wei)

Can you tell me a bit about your community, 706. How did the 706 community connect or get involved with Burning Man culture?

Sure. I am part of a passionate team of artists, architects, programmers and creators who share a common connection through our community known as 706. In 2022 we brought our camp to BRC, called 706 Tribe. 

The 706 North America is currently a nonprofit organization in the US. It originally started in Beijing when a bunch of college students decided to rent an apartment right next to their university as a space for meetups and gatherings. That apartment quickly became a center for a wide range of activities, including lectures, debate, literature groups, political discussions, music jams, and everything. And the name, 706, was the unit number of that apartment.

I was lucky enough to crash at that place for a couple of weeks during my college days, and I met a diverse group of individuals who expanded my perspective on life and enriched my understanding of different cultures. Unfortunately, due to various circumstances, the original space had to close down. But the idea behind the community resonated with those who had been part of it, and they have been working to spread that concept worldwide.

The 706 community has since expanded globally in a decentralized manner. Similar to Regional Burning Man communities, local 706 communities have emerged in different cities around the world, including the Bay Area where I am currently located. Even though each local community operates in their own unique ways, we share the same values, which I think coincide with the spirit of Burning Man. We embrace the spirit of collaboration, creativity and connection, encouraging expression, understanding and inclusion, and always exploring the possibilities of alternative lifestyles.

706 Tribe in Black Rock City, 2022 (Photo courtesy of Eva Yunqi Wei)

How can we support “Respirator”? Anything you want to add?

We are a small group and we greatly appreciate your support in bringing “Respirator” to life! You can show your support by making a donation on Givebutter. As 706 North America is a 501(c)(3) organization, your donation will be eligible for a tax refund. The funds we raise will be used to acquire the necessary materials and equipment to complete “Respirator,” as well as to promote and share the project with a wider audience. I invite you to follow @respirator_art on Instagram, where we share updates and behind-the-scenes moments.

Lastly, I want to express my heartfelt thanks to my team, my partner, and everyone who has contributed and supported me and this project. In the beginning, it was just me working on this solo, and I couldn’t have imagined how to create a 10-foot art piece and bring it to the desert all by myself. But with all of you, it’s becoming true. It has already been a rewarding journey for me, and I believe it will continue all the way to the playa.

Other BRC 2023 Artist Stories:

Cover image of “Respirator” by Eva Yunqi Wei (Rendering courtesy of Eva Yunqi Wei)

About the author: Kirsten Weisenburger

Kirsten Weisenburger

Misadventures led Kirsten Weisenburger (aka kbot) to Black Rock City in 2004. She was captivated and hoodwinked into organizing theme camps, rangering and participating in Regional Events. As Communications Strategist, Kirsten works across the organization and global community gathering stories and writing for the Burning Man Journal, the Jackrabbit Speaks, and the annual Dispatch. She went to journalism school in the 1990s and then spent two decades at startups and digital agencies.

4 Comments on “Embracing the Playa’s Breath with “Respirator”

  • Souxie_sue says:

    Wow. This is interesting and inspiring.
    I am looking forward to experiencing Burning Man.
    The more I read about the community and principles the more I am intrigued to learn more.

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  • R says:

    I’ve noticed a specific religious group under represented on the playa, but I never stopped to think about one country having more people there or another being under represented,, but Burning Man has been around long enough that maybe it should start intentionally inviting groups to help aid global friendships.
    I absolutely love this piece and I’m really glad it’s being brought to the playa. It’s a breath of fresh air!

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  • Scout says:

    This is Burning Man.

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  • Joni La Caria says:

    Can’t wait to meet you all. This is my very first Burn and I’m both excited and anxiously scared all at the same time. Born and raised in Phoenix Arizona, I’m very happy to see there is Asian representation at Burning Man.

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