As the yellow XR-21 Bluebird school bus traverses across the desert terrain slowly reaching our final destination at Black Rock City in Nevada I catch up as best I can with my fellow passengers. A multidisciplinary group of international research students, architects and writers including a comic illustrator, a futurist and an animator chosen by the talented leaders of our extraordinary mission, Liam Young and Kate Davies of the Unknown Fields Division.
Serving as a platform for speculative inquiry, Liam and Kate along with fellow architect, Merlin Eayrs, curate their journeys as a cross-disciplinary practice seeking to experience first-hand the complex and contradictory nature of changing climates and emerging infrastructural landscapes. Often working with diverse practitioners alongside students from the Architectural Association, UFD will catalogue and document their experiences as a framework to create new narratives and construct potential new futures exploring alternative realities and cultures these extraordinary landscapes may afford.
On journey's such as this summer's road trip from Roswell to Burning Man, participants are each given a mission packet containing information on the aims of the trip, and most importantly how and what to prepare for.
This event in particular chronicled:
A series of extraterrestrial encounters from the borderlands, black sites, military outposts and folkloric landscapes, you will be both visionaries and reporters, part documentarian and part science-fiction soothsayers as the otherworldly sites we encounter will afford us a distanced viewpoint from which to survey the consequences of emerging environmental and technological scenarios.
The Unknown Fields Division Itinerary
One such collaborator on this trip is Mark O. Pilkington, author of Mirage Men, and a key influence to the Unknown Fields Division itinerary which took the group to covert military test sites, the alien technologies of the aeronautics industry and the experimental communities and towns found across the Great West. Beginning their road trip at the Roswell Crash Site and the VLA (Very Large Array) in New Mexico, Mark was able to share his fascinating Mirage Men account of his previous travels around Nevada and the history of "UFOria and its origins in the murky worlds of espionage, psychological warfare and advanced military technology."
From top: White Sands Missile Range, Virgin Galactic Spaceport, Very Large Array and Titan Missile Silo. Photos courtesy of Anouk Ahlborn
The team rumbled "along the UFO highway, past the mythic territories of Area 51 and the new age town UFO hotspot of Sedona, listening to tall tales from conspiracy theorists, exploring territories of negotiation and conflict, zones of transgression, suspicion and speculation." As they travel further, the UFD uncover more conspiracies, learning about the fragmented truths and fictions as they meet with more UFO truthseekers, academic researchers, paranormal investigators and skeptics.
From Top: Area 51, a mailbox, the Little A'Le Inn, a bumpersticker. Photos Courtesy of Anouk Ahlborn
This mysterious element of 'high strange' is amplified further when arriving at the Little A'Le Inn in Rachel, the nearest town to Area 51, to consult with Colonel John Alexander, retired head of the Non-Lethal weapons division of the US Army and the prominent figure from the book and film, The Men Who Stare at Goats. The UFD soon learn more about remote viewing and psychic spying and the ways in which the US military do what they can to promote and weave disparate anecdotes and secretive mythologies distorting what may or may not be the real truth behind their experimental military research.
Encountering folkloric landscapes and new communities, UFD meets with scientists and spends the night with inhabitants of the Biosphere 2 project and have a sit down meeting with Paolo Soleri—architect of the experimental 'arcology' (architecture + ecology) town known as Arcosanti.
Approaching Biosphere2. Photos Courtesy of Anouk Ahlborn.
Concluding their trip at the temporary city of Black Rock to participate in the Burning Man festival, the explorers take the opportunity to "examine the mysteries and conspiracies that surround what lies off the map, off-grid and below the radar" proposing new truths and exposing alternative fictions.
It is from this point I join the Unknown Fields Division who will use Burning Man—a commerce-free, highly experimental and creative art event out in deepest Nevada as an opportunity to reflect on what they have experienced with the other 'Burners'. It is here that UFD will set up a small projector and workshop space within the themed UFD campsite.
Arriving at Black Rock Desert
Arriving at night we join the huge throng of RVs, SUVs, trailers and airstreams as we slowly edge closer to the main Burning Man camp site. Taking place in a dusty lakebed three hours north of Reno, Burning Man is an annual week-long event that pushes one's comfort zone to the edge. Warnings of excessive dust storms, spiraling, tornado-like dust plumes, extreme heat and potential dehydration are overshadowed by our excitement of participating in one of the most creative and extremely adhoc event in the United States.
The UFD Bus in the Desert. Photo Courtesy of Anouk Ahlborn.
Organised by Black Rock City LLC and founded by Larry Harvey in San Francisco in 1986, Burning Man is an experiment in creating a temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and radical self-reliance. This temporary city is designed each year with a planned infrastructure and layout to create a sense of "communal belonging, and establish population densities that would lead to social interactions."
The result is eight or so annular roads and twelve radial streets at 15 degree increments named after the hours on a clock face with a large open space known as the playa spreading outwards. At the very edges of this city lies the trash fence creating a pentagram perimeter spanning approximately 7 miles, the equivalent of downtown San Francisco.
Burning Man Effigies and Artworks
Setting up camp in the dark we hastily construct our tents ensuring the rebar is pierced deep into the crumbling desert floor to prevent our temporary structures from being tossed across the playa. We hear the cacophony of off-beat sounds from across the camp as we eagerly explore the playa at sunset and head towards the shining beacon that is the Burning Man wooden effigy.
The Playa at Night
Designed by the late Rod Garrett and Andrew Johnstone, 'the Man' is poised way up high atop a pavilion somewhat similar to the Pantheon of ancient Rome. Built entirely from wooden struts and CNC milled parts, the Man acts as a focal point for the whole city and can be explored and climbed before it is burnt to the ground at the end of the event.
The Man, Burning. Photo Courtesy of Anouk Ahlborn
A key part of the Burning Man ethos is to participate and create and this years art theme 'Fertility 2.0' inspired many people to create their own sculptural efforts to be curated across the playa for all to enjoy. To explore the breadth of art installations, theme camps and performances, it is advised by the organizers to get around the site by bike or a 'mutant vehicle'. As I attempt to navigate the communal camp bicycle around the desert potholes and pockets of deep sand I encounter various artworks across the playa.
Burn Wall Street
Another popular destination for this year's event was Burn Wall Street by performance artist Otto Von Danger. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace, a 501c3 non-profit, Von Danger spent two months constructing this large scale, outdoor art installation of five large skyscrapers and a replica of Zuccotti Park. Providing a platform for discussion and protest, Burn Wall Street culminated into an explosive pyrotechnic extravaganza attracting massive crowds out on the playa.
Often driving by as we walk towards Center Camp for a much-needed coffee or to buy ice at Camp Artica we encounter a squid on wheels pumping out pulsating electronic dance music or a propane cannon toting steam train or 'technics' space shuttle on wheels. One of the many delights of wondering around the Burning Man camp and playa are the opportunities to jump aboard these purpose-built and creatively altered cars and trucks or 'artcars' as they are sometimes called.
Designers of motorised mutant vehicles submit their ideas to be approved and inspected by the Department of Mutant Vehicles or DMV. The DMV measures how mutant a vehicle looks ensuring creativity and extreme self expression is kept at a high standard and discouraging minimally altered vehicles. [Editor's Note: See Jessica's report on the mutant vehicle Walking Pod here!]
Camp Culture in Burning Man
Upon arriving on the playa, Burning Man provided each of us with a handy guide and map outlining the plethora of workshops, classes, lectures and events all run by other keen Burners. Theme camps are spread throughout the city and all Burners are welcome to participate. Some offer food or an experimental cocktail during happy hour, other theme camps build their own meditation sanctuaries or like Camp Rock and Roll a climbing wall and giant billiards table. Highlighting two of the ten principles of the Burning Man event, participation and radical inclusion, it is this that makes this event so unique and surprising, encouraging the Unknown Fields Division to open up their camp structure with a small projection and workshop space.
The Unknown Fields Division Builds their Camp
Creating camp structures for Burning Man has many challenges and the playa discussion forum is filled with best practice, hints and tips to deal with the potential intense dust storms that often sweep through Black Rock City. Some users recommend the use of the Hexayurt or a geodesic domestructure while others share plans of their Monkey Hut made entirely from aluminet, flexible rope and PVC piping. Being amongst a camp full of architects puts my fears at rest as they set about using the Bluebird school bus as the main structural support for the UFD camp.
To beat the heat and create a temporary shade structure around our camp, our camp foreman, Emmanuel Vercruysse, invites the group to put his construction plan into action. With the help of some 2 by 4 batons, some blue tarp and a lot of rope, ratchets and rebar we arise early to create the UFD camp.
Liam Young, at the helm!
After our first attempt to create a tarp shade structure is ripped apart by a violent dust tornado we are forced to start again from scratch. We persevere and begin a new strategy. Drawing in the sand we design a better plan that will also include the construction of a geodesic dome donated by a fellow Burner from a nearby site. We add more muscle and structural integrity to our camp structures, with extra rope, rebar and wooden struts and soon set to work putting together the 3v Icosahedron geodesic dome that becomes the camp kitchen.
The Camp Kitchen and Recyclables Collected
Setting up a projection screen and throwing carpet on the ground we at last have our workshop space installed and it feels almost domestic. In a group circle the UFD begin the workshop and share insights and points of direction to create new work upon their return to England.
With our ski goggles and face masks we ignore the dust storms raging through the campsite and watch a slideshow of an edited batch of film and stills taken during the previous eleven days of the UFD mission across the southwest. Nearby, 'Burners' begin to gather and see snapshots of giant satellite dishes, launch pads, V-2 rockets, spaceports, barren runways, flying drones, buried bodies and mark making in the white sands.
Outcomes from the UFD Trip
Throughout this journey the Unknown Fields Division have been creating their own field reportage responding and developing new narratives and speculations inspired by this element of 'high strange'.
Sedona Energy Map
Inviting the participants to join in with field reportage, rolling discussions and impromptu tutorials, they have each carried out various interventions based on the evidence they are presented with as they meet more protagonists from various sites along the road trip.
UFO Bus Markings
These encounters are to be chronicled in a graphic novel put together by fellow traveller, comic illustrator Kristian Donaldson with the aim of providing a fictional account of some of the themes that occurred from the road trip—intrigue and deception, folklore and fragmented fictions.
As a crucial piece of found evidence that will play an important part in the storyline behind the graphic novel, Jonathan Gales of Factory Fifteen will create a film using curated footage from the various sites they have visited and the interviews made along the trip.
Gales interviewing Zutto, the bus driver.
The Temple of Juno
Throughout the week effigies and monuments to freethinking and creativity are burnt out on the playa gathering massive crowds and artcars to much applause, cheer and electronic dance music. The last night of Burning Man is marked somewhat differently with the burning of The Temple of Juno.
The Temple of Juno is a main staple to the Burning Man playa, acting as a place of solace and contemplation; this ornate temple structure becomes a shrine and memorial. Offering a place to meditate; a sanctuary from the intense heat and intensity of the camp, Burners are given plywood circles or plaques to leave notes, photographs, memorials or testaments to lost loved ones. As a cathartic gesture all participants congregate in silence to see the temple burn on the last Sunday night of the week, an extreme contrast to the previous night's high energy and explosive burn of the Man and Burn Wall Street.
The Sunday night also meant that our time at Burning Man was at an end and all we had constructed must disappear from the Black Rock City leaving no trace that we were there. We break down structures, tents and gather as much MOOP (matter out of place) as possible. Water and perishable goods are given away and adhoc signs are made to help sell the Unknown Fields Division bus to passers by.
Selling the Solar Schoolbus
This act of leaving with 60,000 other campers provides its own challenges; a massive operation of 10000 vehicles slowly working their way back onto a two lane highway known as the Exodus. After we say goodbye to the Unknown Fields Division camp site we join the seven lane wide queue at midnight and spend the next 4-5 hours working our way back to Reno.
As we travel along the dusty trail we reflect on the past few days, did we really see Wall Street and a giant wooden effigy of a 'Man' burn to the ground? Did we really wander around the Nevada desert in 100degree heat and drink up to 2 gallons of water everyday? Were we really constructing geodesic domes in a dust storm and flying flocks of drones out on the playa? Did that all really happen?
We eventually reach civilization, hot showers and a dust-free hotel room and say thank you to Unknown Fields Division for a truly remarkable experience.
The Entire UFD Crew. Photo Courtesy of Anouk Ahlborn