Sunday, September 4, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Final act of The Machine ... would it fall?

Times staff Reporter


They all agreed on how it was to end. After more than a year of debate, planning and construction, the 18 Seattle artists who gave birth to The Machine deemed that it should perish in the desert dust at the annual Burning Man gathering.

But as they prepared for its demise on Friday evening, it was easy for second thoughts to creep in as they savored the results of their collective obsession.

The Machine towered more than five stories, a painstakingly engineered sculpture of wood and metal. Spotlighted in the cool night air, it resembled some great, glowing creature with nine stout legs and red-tipped wings reaching toward the stars.

The artists had crafted a clocklike interior, filled with giant, steel-ribbed gears. They were not just for show but allowed a circular viewing platform to slowly rotate around The Machine's upper torso. The gears were spun by a paddle, powered by people and connected to the structure by huge belts.

The machine was the result of a remarkable collaboration of artists, engineers, builders and others who pooled their talents to create a striking piece of art designed to function with the power of others. In the end, The Machine was designed to collapse at the hands of an eager crowd.

As he stood admiring it, Gabe Stern, one of the core members of the Seattle group, said, "The only thing that doesn't settle with me is that we are wasting this. When I build something, I like to do it right so it will last for a hundred years."

Then, as if committing a Burning Man heresy, he recanted: "But I am OK with it."

The artists had agreed to build on the traditions of Burning Man festival, which now draws more than 35,000 people each summer to form Black Rock City, a transient place of art and revelry that exists only for a brief week along a dry lake bed. And then it disappears.

And so, the Seattle group agreed to bring down their creation, with the understanding they would have to load some 40,000 pounds of wreckage into a truck convoy and haul it all back home.

They were not about to back away from their plan Friday evening as a raucous crowd of thousands gathered behind a ring of safety fencing.

The plan called for a carefully choreographed show, then the finale — the demolition, organized by Sara McChristian, a Seattle events organizer: "Once this thing does collapse, you all are going to need to keep watch so people don't rush the structure. We'll need a secure perimeter."

Said Chris Pfeifle, one of the Seattle artists: "OK, this is it. This is when we make the statement and it becomes art." After dusk settled in, out came the trapeze performers, who swung about The Machine's lower reaches. They wore pale white suits made even ghostlier by shrouds of swirling sands kicked up by gusting winds.

Next came fire dancers, some who sprinted around The Machine on stilts, and others whose movements morphed into fiery, sensuous embraces.

They were followed by a motorized parade of flame-throwing musicians whose propane blasts were accompanied by the discordant notes of an electronic keyboard played by a nearly naked woman.

Shortly after 9 p.m., it was time for The Machine — built at a cost of more than $80,000 — to come down.

Earlier on Friday, the artists had attached nine thick ropes to each of The Machine's legs, which had been weakened as the team extracted a series of bolts. Then, after the performance, the ropes were thrown over the safety net to the crowd.

Dozens of people grabbed the ropes and for the next 10 minutes they began to tug and pull.

The Machine quivered. It creaked. But it would not fall

"Burn it. Burn it. Burn it," a few began to yell.

Then, a new chant emerged from the crowd.

"Long live the machine. Long live the machine."

A simple beginning

The Machine ranks as possibly the most complex artwork ever constructed at Burning Man, which has gained international attention for a bizarre — often inspiring — smorgasbord of desert art.

Burning Man had a simple beginning almost two decades ago on a beach north of San Francisco, where a landscape gardener named Larry Harvey in 1986 torched a wooden scarecrow in the company of a few friends.

After it moved here to the desert, it attracted increasing numbers of creative — at times crazy — people. Along with their art, many enjoyed all-night parties, nudity and daredevil exploits, such as balancing atop cars that raced across the dry lake bed known as The Playa.

As the crowds grew, so did the risk, and festival organizers reached a kind of crossroads in 1996, as a drunken motorcyclist ran into a truck mirror, slicing off his head, according to Brian Doherty, author of "This Is Burning Man," a book that chronicles the evolution of the event.

Today, lots of weird, wild stuff still goes on at Burning Man, as well as the tamer events such as the thousands of women who join in an annual bare-breasted bike ride. And people still do occasionally die. Last week, a young man in his 20s suffered a fatal heart attack.

But there are also plenty of rules that come along with the $250 price of admission, including a ban on driving all but a few specially commissioned, slow-moving "art vehicles."

And, there is an impressive Burning Man bureaucracy to organize the event and to keep things running with the aid of hundreds of volunteers.

"They actually run a pretty tight ship," said Jamie Thompson, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Land Management, whose agency now collects $700,000 in fees from Burning Man and has dozens of staffers helping to police it.

This year's Black Rock City started to take form before Hurricane Katrina hit. As crowds continued to grow, festival organizers worked to find Internet hookups for people trying to connect with loved ones.

But many festival-goers were only vaguely aware of events beyond Black Rock, a place where people cherish their escape from the outside world.

Erected in August

The Seattle artists arrived in mid-August for their final push to erect The Machine, and like most people here, they were largely cut off from the Internet, cellphones and newspapers.

The days were spent welding, bolting, nailing and screwing hundreds of parts that had been prefabricated in five months of frenetic volunteer labor back in a warehouse in Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood. The Nevada heat — topping 100 degrees some days — would slow the work.

They were joined by a swelling number of other volunteers from Seattle and elsewhere; their labors stoked during the day by coffee, and in the evening by the occasional Bloody Mary or beer.

They battled through some fierce winds that slowed their progress for several days and prompted them to fully install only four of the eight winglike limbs.

By Wednesday of last week, the structure was complete with spotlights, a rumbling musical soundtrack and the perfume of rose, jasmine, peppermint and other scents created by Jeremiah Steinhebel, an aroma therapist who also works as a computer engineer at Boeing.

"It's a constant juggling act to get it all right," said Steinhebel, who splurged on a $700 ounce of jasmine.

In its few days of existence, The Machine drew swarms of visitors.

Some used their arms to power the wheel that spun the rotating platform.

Many more climbed up a ladder to the platform that offered sweeping views of the playa that at night lit up like a carnival midway. From the perch, the spectators cried down to those below, urging more muscle power.

David Best, a San Francisco artist who has created some of Burning Man's most renowned works of art, stopped by to admire: "You guys have raised the bar, and it pisses me off," he said smiling, giving hugs all around.

"We've been having a few conversations about what to do next," said Pfeifle, one of the Seattle artists. "But for the most part we are just worried about what to do now."

"What now?"

The "what now question" loomed large Friday evening as the crowd pulled and pulled, trying to yank down The Machine. Standing in the night air, the crowd was growing restless.

It was time for the backup plan. A large crane brought in by Burning Man's "department of public works" grabbed hold of a cable wrapped around the base of the structure and yanked a half-dozen times.

One wooden leg exploded under pressure, then three more collapsed. But — to the amazement of the artists gathered by the safety fence — the other five legs stood firm, and so did The Machine.

The crane could pull no more, the cable having lost its grip around the base. But two of the ropes were still secured, and the crowd began to chant for a second chance at human power.

The lines were flipped out to the crowd again. And this time, with enough people tugging together, The Machine finally fell.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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