Every year, around 70,000 people gather in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada to form a temporary city (called Black Rock City or BRC) in a semi-circle shape around an enormous effigy of a man that is burned at the end of the week, along with much of the art and community temple. But this event is so much more than a bonfire.
Burning Man is one of the most incredible celebrations of psychedelic art that has ever existed. As such, it is centered around 10 Principles that involve radical acceptance in the form of inclusion, participation, and self-expression (many are advocating for consent to become the 11th Principle).
While much of the art is burned or transferred to viewing locations worldwide and never again seen at the gathering, there are several works that have returned for multiple gatherings: art cars and mutant vehicles.
Sound intriguing? Here’s the rundown on some of the most unique, functional, and creative forms of psychedelic art that will make you wonder if you’re still tripping.
What are Mutant Vehicles?
Mutant Vehicles have been modified so that they are unrecognizable from their original form. In fact, they can’t resemble a land vehicle at all, but magic carpets, pirate ships, airplanes, or submarines (and the like) are just fine. Mutant vehicles are decorative, innovative, radical, and often make some sort of statement.
Creators may spend hundreds of hours and personal investments creating these mobile works of art to make them safe, functional, visually stunning, and sufficiently durable to weather the harsh conditions of the Black Rock Desert. During the week of Burning Man, the wide-open space containing art installations that surround ‘the man’ is called the playa, a nod to the ancient sea bed on which the event takes place.
Mutant vehicles are a sight to behold by day, but these moving works of psychedelic art come to life in a whole new way when the sun goes down. Many are outfitted to serve as mobile stages for music and performance art, decked out with mounted lasers, lights, and anything that glows. A great deal of them has fire features that celebrate the signature element of the event.
How are Mutant Vehicles Different Than Art Cars?
The term mutant vehicle was coined by the Burning Man organization for the purpose of differentiating them from art cars. In order to be licensed, mutant vehicles can’t resemble their original form, as opposed to art cars which, though sometimes quite elaborately decorative, might still resemble their original form.
Mutant Vehicle Requirements
In order to be approved for operation on the playa, mutant vehicles must meet stringent requirements outlined by the Burning Man organization. And yes, despite the temporary nature of Black Rock City, it is fully functional with civic necessities, including a Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV).
In addition to meeting the criteria for being unrecognizable from its original form, there are a few other factors that the DMV considers before approving mutant vehicles for a license.
With participation being one of the 10 Principles, mutant vehicles need to offer an element of interactivity to the citizens of BRC. Many serve as transport to anyone who’d like to climb aboard, traveling between art installations, events, and gathering places. Others offer a stage for performance art wherever they go, provide art tours for participants with mobility challenges, show up to play music for gatherings of people around art pieces and destinations, or enhance visual experiences with flame and/or light displays.
Because the citizens of BRC are mostly on foot or riding bicycles, safety is a major concern, and accidents have occurred. Mutant vehicles must travel at 5 miles per hour or less, have working brakes, and be generally safe with guardrails and no sharp or protruding parts that pose a danger to other people. Carrying a fire extinguisher and first aid kit is recommended. Working front and rear lights, as well as lit sides, are also required. If the field of vision is limited for the driver, there must be one or more designated walkers available to help guide the vehicle’s operator and ensure the safety of those in the vicinity.
Notable Mutant Vehicles and Art Cars
The Mayan Warrior has been a Burning Man favorite for several years now. Bringing light and sound together in a modern electronic nod to the Mayan influence on Mexican culture and music, this sound stage on wheels hosts some of the most notable DJs on the playa. An entire team of architectural, industrial, artistic, audio, and visual effects designers from Northern California and Mexico City joined forces to create the Mayan Warrior and the incredible experience it brings to the event each year. The undeniable influence of psychedelic experience is reflected in vividly colored lights, beaming lasers, and a visually stunning design.
BAAAHS (Big Ass Amazingly Awesome Homosexual Sheep) has become a Burning Man icon in recent years. Its presence is undeniable; cloth draped over many triangle-shaped frames make up a geometric sheep body, with lights underneath that change color and pattern with seemingly endless variations. BAAAHS is also equipped with stunning laser beams and a rooftop lounge. This mobile disco is also well-loved for the music it brings with it, as well as its signature “penetrable social statement.”
El Pulpo Mecanico
El Pulpo Mecanico (El Pulpo for short) is one of the most recognizable mutant vehicles on the playa. The moving sculpture is an enormous mechanical octopus famous for using 200 gallons of propane each night to light up the sky with blasts of fire from the head and tentacles. El Pulpo’s steampunk-inspired construction is comprised of parts and junk from a scrapyard in Arcata, California, and is built on a 1973 Ford 250 platform that was donated to the project.
DiscoFish is yet another awe-inspiring display of psychedelic-inspired lights, textures, and overall design. The dazzling anglerfish moves about the playa offering an immersive, iridescent light and sound experience, complete with a flame thrower feature and a giant disco ball dangling from the roof of its gaping mouth. DiscoFish originally hit the playa in 2002 as a bedazzled, modified van. In 2011, the upgraded version that has become a Burning Man favorite was created and now graces the playa each year.
Need to see some of these incredible works of psychedelic art on wheels? Check out the Burning Man website for more information and view the organization’s gallery of fantastic mutant vehicle and art car photos, or watch this video to see them in action.