tl;dr: There are now five art cars being built in Toronto. Join this Facebook group to get involved: Toronto Art Car Community.
Introduction: I remember my first ride on an art car. The year was 2006 and I was woefully underprepared for Burning Man. I had no camp, not nearly enough sunscreen, and scarcely more food than apples, potato chips and beef jerky. But there it was in the distance: The Purple Palace. I jumped on and had the night of my life.
The Purple Palace caught my attention because as a hardcore transit geek, I was fascinated that these people had purchased a decommissioned City of Minneapolis accordion bus, turned it into a giant rave-mobile, but still left the digital destination sign (bearing the words "Mall of America") intact.
Since then, I have never missed a burn. In my mind, the event keeps getting better as it grows larger. The amazing humans that build Black Rock City keep raising the bar on what is possible, and in my mind, the event is really the pinnacle of human artistic expression. But despite all the incredible things out there, the sculptures, the theme camps, the clever bars, the random playa art you find here and there, the thing that still blows my mind the most are art cars.
Now, mutant vehicles are great at Burning Man and all, but what happens when you bring them to the city? Incredible things.
Marie, chief designer of Heavy Meta (and our last art car, The Prodigal Swan) and I lived in San Francisco & Oakland for three years. The Bay Area is the closest thing you can find to living Burning Man 24/7, if this is the culture and community that speaks to you. It is also the home to the most art cars in the world. Our very first friends in San Francisco were The Janky Barge crew.
Through the Janky Barge crew, we met a new kind of community that we had never really experienced before: dozens of people working toward a common goal of keeping a crazy ship afloat; kind of like being on a rickety old space vessel like Serenity from Firefly. The Bay Area is blessed with over a hundred art car crews like this: groups of people that share a cohesion that is unique to these massive participatory art projects. They party together, go camping together, and build together.
Obviously, building a dragon was a big achievement, and we are extremely proud to have done it. But perhaps more important than that was the community that formed while doing it. Our Facebook group has 180 people that have all helped, in one way or another, make the dragon come to life.
Back in the Default World
It doesn't just stop at Burning Man, though. Once these crews are back in the city, they obviously want to dust off their art and show it, play music on it, create experiences on it. There are massive parties like LoveBoat Halloween, where multiple art cars are stages inside a warehouse in San Francisco. Then there are events like the How Weird Street Faire, where the public gets a chance to see large-scale art on a dozen blocked off city streets. There are so many art cars, in fact, that Dusty Rhino throws a party called Wild Kingdom just featuring SF's numerous animal-themed mutant vehicles.
Remember the Promise of Nuit Blanche?
Toronto's Nuit Blanche, our "all-night art thing," began with a simple promise: Toronto would transform into a 24-hour city for the purpose of displaying contemporary art that everybody could enjoy. Interactivity and your participation was encouraged. In its early years, it nailed it by putting large-scale, often illuminated art in close proximity, avoiding the dual problems of being both "too crowded" (aka lines everywhere) and "underwhelming." Giant mysterious UFO crashes, an artist from Japan who'd gotten producing artificial fog down to a science, a massive steampunk heart that shot fire on Bay Street, a dozen great pieces inside Hart House alone, and plenty more. Reviews from the latter years of its existence, however, could be easily summarized with one word: underwhelming. "The lines are too long," people complain, "and once you get past the line, the art was too small/boring/uninteresting."
That is not to say it hasn't nailed it in recent years, though. For most of its existence, Nathan Phillips Square has played host to some of the largest, most entrancing pieces, such as Director X's Death of the Sun last year. However, those who made their way to City Hall this year were greeted with... a giant ad for Hendrick's Gin, in the form of a 20-foot hot air balloon ride. As a former liquor marketer, I really appreciated the execution from the brand side, and doubtless a very clever marketing agency. However, as a lover of contemporary art, I did not feel the same way. Full disclosure: we submitted Heavy Meta to Nuit Blanche this year and were not accepted - no reason was given.
What Can We Do to Make Toronto More Like an Acid Trip
At a Burner town hall over the summer, we issued a challenge to the Toronto community to build nine more art cars. Our reasoning is that if we have a fleet of art cars, we would be able to organize entire festivals, public art events, block parties, concerts, and camping events around this unique art form that is not only large-scale and impactful, but invites the participation of the audience. Essentially, we could deliver on the original promise of Nuit Blanche. We could, in short, make Toronto more like an acid trip, which has been the unintended result of all the art I've ever helped make, from giant pillow fights and bubble parties to giant fire-breathing dragons.
Where We're At: 5 Art Car Builds!
I am pleased to report that four more art car crews have formed within the past few months! Two of them have already bought their base vehicle, and the other two are in the research phase. This is an amazing benchmark, and we are prepared to help them in any way we can. Over the past 10 months, we have learned a great deal about everything from sourcing cheap buses to welding, carpentry, insurance, fundraising, and pitching festivals.
Toronto's 5 art cars are: The Heavy Meta dragon, the Cathedral (base vehicle purchased), The UFO Launcher (base vehicle purchased), the Flying Toaster, and a confidential mythical creature, soon to be announced.
How to Get Involved
Today we are creating a new Facebook group called Toronto Art Car Community. You should join if you want to be involved in this massive explosion of creative energy in any way. It could be as simple as sharing an Indiegogo link or painting part of a bus, or as complex as helping people engineer and weld a mobile dancefloor or design an addressable LED system. You can even join if you just want to keep track of this unique artform as it becomes a Toronto creative tradition. You could also build your own art car - we will help you in any way we can!
Click here to join Toronto Art Car Community. We love you!
Co-lead, Heavy Meta