Burning Man Has Left the Playa
With a two-day Robot Heart bash in Central Park and a Burning Man art installation at Chatsworth House, will the famously counterculture festival finally go mainstream?
The thudding beats from the Robot Heart’s sound system pierced the cool spring night as a group of partygoers wearing sequined lime-green dresses, top hats adorned with aviator goggles, and thigh-high black raver boots walked up the bustling traffic of 57th Street. Their unlikely destination? The Wollman Rink in Central Park.
Normally filled with Upper East Side mothers anxiously watching their children execute the perfect double-axel, the beloved 72-year-old rink (minus the ice) had been transformed into a full-on, heart-pounding rave.
The iconic 50-year old Leyland B21 bus that Robot Heart’s late founder George Mueller purchased, dismantled, and reassembled as a giant sound system in 2008 was there in all of her mechanical glory. The two rows of giant speakers were covered by an appropriately psychedelic VJ screen and an elevated DJ booth.
Silhouetted against the verdant backdrop of Frederick Law Olmsted’s famous landscape design and in the shadow of 432 Park Avenue—one of the famous “pencil towers” erected 2019—was Robot Heart’s flashing red, electric heart, high enough for all to see.
For those who never thought they’d see a bunch of Burners raging in Central Park, a sea change may be afoot.
A Burner Diaspora
6,000 miles away at Chatsworth, the family seat for 500 years of the Dukes of Devonshire, an exhibition called Radical Horizons: The Art of Burning Man opened last month featuring 12 free sculptures by Burning Man artists dotted around the bucolic estate in Derbyshire.
Co-Curator Kim Cook, the Director, Creative Initiatives of Burning Man, spent the month of March educating Chatsworth’s 250 house and garden guides on ‘Play and Participation’ and making things up. “I didn’t meet a single person who’d gone to Burning Man,” she said. “But l met tons of people who were curious and devoid of projection about what Burning Man is.”
The question is, instead of having to travel 6,000 miles to the dusty desert, will Radical Participation (one of the 10 Principles written by Burning Man founder Larry Harvey) suddenly become mainstream outside of the week-long festival in Nevada?
Certainly, it’s hard to imagine hundreds of ravers dancing in skimpy and colorful clothing in Central Park on ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s watch, given his infamous resurrection of the city’s arcane Cabaret Laws to crack down on local nightlife. (The law was finally repealed in 2017.)
But one reason the Central Park rink was suddenly available for use had to do with a recent change to their operations. Once part of former President Donald J. Trump’s empire, Wollman Rink’s operating lease was quietly transferred last July to a new, private consortium comprising Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, The Related Companies, and Equinox Group. As luck would have it, one of Robot Heart’s main event producers was close to the rink’s new general manager and voila, a rave was born.
From Weekend Debauchery to Tea Dance
Robot Heart used to throw enormous warehouse parties in New York City for up to 4,500 participants every Halloween and May until their dates became so saturated with competing nightlife events, organizers decided to call them off in 2016.
Famous for their debauched late-night reveries, the raves attracted throngs of partiers from Europe, London, and even Hong Kong for hedonistic, dance-filled weekends. In the days before Uber and ubiquity of social media the events were mysterious and out of the way. There was an element of going outside your comfort zone, good preparation for those who would make the trek to the desert. The attendees’ hoarse voices and knowing glances would give them away come Monday when older, clueless colleagues would ask innocently, “So what did you get up to this weekend?”
Robot Heart obtained 501(c)(3) charitable status in 2019 and created their own foundation, which is now up and running following delays due to both Covid and Mueller’s unexpected death. Last week, it reportedly held a $7,500 per head dinner in Hudson Yards where the Bitcoin billionaire twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss got into a bidding war with each other over a NFT of EDM superstar, Diplo.
The two-day Central Park Event, billed as Fare Forward, officially honored the organization’s late founder, the successful LED entrepreneur who died suddenly of an aneurysm, at age 50, on a Jackson Hole ski weekend in March 2021.
Mueller first transformed his vintage bus into the Robot Heart Art Car and drove it to the Burning Man festival in 2008. It became an instant emblem of the week-long festival in the Nevada Desert and he had long dreamt of bringing it to Central Park.
Although this weekend’s reverie was definitely more sedate than those Halloween parties of years past—in part due to the fact that it was was scheduled from 2–10 p.m. because Central Park doesn’t allow alcohol to be served after 10 at night—many attendees simply flicked their party switch on early.
While musicians from Jimi Hendrix to Tina Turner have played the rink in the past, this was the first time an electronic event of this kind was held there.
What’s more, the Parks department gave event producers a very limited time to sell tickets to an event promoted as having “world-class performances, artistic experiences, and conscious revelry.” (The DJ line up included Swamy and Dill, Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté, musician Acid Pauli, British DJ Cymande, live performer Francesca Lombardo, and Danish DJ Be Svendsen.)
“It happened in a short space of time, we only had five weeks on sale, which is very short,” said one of Robot Heart’s board members.“It felt very new. This was the first event like that in 42 years. There wasn’t anyone around who knew how that space worked and how to activate it.”
The event went off without a hitch and organizers are now in talks for a three-year contract. “We’ve all had an incredibly challenging two years and I think people feel good about seeing each other and enjoying life,” the board member continued. “Celebrating life was a big focus for us this weekend—and where better to embrace that spirit than in Central Park?”
Check Robot Heart Foundation’s website or follow @robotheartfoundation for the latest intel on upcoming events.
Chatsworth art installation photos: Photo by Danny Lawson/PA Images via Getty Images; Diplo at Robot Heart 2021 Creative Commons image ©Duncan Rawlinson - Duncan.co, - https://Duncan.co/Burning-Man-2021; All Robot Heart party photos in Central Park: Courtesy: Stacie Hess.