by Meredith May
Burning Man artists Don Bruce and Tracy Feldstein have a problem.
All year they’ve been consumed by their dream to build “The Disgusting Spectacle,” a 23-foot-tall head that picks its nose. It will run on people power, supplied by “burners” who run in a human-sized hamster wheel.
Their art is among the hundreds of irreverent, sublime or just plain weird sculptures that artists will haul to the Nevada desert this fall in keeping with Burning Man’s tradition of participatory public art. In years past, artists have created roller coasters, Viking ships, flaming waterfalls, and a jazz club-casino inside a massive rubber ducky.
But with just two months to go before Bruce and Feldstein unveil their contraption before nearly 40,000 desert merrymakers, they can’t make the hand pick the nose.
A test last month revealed a kink in the pulley contraption that transfers power from the hamster wheel to the hand. The hand wouldn’t twist up and down properly to get in the nostril. The metal bearings tore apart as easily as a hot cookie.
Not only that, the steel hamster wheel gained momentum too quickly and dumped a couple of human guinea pigs onto their heads.
Undaunted, the first-time Burning Man artists from Richmond taped a sign onto the hamster wheel, “This Will Kill You,” and gathered inside their work space at the NIMBY art warehouse in West Oakland to talk strategy.
“It seemed so simple at first,” said Bruce, who got the idea with his wife on their honeymoon in England, where they visited a mini-version of the Disgusting Spectacle at artist Tim Hunkin’s mechanical cabaret exhibit.
“Now we’re wondering whose idea this was!” he said.
Collaborating with an engineer friend and their two San Francisco crew members, Krista Bray and Jenne Giles, the group decided on the following fixes: a harness and handles for the hamster-wheel runner; an emergency brake for the wheel itself; and covering the wheel in softer, kinder, rubberized paint.
They replaced the wimpy bearings with NASCAR-rated rod-ends — a freebie from the owner of FK Rod Ends in Connecticut who couldn’t stop laughing when Feldstein called and explained she needed them for a nose- picking machine.
Then they decided the eyelashes should be on fire.
Their sculpture was missing an all-important pyrotechnic element, pointed out Giles, whose Burning Man resume includes flaming lily pads, a metal ribcage the size of a house and an enormous, illuminated Buddha chair.
The Disgusting crew plans to keep tinkering with their contraption every day until Burning Man starts in late August.
The artists have used their own money, about $3,000, to build the Disgusting Spectacle. The $850 fee to have the hamster wheel fabricated in a metal shop was the most expensive item. The rest of the money went for Home Depot pallet shelves bought on Craigslist, metal poles from Urban Ore salvage yard in Berkeley and fabrication tools such as a welder and buzz saw.
They scavenge as much as they can for parts such as the free wooden electrical spool top for the pulley and the automobile rotors for the hamster wheel. They’ll use an old church bus, formerly owned by two professional clowns, to cart the Disgusting Spectacle to Black Rock City.
“We have friends asking us why we are doing this,” Bruce said. “We’re just hoping to make people laugh. My question to them is, ‘Why not do this?’ ”
Bray and Giles are in charge of the head. They welded an elaborate face, with cheekbones, a chin and copper plating around the eyes and lips. They plan to cover it in lace and light it from behind with white lights.
“Except we’ll use two red bulbs behind his cheeks,” Bray said. “That way, we can make him blush.”
Although the mechanics of their creation — or temporary lack thereof – – is keeping the Disgusting crew awake at night, they do have a Plan B if the dang thing just won’t work.
Taking a page from the Wizard of Oz, someone will stand behind a curtain and move the hand up and down, while Bray serves as carnival barker to distract the crowd’s attention.
“You know, I think people will still appreciate it,” Feldstein said. “Our art isn’t like a lot of art you see at Burning Man … that serious kind that represents Gaia or your inner lotus flower …”
“Yeah,” Bruce cut in, “ours is stupid. That’s stupid with three ‘o’s,’ ” he said.
Meanwhile, they’ll keep their spirits up, take frequent pizza and doughnut breaks and stick to their motto: “Measure once, cut twice, safety third!”
This huge hamster wheel is key to the picking power for the nose.