They arrive in parts – on the back of semi-trucks or hitched to trailers – after being shuttled up America’s Interstate 80 highway to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, the site of the annual Burning Man festival.
Here, on the region’s salt flats, the individual pieces – steel, wood, papier-mâché and a myriad of other materials – are assembled into one of the festival’s most striking pieces of art: Mutant Vehicles. These often spectacular cars would fail any standard road test, but must pass the criteria set by Burning Man’s Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV) to be granted a festival license.
This means they must “be completely mutated – showing little or none of the original base vehicle,” according to the DMV, who strive to ensure a “balance” of mutated machinery. The strict criteria means only 650 licenses were granted this year. Other motorized vehicles are largely banned, and most of the tens of thousands of attendees must travel by foot or bike.
Photographer Scott London has spent over a decade documenting the festival, chasing the vehicle’s owners on a “janky old bike”. His images have recently been published in a revised edition of “Burning Man: Art on Fire,” a book that documents the festival’s art.
Here, he discusses the mutant rides with CNN Style.
CNN: How is documenting Burning Man different from your other photography projects?
Scott London: Burning Man is a laboratory for creative expression – whether it’s showing a skill like stilt walking or fire dancing, an outfit, an art car or art installation…already that’s fascinating; you see things you don’t get to see elsewhere.
It’s also an uncommonly beautiful natural landscape. The dry lakebed there, known as the playa, is made out of alkaline dust. It’s almost white and reflects light. So it’s a tabula rasa, or blank slate, from a photographer’s standpoint. It’s nothing like you’ve ever seen anywhere else.
One of the main subjects that you’ve photographed at Burning Man is the festival’s thriving culture of art cars. Tell us about your fascination with these mobile art vehicles.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s how these vehicles came about. It goes back to the early 90s, when people needed to get around in something that wasn’t quite a car.
So, if you brought a car and decorated it enough, it was then considered ‘art’, and you could drive it around the playa. In some ways it inspired today’s maker-faire culture. Burning Man was encouraging people to make stuff early on. The cars show just how wild and fanciful these artists’ imaginations are.
What sort of “mutant vehicles” have you seen?