Burning Men!

Written by Alex Vadukul on . Posted in Posts.


The warehouse is located on a desolate street in Sunset Park. An ice cream truck jingle can be heard in the distance, and a few meat trucks are parked nearby. It’s the second day of preparations for what is set to be a massive party in the 21,000-square-foot industrial space, and as artists and volunteers scuttle inside, barking orders, manning scissor lifts and laying down patches of green astroturf inside, the warehouse entranceway is beginning to resemble a gateway into a small fantasy city.

A few people set up teepee-style tents and create the appearance of artificial bonfires with fluttering red silks for flames. An inflated, 40-foot-tall white tent towers over an open area and will be lit by blue LEDs. A collective called ANIMUS has created a 20-foot-tall “honeycomb” out of wood that they call “The Honey Trap.”

A circle of rocking chairs surrounds a neon-lit dance space while another section is made to resemble a small campground. A silver geodesic dome covers an area laid with fuzzy carpets. Beyond barbed gates is a flat space with a circular DJ booth and a dance floor, above which hangs a Vegas-style sign with the silhouette of a nude woman and the word “Sacrifice” in glowing script.

The warehouse’s address (in what is rumored to have formerly been used as a garage for the Secret Service) is a tightly kept secret. The frenzy of creative activity is all for “Campfire,” the brainchild of event planners Mark Winkel and Kevin Balktick, an eccentric pair responsible for producing some of New York City’s most imaginative nightlife events in years.

Balktick’s temporary office space is set up against one of the warehouse walls. At the moment, he’s completely obscured by “Grand Mal” or what others call the “Seizure Dome,” the geodesic dome with a touch-sensitive lighting system. But it’s not quite ready.

Cramped behind the blinking geodesic dome, Balktick, 26, sits at his makeshift desk, which is covered with blueprints, a laptop and a printer. He’s largely responsible for dealing with the business-end of events: organizing a massive warehouse party in a way that it won’t get shut down. Several years ago, he managed to convince the Queens Museum of art to host one of the “Decompression” parties, an official Burning Man event for returnees of the psychedelic Nevada desert festival. Thousands attended, and it went on until the late morning without upset, and he continues to have a good relationship with the museum.

Balktick has a crown of curly black hair and heavy muttonchops. He wears glasses and has an affinity for colorful pants—today they are black with thin white stripes. At the moment, he’s focused on his work and when someone approaches with a question, Balktick says, “I can’t talk for the next hour,” before a question can even be asked.

During a less hectic interval, he observes the space and sounds pleased: “This is such a great space, 21,000 square feet. Often people get lied to about cubits. I’ve never seen a space like this.”

Balktick and Winkel fund their events out of their own pockets. The goal is not to make money but to create a memorable experience. Their warehouse events can cost from $20,000 to $30,000 each. A New Year’s eve party can cost twice as much.

“It is wonderful when they are profitable,” Balktick says. “But they are still worth doing when they make zero dollars, which is why this is different than a business—where breaking even is a failure. If we’re not occasionally losing money, it means we’re not taking enough risks and challenging ourselves.”

Balktick sets up computer security systems for large companies and Winkel runs a successful moving company. “From a business perspective, warehouse parties just don’t make too much sense,” Balktick explains. “There’s a lot of risk of all sorts. No sane investor would ever want to be a part of this. It’s a labor of love.”

Eventually, a truck enters the warehouse and the mood in the room livens. Behind the wheel is Winkel, an affable 34-year-old bald man with a bushy mustache. He steps out of the truck and calls to volunteers to help him unload 30 or so crates of beer for everyone to share. He retrieves a stereo and sets it near the office space. “Free Falling” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers begins to echo through the building.


At the foot of the imposing barbed gates, the beginnings of the teepee village are taking shape: a large stretch of Astroturf covered with brown teepees and piles of cardboard logs.

The volunteers are mostly art students or fans of Winkel and Balktick who’ve heard of the event and offered to help set up. Dan Porter, a volunteer with some knowledge of teepee construction, takes the lead. He reaches into a beer cooler, digs past the ice and pulls out a bottle of 110-proof absinthe from france. He takes a sip before it makes the rounds with the other workers. “There is an ethos to all this,” Porter says. “This is all about participate, don’t observe. It’s about creating community. A lot of us have 9-to-5 jobs, but we can come here and make something special together.” He compares the event, as many others do, to the annual Burning Man festival, a nomadic weeklong event in which people bond together to create a community through art and innovation. The event culminates with the pagan-like ritual of burning a giant wooden man.

Winkel and Balktick admit that Burning Man has been an influence. Some of their events even coincide with the festival and have been hosted as alternatives for “burners” who could not make the annual pilgrimage. They are frustrated by the comparison, however, and each of them stresses that Burning Man is only an influence and not a blueprint for their events.

Near the tents, an artist named Logan Grendel is building an installation involving rocking chairs. Playing off the camping tradition of sitting around a fire and telling stories, party attendants can sit in these chairs and watch as someone enters a square cloth box lit by orange and purple LEDs. The person inside will dance, casting shadows, acting as a metaphorical bonfire.

“This is exactly the type of creative culture that New York needs,” Grendel says, as he sews sheets together. “New York used to be the financial and cultural center of the world. The parties were phenomenal. You would come here and know there would be an incredible party, and I’m talking about more than just DJs and dancing. You could go to a place like Twilo and party from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. It all stopped after 9/11. The city was becoming more conservative anyway, but then having a good time just became bad taste. Life was sucked out of the city. Now a new party culture has started to emerge, this one, based around community and creating, and Winkel and Balktick have been a big part of it.”

Near the entranceway, where attendees will be greeted by wilderness and insect sounds, Jason Eppink, who has collaborated with Winkel and Balktick many times, is building “21st-century campfires.” With the aid of two assistants, he glues thick PVC tubes to a dozen large TV screens. The tubes project upwards and when the TVs are turned on light shoots through the tubes to create a silent, flickering rainbow of colors.

“What I like about this subculture is that it’s trying not to be a consumer of mass culture,” Eppink explains. “Everyone here is doing their own thing, creating their own culture, and Winkel and Balktick provide that platform. They would probably say, ‘We just provide the time and the place,’ but of course that’s an understatement. They invest a lot of time and money to make these things happen.”

But he also understands it’s an ephemeral experience that could be seen as trivial by outsiders. “Is what we’re doing important?” Eppink says. “I struggle with that question. I think that most people in this think it is. I don’t know if it is. It’s definitely unique. I think we are the only people gluing plastic pipes to TV screens.”


Mark Winkel’s apartment is
located near the Dumbo waterfront on the second floor of a residential
warehouse underneath the Manhattan Bridge. A gymnastic handlebar is
anchored into the high ceiling and, if someone were peeking through the
window, a forest of pink and green Styrofoam “trees” could be seen
scattered around a small, elevated stage with drums and amplifiers.

Winkel
often uses his home as a place to entertain, and it’s not unusual to
have a band playing on the stage or an aerialist hanging from a silken
rope.

Winkel and
Balktick spoke to me about their work a few months ago, as we sat in the
violet-lit apartment, enjoying an exotic liquor a friend had given
them.

Winkel wore
glasses with pink lenses and was barefoot. As we spoke, he would
occasionally get up to change the lively jazz record playing. Balktick
wore dark red velvet pants. They had recently conceived “Campfire” and would begin to plan it over the next several months.

“It
all started when we became neighbors,” Winkel began. In 2005 Balktick,
then 20 years old, quit a successful computer securities job. Seeking a
change, he moved from Manhattan to the Dumbo apartment, where he started
heavily immersing himself in Brooklyn’s party scene. At the same time,
Winkel, his new neighbor, was already a figure in the underground party
scene. He was a co-founder and general manager of the Lunatarium, a
now-infamous 18,000-square foot loft located on the ninth floor of a
decrepit Dumbo building.

Surrounded
by floor-to-ceiling windows, thousands danced as they looked out at the
moon, the river and the Manhattan skyline. Nights could get crazy, and
Winkel recalls specific wild episodes: a naked guy setting up a zip line
and riding it barehanded 80 feet above the partying mass before
crashing into someone’s face; a crazed bunch wheeling an oversized bed
tied with rocketing propane tanks through the crowd.

The
Lunatarium closed in 2004 and Winkel started to host parties on a
smaller scale at his own apartment. Balktick, now fully immersed in the
scene, started assisting others with their parties. Then he attended
Burning Man. Before long, Balkitck started helping Winkel with his
parties, and they eventually became business partners and started
producing events together. “If you look at the scale of what we do: the
art, the buildings, the number of people involved and attending,”
Balktick said, “I think it measures up to any nightlife experience or
party anyone else has done. We’re trying to do something new.”


Winkel
and Balktick admit that Burning Man has been an influence. Some of
their events even coincide with the festival and have been hosted as
alternatives for “burners” who could not make the annual pilgrimage.
They are frustrated by the comparison, however, and each of them
stresses that Burning Man is only an influence and not a blueprint for
their events.


The
night of the party, a purple glow and loud insect sounds are emitted
from the “Campfire” warehouse entrance. A few large bouncers stand in
front of the entranceway.

Many
of the people who form the line out front are dressed as Boy or Girl
Scouts. There are a few dressed as bears. And one skunk. After paying
$20 to enter, they pause to comprehend the space before them.

The
lights in the warehouse are turned down low. The drills and
construction have stopped. Shades of violet, magenta, blue and green
light create subtle shadows on the installations. A live bluegrass band
plays onstage. A life-size deer with a human baby’s face, by
artist Kendalle Fiasco, look like it’s caught in a car’s headlights.
Popcorn is available at one stand. In the dome, people lay down to look
upwards at the touch-sensitive lights, which are controlled by a hamster
ball fitted with a modified Wii controller. As the ball is tossed,
turned and thrown around, the lights in the dome morph. Groups sit down
to drink beer in the teepee village with friends by the fake fires.
Couples discreetly disappear into the darkness created by other tents.

Winkel
and Balktick seem frenzied, and run across the warehouse to consult
with different artists, security guys, bartenders and volunteers. They
occasionally converge—rapidly exchange a few orders— before continuing
in their own direction. Both wear orange Boy Scout neckerchiefs.

The
gates to Club Sacrifice open at midnight. People flock to the
inferno-like dance floor. The DJ sets begin. DJ Zemi17 explains the
sound system, pointing to eight large PAs evenly spaced around the empty
concrete space. “With this system I can direct the sounds happening in
each specific speaker. I’m going to be throwing in cicada sounds
occasionally over the beats.”

By
2 a.m., the warehouse is a throbbing village. That’s when a group of
police officers find Winkel and Balktick to ask some questions. The duo
take the officers through a tour of the warehouse, shamelessly
explaining installations to the cops. They show all their paper work and
permits. Balktick leaves Winkel with the guys in blue, who walks them
around while cracking jokes. He then escorts them back to the entrance.
They seem pleased with the event. As they drive off, Winkel salutes them
with a pump into the air. “That was me in action right there!” he says
and jumps.

Around 3
a.m., a shirtless man wearing a frilly pink dress skates in repetitive
circles outside of the warehouse as he blankly stares at the moon. Limos
occasionally arrive in front of the warehouse. A lone bouncer named Big
Rick stands guard as a few half-clothed people wander over from Coney
Island.

“This is a
very elite event, believe it or not,” he says. “It’s super professional.
This is very underground. Very word-of-mouth. It’s not your average Joe
coming here. This is where the elite come to relax.”

By
4 a.m. many of the installations— except the ones with dark, private
interiors—are empty and everyone is on the dance floor. The music has
settled into a repetitive beat but remains

experimental and intense,
over which a black, slick-haired guitarist bows an effect-laden guitar,
creating dark swells of sound. Glow sticks, hula-hoops and Day-Glo paint
start to appear. Several onlookers stand and stare as three lithe
female aerialists begin to descend from 40 feet above them from a long
white fabric rigged to the beams above. As one of the dancers begins to
move, tension shifts and another dancer is lifted upwards. The dancers
continue rapidly looping through the fabric, hypnotizing those below.

The
event comes to its end by 7 in the morning, when Balktick climbs on top
of a speaker and tells everyone to go out and enjoy the morning sun. On
a street nearby, a man wearing a business suit emerges from his home as
he finishes a cup of coffee. He gets into his car and begins to drive
off. When he passes the warehouse, he puts on the brakes, stops in the
middle of the road and stares at the fantasy inside.


The
next Winkel and Balktick event, Stranded III: The Forbidden City is
scheduled for Labor Day weekend. They are currently seeking artist
submissions
. For more details, visit wandbnyc.com.

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