Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman (left) and a fellow Burner in front of a new inflatable structure.

Nellie Bowles

Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman (left) and a fellow Burner in front of a new inflatable structure.

Culture


I walked across the Burning Man playa to visit billionaire Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman’s camp. It had been agreed that I was there exclusively for the Wi-Fi. The camp, and everything I saw there, was to be off the record. But when Pittman popped out of his trailer, spry and tan, he just had to show me one thing. And yeah, he said, it’s probably a good story.

The thing? Giant blow-up spider houses. Enormous party pads designed to withstand the brutal dust storms, thunder and lightning of Black Rock, the desolate desert in Nevada where the Burning Man festival takes place every year.

Fancy new toys, certainly, Pittman noted. But maybe something more! Maybe a solution to flimsy refugee-camp tents. Maybe homes for when we all inevitably live on Mars.

The houses had thick legs sprung out of a fat body. Blown-out dusty white plastic around central cores, puffed up by negative air pressure, they constantly grew and then contracted, like they were breathing. They weren’t noisy, but I could hear the air rushing in and out, mingled with the dubstep throb of Burning Man.

Pittman walked barefoot (had he heard of “playa foot,” I wondered?) across the astroturf and power tools of his camp’s half-built bar setup, and padded across the dust to a spider house. The designer of the structure, Michael Beneville, joined the conversation.

The door to the inside looked like lips.

“Breast-stroke inside,” Beneville instructed me, before disappearing into the beast.

It’s a long breast-stroke through the thick plastic to get to the other side — the “lips” rise about to your belly button before you see where you’re going. And, like most elaborately constructed structures at Burning Man, where you’re going is a party pad.

The central core serves as a closet, kitchen and bathroom, and splits the spider into two rooms. In one room, there’s a futon, in the other, a king-size bed. The whole interior, including the bar, is covered in multicolored strobe lights and various LEDs.

Once you make it past the giant inflatable spider's lip-like door, it's a party pad.

Nellie Bowles Once you make it past the giant inflatable spider’s lip-like door, it’s a playa party pad.

Pittman, in a red tank top, cargo shorts and steel dust glasses, leaned back onto a futon, Beneville sat on a chair.

“We could all be at the Four Seasons, but we’re not, we’re at Burning Man,” Beneville said. “So let’s build something cool.”

“This is proof of concept for us,” Pittman said.

The pair had decided to construct the spiders in February. The process followed Pittman’s usual 24-hour rule: Everything should be able to be accomplished in 24 hours. It’s an attitude, he said, that is very much informed by Burning Man.

“This is why big companies are all fucked up, and small aren’t,” Pittman said. “By the time something gets to my desk, it’s been through 10 people, so the system is lopsided to no’s. I worship dissent. People say they want to get rid of chaos — why do you want to do that? Have the idea and live with the wildness. The consensus style of business is great for a factory line, but not for innovation. And worshipping dissent — that’s Burning Man.”

The two men plan to market the blow-up homes. Beneville said he’ll call the spiders Dhomes.

“Seventeen people had crashed in it at Precompression,” Beneville said, referring to a pre-Burning Man Party. “So you could imagine bunk-bedding people in here in a refugee situation.”

Beneville said they were just talking to NASA.

“Any species that doesn’t invent space-faring is doomed to annihilation,” Beneville said.

For Pittman, the harsh conditions of the playa are a canvas to experiment with new technology, a place to challenge himself, he said. And for a man with a very comfortable life, it’s a place to confront some amount of discomfort.

“We experiment with this at Burning Man, but this is solving fundamental problems,” Pittman said. “You go to refugee camps, and it’s tents — how do we still have tents in 2014?”

“To the outside world, Burning Man is a rave with sex and drugs. Or it’s the New York Post article saying I have a private chef cooking me dinner. This, to me, is Burning Man,” he said, gesturing to the spider contraption surrounding us.

Pittman and Beneville met through Burning Man — “Michael helped us paint a pedicab,” Pittman said.

“Burning Man renews my spirit,” he said. “As you get older, your world narrows. One hundred years ago you probably went away to renew your spirit — I think Burning Man is the place creative people come to have their worlds opened again.”

So, what is Beneville’s role?

“Court jester!” Beneville said.

“If you are a billionaire, and you want a one-of-a-kind gift, you come to Michael,” Pittman said.

They present me with a small gift that Pittman describes as looking like “a space-faring people met an ancient civilization at Burning Man.”

A bronze arrowhead with the symbol of a hand carved onto it, it has five laser-made holes to represent “home.”

Next year, their plan is to build 200 Dhomes and rent them for between $5 and $10,000 for the week (about what an RV costs).

“People like me — boring old men — we need a bathroom and a bed, but I want to push the RVs out,” Pittman said.

And how will these Dhomes be delivered?

“Drones!” Pittman proclaimed.

“Dirigibles or airships,” said Beneville.

That night, Pittman invited me to dinner, where he and his camp of a few dozen Burners sat at long candlelit tables. Contrary to that Post story about private chefs (which I had secretly been hopeful about — ice cream flown in that night?!), Pittman himself had cooked (spiced chicken breast, smoked pork loin, brownies).

The billionaire cleared people’s plates and scraped them into a trash can in his trailer. He put on his outfit for the night — a black body suit. He offered me a costume (I look like a lesbian tennis coach at Burning Man). He asked me if I wanted to go out with him and his friends. But I was too sleepy and full, and biked off into the night.

As I was leaving our “off-the-record” meetup, Pittman said he didn’t have Wi-Fi – but wasn’t this better?

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