The Angry Bird Mobile is coming! Liana Bandziulis, a 20-year-old student at Loyola Marymount University, is converting a golf cart into a bigger-than-life Angry Bird, complete with a slingshot from which to launch hand-crafted plush versions at unsuspecting bystanders. The electric vehicle will debut at Burning Man, an anarchistic art festival that its organizers describe as “an annual experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and radical self-reliance.” This year’s Burning Man will be held August 29 to September 5. The Angry Bird Art Car project has been posted on Kickstarter to raise funds to pay for the materials needed for the customization.
Liana is the current leader of GuerilLA, the Los Angeles offshoot of Improv Everywhere, of which I am also a member. Knowing her, and knowing that a significant percentage of GeekDad readers and their children are avid fans of the game, I sent her an email; I asked her about the project, about Burning Man and about herself.
GeekDad: My perception (I’ve never been to it) is that Burning Man is not terribly kid-friendly; how accurate is that perception?
Liana Bandziulis: Not 100%. There’s actually a camp devoted to families with lil’uns. It’s very tame if you stay thereabouts. The open Playa is different. Your kid needs to have a high tolerance for nudity and dirt, and enough smarts to avoid Art Cars and fire.
GD: So, Art Cars are a “thing” at Burning Man? Are they usually electric? (I’m assuming that there’s a general pro-environment vibe, massive particulate-spewing bonfires notwithstanding).
LB: Yes, Art Cars are a “thing” at Burning Man. They’re my favorite “thing” at Burning Man. They’re actually quite rarely electric. Well, the small ones might be eco-friendly, but most are MUCH bigger. Think two double-decker bus big. The sun ain’t gonna run that s***.
GD: What makes a car an Art Car?
LB: At Burning Man, as it got bigger and bigger, they had to limit the cars that could drive around to minimize dust, so they only license the ones “worthy” of the title of an Art Car at the DMV: Department of Mutant Vehicles. There are certain regulations: they have to be well-lit for nighttime driving, safely built (this is important for the huuuuuuge ones especially), drive less than 5mph at any time… and they have to be deemed interesting enough. Like, you couldn’t just stick an old halloween decoration on the top of your Honda and expect to be able to drive around. One of my friends with the Giant Cock Car (yes, it was a rooster) was actually denied a license because, even though he had made a giant rooster with a top hat towering over the car, they felt that the car itself wasn’t “covered” enough. That’s why we want to make sure that we have both the slingshot for interactivity and the fur making it into an Angry Bird for looks.
Many Art Cars never see the open playa, they sit in camp all week, just because the people engineering didn’t think about the hostile environment’s effect on machinery, or limitations of overly ambitious dreams. For example, you can’t expect to wire a big sound system into an electric golf cart’s battery and expect both the sound system and the wheels to go – it’s just not powerful enough! We’ll be getting a separate little generator for sound and lights. Some other friends made a big old crane into an Art Car, but it was constantly breaking down, and they had a miserable Burning Man trying to fix it. Others have gotten there, assumed the glue that had held it together in the city would assuredly stick at Burning Man… until a big dust storm comes by, ripping all their decorations off. Bottom line: Keep it Simple. Fo’ reals.
GD: So, why an angry bird cart? I mean, I get the appeal of Angry Birds (I have three stars on all levels and all the eggs), but how did you come up with the idea to build this? Which came first, the idea or the golf cart?
LB: I’m glad you’re a fan, too! The obsession with having an Art Car at Burning Man actually came first — so when my friend sent me a link to a $450 electric golf cart on Craigslist as a joke, I got so excited I bought it. Most expensive impulse buy ever, for me — I’m usually really careful with money! For the next week or two we drove it around, talked about ideas spanning the gamut from fish to paintings. It wasn’t until we had an “Angry Bird-Off” to decide who was to make dinner one night that we just knew.
GD: How will you create the beak and eyes?
LB: I already have some super-short pile orange fur that’ll go on either wood or metal framing for the beak. The eyes… don’t know yet! Depends on if we get enough money to make them light up…
I just got word from my friend who wants to give my stuffed Angry Birds a voice… literally. It’s going to look like this. I love Arduino stuff. This is going to be great!
GD: What about the birds you’ll shoot from the slingshot? Are they the same as the custom ones you’re offering to supporters?
LB: Yes, they are one and the same. I figured, as long as I’m making a bunch to shoot, might as well share the love. The first one took a day to make. They’re getting progressively easier.
GD: You’re also offering glass Angry Birds earrings as a reward for supporting the project; where did you get those?
LB: I’m making the earrings. I will send you pictures of them… but not right away, because my glass making kit is at home in Palmdale and I don’t have any samples with me right now. But I promise they’re adorable.
GD: So… glass making, golf-cart customizing, plush toy sewing… is there anything you don’t do?
LB: My philosophy on life is “try everything at least once.” This includes everything from trying strange sushi or learning the accordion to getting suspended from school or going to an XXX-rated birthday party. Why? The stories are worth it. I never want to be “boring”! Besides, people who make things, whether it’s a party or a newspaper or a stuffed animal, are just… smarter, I think… because production forces you to become creative.
Things I can’t do: although I have perfect spelling and grammar 99% of the time, I can’t add even the smallest numbers without paper and pencil. I suck at navigating. I can’t really play any instrument (I’m trying reeeeeaaaallllllly hard on this accordion thing). And, ironically, most people could probably beat me at Angry Birds.
GD: How long have you been going to Burning Man?
LB: This will be my second year in Burning Man, but my fourth year in the Burner-y community, and my 20th year of being an offbeat, too-curious, defiantly clever outcast of society. It was just meant to be.
GD: How did you end up at Burning Man in the first place?
LB: After discovering the awesomeness of Improv Everywhere on the Interwebs and realizing there was a faction in SoCal [GuerilLA], I showed up at a Planning Meeting… and never left. This was at the end of my Junior year in high school, I believe. At the time, my relationship with my best friend was messily deteriorating, my drama teacher enjoyed psychologically abusing me in front of everyone in class, and nothing of the high school world norms really impressed me. I wasn’t disliked, but I wasn’t “popular.” These GuerilLA things would be an oasis of adventure, intelligence, and friendship.
These were adults that were on the smarter, more creative end of society that thought like me, and were so accepting and friendly that I couldn’t believe it was real. I got more and more involved. I am so thankful to my parents actually encouraging me to pursue a leadership role in the group, even though they had never met these people, 60 miles away from Palmdale. It opened my eyes to how awesome the world could be.
GD: How did you go from GuerilLA to Burning Man?
LB: I heard about Burning Man from one of the GLA members, a total Burner addict. I heard about what a mysterious, life-changing event it was, but he also made it sound like a privileged place that riff-raff was not welcome at, and that it was a hard, hard festival-thingy to endure. Then I met our dear friend Curious Josh. When he showed up at the Lemonade stand (a GuerilLA mission in which members dressed as displaced executives set up shop in an upscale neighborhood) to take photos, then stuck around for the debriefing, praising me for such a cool Mission and telling me stories of the “Burning Man scene” that was an active, wild, troublemaking group that also did these sorts of things (Santacon, etc.), I was entranced. I would make him take me to these legendary parties, meet these amazing people. That’s about the same time that I picked up photography “for reals,” although I had rarely left the house without my pocket camera since 8th grade. Josh helped me gain a foothold in the Burner community. I met people, added them on Facebook, found out about more events, until I wasn’t dependent on Josh’s taking me or not to things. I’ve always had an odd ability to pinpoint exactly the right people to talk to that would be beneficial connections, so I continued to climb the social circles.
And then everyone left in the summer. Everyone went to Burning Man, and I had to stay behind in my first year of college. I remember sitting in front of the computer at work in tears, watching the live feed of the Burn. I would have done anything, once again, to have been there.
Four months pass, and it’s time for this “SantaCon” thing again. Being the eager, but not very experienced (yet) photographer, I showed up in my Santa outfit, and wandered the streets of LA with 500 other Santas. It was great. Then, in the hallway to a little Mexican restaurant, I had the camera turned on me: a Santa looked at my photos, laughed, pushed some buttons, and took the best picture of me I had ever seen. Once again, I used my charm and Chokehold of Desperation to make myself his assistant until I had learned the ways. Paynie (photographer Stephen Payne) and I have been best friends ever since. And when Burning Man rolled around again, I had a camp to belong to and someone to help me prepare for it (mentally and physically), so I did a bad thing: I skipped the first week of my Sophomore year in college to go to this fabled place I had literally been obsessing about for two years.
Burning Man was good. It didn’t live up to expectations in some ways, but then again, I had rocket-high expectations for it. However, I don’t regret going at all, because I learned a lot of things in the process, a lot of things that I had not expected. The biggest thing that impacted me was the generosity of people (free booze everywhere!) and the ingenuity. Someone built a freakin’ elevator in the middle of a desert! A 30-foot tall dragon just drove by, chasing a mechanical spider!! There was fire everywhere!! If people could do this for fun… imagine what could be done in the “real” world!! This was a truly life-changing idea — the realization of, “Oh my God, I really can make anything I want.” I resolved not to go to Burning Man without some sort of project. This Art Car is a bigger project than I expected… I didn’t expect to get my very own Art Car for years… so it’s a dream come true.
GD: What are your parents like? As a dad of kids your age, I’m really curious about their approach to parenting. Do they have any geek tendencies?
LB: They are both Catholic Conservatives with a suppressed artistic streak. Mom, the biology and anatomy teacher by fall and nurse by summer, runs a Lithuanian preschool class on weekends and is a master of crossword puzzles and crafts ranging from beadwork, mosaics, carpentry, painting, marquetry, sewing, knitting… etc. She gets excited over school art projects and traveling, but is a little less enthusiastic about my grandiose plans like buying a building.
GD: Buying a building?
LB: Buying a building is my latest obsession. I want to OWN Los Angeles by the time I’m 30!!! I know it’s a silly thing to be thinking about investing in commercial property when I can barely afford to keep myself in college, but I’m holding onto the dream.
GD: Okay. What about your dad?
LB: My Dad, who’s much more hard-core right-wing, is very excited about my building plans, probably wishes he could go to Burning Man, and would be investing in stocks and writing iPad programs if he wasn’t tied up with bills and his work at the air force base. His guilty pleasures are LEDs, machinery, theremins and old skool synthesizers and solar panels; he’s actually quite good at that techie stuff. He used to have the best party house, called The Ranch, back in the day, and was incredibly popular in the Lithuanian community. I think I’m following in his footsteps, just in different circles of people.
Maybe I got the best of those two talent gene pools, which is cool. Strangely enough, it’s taken two years for them to warm up to my aspirations to make a living as an artist — whether that’s as a photographer or something else, I don’t know.
GD: You’ve said that they have expressed concerns about “your circus performer life”; are they still worried about you?
LB: I feel they were rightfully suspicious, in a way. How would you feel if your daughter left home for months on end, posted pictures of scandalous parties, her closest friends were all older males, and her passion was breathing fire? The smartest thing I did was to bring them into the Circus Life to prove to them that it really was okay, and different and alluring for all the right reasons. We had Thanksgiving at the Red Loft [Paynie’s photography studio/art space]; they came to an art show; they met GuerilLA on a Mission or two. GuerilLA was always okay in their eyes… it was the slightly darker Burning Man scene that they had to get used to. I think they live vicariously through me a bit.
GD: All of these things you’re into — the fire-dancing, stilt-walking, GuerilLA, Burning Man, photography, art —all of it seems to be part of a general philosophy of life; can you elaborate on that?
LB: I guess the message of this is you don’t really get places by yourself: like my boss at the newspaper once said, “people who know people are good people to know.” Yet there were a lot of factors that enabled me to go find these people.
Rule #1: Talk to strangers. Most of the time they’re more interesting than your friends, or the people your parents would like you to associate with.
Rule #2: Get a car. Get yourself to a big city. Get involved.
Rule #3: Don’t ever, ever hate who you are because you don’t fit in: you just belong to a different puzzle box, and that box is out there somewhere.
Rule #4: If you’re passionate about something… find someone who is an expert at it and throttle them until they promise to teach you the ways. Seriously. That is very good and very important advice, because one good mentor is better than all your schoolteachers put together.
GD: That’s good advice for an ambitious kid; what would you say to parents, specifically GeekDads who want their kids to turn out like you?
LB: Let your kids out of the house… but ask them about their day afterwards. Trust that they’re doing the right thing… and even if bad things happen, they’re good, because it provides the best kinds of learning experiences. Encourage them to think a step beyond where they are in life right now — the High School drama literally does not matter. Time demolishes it like a steamroller. And show up to art shows, school plays, track meets, or whatever else your kid is involved in: that’s where your support will make the biggest difference. Encourage their ideas (even if they suck, they’re unique!).
GD: Thanks, Liana.