Chris Hankins does that thing that leader-type guys do. In the middle of a conversation he seems all absorbed in, he will pick up on something floating in the ether from the 20-somethings on the other side of the garage. He will ask a small question, get a sheepish reply, offer an immediate correction of perfect and cubed rationality.
The attention flicks like a torch: on interview, on problem, on interview.
What is beyond dispute is he is an unusually competent 57-year-old man. Once he was even in charge of building a 36-metre-high temple in a desert. Then he set it on fire. Now he lives in a van with his son. This is not a particular worry – cash can be had with the tools he knows how to use in the trailer that follows their home everywhere.
What is a question is why he is in this field not far from the dumpy little town of Mangakino. And even that question needs breaking up, because what he is physically doing is obvious: building the set and structures for an annual radical art festival known as Kiwiburn. What that is, is the problem.
To a mysterious emailer, it is not a puzzle; it's a nuisance. Scant hours after a Waikato Times visit to the site, it emerged that someone with an opinion had been secretly observing.
Among other things, they alleged: "Last year, they played loud music all night, hearable eight kilometres away ... they start drinking about 7pm, and then turn up the noise. Until ... 2am, 3am ... They don't belong here. They only come because they can't do that in the city. We should not have to put up with it.
"Cheers, " it ended brightly.
It is one opinion among others and all are (initially) welcomed at Kiwiburn. Hankins' own view began to be formed when he saw a TV show about a United States thing called Burning Man. "It blew my mind. I thought, I've got to go do that, and six months later, I was there."
What he saw on the television was a 2004 festival held in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, where about 38,000 artists, counterculture figures and the bravely curious cavorted in freeform creativity. On the final night, they burned a 24-metre-high wooden man and a temple and many of their own artworks. More than a few describe the experience as transformational.
The event is run on a set of 10 principles. Most practical from a standpoint of understanding the vibe are decommodification and participation.
The first means only ice can be bought on the site. Burners, as they are known, pay a hefty premium for passes out the gate, so must bring what they need.
Decommodification also melts into the principle of participation. It is a make-your-own-fun scene, with no paid acts. The crowd relies on the crowd to entertain it.
The official idea, both in the US and lifted word-for-word at Kiwiburn is a belief that "transformative change, whether in the individual or society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation in experience. We achieve being through doing."
Hankins went back the next year. Being who he is, by 2008 he was helping build structures. He sold a share in his home to finance his activities. In 2010, he conceived and built a city block out of plywood that covered nearly half a hectare. Then he burned it. Last year, the US event sold out to its legal limit as nearly 54,000 packed the desert. Hankins built them the huge and beautiful temple. This too became ashes.
Back home, another Kiwi was starting our domestic version. Mark Stirling is a 51-year-old seismologist. Nowadays, he helps GNS work out what kind of buildings might stand up in shaky Christchurch. In 1994, he was a PhD student in Reno, Nevada, stumbling on the Burning Man festival while camping in the desert. He liked it and kept going back. He wanted to start it here. He got some help from the rapidly growing US outfit and burned a man in effigy in a one-day event at another festival in Golden Bay in 2003.
In 2007, the event moved to its current site at the Whakamaru Domain near Mangakino. It goes for five days, from Wednesday, January 18, to Sunday, January 22, and costs $160 to get in at the gate. Stirling writes the detailed reports that have to go back to Burning Man central in the US, which is now co-ordinating about 200 global offshoots.
Last year, 530 people came to the Kiwi event, about an 18 per cent increase on the year before. It was disappointing – the event dogged by two weather events in the lead-up and the lingering recession.
Organisers had expected about 50 more. They took about $50,000 and spent about the same, hiring security and medics and portaloos. They're not bad numbers. There is some cash in the kitty. No-one, here or in the US, they claim, is getting rich or wants to.
The crew helping out this year won't be. They are a useful lot – a locksmith, a builder, a web-designer, a legal secretary.
The term "hippie" should be used with care. Young Australasian volunteers working in a field building things look like hippies, which these are. However, genuine hippie chicks everywhere have a giveaway, a knowing look of secret amusement.
A working theory: they exist in a matriarchal subculture, or at least some Middle-earth, where men are free to reveal their universal weaknesses. They smile, softly and sweetly, as they regard any repressed, straight-acting gentleman from the outside as readable and unself-aware as a comic child.
Alternatively, they may just be stoned all the time. The drugs will definitely be here, because it's New Zealanders and we like drugs. The police visit the site. They can come when they like, but tend to do so here by invitation.
In the US, the situation is stranger, with narcotics agents dancing naked amidst the clans, cadging some dope and then pulling out a badge (from somewhere) to make the kill. Homeland Security, for reasons probably so abstract it could have its own exhibition, also takes an interest.
Stirling is stepping back a bit from the organisational side to concentrate on his art. Last year, he built a 6m-high Saturn Five rocket model and torched it. This year, he is building a Space Shuttle effigy to be burnt. He says it is a radical art community with 100 ways to have fun with like-minded people.
"People take a lot of meaning from it. Crudely, burning the man and the temple signifies a cycle of life."
Rumours bump against the reason US founder Larry Harvey first burned a human in effigy on a California beach in 1986. Some say an ex-girlfriend figured heavily in his thinking. Stirling says you can believe that if you like.
"Larry Harvey says you can take any meaning you want out of it."
The other thought is that it is a Wicker Man, a fairly identical structure used in barbaric pagan rites and involving live sacrifices imprisoned within.
"Maybe there is a little bit of the Wicker Man going on," says Stirling. "It had a similar meaning."
It's clear he's referring to renewal and change and not the incineration of Christians and herd animals. This year, one of the art installations will be a swingers' club. Stirling is not surprised.
"I thought sooner or later that was going to happen in New Zealand. A lot of fairly liberal people go to the Burn."
More usually, it's costumes and bizarre vehicles. A giant dream catcher is already onsite, body painting, art, as recognised in some state secondary schools. Two of the themed tents suggest heavy drinking.
Stirling says it has changed after its shift to the North Island three years ago.
"When we started, it was a mainly hippie crowd, with an emphasis on tribal drumming and healing workshops. But then we started tapping Auckland and Wellington artists and got higher-tech dance music and metallic art. It went from tribal to personal art. It was quite a sharp transition."
The Kiwiburn committee respond to the mystery emailer's complaints. They quickly cop to noise violations on the first night of last year's fest. They swear there will be no repeat. They claim locals are generally all for it, getting the paid jobs and discounted entry and selling goods to the event and its fans.
Hankins says one of the reasons it's here is that it is relatively hard to get to. "It's got to be a journey."
He has a tattoo of a stick man on his arm, its arms raised to heaven as is customary just before the figure burns.
He believes the man can be whatever you want – it's not sacred – but the temple is. "A lot of people go there and break down. It sparks an emotion in people they don't have a chance to otherwise express.
"They don't go to church. They don't pray to gods, but they feel something like that is missing."
Over the way, the young people are all industry. Hammering and chipping away. Something has been overused, though, and Hankins' chin tilts two inches and the torch flicks on.
"What's burning?" he asks.
- © Fairfax NZ News