Inside a West Oakland warehouse, some of the best minds in American ice
cream are collaborating with Burning Man's top art car builders to create a
piece of roving political theater for the upcoming presidential campaign.
The Topsy-Turvy Bus, a "shortie" yellow school bus with its twin welded
upside down to the roof, was commissioned by Ben & Jerry's ice cream co-founder
Ben Cohen to protest U.S. military spending.
A crew of 10 artists who build sculpture for the annual Burning Man art
festival in the Nevada desert is putting the finishing touches on the bus,
including stenciling the sides to say, "The U.S. Budget Is Topsy-Turvy." They
are putting large pie charts on the flip-out stop signs that show half of
federal discretionary spending is reserved for the Pentagon, and diet-size
slivers set aside for other concerns such as education, health care and the
Tuesday, lead builder Tom Kennedy and artist Flash Hopkins were using a
ceiling crane to lower the wheels onto the upside down bus.
"Our military arsenal is big enough blow up every major city 10 times,"
said Kennedy, citing numbers compiled by Cohen. "What we're saying with the bus
is that if we just cut back to blowing up every city four times, we could save
40 billion a year for things like schools."
The Topsy-Turvy Bus will be unveiled today on hallowed protest ground, at
Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus.
Within the next few weeks, Kennedy and fellow artist Haideen Anderson will
drive the bus to Cohen in Vermont, with political rally stops in Iowa and New
The bus is the latest political art car in the growing fleet Cohen has
driven to promote his nonprofit group, Business Leaders for Sensible
Priorities, made up of 700 business leaders who want to reduce U.S. military
Cohen has driven cars turned into piggy banks, a Honda Element transformed
into a federal budget pie chart, and stacked Oreo cookies the size of dinner
plates to show the disparity between military and social spending.
Field organizers for Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities will take
turns driving the Topsy-Turvy Bus during the presidential campaign. Inside,
they will show a 10-minute video about Cohen's organization, and gather
signatures urging presidential candidates to discuss federal spending
priorities. Cohen plans to tour the bus primarily in New Hampshire and Iowa to
take advantage of the early voting in those states.
"Essentially this is a marketing technique that I started doing at Ben and
Jerry's," Cohen said. "We find that dollar for dollar, it's more effective than
run-of-the-mill TV advertising. Seeing this weird vehicle in three dimensions
makes more of a lasting impression."
Kennedy, a 46-year-old San Franciscan who has driven whales, sharks,
spaceships and Cheshire cats on the freeways, says the bus is road-ready. It's
under the 13.6-foot height limit and within the weight limit for noncommercial
vehicles, he said.
With rare exception, most police officers who pull him over just want a
picture to show their families.
"I usually crack some kind of joke, like telling the officer I can't
possibly be robbing banks in this kind of vehicle," Kennedy said.
Berkeley sign artist Steven Vigeant is decorating the inside of the roof
with federal spending bar charts.
"I just love the politics of this project, and the '60s 'magic bus' feel
of it, too," he said. "You just know this bus is going to be in a museum one
Ben & Jerry's and Burning Man are a natural fit, Cohen said, a sort of
Merry Pranksters for the new millennium.
Cohen has attended a few Burning Man festivals, and met Kennedy after the
executive director of Cohen's nonprofit suggested tapping the Burning Man
community for a builder.
Cohen's friend, Stefan Sagmeister, a celebrated New York graphic artist,
designed the bus.
"I'm a guy who's been looking to use art cars for social benefit, and
Kennedy is a guy who wants to make art cars for a living with some social
purpose," Cohen said. "Clearly, we were both searching for each other."
E-mail Meredith May at firstname.lastname@example.org.