Brent Holmes contributed research to this story. A note of disclosure: Holmes was employed by Transfix.

I

n April 2023, a new interactive art exhibit opened on the Las Vegas Strip, one that was billed as “the world’s largest touring immersive art experience.” The goal was to bring together large-scale, interactive, Burning Man-style art pieces for a wide audience to experience outside of the Burning Man environment. The ambition was to start in Las Vegas and then take the pieces on tour around the country.

It was sold as a big boon for Burning Man artists, a way for them to make passive income while working on other projects, but it quickly became a boondoggle that left artists in debt and scrambling to get their work back.

“The idea of a touring art show that basically pays out artists consistently and shares in whatever profit is made has often been the dream,” said Tyson Ayers, a long-time interactive sculpture artist. “So to have the opportunity to step into that and believe that it could work, and then see so many missteps, I worry that people will look at this and be like, ‘OK, well, there’s a refutation of that dream, of that business model. We now know that that business model cannot work.’”

Just 28 show dates after opening, on June 2, organizers sent employees an email saying, “we were unable to sell enough tickets to sustain our business … as a result, unfortunately, your employment is also being terminated effective today.” Shortly after, the organization behind the endeavor, Transfix Productions LLC, filed for bankruptcy. Participating artists, like Ayers, who had been told their works would be cared for and shown to adoring crowds nationwide, now had to figure out how to get these pieces back into their possession.

The leaders of Transfix promised to not only pay artists for the shows, but also to move these complex, gigantic structures on and off the site. That didn’t happen. And that led many in the arts community to step up and volunteer time and money to help move these pieces offsite and get them back to artists.

So, what exactly was Transfix, and what went wrong?

The promise

Ayers has long been creating large-scale art installations and musical sculptures at Burning Man and festivals throughout the world. In 2019, he and his team unveiled the Shrine of Sympathetic Resonance at Burning Man, an epic structure with walls made entirely of piano harps, surrounding people with 20,000 piano strings. He was cooking up something similar for Transfix.

Tyson Ayres has made several version of his “Sound Cave” sculptures, using piano harps as both a building material and a hands-on feature that viewers can play music on. This one was at the Joshua Tree Music Festival in 2018. Photo: courtesy of Tyson Ayres

“My piece at Transfix was called the Sound Cave Project 5 Elements Teahouse Ether. It was a gazebo-shaped structure that surrounded participants [with] approximately 1,000 strings that were all tuned to my own tuning systems,” Ayers said. “So no matter what anybody played on it, it sounds musical, gifting people the experience of their own musicality and what it’s like to play music with others, without needing to learn anything.”

For Ayers, who has been doing this kind of work since 2006, Transfix offered him a truly special and unique opportunity to share his work with masses of people.

“I’m often interested in trying to get my art connected with more people, … just making it more accessible for people that might not make it out to Burning Man or might not make it to some of these music festivals that will fund art like mine,” Ayers said.

A young visitor makes music on Tyson Ayers’ Sound Cave sculpture on the opening night of Transfix. Photo: Kris Vagner

There’s a financial benefit for artists like Ayers, who spend countless hours and years working to make a living solely from their artwork.

“It was going to tour ideally for 3+ years, and Transfix was planning on taking care of all the logistics: breaking it down, setting it up, transporting it,” Ayers said. “As an artist, it would be passive income from my art getting shared with more and more people from all over. And had that plan worked out, it would have really created a foundation with my art that I could have supported my family with it, and supported my shop and my home, and been able to really expand my art with that financial foundation.”

It’s a business model that artists, especially those making large-scale structures, have only been able to imagine.

“It would have been a dream for many of us,” Ayers said.

So, what happened?

The dream

Transfix is the work of Michael Blatter, a New York-based creative marketer and business strategist. He spent three years concepting and raising money to put together Transfix on the Las Vegas Strip. According to his own LinkedIn profile, Blatter is “an expert in experiential design, a maverick of marketing impact, a connoisseur of cultural relevance, and, most importantly, he is a master at manifesting brilliant and actionable ideas.”

Transfix was an ambitious undertaking. Blatter and his funders aimed to bring together the best of Burning Man—large-scale, moving, interactive art installations that use sound, LEDs and even fire—and then tour that around the country.

Meranda Carter, an artist and event manager from Los Angeles, was the person in charge of curating Transfix, and she was stoked about the potential of this project.

“We were supposed to go to four or five cities in the first year,” Carter said. And then after that, spin off tours to secondary markets, and then also abroad. It was a big vision, and I was really excited because this art is what I build and what I love—and I knew a lot of it.”

Carter is well connected in the arts scene and Burning Man communities, and she was instrumental in helping Transfix get these artworks to Las Vegas. She started with one-hour Zoom meetings with potential artists. Then it was all about logistics.

“It was looking at where the artwork is, how well it transports, how well it would stand the test of touring, of building it over and over again,” Carter said. “And then also being up for potentially up to six months, whether [in] hot sun here in Vegas, or humid conditions in Florida, if it would rust—like, all of those considerations.”

These installations needed to be hauled in trucks and re-assembled on site, which happened to be a big empty lot outside of Resorts World Las Vegas.

Carter worked on Transfix for four years leading up to the April 2023 opening, working remotely with team members from around the country. And as things started to become more of a reality, she felt even more excited about the potential.

“There [were] points during the project where I was like, ‘Wow, this is fucking amazing. I get to bring out all of the fucking artists that I love. I get to create vision for what their art piece actually has,’” Carter said. “Because a lot of the struggle that I was seeing with artworks that show at Burning Man or artworks that show at festivals is that it gets put into a backdrop, instead of the artist’s vision really shining through. And there’s a lot of really amazing large-scale works that need some quiet space, or they need a specific environment that’s designed for their work to shine.”

Many artworks were highlighted in their own individual spaces, such as “Point of View” by HYBYCOZO, the Los Angeles studio of artists Serge Beaulieu and Yelena Filipchuk. Photo: Kris Vagner

For Transfix, Carter designed what was essentially a labyrinth of beige shipping containers to create separate exhibition spaces, allowing visitors the chance to experience one piece at a time. It was a show she was proud of designing.

However, that passion slowly started to sour. She noticed that as opening day went from months away to weeks and then just days, people were frustrated and overworked, and leadership—who had not been on the ground at all—didn’t give staff enough resources to comfortably install the pieces or train people on how to display and discuss the art to visitors.

Carter herself had been so focused on installing these pieces over a month-and-a-half, that when she took a step back, she started noticing cracks in the façade, like maybe leadership hadn’t really thought this whole thing through. But, she cared deeply about the art and wanted to do right by all the artists involved, so she persisted.

“I think we made a really great show, but we didn’t have the time to build a great company,” Carter said.

And this is the reality that might have doomed Transfix.

The reality

On April 20, 2023 Transfix held a VIP reception to preview the show to a group of media and influencers. Organizers pulled out all the stops, bringing in the artists behind the work, inviting press and having DJ music blasting through the area.

One reviewer, who goes by Joe in Vegas Reviews on YouTube, attended this VIP show and had this to say about Transfix:

“They were showing you the full strength of this show. They had celebrities there. They had press there. They had real Burners (not actors dressed like Burners) that came, because these are their friends. These are the artists. … Everything was in full throttle; the DJs were full blast. It was awesome!”

But that was the night before opening. In that same video, Joe in Vegas Reviews had a different thought on the actual opening night: “I went outside—this is the next night, this is the official opening night, Friday night—and it was dead. There was nobody there. There were no beautiful people. There were no Burning Man dressed up people. I saw families wearing Disneyland sweatshirts. It didn’t feel authentic. It felt touristy.”

In the video, Joe said he was told tickets for Transfix were $25, which he said would have been an incredible deal for all the amazing artwork you could see. However, tickets were actually $70, and that’s a much harder sell.

Opening night at Transfix. Photo: Kris Vagner

Carter said the executives didn’t really think through the unique considerations of the Las Vegas market. For one, people have endless opportunities for entertainment in the city, and Transfix had little marketing or awareness built in before launch.

“I think our executive team just got really excited about the opportunity and the visibility, because we didn’t have a brand,” Carter said. “A lot of the immersive experiences in Vegas and in the United States have a name to them and have a story, and that’s why people go. We just didn’t have brand recognition, and opening up in this way, at this scale, without brand recognition and not advertising here is very difficult.”

At the same time Transfix was going on, Las Vegas had other interactive events people could visit, including the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit.

Carter said the executive team, based in New York, were also rushing staff to get things done in time, pushing them into working long hours with not enough resources. She would have liked to see the Transfix experience start smaller and then iterate based on what was working and what was not. She said it felt like the event managers were trying to force an immersive art event in a space that might not be right for it, and she wondered how attendance might be compromised during summer in Las Vegas, when nighttime temperatures can be in the 90s.

“I think having an outdoor experience during the summer [is] very, very difficult,” Carter said. “People that come to Vegas, especially as tourists do, they want to go out and party and listen to music and meet people. Walking around and looking at art is a note to their night, instead of it being their full experience.”

Tom Sepe, an Oregon-based artist and fabricator, was the technical director for Transfix. He has been installing and working on large-scale and public art projects for 20 years, so he’s seen a lot in his time putting together things like this.

He said it didn’t take long for him to see that something was very wrong with the way Transfix was unfolding, starting with short timelines. He said he ended up working 14-hour days for six weeks straight to install the more than 50 large-scale interactive sculptures on time.

“I did stuff with a minimal tool budget and minimum crew, and we crushed it,” Sepe said. “That could have been alleviated with a little bit more crew, but it was doable.”

Sepe is a go-getter, someone who finds a way to get things done. In fact, he said he often made trips to Home Depot to grab tools and bought his crew coffee and donuts out of his own pocket. But, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being asked to get all of this work done with no resources, while leadership was instead spending money on things that didn’t seem to make sense and went against Carter’s curatorial vision—things like VIP seating and a giant inverted pyramid, made of metal and tube lights, to use as a DJ booth.

Tom Sepe was concerned that he was volunteering countless hours in addition to the ones he was initially contracted for as a Transfix employee, which copious funds were being spent on ambitious undertaking such as VIP seating and a giant inverted pyramid, made of metal and tube lights, to use as a DJ booth. Photo: Kris Vagner

“She had a design for the whole show that got completely steamrolled by [the] executive team making changes and bringing in stuff that was more flashy or whatever,” Sepe said. “That big pyramid thing in the middle took up a lot of space and cost a lot of money.”

Through it all, Sepe said there was little to no communication from the executive team.

“I was never told what my budget was,” he said. “I was never given the information I needed. I was just kept in the dark and treated like a child. That was incredibly frustrating and incredibly difficult.”

What really did it for Sepe was when he heard that one of the original investors backed out, which caused Michael Blatter, the CEO, to release emergency backup funds to get everything done.

“Even at that point, I was like, ‘All right, well, you’re the business guy. If you think that’s what needs to happen, whatever,’” Sepe said. “I didn’t really think about it in terms of like, ‘Oh, they’re going to spend the money that’s going to make sure that the art gets returned to the artists contractually.’ [It] didn’t really register in that moment, but that was the moment when I realized the wheels were falling off the wagon.”

Blatter declined to be interviewed for this story.

This was all happening before Transfix opened on April 21, 2023. Even with these concerns, Sepe was still hopeful that it would work out.

“It was like, ‘Well OK, what’s the worst case scenario? The project doesn’t work out, we have to close the show, we take down all the art and get it back to the artists?’ There was not on my bingo card that the company would go fully belly up and leave everybody fucking stranded—or that I would get laid off in the process,” Sepe said.

That worst case scenario is exactly what happened.

The shutdown

Transfix shut down for good just 28 show days after opening night, on May 26, 2023.

“I walked off site when I was laid off and was done,” said Sepe. “I was injured—multiple injuries. I wore out my hip joint, I injured my shoulder, and it was not healing very quickly, and I was exhausted. I was spent.”

On Aug. 11, Transfix Productions LLC filed for bankruptcy.

The artworks were still sitting on the lot at Resorts World Las Vegas, and many of them were now considered part of the bankruptcy process, meaning Sepe and the artists who made them couldn’t touch them.

“Some pieces were able to get out before the bankruptcy lawyers came in and said nobody can touch anything because it’s all part of the bankruptcy filing,” Sepe said. “And then we were trying to contact the lawyers and say, ‘Hey actually, no, the art was all leased, and you need to release this.’ Resorts World locked down the site, wouldn’t let anybody come on.”

Resorts World Las Vegas did not respond to our email questions.

“The art was just left on site abandoned and the artists were never paid,” Meranda Carter said. “And then the artists were forced to fund their own de-install and [transportation] when they were promised not that.”

So Carter, Sepe and a few of their artist friends started a GoFundMe to raise money so that artists could rent the heavy machinery and trucks needed to uninstall, transport and store these pieces until they could be showcased somewhere else.

Tom Sepe helps uninstall “R-Evolution” by Petaluma, Calif. artist Marco Cochrane. Photo: courtesy of Meranda Carter

“At the beginning of this process, we had, I think, 28 artworks left on site, and all of them varying in scale, but most of them quite large,” Carter said. “So it’s not very easy to just be like, ‘Yeah, I’ll take it in my museum, or yeah, I’ll take it in my gallery.’ So I’ve been working very hard to try and find new opportunities for the artists.” 

A trucking company in Richmond, Calif. that specializes in moving large artworks, Artifact Logistics, owned by Oakland artist Sean Orlando, donated much of the transportation to remove the artwork from the site.

Artist Anya Zaytseva deinstalls her sculpture Honey Pot on in October. Photo: Brent Holmes

Carter and Sepe, despite having been laid off from Transfix, stayed in Las Vegas to help artists as they worked through how to get their stuff back, something they both did voluntarily. They weren’t paid to be there; they just cared.

“In the lurch of the bankruptcy, we’ve had to do so much work with a volunteer team,” Carter said. “I stayed in Vegas, because I didn’t want to leave the art. I didn’t want the art to be taken down by people that were unskilled. It could potentially hurt the people that are taking down the work, [if] they don’t know the custom nature of the work. It could potentially hurt the art, and I wanted to do right by the artists.”

On Oct. 17, Sepe posted on Instagram that all the art had been removed from Resorts World Las Vegas. He and his peers are still raising and using funds to help transport the pieces back to the artists.

 

Despite being injured and exhausted, Sepe said his negative experiences pale in comparison to the impact the entire thing had on artists like Tyson Ayers, who made artwork for Transfix and never got paid.

“Personally, I’m in kind of the worst situation I’ve ever been as an artist,” said Ayers. “I kind of bootstrap my way up into making this work, because I love sharing what I create, and I love people’s experiences of it, and that drives me to continue doing it.

Ayers wouldn’t give an exact number, but said he is in thousands of dollars of debt because of Transfix, more than he’s ever been in debt. 

“That’s a hard hit for me, having worked for 20 years to get to the point where I can pretty much do my art and barely scrape by, but most of my time can go into it,” Ayres said. “Now I’m looking at needing to spend my time doing a lot of stuff that’s not art to get myself out of debt before I can focus more fully again on it.”

Meranda Carter during the deinstallation for Illumina, by the Illumina art collective from Mexico. Photo: Meranda Carter

The silver lining for Ayers is the strength of his friendships and connections in the art community. To see people like Sepe and Carter volunteer and sacrifice their own time, energy and money gives him hope.

“I’m just hoping that somehow all of us artists being involved, and other artists like us, can continue getting to create and share our work in this world, because I think it’s important and can be a really beneficial thing for other people to experience,” Ayers said. “I’m really hoping to find a place to place my art in Las Vegas, so more people can get to experience it there. Not only would it save some money in shipping things back, but more importantly, it would just feel like it’d be an end of the story that I could feel happier about, I guess.”

Michael Blatter, the CEO of Transfix, declined to be interview for this story, citing the ongoing bankruptcy case, but in a statement said, “As much as I would like to share my insights about Transfix, I have been advised that it would be best to wait until the trustee completes the bankruptcy before sharing my thoughts and learnings. I can assure you that our entire team had the best intentions, and we wish things had worked out for the better.”

Cover photo: The lot outside of Resorts World Las Vegas during the deinstallation process for Transfix. Photo: Courtesy Meranda Carter

Posted by Noah Glick

Noah Glick is the Executive Editor for the Sierra Nevada Ally. He is an award-winning journalist, writer, and audio and podcast producer, whose work has been heard nationally on NPR, Marketplace, Here & Now, and more. He is a multiple regional Edward R. Murrow Award winner for his reporting on climate, energy, and housing.