Art and Technology Go Together Like Tang and Tequila at Burning Man

By Whitney Phaneuf , written on September 7, 2012

From The News Desk

Two incredibly long dust storms, a 10-hour exodus, and three long showers later, I'm physically back from Burning Man. Mentally, I’m still in the temporary city that rises from the northern Nevada desert each year the week before Labor Day.

My white MacBook is tinged brown with dust despite staying in a backpack and plastic bag for most of the week. I ditched it in favor of a notebook, which I carried with me as I biked and walked the five-mile-wide city in search of the best technology projects. Sometimes I lost my way. Sometimes I couldn't find the person I wanted to interview. Sometimes I took a swig of a ridiculous cocktail like Tang and tequila and let the experience take over. Here are my notes:

One of the most ambitious projects at Burning Man this year was Project: Blue Sky. Led by design and prototyping expert Dr. Mike North as part of his non-profit ReAllocate, Blue Sky offered burners a chance to come home with a mini-3D figurine of themselves, about the size of a plastic toy soldier.

Here was the concept: Participants entered a shipping container, were scanned by 3D capture software, and left with a GPS-enabled necklace. A few hours later, the necklace glowed to indicate a mini-quadcopter drone would be swooping in from the sky to drop off their 3D prototype inside a padded capsule. When participants returned the necklace, they would be interviewed for a documentary about the project.

It was late in the week, Friday afternoon, when I found Project: Blue Sky to check on its progress. At that time, only one prototype had been successfully created and dropped off by a drone. Not to be discouraged, or perhaps seeking shade, about 20 people sat waiting for their turn in between the project’s two storage containers, one where people were scanned and one where the prototypes were being created by 3D printers donated by Cubify. I didn’t get a chance to meet North, whose day job is Chief Technology Officer of San Francisco-based iPad & iPod kid gaming startup Nukotoys, but I heard the project’s power supply had been hijacked by a nearby RV. Yet another reason for those of us sleeping in dusty tents to hate RVs.

Every year since 1995, the Burning Man organizers have chosen a theme that serves to inspire the art and frame the experience. It was clear from the lack of artists responding to this year's chosen theme, "Fertility 2.0," that no one really understood it. Opalessence was one of the few art projects that got it, building an egg-shaped sculpture at the foot of the Man like an offering by the Greek god of fertility Dionysus to Zeus. It served as a climbable, geometric jungle gym by day and stunning swirl of a light show at night.

One of the project’s artists Evelyn Atchley, a graphic designer, told me Opalessence’s architect Ian Shewring spent about 110 hours designing the piece, comprised of hand-cut wood.

“The lattice structure is based upon the Fibonacci Sequence and the Golden Ratio. Like an actual egg, the structure could withstand a decent amount of force as the force would distribute across the piece,” says Atchley. “If I remember correctly, the total is over 2,000 compound cuts, and each row was unique. Our engineers figured out the angles for each triangular gusset.”

If the Louvre moved from Paris to Las Vegas, Opalessence could be the glass pyramid. The name Opalessence may have been a reference to the way the sculpture's LED lights pulsed vibrant, changing colors. Dance parties surrounded it nightly as its 10,300 LED lights flickered through programmed sequences that highlighted its intricate detail. The LEDs were soldered onto 1,400 feet of wire, all attached to the structure with velcro so it could be removed for daytime climbing and play.

We can thank Idaho for Opalessence, nicknamed Space Potato by the volunteer designers and builders who created it. It was one piece among many wooden sculptures placed around the Man, each built by a different community from around the world. The Man is the physical and spiritual center of the event. Before he burns on Saturday night, the sculptures surrounding him burn on Thursday. That night, Opalessence disappeared into the dust and now lives only in memory and images. That's a huge aspect of this ephemeral place: the letting go.

Serial entrepreneur Rob Lord, currently at work on the private beta of social subscription service, returned to Burning Man for the third year with Billion Jelly Bloom. A project co-founded with his artist wife Patricia Lord, Billion Jelly Bloom turns the night sky into a sea of glowing jellyfish.

Comprised of studio lighting umbrellas and foil ribbon wrapped around an LED flashlight, bright light pours from every tentacle of the jellyfish. Dozens of volunteers lift the jellyfish into the air with 15-foot-tall sticks, and walk with them all night, moving the stick up and down to give them their undulating, swarming effect. This year, the LED flashlights changed from white to blue to red and synced to the electronic beats of select dance clubs and mobile parties known as "art cars." Like many art projects that don't get set on fire at some point in the week, you can experience Billion Jelly Bloom at music and art festivals year round.