The sound of explosions and the sight
of fire and smoke in the evening sky drew me closer. "What the hell is
going on?" I thought, as I made my way through the crowd of people
gathered around some kind of performance. What I saw was a battle between a
remotely controlled machine spitting fire and another machine that looked like
a small army tank with a huge claw on the front. This was the performance of
SEEMEN at Burning Man ’99, a
festival of art and self-expression held in the Nevada desert each year.
This is a genre of art that has yet to be adequately named. It combines
computer technology, robotics and mechanical engineering to produce kinetic
art. The SEEMEN group, consisting
of about 40 artists and extreme technology inventors, is among a small number
of artists creating in this field.
Perhaps the best known of the "Techno-Performance" artists is Mark
Pauline who founded Survival Research
Laboratories in the San Francisco area in 1978. SRL builds incredibly
dangerous machines that attack each other in public performances. An SRL show
is not like the cute little "battle-bots" TV show. SRL’s Pitching
Machine, for example, launches 6 foot-long 2 x 4’s at 120 miles per hour with
a range of about 800 feet. It has an automatic loader that holds 20 boards and
is powered by a 500 horsepower Eldorado engine. Another machine, currently
under construction is powered by jet engines.
Self-destructive art like that produced by SRL is not a totally new concept.
Perhaps the father of this idea is Gustav Metzger. Born in 1926 he developed
the concept of auto-destructive art in the 60’s and 70’s as social
commentary on the destructive forces in society. He began with paintings using
acid on nylon so that the painting dissolved before your eyes. He developed the
concept on paper of sculptures that would disintegrate during the course of an
exhibition and other self-destructive art ideas that, for one reason or
another, were not allowed by the museums he hoped to exhibit them at.
As new technology is developed, artists get a hold of it to see what can be
done. The advent of easily affordable computers and robotics has allowed
artists to experiment in the area of automated electromechanical performances.
The Amorphic Robot Works
Performance Robotics produce shows where the performers are robots.
In another vein, the Large Hot Pipe Organ
is the world’s only midi-controlled propane explosion organ. It has twenty
vertical steel steam pipes with propane injectors that are controlled with a
computer. It weighs 11 tons and can be heard easily over 2 miles away. You can
hear an MP3 of the LHPO at their web site.
At the Burning Man Festival there are several artists exploring the use of
technology to create art. From the L2K Array, a 500’ diameter circle of 2000
computer controlled lights, to the Laser Man, a huge outline of a figure
produced by lasers, it is an ideal environment for grand techno-artistic
One of the more spectacular techno-performances at Burning Man is Dr.
Mega Volt. He wears a special suit and has a large truck with two giant Tesla
coils on top. His performance consists of being zapped by hundreds of thousands of volts of
I have always had a boyish fascination with art and technology (especially
if it involves fire and loud noises) so this kind of art is a real thrill. That’s
why I just bought myself a MIG welder for Christmas. The fun is about to begin!