Making Things out of Fire

Last week I helped to crew a large piece of fire art called 2πr at The Crucible‘s Fire Arts Festival in Oakland. G4 TV did a segment on the show, and that’s me in the spiffy black coat, trying to come up with equally spiffy comebacks over the WHUMP! of our sixteen flame geysers.

All of the art at the festival is what might be called “home made.” It more or less has to be, because there isn’t really a category for “consumer fire art.” Every piece at the festival was there by the love and ingenuity of its inventor-artist-builders. This is fun, but it might also represent an important do-it-yourself philosophy, a technological anti-consumerism.

Just to be clear, I did not conceive, design, or build 2πr. That honor belongs to Nicole Aptekar, Reed Kennedy, and Mella Piercey. But I work with them as a member of the Oakland arts collective Interpretive Arson, and I’ve been involved in making or running a number of different arty, firey projects (such as the infamous Dance Dance Immolation). Judging by the huge number of other projects at the Fire Arts Festival, and the even more widespread attendance at the annual Maker Faire DIY technology expositions, I am far from unique in my geeky, makey proclivities.

If technology is one of the major sources of power in the world, then it is vital that we make it democratic. Technology demands specialized knowledge and experience; it is usually seen as something belonging to an elite or privileged cadre, something not the concern of the average citizen. In reality, technology is easier to learn about than it has ever been, stupendously hackable, reasonably cheap, and lends itself to entire subcultures of experimentation and play. And I think we really want and need our modern citizens to play with and learn about technology. Although technology has not universally been a blessing, ignorance of powerful things is far more dangerous than their knowledge.

Is throwing huge plumes of fire into the night a part of this? Most certainly yes! When I’m not just going WHEEEE! I see at least three interesting lessons in the tale of the Fire Arts Festival:

First, fire art is is real technology. It requires computers and software, pushes the limits of DIY manufacturing techniques, and must be designed and constructed with real engineering, because compressed flammable gasses are none too forgiving of sloppiness.

Second, the very notion of do-it-yourself fire art for public consumption can challenge the way we think about safety, responsibility, and risk. In the first world in general and in the litigious United States in particular — a country which suffers not only from an overdeveloped sense of tort law but also from  liability concerns arising from lack of universal health care — we tend to believe that it is someone else’s job to keep us safe. To a certain degree this is true, and that’s why certification and regulation and signs that warn us about high voltage can be a good idea. But ultimately the responsibilities and tradeoffs of safety and risk must be personal, and the process of designing and building a fire toy for the general public to play with makes this stunningly clear. Likewise, the act of playing with someone else’s dangerous game can lead you to think carefully about why you should believe that this or any other activity is safe — and whether it’s ok anyway. Like traveling to a different country where the citizens have made strikingly different risk tradeoffs (and you can ride on top of the trains), interacting with dangerous art pushes us outside of known territory, forcing us to become aware of the millions of safety choices that have already been made for us.

Finally, art is an end in itself. I once heard a critic of 60’s counterculture quip, “is face painting and free dope the best that they can offer?” I think this critic lived a joyless life. Yes, the democratization of technology is an important effect of “maker” culture. But that’s not why we do it.

Community Then and Now

The notion of community is changing, or perhaps community needs to become a notion. It used to be that community came for free. It was something you were born into by virtue of geography or biology, village and family. But now all the kids have moved away from their parents; now the subdivision has replaced the neighborhood. If we want community now — and of course we do — then we have to make it ourselves.

Continue reading Community Then and Now