Fire Science at Burning Man

Article by: Graham Berry|@Festival_Writer

Wed August 13, 2014 | 00:00 AM

Every year a remarkable number of larger-than-life art pieces make their way to the Nevada desert, all with the simple purpose of participating in the colossal art show that is Burning Man. It’s at this time that weary travelers can look upon these creations and ponder the questions of life, love and their innermost desires. Many of these attractions wow us with their sheer size or intricate design. Others amaze with applications of technology never considered before, but sometimes—every so often—the bar is raised artistically or scientifically. Over the last few months Patrick Shearn and Cynthia Washburn of Poetic Kinetics have been working on an art piece that promises to be one of the hottest experiences at Burning Man in 2014.

Burning Man 2009 Poetic Kinetics Holding Flame

Photo by Petrina Robbins

Fire in Balance is based on technology developed by Poetic Kinetics from an honorarium grant from Burning Man in 2008 for Holding Flame. Located at 515 and C, this next generation piece will similarly be the sort of art that derives its beauty, wonder and charm from the science that made it possible.

Described by Patrick Shearn in the video above, as “a mesmerizing liquid caramel silk sheet aurora borealis” of fire, the show put on by Fire in Balance will be an enormous platform with a metal fabricated façade. The box ceiling contains two large vents that pour propane into the structure. Upon ignition that gas wants to rise, but it can’t. It’s trapped. As the fire reaches for oxygen it pushes along the ceiling reaching and stretching to find another breath. As a result, the fire “inverts”. The gas pouring in displaces the oxygen so rather than pushing upward as a flame normally would it spreads and bursts into fractals that come to life as they catch the breeze that pushes through the steel edifice. To take the experience to another level Fire in Balance also presents a sensual swimming pool-sized ball pit with glassy clay-balls that are rumored to provide an unforgettable immersive full body massage.

As with many other feats of science and art on the Playa, one of the markedly exciting parts of Fire in Balance is that it has been largely designed and built by local Los Angeles artists. The team at Poetic Kinetics certainly provides the genius and scientific know-how for inverted fire to be conceptually possibility, but it’s the hard work of the community that actually makes it happen. Some lend a helping hand on the weekends and others donate to the online campaign for some of the sweet Fire in Balance memorabilia. Perhaps the most rewarding quality of participation in projects like Fire in Balance is the chance to be a part of something that sparks our natural human curiosities. In signature Poetic Kinetics style, this particular experience transcends the boundaries of science and art. For many at Burning Man this year, it may even send preconceived notions of distinctions between them up in smoke.

Graham Berry is a marketing freelancer, writer and fanatical audiophile focused on sharing his love of live events and the magic of music festivals. He is currently working with Tixr - an event-ticketing platform specializing in artist tours, festivals and concerts.