L2K Ring Project
by Tim Black

Tim Black, L2K, LEDs and programmable lighting, 2000.
(©Tim Black. Photo: Timothy Childs.)

Tim Black, Ship to Ship, LEDs and programmable lighting, 2002.
(©Tim Black. Photo: John Wendt.)

The Mad Scientists are a group of San Francisco Bay Area artists and engineers who have created several large interactive art installations for Burning Man. Among our recent contributions to Burning Man were two large scale installations, L2K (1999) and Ship To Ship (2002) both which were lighting projects designed so their final lighting outputs were controlled by Burning Man attendees. In the first installation, participants pushed buttons to control the lights, in the second it was the sound of their voices that controlled the art.

L2K, or Lights 2000, is an interactive installation first exhibited at Burning Man in 1999. L2K explores the feelings of scale and the contrast between public and private space while creating a vibrant image of the effect of 2,000 objects. Evoking a "wheel of time," the effect appears as a series of patterns of light that race around a circular track, creating a feeling that something is moving at great speed. We placed the L2K installation around the central Burning Man sculpture.
The project consists of 2000 orange light emitting "pods" mounted on the ground in a huge circle. The fact that the pods are on the ground means that they define our sense of place and space as if they were a physical boundary. Light patterns start as pre-programmed sequences and are modified via interactive control panels holding a total of 2,000 push buttons. This invites live participation by visitors to directly control the L2K patterns. People pushing the 2,000 small buttons in the control tent could look out the door and see the effect of their actions written across the horizon.

Installing the ring components into the L2K display required a shallow a 600-ft-diameter trench to be dug in the dirt of the playa. Hundreds of people helped on-site to lay out and connect the 2,000 ft of wiring harness and to plug in 4,000 wires from the pods to the harness.

The L2K ring project explores many limits of human perception. The lights could stay fixed, or change 2,000 times a second. L2K also played with one’s sense of scale. The pattern Buffer Lounge offered a small, intimate setting allowing users to play with the buttons, walk across it easily and see the whole thing all at once. The big ring encloses the space of four football fields. Standing close to the work, one had to look around to see it all; from far away one's sense of distance became confused. The microcosm and the macrocosm illustrated on the dirt of an empty desert. L2K is a piece that because of scale, time and distance plays with the edges of human perception to evoke feelings of wonder that cannot be reproduced. One must experience it in person to understand. (I really like that about it).

In 2002 we did the "Ship to Ship" project. This project created the experience of sending a message to another planet (ships in the night) with a flashing light. The experience had three parts: recording, approving, and sending. We had two recording booths at a central location. Nearby there was a master control room where three (random) people voted to authorize transmission.

The beam shown in this photo was the most visible part of the project. A laser-like white searchlight beam, (from an M60 military tank) was modulated to produce peaks of 100 million candlepower. The beam modulation is obvious, a simple mapping of a person's voice directly to the brightness of the beam (like AM radio, but with arc light as the carrier wave). The spotlight was bolted on top of a satellite-tracking mount and pointed at stars that were selected when the messages were recorded. Four Linux computers on a WiFi network managed the system. Over 600 people recorded messages and 420 were "approved" and transmitted to chosen stars over the spotlight beam. While no one expects a reply, the photons will be travelling through space forever. Who knows what end awaits them and the messages they carry.

The Mad Scientists have worked for months before each Burning Man event on these projects and also given time to manage them in the desert. My deepest thanks go my fellow madmen for services above and beyond the call of sanity.

Tim Black
21392 Madrone Drive
Los Gatos, CA 95033


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