The Leonardo Gallery

Lotus-Land, or the Water Lily Ballroom

by Paul Cesewski and Jenne Giles

© Jenne Giles. Photo © Loretta Wilson.

A cold night on the playa is warmed by the glow of torchlight. The flames flicker and illuminate the alkaline dust like moonlight refracting through water in the shallows of a pond. Bright light and a flash of heat, and Lotus-Land erupts in fire. Great balls of propane fire mushroom up, igniting the sky from towering water lilies, lotus flowers and cattails (the latter contributed by Tim Anderson). Lighting from below reflects off the silver lily pads back to the ground. The torches atop the flowers flicker in the wind. The effect is like moonlight refracting through water. From the buds of the flowers, a blossom of fire erupts, sending an undulating current across the lakebed floor. Event-goers are transformed into little koi fish swimming in a vast underwater garden. This is the illusion we aimed to create on the parched lakebed of the Black Rock Desert.

It was at the fanciful wedding reception of mutual friends that the concept for Lotus-Land originally started to take shape. Inspired by the reception's music and dancing, we hatched a plan for a fire-belching underwater ballroom. Seen from above, the Ballroom would be laid out in the shape of a heart.

We settled on Lotus-Land for the name of our water lily ballroom. The fire-spewing flowers accompanied musicians and singers, offering crescendos of crazy trumpeting sounds. The ornate art deco flowers were reminiscent of lavish ballrooms of years past. Lotus-Land is a reference to a chapter in Homer's Odyssey referring to the land of the lotus eaters, where Odysseus's crew rested on their journey homeward. Intoxicated by the fruits of the island, they forgot their worries and responsibilities and were tempted to remain on the island, forsaking their families and duties back home.

Each Lotus-Land flower was equipped with a fire cannon. At the top of the flower, a propane torch provided a pilot light to ignite the compressed gas. Each night the pilots were ignited using a lighter at the end of a long stick. A large electric valve released propane gas rapidly. Ignited by the pilot light, the gas created a spectacular burst of flame. The wires and pipes for the fire cannons were plumbed through the stems and out the base of the flowers. All these wires and pipes were buried underground and ran to a control box, which housed the computer.

Rudy Rucker, Jr., and Rafael Nuñez designed the computer-control aspect of the piece, some of the parts of which came from a local recycling center, while others were purchased from an electronic components distributor. The chassis for the system was an old stadium light fixture. This was picked because it would hold the guts, be dustproof and let people peer behind the Wizard-of-Oz curtain. Running on a salvaged laptop with a text-based menu system, Rudy's program offered pre-set modulations or real-time control of the flowers. Also, the software could be set in “chime” mode and would blast every 15 minutes and on the hour. Various patterns would flash on the screen to indicate the output of the program. The serial port of the laptop was connected to the bigger electronics. A small board decoded the computer signals and modulated small relays. These relays were not large enough to handle the electricity for the valves. Our solution was to use the smaller 0.1-amp relays to activate much larger solid-state relays capable of switching 10 amps each. Nuñez created an elegant (and working) display of wires. In the end, the press of a button could trigger blasts of electrons to the control valves in various patterns.

During the Burning Man event, the sudden blast of the propane fire cannons would startle event-goers. Often, the valves would stick open after the blast, catching the flowers on fire. We would yell, "Kick it!" People had to race from flower to flower, kicking the stems, in an unexpected game of flower soccer.

Such fertile creative environments as the San Francisco art community and the Burning Man Festival bring together like-minded mad scientists and artists for the love of big, ridiculous art. No other place in the world offers the opportunity to create on a giant’s scale, giving visitors the illusion of being so small. Burning Man is truly a place where humans can feel both their small scale and their infinite impact on a wide world. With the Lilies, we kept it as simple as we could and learned the power of coming together as a community to accomplish the improbable.

Contact: jennegiles at monkeybrains dot net

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Updated 13 April 2007.

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