ORDER/SUBSCRIBE          SPONSORS          CONTACT          WHAT'S NEW          INDEX/SEARCH          HOME

The Leonardo Gallery

SEEMEN: Fire Seeds Art

by Kal Spelletich

© Kal Spelletich. Photo © Kal Spelletich.

Working with fire is like playing with a wild animal. It is quite mesmerizing, but at any second it can turn on us. Using fire as an art medium always has a certain unpredictability and risk involved. On the highest level, my artwork involves pushing the envelope between terror and play and seeing how much I can involve audiences with a medium that may kill them.

My art collective is known as SEEMEN. It was started in 1987 in Austin, Texas, and currently resides in San Francisco. We create performances and exhibits integrating humans and machines.

The kind of art I do requires large outdoor spaces and/or warehouses or very, very user-friendly galleries. We use machines and technology, interacting in close contact with audiences in a somewhat dangerous manner. There are few urban spaces where my art can be presented as a fully interactive performance piece. Burning Man has thus become the perfect place for my art because of the desolate, open expanse of the playa and the willingness of the Burning Man organizers to encourage the interactive presence of fire, machines and people. There are very few opportunities do this kind of art within an urban boundary.

In 1995, after my first contact with Burning Man, I began to think about my work and what I could do there that would bring people closer to fire as an art or existential/transcendent experience. To this end I have presented dozens of fire art pieces over the years, ranging from flamethrower barbecues, strip malls full of machines, robots and pyrotechnics to safely engulfing individuals in fire.

I have always been interested in reactive art, art that reacts to people. In 2001 I incorporated a series of medical sensing devices in the operation of my fire art. I created interactive works in which audience members volunteered to be hooked up to medical sensors so that the measurements of their bioelectrical activity would activate the art, creating a bio-morphic feedback between humans and machines. One of these medical machines (The Levitator) included a device that measured respiration; as the volunteer took a breath they were lifted in the air. Another was a breath analyzer hooked up to a turbine jet engine with an afterburner. In another case, I created an electro-cardiogram (EKG) installation, known as The EKG Ring, in which volunteers would sit in the middle of a ring of fire. We hooked volunteers up to the monitoring device, and the resultant fire would pulse in time with their heartbeats.

Fear of death has always been a major cause of social change, and challenging people's fear of fire is always interesting. One way I did this was with my Fire Shower. I built a spinning cage of fire into which an individual would step; the cage would then ignite and rapidly rotate around the participant. The 0-Gravity Chair allowed a person to sit in a spinning chair while a pair of flaming metal wheels spin around them on a different axis. These projects explored to what extent people are prepared to submit to external forces and how far they can allow machines or fire to intrude on their bodies.

It is one thing to watch fire art from a safe distance. It is another to be in the middle of a fire-art piece and completely surrounded by it. From years of shows, I have found that audience members are quite willing to put themselves in the middle of this dramatic convergence with fire. When they do, I see a complete range of emotional reactions, from sheer terror to absolute bliss. My interest is in inspiring people to face the limits of what they are capable of dealing with and inspiring them to go on their own journey. I have worked with interactive art since the 1980s, and Burning Man was and is a perfect fit for an art form that has very few fits. As for audience feedback, virtually all responses to my fire art at Burning Man have been very positive.

Kal Spelletich, kal at seemen dot org

Exhibition home

Gallery home

Updated 16 April 2007.

Leonardo On-Line © 2007 ISAST
send comments to isast@leonardo.info