Every year at the end of August, tens of thousands of people swarm into the Nevadan desert to form the anything-goes steampunk 'civilization' of Black Rock City for Burning Man. Known for— among other things— being an incubator for incredible high-tech art projects, while the yearly arts and culture festival has it’s own glossary as well as a list of ten guiding ‘principles,’ as with any city, it’s meant to be experienced. With a plethora of art installations, and even its own Department of Public Works, their website admits that, “trying to explain what Burning Man is, to someone who has never been to the event, is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind.” Or, explaining steampunk to a bunch of insects.
Perhaps, then, the best way to dig into the upcoming phenomenon is to investigate its premiere artworks: set to debut on August 25 in Black Rock City, Shogyo Mujo is a collaborative installation between artist Joshua Harker and designer Bart Kresa that reminds us of these projection mapped Mexican gods, in the best way possible. Featured as part of the Caravansary theme of this year's Burning Man, the two have spent the entire past year collaborating on the 30-ft projection mapped skull, despite never meeting in person.
Out of the 60 honorarium installations at the festival, Shogyo Mujo is perhaps the most technologically-complex. Veronique Pittman, a community organizer in the arts and humanitarian fields, and the instigator and producer of Shogyo Mujo’s Kickstarter campaign, explained, “The piece brings together the work of Joshua Harker, his deep knowledge of the human form and Bart Kresa, one of the worlds most respected, visually engaging projection mappers. Hours of artistic content will animate every part of the skull, symbolizing our hopes, dreams, imagination and our spiritual connection to the universe.”
It all began with Harker’s original project, Crania Geodesica: Illuminati, which first premiered at the La Calaca festival in Mexico. Part of a Dia de los Muertos celebration, at that point, standing 8 feet high, the humble paper skull was illuminated with an original, self-produced illustration by Harker. A talented multimedia artist, Harker has been at work connecting 2D and 3D worlds for some time, spanning mediums including (but not limited to) forensic software, projection design, and 3d printing. It's all in a day's work, though; Harker currently holds the #1 most-funded sculpture project in Kickstarter history.
The other side of the project comes from projection mapping extraordinaire Bart Kresa. As the Founder and Master Projection Designer at BARTKRESA design, Kresa holds 23 years of industry experience in illustration and technical direction. Producing large-scale digital environments for grand architectural spaces, his firm constantly collaborates with design teams around the world.
Combined with Kresa and his team's support, Harker’s installation will be realized by 8 projectors on top of 4 towers, providing a 360-degree projection mapping experience for the 4-story tall muslin sculpture. And if that’s not enough of an ongoing spectacle, the piece is set to culminate in its own immolation to symbolize the release of its spirit, and the ephemeral nature of all life.
Shogyo Mujo is set to open as an integral part of the Black Rock City art festival on August 25th. We spoke to Bart Kresa and Joshua Harker about the project:
The Creators Project: So, what first attracted you to skulls?
Joshua Harker: It's just such a historically intriguing and powerful image. The root of my fascination is likely in the obvious connotations with mortality… not in a morbid way, but in regards to the human experience. I've studied anatomy in both artistic and scientific depth for years now, and have an affinity for the beauty of the skull, specific and limitless metaphor associated. Much of the sculptural work I've been doing for the last few years has been more about reinterpreting form and incorporating various technologies as a medium. In this method, the subject is actually secondary in the process for me, versus the more classical approach. I can't really think of a better sculptural symbol than the skull, so it's become a standard for me to play with.
How did your initial installation develop into the current piece for Burning Man?
I did my very first projection tests on one of my paper models, but the first full realization of the piece was at the La Calaca festival in San Miguel De Allende, Mexico, last year for Dia de Muertos. That's where I met Veronique, and started collaborating with her. I built an 8-foot planar sculpture of the design, and created an animation sequence for it that I mapped and projected. In preparation for the possibility of Burning Man, I revised the design into a construction based on its geodesic vertices, and edges. Using this new design, I recently built a new 8-foot skull for the Bedford Gallery's "Skull Show". The piece was made using 1/4" dowel rods, skinned in fabric, and projected upon – very clean. I just completed another slightly larger, temporary outdoor public installation in Seattle's Carkeek Park using found sticks from the area. That piece was not skinned or projected. The naked geodesic frame is very cool, and worthy of it's own presentation. The change from planar to a vertices, and edge construction is what's allowing for me to build this at such a large scale.
Bart, what did you first think about 3D projection mapping a skull?
Bart Kresa: We typically project onto large-scale architectural surfaces like palaces, and stadiums. When Veronique approached us about doing a project at Burning Man last year with a skull, I felt it was an interesting opportunity to map something from 360 degrees. I loved the concept, and we discussed doing it last year, but there wasn't enough time. I am very excited the Burning Man organizers approved the project this year, and happy at the attention it’s received so far even before the festival.
So what does the title, Shogyo Mujo, mean to the piece? And how did it come about?
Joshua Harker: The title came from Bart's camp. It's Japanese for one of the 3 marks of the Dharma, which states that all things are impermanent. This couldn't be more appropriate for the overall concept of the piece, which represents our physical state as a temporary vehicle for us to realize our higher selves. The sculpture represents the physical, and the projections symbolize our imaginations, hopes, and dreams. The burn at the end represents the grand release of the spirit. So, what's left of us after all that, either metaphorically or literally? I believe what carries on is found somewhere in the sharing of the best of ourselves… that is what this piece is ultimately about.
The concept of the work seams oddly versatile. From the Christian roots of Dia de Muertos to Burning Man's spiritual desires, it transitions between worlds, events, cultures and dogma. Would you describe the piece as 'universal?'
The concept is overtly spiritual, but despite the name, it's not based on any particular religion or ideology, which I guess is what you've already said. I'd hope that the piece speaks for itself in some kind of universal language but I'm going with "monumental burning portal between 4 dimensions" as an elevator speech.
Bart: Yes, I believe this installation is quite universal. People are often afraid of skulls but with a celebration like Dia de Los Muertos there is something to be said about the idea of remembering those who have passed, and acknowledging the entire history that existed before us. In that sense the skull concept can be very universal. As an artist, my hope is to bring people together in peace and love by projecting amazing imagery.
Where does your piece diverge most from Joshua's original?
This project is all about collaboration. What I love is the freedom both Josh and my team have to create & design the imagery. Josh and I regularly Skype to get on the same page about the latest developments. He shares his work on the sculpture, and I share our projection designs.
Joshua, in the first conception of the piece, what role did technology play?
Joshua: Originally it was just an exercise in simplifying the form into a geometric shape while maintaining its identity. I had created a very realistic skull that I've used as the base model for my 3d printed filigree skulls. I worked that model backwards into a planar geodesic representation. From there I created a 2d pattern that I could cut & fold out of paper back into a physical 3d sculpture. This ended up being profoundly useful in the process of jumping back and forth from a 3d virtual world into reality one. Particularly in that I'm also going back to 2 dimensions to create the images used for projecting onto a 3 dimensional objects. So I look at all this technology as a bridge between the 2D, and 3D. Bringing animation into the loop allows me to start experimenting with the 4th dimension (time) as well… especially when you bring an event or performance experience into the realm of an installation.
How do you see digital technology as shaping the significance, or meaning of this piece?
Bart: The skull is like our canvas, projection adds a way to make it come alive and create that extra layer of audience engagement. By using multiple high power projectors to project bright and colorful high resolution images, we have the ability to change the tone and theme of the imagery throughout the duration of the event. I think this piece is significant because it shows we can create amazing installations in the harshest environments. Setting up to run a dynamic installation for 7 days in the harsh conditions of the desert is quite a challenging feat.
Has the environment and scale of Desert Rock City affected the design of the project?
My challenge at Burning Man is primarily environmental; we have tons of experience projection mapping onto all types of architecture throughout the world, but we’re typically in clean, controlled, environments with easy access to large amount of power. Creating a 7-day installation in a very harsh desert environment with limited amounts of power is a challenge in itself.
Joshua: Besides the obvious technical aspects of the design and construction due to scale and environmental considerations it really has affected the way I consider presenting an idea, particularly to a large audience. This has taken my work beyond the physical piece into creating an experience. I'm on a much bigger artistic playground in that respect.
What type of imagery will be projected on the skull? And what has inspired the projections?
Bart: We are creating a variety of themes for the event, from traditional Dia de Muertos illustrations, to dynamic designs based on fantasy, and organic designs based on nature themes, and material generated by my team, which consists of amazing illustrators from Japan, Poland, and the US. The designs are customized to the very specific dimensions and contours of the skull. Our inspiration comes from everywhere, my travels, and my discussions with Josh.
And how do you hope people respond?
Joshua: I would hope it genuinely touches people and that the level of exploration, excitement, and enthusiasm we've put into the project is evident & felt as something real.
I want people to come away from the piece with more of an experience than simply as a witness. I want to show people things in a delightfully overwhelming way allowing them to feel larger than life and small at the same time. There's a lot going on at Burning Man but I'm hoping to tap into that part of the audience's mental capacity. This is the right time, place, audience, and piece to make that happen.
Bart: I hope people enjoy it as an art installation, with the hope that they experience a true sense of awe seeing it in such a unique location.
Finally, is this the last we're going to see of Shogyo Mujo?
Joshua: We'll see… there's already talk about other installations possibly incorporating different subjects & themes, but this one is special & will be unique unto itself. In a further attempt to bridge 2D, 3D, & 4D I'd like to spin the actual physical sculpture while matching the mapping to it while it's rotating. There's significant technical consideration in doing that so we'll see if an opportunity comes up for such a project.
Bart: My hope is that new iterations of Shogyo Mujo can travel the world at events similar to Burning Man.