Dance and Climb on a 17’ Tall Fractal Sculpture You Can Touch

Fractal Rock, which made its debut at Burning Man 2016, was designed out of complex mathematical algorithms.

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Sep 6 2016, 2:10pm

Screencaps and GIF by the author, via

Mathematics and the arts collide in what has to got to be one of Burning Man’s most interactive sculptures—the climbable, algorithm based, Fractal Rock. Designed using a combination of algorithmic Julia set fractal patterns, the sculpture stands 17’ tall and 15’ wide, with roots that stretch 11’ into the earth. One of the project’s lead designers, Pooja Shah, wanted to create a structure constructed from mathematical principles, but with the appearance of a natural organic object grown out of the ground. Burners, then, were encouraged to touch, climb, and explore the inner cavities of the sculpture’s ‘ossified helical’ frame.

Participants could interact with other festivalgoers inside the structure and look out at the rest of the Playa from inside Fractal Rock’s multiple elevated observation pockets. 

The sculpture is hard-coated in a layer of white fiberglass about a ¼ of an inch thick, with a surface texture similar to that of a rockwall, providing better traction for climbers. The creators of Fractal Rock claim that their sculpture provides a “new perspective on fractal art.” Shah first visited Burning Man right around the time she started experimenting with algorithm-based sculptures. She remembers experiencing art completely differently there—in a video for the project’s IndieGogo campaign, Shah describes her experience: “There were these massive shapes that were really intricately designed. And all of it was meant to be touched and climbed and danced around. I wanted to create that same sort of experience with these really complex shapes, and just scale it up.”

An interest in creating complex shapes using machines and technology led her to Stijn van der Linden, a.k.a., Virtox, an artist and designer who creates fractal shapes using mathematics and custom made software tools. The pair started experimenting with different software that allowed them to mathematically combine multiple Julia morph animations. In the IndieGogo video, Virtox explains that Julia set fractals are special for their multidimensionality. The artists used algorithms to wax and wane different patterns and develop them into three-dimensional shapes that they would then print using a Makerbot. Then they 3D-printed a series of miniature models, modifying their design until they landed on the desired shape. The team ultimately decided to construct the final piece out of high density foam, as it allows for the use of high precision CNC machines that can cut very exact shapes.

Fractal Rock was pieced together by cutting up the miniature 3D model into several individual pieces. Once on the Playa, the group put together the individual sections using an internal support structure to holds it all together. Shah and Virtox hope that the project inspires others to explore the power and beauty of fractals, and to incorporate math into artistic practice.

For more information about Fractal Rock, head over to its IndieGogo campaign page.

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