Burning Man 2013 Honorarium Project / Impossible Triangle Now Made Possible

Assembling the Penrose Triangle in the City of Boston

Last night, the Penrose Triangle was installed on the Boston Common as part of the city of Boston’s First Night New Years celebration. After it’s round trip from the desert, it definitely needed a lot of work to get it to the point where it was ready to be displayed to the public. The paint had to be touched up to fix damage caused by climbing participants and general wear and tear associated with it’s shipment. Some wiring and lighting had to be repaired and/or redone. Additional measures had to be taken to enable the triangle to seal and protect the electrical systems so that it could sustain display in the unforgiving Boston winter. Surly Blake  spearheaded efforts to get it prepared and by last night, all systems were go.

In order to minimize work done on-site, Surly hauled the triangle to the Common in four parts. The triangle itself was carried in three cube (highlighted here in yellow) and arm assemblies. Additionally, the base was carried partially assembled in one large chunk.

Earlier in the day, John Dill and Jaykob Fenwyck helped get the first two arm/cube assemblies and part of the base in place on the Common. Later on in the evening, it was Hooch and  my turn to help transport parts and complete the assembly. One last arm/cube gets loaded on to the back of the trailer.
A quick stop on our way out of Somerville for some fuel and a few stares and we are on the way.
Apropos of nothing, Surly really knows his way around the Boston area. He managed to get us to and from the site quickly and smoothly.
After arriving on site and getting the keys for the forklift from our First Night contact, the first step was to take the arm/cube that was sitting on the ground and get it hoisted into position.
It was a bit tricky, but we made do without incident. Hooch and I were able to manipulate the second arm/cube and bolt it on to the first arm/cube that was already assembled on the base.  Surly handled fork lift duty.
I encountered my own set of challenges as I was the most apt/willing to climb the structure under on site. Safely secured in the shop ooooooorrr soaking wet in the driving freezing rain, what’s the difference, eh?  I elected to go up. Here I am removing the strap from the fork lift after we’d fastened the second arm/cube into place.
We gave up even trying to stay dry early in the process as we trudged through the inches deep rain and mud that pooled around the area of the park where we were working. I don’t think I’ve been out in that heavy of a downpour in a very long time, let alone spending extended periods of walking and working under those conditions. Next step, tightening and finishing the base assembly.
AND IT’S UP!! Well, almost. Getting the third arm/cube assembly in place was a harrowing experience. Hooch stayed at the bottom securing the arm by a few bolts, Surly operated the fork lift and I stayed at the top of the one assembled arm wrestling the entire third arm as it was lowered into place. The fork lift is not forgiving and after a brief scary dance with that last arm and gravity, I placed all the last bolts securing the arm.
Tightening bolts, trying to keep a steady stance on the wet pipe while getting good leverage.
SUCCESS! Those are two pretty happy Blakes right there.
Surly hooked up the power and after some tense moments with an entire arm not lighting up, the last arm came to life. The work is far from over. There are still a few snags so another visit by the electric team is in order. For now, things are in good shape.
So. Much. Rain. Did I mention, it was 35°?
I’ll never get tired of observing this thing from all angles. There is an added joy being able to see the triangle assembled in the city.
So, so cold.. We’re ready to go home.
So there you have it, The Penrose Triangle now sits on the Boston Common in preparation for a city of revelers.
FIRST NIGHT BOSTON here we come!
It takes a lot of people to get this project going. Engineering, fabrication, electrical and programming teams. We’re all incredibly excited to share this project fully assembled for a home town crowd. I’ve learned a lot in all those disciplines while being involved in this project and I take a lot of pride in my role in the media department as well as doing my part in some of the final stretch grunt work that it’s taken to get see the team’s vision fulfilled. Please come to the Common between now and New Years Day to see our crazy project on display blinking away in the City of Boston!!!

Lighting and Infrastructure Into the Wee Hours

At this late hour, the Penrose Triangle team is hard at work on a number of infrastructure needs.  Previously, the work on the base was in full swing. With most of the main components of the base worked out, the base arm of the triangle sits bolted into place. The two side arms are resting on the side, waiting to get fit with lighting track and wiring.


Each section needs special attention with respect to the kind of wiring that needs to take place. With the bottom/base arm and one of the cubes in place, the team makes sure that the transition between the track on the cube and the arm are smooth.


Here you get a good look at the base and see how exactly the triangle will stay vertical and stable. The sculpture could stand on it’s own  given it’s geometry and foot print, but the playa conditions, wind and climbing participants require a far more stable footing. The white line you see scribbled on the steel base in the photo below is the level at which the playa will be. The rest will be buried underground for added stability. Note also that the beams on the floor only follow the form of the base but do not include all the cross beams as indicated on the foot layout plan. That is part of the work going on right now. Much grinding, much welding…


You’ll also notice (apart from that beautiful white powder coat!!) the aluminum track in the side. All of the lighting strips will rest in this track. IT COVERS EVERY SURFACE! Seriously there is a lot of lighting on this thing and as such, the track is set on most surfaces at specific angles to maximize the lighting effects.  Those strips of white material in the background is just some of the heat shrink that will be needed to reseal every LED strip once it’s been cut to the appropriate size. There are a lot of ends to tie up.


Here is the site of one of the junction boxes that will live in the corner of each of the three cubes.  There are so many details on this sculpture that will go unnoticed because of the way it’s designed.  This spider web of cable will be hidden within seamlessly constructed junction boxes. Delivering programming and power to every light is going to take a lot of wire:


Steel tubing does not come with neat little holes for wires. Every place where a plate hits the pipe has to be drilled out to allow the wiring to go through. Here are we see a section of plate welded and powder coated, the hole is then drilled and deburred. Finally, wiring is fed through:


Here’s a strip of lighting attached to one of the custom circuit boards detailed in my Light Hardware post.  Right now there is extensive testing on the wiring and power strategy on the structure. After every member section is wired up, it has to be tested before replicating on all other analogous parts. This is one of the strips getting ready to be hooked up.


A closer look at one of those custom circuit boards in action.  That is a lot of soldering for what amounts to one the end of one lighting strip among so many.


As the wiring and testing continues, problems arise. Strips don’t work as expected, don’t work to satisfaction or just don’t work period. Everything has to be tested and corrected before it can be implemented throughout. One cube receives a massive amount of attention and testing before the team can move on. A cube sits in the back, waiting for the Ok while Dewb works out the kinks with Drew’s helpful advice:


Meanwhile,  Surly addresses the power situation. All those lights are not going to light themselves. Making do what is available. If it doesn’t work, figure it out, make it work:


As I was walking out the door, I was working out some details of our camping situation with Blake Courtney (OH YEAH, EVERYONE HAS TO FIGURE OUT HOW THEY ARE GOING TO LIVE OUT THERE) . I have the luxury of getting to step back and work out my personal situation while the rest of the team continues to work on this. While chatting with Blake, testing continues  in the background. Suddenly one of the strips that is half draped along the top of a corner of the cube fully lights up. Blake gets a big smile on his face and exclaims “There’s lights on it!” I started laughing loudly. I thought I was laughing with him, but he wasn’t joking.  He says “No seriously, after all this time, I can finally see some light on that thing. I don’t care that it’s just sitting there.”  That sort of snapped me back to the reality of this project. It’s been a long time and taken a lot of effort to go from a small plastic sculpture to an idea to a large, hand made steel sculpture. Every new milestone is an achievement. Lately, the pace has picked up as the base is built out, the structure is powder coated, lighting is independently tested and finally mounted to the sculpture. It’s good to see it happen step by step and I am very excited to see the vision realized in such grand detail.  I get the sense that this will be my favorite art project on the playa. I hope and I am sorta banking on the idea that I won’t be the only one to feel that way.  A lot of people at home and abroad have contributed with advice, kickstarter donations and nose-to-the-grind-stone labor. I can’t help but think, personally, that this thing will not let them down.


Like every other night as of late, the work continues. There is a lot going on at this moment and the work continues as more people from the community and assorted friends and family show up to help. Tonight’s going to be a(nother) long night…

Lighting Hardware

In the Kickstarter video, Blake (Hooch) mentioned that the Penrose Triangle would be lit by individually addressable color changing LEDs. This facet of the lighting will aid in creating some interesting visuals, not the least of which is creating effects that will bring out the illusion of an actual penrose triangle. This lighting set up creates a whole host of electrical and computational challenges. While the Blakes have been handling the structural set up of the sculpture, an entire electrical design/hardware team has been keeping pretty busy. The set up of these lights is such that it requires a lot of custom wiring and circuit boards to get going. Here are three renderings of just one of the types of circuit boards being made:


I stopped by the Artisan’s Asylum the other night to check in on Jacob and Dewb as they started laying out all of the lights and building these circuit boards now that they’ve been manufactured and delivered. Here’s one side of one of these boards:


It’s worth mentioning that these boards are only about one and three quarter inches long and one and a third inches wide. The team has a lot of soldering to do on these boards:


The triangle will be lit by 24 five meter strands of color changing LEDs. When I stopped in, Jacob and Dewb were affixing the strips of LEDs to a single bar. This enables the lighting team to connect the lights and start running their programs while the sculpture itself continues to take shape.


There are 120 meters (nearly 400 feet) lights on this table:


A few comical trips up a shaky ladder type situation and the lights are hung!


Dewb connects one of the strands to test a rudimentary lighting protocol. As you can see, the strips are hanging from a pretty high ceiling but there is still quite a bit more LED strip spooled on that table!


It worked. All hooked up to the computer and it’s time to move on to some more software and wiring configurations. There was a good bit of progress but even at 3AM, there was another detour before breaking for the day.


The Artisan’s Asylum is an invaluable source for the kinds of collaboration that this project needs to succeed. However late at night, there is always a good chance someone with experience will be around to provide some much needed expertise. Here, Drew helps guide Dewb through the design of yet another wiring configuration/PCB board design:


After a lot of discussion about needs and available resources, the guys settled on a strong footing for the next PCB board design. A quick cell phone snapshot of the white board and that’s a wrap for the night.

Climbing the Penrose Triangle

The third arm is in place and the structure has been assembled for the first time. It is now a (nearly) freestanding object. You’ll note the stands holding the base of the cubes in this shot. The floor of the shop is not perfect so it still requires some custom stands to secure it while it’s being worked on and actually CLIMBED!


Part of what makes this project interesting for me is the ability to interact the piece in a physical way. I’m pretty excited to be one of the first few people that have gotten to go up and into the Penrose Triangle. It’s a very cool concept and design but there’s only so much you can really get by looking at scale replicas and exploring the 3D models.  You get a real sense of it’s gorgeous lines when you start walking around it for the first time.


Predictably, my first question when I walk into the shop and see it standing is “Can I climb it!?” With the all clear I start going up. It’s amazing to feel the strength and stability of the triangle while being surrounded by such smooth, winding  curves that one doesn’t normally associate with words like “rigid” or “safe.” The multiple foot holds and places to lean provide assurances all the way up.


The cube at the apex of the structure is held by arms coming from both sides. It’s a bit unnerving at first to see one side of the support twist out from under you on one side, but that’s part of the fun. You come to have a quick understanding of the structure by devising climbing strategies along the way.


I really enjoy seeing the way the arms go out in one direction and then wind down and back in towards the cube at the bottom. It has a crazy roller coaster kind of character from certain angles. It appears as though the arm is leading you up, down and around a bend as you follow it’s curves. Very cool to climb up and look around to find those odd Seussian lines.


Having looked at the renderings and the models since the beginning of the project, it’s rewarding to actually get to replicate some view that you could only get from the small scale renderings. A top-down view of the 3D print:


The same view from atop the structure:


As a side note, the precision of Penrose Triangle’s construction is evident all around at every weld and every beam’s curve. That said, nowhere did it come into such focus for me as it did in seeing how close the very top of it is from the ceiling of the shop. That is a tight fit!


So there you have it. The project has reached an important milestone but there is still a lot of work to do. The smooth shape and solid renderings make it easy to forget that it takes a lot of little details and printouts (2D and 3D!) to go from a model to a standing structure. A print out on the floor of the shop laying out beam members: 


So far the team has gone from an object in modeling software to the 8″ 3D print:


Into this 17′ climbable physical THING. Here, Blake and Josh talk about the project’s needs and the welding that needs to take place:


So much welding


That’s it for now. It’s been great watching the progress of the full structure’s build. There’s still a base that needs to be made and lighting and electronics and and and….  The ability to touch, interact or climb art is what sets Burning Man apart from a typical experience with sculpture and art in general. This particular piece is beautiful in it’s own right but the prospect of climbing and observing the Penrose Triangle from all sides is going to be a special experience for anyone who dares scale it. It is very friendly and easy to climb so it will be great to see so many people being able to enjoy that aspect of it as well.