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!!!

Penrose is in the Commons

One of the exciting parts of a Burning Man project is the challenge of installing the work in the middle of a desert.  This evening, we learned first hand that Boston offers just as exciting challenges.  Surly, Jacob, John Dill, Ronny, and I each spent a few hours today in 37°F heavy rain, fumbling with bolts (and it Ronny’s case climbing).  Now, I am delighted to say that thing is sitting in Boston Common!

When I first moved to town, almost eighteen years ago, I took a long walk through the Common and Garden, and recall being surprised by the lack of modern art.  There are plenty of bronze statues, including adorable ducklings, but nothing that, in my opinion, provokes interpretation.  I never would have dreamed that I would have had a hand in doing something about it.

Here’s about the most pleased or wet you’ll ever see Surly or me.

Thank you Solar Snow Koan

We had a little problem with our solar supply chain at the last minute, which meant we might have to cart our batteries all over the playa to charge them or deploy a smelly, noisy generator.  Thanks to the excellent networking skills of Terry Dovidio,  Snow Koan Solar came to our rescue, supplying us with these handsome panels and a charge controller.

Here’s Adam from Snow Koan, doing the installation for us.  Thanks so much guys.  It still amazes me that this thing was powered directly from the sun.

Installing the Electrical Boxes

In perhaps the most nuanced GIF of the series, here’s half the crew, doing the things they do.

Dewb’s in the foreground, fussily trying to cram everything into one of the boxes.  For a variety of reasons, they boxes were much tighter than anyone would have liked.  Dewb persevered for what seemed like days, but made them work.

At the far side of the base, Surly attaches a box while Jesse feeds him the right fasteners.  It is very important to feed Surly the fasteners, or he will reject them and toss them wherever he sees fit.  You can make a small fortune following Surly around with a magnetic rake, FWIW.

At the top, by now I’m sure you’ve noticed Ronny doing something sketchy.   However, on closer inspection, he is just taking a sip from his water bottle.  Damn you Ronny, I thought I had something to tease you about!

One more shot, mostly of Surly.  I have no idea what operation requires a long screwdriver, impact wrench, ratchet driver, spanner and a pry bar.  Oh, right, the electrical boxes didn’t fit around the bolts when assembled.  I wonder who designed those.  Anyhow, Jesse seems impressed.

The Floof

All placed art at Burning Man starts with a floof.  I think they called it a floof.  The floofs are constructed out of some sort of old CD or DVD (this, IIRC, is a Microsoft Developer kit of some sort), along with a long (roofing?) nail, some pink plastic filament, and a special clip that holds the filament to the nail.  I haven’t been able to determine the normal use of either the filament or the clip is, which is kind of exciting.

For Honorarium projects, the artist must hammer in their own floof.  I can’t immediately recall the name of our placer and her friend, but here we are, placing the floof.  The floof isn’t just a practical way to mark a location; it’s also the groundbreaking moment on the construction of the piece.  It’s good that you see me working so hard to hammer it in in this clip, as the team will tell you that this is the most work I did on the project.  Ah hahahah.

Notice how empty the playa is!


Well, everybody, we made it.

I’m still coming to terms with what has been an incredibly moving and humbling experience.  We came together as a team and completed the project on time with great camaraderie.  Not everything worked out perfectly, but we plowed through the issues with a resolve I’ve never seen in an all-volunteer art project.  The piece was incredibly well-received, and we were flooded with positive feedback.  Thank you everybody who supported us in so many ways.

Here are five of the core crew, clockwise from left: Dorothy Bassett, Surly Blake Courtney, Jacob Fenwick, and Michael Dewberry, with me in the center.  Jesse Campbell, Ronny Preciado, Ben Lewry, Dan Strange, and Nathan Lachenmyer we also invaluable on early crew.

Photos courtesy Jacob Fenwick (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=937162716743&set=t.688015566&type=3&theater)


Load ‘em Out

The main difficulty with big art is moving it around.  Surly and Jesse’s forklifts are handy in the shop, but they can only get us so far.  It became clear that we would need a shipping container to get our piece to the playa, and Peter Durand added us as a forth community container from the Boston area with its own separate logistics.   The Penrose project would manage the container.  Last Friday, Freddy from Manchester Freight rolled in with this beauty:

The Penrose project only needed about a third of the container.  The remainder of it went to the community, many of whom were also working out of Surly’s shop.  Packing everyone in would take more planing than usual:

On the left are the Kaos maze frames, on top of which there are bikes and other oddly shaped things.  Then we had two sets of 4′x8′ shelves, using the Boston containers’ shelf design as a template.  Next came the arms, which would get screwed into plywood.  Finally, Blakes art cars, with a shelf and the arm cubes on top.

Shelf building is a de rigueur part of container loading, and the shareholders couldn’t resist coming early to move, saw, and screw wood:

Kaos loaded in the maze frames on Friday, so packing on Saturday went quickly.  We saved some time at the end and scheduled the container for a 6:00AM pickup Tuesday morning, which meant we got to pull an all nighter packing until then.

Kendra celebrates having finished tetrising the Penrose arms, all three of which are packed here:


I left at 5:00, when all that was left was Surly’s crap.



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…