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The Pyromantics

The challenge –> build a fireball spitting squid… 

A fireball spitting squid art piece.

I mean really…

So here I am in Vienna again – after so many years of being away (I stayed here for two months in 2010 at the MuseumsQuartier at the Quartier21 artist residency and built the prototype for Re-Collect). I have come with my husband for the metalab weekend retreat to Lindabrunn – a place that draws so many hackers during the World Cup. It used to be an old quarry for sculptors and now it is a place that people go to get away from the city and do projects, relax, and play. When metalabbers go – there are often blinky lights involved – flying contraptions, and...well... fire.

This year my husband Marius, and Amir decided they wanted to control fireballs with an arduinoAmir and Marius did a similar project last year that was more or less successful and they planned an upgrade for this year. Marius also took a fire workshop at Site 3 in Toronto last fall to help with the planning. He arrived in Vienna five days before me to start hacking – when I arrived the project was well underway. They started with a bunch of plumbing hardware (copper tubes), some solenoid valves, electronics, an arduino, stove starters, methanol, and those weed pressure pump sprayers. The idea was to robustly, and safely, connect everything together and then connect the system to a midi piano, map different keys to different valves, and then have a fire show.  Here's the schematic…

Schematic of the art piece.

Valve Piano

I bet you are asking yourself – is this safe – the answer is – yes?  If the system is designed properly it is safe – but as a safety precaution we are using a piano at the end of 30 meter midi cable to control everything – so if anything goes wrong we are in good shape. There are actually quite a few fire experts here – from fire-eaters to blowers and this is not the first time this has ever been done. (Disclaimer over and not revisited.)

We originally wanted to hook this up to a Leap motion – but sadly it didn’t work on Linux.

Sad Amir.

The piano does work – so that is good. When I arrived, most of the system was together in parts – as they were waiting for the valves, but the project was quickly coming together. In this picture – Amir is indicating how wide the spray is…

Happy Amir.

The idea is that the bursts of methanol are ignited to"little" fireballs.

Juli joined the team as well and we all went about working on our parts. I created a box for the electronics using the metalab's laser cutter – here is the pattern I used (PDF).


We also decided that the thing was kinda like a squid...


– and so to make the illusion more convincing, I made a ball head using a pattern I found on-line and laser cut it out of vinyl. I filled it with a strip of LEDs. The idea was to put the head on the base so that we would be able to sync the changing head colours in relation to the fireballs and music.

Glowing head.

I arrived in Lindabrunn on July 12, and Juli, Amir and Marius had everything set up – Juli even silkscreened some pyromantic t-shirts for the team! The sculpture looked super – the next step ->  sundown -> then fire!

Setup Setup


I am pleased to say the experiment succeeded – we had some great music/fire performances and the system worked flawlessly. 

Fire Fire

Fire Fire

Next year our goal is to add some LED arms to our squid that move around using muscle wire. We also want to start experimenting with higher pressure and we want more musical instruments controlling the sculpture. We also want to create an app so that people can trigger the flame from anywhere in the world…and…and…and…

I guess this is how Burning Man started. A few creative hacks with fire and the next thing you know there are tens of thousands of people running around the desert making and then burning sculptures.

Jane Tingley is an Assistant Professor in Hybrid Media in the Department of Fine Arts and teaches classes at the University of Waterloo on the main campus and the Stratford Campus. Her work combines traditional studio practice with new media tools - and spans responsive/interactive installation, performative robotics, and the creation of a gestural game. Her current artistic trajectory is interdisciplinary in nature and explores the creation of spaces and experiences that push the boundaries between science and magic, interactivity and playfulness, and offer an experience to the viewer that is accessible both intellectually and technologically.

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