The Planetarium On The Playa (or my Bok Globule saga)

  Part of my Burning Man experience this year was my involvement with a major Playa project, a deceivingly small golden bump in this years panorama.With no claims implied for completeness or due credit to the efforts of people mentioned and unmentioned, I offer glimpses of what happened in this project from my admittedly limited perspective. A good piece of my Burning Man experience this year was my modest role in this intriguing project, where I tried to work with motivated people to create something cool.
This year I wanted to participate more in setting up the kinds of things I admired in the past. I submitted a design for one of the multiple observatory stages below the man (not picked, but at least I tried). Among some helpful communications with Maid Marian a prospect for a mural emerged but the logistics gap was apparent to me and I had to regretfully wave off on that possibility. I then heard of an art project sent from heaven as far as I was concerned, a dome on the Playa with wide angle projection as used in modern Planetariums.

The guiding lights behind this Dome on the Playa were Leo Villareal, lighting artist, and Carter Emmart AKA Mistress Barbie who works at the Rose Center in New York City, David McConville who builds custom projection setups, as well as 'LVT' Dave Kennedy, who built the dome.

  Carter is a fellow space artist who has like myself moved almost entirely into the digital realm. He specializes in the real time oriented presentation methods, and in the course of his career at the Rose Center Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural history, has become among its most accomplished and informed presenters. Carter refined the interface and data presentation methods in his role in the team which produced the NASA funded 'Digital Universe' software package. As a government funded effort it is freely available here. This package excels in providing the ability to do 'live' movements through the 3D data sets of stars, galaxies and quasars. 'Real Time' methods can work well for reacting to questions from the audience in educational settings. Because of the ability to respond to the whims of the live presenter and to audience queries no two real time shows are exactly alike. The methods of real time presentations are largely descended from flight simulators. One can 'fly' through three dimensional digital models as in a video game. Earlier in the year Carter gave a presentation at the Rose Center in for visiting Larry Harvey, Marian Goodel and other dignitaries of the Burning Man organization, who were justifiably impressed. Ladybee of the BMOrg than approached Carter about providing an immersive full dome projection experience at Burning Man 2004, asking "Can you bring what you do to the desert and make it into an art piece?" Carter later admitted he needed 'Like a hole in the head' but with the help of several dedicated individuals it was coaxed into being.
  My personal interests in dome projection stem from my career creating 'pre rendered' animations using labor intensive methods for digital Planetariums. Cinematic presentation techniques such as pictorial composition and camera moves are used to present subjects like planetary flybys, nebulae and galaxies. The appearance of these things are crafted based on my work as a painter of such subjects over the decades, with digital methods now used. Some of this work can be seen here.
Real time presentations wave the banner of spontaneity but they also shoulder the burden of operator or software related idiosynchrosies absent from a refined pre rendered production. Compromises in model and texture complexity required by having to render a scene many times a second results in a several year gap in the appearance of a scene requiring detailed views of complex models, however for relatively simple rendering jobs such as star fields and simple graphics there is now no difference in visual quality.

 At this time Carter and I represent a significant portion of the current work being done in our respective aspects of modern Planetarium visuals. Sometimes in industry forums members of both 'camps' in the Planetarium community have a tendency to good naturedly deride the other because of the sense that their method inherently results in superior shows. The fact is for some situations either one may be used to better advantage. Perhaps the race for quality between these methods continues to their mutual benefit, and indeed both methods are powerful applications of modern domed theater display systems.
   The work of several people to create a 'Planetarium dome' converged as the festival approached. Burning Man provided funding and David McConville basically donated the use of the computer graphic projector and a good fish eye projection lens for what amounted to the cost of transportation. A variety of visuals were prepared or made available for the week on the Playa. Movies with space or 'immersive abstraction' themes were brought by myself, David McConville, Bruce Damer, and Greg Downing provided other movies, fisheye panoramas, and we even had colorful real time screen saver visuals which looked great when projected wide.
A tragic prelude to this Dome on the Playa was the untimely death of LVT (Leave It To) Dave Kennedy, who succumed to a heart attack August 12 while finishing the dome we would project in. It then stood in his yard for a few days before being released by relatives to other affiliated Burners to pack up and ship to the event. The outer layer was covered in a a thick fairly reflective gold fabric, with a weblike array of lights built by Leo Villareal strung across the outer surface. These lights, a stupendous amount of work in themselves, would blink in a pattern reminiscent of a neon sign, in theory signalling its presence far and wide when shows were being given. Attached to the inner layer of the metal framework was a fairly loose parachute like layer for the projection surface.
  Inside during the day it was frequantly cooler than the bright windswept Playa outside, and indeed through out the day the dome, christened 'Bok Globule', became a kind of refuge to people needing shade or sleep.
I had earlier during a series of phone conversations with Carter adopted the project of making a sign for Bok Globule. A lot of work kept me from actually painting until I was on the Playa, ironically enough. I brought all the materials I needed to paint on a thick black illustration board with visible light and 'Black Light' florescent paints. I had purchased the board and some of the florescent pigments literally on the way out to the event. I had also brought a portable Ultraviolet light to paint and hopefully light the sign by.
  Late Monday after setting up camp I walked over to Tethered Aviation and ran into the usual suspects, quickly getting directions on exactly where the Bok Globule was. Barbie (Carters playa persona) appeared, and soon we were trying to plan out what needed to happen for the project in the near term. I delivered a series of disks including samples of my animations, some still images, and a few commercial DVD's I thought worth trying out on a dome. One DVD I brought with this in mind was 'Illumination', a very nice visual work by old friend Ken Jenkins. I thought the circular kalaidascope like format of some of his material might look good on a dome with its dynamic nature despite the limited image detail for this intended use.
  David McConville, whose 'ellumaniti' company makes special venue projection effects, provided the PC with twin graphics cards and a computer graphic projector married to a fisheye lens. Carter created the crate for shipping and holding the optical assembly. DJ James Healy brought a sound system and his CD collection and went to work sorting out the music and attending to the technical issues of his aspect of the presentation.
 Tuesday I tried to make myself useful during the late construction phase, helping to carry things inside including the crate protecting the computer. The dome was nearly complete Monday night, with only its stubby cylindrical base left unassembled. In order to get the dome on top of this last component a crane would be necessary, and by general agreement the current structure was then deemed sufficent. This left a dome with only fairly short triangular openings, all but one which was sealed up. I assisted Barbie in tying off the bottom perimeter across the dome. (The usefulness of more than one exit never occured to me at the time.) I also assisted in preparing the gray foam crate liners to be used as cushions over the plastic tarp floor. These were unrolled and meticulously felt over by several people to find and remove the remaining sharp metal staples within. The 'Zero G couches' inside were also covered with the foam padding and used primarily on the outer edges at the 'rear' of the dome.

  I then spent a couple hours Tuesday night painting a sign for Bok Globule, despite the steady gusts. I was actually able to use the consistant wind to secure the art to the side of one of our cars! I used a gas lamp and ultraviolet light to paint by, alternating between them so the work would look decent in both lights I hoped it would be seen with. While not a great work of art the 'Bok Globule' sign manages to convey the spacey-psychedelia mood I intended. My small portable UV light was originally going to be mounted on a junk tripod I brought to illuminate the work.

   I then walked back to the Globule, without the art because of the violent dust driving winds, and upon arrival I saw the final preparations for 'First light' when the projector would be inaugurated. This marked a milestone in the efforts of dozens of people, many of who were present as the inner dome was first projected upon. The quality and brightness of the projector was surprisingly good, all factors considered. The fisheye lens clearly showed every pixel in the 1024 by 768 image, and on my suggestion the lens was later very slightly defocused to make the black fine grid bordering each pixel less obvious. The projection surface turned out to be fairly good, and in fact the balance of the moving imagery which consisted of bright dots over a black background succeeded surprisingly well. The screen fabric was hung by 'Paperboy Dave', who unknowingly participated in a minor miracle at our camp a few years ago when he delivered items we had specifically wished for! After a quick run through of the Digital Universe data set the Dome was shut down until the next evening. It seemed likely at the time all of us who brought visual material would be ready to do shows by the next night or two. Buoyed by this early achievement, I wandered off to enjoy the cool breezes and do some sightseeing. There is a lot to see at Burning Man, even from far away the colorful luminous neon draped tent city throbs like vast Victorian machines chugging and echoing against each other across the surrounding darkness.

  Wednesday gusty winds complicated every plan. When the 'white out' inducing dust storms seemed to calm down I grabbed the Bok Globule sign and hurridly carried it out to the golden dome, rolled up and aligning it continuiously to slice through the air like a wing so as not to act like a sail and get damaged. The gold fabric covered dome was a prominent landmark by day, and in a comparitively empty part of the Playa and walking there from my camp site took perhaps 20 minutes in good conditions. There was no crew there when I arrived a little before sunset, and I left the sign, my 'junk' tripod, and the portable UV light on one of the large crates along the 'rear' of the theater hopefully out of harms way. There were several people laying around inside, one of many groups apparantly using the dome as a refuge from heat, and at times from prying eyes. 'Bok Globule' became a 'crash pad' and even a 'Pleasure Dome' by day, with thankfully minimal impact on the equipment for the night time shows laying around unattended.

  A couple hours passed berfore I visited the Globule again and found a show in progress. Sitting at a tiny desk next to the crate holding the projector and computer, Barbie narrated and guided the presentation of the Digital Universe to an enraptured audience. Dozens of people lay across the floor like sardines lined up in a can, propping their heads up with knapsacks or simply laying on their backs looking at the ceiling. An introductory tribute to LVT Dave was given as a fisheye lens image taken of him a couple years previously was shown. I also appeared in that image. Somehow it was spooky to see myself up there under those circumstances as if on some tomb ceiling.
The show would begin with a view of the rotating Earth oriented to show the Black Rock Desert, which actually stands out from its North American surroundings quite strongly from space. As Barbie manipulated our viewpoint using the computer, Earth would then dwindle into the distance, with the orbits of the planets gliding by from below us to also form a shrinking tiny ring as we backed away from the Solar System at magical speeds. The stars would then begin to drift among each other in perspective, still bearing their imaginary connective lines within each constellation. Since the stars in each constellation group are not physically grouped but are composed of stars of greatly different distances, most of the 'connective' constellation lines formed a 'spiked' pattern radiating away from the Sun, which itself was soon lost to view among the thousands of stars in the 3D data set.
  Barbie would often pick this or that familiar constellation and line it up behind the Sun so it would appear more or less in our perspective as it does from home, then change the perspective to reveal the arbitray alignments in stars forming familiar constellations. If a Zodiacal constellation was mentioned someone in the audience would often chime in indicating such Astrological affinity, as if it was like being in a favored team. Apparantly a lot of people there believed in Astrology, which I regard as a relatively harmless delusion compared to a lot of belief systems in circulation. Sociological implications of wide acceptance of Astrology deserve consideration, however it would be difficult to attempt to grapple with its apparant embracing out there and there was no attempt to do so.
 Continued speeding away from our immediate stellar surroundings crowded the local mapped stars intto a small oval cloud in the distance, where a graphic of the spiral pattern of the Milky Way appeared. The Milky way galaxy was then revealed as one of many mapped in galactic sky surveys. Aside from the Milky Way and a few close neighbors galaxies were mapped as dots, with clusters of galaxies and intriguing suggestions of a kind of cellular distribution of matter in the largest scales mapped.This imagery looked particularly good on the dome, and people reacted audibly to the simulation of being carried through virtual 3D space with foreground and distant components. At last the Quasars, brilliant active galaxies whose heyday was when the universe was young, appeared. The outermost boundary of the observable universe, defined by the evenly turbulent afterglow of the Big Bang about 15 billion years ago, appeared as a spectrally colored lumpy pattern mapped on a sphere of appropriate radius from us. Barbie eloquently described the fact that other observers who may exist near the 'Big bang distance' from our viewpoint would themselves be inside a 'time sphere' with the present at their location and the infant universe taking place where we are, due to the speed of light delaying the information travelling in either direction. People were given an intuitive grasp of the scale of the universe which they spoke widely of in their later travels. Thereafter there was always a line to get in when shows were happening.
  There were technical issues which required improvisation as we went along. The crate containing the computer and projector was originally sealed from the enviornment with the expensive fisheye lens projecting through a plexiglass dome covering the lens and the hole in the wooden crate. This dome had to be periodically brushed off as dust unevenly accumulated. Inside the crate the temperature grew to the point the projector electronics would shut down, and a wait would be required before trying to use it again. The dome was removed allowing hot air to rise out but thereafter the computer was subject to dust accumulation. Shows could then be conducted uninturrupted, although the cumulative elements were to take their toll before the event ended. Unfortunately other animations were not loaded into the computer as planned and it was increasingly likely they wouldn't be. Barbie didn't want the computer crate opened, although later I gathered there still seemed some possibility the CDs I brought might be loaded during a period of maintenance before the week was out. The movement of people in and out of the dome was hindered by having only one entrance, it would have been better for those inside to not have to step between people laying on their backs the entire width of the theater to come and go. Another door would have also introduced problems as well, doubling the requirement for volunteers at the door to regulate traffic in and out of the dome.

  Thursday I passed by 'Bok' again when darkness fell, finding nobody there. One could never be sure of what would be taking place when arriving, and the logistics of getting to tethered Aviation to try to coordinate things with others proved intimidating on foot. The potentual for sharing others visuals in shows had by then dwindled to nearly nothing, but it was clear the enormous problems being dealt with each night forced reappraisal of what remained possible.

  Friday I showed up well after nightfall to a dome with shows in progress. There were people in line outside and I waited until someone left before I ventured in. Standing near Barbie I saw a show just ending and people getting up to leave. After some room was freed up people began moving in, filling up the floor space like those before. this was the night it all began to come apart. I sat down in the console seat as a show ended and inquired about other material being shown. Nothing but Barbies stuff was going to make it on the dome, and even this content was falling victim to the stress of the enviornment.


 What I thought was a momentary occupation of the console suddenly became an unplanned shift change and I was suddenly facing an audience alone with with nothing to show. I filled time for a little while with my green laser and a glass I had brought which made intriguing shapes when a beam passed through areas of dramatic refraction. With the help of the DJ I was able to get a few minutes of entertainment out of this, warning people not to look at the glass in my arms, which was sending beams into the audience, but at the projected image above them.
Thirty years ago I was playing in just the same way with the bulky red lasers of that time. Subsequent generations of laser show designers tended to concentrate on rapid scanning of line drawn images, while the fantastic largely random beauty of unevenly refracted laser light has remained largely unfamiliar to live audiences. I called it quits before the act got too old. The general agreement was there was no reason to remain and the equipment was being shut down for the night.



  The Playa took its toll on much of what we tried to do, but the determined efforts of those involved resulted in three good nights of shows being presented to up to perhaps three audiences each night averaging perhaps 60 people each. The fluctuations in scheduling known as 'Playa Time' resulted in uncertainties of when shows were to happen, indeed over different nights one might see this or that key personnel absent upon occasion, at other times the same people would work on with fanatical energy until falling asleep at the console. Saturday the functional aspect of the Bok Globule underwent its death rattle, vocalized by the generator expiring after someone had put too much oil in it. Apparently the dogged efforts to save the declining situation cost several Bok people to miss seeing the Burn from nearby. During my visit in the crazy chaos after the Burn I heard the overtaxed generator just outside roaring in distress, and the projector had become ominously dim. I tried to be supportive on this night of nights, however the deteriorating situation rendered academic any future plans for projecting shows. Later the event originator, Larry Harvey, and some BM dignitaries visited Bok Globule, unfortunately only the dead generator and fried projector and the presumably apologetic crew present were there to greet them. In a way I wish I was there and in a way I'm glad I wasn't. As it turned out Bok Globule was functional for basically half the event, which under the circumstances was really not too bad. Many people were given shows which profoundly affected them.

 Later after the event spirited private discussions took place and numerous issues connected with the experience were aired. Upon weighing the wider pattern of activity one would have to conclude that however irregularly realized, for those three nights things indeed worked. 'Bok Globule' met its advertised expectations early in the event, while several huge projects were still struggling under dust bowl conditions to pull themselves together. The audiences were blown away and 'word of mouth' factor was obviously very active concerning the Planetarium on the Playa. Many more than who actually saw shows heard about them, bringing a nearly constant stream of curious to the dome as night fell. I saw many such people while arriving at nightfall hoping to find the crew there.
I repeatedly saw the dome used as a refuge for people for escaping the elements, for smoking pot out of sight of the the prying eyes of the BLM goons, and as a place to be intimate with one another. Sunday I went inside to grab my fluorescent light., ignoring a couple laying together in close embrace. By the time I returned to check on other possible arrivals I noticed, upon sufficent dark adaptation, they were well into the throes of sexual ecstasy, and I beat a hasty retreat. Much later, after the temple Burn, I returned hoping to retrieve my disks of animations from the locked computer crate, but nobody was there. A pen and some paper were available and I wrote a message to future arrivals asking that the materials I had brought be sent back to me. I had to get back to camp and get to sleep so I could get out of there early tomorrow. I finally did get my disks back.

 All the work I saw or heard of to build and operate 'Bok Globule' was in a way a microcosm of the magnitude of work which took place across the Playa over that week and often far beyond. There must have been hundreds of projects equal to or exceeding the labor involved in my local center of activity. I can't imagine the tasks involved in something like the vast 'Lush' camp with its artificial palm trees and elaborate scaffold construction from which a 5 watt green laser scribbled across the skies at night, or a dozen other major installations which were prominent landmarks in themselves. The more elaborate the theme camp, the more time is required to assemble and break everything down, upon occasion including things like giant tents, sound systems, massive lumber constructions and scaffolding and giant props. Many people involved in such projects are obligated to the work involved as well as the maintenance of the necessary continuous functions with little time to experience the event as a wanderer. In an ironic development in the evolution of a Burner the more you participate the less you experience. I imagine the trick is to balance the needs and ones desires and have at hand enough reliable people to get things done. One has to try to plan on some things going wrong and try to allow for resources to deal with some possible crises, and have the flexibility to work with whatever is left after the scope of what you planned is no longer possible due to fate. I'm sure people who regularly work on major theme camps could write volumes on the logistics involved. Lessons from the past and Great Dreams for the future interweave in several minds at this time with new ideas for the Playa along these lines, but on a grander scale.

Don Davis


December 31, 2004