Fire-spewing Burning Man art to expand minds of Oakland students
By Lou Fancher Oakland Tribune Correspondent San Jose Mercury News
Don Cain, metal artist, photographer, maker of ginormous projects like the supersized "Tricycle" and "Fish Bug," and Aaron Scott, metal fabricator of a giant flaming horse car named "Chester," have an annual conundrum. What do you do with a massive, incendiary sculpture after it flaunts its stuff at Burning Man?
A sculpture graveyard or a scrap heap are two answers, but this year, an Oakland continuation high school principal with a passion for turning kids on to the wonders of metal has changed the prognosis for their "Mens Amplio," which is Latin for "expanding the mind." The 15-foot-tall steel brain, which is adorned with LED lights and spews fire controlled by a headset connected to an EEG reader, will be "born again," when plans to erect the monumental structure at Oakland schools come to fruition.
It all started with a casual comment from Ralph J. Bunche High School Principal Betsye Steele, who has an ongoing relationship with American Steel, where Cain and Scott work on their projects. Scott said the administrator "mentioned how great it would be for her students to see it."
That changed everything.
"It developed legs of its own after that," said Cain, who designed the brain. "Frankly, it solved the problem of this thing you love becoming a giant pain."
But the road to salvation was long and required a team of experts. To construct the outer head shell, Scott -- who believes that art viewed from behind velvet ropes fails to engage -- fabricated a custom mandrel bender to fashion the curvaceous tubes. Precision was everything: A friction-causing error could make the machine tear itself apart and the 16,000 pounds of compression released could be "exciting," Scott said. It also had to be portable and easy to reconstruct with simple tools. "We have to wrangle it up without heavy equipment because schools don't have cranes," Cain said.
The sculpture breaks down into two 7-foot-square "nests." A first attempt to reconstruct one brain hemisphere took eight hours and was twisted. Now, the team is down to a one-day sculpture setup, one-day electronics schedule. "I visualize it in a gymnasium with teachers talking about psychology, physics, electronics, math and engineering. It's the rules they learn, but in a real life application."
Raspberry Pi, a small computer the size of a 3-by-4 photo with the power of a Pentium II, sequences the LED animation. When a participant's brain waves shift from meditative to active, a light display moves from warm (red) to cool (blue) and an internal loop Cain installed can trigger a fiery "wake-up call" to deep meditators. Cain admits, knowing how it all works is a minor mystery, even to him.
He enlisted computer programmer Sarah Tappon and lighting designer and electronics expert Brian Krawitz to handle the more technical aspects of the project.
"I put out feelers and got experts in turning brain scans into images before I even proposed the project. Speaking will effect it, I do know that."
The interactive nature of simply creating "Mens Amplio" is perhaps the most vital lesson Cain and Scott intend to bring to students. The two men's eclectic backgrounds (military brat, photography junkie, Master's degrees, television-less childhoods with old cameras and hand drills as entertainment) are just the tip of the team iceberg, which includes brain imaging specialists, computer programmers, lighting designers and more.
Steele said meeting leaders in a working environment and discovering how they work together touches the spirits of her mostly 11th- and 12th-grade students. "Our kids have to have things that catch their attention. Industrial arts opens a whole new scene and gives them ideas about careers."
Cain agrees. "There's hope of planting that seed of creativity. If even one of them thinks, 'I want to do that kind of thing when I grow up,' this will all be worthwhile."
To make that happen, "Mens Amplio" is on an unofficial, fundraising, awareness-enhancing tour. Burning Man coordinators were so taken by the interactive project they awarded it an honor grant, allowing Cain and Scott to build "Mens Amplio" without digging themselves into a financial hole. An Indiegogo campaign they initiated left them with more than $1,000 to apply to school visits. And the fee from appearing at Yahoo's annual hacker competition last weekend is directed to their mission.
In November, they'll hold two educator's previews in Oakland to explain the procedures and possibilities of their collaborative problem-solving project. Scott said they'll ask teachers and educators to suggest ideas for how a "weird, unbelievably huge brain" can open the minds of today's students.