A Little Afternoon Excavation

So a couple of friends of mine moved into a new house a few months ago (New to them, but the house was built in the 40s and oh boy it’s a rabbit’s den of old and new additions, cubbyholes, and questionable wiring), and in the back yard, once they’d cleared away about a decade’s worth of uncontrolled blackberry growth, they found what looked like a little pet grave marker (This is the point where pretty much everyone who’s ever read “Pet Sematary” would get a little creeped out)

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Since they know I’m trained in archaeology and love working with bone, they asked me to come check it out, so I got out my trusty flat-nose trowel and started carefully digging (Many archaeologists prefer the pointed-nose trowel, but my flat-nose is my very first trowel and it’s served me well through four field seasons and I love it. Archaeologists get very protective of their trowels).

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I dug down about a foot and didn’t find anything at all, nothing but loamy-clayey dirt, and we started to wonder if maybe the grave marker was a prank or maybe a raccoon had already dug up whatever was down there, but I decided to keep going just in case, and at about 18″ (Archaeology is always done in metric but I forgot to bring my metric tape measure) I saw a little hint of blue fabric, which you can see at the top of the photo above, as well as a little peek of the side of a skull, which you can see in the photo below just to the left of that leaf.

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I carefully scraped away the rest of the soil and found a perfect intact cat skeleton, carefully wrapped in a pillow case and a t-shirt with a baseball team logo on it (couldn’t read the team name, unfortunately). I set the bones on top of the dirt pile to keep them together and did my best to be sure that the hole was clean of all materials. You can see the very dirty, moldy bones at the top of the photo below.

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Now if you’ve done any archaeology fieldwork you’ll probably notice that my walls look terrible. In my defense it was VERY sandy clay, and quite damp, so my walls were crumbling all over the place, plus I am FAR more careful on official digs (I can cut a damned gorgeous profile, if I do say so myself) and this was pretty casual and exploratory, with no expectation of finding culturally or historically significant materials.

I took the newly unearthed CT (Since those letters were painted on the grave marker we decided to keep that as his name. I’m only guessing it’s a male from the size of the bones, but I’m really not an expert on feline skeletal anatomy) back home with me and carefully washed him in clean water and cleaned off the remaining dirt and mold with a soft toothbrush, and here he is in all his glory. Such a beautiful set of bones, and nothing broken! (Usually the bones I use in my art come from road kill, so I typically end up with a lot of fractured and broken bones, and they can be a real pain to piece back together). I’m missing most of the tail vertebrae, foot bones, and teeth (probably got lost in the fill dirt, though some of the tooth loss could have occurred before death), but otherwise it’s a pristine skeleton, and I look forward to using the bones for making beautiful new art, always keeping in mind that this beautiful creature was loved, and deserves respect and care every step of the way.

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Zooplankton: An Adventure In Frustration and Friendship

It’s been a while since I’ve updated you all on Zooplankton, and so much has happened in the last few months! We only have a month until Burning Man and we’re still trying to raise the last bit of funding we need, but we’re so close to being done. We’ve dealt with money being stolen, having to get part-time jobs to keep the project going, I’ve had multiple injuries and far too many 8-12 hour works days in 95+ degree heat, there’s been frustration with money, with getting help, with the rules that Burning Man has for art installations, but there have also been wonderful friendships built and strengthened, people who have come out of the woodwork to rescue us when things looked hopeless, the joy of creating (even if the creation isn’t quite what we’d planned at the outset), knowing that we made a thing, a real THING, even though we had so little money and, honestly, no idea what we were doing or what we were getting ourselves into. Becca and I are exhausted and broke and generally worse for wear, but we are SO glad we did this project, and I’m so grateful to all of my burner friends who have helped us again and again. We would never have come this far without them. Them and a whole boatload of stubborn determination 😉

Without further ado, the pics!

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It took a few months but we finally found a home to build in: Ctrl-H, a hacker space/creator’s lab in North Portland. It has a full woodshop, electronics room, CNC, laser etcher, 3D printers, all kinds of goodies.

Becca and Heather work on the bottom rim of the roof

Becca and Heather work on the bottom rim of the roof

The framing for the roof and middle tier are slowly coming together

The framing for the roof and middle tier are slowly coming together

Becca and Tony, our Electronics Lead, go over the plans for the framing that our former Build Lead, Landon, drew up for us before he had to move away to pursue his degree

Becca and Tony, our Electronics Lead, go over the plans for the framing that our former Build Lead, Landon, drew up for us before he had to move away to pursue his degree

Some days working was a slow and painful process, especially when it was at or near 100 degrees with very little shade. Dehydration was a big problem.

Some days working was a slow and painful process, especially when it was at or near 100 degrees with very little shade. Dehydration was a big problem.

The supports that will hold up (we hope) the dome and spire that go on the top of the structure

The supports that will hold up (we hope) the dome and spire that go on the top of the structure

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Becca and I had fun with the Panorama setting on my phone

As we were starting to build the middle section we suddenly got word from Burning Man that all structures that are meant to be burned HAVE to be covered with plywood that is no less than 5/8

As we were starting to build the middle section we suddenly got word from Burning Man that all structures that are meant to be burned HAVE to be covered with plywood that is no less than 5/8″ thick. This was almost a disaster for us. We’d planned on using 1/8″ or 1/4″ plywood since it’s light and easy to bend and we needed to make a lot of curves, but they wouldn’t allow it, and so we had to figure out how on earth to bend 5/8″ plywood.
I honestly didn’t think we were going to be able to do it, but after over a week of work we made it happen: Soak the wood in warm water, secure one end to the frame with screws, bend a little, wet it again (In the heat we had to wet the wood every 15-30 minutes all throughout the day), bend a bit more, repeat for about 10 hours straight every day.

Once we got some ratchet straps the bending was a lot easier, relatively. Wet the wood, crank the ratchet, secure with a few screws, repeat, repeat, repeat.

Once we got some ratchet straps the bending was a lot easier, relatively. Wet the wood, crank the ratchet, secure with a few screws, repeat, repeat, repeat.

At least we got to work next to a really nice little vegetable garden :)

At least we got to work next to a really nice little vegetable garden 🙂 We ended up putting braces inside the structure because the frame had been designed to hold weight coming from above, but it was NOT designed to take pressure from the sides, and we were worried that the ratchet straps could potentially collapse the walls.

Once we finally got all 5 plywood sheets bent and attached it was time to cut the holes

Once we finally got all 5 plywood sheets bent and attached it was time to cut the holes

Yay holes! These are an integral part of the design. We weren't able to make nearly as many holes as appear in the Ernst Haeckel illustration that Becca based the idea on, it just wouldn't work with the materials we had, or the skills we lacked, but we still love how it came out

Yay holes! These are an integral part of the design. We weren’t able to make nearly as many holes as appear in the Ernst Haeckel illustration that Becca based the idea on, it just wouldn’t work with the materials we had, or the skills we lacked, but we still love how it came out

HOLES! :D

HOLES! 😀

A few times we had to put the call out for help lifting various parts of the structure, and every time we had a crew of burners show up for us. It's always so wonderful to see people coming to help you, not for pay or fame, but just because they want to help make art happen, and many of them have built their own art and know how hard it is and how none of it can happen without teamwork

A few times we had to put the call out for help lifting various parts of the structure, and every time we had a crew of burners show up for us. It’s always so wonderful to see people coming to help you, not for pay or fame, but just because they want to help make art happen, and many of them have built their own art and know how hard it is and how none of it can happen without teamwork

Once we had the frame for the roof made we needed to weight-test it. I scientifically verified that it can easily hold the weight of at least one middle-aged hippie

Once we had the frame for the roof made we needed to weight-test it. I scientifically verified that it can easily hold the weight of at least one middle-aged hippie

Tony and his girlfriend Nasim were working on the lighting on the spire. Tony is currently finishing up the custom-designed, programmable lighting and electronics that will go into the structure when it reaches Burning Man. We haven't even seen the final results yet, but I know it'll be beautiful. He's even gotten a heat-sensitive camera so that the more people are inside, the more active the light display will become. Squeeee!

Tony and his girlfriend Nasim were working on the lighting on the spire. Tony is currently finishing up the custom-designed, programmable lighting and electronics that will go into the structure when it reaches Burning Man. We haven’t even seen the final results yet, but I know it’ll be beautiful. He’s even gotten a heat-sensitive camera so that the more people are inside, the more active the light display will become. Squeeee!

Real sweat. Real sunburn. Real exhausted-but-happy smile

Real sweat. Real sunburn. Real exhausted-but-happy smile

Safety Child has become our unofficial mascot

Safety Child has become our unofficial mascot

After we got all of the framing covered it was time to call in reinforcements again and do a practice run so we could see how it all fit together. At this point we had signed up to take the structure to a regional Burning Man event up in Washington, called Critical NW. We had a deadline, so the work schedule was pretty rough at this point, but we got it done.

After we got all of the framing covered it was time to call in reinforcements again and do a practice run so we could see how it all fit together.
At this point we had signed up to take the structure to a regional Burning Man event up in Washington, called Critical NW. We had a deadline, so the work schedule was pretty rough at this point, but we got it done.

As you can see it was NOT light. It took that many people just to lift it, and the fact that it was top-heavy made it even more challenging, but we had a great crew and they made it work

As you can see it was NOT light. It took that many people just to lift it, and the fact that it was top-heavy made it even more challenging, but we had a great crew and they made it work

We ended up doing some semi-scientific expreimenting and managed to estimate the weight of the entire structure: Somewhere in the vicinity of 1700 pounds. It would have been much lighter if we'd been able to use 1/4

We ended up doing some semi-scientific experimenting and managed to estimate the weight of the entire structure: Somewhere in the vicinity of 1700 pounds. It would have been much lighter if we’d been able to use 1/4″ ply, but we made it work and that’s all that matters.
Being heavier it will be harder to put together and harder to transport to Nevada, but there is always a way, and burners are nothing if not resourceful

YAAAAYYYYY! Happy project leads. It was so good to see it coming together after so much hard work and stress and injury and frustration. WE MADE A THING! :D

YAAAAYYYYY!
Happy project leads. It was so good to see it coming together after so much hard work and stress and injury and frustration. WE MADE A THING! 😀

Happy and exhausted

Happy and exhausted

The LED strips on the spire. Tony is finishing up the programming now, and I hope to have some video to show you before it leaves for the burn

The LED strips on the spire. Tony is finishing up the programming now, and I hope to have some video to show you before it leaves for the burn

In order to fit it all into the truck to take it to Critical NW, we had to cut the middle tier and the roof in half. it was a little scary, but it worked, and it all fits back together just fine

In order to fit it all into the truck to take it to Critical NW, we had to cut the middle tier and the roof in half. it was a little scary, but it worked, and it all fits back together just fine

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Loading up to go to Critical NW. I wasn’t able to go, but Becca and one crew member went and it was challenging, they had trouble finding help unloading the truck and getting it all put back together, but they did it and everyone who saw it loved it. A couple of event staff even asked to put their hammocks inside 🙂

Yep, it's heavy. Maybe not as heavy as it would be if it were metal, but heavy enough. Fortunately they have heavy machinery at Burning Man to help with issues like this.

Yep, it’s heavy. Maybe not as heavy as it would be if it were metal, but heavy enough. Fortunately they have heavy machinery at Burning Man to help with issues like this.

And a little peek at what's in store once all of the lights and rods are installed.  If you check out our Indiegogo you can see a few glimpses of the installation at Critical NW with lights and rods, and if I can't get any pictures before the burn, there will definitely be pics galore after

And a little peek at what’s in store once all of the lights and rods are installed.
If you check out our Indiegogo (there’s a highlighted link in my opening paragraph at the top of the post) you can see a few glimpses of the installation at Critical NW with lights and rods, and if I can’t get any pictures before the burn, there will definitely be pics galore after

On a less-happy note, I recently decided that I won’t be able to go to Burning Man with the crew this year. Partly because of money issues, it’s just not a cheap event to go to, but mostly because of how drastically this project has affected my health. I actually worked too hard for too long to the point where I almost landed in the hospital, and so I’ve decided that trying to go work in the desert when I’m already exhausted and injured, in that awful heat, is just asking for trouble. If I had to do it all over again I absolutely would, but I’m still kind of sad and disappointed that I can’t be there to see our creation on the playa, or talk to people about it, or sit with my friends and watch it finally burn. It makes me sad, but this is how things go, and I’m so happy I was able to be a part of this project. it’s not the biggest or fanciest or shiniest art, but it’s ours, and considering that we are a first-time build crew who had very little money and very little clue and a whole lot of challenges, we didn’t do half bad 🙂

See you soon, friends.

Zooplankton: The Adventure Begins

So every year for the last five years I’ve joined a Burning Man building project to help with. I’m always happiest when I’m helping create something awesome and challenging to take out to the desert, and this year I’ve devoted myself to Zooplankton. If you go to this link you can learn about my friend Becca and who she is and how she came up with the idea, as well as watch the video and see the design and what our dream is going to look like when it’s done. Every build project is full of frustration and unexpected issues and long days and grumpiness and fantastic people who volunteer their time and skills and love to make something wonderful, not for pay or fame, but for the love of art.

For the last few weeks we’ve been building the top third of Zooplankton to take to our local Regional burner event, SOAK, and here are some shots of the work so far. Designing, engineering, and actually building a structure like this out of nothing but plywood and 2x4s is a challenge to say the least, but it’s been so much fun. Becca is a first-time build project leader and so far she’s doing an amazing job. Landon, the handsome young man you see in several of the photos, spent countless hours working with Google Sketchup to figure out how to engineer the structure, and has spent even more hours sawing and drilling and being an absolute gift to us, and we’re so sad he’s moving away to pursue his Masters at the end of the month, but when you’re a burner builder, you learn to appreciate dedicated people like Landon and Becca.

I just got home from the last day of building before they leave for SOAK and I’m sweaty and stinky and sore and I couldn’t be happier. In the coming months I’ll definitely have more photos to share as we really get going on the structure, and if all goes well I’ll have even more photos from Burning Man to share this fall. YAY ART!

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Becca ate so much sawdust that day. Heehee.

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End of Day 1, the frame is done!

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The spire goes on top of the structure and is going to be covered with programmed LED strips.

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That’s Tony in the background, he’s doing all the LEDs and programming for the top spire.

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Thank goodness I have a skinny butt

Thank goodness I have a skinny butt

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Inside Zooplankton. It’s like an awesome spaceship fort in here!

Acrylic rods for the spikes, and they'll be lit from the inside with colored LEDs.

Acrylic rods for the spikes, and they’ll be lit from the inside with colored LEDs.