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Art

This Flaming Insect Sculpture is a Marvel in Engineering

'Le Attrata' by Oakland collective Therm overwhelms every sense at once.

J.H. Fearless

'Le Attrata,' 2016. Photo by Meike Gugel

The biggest, hottest, brightest musical instrument you’ve ever seen, Le Attrata, is now making the festival rounds. The innovative fire sculpture is comprised of three stainless steel moths with 12-foot wingspans, set atop 18-foot high spires. Fitted with turbine-driven blast furnaces, the moths flame, spark, pop, and whine, as three human operators “play” them like instruments. Two thousand programmed LEDs embedded in the sculpture glow and shift, casting the figures in kaleidoscopic light.

The artists behind Le Attrata are Therm, one of the most respected collectives in the Oakland, California metal and fire art movement. Since 1998, these skilled artist-engineers have been transforming steel and scrap into groundbreaking art. Le Attrata, led by artists Margaret Long and Orion Fredericks, is their most innovative work yet.

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“The reaction we get … is mostly awe,” crewmember Char Zvolanek tells The Creators Project. “Big eyes, open mouths, pointed at the sky like, ‘What is this thing that I am hearing and seeing?’”

Bringing an interactive fire sculpture to life takes innovative design, a massive amount of engineering, and masterful logistics planning. Materials are sourced; a structure is built, skinned, and sculpted; LEDs are programmed; and controls are connected. Almost every stage of the process requires working with difficult, dangerous materials. Rigorous safety standards and tons of testing, including Therm’s proprietary “Angry Manchild” test, ensure it can withstand any hazard without exploding—any more than it’s designed to.

Photo by Christine “LadyBee” Kristen

The entire build for Le Attrata took about nine months and a crew of 30 people. “This was an amazing group effort,” Therm founder Justin Gray says. “We got all these incredible, talented, brilliant people, and that was why it was built … In my opinion, this is fine art, and that’s why I got on board.”

Margaret Long works on a structure model. Photo by Lorah Gross

Sixty percent of the materials—including turbines—are salvaged. The turbines used in the sculpture are modified to be back-driven with electric motors, instead of diesel engines. It’s also highly fuel-efficient, compared to most fire sculptures: Le Attrata consumes about 80 gallons of fuel over four hours of shows.

At the center of the piece, a hexagonal light well filled with 3D-printed crystals is illuminated by tricolor LEDs to create the lighting effects. Le Attrata uses Raspberry Pi 3 and Fadecandy to program its more than 2,000 LEDs. The controls themselves are operated from three podiums. Le Attrata’s operators treat each performance like a concert, playing off each other, taking “solos,” and eventually swelling to a final crescendo. A typical show lasts about 20 minutes, with breaks in between to let the sculpture cool down.

A control podium, still covered in dust from the playa. Photo by J.H. Fearless

“This is really what put the piece over the top for me,” Zvolanek says. “It’s not just the incredible design and manufacturing, but the fact that we really looked at it as a performance.” Operators discovered new sounds and rhythms they could create by tuning the moths to specific temperatures at the right moments. “The moths speak to each other in flame,” Zvolanek says.

“A lot of people in the audience are just struggling to grasp what it is and why we’re doing it,” crewmember Lex Talionis says. “Which for me is a great feeling, to see that we’re doing something that’s so beyond the boundaries that people are struggling to find a touchstone.”

Photo by Caroline Miller

Photo by Michael Prados

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Le Attrata will be at Ghost Ship in San Francisco on October 28 and 29 and is currently touring festivals and events. Contact Therm to book the sculpture or find out where it's playing next.

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