A sliver of light stands out against the dark background of deep Playa as you ride towards the trash fence, past the inflatable neon elephant, keeping the 747 over your shoulder on the right. As you travel further and the dissonant rumble of the city dies away, a silvery podium rises up to greet you. It emanates sound and noise:
This is the Karaoke Deth Machine, a Burning Man art installation whose creative design began merely days before arriving on site. Its concept is simple; a podium emanating music with an effects steeped microphone attached, awaiting vocal input. Its execution; rather rough around the edges, but it definitely does something (and is lit at night, which is technically meeting the bare minimum requirements). The idea was inspired by a fun toy found at a rural thrift store and some light consultation with someone who knows more about how sound works than I do. An old boombox, a few cables, some warped pieces of lumber and 4 cans of spraypaint later and the Karaoke Deth Machine breathed its first dusty breaths.
In harmony with the 2019 theme, Metamorphoses, the installation underwent its own changes over the course of the event. Its final iteration, microphone dangling in front of amplifier encouraging self-induced screeches and rumblings, will act as a launching point for the next version of the project (that’s right, expect more of these awkwardly dissonant contraptions). What began as a rather strange karaoke machine turned into an even weirder feedback noise machine, and it couldn’t have been accomplished in a more organic way.
My own expectations were forced into dusty rubble by the Karaoke Deth Machine as it transformed itself before my eyes. I watched as participants came, experienced, and left some change in their wake that permanently altered the installation, whether it was to change the position of the microphone to get a new noise, or even just shift the lights slightly. Any time I thought it wasn’t quite working correctly I was proven wrong by the next person who touched it.
For placement of the project my intention was to go rogue. I had already attended several regional Burning Man events and, without issue installed “unofficial” self-placed art there. In Black Rock City, however, the rules are different. Hosting 350 (registered*) art installations** in one city requires more attention to where and how things are placed. I soon learned that my rogue art piece was in jeopardy of being confiscated if not accounted for correctly. With this new information I decided to opt-in to the Artery’s comically time-consuming yet entirely appropriate bureaucratic process (I was asked to come back several times in order to give the data time to make its wayward journey through the internet in order to appear successfully on the next persons tablet, and had to fill out the same form over again each time I returned. How I wish this was performance art***). By the end of the day it had been successfully placed at the trash fence to stay for the entirety of the event, and officially cataloged on Burning Man’s website for the rest of eternity.
So, what next?
Catalyzed by just one thrift store toy, the Karaoke Deth Machine was an experiment in spontaneous creation of sound. As more thrift store electronics are procured, more things become possible, and the Karaoke Deth Machine can (and will be) be used as a prototype for bigger and weirder interactive sound projects.
*This number does not include walk-ins like myself and other rogue installations (the small, unlit bbq I almost broke my leg on in the middle of the Playa one night was, after much debate, deemed moop and not art. Sorry-not-sorry aspiring artist who left it there).
**Fun fact: on top of (or more appropriately, in between) the 350 registered stationary art pieces there were approximately 560 mutant vehicles, also known as art cars. 2019 brought record numbers of both art installations and mobile art cars to the Playa.
***The lovely volunteers at the artery were fabulous throughout the entire process, and many stickers and hugs were shared. If you are an unaspiring artist like myself that might have anything at all to contribute to the event, but have doubts… Just bring it! The artery encourages walk-ins and makes it (mostly) easy for you to participate. With a little persistence, you, too can put something weird and/or wonderful in the middle of the desert for a week.