ImPerfect was my proposal for Burning Man 2012. Had it been built, it would have been a large copper four-armed baby, with each hand holding a symbol meaningful to me. A mechanism which would have been operable by up to five people at a time would have cause the baby’s arms to move, and the face to cycle slowly between an expression of blissful peace and anger. At the apex of the anger phase, fire would have belched from the baby’s mouth and ears.
Burning Man elected not to fund the piece. The full text of the proposal can be seen below.
ImPerfect is a freeze-frame snapshot self-portrait. The idea for this sculpture arose out of a series of experiences I had over the course of the first eight months of 2011, which relate to my various identities as artist, father, and seeker.
In early 2011 I was awarded a grant from Coachella to build a large interactive sculpture. The three month build was characterized by considerable stress and angst. Following completion of the sculpture, I attended a 5-day vipassana meditation retreat, after which I immediately jumped into building Face Forward, my project for Burning Man 2011. For reasons which must relate to the retreat, I was practically a different person during this second build. My crew noticed and commented on my calm, my patience, my unflappability.
While in BRC, however, I had two experiences which showed me how tenuous and imperfect my transformation was. In both cases, I dealt with aggressive people who overstepped my personal boundaries, and I became unexpectedly angry! Although these were feelings I had not felt in some time, I could not deny their reality and their power.
This timeframe also comprised much of my first year as a father. Watching my son take in the world for the first time brought me back to certain insights I had had in my early twenties, namely that the path to happiness must necessarily bear a resemblance to the perception of a child. There is much to be gained by seeing through the eyes of a child; without any prejudice or judgment. The more I came to understand the importance of these simple truths, the more I came to identify with my son, even to envy him.
It was not until my time at Burning Man, however, that I noticed the clear visual correlation between a sitting baby and a sitting Buddha, and it was from this observation that ImPerfect was born.
The perspective that every major shift we experience in life, as fatherhood and my emerging interest in Buddhism undoubtedly are, is also the self giving birth to the self, gives an added layer of meaning to the use of the form of a baby.
ImPerfect inhabits a deliberately ambiguous middle-ground between adult and baby, east and west, anger and calm, being and becoming.
In the sense that it is a snapshot of an incomplete transformation which bears the hallmarks of that which a person was, as well as what he or she might become, ImPerfect is imperfect.
In the sense that it contains within its form the promise of personal evolution; in the sense that it takes the form of a baby (arguably the only iteration of a human which can be considered flawless); and in the sense that it incorporates anatomical anomalies drawn from both Hindu mythology (multiple arms) and my own personal mythology (multiple thumbs) which represent what I imagine to be the perfect human morphology, ImPerfect articulates the simple phrase which I believe anyone who is honestly engaged in a process of self-discovery and growth has the right to speak: “I am perfect.”
ImPerfect is a large sitting figure.
(Because ImPerfect is a depiction of a person, however fantastical he or she may be, I will refer to him/her henceforth as Pax.)
Pax has four arms, two left and two right. The general posture of Pax is reminiscent of a meditating Buddha. These elements will immediately suggest to the viewer a combination of Kali, Hindu goddess of time, power, and death, as well as Buddha.
However, this initial impression is confused and complicated by general bodily proportions, including an oversized head, which immediately indicate that this figure is also a baby. Furthermore, each hand holds an object which represents an element of power, creativity, or destruction, which has personal meaning to me, and which confuses the easy categorization of Pax as either East or West. These four objects are a torch (with live fire, see below; symbol of creation AND destruction), a large adjustable wrench (archetypal tool, and symbol of work and DIY ethic), a pencil (symbol of creativity and design), and a straight razor (the razor hearkens back to Kali and her many knives, but is also a reference to Occam’s razor, and Nietszche’s idea of carving away the old to make room for the new). Two of the four hands will have two thumbs, an additional thumb emerging from below the pinkie. This is an anatomical anomaly which I personally have long believed would be advantageous in certain circumstances.
Pax’s skin is made of copper. Copper is a visually warm metal which responds to the elements of nature in a way which is totally unique among metals. Presuming that ImPerfect is unveiled at Burning Man 2012, Pax will be virgin red-orange copper at the beginning of the week and may begin to show some signs of oxidation, darkening, and color change by the end of the week.
Pax will measure approximately 12 feet tall, but will be perched atop a pentagonal platform measuring approximately 5 feet tall for a total height of approximately 17 feet. The platform will be inversely tapered to discourage climbing, and also to eliminate the problem of blinding reflections from the sun. At each of the five corners of the platform will be located a hand crank which will be linked by roller chain to a central mechanism responsible for transmitting motion generated at the cranks up to the upper body of Pax. This audience-generated motion will cause Pax’s four arms to move slightly at the shoulders, and perhaps more interestingly, will cause Pax’s face to cycle slowly from a peaceful and calm demeanor to an angry and forceful demeanor. (Face Forward serves as a wonderful jumping-off point for this aspect of ImPerfect.) At the apex of the anger phase, blasts of ignited propane will emerge from Pax’s mouth and ears. (More detail about this mechanism is provided in the Interactivity section below.)
The platform will be constructed of a steel frame with a wood top-deck, all sheathed in stainless steel sheet.
Much of Pax’s upper back will be left un-skinned, so that the mechanism which animates the body can be seen.
The kinetic function of ImPerfect is entirely mechanical, and entirely audience generated.
At each of the five corners of the pentagonal platform will be a hand-crank, essentially a one-pedal bicycle crank with a hand grip instead of a pedal. These will drive five pinion gears through overrunning clutches, radially arranged around a single ring gear. As such, anywhere from one to five people can operate it, and the more people run it, the easier and faster it will go. Overrunning clutches ensure that a small number of operators can run it without having to back-drive the remaining hand cranks, and also that a participant who tires of operating the crank and slow down or stops but does not remove his or her hand from the grip will not have his or her arm dragged around by the motion generated by the other participants.
The ring gear causes rotation of a main-shaft, which generates motion through a main gearbox in the upper body that then distributes the motion via traditional power transmission components (sprockets, chains, gears, bearings, cranks, etc.) out to the four shoulders and up to the eyebrows and mouth.
Each shoulder mechanism contains a set of sprockets of a certain number of teeth which are non-factorial with the other shoulder mechanisms, so that the arms will move in an essentially never-repeating, or quasi-random pattern.
The mouth and eyebrows will cycle slowly between a calm, pleasant demeanor and an angry, forceful demeanor. At the peak of the angry phase, propane which has been stored in accumulator tanks (since the last angry phase) will be allowed to escape from the mouth and ears, being ignited on the way. A time-delay relay will ensure that the fire-blast is not continuous, even if the mechanism is left in the angry position.
Because this piece does not rely on any electronics and relies only minimally on electrical power (for the solenoid valve), it will require little to no supervision and can be left in an “always-on” state.