Flame of the gods

The Towers of Shiva returns to Burning Man from its Reno birthplace

Left: Dave King Right: Stu D’Alessandro.

Left: Dave King Right: Stu D’Alessandro.

Photos By lauren randolph

At Burning Man, in the thick haze of the playa, fire performances mark the night. They attract circles of souls in rapt attention, but at some point, these circles reach critical mass. At certain distances and if obscured by enough heads, the fire performers, many from Reno’s Controlled Burn group, and the fire they play with cease to be visible.

Shiva Vista, a part of Controlled Burn, have, for the past three years, amended this issue through elevation.

Oh, and with huge cannons of fire. Which is the only real way to solve a problem.

“The idea was to either get the people where they can see or get the performers where they can be seen,” says Dave King, who oversees the design and set-up of the project. “It’s easier to elevate the performers than the crowd. So we elevated the performers up four feet, which is enough that you can see everything.”

Shiva Vista’s fire-breathing art installation, The Towers of Shiva, will be back on the playa for this year’s Burning Man.

The performance space is open to artistic expressions beyond fire performing.

“You don’t have to be part of the group,” says King. “If you’ve got a fire tool in your hand, or even if you’re just some sort of entertainer, you can find a place to show your shtick.”

Flame effects punctuate the performances, shooting from four cannons in the center that the designers refer to as “talons.”

The original Shiva Vista stage design was a square with those four cannons. Then the group realized that, in order to access the stage easily, they required ramps, which transformed the project into the shape of a plus sign.

“Then looking at it again, we thought, ‘Well, wow, what a really cool idea to surround it with fire cannons,’ ” says King.

The 12 surrounding fire cannons are arranged like a clock.

“Once we figured everything out—let’s build a stage, let’s build a bunch of flame effects, learn how to do that, learn how to make them go on and off—then it became a matter of sequencing, how to get something so it burns off in a nice sequence,” says King. “That’s where Stu [D’Alessandro] came in.”

D’Alessandro, the self-described “computer guy” in the project, had the job of creating a lot of wiring work that couldn’t be bought in stores.

“We basically designed our own electronics,” says D’Alessandro.

“This was all created from scratch by Stu,” says King, gesturing to the electronic work in the 40-foot truck that will transport the stage to Burning Man. “He created all the wiring, from the solenoid valve to the computer. And then he wrote the software to trigger it. So it’s unique. There’s nothing like it anywhere.”

Different people will control specific fire effects at their discretion, lending an improvisational air to the performance.

“It’s not canned,” says D’Alessandro. “It’s not like we have fire effects prearranged to the music, so when people are performing on the stage, the person controlling the fire cannons is actually performing, too.”

D’Alessandro holds the Towers of Shiva power box .

Photo By lauren randolph

Destruction and rebirth

What Shiva Vista is, then, amounts to four different projects:

“We’ve got a carpentry project,” says King. “We have a flame effects project with three separate underground gas systems. We’ve got an electrical system underground, and we’ve also got an audio system. So we have four different systems that need to work together to make this thing work.”

This year’s third and final permutation of the project, the Towers of Shiva, while retaining the same purpose, has changed, but mostly in the way of the name and how some flame effects have been rearranged.

“We were funded last year, and we wanted to be funded again,” says King. “And you can’t be funded again if you don’t change anything, so we had to morph, we had to change.”

Shiva Vista’s name originates from the Hindu god Shiva, the destroyer, and is meant to symbolize destruction as an essential force in rebirth.

“We went through all sorts of stuff looking for fire gods, and we came upon Shiva,” says King. “And ‘Vista’ was the view—the idea of making the performers visible.”

King is a devout Burning Man attendee, though his first participation was on a whim.

“It was 1997,” he says. “I was on the way to the [Sparks] rib cook-off, and I realized, ‘That’s the off-ramp if I want to go to Burning Man.’ I had no inkling to even go to Burning Man. And I just went.”

The Towers of Shiva will be held on the 6:30 line near Center Camp. During the week of Burning Man, performances will be held on the Towers of Shiva through Thursday. On Friday, the stage will fold into the shape of a chimney and act as a furnace.

“Everyone that performed on the stage is invited to perform around the stage as it burns,” says King.

Post-burn, different aspects of the project will carry forward into new projects.

“We’ve gotten so much into the flame effects now that they’re going to live on in something else,” says King.