Oakland Artists to Bring Burning Man Brain to Schools

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Remember when you were a kid, and mood rings were the coolest thing ever? How did it always know when I was feeling “lovable” or “unsettled?” How come nobody wears those anymore? Kids these days are so hard to please. Luckily, a group of Oakland artists are building a sort of 21st century mood ring in the form of an interactive sculpture that they are hoping will blow students minds. Headed by Don Cain, the team is creating a 15-foot-tall steel brain hooked it up to an EEG headset. When it is finished, kids and adults will be able to step right up and illuminate the sculpture with their brain activity, as LED “neurons” change hue in correspondence to their mood. Slightly more accurate than 25-cent jewelry, I imagine.

The sculpture is entitled “Mens Amplio,” which translates to “expanding mind” in Latin. It will be a massive, outlined brain formed out of sinuous steel pipes encased in a head-shaped cage that is half-buried in the ground. The EEG headset will measure levels of brain activity, showing how attentive or meditative the participant is. This activity will then translate into a spectrum of color that lights up an LED “neuron tree” inside of the brain. There will also be an element of combustion involved, but Cain doesn’t want to give that away just yet.

Cain’s original intention for the piece was for it to be experienced at Burning Man 2013. The art festival is actually funding the majority of the project for the team, which includes artists who have brought many kinetic sculptures to Burning Man in the past. The piece took on another level of meaning, however, when a principal from the Oakland School District caught on and contacted Cain with a request for him to bring it into their classrooms. Although Cain said that his group has been looking for a way to do community-based artwork for a while now, they had never thought of bringing their sculptures to schools. Excited about the opportunity to have Mens Amplio live up to its namesake in a new way, they started an Indiegogo campaign in hopes of raising enough money to build the project to its full potential and take it to schools in and around Oakland for free.

Cain is part of a group of artists who spend their time building and exploding things at The Department of Spontaneous Combustion, a metal workshop in downtown Oakland. He received his MFA in 1999, and has been working specifically with metal and fire for about a decade now. For the past six of those years, he has been bringing his work to Burning Man. He started off by making massive Japanese taiko drums, then moved on to more mechanical sculptures, such as “ginormous” tricycles with seats that raise the rider over six feet into the air. He was also a crucial part of the crew that burned down the Temple of Flux in 2010, the climax of that year’s Burning Man festival. Although Cain’s work has undoubtedly increased in complexity over the years, never before has he incorporated technology as advanced as EEG. He sees Mens Amplio as both a culmination of the pieces he has done in the past, and a step in a new direction. That new direction looks increasingly interdisciplinary as well as community-conscious.

The idea for Mens Amplio came to him after encountering the December 2012 cover of Smithsonian Magazine, which featured an artistic outline of a brain. A friend had come to him a while before with the idea of incorporating EEG into an art piece. Upon seeing the brain lit up on that cover, the concept for Mens Amplio ignited. Eventually, Cain brought together a team with backgrounds in computer programming, brain imaging, metal fabrication, and LED and flame effects to bring the brain to life. The crew includes Brittnee Jones, Brian Krawitz, Katherine Leipper, Sarah Tappon, June Dziedzic, Jeff Bush, Heather Prill, and, of course, Don Cain. Together, part of their goal is to blend the lines between medical science, art, technology, and education.

The principal who approached Cain expressed a need to get students interested in math, science, and electronics. Cain is hoping that the artistic aspect of Mens Amplio will draw kids in, and the explanation of what it can do and how it was made will get them excited about learning more. He said his main goal is “to open up kids’ minds to the possibilities of what you can do if you have the knowledge."

Mens Amplio will debut at Burning Man at the end of August, and shortly after that, the team will be taking it to the first school. They will be holding two demonstrations for educators who are interested this fall, and are hoping to get a tour of schools lined up. Cain says that he would like to share the piece with as many people as he can, and the team is going to look into many different venues for installation, including the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Stay tuned for updates on the Mens Amplio website.

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