Massive Victrola Brings Analog Touch to Tech-Infused Burning Man

A rendering of "La Victrola" (Photo: Courtesy of Hand Crank Creative)

A huge metal door creaked open a few weeks ago, shedding light on a massive art project under construction at the giant American Steel Studios in West Oakland. A dozen or so volunteers were riveting steel plates together to form the horn of a giant gramophone that, when finished, will stand 35 feet high and weigh thousands of pounds.

Volunteers get more light as they rivet perforated steel plates together for "La Victrola"
Volunteers get more light as they rivet perforated steel plates together for "La Victrola" (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

Burning Man, the famed annual festival of fire, high-tech, and art underway this week in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, is featuring "La Victrola," an art project that hearkens back to our analog past. The piece is named for the crank up turntables that played records in the early 20th century.

“The age of Victrolas (made by the Victor Talking Machine Co.) was a very different time,” says Nick Fynn, one of a trio of Burning Man regulars who conceived the project. “In those days people had to gather around the piano to hear music, and gramophones were rare at first. So the big picture behind this piece is to think about what we’ve lost with extreme digital music and digital entertainment."

Fynn says the art piece is meant to make people think about the downside of our digital world. “These days, everyone walks around with their cellphone in front of their face, playing Pokemon Go, not even seeing where they’re going," Fynn says.

A gramophone used by the "La Victrola" crew for inspiration as they worked
A gramophone used by the "La Victrola" crew for inspiration as they worked (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

The base of the gramophone, Fynn says, will be a stage for acoustic performance -- ragtime and blues -- at a festival better known for electronica and other dance music. "I think it’s really kind of epic and beautiful and offers an alternative to the soundscape of Burning Man," says Kim Cook, the director of art and civic engagement for Burning Man, headquartered in San Francisco’s Mission District.

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Fynn admits that the horn of the massive sculpture won’t really amplify the music as it did for the original Victrolas. “We’re using perforated steel for the horn,” Fynn says. “We need to let a lot of air pass through, because out on the Playa, we get extremely high winds. Otherwise, the horn could turn into an extremely dangerous, heavy sail.” The Playa is prone to gusts of up to 70 miles an hour.

Nearly 30 volunteers, with skills ranging from engineering to metalwork, donated their skills and labor to design and build "La Victrola." But Cook also notes that’s how most festival projects get built, and it's a good thing.

“This approach to creating work together is one of the most beautiful things that Burning Man has to offer the world," Cook says. “Things that would be impossible by yourself become possible as something you do together.”

Artist Analy Nakat designed a series of art deco posters for the body of the gramophone
Artist Analy Nakat designed a series of art deco posters for the body of the gramophone (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

"La Victrola" is just one of around 300 art projects unfolding at Burning Man. But Fynn says "La Victrola" won’t be finished this year, despite the $90,000, crowd-funded budget. “In some sense it’s a leap of faith,” Fynn says. “But the project is so strong, it keeps drawing people in, and every time you don’t know what’s going to happen next, a door you didn’t even know existed opens."

Fynn says he’s sure they'll be able to raise the funds they need to finish the project, in plenty of time for Burning Man 2017.

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