Fire Flowers: Loebs & GSD students bring fire back to Chicago

Roving LOEBlogger Cali Pfaff reports in from Chicago on a fanciful and ambitious project to engage citizens with their history, their collective identity and each other.

Half a million people bundled in scarves and jackets assemble along the Chicago River. As they walk along the granite banks on an October evening, something close to miraculous happens: down the river float ephemeral fields of constructed flowers, towed by tugboats. From afar, it is a smudge of brightness in the dark but up close it is another story entirely. We are at a festival, the Great Chicago Fire Festival to be exact.

Each of the flowers is made by a fellow Chicagoan and inscribed with a hope for the city. “I hope for less violence in my neighborhood.” “I hope for a longer summer.” “I hope…” twenty thousand times over. As the brightly colored fields cascade down the river, festival-goers are reminded of the resilience of their great city, of themselves, their neighbors. The individual hopes become one great hope for a better Chicago, better in all derivations of the word. And then, the flowers go up in flames.

This is the basis for Fire Flowers, a large-scale participatory art installation, slated for inclusion in the first annual Great Chicago Fire Festival on October 8th, 2014. Over the past year, the project has been incubated at the GSD, thanks in large part to the Loeb Fellowship and in particular to the sweat and passion of a small group of students, including Takuya Iwamura (MLA ‘14), Tara Tan (MDesS ‘14), James Yamada (MDesS ‘14), Cali Pfaff (MLA ‘14), Michael Lee (MDesS ‘15), Lin Ye (MLAUD ‘14) and Michael Degen (MDesS ‘14). The project is the brainchild of 2013 Fellows Jim Lasko and Karen Lee Bar-Sinai, with special assistance from Rachel Vronman of the fabrication lab.

“What I found in Fire Flowers, and I find often in collaboration,” says Lasko, “is that it is a luxury to think broadly. Later, you have to take that concept and figure out its constraints, who’s going to build it and how. These become local decisions to be worked out on site but to have a bunch of smart people focused on the broad questions is always an amazing place to start, a gift really.”

Lasko and Bar-Sinai would appear to be rooted in very different disciplines. His Chicago theatrical company Redmoon embraces urban spectacle as a means to civic engagement. Her architectural practice has developed the concept of "resolution planning " to bridge the divide between Israelis and Palestinians. During their tenure as Loeb Fellows, they found themselves interested in a similar dilemma. Bar-Sinai had been working out a concept for a chandelier in which dozens of lights combined into a single fixture. Lasko had a similar concept in mind for the festival: a participatory art project that could engage the city as whole but would also stand on its own as an art installation. Out of their mutual interest, Fire Flowers was born. Vronman later signed on as a collaborator, bringing her extensive knowledge of digital fabrication. 

“We wanted to create an art piece with a minimal bar to entry,” says Lasko, “inclusive of everyone.” From the onset of the project, the team worked to create an “armature” for participation, one in which the end product would develop out of the collective effort of many. Through this, the idea of engaging digital fabrication and a mobile fabrication lab came into being.

“Technology and digital fabrication allow us to design a single element (the fire-flower) which can be both individualized and assembled into a large system,” says Bar-Sinai. “Using advanced technology for the project also has an immense educational value. It exposes community members of all ages in Chicago to new ways of making and producing things–digital fabrication, scripting and laser cutting.”

Since the initial meeting in January 2013, kickstarted by Lasko’s J-Term seminar “Civic Art and Transformation,” the project has explored many forms, materials and methods of construction. What has remained consistent is a commitment to spectacle, collaborative work, and a vision of the project as what Bar-Sinai calls, “a tribute to the power of hope.” Student team members cite the project’s ambition as one of the motivations for their participation. Takuya Iwamura says “involving the general public in design process” has been the most inspiring part of the project for him.

The experience and opportunities that Loeb Fellows share with students are invaluable,” writes team member James Yamada. “They each have unique ways of engaging with the world around them, so talking with them or getting their feedback for a project is an opportunity to look through a particular lens that you wouldn't be able to find elsewhere.”

Fire Flowers will be the closing caper of a new citywide festival planned by Lasko and his team at Redmoon Theater--an organization famous for its ability to draw a crowd. The festival takes on one of the oldest narratives about the city of Chicago: the Great Fire of 1871. On the evening of October 8, a barn fire set the better portion of the city ablaze. While the fire was famously attributed to a cow, the real culprit was more mundane: too many wood studs in the city’s architecture.  After the smoke cleared, Chicago rebuilt itself right, in bricks and stone. The fire has long stood as a metaphor for the city’s resilience and renewal, a classic pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps tale.

“I think of a child standing with his parents on a beautiful fall evening,” muses Bar-Sinai. “They are looking at the thousands of fire flowers floating on the Chicago River, lit in shining unity.  He then points to a group of flowers, and proudly declares, ‘I made this!’ This moment is magic to me. Our role as the designers of Fire Flowers is, quite frankly, to disappear. To create a platform for a beautiful artwork to happen, yet allow the participants to truly own it. It is them we are here for.”

Follow the Fire Flowers process of creation.

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