2004 Art Theme: Vault of Heaven

Illustration by Rod Garrett
Illustration by Rod Garrett

“There is a size at which dignity begins; further on there is a size at which grandeur begins; further on there is a size at which solemnity begins; further on, a size at which awfulness begins; further on, a size at which ghastliness begins. That size faintly approaches the size of the stellar universe.” — Thomas Hardy

The Ancients thought that the trajectories of the stars described a cosmic dome. Lights that moved erratically inside this vaulted space were labeled deities. Today we know that these are planets, like our earth. They whirl around the sun, a yellow star belonging to a galaxy we call the Milky Way. Arising from the northeast and southwest on summer nights, its luminescent arc appears to hold the heavens overhead. Science tells us we are peering through the plane of an immense and churning thing, a twirling pinwheel made from stars so numerous that they recede into a mist. Adjectives are insufficient to describe its size. Beyond this scrim of light, our minds confront the universe. This year’s theme asks three essential questions. These are questions that occurred to us when we were young, questions asked while lying in the grass on summer nights and gazing upward at the sky. Where does everything come from? Where does everything go? And where and how, in this vast scheme of things, do we fit in?

“A wandering Muslim merchant stopped a Hindu Brahmin who was lecturing on the structure of the universe. It was, said the Brahmin, supported on the back of an elephant. What supported the elephant, asked the merchant. A turtle, answered the Brahmin. What supported the turtle, asked the merchant. Another turtle, answered the Brahmin. What supported that turtle, asked the merchant. Suppose we stop asking questions, suggested the Brahmin.” — Hindu proverb

Scientific theory tells us that the energy that now pervades the universe was once compressed into a single point without discernable dimension. Time and space did not exist; no then was then, no there was there. This means that once this “singularity” began to grow it happened everywhere and nowhere all at once. The density and temperature of this extraordinary state, we’ve been informed, were infinite. But recent theories now suggest that this may not be true, and very different states may have preceded this event. Hidden beneath its “event horizon,” a world may once have existed in which space was infinite, matter scarce, and temperatures extremely cold. Yet, whether we choose fire or choose ice, all scientists agree that it is possible to trace things backward to a kind of natal point, an instant out of which all time and space sprang into being. Evidence makes clear this was a very violent birth. We call it the Big Bang.

“Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward out of sight… Ghostlike, we glide through nature, and should not know our place again.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

According to recent estimates, within one-trillionth of a second, this proto-universe expanded to approximately the size of a turtle. This represents an increase in the size of the observable universe one thousand times greater, if measured by percentage, than its expansion during all ensuing history. This follows from the fact that inner space, the microcosmic world of quarks, electrons, and neutrinos, is even deeper than the universe we see at large. Considered on the scale of the infinitesimally small, even solid objects are analogous to outer space. This world and all those who inhabit it are mostly made from emptiness.

Within one second ATB (after the Bang) nucleosynthesis—the beginning of a process that produces atoms—had commenced. A few hundred thousand years after that, photons freely moved through space. In earthly terms, the universe had dawned. Within five hundred million years, the first amorphous galaxies had coalesced. Today, astronomers detect these storms of stars across a span of nearly 14 billion light years. Between these distant smudges and ourselves, they count at least one hundred billion galaxies, a multitude that’s equal to the number of stars in our Milky Way.

The farthest objects we observe are alarmingly bright light sources called quasars. They radiate more energy than a hundred normal galaxies combined. This coruscating light is caused by friction. Great Niagras of matter—of gas and dust and floating space debris—are pouring inward toward the densest objects in the universe. The mass of these collapsing entities is thought to be billions of times that of our sun. Each generates a field of gravity that captures photons—not even light escapes them. This action represents a drastic warping of the fabric that comprises space and time. Anything that enters the event horizon of a “black hole” crosses into oblivion; matter stretches till it discombobulates, time slows down until it’s nearly standing still. Beyond the distant realm of quasars, we encounter a uniform wall of absolute darkness. All we can detect there is a vast field of invisible radiation. Pulsing out of this abyss as microwaves, it permeates the universe.

“A well-known scientist… once gave a public lecture on astronomy… At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: ‘What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.’ The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, ‘What is the tortoise standing on?’ ‘You’re very clever, young man, very clever,’ said the old lady. ‘But it’s turtles all the way down.'” — Stephen Hawking

Yet even this enormous panorama gives us only a partial glimpse of the created universe. Our view is limited by the speed of light. (A light beam travels 5,880,000,000,000 miles in one year.) The page you are currently reading, for example, actually exists about a nanosecond in the past. The image of the moon you see from earth is really history. It is one and a half seconds old by the time it appears on your retina. This means that the farthest objects we are able to detect, located nearly 15 billion light years from our planet, are really light-borne relics of a very ancient past. We stare at spectral ghosts that haunt the origin of things. The so-called background radiation that assaults our universe is a giant heat signature. It’s all that’s left of the convulsion that created time and space. It is the last blush of the Big Bang.

The observable universe is really only an infinitesimal part of the actual universe. The original bubble of self-contained spacetime, beginning as a microscopic speck, has continued to expand beyond the hypothetical “now” in which we remain stranded. Current observations tell us that the rate of this expansion is accelerating. Recent theories also indicate that, beyond this greater cosmos that we cannot see, other and very different universes may actually exist. In the words of string theorist Brian Greene, “… our universe may merely be one of the innumerable frothing bubbles on the surface of a vast and turbulent cosmic ocean called the multiverse.”

Other scientists suggest that black holes might possibly form portals into alternate realities. It is now known that this severe warping of spacetime is a relatively common occurrence. Such a vortex is believed to exist at the center of our own galaxy. In other words, the fabric of the universe is riddled with a billion holes. These curious lacunas, at their farthest end, might actually be apertures, each capable of extruding further universes completely undetectable to us. Furthermore, this turning of the cosmic fabric in and out can be imagined, with perfect logic, to extend indefinitely, leading to universes beyond universes beyond universes in an unending succession.

“We have found a strange footprint on the shores of the unknown. We have devised profound theories, one after another, to account for its origin. At last, we have succeeded in reconstructing the creature that made the footprint. And lo! It is our own.” — Arthur Stanley Eddington

At the farthest reach of human speculation, the study of what is measurably real begins to resemble metaphysics. Empirical science, however, can assure us of the following facts. We exist upon a planet that is orbiting a star at 150 miles per second. This star is orbiting a galaxy, and it and every other galaxy appear to be rushing at unimaginable speeds away from one another. Space and time, conceived as a continuum, continues to expand at speeds that far exceed the speed of light. The universe is therefore vastly greater than we know. No one can really say where it is going; no one has reliably explained from whence it came. As mortal creatures snugly tucked between the earth and the sky, these facts can fill us with a sense of vertigo and deep perplexity. Science has constructed theories to explain what we’ve observed. Yet, one by one, these monumental constructs of the human mind, when once brought into contact with the facts of nature, have cracked and leaned, have tottered and crumbled.

“Most of us,” writes Timothy Ferris, “suspect that the world we see is in part genuine and in part distorted, or concocted, by our minds; the question is where the fulcrum stands between internal and external.” We always need some kind of fulcrum point, a place where we can firmly stand, a structure and a home in which to house our understanding. This year in the Black Rock Desert we will build an edifice to serve us as our own peculiar Vault of Heaven. From this center we’ll interrogate a universe that hovers in a mid-way space: a place between what’s real within us and what’s real without.

The Observatory Elevation View (Design by Rod Garrett and Larry Harvey)
The Observatory Elevation View (Design by Rod Garrett and Larry Harvey)

“Science as the pursuit of truth is the equal, but not the superior, of art.” — Bertrand Russell

This year’s theme will be a blend of scientific theory and artistic intuition. Burning Man will stand upon the apex of a dome arising from a classical entablature supported by a series of gleaming white columns. This large, circular building will resemble an observatory. The pillars at the outside of its base will form a colonnade, each pair framing a proscenium—a miniature theatre designed for the performance of “off-planet” theatre. Participants who enter the observatory will encounter an imposing metal cylinder arising at its center. From atop this enigmatic object, scientists will use technology to question the unknown.

The Observatory (Design by Rod Garrett and Larry Harvey, illustration by Rod Garrett)
The Observatory (Design by Rod Garrett and Larry Harvey, illustration by Rod Garrett)

This great observatory at the geographic center of our city will become a busy hive of many different kinds of interactive art. The ten small stages indenting its outer circumference are designed to function as dioramas: scenic representations of habitable worlds. Each will form a portal to another planet somewhere in the universe. The dioramas can be viewed here.

We now encourage participants to choose the world they wish to inhabit, and to devise interactive theatrical performances which will take place nightly during the event. An Alien Stage Manager will oversee these choices, as well as the overall coordination of performances. No theatrical experience is needed to participate. The most important guideline to remember is this: Within an infinite universe even the most impossible thing can happen. That impossibility is you. Organized groups who are willing to assume responsibility for furnishing and maintaining an alien world must pre-register and may be eligible for an honorarium. We ask all interested groups to visit our Off-Planet Theater page for more detailed information.

The Observatory (Design by Rod Garrett and Larry Harvey, illustration by Rod Garrett)
The Observatory (Design by Rod Garrett and Larry Harvey, illustration by Rod Garrett)

The shining metal cylinder at the center of the observatory will form a podium. From this elevated platform artist-scientists will launch experiments. These performances should in some way interact with participants inside the dome. Each scientist will be attired in a white lab coat. This uniform will serve to signify their station in our midst as experts and adepts, skilled at probing the unknown. Experiments will be conducted each day. An Alpha Scientist will oversee the scheduling and coordination of these intricate procedures.

One such experiment, created by veteran artist Tim Black, will project a supercharged light beam through the observatory’s open canopy. Precise calibration will carefully aim this light beam directly at stars and their possible planetary systems. All participants will be invited to transmit encoded messages. This information will be visible as a vibratory signature along the length of the beam. Since caution is advisable when speaking to the universe, no message will be sent without approval. Voice votes will be taken that poll everyone within the dome. The result of each vote will be objectively measured using the most advanced technology.

We have found our Observatory projects and, Burning Man’s 2004 art grant cycle has concluded. However, everyone is always welcome to create and display his or her art at the event. If you wish to install theme-related art on the open playa, please contact themeart@burningman.com. If you feel your art is not related to our theme, please contact  installations@burningman.com. We are ready to locate your art on a map that is given to all participants, and we will help you to accurately site your piece in the desert.

“It is obvious that we must regard the universe as extending infinitely, forever… or that we must regard it as not so extending. Both possibilitiesgo beyond us.” — Scientific American, March 13,1921

The location of the observatory will correspond to the position of the Sun within our solar system. The concentric streets of Black Rock City, whose courses seem to orbit it, will assume the names of planetary bodies. After the Esplanade, these will consist of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. Our city’s radiating streets will be named, as in previous years, after the hours and half-hours as indicated on a clock. If it should become necessary to create an extra street at the back of our city, it will be called Sedna — for the most distant object known to orbit our sun. With a surface temperature of minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit, this icy planetoid is named after the Inuit goddess who is said to have created the life forms of the Arctic Ocean.

At the opposite end of our city, far out behind the Burning Man and the observatory, an enormous crescent-shaped temple will float within the space beyond our solar system. This quarter-mile-long sculpture, entitled the Temple of Stars, will correspond to the arcing edge of our galaxy. Designed by artist David Best, it will feature a forest of lamp-hung spires. By night, these lights will gleam like stellar bodies in this outer gulf of space. As in previous years, this intricately crafted temple will be a repository of remembrance. Participants are invited to inscribe it with the names of friends, lovers, and family members, mourned for and lost, who have departed earth. A monumental gateway at the center this Temple of Stars will form a ceremonial portal, an entrance to the realm beyond our local neighborhood in space.

We invite you to explore this open-air gallery. Scattered about this great arena, many of Black Rock City’s largest and most impressive artworks can be found. At night, you may wander past an enormous assemblage of giant spacetime bubbles or pass within the vicinity of a mile-high tetrahedron designed to measure the exact position of the sub-sub-basement of outer space. Finally, if you journey far enough, you will encounter the pentagonal boundary of the 5 square miles that comprise our city. Beyond this frontier, you will face the 400-square-mile void that is the Black Rock Desert. Here, pausing in the stillness of the desert night, far from crowded streets and glaring lights, accompanied only by the moon and stars and the great shining arc of the Milky Way, you will confront a space that may go on forever — or it may not.

Many of the photos and illustrations used on this page are part of the NASA image collection in the public domain. We encourage you to continue your exploration of the Vault of Heaven.