The “Do-acracy” of the Flaming Lotus Girls

My initial encounter with the Flaming Lotus Girls on the playa in 2006 was with Serpent Mother, an awesome 168-foot-long skeletal serpent with propane fire running down her spine coiled around her egg. The flamboyant snake electrified the crowds. Serpent Mother continues to slither through many venues in the western United States, and even overseas, inviting audiences to help direct her fire show as well as her choreography through controls that adjust propane flame effects as well as the movement of the head and jaws. Each appearance is a customized performance created by participants.

Flaming Lotus Girls, or FLG, is a volunteer-based group of artists that began in 2000 as a group of six women and two men who wanted to learn the demanding skills of creating complex, large-scale fire sculptures. They have now grown to over one hundred members, with over half of them women but welcoming all genders.

FLG’s sculptures explore the interesting possibilities of kinetics, robotics, pyrotechnics, and electronic technology. Their beautiful Soma is currently a striking feature on the Embarcadero in San Francisco. Soma lights up every night at sunset and has two buttons, and everyone is invited to stop by and push them to see what happens.

Denise and the Flaming Lotus Girls were delighted to answer a few questions regarding their work, and they are very excited to share their experiences with fellow artists and the Burning Man community at large.

What are your hopes for FLG projects when they are designed?

When we start dreaming up new ideas, we consider how it will feel to see the sculpture from afar, how to make it interesting so people will approach it, and what it’ll feel like to be standing inside it. How can we play with it? Will it be as simple as pushing a button? Or can we make it more unusual? Like triggering a sensor by squeezing this felted moss that has conductive thread woven through it. Making a cool interactive space is really important to us. We try to make fun environments.

Tympani Lambada by the Flaming Lotus Girls. 2011 (Photo by Neil Girling)
Tympani Lambada by the Flaming Lotus Girls. 2011 (Photo by Chayna Girling)

Typically we have one single artist’s vision driving our design, but we try to incorporate other ideas to flesh it out into an aesthetic style that we all like. We operate under the loose organizational structure of Do-ocracy, which means if you step up and assume the responsibility for some portion of the project, then you can drive the decisions relating to that part.

Ideally, during a build, we’ll have a lot of simpler tasks that can be broken out and taught to fledgling new members. This gives us opportunities to share skills and practice teaching to each other, and it helps maintain our flow of new members. We also like to explore new fire effects and new fabrication materials, so as to broaden our skill set.

Where do you envision FLG projects going beyond Burning Man?

Permanent installations in our communities! We just submitted a proposal to build a sculpture that’ll go at the entrance to the Bayview, the San Francisco neighborhood our metal shop is in. We’re one of three finalists, and we’re pretty excited about that.

Also, world tours! It would be fun to jump onto a festival circuit and bring our work to new crowds all over the country, and beyond! Typically, the music festival gigs pay us enough money that we can make more art, so these events broaden both our fan base and our portfolio.

What have been the challenges in showing FLG work publicly?

There are the usual logistics problems that go with any project. Despite our best efforts, sometimes our repair and maintenance budget ends up being larger than anticipated. Storing our containers is a perpetual cost, and the more art we make the more we have to store and maintain! Fortunately we’ve got some fabulous event planners in our midst who know how to throw outstanding fundraiser parties!

With our semi-permanent installation down at Pier 14, we had a good deal of safety retrofitting to do. Things get broken or vandalized on that piece too, but they’re relatively minor. Dealing with city and port authorities was interesting, and satisfying the ADA regulations while maintaining the look of the piece was another puzzle.

Soma, by Flaming Lotus Girls, and the FLG crew, 2014, San Francisco, California. (Photo by Jason Chinn)
Soma, by Flaming Lotus Girls, and the FLG crew, 2014, San Francisco, California. (Photo by Jason Chinn)

Sometimes we bring our art to challenging environments. In Las Vegas, we have to do all our work at night because it’s too hot to touch metal during the day. In Toronto in January, we heat our fuel tanks, warm our hoses so they’ll bend, use heat guns to cure adhesive. In Texas in May though, our fuel tank pressure is juuuuuust right for big poofing!

How have you overcome these challenges?

One challenge we face all the time is having enough funds to support our projects. But what we lack in money, we can often make up for in people-power. A recent example is when we needed to redo all the electronics in “Soma” to make them waterproof and robust. We didn’t have the funds to buy off-the-shelf commercial circuit boards, so we hand-populated hundreds of boards ourselves. Which was kind of an insane undertaking, but the benefit of this solution was that we taught dozens of folks how to surface mount solder, how to test the boards, how to write new patterns…and these boards all WORK. You can go down to Pier 14 and see them and push the buttons to make their patterns go. For a new FLG to join our group and be taught a new skill, and to have the results of all that labor be right there on display, in our hometown, for everyone to enjoy…that is just such an awesome, tangible success.

How do you connect with opportunities to show FLG work?

BRAF (Black Rock Arts Foundation, now Burning Man Arts) helped us get onto Pier 14, which has been a phenomenal opportunity for us. We’ve brought art to Maker Faire since 2007, and we always pick up a good group of new volunteers there. Bringing art to huge parties like Insomniac events has been a great boost for visibility. Often, event organizers reach out to us to our email through the website.