Neon Voices: An Anti-Racism Illuminated Urban Art Piece

Mauricio Bustos (Photo by Alycia Freeman
Mauricio Bustos (Photo by Alycia Freeman

These last eight months have left me feeling angry, frustrated and confused. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (to name just two) at the hands of police are piercing reminders of the systemic racism and police brutality embedded in our society.

With the cancellation of Black Rock City, my friends and campmates had a lot of pent up energy to create something. So we got together to do what we do best: make big art and share it with our community!

Creating Big Art for Social Change

Neon Voices is an animated, billboard-sized combination of letters and graphics covered in LEDs that can be easily deployed and configured.

It’s message: Black Lives Matter. Sitting atop the words is a gorgeous animated design of interlocking hands, designed by artist Abi Mustapha.

The idea came from the storefronts in Oakland, which have been boarded up during the pandemic. Even as it has been eerie, we have watched with joy as artists turned the plywood into canvases to express beautiful messages of peace and love, urging us all to recognize what’s happening around us.

Bringing Black Rock City Skills into the World

I’m usually among the people who offer support from the sidelines. But one of the things I do know how to do, thanks to Burning Man, is to make cool shit with my friends! I feel incredibly fortunate to have a year-round community of Burner friends and family and volunteers who work together as The Crisis Labs Art Collective in an industrial shop in Emeryville California, right next to Oakland.

Using my training as an engineer I’ve built a variety of wearable tech projects and placed installations. And over the last decade our crew has created several projects on playa. Going bigger and bigger each year, in 2014 we ramped up to deploy my largest project to date — lumenEssence, a field of thirty three 30’ tall flexible towers that displayed coordinated LED designs and reacted to the environment (wind, sound and time). In my most recent Black Rock City adventure I contributed to the Red Hot Beverly art car, a giant fire-and-music-spewing fire extinguisher captained by my dear friend Marvin Lew. We like to say: “We Put Out Fire!”

lumenEssence (Photo by Mauricio Bustos)
lumenEssence (Photo by Luke Me Up)

An Open-Source LED Project You Can Build Too

When the Neon Voices idea emerged, the crew at Crisis Labs came together to figure out how to use our skills, energy, and creativity to make an impact on the world around us.

Photo by Sarah Belle Lin
Photo by Michael Keeth

What emerged were 16 30-inch letters, CNC cut, treated to withstand the elements, and outlined with hundreds of LEDs which simulate neon lights.

The LEDs are controlled wirelessly through a Raspberry Pi computer, which can be programmed to produce patterns using the letters and graphics. I wanted to stick to the idea of making the letters look like old school neon with chunky animation to get just the right effect.

The Neon Voices project is open source. My hope is that other artists will use the technology to create their own large scale anti-racist LED-neon messages to light up other buildings and hilltops across the country.

Here is the link for the open source library, which includes the building plans, bill of materials, programs, and instructions for building the art.

A Random Encounter Leads to the Perfect Location

Photo by Sarah Belle Lin
Photo by Sarah Belle Lin

We started working on the piece before we had an idea of where it was going to be installed. We assumed that finding a location was going to be the easiest part of the project, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. We had more than a few rejections from local building owners who said they didn’t want to get involved.

One night during a full system test outside of our shop in Emeryville, a city council member saw our work. After learning that we were having trouble finding a suitable location, he offered to tweet about our situation. It worked!

Through this tweet, we were connected to Rising Sun, a local organization that empowers individuals to achieve environmental and economic sustainability. Our project felt like a perfect fit for the organization’s mission. After connecting and coordinating, we were up and running within a few weeks.

How Can You Support Your Local Community?

Our crew is used to working hard all spring and summer to bring new art, new ideas, and new projects to life for Black Rock City. For all of us Burners there was an additional sense of disorientation and loss this year to add to all the uncertainty and trauma that is happening in the world.

I am so very grateful to have learned some powerful lessons from my time on the playa to help me through this.

  • When things get really tough, ask for help from your people and your neighbors.
  • When the wind blows and the dust kicks up, come together and support each other — and maybe even crack a bottle of champagne.
  • And when things seem like they are really falling apart, get ready, because that is when the real beauty emerges!

The art of Neon Voices emerged from the stormy weather of the last months. Just like in the desert, it brought our crew together, gave us a common purpose, and pushed us to new levels of creativity and ingenuity.

As I write this, it’s 324 days until the Man burns. Let me be clear: I love Black Rock City. It is the place where I learned that I was an artist, and where I met so many of the people who bring me life, love, and joy. And, while there is so much to do to prepare to build Black Rock City again, there is also much more we can do to support and nurture our communities right where we live.

Watch a video playlist of the finished Neon Voices installation, gloriously illuminated and animated.

If you’re interested in taking on a project like this please check out the open source link and feel free to reach out. I’d love to talk with you!

Neon Voices, 2020 (Photo by Truman O'Brien)
Neon Voices, 2020 (Photo by Leo Maco)

Cover: Neon Voices, 2020 by Abi Mustapha and The Crisis Labs Art Collective (Photo by Truman O’Brien)

About the author: Mauricio Bustos

Mauricio Bustos

Mauricio is a Colombian born, Detroit raised, Oakland based artist who uses his engineering training to create interactive, high-tech installations that focus on representing natural phenomena in new and compelling ways. His first burn was 1998 and has led and contributed to a variety of wearable, mobile and placed playa projects ever since. He's a husband, father of teenage boys and a founding member of the Crisis Labs Art Collective.

9 Comments on “Neon Voices: An Anti-Racism Illuminated Urban Art Piece

  • Dave Klaus says:

    What a great post and what a wonderful project!!

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    • Stan Ryba says:

      As everyone knows, all lives matter. Now, for the reality check. This group of anti American radicals does not give a rip about black lives. If they were, they would be in Chicago, or New York beating their racist drums. I like so many other white guys are sick and tired of this BS. Take some responsibility for your actions. Stop the 73% out of wedlock baby making. Quit killing each other at a rate that is nearing one hundred a weekend. Stop this craziness and embrace you brothers and sisters. I’m former military and served with men and women of all color. I lost one of my best friends to a rocket attack and I was the one to tell his mom and dad about Marcus. How cool he was. I still miss him. I put his Purple Heart in the temple several years ago. It helped what was left of my team. Anyways, you look silly splashing that racist BLM sign all over what is the last of a community that doesn’t care what color you are. We judge you by the content of your character. Look up that quote you young ones. That man was a true believer in brotherhood.
      Thank you.

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  • Drtygrl says:

    Thank you MauMau, for brightening our night. Love! TRACK

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  • sheldon levine says:

    My son in law makes me proud!!

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  • Gary Arnstein says:

    Thanks for bringing your heart and skills to this expression of social justice!

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  • Yoshanda d'landa says:

    You still have inherent racism and there’s no cure for that. Can’t make enough signs to atone for being born racist. Try getting “I’m Sorry” tattooed on your forehead and then walk through Oakland on your knees. That would be good.

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  • Frank says:

    “Anti-Racism” or the false dichotomy “You’re either with us or you’re with the racists/terrorists/communists etc.” is a toxic way to gather support and to look at the causes of real world problems. It should not be condoned. As a four-time Burner I see our extremely compassionate and inclusive community at risk of people trying to manipulate these laudable traits. We must not be fooled. Every virtue becomes a vice if it’s taken to its extreme. You can already see it by the racist comment left by Yoshanda d’landa above, spewing hatred against people based on skin colour and a ridiculous theory of how the world works. Let’s put our minds and energy on real change and not some guilt trip based on false and manipulative and toxic readings of history and societal dynamics.

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