It’s not rocket science… it’s rocket art

‘Rocketship’ becomes icon at Beakerhead

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Behind the three-storey, “retro-futuristic” Raygun Gothic Rocketship is an artist whose rich childhood informs all his projects.

And with a father who was an aerospace engineer, it is no surprise the rocket ship Sean Orlando and the rest of the California-based Five Ton Crane art collective have erected in Victoria Park, has became an icon of Calgary’s Beakerhead festival. Beakerhead runs through Sunday and celebrates the fusion of art, science and engineering.

“I was always taking things apart to see how they worked – toasters, doorknobs, it drove my mother crazy – and I was always drawing, sculpting, exploring.”

So while he knew he wanted to be an artist, being around his father’s work meant, “I grew up around rockets, planes and engineers.”

The Raygun is an art deco version of what a rocket ship was romantically envisioned to be in the 1940s and ’50s.

And while not fully functioning – it won’t, in other words, transport you to the moon – it is fully interactive inside.

You climb up the ladder or the tower and the lower section is the tail and legs where the engine resides. The floor is clear plastic and the engine can be seen rotating below your feet.

It is also the site of the armoury and bio-lab – “we have a number of ray guns custom designed, and a number of aliens we have picked up along the way and are experimenting on,” Orlando says.

The mid-section of the rocket contains the navigation and living quarters (a vertical bed because, of course, there is no gravity in space), a probe launcher, scanner, and an alien navigation device (“we’re still working on figuring it out”).

And if you look up, at the top of the rocket is a rotating pilot’s chair which visitors can sit on, recline in and “push buttons.”

Orlando’s career has included a wide range of artistic work – from being a cofounder of Five Ton Crew, the principal artist at Engineered Artworks, and an artist/fellow of the DeYoung Museum of San Francisco – but pieces like Raygun stem from his interest in large-scale installations and steam engines.

His first piece was a 12-metre tree house on a giant steel tree with 12-metre branches spread through it, which now resides at a brewery in Milton, Del. The tree house was plumbed and hooked up to a steam engine in the tree, so that at night in particular, the steam is visible and acts as foliage for the tree. Totally interactive, visitors can operate it from inside the tree house.

“Again, from my childhood, because we had a tree house.” On the 150-name list of Five Ton members are artists, designers, engineers, a neuroscientist who became an artist, programmers from Pixar, sculptors, toy makers and more, who collectively help to get the installations designed and built.

Orlando, a veteran of Burning Man (an annual art event based on self-expression and self-reliance that now draws tens of thousands of people to the Black Rock Desert of Nevada), says he is excited about Calgary’s Beakerhead event.

Based on his childhood and experience working with engineers, he says there is creativity in what both artists and engineers do.

“It’s about thinking of ways to put things together.”

Friday’s best bets for Beakerhead

11-3 p.m.: They have been working for 24 hours and now it’s time to meet the students from 16 countries competing in the Shell International Competition where they will be judged on their ingenuity.

At Stampede Park. Noon: Speakerhead on Stephen Avenue Walk continues with these topics from scientists, artists, engineers and other interesting people: Your Invention is Ugly and Why That Matters; Flying Robots: Quadrocopters and Unmanned Vehicles; and Changing the World by the Seat of My Pants.

4-6:30 p.m.: The top three teams in two categories of the Shell engineering student competition will battle it out on stage, vying for votes from astronauts and engineers. You get to watch it all as the winners are crowned at the BMO Centre at Stampede Park.

8-9:30 p.m.: It’s the Tremendous and Curious World of Beakerhead, complete with a musical astronaut (Canada’s U-Tube star and guitarplaying Chris Hatfield, the first Canadian to walk in space), a robot band, and an opera singer who also happens to be a physicist. It all happens at the Epcor Centre. The federal government is also supposed to be making an announcement about scientific innovation and creative collaboration opportunities in Calgary, at the event.

For a list of all the events, go to beakerhead. org

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