Project: Fire Organ: Seeing Sound, Guerilla Science
Amount awarded: £29,500
Timing: April 2015 to August 2016

Objectives

  • Design, prototype and build a gold-standard multi-pipe Fire Organ
  • Develop and deliver a public performance of the Fire Organ at summer musical festivals
  • Develop and deliver workshops to schools and a youth centre
  • Work with construction and acoustic engineers. Involve engineers to participate in the delivery of performances and workshops
  • Increase engineers’ confidence and skills in public engagement
  • Create a new composition for the Fire Organ in collaboration with musicians
  • Produce a ‘how to’ guide for building a safe Fire Organ
  • Identify opportunities for further development of the project with new partners and audiences in the future

Audiences

The project involved nine early career construction, structural and acoustic engineers, two of them women. It reached 880 festival goers at three festivals and, in east London, 240 school children at a single workshop and 40 young people at a community centre workshop.

The project

Fire Organ: Seeing Sound brought together Guerilla Science with musicians, artists and engineers from engineering firm Buro Happold. Together they designed, prototyped and built a Fire Organ – a precision engineered, multi-pipe version of the Rubens tube (a century-old teaching tool commonly used in physics demonstrations), which incorporated the latest engineering expertise and fire safety standards.

The spectacular Fire Organ – which shoots out jets of flame in response to musical tones – formed the centrepiece of a participatory workshop developed in collaboration with nine structural, construction and acoustic engineers, two of them women. The workshop incorporated insights into the build of the Fire Organ, the engineers’ careers and the physics behind harmonic waves. It also incorporated elements from music and art, including a new composition that showed off the leaping flames to brilliant effect and cymatics sculptures from artist Zach Walker.

This workshop toured music festivals in summer 2015 – Latitude, Secret Garden Party and Shambala – where it was presented to festival audiences by the engineers. 880 festival-goers watched, danced and interacted with the Fire Organ. Three new compositions were shortlisted through a competition, played through the Fire Organ submitted to an audience vote at Secret Garden Party.

In the autumn of 2015 the Fire Organ was taken to St Paul’s Way Trust school in Tower Hamlets, east London, reaching 240 school children, and to Brady Arts and Community Centre in Whitechapel, east London, where 40 young people played guitars, sang and beat boxed along with the dancing flames.

The project’s most successful elements were the collaboration with the participating engineers, who were all at an early stage in their careers and who gained much from the experience; the inclusion of elements from the arts, including music and cymatics sculptures, which introduced additional perspectives on the already fascinating subject of harmonic waves; and the impact on audiences, who were wowed by the spectacle of the Fire Organ and acquired a better understanding of engineering.

Impacts

The engineers worked with an artist and an aerodynamics researcher who had more public engagement experience, and reflected that they learnt a lot about public engagement and other approaches to engineering content from working alongside them. All engineers stated that they felt more confident in presenting their work to a mixed audience in diverse settings and that they gained new skills and understanding associated with public engagement.

“We all get bogged down with our everyday work and you can forget about enjoying engineering, that other people think our work is cool. The project really highlighted that, and it’s been really quite motivating in my work so far.”

Engineer

Many visitors stated that they had acquired a better understanding of the breadth of subjects covered by engineering, including music. All visitors stated that they would like to take part in similar engineering related activities in the future. Audience evaluation also suggests that festival visitors broadened their perceptions of engineering and engineers, with visitors connecting engineering to their every-day lives and prior experiences to an extent that they had not previously.

“The association of engineering with music that was so obvious in the show made engineering really relevant to me. It fits in better with my interests than I would have thought.”

Festival participant

Learning

There were some challenges, given the scale of the build, the time needed to complete it and the fact that this was undertaken by the engineers outside their normal working hours (evenings and weekends). The engineers’ day jobs were demanding, often requiring long hours and travel, and it was difficult for the team to find the time for the build. Responding to this, the project negotiated more time for the engineers to work on the project and the build ensuring it was completed on time and to budget.

The music competition was complex to run and needed much more lead time than was available to make an impact. If the project was repeated the project would consider commissioning a composer to create something for the Fire Organ rather than run an open call.

The complexity of the build itself, led to the decision not to publish a ‘how to’ guide as originally intended, due to safety concerns.

Next steps

The legacy of the project is the Fire Organ itself – it returned to Secret Garden Party festival in July 2016 and Guerilla Science are exploring future possibilities for performance and further collaboration – along with a blog post by one of the participating engineers that explored the making of the Fire Organ and the principles behind it, and films of the build and workshops on Guerilla Science’s Vimeo and YouTube channels.

An experimental transatlantic event is planned in 2017 involving both the UK and US Fire Organs and an online/media partner.

 

More information can be found on the Guerilla Science website.