Monolith 2.0 - an installation for Burning Man 2009

The theme of burning man 2009 is evolution.

In Arthur C. Clark's Space Odyssey, the first generation of The Monolith triggered shifts in the evolution of man by encouraging tool development and space travel. Appearing at first glance to be similar, this 11 foot high black slab is the first in a new series of Monoliths that fosters user-generated evolution through interactive and collaborative tools, both musical and visual.

Monolith 2.0 will be the size of the first two Monoliths found by humans - TMA-0 (the prehistoric one) and TMA-1 (the one on the moon). Specifically, 11 feet high. The depth x width x height dimensions of a monolith need to be in the ratio 1 x 4 x 9, so that makes the depth 15 inches and the width 60 inches (approximately). The pictures at the bottom of this page show the design. A steel base will anchor the installation and brace it against the wind, which of course will be considerable against a solid flat structure of 55 square feet. A structural engineer was enlisted to help with the calculations, and the structure is designed to withstand 90mph winds. The base support will be built from 3-1/2" square steel tube welded together with full penetration welds. The 3-1/2" tube base will be buried so that it is not visible. The total amount of playa displaced will be perhaps 1.5 cubic feet - well under the 3 cubic feet limit accorded by playa installation guidelines. 4x4 wood posts will be bolted to the steel base - at least 9 bolts per post, according to the structural calculations. Several internal braces made of wood will be attached to these posts, and plywood will be used to cover the surface of the monolith. Textured paint will provide a consistent surface for the monolith, which will be all black.


The primary purpose of Monolith 2.0 is to attract playa humans and let them explore their creativity, ideally evolving their feelings about what they are capable of, individually and together. Also, the results should evolve as people discover how to interact with the instrument. One side of the Monolith will have tools for musical expression, and the other side of the Monolith will have tools for visual expression.

The musical interface of the monolith will be several velocity and presure-sensitive pads and multitouch surfaces on which humans can tap and gesture to produce music in various forms. There will be two identical sets of controls, so that people will be encouraged to play together. Often the music will be automatically looped, filtered, and quantized, so the results will be typically rhythmic and melodic. Other modes of the interface (selectable by buttons and revealed by small LCD displays) will be more freeform. The software behind the system will be custom software developed specifically for this installation - I have significant experience in this area.

The visual interface of the monolith will be a blackboard, possibly with a frame and (fake) chalk tray, mounted on the other side. Multicolored chalk and erasers will be provided, placed in a box of some sort to avoid being blown around. Playa humans will be free to draw (and erase) whatever they like. There's no telling what people will create, but it's very likely to be consistently interesting, and almost as ephemeral as the music created on the other side.


The musical interface (pads, buttons, and LCDs) will be connected to a low-power computer running Windows XP. Low-power T-class amplifier(s) and high-efficiency speakers will provide the sound. The software will be an evolved version of software I have done before.


Deep-cycle 12-volt batteries will power the installation, and will be recharged daily with solar panels at my camp (I already own 2 solar panels). It's likely that the installation will work for most of a day on one battery charge. It's possible that a small solar panel can be placed on the top of the structure, to help maintain the battery charge during the day.


The panel below the interactive music controls will be removable to provide access to the internals and allow changing of the batteries.


Monolith 2.0 will be completely outlined in fat and bright EL-wire, providing the light needed to see it at night.

Prior Experience

I have done playa-placed art installations previously (in 2003 and 2004), and have attended every year since 2002, so I'm fairly familiar with the environment. One of my installations was a 12-foot high PVC lyre with animated lightrope strings and DDR dance pads for interactive music creation) and used a generator. The other was an antique radio that was battery powered with a computer and laser inside. A generator is hard to keep running, as well as being invasive to the experience, so the Monolith will be completely battery powered.


I've been working for several months so far on research and on the design, both structural and electrical. Most of the electronics are already in-hand. I've gotten quotes on making the steel support. The project will be entirely self-funded. It is designed in a modular way, and I have one person lined up (Dinko Roko, an experienced burner) who will be helping me install it. I'll be setting it up in my back yard over the summer to make sure it all fits together and works.


Here are the structural calculations of wind force and steel support needed to withstand it. The first two pages are the calculations for the steel structure needed to withstand the wind's force, and the last two pages are the calculations of the wind force.

Here's a picture of Monolith 2.0 showing the frame and the completed look with music controls in the side. The supports will be buried and not visible. As mentioned above, the playa displaced will be well under the 3 cubic foot limit. Some of the internal braces will likely change in minor ways. 4-foot rebar (at least four per side) will be used to anchor the steel base.

Artist Contact Info

Tim Thompson
943 Willow Glen Way
San Jose, CA 95125