Alter of the Wetlands – CORE project 2013

Altar of the Wetlands –NOLA CORE Burning Man Project

Mechanical fish over an artificial reef. Man’s feeble attempts to recreate the environment he has destroyed. NOLA CORE is back!

On the playa mutant vehicles drift like boats across a calm sea. Altar of the Wetlands will celebrate this feeling with an installation consisting of an altar topped with a large school of mechanical fish swimming in school. Rising 18 feet above the playa will be an altar to the wetlands. Made entirely of wood, this structure will resemble a hybrid between an altar, levee wall and coral reef. Stairs along the sides of the structure bring visitors to the top, where a school of wooden fish rise from the base of the altar to swim through the air.

Not only the wetlands that are being destroyed. The fragile reef systems off the coast of Louisiana are being affected by sediment that should be deposited in the wetlands. Over the last thirty years the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has built 29 inshore artificial reefs in Louisiana’s state waters. This is in addition to the 70 permanent offshore artificial reefs utilizing the remnants of 320 obsolete oil platforms. The Altar/Reef is a metaphorical representation of the technological ways we are replacing what we destroyed. Made of wood, glue and as few screws as possible, the Altar/Reef base will be made entirely of plywood. Cutout text in the form of poetry, sayings, and facts will be incorporated along the base of the structure. In addition to surface detritus from New Orleans (all wood) the positive, cut out, elements will be attached to the surface of the altar creating texture, visual depth and the all important “cargo” feel.

The Fish: The twelve fish will be suspended on poles, firmly attached to the base of the altar. The first level of fish will sit on poles four feet off the top of the altar. The bases around the first fish level will allow participants to crank while sitting.

Risks and challenges

Our risks are similar to all of our past projects. We are confident that we can over come most if not all potential challenges. After the project is funded, we still have to transport the effigy out to the Black Rock Desert. The project has quite a bit of final design to complete and our team is finalizing this now. Although this is a very ambitious project, we do feel we have a dedicated balanced, and highly talented team and can push this through.


Read Article and watch video 

They’ve spent more than $7,000 so far and put in four months of labor to build a 20-foot artistic plywood altar surmounted by 11 amazing mechanical fish. When it’s all done, artists John Valentino and Diane Lundeen plan to pack the whole thing up, truck it to the high desert of Nevada and ceremonially burn it to the ground.

That’s the way the legendary Burning Man festival works. Artists and adventurers from around the country create marvelous sculptures, just to cathartically cremate them.

Lundeen, who is a Louisiana workers’ compensation judge for Orleans Parish, a pet clothing designer and dog supply shop owner, has attended Burning Man five times. She said it’s like an adult Disney World of art, music and alternative culture.

“There was everything in the world to do from yoga to Twister,” she said.

Last year was Valentino’s first Burning Man. He was inspired by the ephemeral ambitious incendiary artwork.

As Lundeen recalls: “We were talking last year at the festival and John said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to see this school of fish from 500 feet away, just magically floating across the desert.’”

So when he got back to New Orleans, Valentino, who is an associate professor of computer arts at Southeastern Louisiana University, set about creating a school of desert fish for Burning Man 2013. First, he digitally designed them as three-dimensional puzzles. He then transferred all the interlocking puzzle parts to plywood and used an automated router to cut them out. Once assembled, each 5-foot fish is like an incredible wooden honeycomb, held together without nails of screws, so they can be completely consumed by fire.

Complete consumption is important, since, after each burn, the festival participants have to clean up and haul away every charred splinter.

Valentino’s fish are held aloft by stout wooden cranks. If you turn the cranks, the hinged fish seem to swim in space. It’s a wonderful effect. It’s also metaphorical. The huge sculpture, titled “Alter of the Wetlands” is meant to raise awareness of Louisiana’s ever-diminishing coastal environment. The concept is subtle. Lundeen and Valentino point out that the coastal environment isn’t purely natural. The hand of Man profoundly influenced its past and its future will be guided by mankind’s actions as well.

Wouldn’t it be cool to see this school of fish from 500 feet away, just magically floating across the desert.” — Diane Lundeen

That’s why Lundeen and Valentino use the word alter in the sculpture’s title; because, for good or ill, humans alter their surroundings.

Burning Man attendees will be welcome to climb the two-story edifice and, in Valentino’s words, “bring the wetlands to life” by activating the mechanical fish. The poignant questions the Bayou State artists hope to provoke is: What happens if Man ever stops turning the cranks? Without human attention, will the wetlands disappear or die?

Overall, “Alter of the Wetlands” is meant to be a lesson in the need for ongoing ecological responsibility. The Burning Man crowd includes some wealthy, socially involved folks who could really make a difference in Louisiana if they saw fit, Lundeen said. Whatever political/ecological impact “Alter for the Wetlands” makes, on Aug. 29, the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the whole works goes up in smoke.

There may be something Freudian in all of this. The symbolic good intentions of the project are the product of the artists’ contemplative, well-meaning super-egos. Sending up a column of flames and smoke in the desert night sky is the product of their impulsive, self-gratifying ids.

Sigmund Freud probably came to mind because the huge “Alter of the Wetlands” sculpture is currently housed in the den of the Krewe du Vieux, the naughtiest Carnival parade, where a cigar is never ever just a cigar. The challenge in shooting a video of the sculpture was avoiding the, um, anatomical exaggerations on the floats in the background. Everywhere in the background.

Diane Lundeen and John Valentino.jpgDiane Lundeen and John Valentino and their Burning Man sculpture ‘Alter of the Wetlands’Doug MacCash / | The Times-Picayune

During the sculpture’s debut party on Friday night (Aug. 9), a small crowd of Valentino and Lundeen’s friends, family, and fellow burners – as Burning Man participants are known – gathered at the base of the sculpture, chatting, sipping beer and frozen lemonade cocktails.

As Lundeen pointed out, the “Alter of the Wetlands” wasn’t the sort of artwork that just two artists could complete on their own. A crew of contributors, including a consulting engineer, has been on the job.

The shadows of onlookers splashed across the sculpture as they climbed the ladder and circled the top deck inspecting the school of wooden fish that glowed blue and orange in the colored spotlights. Beneath them, partiers gathered in the sculpture’s first floor, a sort of geometric wooden hut. Inside, the hut has the childlike charm of a tree house. Outside the hut glowed with an intricate pattern of plumbing pipes cut into the wood. As Valentino explained, the pipes symbolize the water management that has so affected the coast.

Valentino and Lundeen’s “Alter of the Wetlands” is a flammable triumph. It may not have the sheer visual punch of the giant king cake baby that represented New Orleans at Burning Man last year, but I predict the intricacy of the mechanical fish and the sophistication of the message will charm the desert crowd.

I’ve never been to Burning Man, but someday I really want to go. Just last week I saw a flyer posted in a Mid-City shop window by someone who had two tickets to the event, but couldn’t make the trip. But my kids just started school again and I already spent too much on vacation, and … someday.