Volunteer Russel Valentine is helping with the building, transporting, assembly and installation of the sculpture. (Courtesy Photo)

Island artists set to unveil new kinetic sculpture at Burning Man festival, Seattle celebration

Island musician/sculptor Ela Lamblin and choreographer/community collaborator Leah Mann are big-picture artists in both the literal and metaphorical sense. The creative duo behind Lelavision — a professional performance touring company that combines kinetic sculpture, live music and dance — calls their original genre of performance Physical Music. The intention behind their work is to cross all boundaries of race, education, language, religion, economic background, gender and age. That’s a tall order, but if their latest creative collaboration, “Interspecies Communication: a Sculpture, Music, and Dance Celebration,” is any indicator, then Lamblin and Mann are more than filling that bill.

The project, which will be presented at Burning Man in August and Seattle’s Duwamish Waterway Park in September, has been in the works for over a year. It began with two concepts: a desire to fashion an outdoor, large-scale sculpture as a mobile venue for performance and the ponderous question of how to foster unity within the country’s current divisive atmosphere.

“We asked what brings people together in playful, joyful behavior instead of all the abusive behaviors that can happen,” Mann explained. “In nature, how do animals do collective behavior? We’re looking at bird murmurations and the whirlpool-like toruses of mackerel. On a primal level, we’re asking, “How do bodies come together and on a human level, is there a way to create a performative ritual without a lot of words? What are the pieces that would allow for that?’”

Enter Lamblin’s 50-foot long, 30-foot wide and 28-foot tall artwork of a bird that appears to be flying above an enormous whale. According to its creator, the piece is a multi-part project. It’s a kinetic musical sculpture made out of aluminum and stainless steel and built on the flatbed of a truck that serves as a stage. Designed as public art, viewers can walk onto the flatbed and pull the levers to move the bird’s wings.

The grant that launched “Interspecies Communication” came from King County’s cultural agency, 4Culture, followed by generous support from Jack Straw Community Center, City of Seattle’s Parks program and Vashon Center for the Arts. But the grant that’s lifting the project off the ground came from Burning Man Global Art Grants program.

“It’s been a complicated endeavor,” Lamblin said. “We had to hire a professional engineering company. Burning Man is held in the Black Rock Desert, where there is potential of 100-mile wind, so we had to take into account the wind shear. It’s also intended as public art, so all kinds of safety issues go into it. It’s intended to be a center piece for a gathering of people coming together.”

And that’s where murmurations come in. Anyone who has witnessed the aerial ballet of a starling flock turning and twisting in flight like a single organism knows the mesmerizing quality of a murmuration. It certainly caught the attention of Mann and Lamblin, who investigated the science about such behavior. In a murmuration, there is no leader, which allows the group to take shape based on all the individuals instead of from a top-down order. That inspired the duo along with the quality of communication among individuals that occurs for the group to function as a constantly shape-shifting unit. Scientists such as Andrew King and David Sumpter determined that the spatial coherence and synchronized maneuvers depend upon the birds communicating with the six birds closest to them and on out through the flock.

“The information spreads so rapidly to the edge of the group, so the whole thing starts to act as one thing spontaneously,” Lamblin said, “but if there’s a breakdown in communication, it falls apart and becomes chaos. A real key is how clearly you communicate to those right around you. It seems that in our social climate of acceptance of differences, whatever that is, it’s key to pay attention to those around you. People have an easier time judging others they don’t know, but if they were in a circle of people right around them, they’d change their mind pretty quickly.”

Mann added that in a starling murmuration “you can be a seagull or a crow, just a non-predatory bird. You are invited in to join the murmuration. It is a great example.”

To create their human murmuration around the sculpture, Lelavision performers will animate and play a score by longtime Lelavision collaborator, composer and fellow islander Jason Staczek. Next, five diverse community groups representing global cultural traditions will join in performing choreography by Mann and collaborator Sumayya Diop. From there, the public will be invited to join the collective dance celebration in what Mann hopes will be a “playful, joyful way.” The September event will be followed by an open potluck, while a daily murmuration around the sculpture will take place during Burning Man.

Leading up to main September event, Mann will conduct the VCA Mururations Performance Camp for Kids, culminating with participation in the Strawberry Festival parade. In August, the Arts in Nature Festival will be held at Seattle’s Camp Long to experience how to form human murmurations.

“Our work is usually about integrating the forms of musical sculpture and dance/social outreach,” Lamblin said. “But a large part of Leah’s talent and vision has to do with reaching out and bringing groups together. Our work is really a-political in nature, but it has broad political implications. Our artistic phrase on our website is ‘to use art to delight people.’ That’s the experience we hope people have: a sense of delight and wonder and playfulness and all the other reasons we talk about. But the conceptual things don’t matter as much as the experience people have in the moment.”

VCA Murmuration Art Camp for ages 7 to 10: July 17 to 21, with participation in the Strawberry Festival parade. Teachers will include Sumayya Diop, Manuiki Lono and Leah Mann.

Burning Man: sculpture premiere with daily murmurations at 4 p.m., August 29 to September 3, at Black Rock Desert, Nevada.

Seattle sculpture premiere, Lelavision performance, human murmuration and open potluck: 3 to 9 p.m. Saturday, September 30, at Seattle’s Duwamish Waterway Park.