It all began as a wish, while gazing upon the magical playa sunrise — a desire to curate an experience and create a space for shading and gathering. As I wandered through Waking Dreams last year, I found myself captivated by the majestic structural artworks of Burning Man, especially those involving textiles, such as inflatables and shade structures. In my perspective, textiles are unique materials that could imbue the desert art landscape with fluidity, softness, and a dynamic quality. They are an integral part of our daily lives and instrumental for human expression and survival. However, we often overlook and take them for granted, not realizing the complex materials, deep craftsmanship, and various elements that go into their design and creation.
During a Science Talk at The Phage in Black Rock City last year, I also had the opportunity to present my research on the new fabrics/functional textiles. Currently based in the MIT Media Lab, my work revolves around the fusion of functional fibers, sensor networks, and digital knitting to develop interactive textiles spanning various scales, ranging from wearables, room-scale textiles, to architecture. As my presentation concluded, I couldn’t resist sharing my aspiration of bringing these captivating and interactive textiles to Burning Man. I believe there exists an exciting opportunity to introduce novel materials and technologies into the realm of architectural fabrics, while also integrating them with intricate details and avenues for self-expression.
Little did I anticipate that this dream would ultimately become reality. Fast forward almost one year, and we are fortunate to have received a Black Rock City Honoraria grant that allowed us to seed this vision at Burning Man. The journey since then has been nothing short of extraordinary, filled with constant challenges, boundless creativity, meaningful connections and fruitful collaborations.
“Living Knitwork Pavilion” rendering (Photo courtesy of Irmandy Wicaksono)
Crafting a Fusion of Tradition and Innovation
Coming from Indonesia, I was immersed in a culture rich in textile arts. This encompassed a diverse range of techniques, from the traditional ikat and songket weaving to the artistry of batik wax-patterning and dyeing. The intricacy and beauty of these textiles have long left me captivated; I realized that it takes an immense amount of skill, patience and imagination to create such remarkable artwork. These indigenous textiles are woven with beautiful organic designs and patterns. Some are believed to possess magical powers and are designed to convey specific meanings and wishes. Often complementing traditional gatherings, rituals and music, these textiles amplify a sense of community, identity and expression.
Drawing on my research vision and these influences, the “Living Knitwork” emerges as an interactive textile shade structure rooted in the reverence for artistry and wisdom found in ancient artifacts, particularly those of textiles and temples in Indonesia. Balinese Pura, which represents sacred spaces with stone carvings where communities gather and pray, served as pivotal inspirations. The “Living Knitwork” structure would stand as a spiritual sanctuary, inviting exploration and introspection. Central to the “Living Knitwork” petal’s forms is also the Javanese Gunungan, a symbol synonymous with shadow-puppetry that signifies shifts in narratives. Within the Gunungan’s patterns lies a portrayal of cosmic equilibrium between humanity and the mystical-magical realm. Lastly, the hand-written batik, adorned with its repetitive geometric motifs and flora-fauna designs, holds profound significance to the design of “Living Knitwork” textile patterns. These elements encapsulate a spectrum of meanings and aspirations — harmony, prosperity, growth, fertility and abundance, among others.
The “Living Knitwork Pavilion”
The “Living Knitwork Pavilion” is an art, research and immersive experience installation that takes the form of a dodecagonal pyramid structure, standing 18 feet tall and 26 feet wide. It consists of 12 petal fabrics, each individually-designed with 90 textile reliefs. These reliefs, inspired by temple carvings, are distributed parametrically on a knitted-mesh surface and depict 12 stories of a future world — a fusion of human-nature relationships, built environments, and the interplay between organic and synthetic beings. We set to weave contemporary and traditional patterns and motifs in a Knitwork petal narrative ranging from bio-machine symbiosis, solarpunk cities, to deep ocean and space exploration.
12 “Living Knitwork” petals and detailed patterns (Photo courtesy of Irmandy Wicaksono)
The novel approach of 3D-knitting, this time applied in electronic and responsive textiles at an architectural scale, is an additive manufacturing process starting from a collection of functional and common yarns as design primitives, including conductive, photochromic and luminous yarns. Every Knitwork petal is carefully designed with mesh-like openings to allow lights and wind to pass through, popped-up tactile patterns to create textile reliefs, melting-yarns for hardening or thermoforming process, and custom channels and seam details for sailing rope and electrical cabling insertions. The entire process enables the building of custom multi-layer aesthetic-technical textiles with unique forms and textures and minimal waste. We take pride in incorporating recycled materials into this large-scale textile art, with 60% of our yarns derived from recycled plastic bottles. The “Living Knitwork Pavilion” is also powered by “The Solar Library,” an effort to reduce generators and noise on playa through the use of renewable energy sources. We are excited to work on reducing the environmental footprint in our production processes and existence on playa.
The central structure of the Pavilion is composed of a lattice gridshell network of lumber elements designed to optimize structural integrity while minimizing material usage. By tailoring the curves in the design, the gridshell’s organic forms seamlessly blend with the Knitwork, amplifying a sense of fluidity and harmony throughout the Pavilion. By day, the “Living Knitwork Pavilion” serves as a shading structure, providing a communal space for introspection, meditation and discovery. As the sun rises, hidden-encrypted textile patterns are revealed through photochromism.
As dusk descends upon the desert, the Pavilion undergoes a metamorphosis, illuminating its surroundings in both auditory and visual ambience. Integrated within the Knitwork petals are a network of antennas made from the knitted conductive yarns, which couple with each other and pick up an electrical field transmitted by the central structure. The electric-field-sensing principle is akin to that of the theremin musical instrument and can also be found in certain species of fish, which perform electrolocation to navigate or sense objects or prey in their vicinity. The Knitwork antennas constantly sense our movements, as our body couples with or disrupts the electrical field distribution to drive an immersive audio and lighting network in real time. This exchange transforms the Pavilion into a responsive lantern; our energy, presence, and interactions will contribute toward the entire glow and atmosphere of the space, fostering moments of discovery, reflection and collective experience.
“Living Knitwork” core team and volunteers building the central structure and working on textile post-treatment (Photo courtesy of Irmandy Wicaksono)
From a Multi-disciplinary Collective to Community Art
At the initial stage of this project, I formed a collective with a shared vision of bringing the “Living Knitwork Pavilion” dream to life. Our group is diverse and multicultural, comprising scientists, engineers, designers and artists across the MIT Media Lab and School of Architecture and Planning. We are committed to exploring the boundaries and intersection of art and technology, weaving engineering, scientific rigor and playfulness into the way we build future worlds through interactive installations. The result of this is a collaboration that transcends disciplinary boundaries. The “Living Knitwork” draws principles and methodologies from fiber/textile arts, material science, digital fabrication, sensing system, architecture and structural engineering. This effort integrates advanced, tailored and functional textile skin onto a structure where various elements such as programs, patterns, geometry, human interaction, energy field, and interactive machines harmoniously coexist.
We recently had a chance to build and install the “Living Knitwork Pavilion” at the MIT Saxon Lawn, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was such an intense and pivotal moment for the team, as we prepared all the Knitwork petals, developed the hardware systems, and constructed the central structure from the ground up for the very first time, and unveiled the Pavilion for a few days before our shipping date to Black Rock City. Working through every challenge as we built the “Living Knitwork” and witnessing the Pavilion gradually take shape was an incredible and humbling experience. The outpouring of support and enthusiasm from our peers, friends and family deeply touched us — as numerous hands were involved in realizing this community art. Our effort would not be possible without the constant support from Burning Man Arts and the MIT Media Lab community. We also would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to fellow Phagelings and Burners from around the world who have not only become our friends and mentors, but have also assisted us in every possible manner, making this unraveling journey incredibly fulfilling.
“Living Knitwork Pavilion” installation at the MIT Saxon Lawn (Photo courtesy of Jimmy Day)
Get Involved and Support Us
As the project continues and we prepare the departure of the “Living Knitwork Pavilion” to Black Rock City and build it on the dusty playa, we are still seeking support from all of you, the Burning Man community. We have launched our Givebutter Fundraising page and would really appreciate your support. Please also share this project with your friends and family; all donations will contribute toward realizing the “Living Knitwork Pavilion” at Burning Man. These donations will go toward covering expenses such as tool rental, Build Week infrastructure, anchoring, artwork transportation from Boston to Black Rock City and back, crew support, and any additional textile and hardware materials. We invite you to follow our Instagram page for real-time updates and behind-the-scenes. If you’re interested in offering assistance in other ways or if you have ideas for playa events or mutant vehicle link-ups with the “Living Knitwork Pavilion,” please don’t hesitate to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
With the “Living Knitwork Pavilion,” we would like to exemplify the remarkable possibilities that arise when architecture, technology and textile arts converge as we embrace the spirit of Burning Man. Through new materials, digital fabrication techniques, and a deep appreciation for cultural symbolism, we invite all of you to take shelter, engage, interpret, and be enveloped in a celestial tapestry of light, color and textile wonders. We are really excited and we hope to be able to sense your presence and interact with you all soon in the dust!
Cover image courtesy of Irmandy Wicaksono