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Burn Cycle @ Santa Barbara Community Arts Workshop

Ethan Turpin Mixes Multimedia and Wildfire in Educational Exhibit

Burn Cycle @ Santa Barbara Community Arts Workshop

Six years ago, just as Santa Barbara was about to experience a string of wildfires amid the drought, multimedia artist Ethan Turpin embarked on a quest to record what these blazes look like from the inside. While he produced a number of videos that we posted on independent.com, the main goal was developing a final project, which is now showing at the Santa Barbara Community Arts Workshop. Called Burn Cycle: Living with Fire, the multifaceted exhibit features immersive displays, short documentaries, and hands-on climate change explorations, enhanced by Spanish language translations as well. 

Turpin answered a few questions about the exhibit this week. 

Why combine multimedia art and fire?

The multimedia tools we use allow us to create experiences that approach the intensity and complexity of wildfire. To make “Future Mountain,” we’ve had to invent the process of how to our model with real-world landscape data through video game architecture. This flexibility of presentation is the best way to offer users tools for manipulating possible outcomes in the interactions between fire, water, forests, climate, and people. “Walk Into Wildfire,” on the other hand, is quite direct in bringing the sound and movement of fire in an immersive way. It’s a way of safely putting ourselves there, which gives an opportunity to have a cathartic experience and learn by observation.

How did this project develop? 

In 2013, I was starting to think about video work I wanted to make about wildfire. At that time, a research group was forming at UCSB Bren School called SERI-Fire, and I was invited to do what would become the first Burn Cycle show at the UCSB Library. We started writing grants together and received support from the National Science Foundation. This was actually during a period of low fire severity in our community, but we knew that could change, and of course it did while we were underway with our research and visualization work. 

What impact do you hope it will have? 

We basically provide an opportunity for people to have some really rich experiences. They get to explore our immersive and interactive content for themselves. Anyone having a rich experience is going to want to learn more, and we have plenty of information about how fire works.

Fire is a complex force of nature. It’s both dangerous and beautiful, and it brings up a lot of important questions for researchers, firefighters, and the public. People who live here have had a lot of direct experience of wildfire, too. This show is a good place to consider what we know, ask further questions, and have conversations.

We want to help people in our communities bring their attention to fire preparedness before the summer arrives. If clearing shrubs will make your home safer, this is a nice time to be outside doing it before it gets hot and dry. Embracing the natural beauty of where we live can include syncing up with cyclical changes, and that includes fire.

Any future plans for the work? 

The development of this show is putting us in the position to make a more mobile, pop-up-ready version for people living in fire-prone communities big and small. With regional partners we hope to bring this to community centers, museums, schools, and even outdoor areas at the edge of the woods. We are also really excited to develop a Mission Creek version of our interactive landscape model. We have amazing data on the mountains and creeks over Santa Barbara. We think it’s important to allow users to visually explore the real possibilities of fire, water, chaparral, and climate change all included in this video game platform.


Burn Cycle: Living with Wildfire runs until April 20 at S.B. CAW, 631 Garden Street. See burncycleproject.com

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