The Fire Line Series
Structured Wildland Fires
View Digital Images and MPEG-1 clips from the DVD, "Studies for Prescribed Burning V1.0".

The Fire Line Series of works involve the deliberate setting of forest or grass fires in order to produce very large scale images composed of fire and smoke. The images are dynamic, changing as the fire progresses from isolated points of ignition through envelopment of large areas, typically hundreds of acres of land. The images appear gradually, as the fire establishes itself, reach a sort of zenith as the fire advances to an organized mid point, and then gradually decay, as the fire burns out and consumes the entire area involved. The pieces use the envelopment of the land by fire as an imaging device. The progress of the fire first reveals, then obliterates the image. While this work is obviously a form of dynamic land art, it also has connections to electronic imaging.

Wildfire near Corona, New Mexico. 5/21/04
The Fire Line Series is conducted as part of controlled or prescribed burns in managed forest or grassland areas or as agricultural practice. "Prescribed fire is the intentional burning of forest fuels under conditions specified in an approved plan to meet management objectives and confined to a predetermined area(1)". Forest management techniques of the last 100 years, now understood to have been misguided, have suppressed naturally occurring forest fires, resulting in excessive fuel loads in many managed forest areas and to some degree have been responsible for the major Western forest fires of recent years. In an effort to reverse the effects of this policy forest management agencies have been conducting prescribed burns. While these prescribed burns have been creating these same sort of immense images composed of fire and smoke as these pieces would produce, the forms of these images have been inadvertent, the side effects of technological or scientific objectives. These works propose to use the same events to provide to opportunity to create deliberately composed images. What is required to conduct these pieces is agreement from the agency involved to have the fires be set in a predetermined pattern within the area of the prescribed burn. Typically, the prescribed burn is conducted within the boundaries of a cleared fire break with the area being burned from the perimeter inward. It is assumed that for safety reasons the ignition of the interior fires set for the purposes of forming the image will require some form of remote control, giving these works an additional aspect of robotic drawing.

The work involves the creation of images by a luminous field. This has become a commonplace event only in the second half of the last century, with the advent of the CRT for television and computer displays and the continued development of plasma and LCD displays. The fire mimics the luminous glow of these electronic imaging devices. The widespread adoption of electronic displays has seen them become trivialized as a result of the frenetic consumption of images. In these works imaging by a luminous field is presented on a very large scale at the upper limits of controllability of human activity. The phenomena is thus celebrated and reinvested with significance. The idea of the fiery consumption of nature being used to create images also mirrors the scale and potential destructiveness of the industrial effort required to create the technology which enables the formation of luminous images on electronic displays. While electronic displays themselves have an antiseptic and detached presence, they stand at a sort of pinnacle of industrialization which begins with environmentally disruptive processes such as the mining of raw materials like phosphors and the rare earth elements in semiconductors.

Wildfire in the Pecos Wilderness, New Mexico. 9/15/05
click for a group of photos
The ritualistic use of fire has been historically pervasive. Lucy Lippard catalogued some of the extent of this practice; "...fertility or funerary rituals,... burning torches were used symbolically to fertilize fields and orchards,... Animals were purified by smoke and driven through fires to protect them from disease. ...couples held hands and leapt over the fire, the higher they leapt, the higher the flax would grow. ..the Church's pruriently puritanical habit of burning witches at the stake... Fire is a boundary - between health/luck/fecundity and illness/bad fortune/barreness; between light and dark, or between life and death. It is the universal symbol of transformation, or soul escaping from body, and it has always been associated with sacrifice - human and animal."(2)

The deliberate and methodical fires of prescribed burning can be considered in a ritualistic perspective as sacrificial offerings to some pastoral deity in atonement for our disruption of the natural ecosystem. A portion of the forest is sacrificed by burning in hopes of restoring equilibrium and preventing the wholesale destruction of the entire forest by fire. It could be seen to elevate the forester into something of an environmental priesthood. One is reminded of the sacrificial offerings made by the pre-Columbian pueblo dwellers in the same desert Southwest in an effort to ameliorate droughts. Despite the foundations of modern earth science which govern these prescribed fires, the apparent analogy to primitive sacrificial offerings is inescapable. To return to the electronic imaging analogy in the context of sacrifice, these pieces, by involving a form of image making in the sacrifice, allow it to redeem and reinvest with significance that image making process which has become squandered and trivialized.

The prescribed fires also have another ritualistic context whereby they attempt to conjure lightning or at least the effect of lightning. They simulate a process which normally occurs as the result of lightning strikes. The last century's philosophy of forest care has suppressed the effect of lightning strikes, one of the most dramatic and powerful events in nature, and now we are forced to replicate their effects without their presence. Prescribed burns are therefore something like synthetic lightning strikes or at least simulated lightning strikes, the same smoke and fire results, without the flash and bang, but now in an exactly prescribed pattern. We have suppressed naturally occurring forces and now have to simulate them to maintain equilibrium. The missing electrical flash of the lightning evokes the electronic nature of the imaging process which is being reinvigorated.

Fire has been used in artworks by numerous contemporary artists including Yves Klein, Dennis Oppenheim, Chris Burden, and Mary Beth Edelson, among many others. Fire is extravagant and expansive, not to mention inflammatory. The act of setting a fire is inherently disturbing. In the context of the controlled burns it has a rational justification. However, setting fires for the purpose of making art has an element of the wanton and excessive, but this also exposes the excessive nature of the prescribed burn. It is like bleeding a patient or irradiating a cancer. It is a sign of a deep dysfunction, a lack of peace with or health of the environment.

Wildfire near Corona, New Mexico. 5/22/04
These works have a social and environmental context in common with all the Sky/Ground Pieces, that of our pervasive impact on nature and natural phenomena. Our vast natural forests are actually managed almost as carefully as an English garden, while preserving the illusion of being the unfettered nature which existed prior to the industrial revolution. These pieces, and much of my current work, are involved with the exposure of the magnitude of our effect on the environment, which is typically understated, or at least under-perceived, even when such phenomena as global warming and widespread world pollution are considered. Few visual or experiential phenomena exist which provide us with a heightened perception of the magnitude of our impact on the formerly natural world. These pieces are involved with making works of art using large scale physical processes which have visual manifestations. Human activity is already creating markings using these processes in an unorganized fashion, as side effects of other activities. These pieces create deliberate and noticeable compositions on a formerly unrealized scale. If art can be made on this scale then that should affirm the pervasiveness of human impact on the environment.

The works involve large scale environmental actions which explore the limits of compositional deliberateness. There is a significant element of indeterminacy in the works, in that the planned images may not occur as desired due to the varying combustion rates of the forest fuel, the effects of wind and terrain, and other natural perturbations. The effects of smoke may be more predominant that those of fire. Whether the form of the images will be revealed in the smoke columns is unknown and probably subject to change on an event by event basis. It is hoped the smoke will act as a temporal extrusion of the image on the ground, making a three dimension record of the development of the image. The studies described below explore the indeterminate aspects of the work, providing models which attempt increasing fidelity of the fire process, while simultaneously decreasing the accuracy of the rendering of the image. This is seen as an inevitable consequence of the process. This disparity between model and reality is also a concern of the work, explored though the relationship of the studies to the final works.

There is also a significant element of danger involved with the scale and energy release involved. Prescribed burns sometimes become out of control, with perhaps the most notorious being the disastrous wild fire in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 2002. There is real physical danger for the firefighters who set and attempt to control the prescribed burn. Preliminary discussions with the Forest Service have established that I will have to undergo fire fighter training and accreditation to even be present at the site of a prescribed burn.

This work differs from the other environmental works with which I am engaged in that it is by necessity involved with reclamation or remediation processes in the environment. The only opportunity to engage in the setting of large scale fires is in conjunction with land management. Any other form of this activity would be at best criminal. This has a direct antecedent in the work of the land artists of the early 70s such as Smithson and Morris, some of whose projects involved reclamation of environmentally damaged sites such as strip mines or landfills.

Documentation of the works will be via ground and aerial still and video images. Ideally the pieces should be performed at night but personnel and safety constraints may require daytime execution.


View Digital Images and MPEG-1 clips from the DVD.

Video frame from computer animation study
"Five Points in an East-West Line, displaced Northwest"

A DVD, "Studies for Prescribed Burning V1.0" was completed in February, 2005. This DVD, comprising over 3 hours of computer animation, is in five sections, each consisting of many short studies of about a minute in length. These studies simulate an advancing fire which has been ignited in different patterns. The studies were done to become familiar with the dynamics of fire propagation based on the pattern in which it is set. The studies depict an area in plan of perhaps three by four miles on an accelerated time base.

The first two sections use a highly idealized fire model and explore patterns which are ignited simultaneously and then sequentially. The final three sections comprise a three channel video work showing selected ignition patterns rendered with increasingly realistic models. The first channel uses the simple model. The second channel shows modulation of the progress of the fire by a non-uniform "forest". The third channel includes the obscuring effects of smoke. These studies are intended to be shown along with documentary aerial footage of the actual completed works, exploring the discrepancy between the idealized models and the chaos of a large outdoor fire. The DVD is intended to be viewed in a nonlinear manner. Menus allow direct access to each study in a section. Controls allow variable play speed of each section as well as the selection of looping or single play.

"Studies for Prescribed Burning" is being shown to personnel in the US Forest Service and other agencies and to private landowners to help secure sites for realizing these works in 2005.

1. Grahame, John D. and Thomas D. Sisk, editors. 2002. "Canyons, cultures and environmental change: An introduction to the land-use history of the Colorado Plateau." Reintroduction of Fire to Forest Ecosystems"

"Overlay, Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory", Lucy R. Lippard, The New Press, 1983, p.172-175

Project Chronology

5/20-30/04, 3/5-6/05
Estancia, New Mexico