Science is a religion, says Ian Charnas when asked about how he feels when two million volts of electricity pass through his chain-mail suit, sparking off his toes into the ground. "The question is, how much do you believe in it?"
In that sense, his contribution to the 2009 Ingenuity festival is a test of his faith in science. In an original music theatrical performance called Boltz, he plays the role of a mad-scientist hero who battles an evil robot, launching bolts of electricity discharged by a big coil. He catches those arcs of electricity that leap from the coil across as much as eight feet of air space to reach the ground. The science he's got to have faith in is that the bolts will not divert from the path of least resistance: the highly conductive chain-mail suit he's wearing. The electricity will jump from the coil to his metal-covered hands, which he holds out in front of him. The charges will then travel through the chain mail, which is more conductive than human flesh, down to his metal shoes and into the grounded metal plate on which he stands.
He says he'll be wearing something between the chain mail and his skin, but that doesn't really matter. "I've tested it on my bare skin," he says. "The charge just flows through the chain mail."
Festival organizer James Levin says Boltz is sure to be the iconic image that people remember when they think of Ingenuity 2009. He says scaling back the budget has kept the festival from bringing big-name headliners this year. But that's had a positive effect of focusing on local artists, performers and visionaries like Charnas. Boltz, which will be performed at 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, is a mix of music, dance, theater and science that has as its core a dream of free electricity distributed through a Tesla coil.
"Nikolai Tesla invented AC [alternating current] and the brushless motor, among other things," says Charnas. "He was a contemporary of Thomas Edison. He devised this coil he wanted to transmit electricity wirelessly through the air and ground so that energy would be provided free of charge and that he would make money selling toasters." But when his financiers heard that he was planning to provide energy for free, they halted his plans. Tesla started to build a 100-foot tower to test the prospect of transmitting power wirelessly, but it was never finished.
To make the Boltz vision reality, Charnas worked with writer Zachariah Durr, engineer Edwin Burwell, costumer Alexandra Underhill, choreographer Jenita McGowan, and the band KB and the Riptides.
"I was fortunate to have all these buddies who have all these different skills," says Charnas.
The heart of the piece is not just the thrilling spectacle of electricity discharging like lightening through the air to a guy in a chain-mail suit, but the fact that Charnas and his collaborators have figured a way to use the discharge to make music. Musicians are familiar with the number 440 as the vibrations per second that create the "A" pitch, to which most modern instruments are tuned. Charnas and Burwell figured out that by using gigantic transmitters connected via fiber-optic cable to a computer with a MIDI keyboard, they can turn the electrical charge — the one arcing through the air in search of Charnas' chain-mail suit — on and off at specific rates to generate pitches. Turning it on and off 440 times per second makes the pitch "A." It's programmed into a computer so that the buzzing, popping arc of electricity can be played musically from the keyboard.
"We've designed a whole play where the Tesla coil is a character, an evil robot out to destroy the town," says Charnas.
Durr plays the mad scientist who claims to have invented a new free energy technology called the "orbo," which the citizens of the town — portrayed by a trio of dancers — think is the perfect solution to their energy needs. But then they learn that there's a problem: the orbos themselves are dangerous, and that their waste has been fueling the scientist's evil robot. The mad scientist brings the robot to life, and Charnas' character has to save the town.
"I like seeing dance and theater and bands," says Charnas. "But when I can have a live band like KB and the Riptides, and dancers and a robot that shoots lightening bolts, then it's a performance."
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