Burning Man

U. of San Diego math professor is brain behind sculpture featured at Burning Man

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With just a few days to go before this year’s Burning Man festival, and delays due to flooding from Tropical Storm Hilary, a team of local artists, mathematicians and engineers is working around the clock to reconstruct a high-tech sculpture in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

The piece is a 12-foot unfolding dodecahedron called “Unfolding Humanity.”

“'Unfolding Humanity' is, as you unfold it, as you take away these layers of technology, then you’ve got more human communication,” said Diane Hoffoss.

Hoffoss is one of the founding members of ArtBuilds, a San Diego-based collective that specializes in participatory art.

The group, and Unfolding Humanity, have been to Burning Man before. The interactive artwork made its debut at the festival in 2018.

“There was unbelievable engagement,” Hoffoss said. “People would say, 'Oh, what’s this project about?' And I know enough to say, 'Oh, it’s just a math thing' and not go further, but they’d say, 'What math problem?'”

Hoffoss, or Dr. Hoffoss, is also a mathematics professor at the University of San Diego. Unfolding Humanity started off as a class project.

Students were asked to come up with a sculpture that addressed an unsolved math problem. Unfolding Humanity references a question posed by printmaker Albrecht Dürer roughly 500 years ago.  

“Is it always possible for every convex polyhedron that there’s a way to cut along its edges so that it’ll lie flat without overlapping? It’s a very basic question that I was able to tell you in half a minute, but 500 years later, we still don’t know if that’s always possible,” Hoffoss said.

It's a question the crowd at Burning Man will have a chance to contemplate again this year. Hoffoss and her team received a grant to return to the festival.

“So I thought, this will be easy, we already have the project, we’ll just spruce it up a bit,” Hoffoss said. “It turned out to be much more of a revamping than we originally expected.”

They repainted the panels, cut new mirrors for the inside and rewired all of the electronics.

“We’ve decided that our new slogan is, 'We do this not because it’s easy, but because we thought it would be easy,'” Hoffoss said.

Easy or not, they got it done. Now, comes the fun part.

“My secret hope is that people will get caught up in the animations. On the playa, we call it a hippie trap. You know, people get sucked in and then they sit down and just sort of watch for a while,” Hoffoss said. “If it’s even the same as it was last time, I’ll just be over the moon.”

Hoffoss is also looking for a permanent home for Unfolding Humanity once Burning Man ends. If you’re interested, contact ArtBuilds.

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