Arthur Mamou-Mani on paving a virtual path of 'Catharsis' for Burning Man 2020

In an interview with STIR, the French architect reflects on the inspiration behind Catharsis, a hyperbolic space for the Black Rock City, soon to be experienced virtually.

by Zohra Khan Published on : May 04, 2020

Jerry James is the carpenter who built the very first Man with the founder of Burning Man, Larry Harvey. We were so lucky to have him as a carpenter for the temple Galaxia (Burning Man 2018). He kept on telling me throughout the whole process: “We shouldn’t burn the temple.” It was pretty confusing at first as this was the established ritual but then we thought: what if we brought back these huge structures back to our cities? What if this was a new ritual?

The Black Rock City of Burning Man is a place of experimentation, which often disappears behind the art. Could we create something that connects this temporary city with other more ‘permanent’ ones? What does permanence even mean?

- Arthur Mamou-Mani

Catharsis | Burning Man | STIRworld
Mamou-Mani, 'Galaxia-Burning Man Temple', 2018. Built by 140 volunteers from across the world, it was designed as a gigantic origami with 400 modules folded and assembled on site Image Credit: Jamen Percy, © Mamou-Mani Ltd.

French architect and director of London-based studio Mamou-Mani Ltd. reveals the design of a life-size installation called Catharsis for Burning Man 2020 – the celebrated community event from America’s northwest Nevada region that stands cancelled due to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking with STIR, architect Arthur Mamou-Mani delves into the conceptual narrative of the project, which has been inspired from a realisation of his experience of building the monumental Galaxia temple at the festival's Black Rock City in 2018, and also discusses his plans to transform the physical installation into a virtual one.

Edited excerpts from the conversation...

Zohra Khan (ZK): Can you briefly describe the inspiration behind Catharsis and when was it that you conceived the idea?

Arthur Mamou-Mani (AM): The main thought behind it was to create a space within the Black Rock City of the Burning Man, which is assembled through one week and then that it disappears, leaving no trace. This project came because of the temple Galaxia - we had to burn it and throughout the production of the project, people were telling me why I burnt it, and that it is such a shame. Later, we thought maybe we could reinvent a new kind of ritual where we don't have to burn the structure, but we could disassemble and then re-assemble it somewhere else so that people outside of Burning Man could experience the beauty of this utopian city.

Catharsis | Burning Man | STIRworld
A visualisation of Catharsis in the Black Rock City Image Credit: Courtesy of Mamou-Mani Ltd.

ZK: While Galaxia celebrated hope in the unknown and the movement that unites us in swirling galaxies of dreams, we wonder what Catharsis mean in the context of Burning Man.

AM: Once we were discussing what would be the best name within the team. We have just come out of the Galaxia experience and it was a really intense project. I have never worked on a project that was as stressful as this. We had to fundraise everything. We burnt it and then we had to clean it all by ourselves. We went through people's very deep emotions and we realised that collective adventures like this are really a moment where you change and where you evolve. That is what catharsis mean that when you are overwhelmed with emotions, you transition towards something else. One of the team members found his name and I thought it was quite beautiful.

The geometry of Catharsis is based on the Poincare disk, comprising a model of a hyperbolic plane in which the edge is infinite, and where curves are shorter than straight lines. | Catharsis | Burning Man | STIRworld
The geometry of Catharsis is based on the Poincare disk, comprising a model of a hyperbolic plane in which the edge is infinite, and where curves are shorter than straight lines Image Credit: Courtesy of Mamou-Mani Ltd.

ZK: You have used amphitheatre as a recurring element to conceptualise Catharsis and it is said that the installation forms a default world around the theme of future cities. What is this default world that you are trying to project, and how does it connect with an amphitheatre?

AM: Sometimes in mathematics, you have concepts that are just purely described as mathematical facts: a circle made up of circles, an infinite edge, curvature being smaller than straight lines, and so on. But what is interesting is to see their interpretation that is architectural.

Usually in an amphitheatre, there is a very direct relationship: performance takes place at the centre, and people look at you from the outside. We came up with the idea of a fractal where every member is similar and where the entire form is made from a smaller version of itself in a sense. We designed Catharsis as an amphitheatre made of amphitheatres in which everyone can decide to go in the centre and perform. And for you to find the performance space, you have to go through in-between spaces and as you explore them, you discover more and more what is going on.

Conceptual sketch | Catharsis | Burning Man | STIRworld
Conceptual sketch Image Credit: Courtesy of Mamou-Mani Ltd.

One can also play all kinds of arts so that the amphitheatre is not just about a live performance, but also about the kind of art you can leave within the galleries in between amphitheatres. In that sense, I would have loved it to just allow people to write on the structure or to leave small pieces of art so that it becomes like a sponge full of people's creativity. Everyone would have been a player within this architecture.

ZK: It was in news recently that you are seeking game designers to transform the physical experience of Catharsis into a virtual one. Would you like to comment on that?

AM: Yes. We are exploring it with someone who recently reached out to me. He has been designing a virtual Burning Man on the game engine, Unity, for a couple of years now. The space where he conceptualises these environments is called Altspace, and one can visit it using Oculus, or any VR goggles.

He is working on placing Catharsis in the virtual environment and we are trying to develop an interactivity where people can switch between an infinite version of a mathematical equation to a physical version that is engineered and made for the real world. It will be a very interesting version of the project.

A closer look at the geometry of the installation | Catharsis | Burning Man | STIRworld
A closer look at the geometry of the installation Image Credit: Courtesy of Mamou-Mani Ltd.

ZK: The idea of virtual Catharsis sounds fascinating. How long do you anticipate the version will take to complete and when can the viewers see it?

AM: It will be open for everyone very soon. He is finishing building it and is trying to get artists involved by creating a toolkit for everyone to put art in the space. It is not like real life: you can use the sky, or you can fly. It is going to be a very interesting version of Burning Man because one, it will be open to the whole world that means you can have millions of people in there, and two, you can visit every stage, you can enter the space and every artist will be able to create a world – not just a project but an entire world around their project. There are so many possibilities, and I am very excited.

Elevation | Catharsis | Burning Man | STIRworld
Elevation Image Credit: Courtesy of Mamou-Mani Ltd.

ZK: What do you think is the way forward for the physical manifestation of Catharsis? Do you intend to build it someday?

AM: What is interesting is that the physical manifestation of something is just one aspect of a project. When I think of Galaxia, it started with an idea in 2013. I was working on a hotel for the astronauts of Virgin Galactic when we drew this project as an idea of galaxies and movement, of creating a volcano-like geometry inside the desert. It was the first version. Even when we won this project, and got the honour to build the temple, it wasn’t just the project that we built that mattered but also the journey of meeting so many amazing individuals and they all came to help and, well, no one was paid.

We became a close group of friends and everyone every night would stand up on the table and they would say why they were here, and what brought them to build a project like Galaxia. Later, burning and cleaning up the installation was all part of the event. What I am trying to say is that sometimes the physical manifestation of something is only a moment in a big journey. I would love to build Catharsis for the next version of Burning Man in 2021, but to be honest, it might come sooner somewhere else. Who knows? It is up to us to write the story of things.

  •  A glimpse from the construction of Galaxia during Burning Man 2018 \ Catharsis | Burning Man | STIRworld
    A glimpse from the construction of Galaxia during Burning Man 2018 Image Credit: Courtesy of Mamou-Mani Ltd.
  • A section of Galaxia rising in the air at the Black Rock City | Catharsis | Burning Man | STIRworld
    A section of Galaxia rising in the air at the Black Rock City Image Credit: Andros Antonades

ZK: With the plans of your installation from Burning Man going virtual, how do you see the larger paradigm shift as a result of the global coronavirus crisis?

AM: It is going to be interesting to see the impact of the confinement and the coronavirus on physical spaces. I think we are going to realise that maybe we do not need to travel that much. It’s not a bad thing because we are losing our carbon footprint so much these days and there is so much that we can do from our homes.

I strongly believe that we are going to explore new kinds of spaces and reinvent the idea of traveling. Virtual reality is a space that we haven’t fully discovered yet and a virtual experience of an event like Burning Man will be part of that re-questioning.

ZK: Certainly, because at the end of the day, travel is a state of mind.

AM:Yes, exactly! Maybe if the virtual environments become more and more real to some extent, where we will know a little bit more of that space, it will be a completely different picture. I hope we are not going to just go back to normal life and that virtual initiatives such as this with Burning Man will extend possibilities.

French architect Arthur Mamou-Mani | Catharsis | Burning Man | STIRworld
French architect Arthur Mamou-Mani Image Credit: David Azia

Catharsis Team

Architects: Mamou-Mani (Arthur Mamou-Mani, Ayham Kabbani, Nina Pestel, Holly Hawkins, Youen O’Malley, Liubov Zakharova, Andros Antoniades, Krishna Bhat)
Engineering: Format Engineers (James Solly, Stephen Melville, Lloyd Evans, Camille Chevrier)
Curators: Therme Art Program (Mikolaj Sekutowicz, Sara Maria Faraj, Shelby Seu Sheena Leach, Giulia Cordier, Ocean, Margaux Gazur, Konrad Schorlemmer, Weihua Yi)
Collaborators: Robert Hanea, Philipp Treml, Constanze Leuschner, Lucas Von Oostruum, Jeremy Crandell, Sophia Swire, Jo Craven, Moritz Waldemeyer and Svetlana Marich

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About Author

Zohra Khan

Zohra Khan

A formal education in architecture combined with an avid interest in architecture journalism and design criticism led Khan to professionally venture into writing and research. She has worked in design communication for more than three years, generating content for mondo*arc india journal. When not writing, she kicks back by dabbling on social media for STIR.

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