Dr. Megavolt
by Austin Richards

Austin Richards, Dr. Megavolt Performing at Burning Man, 2000.
(© Austin Richards. Photo: Casey Henkle)

Dr. MegaVolt is a performance act that has appeared at three Burning Man festivals (1998--2000). It features a person in a metal mesh suit interacting with artificially generated lighting. The Doctor sets objects on fire with electricity originating from large Tesla coils, spars with the electric arcs and exhorts the audience to worship the elemental force of electricity.

Dr. MegaVolt has its roots in my Tesla Coil experiments that began at age 12. I built a coil that threw a 4-in arc, and used it in a Halloween show at my parents' house in the Boston area. The next incarnation of the coil made a 12-in arc and scared the neighbors' kids while also jamming the reception of my parent's TV during Knotts' Landing. I stepped up to the 10-kW class of coil in graduate school, taking advantage of a bottomless pit of scrap material and power electronics discarded by the Dept. of Energy laboratory behind U.C. Berkeley, combined with the serendipity of my doctoral thesis advisor’s absence while on sabbatical in Italy. Suddenly I had a machine that could produce 10-ft arcs, and it attained some notoriety from the U.C. police and the homeless that roamed the campus at night.

In 1996, members of Survival Research Laboratories built a metal cage in which one could stand while the cage received arcs from the largest Tesla Coil in North America (built by Bay Area resident Greg Leyh). I survived the ordeal, even though a wit wired up the cage with hidden pyrotechnics that ignited during the show. A year later I shrank the cage down to a metal bodysuit made of a bird cage, heating duct and flexible dryer duct. Dr. MegaVolt was born.

The Doctor came to Burning Man in 1998 at the urging of my friend Chris Campbell. He brought the coil to BM 98 and set it up, and I came up a few days later to troubleshoot. We were plagued with technical difficulties that year, but the seed had been planted, and we knew enough now to operate coils in a desert environment. That year the coil was stationary, and only about 500 people ever saw it operate. The following year, Burning Man partially funded our operation. Dr. MegaVolt had become a team operation led by myself, John Behrens and Gunthar Hartwig, designer of our web site, www.drmegavolt.com. We installed the Tesla Coil on the roof of a moving van covered in black carpet. A generator towed behind the van provided power to the coil. Dr. MegaVolt toured the playa, the van creeping along at idle while arcs shot off the coil. We ran four straight nights and were probably seen by 15,000 people in total. The show culminated in a performance by John Behrens right next to the burn. Burning Man 2000 was our magnum opus. We increased the output of my coil by 50%, and built a second coil to those specs. Two coils were mounted on a 24-ft moving van towing a 150 horsepower generator. We pulled off some great shows, in spite of terrible weather and coil-damaging wet dust.

Dr. MegaVolt is very, very popular at Burning Man. We are treated like rock stars, complete with groupies. It has been an opportunity to meet many interesting folks and experience their artistic visions. We have been praised as original performance artists, something I never would have imagined when I built my first big coil. The reason we do this show is simple: very few people ever get to see electricity at close range, and to see it that way is to change one’s life forever.

Electricity is a humble servant, imprisoned in the copper cable infrastructure of the modern world. But raise the voltage high enough, and the genie escapes from its bottle and into the air itself, which becomes momentarily conductive. We cannot match the power of natural lightning, but we can capture the essence of it---the truly random patterns of electrical arcs in air, the noise, the ozone and the lethal energy held back by paper-thin stainless-steel mesh originally intended for industrial debris filters. During a show, Dr. MegaVolt becomes a sorcerer conjuring up an elemental force that, unlike the element of fire, can be put back into the bottle with the release of a switch. Electricity, not love, is the Fifth Element.

Austin Richards
401 Camino de la Aldea
Santa Barbara, CA 93111
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				   | gallery entrance |

		            | past exhibitions |

				            | Leonardo On-Line |