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Voltage and Ohmu

The Everywhen Project exists to support art and the creators of art, on and off the playa. Are you familiar with Hayao Miyazaki's anime film masterpiece, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind? The Everywhen Artist Showcase Presents playa artist Kate Marusina aka Voltage and her amazing mutant art car, Ohmu!

EWP: What’s the concept/story behind Ohmu?

V: Ohmu is a beloved character from the Studio Ghibli movie “Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind.” Ohmu is a giant pill bug in a post-apocalyptic world, where humans polluted the earth and water. Humans fear giant Ohmu, not realizing that the creature protects what's left of the forest. When a herd of Ohmu stampedes, nothing can withstand their powerful force. But they are also magical healers working together to mend broken lives. This vehicle brings awareness to global warming, pollution, water shortages and many ways humans destroy the planet. In addition to a strong environmental message, Ohmu challenges us to renew our perspective on right and wrong, friends and foes.

EWP: How many years have you been working on Ohmu? What is the base vehicle underneath, and where did that come from?

V: It all started after my family went to Burning Man and was awestruck by mutant vehicles. Many options were discussed until Ohmu emerged as a beloved symbol of childhood. Turns out, it takes a tremendous amount of effort to convert a vision into a mechanism. The first version was a gas-powered golf cart, which was a mutant in itself, modified with a cheap and very loud Harbor Freight motor. I built it in a gigantic warehouse in the Sacramento River delta, which was full of dead mechanisms of all kinds – engines, cars, buses, all abandoned and rusted. At night, a white barn owl would fly from the rafters, and wind rattled corrugated metal sides. The property caretaker, Cesar, became a friend and a supporter, helping to weld, lift, carry, and endlessly load and unload. Many other people lent their time and effort. The warehouse was about 45 minutes away from my home, accessible by a windy road along the levy. Returning back at night felt like I am the only person on earth.

A steel oval around the base of the vehicle supports multiple "ribs," that serve as supporting members for insect scales. Coroplast sheets were cut as an underlayment for the scales. Insulation foam was applied to create bumps and ridges. Jersey fabric was stiffened in PVC glue and then crinkled to create an appearance of natural folds and bumps. CrystalGel coating was applied to solidify the appearance and to weatherproof the creature. Fourteen large bubble eyes are made out of acrylic half domes (11 inch diameter). The legs are made from old recycled water hoses, sheathed in insulation pipe foam. Each leg is wrapped in grey ace bandages to reduce foam damage and littering. The bandages are secured with super sticky color-matched gaffer tape and grey industrial strength zip ties. All materials are impact-resistant, and even if damaged, will not generate sharp shards or other health hazards. During its evolution, Ohmu appearance was modified multiple times, ribs and scales changed, materials improved, but the original eyes and some scales still remain to this day.

Ohmu Version #1 was born out of sheer perseverance and became a testament to my resilience. So few skills, so much learning! While the design was rather simple – a metal shell over the existing golf cart – I had to learn electrical wiring, LED lights, how engines work, what a winch does, and that you need a trailer and a truck to transport the art car. And also that something always goes wrong, and that modifications and repairs are the only constant.

Version #2 was a categorically different affair, made in collaboration with a talented maker Pete Cook. I learned so much from him, including welding, mechanics, basics of electrical drive etc. Sometimes I cried that I can’t possibly learn anything more, my head won’t hold another neutrino of new knowledge! The warehouse owner grew uneasy about another, more boisterous construction, and for a while Ohmu was housed at Pete’s garage. The original idea was to move the old shell onto the new base, now electrical, but in the process, we ended up remastering the whole entire thing, top to bottom. Pete redesigned all critical parts of the mechanism – steering, brakes, throttle, forward and reverse. I finally saw my dream of driving as if “sitting on the Ohmu” come true. Version #1 had a rather obstructed view, and my neck was feeling it. After numerous modifications of the drivetrain, we finally made something that worked! The new Ohmu took the first drive around the block, immediately hitting the curb and somersaulting me into the air. A few months later the drive has much improved, and by then I moved into a new artist community in Sacramento. It is a perfect place for Ohmu’s home, with supportive makers all around and creativity in the air. Pete also designed moving crustacean legs that fascinate kids and adults alike. I learned Arduino programming, creating a much more stable lighting schema. Version#2 performed beautifully on the Playa to the delight of many. Version #3 is being made today, by perfecting the details, redesigning the front legs, creating touch-sensitive lights and many other details.

EWP: What is your proudest achievement with this car?

V: My father was very ill during the Version #1 build, disabled after stroke, which took away his ability to read, speak and walk. Formerly a vivacious elder gentleman, he became mute and dependent on me and other caregivers for almost every aspect of daily living. Torn away from his home and friends he suffered tremendously. Between his care, full-time job and trips to the warehouse, my life was prescribed by a minute. My dad passed away from the complication of his stroke in April 2018, right in the middle of the Version #1 construction. In a way, the art car saved me from my grief. I had this enormous looming goal ahead, and firm deadlines to meet. I clenched my teeth, stored my grief away and brought Ohmu to life. Looking back at it was a rather crude product, a novice attempt, nothing like well-staffed glamorous mutants that dominate Burning Man. But I made it, hell or high water, and delivered it to the gates where I completely fell apart, exhausted from the physical journey and the emotional toll. I left pictures of my father at the Temple and spent the rest of the Burn trying to fix the leaking engine.

EWP: Do you have a standout memory related to Ohmu on the Black Rock Desert Playa?

V: As a creator, the biggest joy I get is when people love my vehicle, when they run beside it yelling “Nausicaa” and “Ohmu”, and when they want to ride with you all night long. I take Ohmu to various community events, fundraisers, maker fairs, and share widely with the community. If it makes someone’s day, I am happy! At the Octoplaya, I drove three lovely ladies around all night long. One of them never rode in an art car, and I was delighted that my Ohmu was her first experience. We drove through the night playa, stopped at the art installation, and scattered camps, and had a dancing adventure. Back at the camp, the ladies hung out in Ohmu until dawn, long after I went to sleep. A few months later I received a beautiful exquisite necklace in the mail with the note that read: “Truly my best 24 hours on playa ever. Do you remember that moon on the dark horizon?! Thank you for a day and the night of magic.” I am still getting tears in my eyes that someone was so grateful to me and my creation to send me this note.

EWP: As a woman who built an art car, did you find it empowering and what would you say to other women who are considering building an art car?

V: I would say that there is nothing inherently different about women or men makers. There are a number of art cars made by women. There isn’t a skill you can’t learn or do! However, no art car can be built in a vacuum, it takes a village, and people with different skills and abilities to bring such a project to fruition. It is an experiment in constant learning, in solving puzzles, in perseverance. Don’t give up just because you don’t know or don’t have access. Stay strong and the universe provides.

EWP: Any future projects on the horizon? Where can we see more?

V: The most important thing happening to Ohmu this year is the construction of his new mobile home. Last year, Playa nearly killed me. Too much work, too much maintenance of life, broken truck, exhaustion of putting up and taking down camp and volunteering in the heat. “Never again,” I decided, and conceived an idea of a tiny home on the trailer that could be a home for us and the platform to transport Ohmu at the same time. So here we are, building again.

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