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Art and science collide in ‘Lightning Dreams’

“Lightning Dreams” documents Alan Gibbs’s passion for harnessing power as he commissions the world’s largest Tesla coil for his estate in New Zealand.

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“Lightning Dreams” documents Alan Gibbs’s passion for harnessing power as he commissions the world’s largest Tesla coil for his estate in New Zealand.

“It’s an amazing machine,” says businessman and art collector Alan Gibbs, on the telephone from a Detroit hotel room. “The power flows out of it like a river of water. . . . It pours out. When you’re watching it, you’re just absolutely gripped by it. There’s no other work of art that’s more fascinating.”

For centuries, humankind has dreamed of harnessing the terrifying, destructive, and beautiful power of lightning. Since the 19th century, devices like the Tesla coil, which produces high-voltage, alternating-current electricity, have replicated its effects. But in the early 1990s, Gibbs began a quest to forge one Tesla coil to rule them all. In other words, to create artificial lightning on the scale of what Zeus might chuck.

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In her short film “Lightning Dreams: The Electrum at Gibbs Farm,” Boston-based filmmaker Alberta Chu charts Gibbs’s passion for harnessing power as he commissions the world’s largest Tesla coil, “Electrum (for Len Lye),” for his estate in his native New Zealand. Chu’s film makes its world premiere at the Museum of Science on Wednesday, as part of an event called “Lightning Strikes.”

“I’ve always been interested in the intersection of science and art, the collision of science and art. You can’t separate the two,” says Chu, who has made films for PBS, National Geographic, and Discovery/The Learning Channel, and now runs an independent documentary film production company called ASKlabs. Originally a biologist, Chu entered filmmaking through the back door — by providing advice to science-fiction film productions. “We consulted on the ‘X-Men’ movies. In ‘Wolverine,’ [we consulted] about what his special abilities might be.”

Her “Lightning Dreams,” Chu says, was 15 years in the making. She made a previous short film about Gibbs’s Tesla coil project, “Electrum: Science as Art,” released in 2000 and shown on PBS. The new film, commissioned by Gibbs, contains almost entirely unseen footage.

Part art work, part science folly, “Electrum” was installed in 1998 next to the house on Gibbs’s farm just north of Auckland. The 38-foot-tall kinetic lightning sculpture, made of stainless steel, fiberglass, concrete, and black granite, channels 3 million volts of power, throwing snakes of electricity 50 feet long into the sky.

“Richard Serra says anything that’s useful can’t be art,” Gibbs says. “This is useless, unless you want to electrocute someone.”

The most gorgeous moments in Chu’s film emanate from that device; the footage is mesmerizing. “Lightning Dreams” is also the only way to see the massive
Tesla coil in action; Gibbs Farm is occasionally open for public tours, but not at night, when Gibbs sometimes fires up his “Electrum.” “We set it up when we have guests,” says the jet-setting entrepreneur, whose current project is an amphibious, James Bond-like vehicle called the Quad­ski, currently in production in Detroit.

Since installing “Electrum” on his 1,000-acre estate, Gibbs has commissioned numerous site-specific sculptures by many of the world’s leading minimalist artists — Serra, Anish Kapoor, Andy Goldsworthy, and Maya Lin, among others — all spectacularly showcased in the film’s many helicopter shots.

Because the Tesla coil project took almost five years to build, film editor Sabrina Zanella-Foresi had an abundance of footage that she winnowed to the 30-minute documentary. “What was amazing about ‘Lightning Dreams,’ ” says Zanella-Foresi, “was seeing so much archival material of the project being constructed and made. It’s rare to have that kid of documentation when you make films about art. It was an amazing texture to work with.”

To construct “Electrum,” Gibbs hired two men: the late Eric Orr, an artist known for working with unusual sources such as gold, fire, water, and dry ice, who designed the tower with a stainless-steel cage (a.k.a. “Faraday Cage”) at the top; and Greg Leyh, a renowned high-voltage engineer and member of the Survival Research Laboratories anarchist machine performance art group.

Leyh was tasked with constructing and troubleshooting the Tesla coil in California before shipping it to New Zealand. “During development,” Leyh said in an e-mail, “one of the electrodes came loose and punched a hole in the side of my truck.”

“Alan likes to push people and get the best out of them,” Chu says.

Leyh took a year’s leave from his job to make Electrum. His company, Lightning on Demand, is working on a project called the Lightning Foundry in Nevada to create two, 10-story-high Tesla coils that could blast bolts of electricity 200 feet or farther. “Even in the 21st century, lightning still holds many secrets from us,” he says. “I want to build a machine that can finally start to explore these unknown mechanisms.”

“Among the Tesla coil community, [Leyh is] like a rock star or legend,” says Daniel Davis, Museum of Science program manager and a lightning and high-voltage physicist.

The museum’s own electricity-generating devices will also flex their muscles at the event. Following a screening of the film and a conversation with Leyh, Davis, and Chu, the museum’s Tesla coils and its Van de Graaff generator — which happens to be the world’s largest and was built by the late MIT physics professor Robert J. Van de Graaff — will cap the evening with a custom lightning show.

“We’ll kick it up a notch,” promises Davis.

Steampunk enthusiasts are invited to come dressed to the nines. The best costumes will earn a special “prize.”

“The winners, up to three people,” says Chu, “will get the chance to be inside the Faraday Cage while being zapped by electricity.”

“Lightning Strikes” event at the Museum of Science, Nov. 7 at 6:45 p.m; tickets $15. For more information and to buy tickets: www.mos.org/events_activities/events. Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at ethan@
ethangilsdorf.com
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