Sporting Goods: Site 3 Fire Arts
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Sporting Goods: Site 3 Fire Arts

A Toronto-based group of artists and technicians is building an arcade where all the games spit flame.

Sports coverage tends to focus on major league teams, but every day in Toronto people make fun (and sometimes wacky) activities an important part of their lives. Sporting Goods looks at some of these.


Charcade project lead Chris Guard (left) and project manager Carrie Smith, with Riskee Ball.

Site 3 Fire Arts didn’t start the fire (it was always burnin’, since the world’s been turnin’), but they have put together a series of innovative ways to do exactly what many of us have been warned not to: play with it.

Comprised of a ragtag group of volunteers, and headquartered in a makerspace near Bloor Street and Ossington Avenue, Site 3 Fire Arts aims to create pyrotechnical works of wonder that, according to co-founder Seth Hardy, allow people to experience “new and interesting ways to interact with fire.”

The group’s current project is a fusion of pyrotechnics and classic arcade games: it’s called Charcade.

A project like Charcade would be a far-out and dangerous endeavor for almost any other group of people, but for Site 3, it’s a natural fit. “[Site 3] is the middle ground between the artsy and the techy,” explains Hardy. The group, he says, serves as a catalyst for members of both circles to meet like-minded people, and to collaborate on community art projects.

“Some art is deeply philosophical,” says Hardy. “Our art is more of the ‘mad scientist’ variety.”

The group was founded a little over a year ago, after Hardy and about 80 volunteers participated in Burning Man, an annual festival of art and self-expression, held in a remote desert region in Nevada.

After the festival, during which the team presented Super Street Fire (a fiery re-imagining of the video game Street Fighter II), the members decided to band together for future projects.

Since then, the group has followed a democratic approach to project building, known as “radical inclusion.”

“Everyone is a volunteer,” says Hardy. “And when someone shows up, we give them an opportunity.”

“If someone has an idea, and the time and effort to run it, they get to lead the project.”

Charcade is being led by Chris Guard. It can only be described as a classic arcade as reimagined by Dante.

Building on last year’s Burning Man entry, Charcade is a collection of seven arcade-themed fire games, most of which aren’t being built by Site 3. The majority of the contraptions are projects by design teams in other cities, and most of them have already been shown at Burning Man in previous years. Site 3 is organizing the collaboration, and also fundraising for it. The group’s Kickstarter campaign recently exceeded its $10,000 goal. The aim is to bring the whole thing to Burning Man 2013.

Each Charcade game a takes on a traditional or established game, except with fire. They include:

  • Super Street Fire, which Site 3 built and presented at Burning Man in 2012. The game is a large-scale, live-action version of Street Fighter II. It uses gesture-recording interfaces to track a player’s movements and translate them into fire. Wearing motion-sensing gloves and proximity suits, two players recreate gestures from the game (like the Hadoken) and the interface shoots flames accordingly.
  • Riskee Ball, a new project now in the process of being built by Site 3, is just like skee ball, except when a player scores, flames shoot into the air. The intensity and size of each flame is related to the point value of each ball.
  • Created by a group in San Francisco’s Bay Area and first presented at Burning Man in 2005, Dance Dance Immolation has players wear proximity suits while playing Dance Dance Revolution. If a player messes up, fire gets shot at them. It’s sort of like if Michael Bay had directed Black Swan.
  • Rock Inferno, created by Ar[sonic] Creations and first installed at Burning Man 2010, is similar to Dance Dance Immolation, except you play Guitar Hero. Flames shoot into the air with every matched note. (Just imagine how much propane they have to use if someone plays “Through the Fire and the Flames” on Expert difficulty.)
  • As a way to poke fun at America’s obsession with firearms, San Francisco-based Matisse Enzer created Flamethrower Shooting Gallery in 2008. It’s essentially the same as any shooting gallery, except instead of BB guns, you get to use flamethrowers.
  • Using custom software that’s powered in part by Microsoft’s Kinect technology, a group in Boston created Toxic Bloom, which uses infrared sensors to register, recognize, and respond to a player’s movements. With each motion, multicoloured flames are shot into the air.
  • Like the game Simon, Touch Me, a new piece being created by a group in Ohio, has the player mimicking and recreating different patterns. Standing in between four pillars (each of which has its own button and emits specific fire colours and sounds), players must try to replicate random sequences of coloured flames and tones.

Site 3 is currently preparing Charcade for Burning Man. Hardy estimates that during the one week in Nevada the team will use around 10,000 pounds of propane.

As to whether Charcade will ever go on display in Toronto, nobody is sure. Ontario’s strict propane laws would make it a difficult thing to pull off.

“Ontario has some of the toughest propane laws in North America,” says Carrie Smith, Charcade’s project manager. “Most of our gear is built to very high standards,” she adds, but in order to participate in an event like Nuit Blanche, which Site 3 hopes to do next year, most of the equipment needs to be upgraded to meet the requirements of the Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA).

On top of that, the group would also need to submit to rigorous inspections by the TSSA and pay insurance fees.

Hardy admits that hosting a Charcade event in Toronto would be difficult and expensive. It could cost the group $50,000 to be a part of Nuit Blance 2014.

In the meantime, however, the group can still operate its contraptions on private property. Site 3 has even started to test its work in an industrial space in Scarborough. But it seems all the flame-throwing gadgets are still attracting some heat from the authorities.

“Sometimes,” says Sara Vinten, Charcade’s communications and fundraising lead, “firefighters come by and tell us what we’re doing is really cool.”

So, in a sense, Site 3 Fire Arts did light it, but the firefighters didn’t try to fight it. Oh well, close enough.