A fleshy mass pulses pink and red on a butcher block table. Encased in a bell jar and floating in mineral oil, the Frankenstein-stitched pig heart throbs around a light bulb. Place your hand on the glass, and the organ matches your own heartbeat as the butcher block trembles.
It’s nasty, terrifying, beautiful, and slightly erotic, and it’s just the beginning of The Dollhouse experience.
Zoom out from the table and find yourself in a two-story Victorian home dripping with macabre paraphernalia and remnants from the Spiritualism-obsessed era: a living Ouija table, echoing infinity mirrors, crystal-encrusted animal skulls, windows etched with wispy specters, and creepy, twitchy dolls — more than you would find in a dozen grandmothers’ collections. The lights flicker, the house moans, and wanderers will flock out of the desert like moths to a flame to see it.
That’s because The Dollhouse, created by the art collective House of Strange Rituals, is one of the official interactive art installations this year at Burning Man, made possible by a $20,000 grant from the Black Rock City Honoraria Program. The Eugene, Oregon-based House of Strange Rituals, which was created for this project, consists of builder and construction lead Carlye Cannon, art and decor leads Caitlin O’Rourke and Lindsay Swing, and tech leads Amanda Langley and Tiana Husted (who are also a couple). The collective and their crew, a group of self-described “all-sexual” weirdos, make 20.
As Burning Man runs from August 25 to September 2, The Dollhouse can be found at the 11:20 site, just beyond the 10:00 sector in the open playa with other large-scale sound art installations. The collective has rigged it to be interactive, with more than 50 sensors set off by contact with human skin.
“All of us are really strongly drawn to interactive art being a form of play,” Swing tells GO. “That’s something we all grow out of as we get older. It’s a dollhouse made for adults. Walk through it. Play with it.”
I caught up with the collective in Swing’s animal skull and art-filled home the day before they left for Burning Man in a 26-foot flatbed Penske truck, three trailers, and a caravan of trucks. The collective had a year full of trial and error, money-raising, and all-nighters, but the members still manage to radiate a simpatico and supportive dynamic. Most were friends before the rise of the House of Strange Rituals or had known of each other’s work and wanted to collaborate creatively. It’s very much a “yes, and” kind of group.
Husted and Langley said they had long chatted about applying to Burning Man, but it wasn’t until last year when O’Rourke and Husted were at the festival that they came up with the idea for a life-size haunted dollhouse.
“I’ve always been obsessed with creepy dolls, vintage toys, Barbie dolls,” O’Rourke tells GO.
“We’re all kind of creeps,” Husted tells GO.
“Creeps with applicable skills,” Swing piped in, laughing.
So O’Rourke and Husted brought the idea back to Eugene and assembled a team.
“I don’t think we were looking for a women-dominated group,” Husted tells GO. “We were just looking for people who were the best at what they do, and it happened to be a group of shes and theys.”
Husted and Langley identify as non-binary and fluidly move between she and they pronouns.
Cannon is a seasoned builder in the festival industry. In fact, she found out they got the grant when she was in a porta-potty while working at Disneyland’s new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge theme area (phones weren’t allowed on the build site). O’Rourke and Swing are both longtime artists, and Langley and Husted met while studying computer programming and music technology at the University of Oregon.
The collective was born and immediately got to work. Dabblers in candle magic and Tarot (O’Rourke is in the midst of painting a Tarot deck series), they started researching the Spiritualism movement of the 19th century when seances and mediums were as common as potlucks and therapists are today. They found their inspiration in the Eddy family, a family of clairvoyants and mediums who ran a small Vermont inn called the Green Tavern, which was regularly the spot of seances. (Begin the descent into the Eddy rabbit hole with LORE podcast episode 84, “A Family Affair”.)
The period that the family lived in was the perfect era for The Dollhouse, as electrical engineering was spreading and the Ouija board could be found in parlors across the U.S.
Husted and Langley started testing the tech last autumn as the group was preparing the Letter of Intent, the first step in applying for the Burning Man grant. Langley mocked up a 3D rendering using Agile software. On the collectives’ website and GoFundMe page, you can find models (or, regular-sized dollhouses) that Husted and Langley set up with the same light and sonic triggers that the finished product employs. Touching knobs, handles, and windows trigger flickering lights and classic haunted-house sounds.
In December 2018, Burning Man moved the collective to the next round of the grant process and requested the group submit a full proposal. As the February grant awardees announcement neared, they embraced the Spiritualism roots of their art piece.
“There was definitely witchcraft involved,” Husted recalled, laughing.
“Tarot cards, candle magic,” O’Rourke tells GO.
“And before the trucks get unloaded [at Burning Man],” Cannon added, “we have to bless the fucking site. Straight up.”
Burning Man notified House of Strange Rituals that they would be awarded a grant of $20,000, the highest amount the festival doles out to a single art installation. That money was about half their estimated budget for the project. In the next six months, they’d have to raise at least $18,000 more. The crew hosted garage sales and monthly fundraisers parties at local bars and venues, each time introducing a new tech installation piece to test on the crowds — an essential part of the trial and error that goes into perfecting interactive art.
“There’s a certain amount of psychology that goes into interactive art, like trying to analyze the way humans interact with objects,” Husted tells GO.
“Like the doll that we brought to the first party, we thought people would pick it up and just play with it, but there wasn’t enough of a cue for them,” added O’Rourke. “We realized we had to have some kind of message like ‘Play with me.’”
“It’s hard because people are so trained not to touch art,” Swing tells GO.
“It’s being pragmatic about how people are going to experience the art,” Cannon added.
“It’s user testing,” Langley tells GO. “You basically want everything to be so easy to use or else people think it’s broken.”
It was at these parties that the group premiered some of their favorite pieces, like the hand-painted Ouija table, which alone features 30 sensors. Move a hand around the table and ghostly swirls of light and sound follow.
O’Rourke and Swing were charged with finding the dolls, sourcing them from garage sales, thrift stores, and, yes, people’s grandmothers. The matriarch is a doll Husted named Maureen, and if you separate her from her clan — beware.
“If you pull her back far enough, she starts screaming and the other dolls just go crazy,” Langley tells GO.
The windows of The Dollhouse are also anything but benign. Swing, who often etches glass in her artwork, found used windows and engraved them with runes, animal heads, a fetal pig, and her favorite piece: an interpretation of the Tarot card The Hermit, with a woman holding a snake-wrapped staff. To make the windows interactive, Swing inlayed the windows with conductive epoxy. When participants touch the windows on the inside, it will trigger flickering light and sound on the exterior.
All these elements found their places after Cannon finished the actual build of the structure, a monthlong process that she completed in early August. In addition to the literal nuts and bolts (and rim beams, downlines, and rebar, oh my), Cannon designed Victorian flourishes for the home, including a gingerbread trim and contrasting color scheme of deep purple siding and two-tone teal trim. The final product includes a sort of parlor and kitchen on the first floor and a staircase that leads to second-floor bedroom and bathroom.
Before the collective packed up the massive artwork for the road, I took a tour during a community open house. Even in the light of the early evening, The Dollhouse exuded a playful but sinister vibe. I mean, it doesn’t have to be dark to be creeped out by dozens of flinty doll eyes following your movements. Not all the interactive elements were up and running yet, but even the small background details — the handmade wallpaper, the rusted bed, the old black and white portraits, the baby doll head in a washbasin — draw you into a sort of haunted historical bubble.
Then, of course, there’s the pig heart.
“My favorite is that pig heart,” Husted said. “It’s gross; the effect is really cool. It’s pretty damn scary. I think it’s going to shake some people from the inside out.”
When the sun sets on the playa, and the house glimmers and shudders and wails, it will truly cast a spell.