Delicate Tesla Coils Hide Danger Behind Glass

Can a Tesla coil be appreciated with the scrutiny of fine art? Alexandre Burton attempts to find out.

If you’ve never seen a Tesla coil in person, it’s a remarkable experience. Purple plasma flashes in unpredictable, wide-reaching bolts. The sound cracks with more fearsomeness than a whip. The air fills with the sterile acridity of ozone. The effect is equal parts frightening and beautiful; this machinery can use enough voltage to carbonize your flesh right down to the bone, yet some self-destructive impulse tells you to look closer.


Alexandre Burton plays with this very impulse in his installation, Impacts. The exhibition features several Tesla coils that hang from the ceiling. They fire, not against a cage or predictable grounding surface, but a delicate pane of glass, so the viewer can appreciate the plasma filaments like a framed piece of art or a caged lion.

“A central preoccupation [with Impacts] was to find a way to present those high-energy, relatively dangerous events in an intimate and fragile context,” Burton tells Co.Design. “The idea is to get very close to the electrical plasma and appreciate the infinite resolution of the arcs.”

In fact, the entire installation is designed to pull you in. It “wakes up” as visitors enter the gallery, gradually growing more intense as people stay longer and move closer to the coils. No doubt, this sort of reverse-psychology approach tempts the daredevil in us all, beckoning us to move closer by responding with more of the very element that had left us so nervous (and captivated) in the first place. In the meantime, the coils begin to make music that Burton compares to 20th-century composers Morton Feldman or Iannis Xenakis, inundating your brain with two ways to experience the same piece of media.

“You do receive an aggressive, powerful sonic wavefront, but at the same time, it’s a synesthetic event,” Burton writes. “And after a few minutes, the brain gets a bit confused between light and sound.”

That sounds . . . (or looks?) . . . wonderful.

See more here.


[Hat tip: Triangulation]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.