Inflatables

This recipe guides you through every step of creating giant plastic inflatable sculptures: "inflatable bombs you can blow up again and again!"
You will need ( tools or supplies ): 
Plastic painters tarp
Clear 2” packing tape
1 box fan
A large, clean, flat space, preferably inside
A pattern
Tape measure
Permanent marker
Scissors
Utility knives, X-acto knives, or razor blades
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Here's more on the specific materials you'll need...

Plastic painters tarp—This is available at any hardware store. You need a solid film material, not the woven variety with grommets for tying down. Rolls of plastic should indicate the weight (i.e. 2 mil, 4 mil, 6 mil) on the package. 2 mil is lightest and most compact, 4 mil is bulkier but more durable. You should never go heavier than 4 mil, unless you want your inflatable to be able to accommodate people, in which case you can use 6 mil material for the floor. Plastic tarps vary in size; we suggest acquiring the widest rolls possible (20’x200’ is good).

Clear 2” packing tape—Don’t go budget on this, get the best name brand stuff. Start with around 4 rolls. Avoid anything that is advertised as “Easy Tear”; if you are making a masterpiece, look for tape advertised as “long-lasting” or “U.V.-resistant.”

1 box fan—Any 2-speed box fan will do the job. You’re not going to need an industrial fan to inflate a huge piece. A desktop fan can inflate a 50’ sculpture—the only requirement is constant airflow. The advantage of using a bigger fan is faster inflation time. If time is of the essence, get an industrial fan.

A large, clean, flat space, preferably inside—This is the most difficult thing to come by. It is helpful if one of your collaborators is connected with a school, because a gym or auditorium stage is ideal.

A pattern—Among the most readily available patterns are stuffed animals. Every orifice of the world explodes with unwanted stuffed animals, so acquiring one shouldn’t be a problem. You can create your own pattern, but this requires extra skills. If you go this route, make a paper model first, and throughout the remainder of this recipe substitute the panels of the model for the parts of the stuffed animal.

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For our demonstration we will be using a teddy bear because of its availability; there are plenty of simpler shapes to make, for which all these instructions also apply.

Begin by making a drawing of your teddy bear from the front and from the back. It doesn’t have to look good; you just need it for reference after you’ve cut up the bear.

Measure the length, width, and height of the stuffed animal. Note these measurements on your drawing.

Carefully take apart and label each panel (e.g. right leg, left front torso). Indicate on your drawing where each panel goes. Do not skip this step—when all your pieces are cut apart, it will be very hard to tell a right leg from a left front torso.

If you have not already done this, trim each panel along the seam line where it used to be sewn together. The shape of the piece of fabric may be quite different from the shape outlined by the seam lines.

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On graph paper, trace each panel. These tracings will serve as your blueprint when you lay the shapes out on the plastic.

Now decide how large you want to make your inflatable, and work out the ratio between the length of your small teddy bear and the length that you want your inflatable. For example, the teddy bear we used was about eight inches long, so to enlarge it to 40 feet we made each square inch of our blue print grid equal to five square feet of plastic.

Unroll and unfold your plastic; if you want to be especially conscientious, you can make a grid of one-foot marks along all four sides of your floor so that you can easily align the uncut plastic. Make sure the grid you lay out is square (90 degrees).

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Armed with your blueprint, permanent marker, and tape measure, transfer your small plans onto the plastic (figure 12.3). With care you should end up with a very close (scaled up) duplication of the shapes on your graph paper.

Cut out the pieces of plastic and label them as you go so you can remember how they fit together and what part they belong to.

When all of your pieces are cut out, tape them together. I suggest doing the parts (torso, arm 1, arm 2, head etc.) separately. When you have completed all of the pieces, assemble them into your final shape.

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Taping is the most labor-intensive part of the project. We have developed a system of taping in pairs while seated on the floor. Person One tears pieces of tape into 6” to 12” pieces (12” for seams that are straight, 6” for seams that are curved). Person Two holds the two pieces of plastic to be joined flat together, like two pages in a closed book. Person One applies the tape lengthwise onto one piece of plastic, so that 50% of the width hangs over (figure 12.4), and then folds the overhang onto the other side. When you open up the plastic, the two pieces should be joined edge to edge with the tape centered along the seam. While Person One is tearing off more tape, Person Two squeezes the seam to make sure it is sealed tight.

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When the inflatable is assembled, cut a round hole somewhere in the body, approximately the diameter of the fan you will use. Make an air tube from another piece of plastic and connect it to the hole. Be especially thorough with your taping; this will be a high-stress connection. Tape the fan to the other end of the air tube.

Blow up your inflatable by turning the fan on high. Once it is fully inflated, it is important to turn the fan to low. When your bear inflates for the first time, seams will pop open—this is normal. Leave the bear inflated, and have one person get inside while the other remains outside. Do not try to pull the ripped seams back together to tape them. Simply add patches to the inflatable that are the shapes of the holes. Small holes are not necessarily a problem—the fan will constantly be pumping in air, and that air has to go somewhere. If you want to leave some holes, just reinforce them with tape. We found that the older our bear got, the stronger her seams became; maybe tape gets stickier with age?

Your giant inflatable sculpture can roll up to an amazingly small size, and weighs very little. Recruit help to roll it—the more people you have, the smaller your inflatable can be packed.

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Become a secret agent—stalk your city in disguise looking for lifeless spaces. They’re everywhere: public parks, street corners, town squares, corporate campuses, municipal lobbies, schools, children’s playgrounds… Now pack up your giant teddy bear, fan, and extension cord, take it to your spot, and blow it up as if it were a bomb. This is poetic terrorism. Such transformation of the environment is a gift to yourself and everyone who bears witness: make it an occasion. Dress up. Claim credit under a false name. Be legendary. Make art that is an event, then steal away in the confusion. Hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins; you are a phantom, a heroine, a soldier, a pillar of your community.

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Watch for heating vents on buildings and sidewalks, hand-dryers in bathrooms, and other public sources of air that can be used to expand inflatables, which can be custom-made to fit these sites. One folk scientist made a series of inflatable tents that could be attached to the outtake ducts of building ventilation systems to provide housing and warmth for their homeless occupants.

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We once made a full-size inflatable circus tent that could fit over two hundred people inside. It was floorless, a dome constructed from long panels of black plastic with a clear skylight at the apex, and weighted down around its circumference with chain taped into the plastic. We made our pattern for it from the skin of half an orange. Once it was inflated, people entered by lifting up one side and swiftly getting in. From without, it looked like a titanic trash bag, but inside the atmosphere was strangely transformed and the outside world seemed far away. It could be used to create a magical performance environment in any setting with a flat, spacious area. Though it served us well on many occasions, we did encounter some challenges with it. On account of its great surface area, any amount of wind tended to buffet it or knock it over. On one occasion, we set it up atop a mountain in West Virginia, but the hundreds of feet of extension cord delivering the electricity to the fan diluted the power enough that we were barely able to inflate it. The acoustics inside were interesting—there was a central point in which an echo could be heard from all sides—but the noise of the fan made it necessary to speak loudly when addressing a group. Finally, it trapped heat, which could make it uncomfortable in the summer. All the same, it was incredibly cheap for a movable structure of its size, and demanded attention wherever we deployed it.

When we unfurled our circus tent at an anarchist convergence following a tour of the Midwest, our friends demanded to learn how to make their own inflatables. Some went to scare up the necessary supplies, while others gathered around to discuss what we could make.
The ideas came quickly:

“Something people can get inside of.”

“A prop for a performance.”

“Something to make a presence when we go into town for Food Not Bombs.”

“An inflatable stage.”

“An inflatable television…”

“…that we can get inside…”

“…and be TV stars!”

It was settled. This time we weren’t just making idle threats, we were actually going to blow up a television. Three hours later we were putting the finishing touches on a black and clear model, American-made, with a twenty-seven-foot screen. Despite its size, it packed down into a milk crate for the ride downtown, so we brought along the circus tent for good measure and threw in a few 100-foot extension cords.

The cooler of Food Not Bombs spaghetti hit the sidewalk. Public electrical outlets were located. The fan blades began to churn. Two massive forms began to rise from the concrete like whales surfacing in slow motion.

Food Not Bombs was serving in a public plaza that happened to be across the street from the city’s event coliseum. As we ate, played music, and goofed off in our television, its vast flashing signs reminded us of that other world. One of those pop stars so famous as to go by her first name alone was to perform that night. Thousands of people were about to pay as much apiece to see her as the seventy of us had spent on food all week. It was a vivid juxtaposition of modes of life, and we thought it a fortuitous chance to interact with the masses.

By the time the line of consumers had formed, we had been improvising together for some hours on our homemade musical instruments and were eager to invite the newcomers to join in. But as soon as we prepared to wheel our jerry-rigged drum machine across the street, the audio-van of the local corporate rock station pulled up on the sidewalk and cranked up its volume. The subtle sounds of the drum machine were lost in the din of blaring commercials.

It was war. Mustering our entire array of bucket drums, whistles, boviphonic ohm cannons, and other sonic weapons, we converged in all our numbers in the middle of the street beside the van and the column of concert-goers. Dancing and yelling ardently, we drowned out their sound system, and created what must have been a startling spectacle for the spectators, who looked on as though they’d never seen people enjoying themselves in public without buying tickets first.

Inspired, a few of us went to get the inflatable television from our base camp across the street. We found another outlet on the wall of the coliseum, and plugged in the fan, only to be scolded by some petty administrator before our conversation piece was fully inflated. Not to be denied, we plugged into an outlet on our side of the street, and ran extension cords all the way across it, holding the official at bay with references to our unintelligibly-worded permit. He went off in a huff, and a raging dance party commenced around and inside the television.

Soon, corporate music fans were making their way up to us in twos and threes; our weirdness and excitement were simply irresistible. Before the evening was through, several of them had joined us in dancing inside the television, and some had even elected to spend the night doing so instead of entering the coliseum. Never underestimate the power of outlandish props and shenanigans—the masses want to join you in the streets, but they know it’s not their revolution unless they can dance.

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