So, going to the Madagascar Institute’s shop in Gowanus, Brooklyn is like visiting an embassy of Bartertown from “Beyond Thunderdome.” It is all raw steel and piles of scrap metal stacked on old cable spindles, in a space that looks like the garage where one might keep a souped up dunebuggy that had spikes and a harpoon gun welded to it. I was three feet in the door and already waiting for Tina Turner to walk up and explain that “The real power here is shit. Pig shit.” For a certain generation, even with current situations being what they are, that possibility still gives a little thrill.
Instead, I was greeted by a pretty woman who was dressed like a hard drinking, but sexy, car mechanic. She handed me a release form that absolved her and her employer of any liability should I burn my face completely off before the day was out. After I had signed away my right to recoup my precious flesh, I was introduced to Leif and Hackett, who looked like they were the stars of a post apocalyptic, Chuck Norris – Predator, buddy flick. These were the guys who were going to teach me how to make a flame thrower.
The Madagascar Institute bills itself as an art combine. It is a DIY shop for every kind of weird fantasy contraption you can think of. The entire atmosphere is of a world in which there has been a nuclear holocaust and the only survivors were MacGuyver and the crew of Mythbusters.
They teach classes on everything from MIG welding (and, no, I don’t know what MIG stands for) to how to build a pulse jet (I am assuming that is what was strapped to the dirt bike behind the work area) and a lecture series on Secret Societies. And of course, how to build a flame thrower.
The class runs about four hours with Leif explaining the legal way to do everything and Hackett telling you how to work around that entirely. Then, after a long but very accessible explanation of the physics of propane, they proceed to build an eight foot tall flame canon out of, literally, whatever they have lying around. And there is a lot of stuff lying around.
They do this in the backyard and all the students line up to shoot fireballs into the sky, and by sky, I mean the branches of one sorely abused tree. No clue how the thing still has leaves on it. After that, they demonstrate variations on the theme which allow you to have more control and precision with your new lethal toy. And the tree gets it a few more times. Then they expect you to go home, or to Burning Man, and do this yourself.
I won’t, but I just don’t build shit as a rule. For me this was a one off to partake in one of the many odd things that you can get yourself into in this great city. BUT, if you want to build a homemade fireball cannon, I can’t recommend it enough. They were nice people teaching you how to do dangerous things. Leif misplaces anything that has been in his hands for more than three minutes and Hackett chain smokes like nicotine had vitamins, but they taught me in a clear, concise way how to build a machine that will set my neighbors house on fire without endangering myself. I don’t do class and I have no interest in the process except the part where you shoot fire into the sky like a giddy six year old with the world’s biggest hairspray can. But, I walked out of there with enough understanding of the fundamentals that, if pushed, I feel confident I could repeat the process. If you are into this kind of thing, this class might open up brand new horizons.
And I am a little closer to surviving an encounter with Mel Gibson and, really, the way things are going, we should all be concerned about that.