In late winter, a mischievous postdoctoral scholar at Scripps – and a few of her friends – brought a little bit of magic and mystery from the desert to Ocean Beach.
On March 7, a 10-feet tall, 8-feet long, and 3-feet wide unicorn, weighing nearly 600 pounds, arrived on a flatbed truck and took residence at the corner of Venice Street and Del Mar Avenue. Affectionately named Tiny, the massive sculpture from Black Rock City – filled with a rainbow of LED lights and a heavy metal soundtrack – moved in to stand sentinel over the quiet neighborhood.
“I wasn’t sure about the neighbors,” said Rachel Hiner, who welcomed the mythical beast next to her home. “A lot of them are set in their ways.”
But after the quarantine began, and parks and trails were closed, and people were forced to actually walk around their neighborhoods to get some fresh air and exercise (and to keep sane), more and more locals discovered Tiny, which became an insta (@the.toxic.unicorn) celebrity for Ocean Beach residents.
“It was surprising how much people love it,” said Hiner, who’s friends with Tiny’s creator, Madeleine Hamann. “It’s been a positive experience.”
The sculpture, intended to draw onlookers with its grace and gallantry, and admired from afar for its kaleidoscopic body, is more than just a pretty face. Its beauty comes with an emotional and environmental price – a perfect metaphor for present day. And in a way to emphasize her point, Hamann added a final kick to the “Toxic Unicorn.”
“Tiny has a secret, shocking surprise,” Hamann said. “She delivers a pretty startling electric shock if you grab her horn!”
So how did Tiny make it from the playa at Burning Man to the hills of east Ocean Beach? We caught up with Hamann to let her explain the journey in an in-depth Q&A.
Beacon: Why build a Toxic Unicorn?
Hamann: "Toxic Unicorn" came out of a conversation about how we all have these people we've met who seem so amazing – magical, mesmerizing – on the first encounter. But the more time you spend with them, the more you realize that there's something... off, really off. Like, I need to extract myself from this person's purview ASAP. Toxic Unicorn people.
But then, it dawned on me that we as a society actually have a similar relationship with plastic. It's an amazing material – versatile, pliable, waterproof, etc. And it's enabled a huge amount of innovation since its introduction before WWII. A little less than a century later, though, and we're having that “aha” moment, realizing that plastic's toxic effects might overshadow its sparkly, magical appeal.
Beacon: Is it made from recycled materials?
Hamann: Tiny is made of waffled plywood and coated with recycled 55-gallon food-grade drums. These drums are used for a variety of food shipments and unfortunately can't be reused for their original purpose due to FDA regulations. They are often downcycled or repurposed for other non-food uses. But with some cleaning, they made great material for Tiny's outer shell. She also has a mane that is a bit more fragile and not currently in place that is made of 2-liter bottles cut into long strands.
Beacon: How long did it take to build?
Hamann: We built Tiny at San Diego Collaborative Arts Project's "Colab" art facility. We had a core team of five: Me, Dave Doerner, Brian Tran, Cole Whalen, and Bryson Arenas, and we had a lot of support from artists on special projects (Ensari Cokur, Chelsea Pattee, Max Elliot, and Diane Hoffoss) and from many volunteers who came out to support us on build days. It was a community effort for sure. We started applying for grants in November 2018, started planning in earnest in January 2019, and finished her up minutes before we set her up in the desert in August 2019. Almost a full year.
Beacon: Why is it next to your partner’s sister’s house?
Hamann: After Burning Man, art pieces created at Colab need to find a new home in order to make space for the next art projects that will be made there. Lots of art just goes into storage or gets destroyed after it serves its intended event, but with sustainability in mind, we designed Tiny in a way that would allow her to be installed outdoors for longer temporary installs. Besides, it's way more fun to see her all the time than to pull her out once in a blue moon.
Beacon: What do you think of it gaining fans?
Hamann: I think it's great. She went in right before quarantine kicked in, but even in just that first week, we noticed how many more people were coming by the house on their walks. Where we used to see 1-2 people every morning, it became five,10, even 20-plus people working her into their walk. I saw neighbors who had never met pass by at the same time and strike up a conversation.
She has sort of created this new "hub" where people from around the neighborhood who might never otherwise meet can now intersect. I've even heard folks say they've walked from over two miles away to see her. I would be thrilled to see more art pieces installed in San Diego neighborhoods. I think it's an incredible opportunity to keep the community feeling engaged and sane.
Beacon: How was it perceived at burning man?
Hamann: People loved her. We saw tons of photos of people with her after we left the event. In the spirit of one of Burning Man's principles (decommodification), we didn't put any social media information out with her. Regardless, you can see some people found and tagged her on Instagram (@the.toxic.unicorn).
Out on playa, it was hilarious to go out to the unicorn and get people to touch it. By the end of the week, other people were doing my job for me. I'd just go out and watch people trick their friends and all break down into giggles.
Beacon: How long will it stay there?
Hamann: Given the positive reaction to her, I'd love to keep her or some other attraction in place to continue the connection. But I would also love to share her magic with other neighborhoods – perhaps start a kind of artwork rotation with a location in several different neighborhoods and pieces that move from place to place for folks to visit. Gladly accepting donations to get that off the ground. One plan is to install her on Niagara Street in front of the former coffee shop The Nest.
Beacon: What’s your background?
Hamann: I grew up in central Ohio and moved to San Diego for a graduate program in physical oceanography at Scripps in 2013. I found oceanography through my mentors at the University of Notre Dame where I studied civil and environmental engineering. Turns out studying the ocean sounded like more of an adventure than building highway overpasses.
Beacon: What do you do at Scripps?
Hamann: I completed my Ph.D., and am now a postdoctoral scholar at Scripps in the Marine Physical Laboratory. I work with Matthew Alford (another Point Loma resident) and the Multiscale Ocean Dynamics group to observe turbulence in the interior of the ocean and study how it affects the ocean's circulation and ecosystems. We go out on research vessels for weeks at a time in locations all over the world, deploying our custom instruments wherever we go to better understand and parameterize the physics that other scientists are putting into models of the global ocean and climate.