Sustaining the flame / Burning Man artists battle urban constraints to keep spirit alive Sustaining the flame Burning Man artists battle urban constraints to keep spirit alive

Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

San Francisco -- The Burning Man free-for-all may be alive and well when it opens next week in the Nevada desert, but there's a problem back home in San Francisco: Devotees are straining to keep the flame flickering year-round.

It happens every year after the Burning Man festival. Attendees return from the late August interactive art celebration giddy from days of unbounded creativity, painting themselves orange and getting naked in the windowless desert.

So giddy that they want to replicate the good vibes and community spirit of the playa back home. Preferably with several hundred of their costumed friends in a wide-open, Black Rock Desert-size space that isn't decked out with Budweiser posters like the bar or club scene they disdain.

But it's been all bad vibes in their quest to find the right kind of space.

Between increased police scrutiny, more sound-sensitive neighbors and the difficulty of finding a place cavernous enough to exhibit say, a 40-foot Spanish galleon, fire artists, a forest of 12-foot sculptures and a band or two, many Burners are frustrated at not being able to fully express themselves in their hometown.

It's not lost on anyone that San Francisco is the birthplace of Burning Man,

which started in 1986 with a few people on Baker Beach and has blossomed into a weeklong celebration expected to attract more than 25,000 to the Black Rock Desert beginning Aug. 26.

But keeping alive the spirit of the carnival's climax -- the torching of a five-story-high man -- isn't that easy.

Take the Flambe Lounge. The Burning Man-sanctioned group draws at least 500 people to its multiartist San Francisco events several times a year. This spring, they hosted a Lounge in San Francisco's Presidio, far from neighbors. The problem: The rules said the party had to break up at midnight, or about the time most Burners kick into gear. Attendance was lower than expected.

"People show up and find the party over, and that's what forces these events underground," said Scott McKeown, who attended that event and has produced Burning Man-themed events in Sonoma County. "And when they go underground, that's when (noise and neighborhood) problems can start."

All that goes counter to the vibe that Burning Man organizers would love to see kindled year-round.

"The purpose is to keep people together and connect in the spirit of Burning Man," said San Francisco resident Marian Goodell, a member of the nonprofit board that runs the Burning Man event.

"You want to show off the art that was begun in the desert, but all of us trying to do events (year-round) in San Francisco are having a very hard time finding venues," she said.

Ask the Extra Action Marching Band, whose 40-plus members dance and play among their audience, and recently did a fund-raising show in a friend's East Bay location that they'd prefer to keep quiet. Even though they've played everywhere from the Fillmore to BART stations in San Francisco, the city offered no place for them to anchor a multiartist lineup.

So after promising a friend of the band that they'd print only 500 flyers for the event, he opened his large East Bay space to them and a few hundred friends.

"You're not watching this act, you're in the act," said Extra Action member Mateo, one name only, who "sings" through a bullhorn. "But it's getting harder for us to find venues where we can do that. It used to be that poverty was the artist's biggest worry. Now it's bureaucracy."

The problem starts once Burners begin applying for the proper permits, said veteran San Francisco permitting consultant Jeremy Paul. "Then the cash registers start to ring," he said.

"They learn that they'll need a new emergency exit and a certain kind of egress, and instead of a cool type of underground event," Paul said, "they're suddenly hosting something that requires insurance."

The result: Events go underground.

While residents of the Dogpatch neighborhood near Potrero Hill are on friendly terms with Flambe Lounge producers -- some Loungers will entertain at the Dogpatch picnic next month -- there are worries.

Dogpatch leader Susan Eslick, for example, eyes the increasing number of large-scale parties happening nearby, some of which are different Burning offshoots, and says, "We don't want to become the neighborhood that hosts all of the entertainment in the city."

Some longtime artists fret that it's another sign that San Francisco, nursemaid to artistic innovators from the Beats to the ravers to the Burners, has become less hospitable to artists since the dot-com wave crested and crashed on many longtime art spaces. Like the Extra Action Marching Band, many artists prefer to ply their sensory-tickling shows in the East Bay and elsewhere.

Chris Wettersten is one of them. The 25-year-old metal artist and lamp maker promised to don a ski cap, soak it in kerosene, and set his own head on fire as part of his Burning Man fund-raiser. It's a piece of artistry he's done "eight or 10 times."

Before his friend's band cranks up, Wettersten also promised to drill into his head and have a watermelon cut on his stomach.

"It's definitely easier to do things like this in the East Bay," Wettersten said. "Hey, I live in a warehouse in East Oakland. The cops have more important things to worry about around here."

That kind of freedom is a trifle closer to life in the weeklong desert culture, where money is largely useless; bartering is the preferred method of exchange. Burners are encouraged to bring something, a costume, an art installation, an instrument, anything to the carnival. "No spectators" is one of Burning Man's tenets.

Re-creating those conditions back home can be difficult. Burners want a warehouse-type space to let their imaginations run free. They'd prefer that the space is open later than bar time and that the event include as many different kinds of artists as possible. Oh, and keep the admission under $15.

Those who remain in San Francisco often hold events underground instead of going through the proper permitting channels.

The weeks before Burning Man are rife with fund-raisers for artists headed to the desert, with few offering the public little more than an e-mail invite or perhaps a flyer. Yet police say most are held without incident, as Burners are not a boozy or a rowdy crowd.

"We're not seeing a lot of requests coming our way," said San Francisco Police Capt. Thomas O'Neill, who oversees the department's permitting process. "If they're doing it, they're smart enough to keep it quiet."

Only a few artists have enough space to design or stage Burning Man-size pieces in their own place. One is Hunters Point metal sculptor Dan Das Mann, who held a Burning Man fund-raiser at his studio this month. There, a couple hundred revelers designed and crafted metal sculptures for "The Last Stand," a metallic forest of 300 sculptures, ranging from 2 to 20 feet high.

Das Mann recently purchased three lots near his so he can display the piece after Burning Man on 7,500 square feet of unfettered open land -- an increasingly rare commodity in San Francisco.

"The reason I've been able to do this is that there's been an incredible mass of energetic people with me," Das Mann said. "People know it's for Burning Man, and they get excited to be a part of it. There are a lot of people who are really into this."

The Burning Man festival will be held Monday through Sept. 2 in Black Rock Desert, Nev., 120 miles northeast of Reno.

-- This year's theme: The Floating World

-- Tickets: Advance tickets are $200 through midnight Friday. They are $250 when purchased at the gate. No tickets will be sold at the event after 11 p.m. Aug. 29.

-- For more information: For tickets, see; for general information, see

E-mail Joe Garofoli at
· Printer-friendly version
· Email this article to a friend