Desert event fires up creativity

Mercury News/August 17, 2003
By David L. Beck

Burning Man, the annual festival of art and self-expression that begins Aug. 25 in the Nevada desert, is, among other things, the four primal elements on steroids.

Earth? Miles of alkaline desert, the dry bed of a giant ancient lake. Air? Scalding, and whipped by windstorms. Water? In sudden bursts that turn the desert floor to muck; otherwise, you'd better truck it in.

And fire? Ah, yes, fire.

The festival that began in 1986 with a few friends burning an 8-foot wooden man on a San Francisco beach has mutated into a temporary annual city of 30,000 where the flames of creativity burn bright.

But before the festival comes the sweat, as pyrotechnics buffs and other Burning Man devotees -- including several in Santa Cruz -- labor to prepare their contributions, with the opening drawing ever closer.

The light of Bob Hoffman's efforts can be seen atop a hill near Santa Cruz, in the open-air shop he made out of the ruins of his house after the Loma Prieta earthquake.

"To see the look in their eyes when they start wailing on this damn machine -- it's just fabulous!'' said Hoffman, the proud papa of what he calls "pyrocussion'' devices.

Hoffman makes recreational flamethrowers, hand-held or freestanding, out of aluminum piping, bicycle brake levers, cable, metal wine goblets and steam whistles manufactured by the Lunkenheimer Co. of Cincinnati.

At 56, Hoffman has built custom homes and invested in restaurants. He's a veteran of eight Burning Man festivals.

This year he's building the Moth Trap, which he describes as a "mobile pyrocussion performance stage.'' He took a 1981 Datsun station wagon and decapitated it. He's topping it with a wooden stage that will hold two of his large H-shape devices, which take advantage of the fact that flame-producers also make noise.

Drummers will play on cables attached to the levers that open and close the steam-whistle valves. How they play determines the quality and volume of the mighty WHOMP! WHOMP! WHOMP! of great balls of fire being belched out under pressure.

Add a dancer or two in the center of the platform, maybe a couple of other people playing on hand-held flamethrowers, and Hoffman at the wheel slowly cruising the dry lake bed Burning Man calls the Playa -- and voilà!

"People think Burning Man is, like, no rules,'' Hoffman said. "Well, it's getting more and more bureaucratic all the time.'' For example, he must be careful to register his contraption with the festival's DMV -- the Department of Mutant Vehicles.

"But it's still the best party around,'' he said.

The party animal of choice around the Playa seems to be the dragon. Inspired by Draka the Dragon -- which breathed fire and boomed music at recent festivals -- former cell-phone executive Scott Laurie of Santa Cruz is building a "submarine'' party vehicle whose fires remain firmly enclosed in her electrical veins.

And "engineer from hell'' Steve Hosking is creating the Dragons of Eden in his Santa Cruz back yard, a seven-side, seven-head installation that will sort of dance and WHOMP! to the sounds of an on-board techno musician.

Each head is capable of puffing out fireballs that Hosking says are the size of minivans. The entire complex device is as big as a small carousel, which it resembles, and it's played, using the computer-music devices called MIDI.

"The whole thing,'' Hosking said, "is to get this thing to dance.''

That will take a while, but Dragons of Eden is an evolving creation. Last year its first finished head attended Burning Man mounted on Hosking's previous device, Satan's Calliope.

In the future, he sees not only air-amplified backfires for each head but also multijointed, moving heads, each joint computer-controlled.

Hosking, 50, is an electrical engineer at Finisar in Sunnyvale. If he didn't work on things like the Dragons in his off hours, his head would explode, he said.

"Burning Man is the one week of the year that makes the other 51 worth putting up with,'' a riot of creativity and expression that still, after five festivals, humbles him. "It's just grandiose,'' he said.

Laurie, the cell-phone executive, said the Nautilus came to him in a vision at Burning Man two years ago, a vision that was probably fueled more by exhaustion and exhilaration than anything else. ("I was working that night, so I was straight.'') He saw himself driving this bus around the Playa.

And so it came to pass. Nautilus, which Laurie always refers to as "she,'' is a German-made "articulated coach'' that prowled the streets of San Francisco for 18 years as a Muni bus. Laurie bought her at auction for a ridiculously low price; her "sisters'' were sold for scrap, he said.

She's a mobile party bus with a sea-monster snout, undersea murals on her sides and a "warp core'' that Laurie, 34, describes as a "deejay-powered sound-matter reactor.'' Hint: It's got blue lights and a disco ball.

People think of Burning Man as "a bunch of hippies out in the desert partying,'' Laurie said. He prefers to think of it as a giant community art project, of which Nautilus is a sort of microcosm.

When the sun goes down, Kara Snider, teen center manager, utters the magic words "fire dance'' and is transformed into a flaming spectacle.

Snider, 27, was working at Kiva Retreat House, a legendary Santa Cruz hot-tub-and-sauna facility, when colleagues there turned her on to Burning Man. Around the same time, a friend was returning from New Zealand excited about Maori fire dancing.

"I said, 'Ooooooo, what's that?' '' and eventually the troupe now known as Nocturnal Sunshine was born. Snider said they're basically self-taught.

The dancers use balls of fire swung on chains, "fire fans,'' "fire fingers'' that look like Freddy Krueger roasting marshmallows, hand lanterns, and other devices. They're fire-eaters, too.

A brief demonstration on the lawn of the Abbott Lighthouse in Santa Cruz looked like a cross between belly dancing and native ritual with a dash of sideshow flair. Even at 10 p.m. on a weeknight it drew a small crowd.

One couple watched, fascinated, as Snider whirled and twisted, weaving light patterns with her fireballs. "We're from Fresno,'' they explained.

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