SPREADING THE FLAMES / BURNING MAN AT 20: Acolytes take a creative approach to building a sense of community (Published in 2005) sfgate.com/news/arti...

SPREADING THE FLAMES / BURNING MAN AT 20: Acolytes take a creative approach to building a sense of community


published 1/19/2012


Leslie Fulbright, Meredith May, Chronicle Staff Writers, Ana Suarez, Joshua Sargent


Think Burning Man, and you think of naked revelers, a sprawling impromptu tent city layered with dust, eye-popping art in the middle of the desert, and the torching of a four-story wooden man. The retreat has evolved into a multimillion-dollar business that spans the globe; a charitable foundation that gives away hundreds of thousands of dollars; and most important, a year-round counterculture movement with a spiritual quest to keep the Burning Man experience alive every day. With the help of the Internet and an organization that sponsors charities, artists and ecological cleanups, Burning Man acolytes have begun spreading the movement's principles by forming regional Burning Man collectives. In San Francisco, "burners" have risen to positions of political power at City Hall, clearing the way for a temporary Burning Man temple in Hayes Valley, while another pioneer burner is planning a think tank for local artists. In Seattle, Burning Man devotees have become entrepreneurs, using sweat equity to open their own bar and music recording studio. In Arizona, Burning Man followers have opened a charter school, where Navajo fifth-graders are learning to spin fire in a PE class and helping to build an outdoor amphitheater with a grant from the nonprofit charity arm of the Burning Man corporation, which earned $7.4 million from festival tickets last year. Nowhere does that message ring louder than in the Bay Area -- home to the largest Burning Man contingent -- where devotees have moved into dozens of industrial warehouses to build sculptures for the desert, or for private and civic buyers. [...] we had to come into the public consciousness, then we had to stabilize the event in the desert. Chicken John, one of Burning Man's early installation artists and rabble- rousers, got tired of the party scene and is looking for a more enlightened way to spend time with the community he helped foster at the bar. In February, he built his first civic piece, the Temple of the Laborer, in a low-income Latino community in San Rafael, but was forced to tear it down a day before its completion after the city received a safety complaint from a property owner. The regional Burning Man group in Detroit, meanwhile, is working to buy a vacant lot in an impoverished neighborhood there so that Best can build a steel chapel -- made of old car parts -- for the African American community. The Seattle-area burners sport Dockers and tennis shoes, work intently on laptops and text message friends on fancy cell phones. [...] a small group has opened Static Factory Media, comprised of a recording studio, art space, bar and design business, among other things. Inside a West Oakland warehouse, a waterfall of sparks cascades as four artists cut metal poles to build "The Disgusting Spectacle," a giant head that will pick its nose. The sculpture is the brainchild of Don Bruce and Tracy Feldstein of Richmond, a recently married computer technician and in-home caretaker who never considered themselves artists before. Last January, Feldstein and Bruce rented one of the last available art spaces in the West Oakland NIMBY warehouse -- a creative hive of Burning Man art studios complete with flaming metal crickets and a chandelier the size of a tract home. On the playground overlooking a desert landscape dotted with juniper trees, second-grader Ivannah Reveles learns to spin fire - an ancient Maori tribal tradition from New Zealand that is an annual showstopper at Burning Man. Two Arizona Burning Man devotees, Mark and Kate Sorensen, opened their solar-powered charter school in 2000 to help children from the struggling Navajo Nation get a fair shot in life. The couple's Burning Man friends act as visiting scholars to show the children how to use their own native traditions of storytelling, ceramics and ceremony to make an impact on their community. The principles of Burning Man mirror the American Indian principles that the Sorensens use as a theme for their school -- the Navajo concept of K'e - - that everyone is connected to everyone else in some physical, spiritual or emotional way. Arizona, with its wide-open desert spaces, offers a great environment for re-creating the look and feel of Burning Man. From the outside, Burning Man's world headquarters in San Francisco is easy to miss -- a nondescript two-story brick-and-stucco warehouse between the China Basin and the Dogpatch neighborhoods that once served as the main office for Castle Steel. [...] once through the intercom-guarded glass doors, visitors slide into another reality, greeted in the foyer by a blue horse/sea monster rearing its hooves out of the floor, its mermaid tail coiling out 10 feet behind. Downstairs, artists and Burning Man's in-house construction crew -- the "Department of Public Works" -- hammer and saw what will become the base holding up the Burning Man for this fall's festival. Upstairs, a full-time staff of 20 coordinates grants to artists, ticket sales and land-use permits, while managing the safety, infrastructure and cleanup details of the festival. Harvey and 100 punks, anarchists, carpenters and artists trek 350 miles to an empty lake bed 90 miles northeast of Reno to celebrate Burning Man in peace -- they shoot at a drive-by range, play soccer with kerosene-soaked toilet paper rolls and blow up propane tanks. When the U.S. Bureau of Land Management refuses a permit for the gathering, Burning Man turns to its online community and a private landowner offers his Nevada ranch. In an attempt to stop the sale of unauthorized nude videos shot in Black Rock City, Burning Man sues Voyeur Video to stop distributing unauthorized footage from the event. -- Burning Man has a temporary airport for small planes; its own post office that will mail letters when it gets around to it; a Center Camp cafe serving espresso; two daily newspapers; several radio stations; a recycling center; and pizza delivery. -- Any Burning Man packing list should include a bicycle; water; goggles; a face mask or bandanna; a hat; a tent; baby wipes; food to eat and share; a sleeping bag and air mattress; wig; toilet paper; a big coat for nighttime; glo-sticks or lights for a bike and for a hat to avoid nighttime collisions; sunscreen; costumes; art supplies; shea butter or lotion for dry skin; garbage bags; a parasol; a shade structure; beach chairs; a first-aid kit; and a spray bottle.