May 19, 2006 1:12 PM PDT

Fire fest in Frisco--When it's OK to play with fire

SAN FRANCISCO--I got to make big fire Thursday night, and I liked it.

It was the kind of fire that shoots 10 feet in the air, propelled by some sort of highly compressed fuel. And all I had to do was push a small button.

I'm not a pyro though. In fact, I was just another participant at the Fire Arts Exposition, which began at Monster Park here Thursday night and continues Friday and Saturday nights. The event is being put on by the organization that runs Burning Man, the annual countercultural arts festival held in Nevada's Black Rock Desert.

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Pyros or not, at least 200 or 300 fire art enthusiasts like myself have gathered in the Monster Park parking lot and are practically drooling over approximately two dozen flaming sculptures, many of which seem like they could kill you if you got too close. Yet the police officers and even the fire marshals patrolling the grounds look like they couldn't be more relaxed.

That's because Burning Man worked hard to get the permits for this event and clearly convinced the authorities that it knows how to stage a festival rife with things like a giant fire vortex, or fire tornado, that twisted at least 20 feet in the air.

"We're not hiding from the fire department anymore," said a man on the main stage called Dave X to the gathered audience. "We're incorporating the fire department."

A second later, he added, jokingly, "It was not on fire when we got here. We started it. We're fessing up to it."

But the Fire Arts Exposition is not just an exercise in spectatorship. Instead, many of the pieces here gave participants the chance to get involved and play directly with the sculptures. And that was exactly the point.

"Get close to the art and interact with it," exhorted Burning Man Art Director Crimson Rose from the stage. "Stay safe and maybe even push a button. That's what we all want."

So we did. We wandered around, the sound of compressed fuel morphing into flames a constant companion throughout the grounds. "Whoomph, whoomph," we all heard.

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Video: Playing with fire
The Fire Arts Exposition heats up a crowd in San Francisco.

And the smell of fuel was everywhere, too. Propane, gasoline and whatever other flammable elixirs the fire artists had concocted. No one would say this was the most environmentally friendly event in San Francisco's history.

But it was for a good cause. The Fire Arts Exposition is intended to help raise funds for the Black Rock Arts Foundation, Burning Man's nonprofit arm.

BRAF's mission is to place large-scale interactive, temporary art in public places, and it's succeeding.

Already, it has placed two temporary pieces in San Francisco, one a beautiful wooden temple by David Best in a brand-new city park, and Burning Man artist Michael Christian's "Flock" in front of City Hall. And the nonprofit has several more projects in the works.

In any case, the future of temporary public art was probably the last thing on people's minds as they gathered, six-deep, to watch the fire vortex.

To create the giant fire tornado, the artist, Nate Smith, and assistants like Ballistic Bob, don huge silver fire suits and propel fuel through a pipe into the center of a circle of 12 large fans. The result: Big fire, twisting upward, and the resulting look of awe on everyone's face.

Another big hit was Therm's juxtaposed "Thermo Kraken" and Tesla coil. "Thermo Kraken" is a tall metal sculpture reminiscent of a flower that shoots colored flames and also drips molten flame onto the ground--all as it pops and cracks loudly and percussively. Next to it was a giant Tesla coil, blasting out electric charges like small lightning bolts.

Together the two pieces created a combined sound effect that was overwhelming, yet irresistible. And because it was very close to the fire vortex and since the two installations ran at different times, the crowd seemed to move back and forth between the two, depending on which one was running.

Despite the scale of these pieces, however, there were also much smaller sculptures, and these were the ones that participants could play with. One piece had four towers shooting fire, each on a set of flexible springs attached to a rope. Participants could grab the ropes and swing the towers of flame around and into one another.

The common reaction: laughter and glee.

But my favorite was "Fire Feathers," by the Flaming Lotus Girls, a San Francisco collective of fire artists who have created huge projects for Burning Man each year since 2000. The "Fire Feathers" were remnants of their 2005 Burning Man project, a personal favorite of mine, called "Angel of the Apocalypse."

At the Fire Arts Exposition, the Flaming Lotus Girls had set up two "Fire Feathers" on opposite sides of a lovely arched gateway that was also shooting flames. Participants were invited to step up to the control panel where two buttons would blast propane-powered flames straight up into the air.

I came over, waited a minute for two others to take their turn, and began to play with the feathers. I'd push the buttons, and flames would jet out. Push. Blast. Push. Blast.

Just then, a member of the Flaming Lotus Girls called Mills, whose business card says her title is "Fire Hussy," ran over and said it was time to shut it down, and that I should just keep pushing the buttons until nothing happened.

I did. Push. Blast. Push. Blast. And then, push. Hiss. I had closed down "Fire Feathers."

Mills walked over and, dramatically and apologetically said, "No more poof."

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