This ain’t no Burning Man—the MAH’s GLOW festival flames on
By Fire art is—pardon the pun—so hot right now. Visitors to the Golden State Warriors parade in Oakland earlier this year got a glimpse of none other than M.C. Hammer riding along with the city’s mayor in a giant, fire-breathing snail car. (The piece was designed by artists Jon and Krysten Sarriugarte of Oakland and debuted at Burning Man a few years ago.) A group of locals regularly meets at the lighthouse on Santa Cruz’s Westside to spin fire poi, and fire art festivals are quickly proliferating around the country.
But of course, humans have been fascinated with fire for as long as we’ve been able to make it. Despite all of our technological advancement, this natural element has the ability to destroy everything it touches, far beyond our control. That primitive and powerful nature might be just a part of the reason for the success of GLOW, the Museum of Art & History’s digital art and fire festival that returns to Abbott Square for a fourth year this month.
Children and adults of all ages will fill Cooper Street to experience everything from augmented reality, LED sculptures, giant shadow puppets, and glowing body art. It will even include fire juggling by Richard Hartnell, a professional contact juggler from the area who will be juggling with a steel ball saturated in fuel. Contact juggling is, largely, what it sounds like—the object being juggled is in frequent contact with the juggler’s body. Combine that with a fiery ball, and, well, it’s certainly an impressive feat.
This year’s event will consist of a Digital Night on Friday, and Fire Night on Saturday. There will be some returning favorites, including Lucy Hoskins’ Satan’s Calliope, a fire-breathing pipe organ, and a performance by Samba Stilt Circus. But there are also a number of performances and pieces that are new to the festival this year, says Stacey Marie Garcia, director of community engagement at the MAH. She is particularly fond of GLOW, as it was the first event she was part of after joining the museum staff.
“We’re always looking for something new each year,” she says. “I’m really excited about a few pieces especially.”
That includes, on Digital Night, a giant participatory Tetris game created by Bryan Von Reuter. Images will be projected on a wall and visitors can sign up, karaoke-style, to play, she explains. Von Reuter has been holding similar tournaments throughout the Bay Area, giving people the chance to play with digital blocks the size of people. Winners will receive a special trophy made from reclaimed materials.
Another piece that will be featured at Digital Night is a virtual sandbox, according to Shannon Stillman of Idea Fab Labs, a makers space that recently opened a location in Santa Cruz.
“We were originally going to do fire art, but we had this other project we were working on that we decided would be more fun,” says Stillman, the head of operations for the creation space located in the old Wrigley Building. “What we have is a virtual reality sandbox, created by a UC Davis professor.”
It’s an actual sandbox with real sand, but combined with an augmented reality by way of a Kinect for Xbox 360. Using an open source computer program, it allows participants to build topographic maps.
Idea Fab Labs originally started in Chico with a mission of bringing high-tech tools and fabrication to people who want to try these things out, but wouldn’t otherwise have access. A Santa Cruz location was opened about two months ago, as an open environment meant to foster innovation through hands-on learning and collaboration. Members pay monthly membership fees to access the building and tools.
That concept appealed to Garcia, so she reached out to Stillman about participating in this year’s GLOW event.
“I really like the community-building aspect of GLOW—group thinking always makes things better,” says Stillman. “I’m also excited about showing it [the sandbox] off and having kids play with it.”
This will be Stillman’s first time experiencing GLOW; he’s usually still recovering from Burning Man, he says.
NOT THE PLAYA, PLAYA
While there are inevitable comparisons and connections to Burning Man, Garcia says GLOW isn’t meant to be some sort of Playa Lite. Many of the artists who take part in GLOW are also frequent visitors to Burning Man, but the MAH’s event is its own animal.
“It’s not a burners’ event,” says Garcia, who likens it to more of a celebration of science.
“As a museum, one of the things that matters the most to us is bringing all different types of people together,” Garcia says. “With all of our events, it’s a balance between doing something that’s exciting enough for adults, but also can involve kids.”
When evaluating pieces and performances for the museum, Garcia says she always thinks about how it could be explained to a 6-year-old.
“During the madness of GLOW last year, I crawled into the tent [one of the pieces at Digital Night] and there was just this group of little kids playing with light and jamming out to the Beastie Boys,” she recalls fondly.
In fact, kids will also be some of the performers. On Digital Night, for instance, a group of 12-year-olds from Aerial Arts Santa Cruz will be performing acts of contortion while wearing costumes adorned with electroluminescent wire.
Garcia praises the participatory nature of many of the pieces, and explains that especially with the digital art, many of the participants are working with very complex, high-tech arts.
Still, GLOW has undoubtedly given many artists a place to show off their art somewhere other than Burning Man.
A few years ago, local artist Steve Cooper began discussing the lack of a good venue with some of his fellow fire artists.
“In Santa Cruz, there’s actually a sizeable community of fire artists,” says Cooper. “Many of them have been doing what’s been some very pioneering stuff at Burning Man.”
Cooper says he first got into fire arts in 1996, when he learned how to breathe fire—something he’d always been intrigued by at Burning Man.
Soon he began performing as a fire breather, but after getting chemical pneumonia from doing so, he turned to other types of fire art, including the use of a bonfire, a “flame effect” device sort of like a flame thrower that creates a big fireball when shot off.
While at the playa one year, Cooper says he and his friends talked about how cool it would be to have a local event where they could show off their creations to their own community.
Not long after this discussion, Cooper happened to be at a party with museum director Nina Simon, and he brought the idea up with her. She suggested they work together to put on some sort of fire art showcase at the MAH.
“And I thought, ‘Of course, that sounds like a crazy awesome synergy,” says Cooper.
The two discussed plans over lunch at Laili, and the event was born in spring of 2011.
“That first event taught us not to do it during the rainy season,” says Garcia. “We also had no idea how popular the event would be.”
Cooper will be performing this year as part of what he calls the “bonefire cannon aid.” Cooper and his fellow performers will stand in a row and shoot off bonefires at the same time, sort of like a fireball version of a 21-gun salute.
Fire Night will also feature a giant human-sized praying mantis created from salvaged material by Todd Cox of Petaluma. The sculpture will shoot fire out of its mouth on Cooper Street, Garcia says. Local favorites—and frequent GLOW performers—the Samba Stilt Orchestra will be upping the ante this year by “riding on a tricycle while on stilts, with flames coming out of the trike,” says Garcia.
She’s also excited for the museum to host a performance by the Flaming Lotus Girls from the Bay Area, a group of artists that makes large-scale kinetic art, some of it the size of buildings.
For GLOW, the group will be bringing Merope 2, a 13-foot sculpture made from stainless steel to represent a constellation. A series of interactive buttons will make fire emit from the stars.
“It’s one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever seen” Garcia says. “It’s remarkable.”
What’s also remarkable is the amount of teamwork and labor that goes into putting on a fun and safe show each year that provides an enjoyable experience for everyone. Throngs of people in a relatively small area combined with fire carries the potential for disaster, and Garcia says great efforts are taken to ensure that the event is as safe as possible.
That includes working closely with the city’s fire department, whose staff personally examine every piece that will be on display to make sure it is safe.
“I’ve been really, really thankful to have a fire department wise enough to take a careful look at what we are doing, and let us do it—in a carefully controlled way,” says Cooper.
GLOW 2015 will be held at the Museum of Art & History, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz. 7-10 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 16 is Digital Night. 7-10 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 17 is Fire Night. Tickets: $10 per night or $18 for both, general admission; $8 for both nights or $5 per night for MAH members. Tickets available online at santacruzmah.org.