A Circus of Art
July 22, 2015 by Linn
I was oddly reminded of moths drawn, like little fuzzy magnets, to a porch light. I hovered around our fire organ with my camera, feeling small in the larger-than-life atmosphere of “Precompression.”
I’d wandered around the grounds at the raucous pre-Burning Man party at industrial arts studio American Steel in Oakland, California looking to find performances to watch. More than anything else that night, though, I watched peoples’ faces. Everyone was hyper-alive, eager to make it a night to remember and openly interested in the people and projects around them. They couldn’t pass the organ without halting, staring, wanting to touch and play. There were bigger, flashier pieces around the festival, certainly, and some spewed fire like ours, but the fire organ had an added layer of intrigue to it. Every now and again someone who’d planted themselves in front of the organ for a while would beckon me over and, having either observed the standing waves or spoken with the designer, excitedly explain to me how the organ works, proud of their cleverness and impressed by the physical and mathematical mechanisms at work.
Precompression was first described to me as a “big art circus.” The huge industrial venue gave the event a sense of playful possibility. A clown marching band paraded through the grounds. The art pieces were gigantic, the costumes, colors, performers, and wild music felt like an urban carnival. American Steel Studios began as a small private workshop for the sculptor Karen Cusolito. She soon expanded it to over four city blocks as more and more enterprising artists wanted to join the community.
One of my favorite features at Precompression was a giant fire-breathing horse/car by the name of “Chester.” Chester looks like the devil’s dream car, if the devil were a viking raised by rock stars. His black bust is sculpted from tires, his eyes glow red, his sides are flanked with eight torches, and the driver’s seat is a great saddle. While they were filling him with propane, one of the crew casually mentioned that they’d driven Chester through a Starbucks drive through before the event. Later on in the night I was invited to stand on Chester’s broad back to take in Precompression from above.
The pyro-friendly displays such as our own and Chester were stationed outdoors, but the mosaic of events indoors was a beast of its own. Walking through the giant shop doors was akin to wandering into Wonderland—literally, in one room, where a giant casting of Alice’s skirt and legs floated from the ceiling. There was music for every kind of dancer, sculptures you could climb, people with hair colors all over the spectrum. As a precursor to the main Burning Man festival, the focus was not on the preservation of great art but on living with it, fully experiencing it in the moment.
Linn Splane is a UCLA student studying physical anthropology with a view to a career in science communication. She is spending her summer as an intern with Guerilla Science in Brooklyn.