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Such violations are rather common in the free-form world of artist work spaces. Vincent Crudele, a City of Oakland fire inspector, said usually only about one third of such work spaces are up to code. "On any given day, when we conduct our inspection process and we go into these types of spaces, we typically find violations to the fire code and the building code." But Crudele counts the Big Art Studios at American Steel among the compliant third. Still, keeping a space like Big Art Studios up to code is tricky because of the wide variety of artists working side by side. "This has been a challenge," he said, "but the difference here is, they want to do it correctly."
Of course, American Steel takes up four city blocks, so it would be hard for tenants to hide even if they wanted to. For instance, in July, Das Mann and Cusolito threw a giant fund-raiser for the studios called "Sand By the Ton." Basically a mini Burning Man, the party was so successful that Crudele, who was on the scene that night along with a small team of police officers, stopped letting people enter. By the end of the night, almost a thousand people were lined up outside while the party raged on.
Cusolito said the fire inspector worked very hard with her to get the building ready for that event, which included putting in exit signs, fire extinguishers, and a new sprinkler system. And those upgrades are only the beginning, she said. "There are different levels of things that need to happen," Cusolito said. "But there's a budget that needs to be considered. It's not like I can make everything happen at once."
American Steel was the direct result of Das Mann's and Cusolito's infectious drive to create art on a massive scale. In 2005, they were looking for a place to create two huge metal sculptures called "The Passage," a thirty-foot scrap-metal woman walking hand in hand with her twenty-foot-tall child. At the time, Das Mann ran a San Francisco art space called Headless Point, but he and Cusolito needed space with higher ceilings to construct the figures.
"It was just a lark, but I said, 'Dan, let's call that guy Tom in that big space in West Oakland and see if he'll let us borrow a little space.'" And it turned out that Tom, a structural engineer named Tom Dias, with whom Das Mann has briefly worked, was amenable. "So we came in, busted out the piece in two months, packed up, and left," Cusolito said. The next year, Dias let them come back to construct two more metal figures. Then, in 2007, the Burning Man organization funded a massive installation project proposed by Cusolito and Das Mann.
"When we got approved to do 'Crude Awakening,'" Cusolito said, "we realized we needed our own space. And that's when this all started happening."
Cusolito and Das Mann are grateful for Dias' support over the last four years. In addition to helping them rent their own space at American Steel, he assisted them with several structural issues on "the Passage." And he looked over their shoulders during the construction of "Crude Awakening."
"That's how we forged our relationship," Dias recalled. "I guess I sort of schooled Dan a little bit in how to do steel work. I think what this thing did for Dan was change his paradigm of what a shop space should be. I think his shop before was small and crowded. And to all of a sudden have overhead cranes and places where trucks can come make deliveries and was zoned correctly, all of that stuff maybe opened his eyes."
The creation of "Crude Awakening" — a 2007 installation that featured eight giant metal figures, including Ecstacy and an exploding oil derrick — drew a sizable cast of workers, volunteers, and friends. Some started renting their own spaces at American Steel.
Steve Valdez is a metalworker who has been renting space there since 2007. He really enjoys the facility's community. "A lot of us have been associated through Burning Man," he said. "I guess that same kind of ... utopian society that you have out there translates to the working world here." People at American Steel are willing to share their tools and materials, and nobody really abuses the privilege. "If you need something in the desert, somehow it just shows up. It's kind of the same thing here."
Valdez said the space at American Steel feels relatively stable, but he noted that you can't take any such work space for granted in the Bay Area. And indeed, before Cusolito and Das Mann took over the lease, the building was slated for demolition. When the housing boom was still booming, the long-range plan was to replace American Steel with condos. Renting to artists was a good temporary use of the space, and more and more artists moved in. Then the economy collapsed and the condo project got tabled. That's when Cusolito and Das Mann made their move.
On April Fool's Day of this year, they became responsible for hundreds of subleases and a total rent neither would discuss. While Das Mann had run artist workspaces before, a facility of this scale took things up a notch.
Taking on a lease of this size and renting space to artists amidst a nasty recession might seem crazy to some people, and it's still far from clear whether American Steel's immense size will eventually make or break the project. But Das Mann and Cusolito's connection to a giant community of artists has certainly helped them rent out a lot of space. And having so much space has made it relatively cheap for renters. Still, Dias noted, there was significantly less action this year during the months before to Burning Man. And Das Mann conceded that the poor economy has affected things. But the studios are still growing at a steady clip, he said, and he and Cusolito remain powerfully optimistic.
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