Here's to Prometheus 

Metal and fire, sculpture and fire, belly dancing and fire, and -- did we mention -- fire?

It was a little piece of Burning Man, transported to the 20,000-square-foot- parking lot of Berkeley's Golden Pacific Brewery. The Fire Garden, presented by Eccentric Design, billed itself as a combination of fire performances and artworks, illuminated light sculptures, live music, DJs, and other kinds of performance art -- a melding of modern technology with the raw power of fire.

There was a lot of beer, too. It was Halloween night, and drunken frat-boy antics were happening left and right, but so were moments of unexpected artfulness, sometimes perpetrated by the participating art-troupes, sometimes by random attendees. Anyone unfamiliar with Burning Man was at a little bit of a disadvantage, as if missing some basic prerequisite to being here and understanding what was going on. But there was a feeling of conviviality and goodwill in the air -- more than just the combination of Halloween free-spiritedness and free-flowing microbrews -- and we were confident we'd catch up with the rest of the class before the night was over.

Therm, the Fire Garden's headline act, is a local collective of artists, techies, and artist-techies whose media of choice are metal and fire. Their 8 p.m. performance was supposed to be sort of a warm-up for their bigger show later. We all gathered around a collection of strange welded contraptions in the center of the parking lot as they emerged from backstage and manned the control booth. Live accompanists the Reverend Screaming Fingers strapped on instruments and launched into an improvised Dadaist-metal soundtrack to Therm's performance. Maybe something more industrial and more precisely coordinated with the fireworks might have worked better (Einstürzende Neubauten, anyone?), but there was an obvious rapport between the two groups, and an aggressive charm to the Fingers' musical emissions that made up for the lack of choreography.

Machines whirred and roared and burst out with seemingly random explosions, fire of many different colors rising and receding from their many orifices. Sometimes the fire ran in circles, or burned angry-fast or lazy-slow, or dribbled onto the pavement, Terminator-style. A giant Tesla coil in the center periodically spat lightning -- not enough to endanger the crowd, but definitely enough to give us a vivid sense of its incredible primitive power.

After Therm wound things down, next on the bill was Rube Waddell, all the way from Oakland: a three-man band billed as a "post-punk junkyard symphony." Two of the three were dressed as Pigs in Space (maybe someone didn't get the memo?) and their sound was kind of Tom-Waits-meets-John-Lee-Hooker, with some Eastern European Gypsy music thrown in. It seemed extremely appropriate for the occasion, and even inspired a couple of gals dressed as Miss Piggy to trip the light fantastic. We suspected that they had arrived with the band.

There was plenty to see around the edges of the lot while all this was going on: the Sun Brothers' garden of solar-powered plant and insect sculptures, a fiber-optic display by Light Fantastic, and many more fire-spurting contraptions. The fiber optics were my personal favorite; Light Fantastic (aka Kathleen Fernald and Jeremy Lutes) had shaped the delicate plastic strands into an Alice-in-Wonderland-like garden of flowers and mushrooms, illuminated by a behind-the-scenes light source with continually changing colors. You could see it all the way across the parking lot. A couple of guys from Cool Neon worked the crowd. One had a neon jellyfish, the other a neon octopus that would gracefully rise and fall by a system of wires attached to poles on their backs.

We sipped on new beers while standing under another sculpture: a tent-shaped metal roof, about five feet across and suspended ten feet off the ground, with clouds of fire billowing out from its center. The fire looked uncannily alive, and it was warm under there, not to mention a good vantage point for us pyros to watch the CinePimps' "avant-garde film projections," a collection of images and film clips projected onto the blank white edifice of Golden Pacific's enormous fermentation tanks. We also spent a fair bit of the evening huddled next to a couple of amazing free-standing wood stoves -- both masterpieces of welded and cut metal. Next to the high-tech pyromania all around us, they seemed almost charmingly old-fashioned (imagine! burning wood!) in spite of their Mad-Max-inspired design.

There were also dozens of pumpkins, all victims of some carver with a truly sick and genius sense of humor. Their expressions were hilarious, and someone had paid incredible attention to the details of every vignette: a Frankenstein pumpkin with real screws in his neck, suspended on a platform controlled by a mad-scientist pumpkin, or a guillotined pumpkin with seeds and guts spilling out of his chopped-open head. The best one was an operating-room tableau featuring two doctor pumpkins, nurse pumpkins, and a patient pumpkin on the table connected by IV to a can of Libby's.

The next lights-and-fire act was an illuminated fashion show of "fetish insect" costumes by Zoe Blue. The moth king and queen, wearing tight black outfits and light-up wings and masks, swung and swayed down the runway with a sexy attitude of reluctance. The next few -- a bare-midriffed mosquito, a long-armed praying mantis, and a bare-stomached phoenix -- were far more willing to make love to the crowd. Judging by her very impressive abdominals, the phoenix must also have been part of the belly-dancing-fire-eating Ultra Gypsy troupe scheduled for later that night. With the delicate strains of AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" for a serenade, the phoenix wiggled her way into the hearts of the cheering crowd, many of whom remembered her from previous appearances at Burning Man. All the costumes came back onstage at the end for one last dance to the remixed version of Elvis Presley's timeless "A Little Less Conversation."

Therm's second performance got under way at around 11 p.m. By now the crowd was a lot more dense, but pretty well behaved, and much appreciative applause welcomed the team back to its panel of remote-control knobs and switches. This time there were more theatrics than before. First a shady-looking "gardener" character with a cartoonish Acme-type TNT plunger box came out to ignite the fire-contraptions. Then an armored knight emerged to do battle with the machines, plunging his sword into the fires with stoic grace, every so often dramatically raising it to catch the Tesla coil's lightning bolt. With only one person fighting, it was a strange kind of battle. But the fire sometimes almost seemed to have its own personality too, fighting back against the knight's poetic efforts to control and tame it.

When Therm was done, it was time for us to hit the road, although it meant missing Ultra Gypsy, and something called "Hestia: fire performance group." Despite the cold, it had been a fabulous night, and with luck one of lots more local Eccentric Design activities to come.


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