Drawn to the flame: “GLOW” turns Downtown Santa Cruz into celebration of light, both primal and technological
By Wallace Baine
SANTA CRUZ — Unless you happen to be a scarecrow, there’s a good chance that you’re drawn to fire — in which case, you’re also likely to be drawn to downtown Santa Cruz on Friday night.
Friday becomes Fireday at the Museum of Art & History during the first night of a two-night event called “GLOW.” And although the medium of choice of evening outdoor performance is indeed fire, the folks who are throwing this party say that it’s so safe that even Ray Bolger would feel comfortable.
“GLOW” is, in fact, about light — natural and man-made. While Friday night’s event will be all about manipulating and playing with fire as a source of light and energy, Saturday’s event will be given over to more contemporary forms of light, including the latest in digital and LED technology.
In case all this rings a bell, “GLOW” is the second coming of an event that first take place back in March 2012. The event, which featured all kinds of fire-related performances and art pieces, attracted more than 4,000 people.
“GLOW” is not about fireworks, said Steve Cooper, the Santa Cruz-based fire enthusiast who serves as the event’s master of ceremonies and was the primary individual responsible for getting “GLOW” glowing.
“It’s not fireworks,” said Cooper. “It’s called fire effects. With fireworks, you’re talking about sophisticated pyrotechnics including gun powder and all kinds of metal salts to make the colors. Here, we’re working solely with flame effects, which just means working with flammable gas.”
The gas in question is propane, often used for residential purposes in water heaters and ranges. In this case, however, the propane will be shooting skyward in giant blasts as well as small flames from all kinds of sculptures and contraptions, such as Satan’s Calliope, which consists of an enormous kind of pipe organ featuring pulse jets, truck horns and vertical flares, all controlled and manipulated by a keyboard.
If all this sounds very Burning Man, that’s exactly the point. Cooper had been a Burning Man regular since the mid-1990s when he approached the MAH with the idea of bring a little bit of the counterculture desert festival to Santa Cruz. Burning Man has become many things to many people over the years, said Cooper. But ultimately, it was about fire.
“I knew that there were plenty of talented artists based right here in Santa Cruz,” he said. “And I was interested in getting to the core of what Burning Man was all about.”
Burning Man, in fact, has created a venue for enormous, fire-spewing contraptions that are often both wonders in both art and engineering. “There were some really remarkable artists do fantastic art that could only be seen on the Playa. And, even though Burning Man is great, that’s a very limited venue for this kind of work.”
It was up to Cooper to pitch the idea to both the MAH and the Santa Cruz Fire Department. To that end, a detailed fire safety plan was established, including putting together a fire safety team made up of people experienced in working with flame effects. All combustible material in the area — flags, signage, foliage — were removed or avoided. Perimeters were set up for safe viewing. Fire suppression equipment and emergency vehicles were to be readily accessible.
“Both the city and the fire department have been very good in working with us,” said Stacey Marie Garcia, the project coordinator at the MAH. “I would call them up and say, ‘Is there a form I need to fill out?’ and they would be, ‘We don’t have a form for something like. We just don’t do this kind of event here.'”
Cooper said that the fire on display Friday at the event will be treated with the respect that has historically been the case with fire and its many uses in public ceremony and private life.
“We all, if just a little bit, are humbled by and attracted to fire. How many religious ceremonies use fire or smoke in some way? How many people aren’t charmed by a bonfire on the beach?”
He is also mindful of the danger involved in “playing with fire,” and doesn’t blame people for wanting to exercise extreme caution.
“The perceptions and the reality are different,” he said. “Perceptions are real and nothing to be trifled with. But when you really look at these devices themselves, see how they work, when you look at Burning Man and see that incidents (of fire mishaps) just aren’t there, it puts you at ease a bit.”
The Fire Department will take a breather on Saturday night when the festival switches over to digital lighting effects, turning the street party into a display of surreal LED and black-light displays. Artists will be on hand wearing glowing clothing. Many sculptures and other art pieces will be demonstrating the versatility and dynamism of digital lighting effects.
Among the performers will be the Hoopalights, hula-hoop dancers using LED lights in their performances, wearable art festooned with colorful lights, and even aerial dancer Allie Cooper performing in a pool of projected light.
“This is much more family-focused than what goes on at Burning Man,” said Garcia. “And it’s in our own community. Some of my personal struggles with Burning Man is that you take all this amazing art work and you take it all out to the desert. Why not do that in your hometown? Why not make it an everyday thing?”
IF YOU GO
‘GLOW: A Festival of Fire and Light’
WHERE: The Museum of Art & History, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz.
WHEN: 7 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday
TICKETS: $10 general; $5 MAH members
NOTES: Workshops on how to work with fire and/or LED lighting effects in artworks to take place noon to 4 p.m. Saturday.