Features & Columns

San Jose Feels The Burn

City's Office of Cultural Affairs links with Burning Man
artists for new public display
'The Golden Mean,' a fire-spewing, snail-shaped art car, is the kind of Burning Man creativity that the Playa to Paso event aims to bring downtown. Photo by Stephanie Guerrero

EVERY SUMMER, TENS of thousands of people flock to Black Rock City, a temporary community erected in the middle of the Nevada desert, for the weeklong celebration of "radical self-reliance," art cars and psychotropics known as Burning Man.

What began as a ritual bonfire on Baker Beach back in 1986 has blossomed into the most iconic counterculture festival in the country, offering an ephemeral home to hundreds of large-scale, hallucinatory art projects—many of which involve fire.

"There were a lot of works that were really inspiring," says Kerry Hapner, San Jose's director of cultural affairs; Hapner attended the event for the first time last year. "What you see is that people really participate in the event. There's no boundary between us and them. Everybody is actively engaged and part of the experience."

Captivated by the experimental vigor of the annual festival, Hapner wondered if there was any way for her to bring the spirit of the playa back to San Jose. She discussed the idea with Kim Cook, the director of art and civic engagement at the Burning Man Project, and the two came up with "Playa to Paseo"—a multiphase partnership dedicated to bring the art of Burning Man to the streets of San Jose.

"Both of our organizations see art as a tool for creative expression, but also as a means to generate dialogue about civic issues and social issues as a means to create change," Hapner says. "We thought, what if we curated a set of art installations that were inspired by the annual event and we sited them in our downtown?"

Through this new program, Hapner and Cook hope to stimulate the local community by providing more opportunities for artists to showcase their work, thereby giving pedestrians a new mode of interacting with their environment.

"Art that enables the community to come together, to know themselves as co-creators of the work, that allows for touch and activity and participation is more likely to ignite connections in ways that are meaningful," Cook says.

This is the first time the Burning Man Project is partnering up with a city to curate a series of installations stemming from the annual event. The first phase consists of siting four temporary art pieces in paseos and plazas throughout San Jose's downtown, the first of which is set to be installed in October. About 25 to 35 percent of the artists who participate at Burning Man are based in Northern California, and most of the pieces being relocated to San Jose were created by Bay Area artists for past iterations of the event.

"We're looking at things that will be impactful, things that will be appropriate for an urban core," Hapner says. Reflecting the festival's participatory ethos is a lineup of highly interactive works that welcome passers-by to touch, climb and connect with the art around them.

"A lot of the work that we're looking at also has a technology element," she adds, noting LED illumination as a key aspect of the Burning Man nightscape.

"There's interest all over the world in bringing Burning Man into civic locations," says Debi von Huene, a leading member of the local enthusiast group, South Bay Burners. "In Reno, San Francisco and Oakland, art is being placed in central plazas as part of placemaking and offering the community to enjoy Burning Man art."

In 2008, Huene helped bring Homouroboros to Discovery Meadow, a grassy expanse at the southern end of the Children's Discovery Museum. Created by artist Peter Hudson for the 2007 Burning Man festival, the 24-foot zoetrope of hanging monkeys and interactive drum sets signified the first-ever playa to paseo movement. "There has been Burning Man downtown before but not at this level of commitment from the city," Huene says. "I'm just excited that [San Jose] is building a more permanent venue for that to happen."

The partnership is slated to go on for a minimum of three years, with the goal down of bringing artwork not only to downtown, but to other neighborhoods around the city. "Our cities are built and planned," Cook says, "art can influence how they are experienced in positive ways."

Playa To Paseo

Oct 2017

Downtown San Jose