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When Art and Debauchery Meld

[whitespace] Anon Salon Avant-Garde Nightlife: Participants at Anon Salon want more from a night out than just a DJ and a disco ball.

Matthew Ipcar

The monthly party and exhibition called Anon Salon is a very Burning Man crowd, without all the dust and sweat

By Michelle Goldberg

For years now, San Francisco's new-media industry has been absorbing enterprising young hipsters as fast as our nation's esteemed liberal arts colleges can churn them out. To be young and creative in San Francisco no longer means poverty, and it's not rare to find ravers in goggles and shiny track suits chatting animatedly about their 401Ks, or punks with ear holes the size of silver dollars waiting patiently in line at Bank of America to deposit their company checks. This is all very well, of course, but watching trendy kids compare the merits of email pagers and cell phones is enough to make even the most sanguine young urbanite tear her hair out and cry "Whither bohemia?"

A slice of it, thankfully, is still fermenting at the seven-year-old Anon Salon, a mostly monthly party and exhibition. Neither art nor debauchery is ever in short supply in San Francisco, but it's rare that they meld so naturally. At the Soma gallery space where Anon Salon is held, balding ex-hippies mingle with nymphets in sequined masquerade masks, etchings and oil paintings line the walls, performers hold court in the small rooms that line the halls, and participatory art projects hum away in the corners. It's a very Burning Man crowd, without the dust and sweat.

"We originally called this a salon to tell people that we weren't intending to just throw a keg party, that we really expected people to come here with their art brain turned on," says Marcia Crosby, who founded Anon Salon along with Joegh Bullock and Mark Petrakis as a fundraiser for the Climate Theater. "It's not always the case that you're going to walk into a room and have this great discussion, but it happens here more than at a lot of other places. People are coming here and participating in some of the hands-on things. They're getting interested in seeing other productions or getting turned on to things that involve creativity. They're starting to get dressed up in costumes and create their own new characters. That creativity and participation is very much the Burning Man aesthetic of 'no spectators.' We're all participants."

The last Anon Salon was a Mardi Gras party. In one room sweaty couples stomped to a zydeco band, while in another a small throng danced to house music under a giant tongue that protruded from the ceiling. A sweet-looking blond boy shuffled through the crowd blowing his sax. One room was a dark theater where a film of a Mardi Gras parade was showing. A man with stringy blond hair was fitting volunteers with "cyberglasses," homemade headsets that used rapidly flashing red lights to induce "meditation, relaxation and hallucination."

Toward the back of the gallery, partyers worked on a group art project, using hot-glue guns to affix broken toy parts to a globe suspended from the ceiling. The walls of the room were laden with mutant playthings--a plastic chicken McNugget with action figure legs, a My Little Pony with the head of The Lion King's Timba. A closet in the room was marked "Video Confessional." Inside, the penitent could press one button to record their sins on video or another button to go live to the entire party. "I have a problem being fantabulous," confessed Billy, a local club promoter.

"We always try to have something that people can play with," says Bullock. "Any kind of arts and crafts--making Valentine cards or fake bumper stickers. It goes back to that childhood feeling, you know, 'I want to play for a while.' It should be about play. Everything should have a playful element to it. That's what we're trying to encourage."

More and more, it seems, people want more from a night out than just a DJ and a disco ball. They want to be both social and stimulated, to be entertained without just staring at a screen or stage. It almost gives one hope for an avant-garde nightlife as vital as that of the turn of the century, with its scandalous modernist soirees, or of the 1960s, with their hysterically glamorous pop-art happenings. "Five or six years ago, there was an idea that what happens at Burning Man or at Anon is just art school stuff," Petrakis says. "Now there's a lot more tolerance. People say, 'I work a straight job, but that doesn't mean that on the weekend I can't do some fetish thing or go to Burning Man for three days and trip out.' You don't need the approval of any kind of art school. Anyone can do it, and that's a new vibe."

Like so many other SF clubs, Anon Salon is terrified of a bridge-and-tunnel invasion. They've asked to keep their address secret, but you can find information on their Web site.

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From the April 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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