Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Changing Face of Bay Area Fire Art



Mark Pauline's Survival Research Labs fought for years with the San Francisco Fire Department to keep its place as a fringe artistic institution in the city.

Last fall, after producing 50 explosive shows over the course of nearly three decades, the Godfather of industrial fire art lost that fight and moved to Petaluma -- a city Pauline says won't crack down on him for doing his trade, which consists of building everything from jet-powered rockets to flame tornadoes and stabbing machines, then featuring them at shows across the globe.

Most local industrial fire artists draw the distinction between the relatively benign work they do and what SRL, the periodically law-crossing, original industrial fire art organization has done under the leadership of its swashbuckling director since 1978.

And while industrial fire art is exploding in San Francisco, there may no longer be a place here for SRL, which seems alienated from the city at nearly every level.

SRL's south Mission neighborhood has changed, with lofts replacing industrial spaces and Ferraris replacing work trucks on the street out front. The fire department was threatening a lawsuit against Pauline for driving his forklift with no permit, unless he left the city, he said (Although Pauline says he has documents proving this, the SFFD could not corroborate the claim). And since his rusty soot-covered work den in the Mission, a nook that used to go largely unnoticed by firefighters, is now considered hot real estate, the landlord doubled his rent ... twice.

All these recent developments were enough to bring Pauline to a fast boil.

San Francisco is "not a place for marginal characters anymore," Pauline said. "Basically, in the city of San Francisco, you can't do what I do anymore. The city has changed and the makeup of the city reflects that and the kind of things that can be allowed to happen in the city reflects that."

Although Pauline said the fire department has had it out for him since the mid-90s, the department claims it's played neutral all along. Few top-ranking veterans at the department even recognize his or his company's name.

"They don't care who you are, if you are coming in with some big production company, saying this is how they let us do it somewhere else, they don't care," spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge said. "You are going to do it by the books.

"In my personal opinion... his reaction to everything, it's kind of the artistic mentality: everybody's against me. Things change and we have to fight or change with it and he's fought it and he's kind of lost the battle," she added.

The Chronicle's Editor-At-Large Phil Bronstein described Pauline as "one of the most explosively creative people you'll ever meet." He called SRL leaving "a tragedy," and a clear sign that art is leaking out through the city's borders.

Pauline could have made do with less. He could have moved his lab into a less expensive space. He also could have applied for grants, which he refuses to do because he feels that being beholden to another institution could undermine his creative autonomy.

"I think it's quite possible that SRL could continue doing what it's been doing in San Francisco," said Ian Baker, a fire artist for Interpretive Arson in Oakland, who last year considered moving his outfit into the SF. "But you don't want to spend that money on rent. You want to spend the money on hydraulic actuators."

At the heart of Pauline's art is a renegade attitude. Decades ago, he defaced billboards with non-political artistic messages, Bronstein recalled. He's perhaps best known in the city for a Nov. 1995 show tabbed Crime Wave, which he held near the base of the Bay Bridge without seeking permits. The show represented Pauline's retaliation against the fire department for attempts by the department to unjustly restrict future shows in San Francisco, he claimed.

"We did every possible violation we could think of... to make the fire department mad," he said.

No one was injured but Pauline was charged and convicted with intent to injure the public with explosives and intent to injure the public with arson, but he was spared from jail time.

In contrast to Pauline, the new wave of fire artists go out of their way to follow the law and to cultivate positive rapports with the fire department. The Flaming Lotus Girls, for example, test explosive devices in the desert and always get a permit for public exhibitions in Oakland and the city, said a leading member, Caroline "Mills" Miller.

Two years ago, when Ian Baker, of Interpretive Arson, started burning propane as a performance tool at the annual street-level Burning Man Decompression party on Mariposa Street, the fire marshal told him to shut it off - even though Baker had obtained a permit, he said.

Baker put up no protest. Instead, he wants to teach a class to fire fighters on how to enforce fire code, and to explain how his machines work. And he sees his relationship with the fire department improving.

"I feel like the San Francisco fire marshal's office is really coming around in this regard," he said.

Miller, who operates at the Box Shop in Bayview/Hunter's Point, said she also hopes to build stronger ties to law enforcement and the fire department.

"To be honest, we don't really have that much communication with the city," she said. "It's probably to the detriment of both groups."

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