Burning Man

Polly’s sexual (r)evolution

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steve@sfbg.com

There’s been more than one Polly, the author and namesake of the new memoir Polly: Sex Culture Revolutionary. That may be true for each of us as we engage with different interests and identities during our sexual development, but Polly has distilled her psychosexual journey down to three distinct personas that she assumed along the way.

The Polly I’ve known for years is Polly Superstar, the fabulous hostess of Kinky Salon parties in her luscious and sprawling former Mission Control pad, community-minded sparkle pony in the Burning Man world, and a mindful feminist promoter of various sex-positive entrepreneurial ventures in San Francisco (including this independently published book, which took a massive Kickstarter campaign to get into print).

But the Polly I know passed through two previous Pollys — the Polly Whittaker she was born as in London in 1974 and the Polly Pandemonium that she became when she arrived in San Francisco 15 years ago on Folsom Street Fair weekend — on the way to becoming the woman she is today. And that woman was feeling very vulnerable as we met for lunch recently.

“I’m terrified,” she told me as she prepared to speak at Bawdy Storytelling that night and anticipated the general release of her book on Sept. 22. “I feel really exposed, I wonder what my motivation was to be so raw and open with this.”

A book that began four years ago as essentially a sassy guidebook for the Kinky Salon events that have now spread to another half-dozen cities around the world at some point turned far more serious and personal. Sure, we get to follow Polly through her crazy sexual antics, soaking in the sexy world of Mission Control.

“The crisp silhouettes of their bodies showed every detail: how the woman on all fours took his cock in her mouth, how the second guy traced his finger around his lover’s nipple, how the woman tucked underneath gently explored the body above her,” Polly wrote about a scene from Kinky Salon. “There were no wanted wandering hands, no staring eyes making me self-conscious. I became overwhelmed with a sense of pride. Fuck yes. This feels right. It feels good. These are my tribe — these crazy pleasure seekers. These brave pioneers of love.”

But those aren’t the “raw” bits that Polly referred to. No, as she wrote this book, Polly came to place her father’s slow and painful death from a brain tumor while she was a teenager at the center of the narrative, an event that propelled her subsequent sexual journey, for good or ill. She sought comfort and pleasure in the pain of the London BDSM scene, continuing that path here in San Francisco before morphing her fetish parties into sex parties that were more artsy and playful. Yet this sexual superstar still couldn’t achieve orgasms with her partners, a secret source of shame before she dealt with it more openly and honestly, helping other women along the way.

This memoir is less a wild tell-all by a high-profile libertine than intensely human story about a woman raised in a sexually liberated household (her mom was a sex therapist, her dad a hot-air balloonist, many of their friends swingers) who nonetheless struggles with her own sexual identity and ambitions against the backdrop of personal tragedy and smaller set-backs.

Polly relays and celebrates San Francisco’s storied history as the center of the American sexual revolution, from the old Barbary Coast days through the North Beach strips club, free love in the Haight-Ashbury, and gay liberation in the Castro, to the AIDS crisis, rise of BDSM, and creative ways of expressing sexuality.

But even for Polly and others who make their sexuality such a central part of their lives and personal identities, sexuality is still a nuanced, evolving continuum that regularly raises challenging questions and issues.

“It’s a complicated, really complicated, issue, and it’s at the core of the cultural shift that is happening around sexuality,” Polly said of the delicate balance between female sexual empowerment — which she’s all about — and sexual objectification, which this feminist strongly resists.

Growing up in the fetish scene and becoming a latex fashion designer, Polly can happily play the alluring sex kitten, as long as it feels playful and fun. But she’s quick to tear into scenes or situations that display women as sexual objects just to turn the boys on or sell products.

“I think one of the biggest problems on the planet is the sexual objectification of women,” she told us, noting the fine line she’s walking as she promotes a sex book with deeper themes. For example, at her book launch party, “We’re going to have a burlesque show, but you’re also going to get the lecture about sexual objectification.”

And even today, with her Kinky Salon community taking center-stage in her book, that community has been uprooted by the same forces of gentrification and displacement that are roiling the rest of the city (the monthly rent for their Mission Control space tripled after they got ousted).

“The sexual revolution didn’t happen in Oakland, it happened in San Francisco, and we are part of that lineage,” Polly tells us, noting that Kinky Salon, now rotating among temporary underground spaces, is still having a hard time finding a new home.

“If Kinky Salon has to move to Oakland, that will be telling of the state of San Francisco sex culture.”

UP THE REVOLUTION: LAUNCH PARTY FOR POLLY. With Porn Clown Posse, Trash Kan Marchink Band, DJ Fact50, and more Oct. 4, 9pm, Venue 550, 550 15th St., SF, www.pollysuperstar.com

Burning Man shark jump creates media pile-on

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We seem to have tapped into the meme of the moment with last week’s cover story, “Burning Man jumps the shark,” which took issue with how this high-minded experiment has been sullied by the money-driven values and practices of mainstream America, with the complicity of the company that stages the event.   

The SF Weekly also had a Burning Man cover story that same day, a more uncritical piece written by an event insider Ben Wachs that nonetheless slammed the organization’s deceptive transition to nonprofit status. He wrote that “not one person contacted for this article said they understood what The Burning Man Project does, or how it’s supposed to advance the culture.”

The same day that those two papers hit the streets, The New York Times published “A Line is Drawn in the Desert,” a revealing and scathing indictment of how rich, clueless tech titans are undermining the event’s stated “Participation” and “Radical Self-Reliance” principles with exclusive, walled-off, servant-staffed camps built with dues of as much as $25,000 per person.  

“Over the last two years, Burning Man, which this year runs from Aug. 25 to Sept. 1, has been the annual getaway for a new crop of millionaire and billionaire technology moguls, many of whom are one-upping one another in a secret game of I-can-spend-more-money-than-you-can and, some say, ruining it for everyone else,” writes reporter Nick Bilton, a Burning Man veteran.

And the on-playa publication BRC Weekly threw several great articles onto last week’s pile-on, including the searing satire “Ten Principles of Earning Man,” which it lists as: Radical Seclusion, Grifting, Project Branding, Radical Staff Compliance, Radical Self-Indulgence, Corporate Support, Plausible Deniability, Petroleum Powered Space, Appropriation, and Expediency.

The paper’s regular “Lingo” and “Out/In” lists also includes a few gems. “Broner: Derogatory tern for male burners who can’t seem to leave their obnoxious and entitled douchbag behavior back in the Default World.” And it concludes that “whining” about Burning Man is out and “staying home” is in.

It is true that many longtime burners are indeed staying home this year (including yours truly), but it’ll be interesting to see what impact this chorus of current criticism has on future events and the company that stages them.   

 

PS Even God/Mother Nature is being hard on Burning Man this year, with huge rainstorms early this morning making the playa impassible and currently shutting down access to the event until the surface dries out, probably tomorrow at the earliest. 

Burning Man jumps the shark

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steve@sfbg.com

The question of when Burning Man jumped the shark is a matter of perspective, or perhaps it’s a philosophical question, but these are waters worth wading into as burners pack up this week for their annual pilgrimage to the playa.

The meme that Burning Man has jumped the shark — that is, that it’s gotten ridiculous or strayed from its original ethos — circulated more strongly this year than most after conservative firebrand Grover Norquist last month tweeted that he was “off to ‘Burning Man’ this year. Scratch one off the bucket list.”

But burners and media commentators have been saying it for years, sparked by developments ranging from the increasingly top-down control over a temporary city built with volunteer labor from the bottom-up to the sheer scale and inertia of an event that is now pushing 70,000 participants.

John Law, who co-founded the artsy Nevada desert bacchanal, walked away from Burning Man after the deadly and chaotic 1996 event, believing that the commercial and regulatory structure that followed was antithetical to the countercultural, DIY values on which burner culture was based.

The population of Black Rock City then doubled in size within two years, and doubled again within four more, prompting some burners to say 30,000 people — including a growing number of straight-laced newbies drawn by mainstream media coverage — was just too many.

At the end of 2004, dozens of the event’s marquee artists and performers launched a high-profile revolt against how Black Rock City LLC was running the event (see “State of the art,” 12/20/04). “The fix must address many issues, but the core issue for the fix is the art,” they wrote in a petition that ran as a full-page ad in the Guardian. “Art, art, art: that is what this is all about.”

But little changed. Burning Man had caught fire and the LLC was more interested in stoking the flames than controlling the conflagration. It promoted more regional burns around the world, created new offshoot organizations to spread the burner art and ethos, consolidated control of the brand and trademarks, and spelled out the “Ten Principles” that all Burning Man events would live by.

The burner backlash against that trend took many forms, but the most fiery dissent came on Monday night during the 2007 Burning Man when Paul Addis torched the eponymous Man to bring the chaos back to an event that he felt had grown too staid and scripted.

Burner officialdom responded by simply building a new Man and helping secure a four-year federal prison sentence for Addis — both decisions made without soliciting any input from the larger burner community. Coming after some corporate-style chicanery earlier that year involving control of the event’s trademark and logo (see “Burning brand,” 1/16/07), that’s when Burning Man seemed to peak, like the ramp that launched Fonzie over the sharks.

At the time, I was deeply involved with covering Burning Man culture for the Bay Guardian, reporting that would later go into my 2011 book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture.

But if jumping the shark is an idiom based on when things get really ridiculous, a point at which self-awareness withers and something becomes a caricature of what it once was, then the events of 2007 were just warm-up laps for the spectacle to come.

 

COMMUNITY VS. THE COMPANY

At this point, let me be clear that Burning Man is still one of the greatest parties on the planet. The Black Rock Desert is a spectacular setting, much of the art created for Burning Man each year is innovative and mind-blowing, and the experience of spending a week in a commerce-free, open-minded temporary city can truly be transformative, especially for those doing it for the first time.

I also have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for the community members who give so much of themselves to creating Black Rock City’s art and infrastructure. And I give credit to founder Larry Harvey and other event leaders for creating such a wondrous vehicle for creative expression and community-building and keeping it running for nearly three decades.

But when an organization asserts a set of high-minded utopian values, it’s only fair to judge it by those standards. And when it claims the economic value of the labors of tens of thousands of voluntary participants as its own company assets, questions of accountability and commodification naturally arise.

For example, Burning Man has always asserted the value of “Decommodification,” which is one of its Ten Principles: “In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation.”

Yet the LLC has closely guarded its control over the Burning Man name, logo, images, and associated brands, resisting efforts to place them in the public domain and even waging legal battles against longtime burners who try to use them, including a current conflict with Canadian burners over how much the company can control a culture there that it didn’t actually create.

Licensing of the Burning Man brand and images has been a secret source of income for the company, which doesn’t publicly disclose its revenues, only its expenditures. In recent years, those brands and commodities have been transferred to a new entity controlled by the original six LLC board members, ironically named Decommodification LLC.

Some of the other Burning Man principles can seem just a farcical, including Radical Inclusion (“No prerequisites exist for participation in our community,” except the $380 ticket), Communal Effort (but “cooperation and collaboration” apparently don’t apply to decisions about how the event is managed or how large it gets), and Civic Responsibility (“We value civil society,” says the organization that eschews democratic debate about its direction and governance structure).

Meanwhile, Harvey and company have promised greater transparency and accountability at some future point, through The Burning Man Project, a nonprofit organization formed a few years ago ostensibly to take over running the event from BRC LLC (see “The future of Burning Man,” 8/2/11) .

But it hasn’t exactly rolled out that way. As I’ve reported (see “Burning questions,” 6/4/13), the original six board members have maintained tight control over all aspects of the event, appointing new nonprofit board members mostly for their fundraising ability and willingness to toe the company line, rather than seeking representation from the various constituent burner communities.

Even then, with a board hand-picked for its loyalty (which apparently goes both ways, given how the LLC has supported hagiographic Burning Man film and book projects by two of its new nonprofit board members), Harvey still remains wary of “undue meddling” by the new board, as he put it to me.

On top of that sundae, add the cherry that is Harvey’s public admission that all six board members have, as part of this transition, awarded themselves large financial settlements in amounts that will never be disclosed, and one might expect burners to revolt.

But they haven’t. Most just don’t care about these internal company dynamics (except for a few brave souls at the excellent Burners.me blog), no matter how questionable, as long as their beloved Burning Man still happens on schedule. And that’s why I think Burning Man has truly jumped the shark, launching from the ramp of a high-minded experiment and splashing down into the tepid waters of mass-consumed hedonism.

 

BUCKET LIST

Today, almost every bucket list on the Internet — those things that everyone is advised to do before they die — includes Burning Man. It has become the ultimate commodity, a product that everyone, from all walks of life, is encouraged to consume. Doing so is easier than ever these days.

After tickets sold out for the first time ever in 2011 — and a flawed new ticketing system unilaterally created by the LLC in 2012 triggered widespread criticism and anxiety — the company opted to just increase the population of Black Rock City by more than 20 percent, peaking at 69,613 last year.

Everyone felt the difference. Popular spots like the dance parties at Distrikt on Friday afternoon or Robot Heart at dawn on Saturday reached shit show proportions, with just way too many people. And this year will be more of the same.

In the old days, going to Burning Man was difficult, requiring months of preparation with one’s chosen campmates to create internal infrastructure (shade, showers, kitchen, etc.) and something to gift the community (an art car, a bar, a stage and performances to fill it, etc.).

But with the rise of plug-and-play camps in recent years, those with money can fly into Black Rock City and buy their way into camps that set up their RVs, cook their meals, stock their costumes and intoxicants, decorate their bikes, and clean it all up at the end. Such camps have become a source of employment for entrepreneurial veteran burners, but they cut against the stated principles of Participation and Radial Self-Reliance.

While LLC board member Marian Goodell told me that “we’re big into listening mode at the moment” as they decide what’s next for Burning Man, she also claims to have heard no concerns from burners about the event’s current size or direction, and she denies the nonprofit transition was ever about loosening their grip on the event.

“We’ve never talked about turning Burning Man back to the community,” Goodell told me last week, accusing me of misinterpreting comments by Harvey when he announced the transition, such as, “We want to get out of running Burning Man. We want to move on.”

This is the world that Grover Norquist will enter next week, after being personally encouraged to attend Burning Man by Harvey, as Norquist told the National Review last month. Norquist was drawn to the event’s libertarian image rather than its stated communitarian values, a dichotomy that its leaders have never sought to resolve. Norquist even compared Burning Man to his right-wing Americans for Tax Reform, which has pressured most Republican politicians to sign pledges never to raise taxes.

“There’s no government that organizes this,” Norquist said of Burning Man, an event held on federal land, accessed by public roads, and actively regulated by local, state, and federal agencies. “That’s what happens when nobody tells you what to do. You just figure it out. So Burning Man is a refutation of the argument that the state has a place in nature.”

Yes, kiddies, the shark has been jumped. But I hope all my burner friends still have a great week in the desert.

Flaming Lotus Girls bring SOMA to Pier 14

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Following in the tradition of Burning Man artworks returning to San Francisco for temporary public installations, my beloved Flaming Lotus Girls have installed their colossal steel and light sculpture SOMA at Pier 14. And this Friday, Aug. 1, they’ll be hosting a dance party reception from 5-9pm to celebrate the occasion.

Longtime Guardian readers may remember the 2005 immersion journalism project when I worked for with the Flaming Lotus Girls for nine months documenting the creation of a large-scale art project and what motivates people to volunteer their time and energy for such an undertaking (The reporting for that article, “Angels of the Apocalypse,” helped form the basis of my 2011 book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture).

Since then, the Flaming Lotus Girls have gone on to create even more impossibly epic creations for Burning Man and other festivals around the world, from Robodoc in Europe to the Electric Daisy Festival in Las Vegas. But this is the first time that one of their massive artistic creations has ended up back in a prominent spot in San Francisco, where they work out of the Box Shop on Hunters Point.

So go check out SOMA and stop by this Friday to mix and mingle with the Flaming Lotus Girls.  

King of the commons

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steve@sfbg.com

When Susan King attends the Aug. 24 Sunday Streets in the Mission District — the 50th incarnation of this car-free community gathering, coming the week before her 50th birthday — it will be her last as director of an event she started in 2008.

That successful run was made possible by King’s history as a progressive community organizer who also knew how to do fundraising, a rare combination that has made Sunday Streets more than just a bicycle event, a street faire, or a closure of streets to cars that the city imposes on its neighborhoods on a rotating basis.

Instead, King took the ciclovia concept that started in Bogota, Colombia in the late ’70s — the idea was creating temporary open space on streets usually dominated by cars (See “Towards Carfree Cities: Everybody into the streets,” SFBG Politics blog, 6/23/08) — and used it as a tool for building community and letting neighborhoods decide what they wanted from the event.

“I regard the organizing as community organizing work rather than event organizing, and that’s significant,” King told the Guardian. “We’re creating the canvas that community organizations can use.”

San Francisco was the third US city to borrow the ciclovia concept to create open streets events — Portland, Ore, was the first in June 2008, followed quickly by New York City — but the first to do one that didn’t include food trucks and commercial vending, which Sunday Streets doesn’t allow.

“It’s not a street fair, it’s about meeting your neighbors and trying new things,” King said, referring to free activities that include dance, yoga, and youth cycling classes and performances. “It’s a really different way of seeing your city. A street without cars looks and feels different.”

Now, after seeing how Sunday Streets can activate neighborhoods and build community, and watching the concept she helped pioneer be adopted in dozens of other cities, King says she’s ready for the next level.

“I want to apply what I know on a larger scale, ideally statewide,” King said of her future plans. “This really opened my eyes up to the possibilities.”

 

WORKING WITH COMMUNITIES

After a lifetime of progressive activism — from grassroots political campaigns to city advisory committees to working with the Green Party — King knew the value of listening to various community stakeholders and earning their trust.

“We try to be culturally competent and work with each neighborhood,” King said. “We want to work with the neighborhood instead of dropping something on the neighborhood.”

That distinction has been an important one, particularly in neighborhoods such as Bayview and the Western Addition, where there is a long history of City Hall officials and political do-gooders trying to impose plans on neighborhoods without their input and consent.

“We worked really closely together and she gave me a lot of leeway to do Sunday Streets in a way that it worked for the community,” said Rebecca Gallegos, who managed public relations for the Bayview Opera House 2010-2013. “I can’t say enough great words about Susan. She was a truly a mentor to me. They’re losing someone really great.”

The first Sunday Streets on Aug. 31, 2008, extended from the Embarcadero into Bayview, opening up that neighborhood to many new visitors. King cited a survey conducted at the event showing 54 percent of respondents had never been to Bayview before.

“Susan wore a lot of hats. Not only did she create community in all the neighborhoods in San Francisco, but she knew how to go after the money,” Gallegos told us. “She walks the walk and doesn’t just talk the talk.”

Meaghan Mitchell, who worked with the Fillmore Community Benefits District, also said King’s skills and perspective helped overcome the neighborhood’s skepticism about City Hall initiatives.

“Susan came in and was very warm and open to our concerns. She was a joy to work with,” said Mitchell, who went on to work with King on creating Play Streets 2013, an offshoot of Sunday Streets focused on children.

The neighborhood was still reeling from a massive redevelopment effort by the city that forced out much of its traditional African American population and left a trail of broken promises and mistrust. Mitchell said King had to spend a lot of time in community meetings and working with stakeholders to convince them Sunday Streets could be good for the neighborhood — efforts that paid off as the community embraced and helped shape the event.

“It was nice to know the Fillmore corridor could be included in something like this because we were used to not being included,” Mitchell told us. “Community organizing is not an easy job at all because you’re dealing with lots different personalities, but Susan is a pro.”

 

ROUGH START

It wasn’t community organizing that got King the job as much as her history with fundraising and business development for campaigns and organizations, ranging from the San Francisco Symphony to the San Francisco Women’s Building.

At the time, when city officials and nonprofit activists with the Mode Shift Working Group were talking about doing a ciclovia, King was worried that it would get caught up in the “bike-lash” against cyclists at a time when a lawsuit halted work on all bike projects in the city.

“I thought that would never fly,” King said. “We started Sunday Streets at the height of the anti-bike hysteria.”

But her contract with WalkSF to work on Masonic Avenue pedestrian improvements was coming to an end, she needed a job, and Sunday Streets needed a leader who could raise money to launch the event without city funds.

“I know how to raise money because I had a background in development,” said King, who raised the seed money for the first event with donations from the big health care organizations: Kaiser, Sutter Health/CPMC, and Catholic Healthcare West. And as a fiscal sponsor, she chose a nonprofit organization she loved, Livable City, for which Sunday Streets is now a $400,000 annual program.

King had a vision for Sunday Streets as an exercise in community-building that opens new avenues for people to work and play together.

Immediately, even before the first event, King and Sunday Streets ran into political opposition from the Fisherman’s Wharf Merchants Association, which was concerned that closing streets to cars would hurt business, and progressive members of the Board of Supervisors who were looking to tweak then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, whose office helped start the event.

City agencies ranging from the Police Department to Municipal Transportation Agency required Sunday Streets to pay the full costs for city services, something that even aggressive fundraising couldn’t overcome.

“We were in debt to every city department at the end of the second year. It was the elephant in the room going into that third year,” King said.

But the Mayor’s Office and SFMTA then-Director Nat Ford decided to make Sunday Streets an official city event, covering the city costs. “It was the key to success,” King said. “There’s no way to cover all the costs. The city really has to meet you halfway.”

King said that between the intensive community organizing work and dealing with the multitude of personalities and interests at City Hall, this was the toughest job she’s had.

“If I would have known what it would be like,” King said, “I would never have taken the job.”

 

SUNDAY STREETS SOARS

But King had just the right combination of skills and tenacity to make it work, elevating Sunday Streets into a successful and sustainable event that has served as a model for similar events around the country (including at least eight others also named Sunday Streets).

“The Mission one just blew up. It was instantly popular,” said King, who eventually dropped 24th Street from the route because it got just too congested. “But it’s the least supportive of our physical activity goals because it’s so crowded. It was really threatening to be more of a block party.”

That was antithetical to the ethos established by King, who has cracked down on drinking alcohol and unpermitted musical acts at Sunday Streets in order to keep the focus on being a family-friendly event based on fitness and community interaction.

Even the live performances that Sunday Streets hosts are required to have an interactive component. That encouragement of participation by attendees in a noncommercial setting drew from her history attending Burning Man, as well as fighting political battles against the commercialization of Golden Gate Park and other public spaces.

“It was my idea of what a community space should look like, although I didn’t invent it…We really want to support sustainability,” King said. “We’re not commodifying the public space. Everything at Sunday Streets is free, including bike rentals and repairs.”

As a bike event, the cycling community has lent strong support to Sunday Streets, with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition strongly promoting it along the way.

“The success of Sunday Streets has been a game changer in showcasing how street space can be used so gloriously for purposes other than just moving and storing automobiles. At every Sunday Streets happening we are reminded that streets are for people too,” SFBC Director Leah Shahum told us. “Susan’s leadership has been such an important part of this success.”

Get up

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marke@sfbg.com

SUPER EGO Fellow freakazoids, I’m disturbed. There’s an alarming new microtrend in nightlife: daylife. More specifically: morninglife. Halp!

First NYC’s Daybreaker party hit our shores a couple weeks ago, enticing hundreds of people to line up outside Audio at 8am for two hours of pre-work dancing ($15-$20) that apparently involved giant jellyfish costumes, a brass band (just to make sure you were awake?), and Four Barrel coffee — no alcohol here. I didn’t make it, because fuck that. But I was intrigued! Daybreaker’s AM disc jockey DJ Bradley P is a quality cutie, and the after-vids were rad. I’m waiting to hear if more are in the works.

Now comes Morning Gloryville from London (Wednesday, June 25, 6:30am-10:30am, $20. Heron Arts, 7 Heron, SF. www.morninggloryville.com), which places itself at the nexus of Burning Man, Ministry of Sound, and 24-Hour Fitness. Kind of a spiritual neon-flashmob throwdown, with wigs, massages, and smoothies. “Rave your way into the day!” It looks real cute. And exhausting.

I should have seen this coming the moment fluorescent Fitbits and post-ironic ’80s “Get Physical” dance routines started hitting the dance floors. Of course, SF has a long, glorious, deranged history of morning parties, from 6am Sunday Church at the End Up in the ’70s to recent blasts at North Beach’s Monroe and our own occasional Morning Glory party. I’ve loved dancing in the wee hours ever since I hung out in West Berlin in the ’80s and discovered high school kids hit the clubs before going to school.

But this new wave is just so darn wholesome — complete with slick marketing campaigns, relentless cheerfulness, and franchise ambitions. Despite my liver’s squeaky pleas, I’m not quite ready to come over to the “nightlife as workout routine” side, let alone sans cocktails. At least not yet. Yes, this fantastic ass came from tripping the light fantastic four-six nights a week. But these massive biceps? Grasping my vodkas, dear. Perhaps one day I’ll see the light.

 

BAIKAL

Sound Department continues to delve monthly into the more thought-provoking side of electronic music. This 11th installment features Berlin multi-layerist Baikal, who’s been building a body of impeccable (yet quite danceable) tech-work.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=roAxi8EQ6dk

Fri/20, 9pm-3am, $10. Monarch, 101 Sixth St., SF. www.monarchsf.com

 

GRIT & GLAMOUR

New show “Gorgeous” at the Asian Art Museum challenges and redefines the notion of beauty in “Eastern” art: Fantastic-sounding opening party makes it all come to life, with deep techno tunes from Dr. Sleep and Robot Hustle, bounce jams from DavO and Natalie Nuxx, vogue extravaganza from House of Nu Benetton, milky tea, fresh nail designs, full bar, and an afterparty at the Stud.

Fri/20, 7pm-11pm, $20–$25. Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin, SF. www.asianart.org

 

LEE BANNON

Based-goth monthly funhole 120 Minutes presents this brilliant, trip-hoppy Ninja Tuner, drifting on gorgeous, post-glitch waves to the darker side.

Fri/20, 10pm, $8–$10. Elbo Room, 647 Valencia, SF. www.elbo.com

 

LOCO DICE

Maestro of that muscular quasi-minimal Ibiza sound — and not bad to look at, either — Mr. Dice blew me away last time he touched down, a couple years back. He’ll be on the 1015 system this time: All aboard the silver spaceship.

Fri/20, 9pm-4am, $20–$25. 1015 Folsom, SF. www.1015.com

 

LOUIE VEGA

Here’s a “flashback” night for ya: Master at Work and Latin house legend. He’ll be stretching back into his roots with some Afrobeat, samba, disco, and soul at Mighty. With old school heroes David Harness and Jayvi Velasco.

Fri/20, 10pm-4am, $20 advance. Mighty, 119 Utah, SF. www.mighty119.com

 

KAFANA BALKAN

“Join us for wild brass, abandon, and reverberating floors” — you can say that again, as this whirling, stomping Balkan delight returns to its Rickshaw Stop home. DJ Zeljko, Fanfare Zambaleta live band, Elizabeth Strong, and the Foxglove Sweethearts belly dancers bring gypsy joy to an adoring crowd.

Sat/21, 9pm, $15. Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell, SF. www.rickshawstop.com

 

MAYA JANE COLES

The superfly UK whiz kid with a knack for connecting dance music history dots continues to thrill in the spotlight. She’s headlining a powerhouse night featuring NYC early-’90s fantasist Kim Ann Foxman, Alex Arnout, Young Marco, Bells & Whistles, and more at the As You Like It party.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eV4ZiUSFvIQ

Sat/21, 9pm-5am, $20–$25 advance. Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. www.ayli-sf.com

 

WERD.

The classic Sunday weekly ran at now-closed Otis Lounge for more than seven years — now it’s at Monarch and sweeter than ever. This week’s ace tech-house guest Peter Blick helps break things in.

Sun/22, 9pm, $5. Monarch, 101 Sixth St., SF. www.monarchsf.com

 

Burning mouse

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arts@sfbg.com

THEATER Mike Daisey is a talker. He can talk about a lot of things. Hell, he can talk for 24 hours straight (and did in All the Hours in the Day at Portland’s TBA Festival in 2011). This gift of gab has brought him acclaim as an artist in the theater, where he’s known as an eminent monologist of the desk-bound Spalding Gray school. In one case, it’s even brought him public scandal, to wit, NPR’s 2012 call-out regarding fabricated bits in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs — an experience Daisey says has made him not only “wiser” but “a better storyteller.”

But Daisey doesn’t tell stories for the sake of talking alone. He chases after questions that intrigue him, and these, more than his comically barbed but affable stage persona, make his stories worth listening to. Occupying a fertile middle ground between high concept and low humor, his self-referential yarns confront issues he sees as central to how we live and — in a related, no less passionate way — to how the theater lives and dies in American culture. He directly essayed this latter theme in his 2008 show, How Theater Failed America, but it remains a lively concern, as he suggests below.

His latest, American Utopias, makes its Bay Area debut at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this weekend. Following the format he has been honing since the late 1990s, Daisey uses a few notes written on loose sheets of paper to re-create afresh each night a set of three intertwining stories about Disney World, Burning Man, and Occupy Wall Street, following all three down their respective rabbit holes to glean what, individually and cumulatively, they might teach us about ourselves.

SF Bay Guardian You grew up in a really remote corner of the country. When you consider what brought you to where you’re at now, how much of that do you attribute to this background?

Mike Daisey I grew up in a place called Fort Kent, Maine, which is on the Canadian border. It’s actually the end of US Route 1, which begins in Key West. To me, psychically, it always feels like this must be the most remote place possible because every piece of mythology about roads is that sort of Tolkien idea, “The road goes ever on!” Whereas I was like, “No, it doesn’t actually. It ends. Right here. This must be the furthest place from everything.” It’s a very interesting area, the St. John Valley, around the St. John River. The people are predominately French Canadian. It’s a very different place from what I’ve come to recognize as the rest of America.

I do think that there’s a storytelling tradition that grows up in Maine, that exists there, that informs the work I do now. I think partly it’s informed by years of speech and debate at a very tender age. I think it’s informed by a couple of years of playing Dungeons & Dragons at a formative time. And, layered on top of all of that, was a very earnest desire to discover a form that would allow me to create theatrical experiences that were new in the moment that they were spoken. I was really dedicated to that proposition, that there could be a form of theater that lives in the moment that it’s spoken, both for the performer and the audience. I was looking for a form that would allow both there to be rigor and precision in the structure, but at the same time allow true spontaneity, and allow discoveries to happen in the moment that could not be anticipated.

That’s what I love about the monologues, about all storytelling. I often think of jazz when I’m trying to explain it to people. In the Western tradition, it is hard for people to understand how it is that something is composed without being written. We’ve all become so mired in the tyranny of the written word that we actually come to believe that the act of writing is the act of thinking. The spoken work is actually closer to the thought; it’s a more primal form than the form that writing takes. We forget that. So it’s hard to explain to people sometimes how something [spontaneous] can have form and precision and texture and depth. People often want to know, “How long did you work on this monologue?” And there really is no right answer to give, except the one that the jazz legends often give, which is to say, my whole life.

SFBG Do you think that that fascination with the research and work that goes into a piece is part of the way art gets commercialized, packaged as discrete products?

MD Yeah, I think that’s true. You know, I just went to Cuba. I was in Havana for about two weeks. I’m working on what’s going to be a separate piece, from the show that I’m bringing to Yerba Buena, about the commodification of art. When art transforms into a good. As soon as it does, as soon as it enters that market place, we really want to know its provenance; we want to know that this piece was not just tossed off by the artist. We want to know that the artist was thinking about something, or dreaming about something. We want to know that the piece we’re holding is a piece of the artist’s greatness and is an important piece at that. A lot of what it’s about is really acquisitive in nature.

That’s one of the reasons my going to Cuba was so fascinating. Being in a culture where a ballet dancer is paid the same amount that a surgeon is paid is really fascinating for what it does to cultural priorities. I’m not even saying that we all should pay surgeons the same amount as ballet dancers. But coming from my own culture, which I think is anti-art — I think it’s heavily tilted against art because of a real grain of Puritanism that runs through the center of the American character — it’s really fascinating to think about different ways that lives could be lived. Watch me: I’m slowly dovetailing! That connects to American Utopias in a really direct way. A lot of that monologue is about the effort to imagine a different way of life.

SFBG Where does theater figure in that imagining?

MD Theater really needs to make more radical shifts if it wants to take back some ground in the cultural conversation. Not necessarily in a traditional way, opening large movies that everyone’s talking about, but in a quieter way. I feel like theater sometimes suffers from being neither fish nor fowl. I’m often struck by the difference between a play [that’s considered a success] with 400, 500 performances. But those numbers don’t compare to millions of page views on YouTube.

At the same time, there’s another unique number, which is one, like when I create a show that’s for one night only and only happens once. There’s uniqueness to that, which the American theater also has a hard time [working] with because the form involves playwrights and rehearsals — we have a hard time doing the unique event. So instead we have this weird compromise, where we create this unique event but we then do this unique event 23 times. There’s this very odd middle ground. I often feel a correspondence between those numbers: like a run of 23 or 31 performances and page views of seldom-visited pages on the Internet. It’s really hard to thrive when you’re not doing something that’s singular each time and, at the same time, you’re not doing something that’s digital and ubiquitous and anyone can watch anywhere.

I just wish theater would grapple with one world or the other. I feel sometimes like the theater is a little bit its own version of The Glass Menagerie. It’s ignoring the war, everything that’s going on outside, like Tom talks about in his opening monologue of that beautiful play. But then the whole play is in this apartment, in this world where everyone’s dreams become sort of curdled and small. I sometimes feel like we really need to break out of the apartment. We all need to be like Tom and we need to hit the road.

SFBG Given it has three very different strands to it, what is American Utopias ultimately about?

MD American Utopias is about how we create spaces. But not just in the traditional architectural terms, but how we create them socially. So it’s an examination of three very different types of spaces. In each case, the members of the community that have made that space think of it as a kind of utopia. They see it as a reflection of a more perfect world. In many cases they wish they could live there more of the time but they know it’s not possible. I have preferences among the three to some extent but, on the other hand, none of the three are really my utopia. As a consequence, my role, I feel, is to talk about the connections between them. What really interests me are the anthropological systems, how humans organize themselves and how we share dreams. That interests me a lot. *

AMERICAN UTOPIAS

Fri/16-Sat/17, 7:30pm, $30-$35

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater

700 Howard, SF

www.ybca.org