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Wednesday, August 24, 2005 - Page updated at 12:11 PM

Information in this article, originally published August 6, was corrected August 9. A previous version of this story incorrectly identified one of the Static Factory founders as Randy Eatherton. The founder's name is Randy Engstrom.

Seattle's "Machine" a metaphor in motion for Burning Man fest

Seattle Times staff reporter

The work inside the aging, red-brick warehouse in Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood is the picture of incongruity: A trapeze artist practices between two pieces of black fabric that hang from ceiling to floor; a dozen feet away, a man hammers nails into wood planks; in another room, a blizzard of sawdust hails the creation of more planks.

Within these walls, amid industrial banging and clanging and air crackling with creative energy, "The Machine" is taking shape.

Birthed by a volunteer force of artists and artisans, The Machine is a five-story wood-and-steel structure that will incorporate motion, sound, lights, smells and performance into a mammoth kinetic sculpture. Its ultimate destination will be a windswept Nevada desert where it will become — if all goes according to plan — the most elaborate art piece in the 20-year history of the cultural festival known as Burning Man.

For some of the 60 Seattle-area residents helping piece together The Machine, the work represents years of attending Burning Man, making friends and bringing the event's "ethos" back to their hometown.

"I think that for a lot of us, if not all of us, that are on this project, it's kind of a life mission," said Gabe Stern, 31, who helped organize The Machine project. "It's like, let's work with people that we love and are very talented and let's work as a group."

Builders and designers have already spent more than a year on The Machine. But once complete, it will only "live" for five days.

When Burning Man's gates open Aug. 29, some of the 35,000 revelers expected at this year's event will make The Machine move — pushing on and turning large "people wheels" that slowly raise the structure's eight 30-foot limbs.

Five days later, those limbs will become fully upright just before trapeze artists, acrobalancers — a type of acrobats — and fire performers produce a huge show, then encourage the crowd to pull on ropes that will bring The Machine crashing down, splintering and dying on the desert floor.

It's that kind of spectacle that for years has drawn crowds to Nevada's Black Rock Desert for a week of large-scale art, costumes, self-expression and collaboration for Burning Man. The event sprouts and blooms on the desert floor, awash with costumed revelers and wildly creative art, and quickly disappears without any trace of the thousands who attended or the art they celebrated, in keeping with the tenets of Burning Man.

But it's the work that has gone into The Machine long before it reaches Nevada that, in recent months, has made the event's founder and organizers look to Seattle as a leader for a new, nationwide social movement and a new era of Burning Man.

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The Machine takes over

Stern wakes up early some mornings and can't get back to sleep. He is anxious, thinking about the bolts, wood or the work left to do before the group takes The Machine to Nevada.

For the past six months, Stern, like others, has spent every weekend and many evenings working on the project. For his day job as a designer and builder of home interiors, he rents the Georgetown warehouse where The Machine is, in part, being created. When Stern's workday is over, he often doesn't go home; he simply begins working on The Machine.

"One of the big points of the project was getting all of these people together with all of these different talents. And if we can work together seamlessly, we can accomplish a lot more," said Stern.

It's that collaboration that has become the heart of The Machine.

The group, which started meeting in May 2004 with 12 people, is made up of engineers, artists, an architect, musician, home builder, furniture maker, scent expert and others. Each contributes something different to the project.

"We love collaborative work," said Burning Man arts curator Christine Kristen, aka Lady Bee, from her San Francisco office. "It embodies the ethos of bringing back Burning Man to your community and really living it."

The concept of The Machine cannot be credited to a single person, various group members said. The 51-foot-tall and 91-foot-wide skeleton with winglike limbs was born from a mix of ideas that started with that first group of 12 brought together last year by Stern and his fiancée, professional arts curator Jordan Howland.

As more people and talents came into the mix, The Machine evolved.

One person brought music. The Machine will have a five-day soundtrack that changes as the structure grows. Another brought scents. The structure will have a five-day "smelltrack" that changes scents produced as the week progresses. Others brought trapeze, acrobalance and fire performance.

To the group members, The Machine is a metaphor of what Burning Man, the event, is now. Long preparation goes into what they hope can inspire people, not just for a week, but for long after the show is over.

"The Machine is a social experiment in that sense as well — this great collaboration between 20 to 60 individuals on various levels," said Howland, 28. "[Burning Man] builds itself and then destroys itself just like The Machine does."

Beyond The Machine being the most elaborate project to reach the Black Rock Desert, according to Kristen, it also will be one of the most expensive.

The group has been trying to raise about $80,000 for The Machine before leaving for Nevada. Today, they will host a fund-raising event at Consolidated Works in South Lake Union. That figure, said Howland, includes a "very generous" grant from the Burning Man arts organization, but she can't say how much. Recipients are not allowed quote figures — for tax purposes.

A fiery beginning

The Burning Man festival began in 1986 when a man named Larry Harvey and a friend took an 8-foot wooden figure to San Francisco's Baker Beach and set it ablaze with about 20 people watching. Year after year, the semi-spontaneous act grew into an annual rite, eventually moving to the Nevada desert for a weeklong event that culminates with the burning of a 40-foot icon of a man.

Now, Harvey, 57, runs the Burning Man company, Black Rock City LLC, with a $7 million annual budget and a nonprofit, the Black Rock Arts Foundation. Burning Man has garnered worldwide media attention and has been called the "coolest event in America" by journalist Brian Doherty in his book "This Is Burning Man."

The bigger Burning Man becomes, the more important a role Harvey sees it playing nationwide.

The annual event is now run on 10 principles, the Burning Man "ethos." They include self-expression, collaborating, living in the now, leaving no trace behind when the event is over and living in a barter economy — the buying and selling of things, except for coffee and ice, is not allowed at Burning Man.

It's part of Harvey's new vision for the namesake. He sees "burners," or Burning Man attendees, incorporating the Burning Man ethos into their communities, businesses and lives on a daily basis. "Otherwise, Burning Man, the event, is just a vacation with an expensive ticket price," Harvey said.

With that, he has turned his attention to Seattle.

Even beyond The Machine project's team taking collaboration to the extreme, Harvey has seen other things he likes coming from the area, including burners who have started businesses based somewhat loosely on Burning Man principles.

"I began to ask myself, 'What the hell is going on up there?' " Harvey said.

"We're bohemians that learned business. Those kids [in Seattle] went to the university, learned business and have become their own type of bohemians."

One company, Static Factory Media, is using one such loosely Burning Man-based business model — emphasizing collaboration, not competition, with companies they work with or alongside. They are a "creative services" business that builds Web sites, records musicians in a studio, does graphic design and promotes events.

After eight years of attending Burning Man, Static Factory founders Randy Engstrom, 28, and Chris Airola, 33, wanted to start something based on what they'd gathered during the events. But it wasn't easy.

"Who would you look at to model this after?" Engstrom said. "Well, there wasn't anyone."

So Engstrom and Airola, who also are working on The Machine, started what they thought a burner business would look like.

Harvey has taken notice and even brought Engstrom to San Francisco to talk to the Burning Man organization about what is happening in Seattle. Harvey said he hopes Burning Man in the near future can start training burners to manage businesses or play community politics.

"Truth is," Harvey said of Seattle burners, "they're doing something radical. They're doing something innovative."

Assembly required

Two weeks before Burning Man begins, The Machine group will haul the many pieces of their work in rented trucks to the Black Rock Desert. Then, over the weeks, they will assemble the beast using cranes and power tools.

It's the harshest time of the year to be out in the desert. Temperatures can top 100 degrees, with lows near freezing. Dust storms can blanket the area and thunderstorms can turn the desert to mud.

Stern and Airola said they're not worried. The group has engineered enough contingencies into the plan to make sure The Machine gets going the day Burning Man begins.

The Machine will work. Thousands will be awed by it. It will all go off with very few hitches. They're convinced.

"We know what to expect," Airola said, "even though it's completely unexpectable."

Nick Martin: 206-464-3896 or nmartin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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