Eric Singer remembers the glory days of fire art in New York City. It was after residents got thirsty for oddball spectacle in light of the city's plasticized Giuliani makeover, and before the recession squeezed out madcap artists.
Back then, Singer and the legion of "misfits, geeks, machine artists, programmers and tech people" who comprised a collective called (nonsensically) the Madagascar Institute. They did stuff like set off loads of small fireworks on the Williamsburg waterfront, using a computer to synchronize the blasts to music blaring from a boom box. They built a pyrophone, an organ where every note triggers a small combustion from a propane tank. They created a two-seat swing-ride carousel powered by jet engines, flames shooting out of the backs of the seats as they spun around like the particles of an atom.
"One person would come up with a crazy idea and a whole bunch of people with various skills would come together and make it happen," says Singer, who co-founded the collective after a 1997 trip to Burning Man. "If you didn't see it, you'd hear about it."
In 2009, Singer, a Carnegie Mellon alumnus, sought a lower overhead and relocated to Squirrel Hill. Now an adjunct art professor at CMU, he has continued to work on his LEMUR (League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots) pantheon of automated musicians and display his mechanical art at galleries. He has also ventured into Pittsburgh's fire-arts scene. And he's showing it off by organizing Pyrotopia, a festival on the grounds of the historic Homestead steel-industry landmark known as the Pump House.
The free April 28 event will feature a display from Pyrotecnico, a group that orchestrated the fireworks at the last Three Rivers Regatta, and a 6-foot wave of energy called a Tesla coil, let loose by engineer Mark Barlow.
Singer's contribution will be "Flaming Simon." Remember the small Milton Bradley memory-sharpening toy on which you'd tap back increasingly long sequences of notes on four colored buttons? Singer's game puts the same routine in a 6-by-6 foot enclosure with hand drums that spark a pyrotechnic from torches at each corner. He says, "It's like 'Simon' but in hell."
This left-brained world of flame-spewing mechanics makes up only one half of the field of fire arts, and only one half of Pyrotopia. Another component consists of performers who juggle fire sticks, spin flaming pois and breathe fire. This portion will be represented by Steel Town Fire, a troupe that sprung out of the "spin jams" held every Thursday in Frick Park from 2006 until last year.
Steel Town co-director EMay says that at its peak, the event attracted up to 80 people. Pois, tethered weights lit aflame, were the most popular props. But flaming staffs were also spun, and a fire-breather taught his skill. "If you could light it on fire, I am sure I saw someone running down that hill carrying it," EMay recalls.
Despite the old-time-carnie freakishness of the fire arts, the spin jams attracted a wide range of people. EMay is a poet, musician and cultural-scene stalwart who wears her hair in a knotty mop she sometimes singes. Victoria Kerestes, Steel Town's other co-director, works in marketing.
"It taught me a sense of balance," says Kerestes, who took up poi spinning after seeing it at a festival. "It's meditative. It's great exercise and it's something I never thought would be a part of my life."
The scene crystallized in 2009 with Steel Town Fire, a committed and fully insured fire choreography troupe. (How does a fire artist get insurance? Pay $230 a year to Specialty Insurance Agency of Wisconsin, which also has policies for clowns and hypnotists.) Performing at every First Night celebration since 2009, they have brought visibility to the fire arts but were also forced to abandon the Frick Park spin jams. EMay says they didn't want to be seen as responsible for the entire ragtag scene, which included a few "loose cannons." Spin jams still go on, but organizers would rather keep them low-profile, to filter out the Beavises and Buttheads.
Pyrotopia will bring the scene up from the underground for a day. Singer says it's the first East Coast festival entirely dedicated to fire arts. He hopes it becomes an annual event — a mid-Atlantic answer to the Crucible Fire Arts Festival of Oakland, Calif. He says he's witnessed scenes like this grow exponentially.
"When the Madagascar Institute was founded, it was just six of us meeting at a bar in the West Village," he says. "It grew into a culture of thousands in New York City, and there is no lack of artists [in Pittsburgh] who want to do the same here."