Gonzo prophets look for God

What do porn star Annie Sprinkle, Burning Man founder Larry Harvey, U.C. Berkeley robotics professor Ken Goldberg and a cross-dressing “rebbetzin” have in common?

Nothing, really, except that they all shared the stage at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco earlier this week — and all are Jewish except for Harvey.

In a wide-ranging panel discussion called “Gonzo Prophets: Spirituality, Activism and the Arts,” Sprinkle, Harvey and Goldberg were subjected to numerous questions by the platinum-coiffed Hadassah Gross, the alter ego of New York-based performance artist Amichai Lau-Levi.

While a discount was offered to those dressing in “playa-wear,” meaning the glitter, tutus and fabulousness that is de rigueur at Burning Man, the fact that it was a Monday night meant that most people showed up in their street clothes. In the audience, too, was local personality Frank Chiu, otherwise known to those who work in the Financial District as the “12 Galaxies” guy. What he was doing there remained a mystery, especially since he dozed off during most of the discussion, his ever-present sign pointed downward.

Gross, meanwhile, wore a fur stole — complete with paws — and spoke with a heavy Yiddish accent. She kept the audience chuckling by alternatively calling the porn star “Annie Shprinkle” and “Anneleh,” and referring to the annual arts festival in the Nevada desert as “Burning Mensch.”

In a nod to the porn star in their midst, Gross referred to God as “the G-spot,” and began by asking the panelists “Where in your life is there room for the G-spot?” Also, she wanted to know, “Is there God, spirituality or religion in what you do?”

While the panelists seemed to say that there was, God took a different form for each. For Harvey, it was people finding the sacred within themselves. For Sprinkle, it was felt in a really big orgasm, in which she felt connected to all things.

Goldberg said he always chafed at the concept of God as a higher power, as usually presented in organized religion. But, at the same time, he said there are sweet aspects to be found within religion, and specifically, within Judaism.

The conversation then led into a discussion of ritual, and how Goldberg had recently witnessed a friend of his — whom he described as a cynical hipster — at his son’s brit.

“Even with all his cynicism, he was gripped at that moment by the connection to his forefathers,” said Goldberg, describing the act as both primal and tribal.

Harvey followed up by discussing how Burning Man began, with just a handful of people on a beach in San Francisco, more than 20 years ago.

“When we first burned the man, we had no intent in founding anything,” he said. “But we found that many strangers joined us.”

While now the figure that is burned is several stories high, and the annual event attracts some 40,000 people, at that first one, “we were moved by the attention of strangers,” he said. “We formed a community without knowing we had done it. I remember looking at the people’s faces more than looking at the man.”

Harvey added that performing a ritual connects one to the “temporal axis in time, to the past and future.”

Sprinkle said that when she began her career as a young prostitute, each client’s visit was a sort of ritual, broken down into the payment, negotiation and the sexual act.

“I love the image of the sacred prostitute,” she said, “People used to go see a prostitute to connect with God.”

Sprinkle then showed a slide show that covered all aspects of her work, most of which has no place in a family newspaper.

Goldberg described some of his technological projects that he defined as ritual, such as one called “Telegarden,” a garden that could be watered and tended to by a robot. Users from all over the world could log onto his Web site and manipulate the robot into watering the garden or planting seeds.

“People are interested in communicating with others and having direct interaction,” he said.

Gross recalled seeing the Burning Man temple sculpture burn a ritual that takes place the day after the man is burned. “For me, I’m Jewish, and burning a temple has some baggage,” she said. “But to see it burn because the people want it to, and it then brings the desert back, it’s a very powerful ritual.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."