Burnt Man

One of the founders of Burning Man is suing and makes a case for opening up the cultish event to more subversive fun

Whether or not it's appropriate to call Burning Man a cult, Harvey's speeches, interviews, and other statements have for several years characterized his work of growing Burning Man as the core of a global spiritual movement.

"We're trying with our regional movement to ultimately change the world itself," he told the Chronicle.

In 2003 Burning Man's promoters urged festival-goers to "create interactive rites, ritual processions, elaborate images, shrines, icons, temples, and visions" in keeping with that year's festival theme, Beyond Belief.

"It is from this primal world that living faith arises," said an explanation of the 2003 theme on the company Web site. "This year our art theme will release that spirit in the Black Rock Desert."

In 1996, after eight years of organizing Burning Man, Law began to lose enthusiasm for what he believed was increasingly becoming a quasi-religious celebration with Larry Harvey at the pulpit.

He wasn't the first Burning Man pioneer to split with Harvey over his tendency to identify the event with himself.

"As the thing developed, in 1988 and 1989, we started to get some attention from the press, and [Harvey] moved to have more control over that, over the event itself, and over his role as being the person who was the primary director and manager of the event," recalls Jerry James, a carpenter who helped Harvey build the first Burning Man figures.

In Law's view, the event had also become less fun as it grew beyond a party thrown among friends and into an event attended by thousands.

In 1996 it seemed Burning Man would be forced to reconcile its multiple roles as a fun-filled party and a supposed religious exercise; a multimillion-dollar for-profit business and an anti-corporate gathering where money is shunned in favor of a "gift economy"; a blissed-out free-for-all that's also dangerous and in some ways destructive.

That year's event was billed as celebrating the "movement's" anti-commercial aspect.

According to the Burning Man company Web site, the eight-day festival was characterized by "a specifically postmodern aesthetic, a willful deconstruction of the economic and industrial apparatus which cathartically redeems these tools for expressive use. A prime example is a performance installation entitled HELCO, which formed part of Burning Man's annual themed art pageant in 1996 ... [It] was conceived as a broad burlesque upon the themes of mass production and consumption."

In this spirit, the Seemen, an art group led by Kal Spelletich, built a mock corporate-brand-named village, including a Subway fast-food store altered to say "Submit." The display was topped off with a HELCO-branded mock skyscraper made to resemble urban monoliths such as the Enron building in Houston. Artists lit fire to the building, which Law then descended via zip-line.

Law, a neon artist by trade, added his own anti-branding touch, poking fun at the iconography of Burning Man itself by superimposing a neon smiley face on the burning man's wooden head.

"Every 10 minutes it blinked on. That was our prank. Making fun of the symbol," Law says. "That totally pissed Harvey off."

Bickering with Harvey over the alteration of the Burning Man icon was the least of Law's 1996's problems.

One of his closest friends was decapitated in a Burning Man motorcycle accident. And Law later responded to a tragedy where a drugged-up and drunk man plowed a stolen rental car into tents full of people. One boy received serious head trauma, and two girls were maimed by battery acid and steaming radiator water.

"Not to mention the numerous other injuries over the weekend," recalled Jennifer Holmes, Burning Man's medical and safety manager that year. "I seem to remember 11 [medical evacuations] that weekend — at least five by helicopter."

By event's end Law decided he'd no longer spend most of his time helping organize Burning Man. At the same time, Law realized the event's growing commercial possibilities.

He hired an attorney and in 1997 drafted an agreement by which a shell company called Paper Man would hold rights to Burning Man trademarks, which would be leased to Black Rock City LLC for a nominal fee.

"My one-third share would decrease yearly until it got to 10 percent, with the remainder of my share going to a trust used to support art," Law explains.

Last year, Law says, Larry Harvey took steps to assert that he alone controlled Burning Man's trademarks. Law lashed back with a 32-page legal complaint alleging breach of contract, demanding that Harvey and the company Harvey owns with several shareholders, Black Rock LLC, either restore the trademarks and pay him a licensing fee, or release the Burning Man name and image into the public domain.

If the lawsuit were to instigate a discovery process exposing the secret financial innards of Burning Man and then potentially press Harvey to release Burning Man into the public domain, it might achieve wonderful anti-art. Imagine Burning Man keychains, diet bars, and porno tapes. John Law's Dada legacy would rival Marcel Duchamp's.

I asked Spelletich if there were parallels between the 1996 anti-corporate statement in HELCO, and the possibilities of parodying Black Rock City LLC by setting in motion a legal process that could bring about Burning Man antacids.

The "analogy is profound," said Spelletich in an e-mail. "And we all saw it coming in '96."

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