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

In June 1976 17-year-old John Law hitchhiked to San Francisco, checked into a youth hostel, and learned from the innkeeper that he'd arrived too late.

"People said, 'You missed it. It's over,'" said Law.

The advice had merit. The Summer of Love had long passed. The San Francisco Diggers had decamped for communes, taking their Death of Money Parade and communal solstice celebrations with them.

San Francisco, however, remained fertile ground for subversive fun. And Law quickly sniffed out a reinvigorated radical underworld.

In 1977 he joined the incipient Suicide Club, adventurers whose stunts included champagne dining on the Golden Gate Bridge, and a treasure hunt amid the chaos of the Chinese New Year's parade. Within a year the group launched more cerebral pursuits, such as infiltrating cultish, messianic groups like the American Nazi Party and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. Members of the club went on to form the Cacophony Society, known for assembling public crowds of drunken Santas. Some Suicide Club members founded the Billboard Liberation Front, devoted to perverting ad messages, as in: "Johnnie Walker Red: Drink yourself blind."

In 1986 Law and few of his Cacophony cohorts joined an informal solstice party on Baker Beach that culminated in the burning of a 7-foot-tall wooden statue. Four years later, Law was responsible for moving the party to the Black Rock Desert north of Reno.

Law thus seeded the ground for an anti-mainstream, screw-the-man, countercultural statement perhaps as eloquent as any San Francisco has produced.

I don't mean the annual Nevada Burning Man anti-establishment, gift-economy art festival that Law helped pioneer. I'm referring to actions Law has taken this month to expose that desert celebration as a Moonie-style messianic cult of personality, and an $8-million-per-year secretive for-profit hustle.

"Burning Man is not the Unification Church. But there were just vague elements that seemed sinister," Law said. "I just want people to look at some of these things. Why do they have to have a central figure? It has an enormous psychic resonance. I just think there are certain elements that remind me of cultic behavior, and that comes from the man in the hat," Law said, referring to an ever-present Stetson worn by Burning Man leader and self-styled prophet Larry Harvey. "He has turned it into a cult of personality."

On Jan. 10 Law filed a lawsuit against Harvey and his privately held, for-profit company, Black Rock City LLC, alleging that Harvey had attempted to usurp Law's partial ownership of Burning Man's trademarks. Law demands that Harvey either pay him revenue derived from the Burning Man trademark, which Law partly owns, or allow the name, logo, and other copyrighted Burning Man jargon to slip into the public domain.

The latter result might permit, say, Burning Man canned chili, tampons, or antacid tablets, in the process creating a critique of the private, for-profit firm behind Burning Man as scathing as the anti-commercial, anti-money rhetoric and artwork the festival is known for.

When asked about the lawsuit, and the suggestion that Burning Man had come to resemble a Larry Harvey personality cult, a spokeswoman said Harvey and his PR director were traveling and wouldn't be available for comment. She referred me to a prepared statement, which said in part, "The issue is a legal disagreement between people who've known each other a long time, and it will get resolved."

As for the Burning Man name slipping into the public domain, "We will not let that happen," the statement said.

Indeed, Harvey and his staff have taken extraordinary pains to control the popular image of the eight-day festival as a fun, spiritually uplifting annual gathering. Many attendees spend months in San Francisco warehouses preparing ambitious sculptures, performances, and other artwork.

Black Rock Desert LLC's attorney routinely sends out cease-and-desist orders to people he believes are inappropriately using the Burning Man name. And the company applies strict vetting procedures to journalists who wish to cover the event in an attempt to ward off portrayals of the festival's legendary drug use and sexual promiscuity. Instead, the company seeks to emphasize the homespun Burning Man artwork and tales of personal transformation the event is also known for.

The resulting Burning Man goodwill brand is the envy of any corporate message-maker.

Some attendees believe they're part of a growing cultural movement promoting worldwide spiritual change. Earlier this month they bought 10,000 tickets to the Aug. 27-Sept. 3 festival within the first 90 minutes they went on sale. Last year's event drew 40,000 attendees. Participants, largely drawn from workers in the Bay Area's high-technology industries, pay up to $280 per ticket.

Harvey, who worked on and off as a gardener when he first invited people to join him in burning a wooden statue in 1986, has during recent years increasingly described the event as a celebration of his personal, mystical philosophy.

"Read Harvey's stuff, it's gobbledygook," Law said. "And it's all self-referential. He used to joke about it. But I misjudged him. He wanted it to be about the self-referential symbolism," Law says, referring to Harvey's East-West spiritual philosophy, some of it found on Burningman.com. "If they had a sense of humor, they'd poke fun at themselves."

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."

According to the Burning Man PR statement responding to Law's suit, "making Burning Man freely available to individuals who would only use it to make money would go against everything all of us have worked for over the years."

By another way of thinking, however, it's possible to see the idea of a public-domain Burning Man image as representing the worst possible threat to Larry Harvey's personal control over an event he and his former friends created.

In Larry Harvey's "movement," followers or "Burners" refer to him ironically as their "chief." Many pride themselves on their unique dress and worldview, and see themselves as guarding shared truths having something to do with ideas such as community, fungible identity, and escape. Harvey's speeches are recorded on the Burning Man Web site as significant historical documents. Every year he and his Burners create a temporary city laid out along lines seemingly inspired by Hitler's Nuremberg architect Albert Speer, with mock column-lined boulevards converging on a Mayanlike pyramid, upon which rests a 40-foot, humanoid, flaming icon.

I suspect that few of the lawyers, product managers, and other technorati who converge in the Nevada Desert every year pay much mind to the event's cultlike traits. For most people the event is an exhilarating party, where desert crops of artwork appear, then disappear, and a small city's worth of people strive to give each other a good time.

There's nothing wrong with that.

However, the corporation, and the marketing message that underpins the event, could benefit from subversion.

In that spirit, television ads promoting, say, KFC Burning Man frozen buffalo wings, might even rival anti-commercial subversion produced by the Diggers during the Summer of Love.

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.