Category: Desert Site Works

Desert Siteworks @ Oakland Museum Nov 17 2PM

Please come to this presentation at

The Oakland Museum on:

November 17 at 2 PM.

This presentation will reveal much of the secret and hidden history of early Burning Man. For various reasons the protean and liminal collaborative event Desert Siteworks has been lost to the larger Burning Man history. Envisioned by founder William Binzen as a sister event to BM, Desert Siteworks provided much of the core philosophy for the later massively popular desert event.

Desert Siteworks 1993 Trego Springs, Nevada - photo by William Binzen

Desert Siteworks 1993 Trego Springs, Nevada – photo by William Binzen

Desert Siteworks 1993 Trego Springs, Nevada - photo by William Binzen

Desert Siteworks 1993 Trego Springs, Nevada – photo by William Binzen

We will be showing an excerpt from William Binzen‘s uncompleted film Waking Dream which beautifully represents the 1992, 93 and 94 Desert Sitework events.

After, William Binzen and John Law will be interviewed by author and historian Erik Davis.

“Desert Siteworks was an early iteration of the “intentional community,” which later became a basic tenet of Burning Man.” -William Fox curator City of Dust, Nevada Museum of Art

“An Unintelligible Passionate Yearning Drove Them Out Into The Desert”

by John Law Co-founder of the Burning Man Festival and Co-editor, Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society. quote by T.E. Lawrence.

There are four separate, yet in some ways related concepts, organizations or philosophies that were integral to the birth and growth of the Burning Man Festival and the attendant subcultures spreading around the world that have been influenced by this ever more popular event.

The first harbinger of things to come was a San Francisco-based movement comprised of pranksters and regular folk known as the Cacophony Society. Cacophony came out of an earlier underground and mysterious secret organization co-founded by a forgotten visionary named Gary Warne and ominously titled the San Francisco Suicide Club. Cacophony was an experiment in urban exploration, street art, pranking, psychogeography and any other odd pursuits members might imagine. Cacophony started in the mid-80s. It spread around the country with the assistance of the burgeoning Internet and thrived into the late ‘90s.

The radical idea that “every member was a creator of their own reality” agreeing to “put their worldly affairs in order” and to “live each day as though it were your last” was at the heart of Cacophony. Another crucial Cacophony philosophy was contained in the simple phrase: “You may already be a member.”

The second crucial idea that ensured BM’s existence was the simple yet profound concept of “The Zone” pioneered by Cacophonist Carrie Galbraith. Taken from her interest in the films of Andre Tarkovsky and novels of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, The Zone concept was that a person or group could enter into both a physical and a metaphysical space separate from daily “normal” existence, where literally anything could happen. The first Burning Man on the Black Rock Desert was sponsored and organized by Cacophony and listed as an event in its monthly newsletter, Rough Draft, titled “Bad Day at Black Rock, Cacophony Zone Trip #4.”

The third primary influence was a written philosophy collected in a book called TAZ, Temporary Autonomous Zone by Hakim Bey, an East Coast philosopher. Bey (or Peter Lamborn Wilson as he was also known) devised a very compelling theory of creative freedom and anarchistic collaboration that required participants to find a physical space far away from the cloying, civilization-engendered mechanisms of control. They would bring with them everything they needed, and for a period of time do whatever they wanted with absolutely no rules, regulations, laws, or other examples of social, political, economic control, or any other aspect of human oppression. They would then pack up and leave quickly before being noticed (and consequently, mandatorily crushed by the institutions of humankind), only to regroup in total freedom at a later unannounced time in another secret place.

The fourth influence, structurally and critically the most important with regard to the eventual style and look as well as the growing culture of Burning Man, was, without a doubt, William Binzen’s Desert Siteworks series of art ritual events at desert hot springs.

DSW made an audacious leap and conjoined the seemingly disparate disciplines of large format, multiple exposure art photography with an ongoing, massive scale, multiple-artist-created series of separate yet subtly connected land art installations. In 1992 Binzen recruited Cacophony to assist with his first DSW at Black Rock Springs in an extremely remote corner of the already extremely remote Black Rock Desert. With a crew of about 20 people, mostly Cacophonists, this amazingly beautiful and wild environment was transformed into an ongoing live human performance/land art installation, ultimately captured by Binzen’s large format cameras.

The following year, again with the assistance of Cacophony, Binzen partnered with Judy West, an artist and arts administrator, to produce an ambitious large scale event/art installation/ritual/life experience at another remote Nevada desert hot springs location. West had her office and home at Project Artaud, an artist live-work mecca in San Francisco. Through her contacts there, and by combing the San Francisco Open Studios weekends, Binzen and West recruited a number of accomplished professional artists, performers and makers to participate in DSW’s second year. This group of exceptional creators combined with the much looser, amateur, yet outrageous sensibilities of Cacophony proved to be very influential on the burgeoning Burning Man aesthetic and culture. Nothing anywhere remotely as ambitious or involved as the Trego Springs DSW project at Summer Solstice, 1993 had yet been attempted at Burning Man.

Approximately 100 artists and pranksters living together, occupying large scale physical space they fashioned themselves by hand and imagination, manifesting elaborate rituals while adorned with singular habiliments of their own creation was the order of the moment.

The organic costume creations and tribal cohabitation rituals of the performance troupe Dream Circus inspired generations of “burner fashion” and much of the now commonplace social rituals at the massive, mainstream event. The giant, mud-skinned, steel mesh fire lingam created by the princely, mercurial Pepe Ozan and the attendant wildly primordial and deeply affecting dance ritual evolved into Pepe’s yearly operas, the most powerful and influential collaborative art installations to take place at Burning Man for the next ten years. Pepe’s massive, complex operas predated and inspired David Best’s temples and dozens of future large scale BM collaborations.

The Cacophony custom of “leave no trace” and culture of encouraging extreme and intense, collaborative “real world” experience was a perfect complement to Binzen’s ideas and the aesthetic sensibilities of the other DSW artists. These protean creative eruptions were adopted whole cloth by the nascent and rapidly expanding Burning Man culture.

J. Law Black Rock Desert 1991/ photo by Sebastian Hyde

J. Law Black Rock Desert 1991/ photo by Sebastian Hyde

Binzen’s writings and carefully, lovingly designed philosophies thoroughly informed the “life as art” and “radical self expression and inclusion” concepts that lie at the heart of early Burning Man and continue today as rubric for the corporation that controls the festival and as a self-evident truth for so many who still participate in BM and have taken this essence out into their lives and into the world.

And then there are the photographs.

William Binzen’s images of Burning Man are the most complex and lovingly conjured of the literally millions of photographs of this highly photogenic event. His wizardly captures and preservation of the fantastical tableaus of Desert Siteworks created by a group of artists and pranksters in the desert over the course of only three years in a distant and magical past, are surely some of the most singular images you will ever see.




By William L. Fox  Director, Center for Art + Environment, Nevada Museum of Art

Deserts are places that attract artists because they offer a relatively blank slate upon which to work, spaces where time and the elements tend to erase previous traces of human presence. You can create an ephemeral installation or event again and again at the same spot in a desert and it’s always new. Michael Heizer found that out when he created his Nine Nevada Depressions across a 520-mile expanse of the state in 1968; within one or two years, no trace of the works remained at Jean Dry Lake outside Las Vegas, or the Black Rock and Smoke Creek deserts north of Reno.

A playa, which means “beach” in Spanish, is the ultimate desert palimpsest, the intermittent lakes that form on their salty or alkaline surfaces during the wet seasons eroding away footprints, tire tracks, and other evidence of human passage. Playas in California, Utah, and Nevada have hosted everything from automobile and fashion shoots to land speed trials and giant croquet games. And they’ve hosted art projects from Jean Tinguely’s “Study for an End of the World,

No. 2,” when he blew up junk sculptures with dynamite in 1962, to Lita Albuquerque’s celestially oriented pigment dispersal drawings. The most famous of all contemporary artistic endeavors on a playa is, of course, Burning Man. But the festival started on another kind of beach entirely before moving to the Black Rock in 1990, and it wasn’t an event that featured much art. Both the relocation and the focus on art came about in part because of William Binzen.

Binzen, a photographer who now lives in rural Marin County, California, moved from the East Coast in 1974 to earn an MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute in the mid-1970s. Burning Man famously began in 1986 when Larry Harvey hosted a Labor Day bonfire on Baker Beach in San Francisco. When the police in 1990 denied permission to the 350 participants to burn the 30-foot tall wooden figure, Binzen, along with John Law and Kevin Evans from the San Francisco Cacophony Society, convinced Burning Man co-founder Harvey to move the burn to the Black Rock playa for the Cacophony Zone Trip #4 over Labor Day weekend. They called it “Bad Day at Black Rock.” Binzen knew that local ceramicist John Bogard and friends had played giant croquet there during the summer using pickup trucks as mallets, and believed that Harvey could bring his burn out to the desert without being bothered by law enforcement. 1990 was the first year that Binzen attended the event, but by 1992 he was directing his own project on the Black Rock, Desert Siteworks, a summer solstice celebration held annually before Burning Man. He ran his event for three years, each one held at a different hot springs along the eastern edge of the playa. Desert Siteworks was based on site-specific performances and installations, its 15-20 “artist-instigators” and co-collaborators engaging in ritual role-playing, meditative exercises, and group art projects. In the second and third years they were aided by up to 70-80 others in loosely formed artisans’ guilds. This was an early iteration of the “intentional community,” which later became a basic tenet of Burning Man.

Binzen talked 2-3 times a week at length with Larry Harvey during these years. Binzen’s aesthetic had arisen in part from his reading of the 1979 Rosalind Kraus essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” and her understanding of the importance of the ephemeral in art. His explanatory diagrams for Desert Siteworks are modeled directly on the schematics she published in this essay. Other artists important to his practice included Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, and Mary Miss, and Binzen sent Harvey a series of “Desert Tracts” about his thoughts regarding their ideas, his own artistic practice, and ideas for Burning Man, including the establishment of an art program on the playa. Binzen’s formation of a self-intentional performance community was based on using temporary site-specific artworks for personal transformation, and the habitats he developed (shade structures and desert yurts among them) were important to both the character and physical design the Burning Man community would later adopt. Binzen brought his architectonic sculpture, “Desert House,” to the playa in 1992, where it served as the predecessor of Center Camp. A proposal he sketched for Harvey (on two paper napkins while sitting at Harvey’s kitchen table) on how to lay out the event influenced its current design. An exhibition and series of events and performances featuring both Burning Man and Desert Siteworks, including an installation of Binzen’s desert architecture, was held in San Francisco’s SOMAR Gallery in 1994. Binzen began photographing Burning Man in 1990, when he was the only professional photographer there, and he continued to do so annually through 2010. His photographs include 8×10, medium-format and 35mm film from the early years as well as later digital imagery. All were then painstakingly re-imagined in Photoshop using the tenets of color theory, and sometimes included composited paintings made with aqueous media on glass. His intent was to make magical realist images that communicated a deeper reality about the feeling and spirit of the event. Binzen likewise created singular images to accompany his Desert Siteworks project from 1992-1994. A few of his Burning Man photos have been previously exhibited, but this is the first time the Desert Siteworks images have been viewed publicly. Binzen’s photographs overall, from his work at Desert Siteworks and Burning Man to the panoramic commissions he creates for various clients (some of which are related to the desert events) are less documentations of a place and time than precisely calibrated artifacts construed from them. Even images that at first glance seem the most straightforward of the works, such as the Desert House at Black Rock Springs from 1992, feature carefully arranged tableau with figures balanced throughout the scene, and colors enhanced afterwards to provide contrast and unity along the spectrum. The result is that the photographs imply a dreamlike narrative, and serve as vivid reminders of the enduring power exercised by the early 20th-century art movements of Dada and Surrealism. In this case of the photographs of the Desert House, the images also demonstrate how Binzen’s ideas infiltrated Burning Man. Dada sought to inject chaos and irrationality into art, a reaction to the bourgeois mindset that appeared complicit with the horrors of World War I. Surrealism embraced this idea, seeking to create new states of awareness by making unexpected and illogical juxtapositions among objects and actions. Dada and surrealistic art practices were brought to the West Coast by artists fleeing Nazism and WWII, people such as Man Ray and Max Ernst, which in turn helped give rise to San Francisco’s Suicide Club and Cacophony Society, two organizations that from the very beginning have profoundly shaped the philosophy and workings of Burning Man. Binzen brought those sensibilities to the desert, as well, when he created his interactive, intentional performance communities.

The three Desert Siteworks projects were explorations through performance, architecture and art of the necessities for boundaries and discipline to survive, and even thrive, in an unfamiliar and hostile environment. The inevitable tension between trying to survive and make art at the same time was a method through which people could understand more clearly their relationships to self, to others, and to the environment. Binzen’s photographs—which are few in number because of the amount of work it takes to assemble such artifacts—at their base not only document not only the physical presence of Siteworks in the desert, but also, by virtue of the artist’s degree of manipulation, make manifest how Dada and Surrealism infused the Suicide Club, Cacophony Society, Desert Siteworks, and Burning Man.

Dada and surrealist performances and artworks use randomness and chance in a deliberate fashion, and at heart Binzen’s layered images present us with the essential paradox posed b these earlier art movements: how to create enough order to survive long enough so that we can walk up to the edge of and even into chaos, and then return. There is no successful career as a human without personally experiencing this paradox, and Binzen has given us both a concrete example of how to do so, as well as documents of the process, which is one of the more extraordinary contemporary accomplishments to arise from the Black Rock Desert.

Nevada Museum of art curator William Fox.

Nevada Museum of art curator William Fox.

Any playas, but especially the large ones such as the Bonneville Salt Flats and Black Rock Desert, are situations as well as sites, spaces where navigational clues are few, and a sense of scale almost nonexistent. The cognitive impairment experienced while on a playa, even on the edge of one, creates enough mental and emotional freedom for artworks to be transformational, whether in the intimate theatre of one’s own mind, or at the level of an arena, the pop-up city. In a fine analog, Binzen has created images where both the subject matter being photographed and the deployment of photographic technology are perfectly staged to capture the spirit of transformation—and to be pictures that are the agents of change itself.

42 Years of strange doings in SF/Oakland/Bay Area & Beyond. Please help me raise some $ for my once in a lifetime show

This November 17th. – general fundraiser at Pro Arts. Open to the public. Tickets available at:  Eventbright tix to fundraiser.

Limited Curated experience. 10 people max – Tour of artist studio and limited edition of 10 signed prints of Golden Gate Bridge 50th Anniversary : Tickets here: Eventbright tix to curated experience.

Link to Pro Arts FB page


Billboard Liberation Front action 1980. Collaboration between “Jack Napier” (John Law) & “Simon Wagstaff” nome de guerre for a well known local SF character.

JL neon piece for SRL “Doom”show 1994.

Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland is presenting a retrospective sampling of 42 years of pranks, neon art, “theater” performance art, stories, writings, and conversations with key collaborators of mine culled from me entire time here in Oakland, San Francisco and the outside world.

JL photo Golden Gate Bridge 1986

Natalia Mount, Executive Director of this landmark gallery in the very heart of Oakland, is curating the show and has been working with me to burrow and wade through my massive pile of poorly organized photos, video/film, documents, neon pieces and all sorts of material produce during my four decades of trouble making, experience design, artifact making, collaborative work and explorations.

JL as “Vito Lawtoni” in Don Herron’s The Fatty Arbuckle caper, 1980.

We need to raise a substantial amount of money in order to print huge photos, produce several finished videos out of mountains of raw footage, restore some neon sculptures and make some new, finance travel and accommodations for five (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 as of now, maybe more) of my collaborators (unindicted co-conspirators as they say) from over the years and to cover any number of other expenses. As usual, I am broke and in a hurry. I don’t drink, drug, gamble, womanize or waste money; it is just tough financially these days. Pro-Arts is experiencing the typical travails of most smaller cultural institutions and is underfunded as well. Moneys raised will all go directly to producing this show and to support this wonderful community based, yet influential gallery.

Kodachrome Magazine 2017 article on neon artists featuring JL

“Detroit” 2016. 28′ x 14″ x 10″ metal, glass, distressed matchbox cars, astro-turf, neon, opaque crystal ball. Like most of my work, this is a ham fisted metaphor! Various neon installations and sculpture here.

Please pass this link along and spread the word. If you have worked with me or enjoyed any of the products of the collaborations and (occasionally incognito) creative projects I have driven or contributed to or any of the transgressive cabals (my neon piece is at 1:44 & 2:00) or ridiculous pranks that may have benefited from my efforts, I really need the help and feedback now. I am not done yet; this show is just a retrospective of my first four decades here. With luck, we’ll have another one when I am 100 in 2058……

Oh, almost forgot, this is also my 60th B-day party.