Somehow, somewhere, somebody made a mistake and invited me to speak and present at the Nevada Museum of Arts City of Dust exhibition. As far as I know, this is the first attempt by a serious institution at an art, culture and historical review of the Burning Man ™ event.
I intend to do my absolute best to showcase dozens of crucial individual collaborators, “fellow traveller” organizations, scenes, and happenstance occurrences that were integral to the genesis and the early spirit of this now gargantuan pop culture phenomenon. This is the first exclusively “Burning Man” event that I have participated in since 1997 at CB’s 313 Gallery in NYC. The show is NOT paid for or curated by the BMorg. There is a gallery show with materials donated by the usual suspects and by a few rogue elements including Harrod Blank, Philo Northrup and me…
The show and wall/display art & artifacts are curated by the Nevada Museum of Art staff including art curators Ann Wolfe and Bill Fox (real not “playa” names: Wolf & Fox), assisted by Sara Frantz and Megan Bellister.
The speakers roster was compiled and curated by Marisa Cooper. A special thanks to JoAnne Northrup for making the initial introduction and convincing her colleagues that I did not bite, and convincing me that the museum was serious about presenting accurate (as much as this is ever possible in a subjective world) information; under these circumstances I agreed to present at a Burning Man retrospective.
At this point in time, it is a fact that BM has a definable and coherent structure, culture and for better and for worse, some real influence on a large demographic of liberal anglo culture in America & Europe with some inroads into influencing the liberal elites of other cultures.
As anyone that knows me is aware, since about 1995 I have had mixed feelings about the event and it’s growing popularity.
As one of the three owners of the Burning Man Festival (until January 1997) and a long time facilitator of non-commercial, transgressive, underground culture, I am uniquely positioned to comment on this event.
L. Harvey, M. Mikel and I formalized the ownership of Burning Man in 1994, and the “Burning Man” ownership entity(ies) ever since have been corporate in structure despite the often touted “gift economy” of BM.
There were three major influences on the genesis of BM as an event and as a culture: The Cacophony Society/Suicide Club subculture growing out of the fertile SF underground, including the Zone Trip concept pioneered in Cacophony, the TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone) philosophy outlined in the philosophy of Hakim Bey (Peter Lamborn Wilson), and the Desert Site Works philosophy created by William Binzen.
The overall arch of the history of this singular desert event is bookended by women, and the event has been primarily directed by a woman since the close of the last millennium. This, despite the “Man” centric iconography, symbolism, mythology and press profile.
Some other things I will cover include the primary influences on fire, neon and machine art at BM, principal creators and organizers, artists, criminals and the like, that I believe were integral to the pioneering spirit of the early desert event. I will also touch lightly on some of the odd and creative people, groups and art that preceded us on the great playa of the Black Rock.
As anyone familiar with BM knows, there are thousands of stories covering many years. My intent is to show some of those people and incidents that I saw as being integral to the original spirit of the event as well as those who built the culture and set the stage for the influence, for better and worse, that BM has undeniably had. . .
**Special Event: July 29, 6-9 PM**
In conjunction with WAKING DREAM, a show of photographic work by William Binzen, Smith Andersen North is proud to present an evening of conversation on the role of art in the desert as a catalyst for personal change and transformation.
Below is the Sunday Chronicle article on the show. I added the image captures rather than a simple link because of the paywall to look at SF Chronicle articles. Sheesh.
Desert Site Works (DSW) images as well as playa pix from very early Burning Man are on display. These are the most amazing photos ever. The DSW pix are captures of the astonishing immersive “life as art”, “intentional community” event that launched tens of thousands of “burners” into the world (sorry about that one, folks!)
DSW was the event that BM selected it’s philosophy and culture from. This is the real history of what originally got you to the desert and why you woke up that time naked, covered in dried mud, glitter, vaseline and bits of what looked like penne pasta, inside the hull of a forty foot long diesel powered corn on the cob entangled in a scrum of what seemed to be semi-nude co-ed volley ball players painted the entire palate of the rainbow.
If you have ANY interest what-so-ever in how we ended up with Burning Man, this show on Friday the 29th and the attendant conversation is not to be missed. We will be discussing the root influences of BM, and the vibrant San Francisco culture that this event grew out of. We’ll hoist a glass to the irrepressible spirit of Pepe Ozan the artist that, more than any other, infused BM with the idea that you could create just about anything out there, or ANYWHERE for that matter – really the core point of all this desert hoopla over the decades – you don’t need a burning wooden thing in the middle of nowhere to be creative – but if that is what it takes to get started, well right on!
Following are two essays for the show booklet for this exhibition. I wrote the first essay, and William Fox, Director of The Center for Art and Environment at The Nevada Museum of Art, Reno wrote the second. The show opened June 25th and runs til August 27th.
“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.
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.
DANCING ON THE EDGE OF THE VOID
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.
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.