Kodak Corporation launched a magazine called Kodachrome last year, published in London. In the third issue there are two features that I am presenting here on my blog. The first feature is an article on William Binzen and his protean project Desert Site Works, an event built with the help of Judy West, artists from Project Artaud with major support from The Cacophony Society.
I was a collaborator on this project and in addition to making several large scale site specific neon art installations as part of the overall large scale installation tableaus, I was the operations and transport manager for these ambitious desert art events.
The entire article from Issue #3 of Kodachrome Magazine Sept 2017 on William and DSW can be seen in the pdf images at the bottom of this article. I have written more extensively about Desert Site Works HERE.
There is another article in the same issue that covers three neon pioneers from different parts of the world. The three are: David Hill and his Warsaw Poland Neon Museum (the largest in Europe), Aric Chen who is the go-to guy in Hong Kong for neon in HK movies and for pretty much anything else, and the third neon dude is lil Ol me here in San Francisco. This April, I was asked to moderate the first ever countrywide neon symposium, hosted by the Tenderloin Museum in San Francisco. Hosted by the dynamic duo of illumination, Randal Ann Holman & Al Barna, this was a wonderful meeting of neon professionals, writers, historians, artists and neon fans and fanatics from across the USA. My history with neon and electrical signage began when I worked as a permit and survey technician for Ad-Art Sign Company in the early 80’s and more importantly when I became a sign hanger/service man for Federal Signal Corporation subsidiary Federal Sign Company Ad-Art & American Neon Sign Co. a couple of years later. Before my first hire in the electrical sign industry, I worked in signs as a teenager and worked for commercial sign companies (non-electrical signs) from 1979 on.
I realized a while back that over my 34 year association with the “noble gas” I actually had done a lot of pretty weird things with neon. My friend Natalia Mount, Director of Pro-Arts Gallery in Oakland pointed this out to me while convincing me I should do a show with her curating at Pro-Arts. Coming from the Suicide Club, Cacophony and a solid trade work (electrical signs) background, I never really considered myself an artist. I can’t paint. I have never been able to draw anything even remotely recognizable as a human figure or a landscape. I guess it is all really how one defines things.
One of the first neon art projects I began was lighting the Burning Man figure.
The first year in the Black Rock Desert (August –
September 1990) I place a half circle of white neon at the base of the figure uplighting it and I mounted two incandescent spots on the figures thighs pointing up to illuminate the torso and head. The following year in 1991 I gave the figure a neon skeleton for the first time, placing the neon units inside the figures skeleton. The next year, 1992 was the first time the neon was mounted on the front of the entire figure. Original Suicide Club member Louis Brill was the first journalist to write about the Burning Man’s illumination for Signs of the Times magazine in 1992.
Most of my creative life, from age 18 when I joined the proto-urbex, pranks and social experimentation cabal, The Suicide Club, until not that long ago, I never thought of what we were doing as art. The Suicide Club was not an “art” group. Nor was the later Cacophony Society despite the fact that both featured some members that certainly were artists. My mentor, visionary founder of The Suicide Club Gary Warne would have bridled had anyone accused him of perpetrating art, and I, his youthful protege adopted his antipathy for that particular designation. There was a reason for this stance. What we were doing in that early group was intended to be life – the real thing, not some symbol or simulacrum of actual human intercourse or real life.
The people I admire most are artists. They obsess over their work; in many cases they give up convention, comfort and security to pursue it. Artists are by far the hardest workers I know. I can speak on this matter with some authority for I have led a dual life of sorts. In addition to my underground pranksters life, I have been a journeyman tradesmen for decades now. Trade work can be very hard physically. It can grind a fellow or a gal down and many of these workers put in their grueling 8-16 hour days and simply collapse with a drink or three when the work day is done. So many artists have the day job AND THEN they work as long or longer on their own art. Try to do both for a year or so – not so easy. I was (and remain for the time being) an electrical sign hanger, designer and service man. For this kind of career you must be conversant with several areas of craft and trade work: rigging and crane work, electrical circuits, basic construction and field installation, metal work and plastic, with some finish woodworking skills as well. That’s how I have paid my bills.
Much of the work is tedious and punishing physically: climbing ladders, drilling holes in concrete. granite, wood facades, crawling through attics pulling wire, digging holes for sign footings, hanging on ropes and swing stages, wiring electrical fixtures, painting, welding and wrenching on signs while 100 feet up in a crane bucket. Some few jobs are quite fabulous though – the high neon displays that everyone knows because they loom (sometimes) majestically above the dense frenetic cityscape.
I have worked on many if not most of these displays in the Bay Area. The three I still service today are the Port of San Francisco sign atop the Ferry Building, The Hills Bros Coffee sign at the Bay Bridge & Embarcadero, SF and my office building, The Tribune Tower in Oakland. Each of these three are historic relics of a more serious and grounded era. They are huge classic neon displays from a world that took such things seriously and created these altars to commerce and progress that somehow over time have come to transcend their base commercial purpose. Some signs actually resonate powerfully with many citizens as part of the mental and cultural landscape. As an example, Hill Bros has not been a coffee plant for decades, yet the sign is so iconic that the various banks and real estate concerns that have owned the building it adorns have been compelled by public interest (and marketing schemes) to retain the now non-commercial sign. I am very fortunate to be connected to these fabulous monuments.
In more recent years, I have had little choice but to accept the appellation and baggage that goes along with being called an “artist.” Our culture seems to demand that concession – the agreement that you somehow fit into an acceptable box so that you are “understood”.
I still can’t draw, paint or sculpt clay or stone, but in my defense, I have made a bunch of things over the years including singular neon pieces, both wall or standing pieces as well as large scale outdoor “environmental” and “site specific” sculpture.
I have produced photographs that took some trouble and thought to compose. I’ve written 3 books, 2 published. I’ve conceived, created, and led many, many “events” and collaborated on making hundreds more, that others might mistake for being “art”. Journalists, some of my friends, other artists and the random passer by have mistaken me for being an artist for many years now. So I give up and give in. Part of the process of aging is shedding stuff and consolidating what is left. So I’ll settle for being an artist.
They were five events that the Suicide Club was best known for by the general public.
After the first several months of the club we didn’t publicize events, particularly the quasi-legal ones. Even so word slipped out about these ongoing excursions.
The first pre-Billboard Liberation Front billboard alteration, Max Factor was a Suicide Club event organized by Gary Warne & Adrienne Burk that got a lot of local press when all 26 of us were arrested. I have commented on this elsewhere on my blog.
The annual Chinese New Year’s Treasure Hunt was founded by Gary Warne and Rick Lasky in 1977 as a Suicide Club event. It took place in the middle of the famous annual parade thru Chinatown and downtown San Francisco and came to be a well-known event over the years. Eventually it was piloted by Suicide Club alumni Jayson Wechter and it morphed into and remains to this day, a major public event.
The Golden Gate Bridge Formal Dress Dinner, created by Catherine Baker in March 1977, became an annual event and continued on, later as a Cacophony Society event, for nearly 3 decades before finally being shut down by the Golden Gate Bridge Authority. This was the first of hundreds of “formal dress” events taking place in non-traditional places over the next 40 years.
The fourth publicly known Suicide Club event was the immediately notorious Naked Cable Car stunt hosted by Suicide Club cofounder Nancy Prussia.
This event took place in the very first month of the clubs existence prior to our collective desire to begin avoiding any publicity for events.
The event was one of the few that were conceived of as a publicity prank. Gary Warne and Adrienne Burk put out a call for photographers in order to create a series of prank postcards. As I recall there were at least three possibly four photographers. Over the decades since, the identity of most of these photographers was lost to me, and probably anybody else interested in the subject. From Gary Warne and Dave Warren’s archives, much of which I had inherited when they passed away, I was able to find contact sheets from an unknown photographer which are the images that have been posted in a variety of places over the years. These images are secondary photos shot of tiny 35 mm proof sheet images. They are very crappy.
Recently, one of the Suicide Club stalwarts of those first few years, Bob Schlesinger contacted me with the wonderful news that he had found his original negatives. And so for the first time that I know of, some decent shots of this epic prank are now available for you to enjoy – or not – if you choose! Child advisory. Nudity!
Here is the email that Bob sent me giving a little bit of context for how he shot the photos. It also describes some of the humorous chaos that could be part of a Suicide Club event.
“John, Here are the 4 group pictures with specks & scrapes cleaned up, plus 3 of the cable car pictures. Feel free to post, send to Bob Campbell or anyone else. As you can see, the ones on the cable car were not nearly as good quality and they needed a lot more work to clean up – there were so many specks it looked like dandruff.
As far as memories go – they are a little hazy after 40 years, but I do remember that several people had cameras. As you know, Gary was not keen on cameras being used at events – this one being one of very few exceptions. I also recall that I had decided to shoot in black and white because it offered more latitude with regard to exposure than color film. I had no idea what kind of lighting we would encounter that early in the morning; whether we would be in direct light, shadows, or a mixture of both.
I remember I had taken a picture of us trudging uphill to the barn but I haven’t come across it yet. It was a wonderful group procession – many of us wearing long dark coats traversing the empty city streets of very early morning. I still recall the reaction of the cable car brakeman when we disrobed. He gave us a classic eye roll.
I remember that after I had dropped my pants, for some reason I didn’t completely remove them, but they were down around my ankles. Maybe I didn’t want to take any extra time and miss photos, or maybe I hadn’t figured out how to hold the camera and keep track of my clothes at the same time. I have no idea how I staggered off of the cable car that way, but I do remember that it was challenging to move around to take shots. – Bob”