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Mark Van Proyen on Burning Man Co-Founder John Law

by Mark Van Proyen

First Year of Burning Man at Black Rock. John Law second from left,1990

John Law has always shied away from referring to himself as an artist, so maybe we are better off labeling his activities “pranks,” “instigations” or “documentations.” Fair enough, but when the relics and archival ephemera reflecting four decades of those activities are gathered into a gallery exhibition (Signman at Pro Arts through August 24), we once again have to revisit the question of what is and is not art, assuming that any answer to it might still have some meaningful utility. The fact that Law’s activities may not be art allows for the enticing possibility that their core motivations might be too dangerous to be domesticated and sanitized by the all-too-easy excusability now embedded in the art category, echoing the Catch 22 logic that comes with the art conundrum: Simply put, if something looks too much like art, it probably isn’t, but if something does not readily appear to be art, it may well be provocative or even transgressive enough to be defined as a model example of such.  


“In the future, everyone will call themselves artists, and real artists will have to call themselves something else.”  Tom Marioni, Predictions, 1980


Law started out working as a tradesman for companies that installed and maintained billboards, and over time, he learned how to design, install, repair and maintain neon signage. Now, he supports himself with his own business that provides those services, all the while spending the bulk of his time organizing what might be termed “psychogeographic activities,” often of a seemingly anarchic and even dangerous stamp.  My reference to the term reaches far back into the obscure archive of mid-20th century art history, pointing to the arcane activities of Ralph Rumny, (1934-2002) who, among other things, was the co-founder of the The London Psychogeographic Association (in early 1957), and, with Guy Debord and others, the Situationist International later that same year.  The Situationist practice of the “derive” (i.e. passively drifting through forlorn urban environments and ascribing fantastical qualities to such


Installation view.  Far right: XINA, 2002, neon sign made by John Law and Dana Albany under the pseudonym Sara Melmoth for Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues."


journeys) was primarily Rumny’s contribution to their collective project, influencing later European movements such as Fluxus, the Vienna Action Group and French Nouveau Realisme, as well as their American equivalents which, following the lead of Allan Kaprow, were often called Happenings.  The Osaka-based Gutai group of artists also figures in, although their projects predated those of the Situationists by several years.  And of course, all of these examples hark back to the 1916 founding of Dada in Zurich, and prior to that, the “pataphysical” Ubu plays of Alfred Jarry.


The point of this short cavalcade of precedents is to note that they all have a place in the art historical canon, meaning that their relics are enshrined in archives and museum collections around the world.  In other words, there is plenty of supporting context for seeing Law’s activities as examples of an upper-case notion of art, even if those contexts may not be plainly visible to all who either view or participate in and with them.  That much said, it is also important to note how Law’s projects also embrace a distinctly American approach to neo-Dada

Detroit, 2019, fish tank, neon, toy cars

disruption, usually by operating on a large public scale and by channeling the unlikely spirits of Evel Knievel and Ted Kaczynski into a DIY mix that also features an unruly punk-grunge sensibility.  “Emperor” Joshua Norton’s legendary reign as “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico” during the 1860s also provides relevant background (he being the first great psychogeographer), and Ant Farm’s 1975 event titled Media Burn also comes to bear, as do the Machine Performances of the Survival Research Laboratories.     


The exhibition under consideration here was curated by Natalia Ianova Mount, and can be seen as a tightly packed retrospective of documents and ephemera reflecting several overlapping sets of Law’s varied activities, running the gamut between anarchic satire, saturnalian revelry and something coming very close to outright sabotage. Interspersed with these things are several neon works that Law has fashioned for non-commercial purposes, some of which were salvaged fragments of larger, temporary projects.  Some of these works, like Detroit (2016), are freestanding works set atop pedestals surrounded by ominous caution tape.  Inside of a small glass box, we see neon spelling out the city’s name set atop layers of model cars, attesting to the link between landfill and auto manufacture.  Others, such as the large piece titled Fun (2010) was entirely fashioned out of repurposed commercial beer signs affixed to large fragments of salvaged plywood spelling out the letters F, U and N, mocking the idea that overpriced corporate swill is a necessary ingredient for having a good time.  Next to FUN, the largest of the neon works is titled XINA (2002), which Law constructed (with Dana Albany)


Golden Gate Bridge Dinner, 1990, John Law and Carrie Galbraith


under the pseudonym Sara Melmoth so that it could be included in an all-female exhibition, and later, to decorate the lobby of the Masonic auditorium during a run of performances of Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues.  The work depicts a giant multi-colored vagina formed out of several serpentine loops differently colored neon.   


Law’s earliest projects hail from 1977, which was the time when he fell in with a group of urban adventurers known as The Suicide Club.  This semi-secret, close-knit group engaged in a variety of anarchic public projects of the type that we might now want to call very elaborate pranks, all formulated and executed as zany collaborations intended to “cement the organizing principles for creating chaos, anarchy and high times.”  Several of these events were enactments of scripted cosplay in public spaces, such as a formal dinner staged at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge, and others, such as the Nude Cable Car ride (1977), which were executed sans costume.  Others were daredevil feats enacted on jerry-rigged high wires

Nude Cable Car Ride, 1977

suspended high over San Francisco and environs, fulfilling the group’s idea that the city could be appropriated and repurposed as an adult playground, because, in their view, inspired play was understood as the most exalted state of being. 


The central mastermind of the Suicide Club was an eccentric anarchist named Gary Warne, who died at the age of 35 in 1982.  More than anyone else, it was Warne who exerted the greatest influence on Law’s thinking and subsequent projects.  Soon after Warne’s passing, the Suicide Club dissolved, but it gave rise to two other groups, the Billboard Liberation Front (BLF), which got started in around1978, and later, The Cacophony Society, which got its start in 1986.  Law was directly involved in both, although his fingerprints are more clearly visible in the BLF projects.  Or maybe not: Law may or may not have sent out press releases under the names of either Sebastian Melmoth or Jack Napier, taking credit for “improving” several well-known outdoor advertising campaigns in and around San Francisco throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and proclaiming that he/they represented the wishes of scores of anonymous advertising professionals who were allegedly expiating their professional guilt.  Featured in the exhibition are documentations of the BLF’s more widely known improvements, including an Apple Computer advert from about 15 years ago that featured the face of Amelia Erhart, but changed the injunctive text from Think Different to Think Doomed. Another appropriates a Levis billboard with a kaleidoscopic op-art graphic by covering the central corporate logo with an image of Charles Manson.  The exhibition literature tells us that the BLF disbanded in 2012, but that may not be entirely correct, as a group calling itself Indecline has very recently improved a We Make Junk Disappear billboard in Emeryville by changing it to We Make Children Disappear, adding I.C.E. to the text. 


Billboard Liberation Front,

The BLF projects are model examples of the Situationist practice of détournment, which can be understood to be a highjacking of everyday reality for the sake of turning it against itself. We may have the choice of turning off our television sets or blocking 4chan, but we have no way of avoiding the intrusions of billboard advertising, so we tune them out and let them slowly leak into our subconscious. But when the BLF improves a billboard, the viewer’s attention is diverting away from what the billboard is selling, and toward the mechanisms of manipulation that the billboard is using to sell.     


The inception and early evolution of the Cacophony Society was more complicated, but one thing was sure: Law played a central role in it, establishing the link between it and the earlier and much smaller Suicide Club.  Cacophony quickly grew and created chapters in Los Angeles, Brooklyn and Portland, using a photocopied newsletter titled Rough Draft to announce and organize various group events in the years before the advent of social media. One of the more legendary of these was the Oakland Sewer Tour, which started as a Suicide Club event in

Oakland Sewer Tour

1977, but had several subsequent iterations throughout the early 1990s. It was a late-night event where participants donned formal evening wear and marched through the storm drains of the East Bay.  Another was Santarchy (1994), later called Santacon, featuring a boisterous pub crawl enacted by dozens of participants wearing cheap Santa suits.  This later turned into a yearly event, with a particularly memorable iteration happening in Portland in 1997.  Alas, soon after that, Santacon became a victim of its own success, leading to its disavowal by The Cacophony Society. 


The Cacophony Society also undertook Zone Trips, where participants were taken, often in blindfolds, to desolate places and left to their own devices to conduct investigations relating to a homespun ethnographic Surrealism.  The first such excursion was to Covina, where participants re-experienced what it was like to be a teenager with nothing to do in a place that was too hot and smoggy to do anything anyway.  Another of these was to the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada in 1990.  As it turned out, they brought a large wooden effigy with them because federal park police would not let them burn it at San Francisco’s Baker Beach, thereby establishing the earliest manifestation of Burning Man in Northwestern Nevada’s Black Rock desert.  Then, it was merely known as Zone Trip #4, and was attended by about 80 people, almost all Cacophonists.  Before that, when the Burning Man events were


First Burning Man Desert Zone Trip, 1990


held at San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1989 and 1990, The Cacophony Society was already playing a pivotal role in organizing and facilitating those early events.  Immediately after, from 1990 to 1996, Law was one of the primary organizers of Burning Man, those being years when it was far more anarchic and freewheeling than at any time since.  Immediately after the 1996 event, he left the Burning Man organization because of creative differences with other organizers. 


The Black Rock desert hosted other Cacophony-related events during the early 1990s.  Three large and stunning photographs by William Binzen are presented in the exhibition to document events called Desert Site Works, which took place between 1992 and 1994.  These were collaborative events staged at various hot springs located near the desert, featuring temporary installations of fanciful neon constructions made and installed by Law, some of which were situated below water level.  Binzen uses a very subtle, time-lapse photographic technique to capture these events, emphasizing an eerie atmosphere in a way that makes the images seem like fever dreams from a hallucinatory twilight.  The Black Rock desert also figures into another Cacophony event from 1995 titled Car Hunt, involving a station wagon containing a nuclear family of dummies sent out into the deep desert, followed by several pick-up trucks full of firearms enthusiasts who took turns unloading their weapons into their lumbering prey. 


Desert Site Work. Photo: William Binzen, Bridge Over Trego


The exhibition also features seven of Law’s own photographs, from 1987, which take the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge celebration as their subjects. Although these are smaller than Binzen’s images, they are similarly stunning because of how their slow-exposure captures the celebratory fireworks illuminating the foggy night sky. These images were shot from the top of one of the bridge towers, creating stunning vertigo-inducing compositions.  Law has been climbing and photographing bridge towers around the world since that time, which falls into line with yet another of his longstanding involvementsin Urban Exploration (UrbEx), which can be defined as discovering and exploring forgotten zones of the built environment, a kind of location scouting for events yet to be materialized.            


Many of the other Cacophony events are memorialized in video form, which are presented on three computers, each which displays eight short videos, 24 in all.  The quality of these videos varies and oftentimes tends to look like unedited surveillance footage, which actually is great for capturing the surreptitious qualities of the events depicted therein. For example, there is the 2017 Viking Funeral for Lemmy Kilmister, he being the substance-abusing frontman for the rock group Motörhead, who died at the end of 2015.  What we can see in the videographic darkness is a convincing effigy of Kilmister being placed in a makeshift Viking rowboat and sent out to sea, subsequently to be incinerated. The video monitors themselves are surrounded by caution tape affixed to chrome stanchions; one of them is mounted on the steel wheels salvaged from the car that was shot up in Car Hunt.


Car Hunt: bullet-riddled Oldsmobile with dummy drivers, Black Rock Desert, 1995

At this juncture, I would like to stress the collaborative aspects of most of the projects documented in Law’s exhibition, which might make it seem that he was taking a bit too much credit for the contributions of others. This is misleading, because the exhibition literature goes to great lengths to credit the various co-conspirators that helped to organize and execute the various events, and I am leaving many of those names out of this writing because of space considerations. Of course, uncredited collaborators are nothing new in today’s bold, new art world built on echelons of studio assistants and intern labor, or for that matter in any other endeavor that claims any kind of individual authorship. 


There is nothing dainty or ingratiating about any of the projects that Law has been associated with.  Rather, they are bold, forthright and transgressive, conjuring a kind of symbolic anarchy that makes conventional performance art look like convention-bound parlor games.   Sometimes, these renegade projects are even a bit vulgar, but if so, they make us wonder how much stock we need to put into polite art during our current moment of political emergency.   All of these attributes locate Law’s many involvements in a tradition of purposeful disruption known as Termite Art, a term coined by painter and film critic Manny Farber in 1962: “The best examples of Termite Art appear in places other than films, where the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence, so that the craftsman can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it.”  Farber contrasts Termite Art with what he called


Golden Gate Bridge 50th anniversary fireworks, photographed by John Law from atop bridge tower, May 24, 1987, 10 x 16 inches


White Elephant Art, which could be identified by three sins: “(a) frame the action with an all-over pattern, (b) install every event, character and situation in a frieze of continuities, and (c) treat every inch of the screen and the film as a potential arena for prize-worthy creativity.”  A few years later, the critic Harold Rosenberg, writing in The Anxious Object (1965), called the same contest a duel among “Redcoats” and “Coonskiners,” pointing out that the triumphs of American art “have been achieved against the prevailing style, emerging like sly shots from the margins.”  In other words, against the superordinating mandates of institutionally mandated privilege, the insistence on disruption, transgression and the pragmatics of lived experience eventually comes to the fore to shape and reshape the American experience. If my hunch is correct, there are now many informally organized groups of younger people doing things similar to what Law has done, operating in shadowy places for their own amusement, craving a very

Rough Draft newsletter, August 1990

?different kind of buzz without regard for limelights large or small. If this hunch is correct, then Law’s projects and collaborations may be at the center and forefront of something more significant than has thus far been recognized.       


The main thread that moves through all of Law’s projects is the energetic assertion that real-time experiences are qualitatively better than the vicarious, manufactured and over-mediated fictions conveyed by television and the Internet—not to mention the omnibarrage of outdoor advertising that intrudes upon and manipulates the urban landscape. The fact that almost all of the work in Law’s retrospective exhibition are documentations actually supports this point, in that they assure us that the events and activities recorded by them did actually exist, but at the same time, they also remind us that their experiential essences lived in another place and time, and in most cases, were fully experienced only by the close collaborators who were directly involved. The rest of us must use our imaginations, which is part of what Law’s work invites us to do. The other part of that invitation is to get us to follow his example by using whatever means that we have available to act on what our own imaginations suggest that we do.

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John Law: “Signman” @ Pro Arts to August 24, 2019.  


About the Author:

Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward.  Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America.  His recent publications include: Facing InnocenceThe Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010).  To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.


3 Responses to “Mark Van Proyen on Burning Man Co-Founder John Law”

  1. Molly Hankwitz says:

    Excellent interpretation of John’s work

  2. davis jones says:

    I loved going to the Cacaphony events and even put one on myself called Disney in Duetchland, after a play created at SFSU was presented by a theater arts student at the time. The event was held in a voctorian in Cole Valley, where guests dressed up favoring Disney or Hitler characters and were given the opportunity to read on videotape several clips from news articles, literary notes, and movie scripts various comments from both Walt Disney and Hitler. It was said they were pals, with very similar ideas about perfection. Hitler asked Disney to create a perfect city, and Disney responded with Disneyland (and cartoon characters that depicted the various faux pas of humans presented by animals characterized by human likenesses.


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