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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

Wednesday, Jan 24 2007
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 "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."

About The Author

Matt Smith


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