The Origins of Burning Man
Burning Man began as a small gathering on Baker Beach in 1986. The roots of Burning Man, however, can be traced back many years before. It was the product of prevailing art movements, social movements and mores and the individual personalities involved in its creation.
The Auto-Destruct Art Movement influenced artists to create temporary art, and to divest their own ego and control from that art. Groups of individuals formed who wanted to bring a “merry prankster” attitude to life, resulted in the creation of the Billboard Liberation Front, the Suicide Club, and later the Cacophony Society, all of whom brought an attitude of biting wit, and occasional social commentary that deeply colored the early playa events.
Finally, the individuals involved in the event, especially Larry Harvey, John Law and Michael Mikel brought different perspectives and life experiences, which combined to create the event that eventually grew into today’s Burning Man.
The Auto-Destruct Arts Movement
The Auto Destruct Arts movement began shortly after WWI and had a lasting influence through the 70s. The term was created by Gustav Metzger in 1962 to describe a body of art that was designed to be both non permanent and centered around public participation in the art. One example is seen in the photos above: The 1968 burning of Skoob Towers by John Latham. Metzger released two manifestos clarifying the term “auto destruct”. The destruction must happen in public; it could not be consumed privately for a select group. The work must destroy by itself once the process had begun to avoid any sense of ownership over the development of the destruction, and the work must return to its original state of nothingness.
The Suicide Club, BLF and Cacophony Society
During the late 70s and early 80’s a subculture began to emerge, which loosely shared a common technique of culture jamming, along with sharing a satirical and a snarky approach to humor. The SF Suicide Club and its offshoot The Billboard Liberation Front often undertook political or social activism oriented pranks, whereas the Cacophony Society looked for less political statements, focusing on ironic and whimsical displays. John Law became a member of the Suicide Club, Billboard Liberation Front and the Cacophony Society, and along with P Segal lead to Burning Man leaving Baker Beach for Black Rock Desert. Michael Mikel was a Cacophony Society member. The attitude of snark and nonpolitical counter-cultural entertainment deeply colored the early years of Burning Man on the playa.
The Suicide Club
The Suicide Club was a secret society in San Francisco, formed in 1977 by Gary Warne and three friends: Adrienne Burk, David Warren, and Nancy Prussia. The club was dedicated to lighthearted and counter cultural pranks, among other activities. A variety of “street theater” events were common activities of the Suicide Club, along with urban exploration, where club members would explore unusual areas of San Francisco.
The Suicide Club was founded on January 2, 1977 during a winter rain storm in San Francisco when the four founders met at Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge at the top of a wall facing the Pacific Ocean. Waves from the storm were crashing on the rocks below the wall, going up the wall and then crashing on to the top of the wall, soaking the chain. The four founders took turns running up and holding on to the chain while the waves crashed down on them. If a person let go of the chain or was knocked unconscious, then they would likely be swept out to sea. After surviving the ordeal, the founders decided started the Suicide Club.
The name of the Suicide Club was inspired by three stories written by Robert Louis Stevenson, where men who want to die belong to a club, where each evening one of them is randomly selected for death. The name belied the gentle albeit zany nature of its members, who had a predilection towards lighthearted practical jokes.
The club became public in Spring 1977 as a course that Warne taught at the Communiversity in San Francisco, part of the Free School Movement, and it lasted until shortly before Warne's death in 1983. Events generally started and ended in Warne's used paperback bookstore, Circus of the Soul at 451 Judah Street.
Membership in the San Francisco Suicide Club was attained by attending an "initiation" ceremony that took place sporadically. Any member could propose any type of event, and it would be listed along with a write up in the Club's monthly mailer, sardonically named the "Nooseletter." There were five or so general categories that most events fell into:
Street theater, Pranks (e.g., 30 members riding the San Francisco cable cars naked and making post cards commemorating the event)
Elaborate games in odd locales (cemeteries, sewer tunnels, the financial district late at night)
Explorations—Urban and otherwise (abandoned industrial buildings, sewer and other tunnels, waterways, bridges, etc.)
Infiltration (the Unification Church and the American Nazi Party)
Chris DeMonterey recalls the Suicide Club initiation beginning at Gary’s bookstore Circus of the Soul. They put bread dough on his eyes (he thought it was plastic explosives) and lead him and around 50 others to a van. They were then driven by a circuitous route out to Fort Funston. They were led holding hands down a path and were told they had to stay balance or they’d fall forty feet.
Chris claims not to remember what happened at the end of that walk. “No one can say. It was too long ago. I think we had coffee or something.” John Law shared his notes from the time here, which includes a complete description of the initiation. A description of the second initiation is included in this article on the Suicide Club.
The Billboard Liberation Front began as a Suicide Club event hosted by Gary Warne in 1977.
Author Don Herron's Dashiell Hammett Walking Tour, the longest lived literary tour in America began in the Suicide Club in 1977. The Chinese New Years Treasure Hunt was created by Gary Warne and Rick Lasky in 1977 and continues (albeit in a different form) to this day.
The "leave no trace" mantra of Burning Man was borrowed from the Suicide Club and the philosophy of Warne. The urban exploration exploits of the club have inspired others, such as Julia Solis to explore on their own and document their discoveries.
The Suicide Club sputtered by 1982, shortly before Warne death of natural causes in his mid-30s. Following Warne death, John Law and a group of Gary’s others friends scattered his from the top of the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, while also painting some onto the bridge. Some ashes were also reserved and given out to friends and others in small glass vials in the future.
Billboard Liberation Front
In September 1997, 19 year old Jack Napier and 43-year-old Irving Glikk attended an event sponsored by the San Francisco Suicide Club entitled: "Enter the Unknown".
Twenty-six participants met, were blindfolded, and led to an undisclosed destination. Once there, they climbed a rope ladder to the roof of the building, upon which was mounted to a doubled sided billboard. On both sides of the board, the same commercial message for Max Factor cosmetics was visible.
"Now," said Warne, "we're going to alter this billboard, and we'll decide what it should say." They were not going to permanently alter the billboards. Instead, they added embellishments with rubber cement, allowing for removal of the changes without damage to the underlying advertisement. Warne had brought the supplies to make the changes, and the group would collectively determine the “improved message”. After some discussion, dozens of improvements were suggested and, in the best tradition of confused democracy two were chosen by vote. The society members painted and applied two different versions of the underlying ad.
A handful of former Suicide Club members launched the Cacophony Society, and the tradition of “merry pranksters” continued after the Suicide Club’s demise. The boilerplate of the group’s newsletter read “We are a fringe element which is always near the edge of reason You may already be a member!”.
The Cacophony Society combined art and theater in mischievous ways. They outlined bodies on sidewalks and glued toasters to walls. Once they set up a booth offering “Free Casts—arms or legs.” They claimed that a fake injury was all the rage, and they would offer to help passers-by come up with an epic tale to explain their improvised misfortunes. They paraded the streets as a legion of drunken Santas, which continued for many years Santarchy and SantaCon. At the Bay to Breakers run in San Francisco, people dress in salmon costumes and run in the opposite direction as the racers in a Cacophony tradition, now adopted by the wider public.
While transgression or and law breaking was accepted, overt political statements were discouraged. They held a pigeon roast next to a PETA protest in Union Square and staged a Republican rally in People’s Park (ground zero for hippies in Berkeley). Neither of these acts was meant to be political, they were meant to be works of art and fun. Whimsical shenanigans, tomfoolery, and hi jinx were the modes of operation of the Cacophony Society.
John Law was a Suicide Club alumnus who avoided Cacophony for the first few months because an angry ex-girlfriend among the founders didn’t want him around. The tensions subsided and Law took the lead role in the club. Law was, at that time a neon sign installer (he still maintains the neon in Oakland’s clock tower), inveterate bridge trespasser, and maven of secret niches in urban environments. He took pride in projecting a subversive personna, was quick to mention that he was running from a juvenile probation violation rap when he came to San Francisco, and is often described as a natural leader. He has natural good looks, and in that era his facial hair and hair length were changing constantly. He maintained a level of composure at all times, which, combined with his appearance, made him the liaison to the police whenever something needed to be smoothed over.
Michael Mikel was a former computer industry entrepreneur, who joined the Cacophony Society and would go on to found Burning Man on the playa. The Suicide Club, as Michael remembers, was so far underground he couldn’t find it, although he had heard rumors of initiates as doing the “most incredible, outrageous, and amusing things.” Cacophony, however, had a public newsletter dubbed Rough Draft, which Michael found one day in a Rainbow Grocery.
Michael eventually took over and formalized the newsletter (he later created the first Black Rock Gazette). He believed the Suicide Club’s demise was the consequence of its insularity and secrecy, and therefore preferred to make Cacophony more open and tried to cross-fertilize with other groups, tendencies and events in the area. He also led the effort to franchise Cacophony, creating in other cities, most notably the Los Angeles chapter, led by Al Ridenour.
“Cacophony was about doing things, having direct experiences. … Part of that involved trying to change the status quo of the culture through public courageousness, street theater, bizarre costuming, and public acts of revolution. More so than Suicide Club, which was more private and underground. They were challenging and growth-producing for the individual, certainly, but I took Cacophony where it was very public and open, inviting people to experience that change. And Burning Man fit into that.” Mikel noted to Brian Doherty in This is Burning Man.
Larry Harvey would comment that Cacophony found misfits that would not fit well into society, and helped them thrive.
Cacophony staged public protests against Fantasia, claiming to represent parents upset how frightening it was, environmentalists outrages that it encouraged water waste; obesity activists peeved with the mocking of dancing hippos. They seeded the crowd with compatriots to get in yelling matches with the protesters, and got covered in Time. And then were covered by the Wall Street Journal for fooling Time.
[Other Cacophony antics are covered here]
Less publicly advertised, the Cacophonists were explorers of SF’s abandoned buildings, stores and bridges. Colorful costuming and absurdist theme parties built around cultural icons such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Twin Peaks, public treasure hunts and celebrations of lost American junk culture were part of the repertoire.
A run down large home presided over by P. Segal at 1907 Golden Gate Avenue near Baker Street became a center of gravity for the Cacophonists as well as other progressive members of the San Francisco arts scene. To this day a reference to “1907” will be understood among old time playa goers. Many of P’s writings can be found here, and the experiences during the Golden Gate Avenue period are collected here.
Right after the ‘89 earthquake, the Mission district of SF was empty at night, with rooms available for $250 a month. Earthquake and gang wars led to an exodus, widening the nice for the more daring or reckless to move in, giving them space to work, build, and play in. Nancy Phelps remembers “You always felt safe. Everyone was friends. If you went through the sewers, you knew the person at your back was really at your back.”
Cacophony began to spread, thanks in large part to efforts of Mikel. Part of his greater vision for Cacophony was to establish franchised branches in cities over the United States. He started a newsletter and used the limited media coverage of certain outings to help achieve this vision. One person who heard about Cacophony was a man who would become known as Reverend Al.
Alan Ridenour found a stack of Cacophony fliers at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles, left by Cacophonists who had visited the area for Zone Trip #1, the first formal Cacophony road trip. At the time, he didn’t realize that this group only existed in San Francisco, imagining instead a web of secret organizations spreading the country. After sending letters with ideas for pranks and events to the PO Box listed on the flier and getting no response for months, he began to question whether the flier had just been a prank. However, Mikel eventually reached out to Al and together the first escapade of the Los Angeles Cacophony Society was planned and executed by Ridenour, who adopted the Cacophony alias of “Rev. Al.”
At the first event, Cacophony members passed out fliers at a local UFO devotees’ convention, claiming to be the Brotherhood of Magnetic Light and promising a Space Brother landing at Dockweiler state beach, a beach that is beneath the takeoff path from Los Angeles International Airport. At the beach they assembled a two-hundred-foot aluminum-foil cross on the hillside and piled it with flowers and burning incense. Rev Al. reported to Brian Doherty in This is Burning Man:
“We created a magical Christ icon - a plaster Tijuana Jesus with a walkie-talkie shoved up his ass. When an acolyte would approach it with his walkie-talkie on, it would produce this interference squelching sound… I began speaking in tongues. Rich Polysorbate of course starts shooting fireworks into the air for no reason. Then [Mikel] came running up the hill in a silver suit babbling about how is spaceship had crashed.”
Ridenour bristled at “info packs Michael would send about how to run things, as if I’d become an Amway salesman.” Instead, he notes “I did try to adhere to some of the principles and thoughts from the official propaganda. I did use some of their catchphrases as I saw fit. Some of it struck me as too fey, too much of a dancing-on-the-rooftops flavor.” Rev. Al’s directions was decidedly less whimsical than his San Francisco counterparts.