the hell is John Law?
An interview with prankster John Law
by Mark Beers
might not know his name, but those of you who consider yourselves
fringe culture aficionados will recognize at least one of these:
The Suicide Club, Cacophony Society, Survival Research Laboratories
(SRL), Seemen, People Hater, Defenestration, Circus Ridikulus and
Laughing Squid. These are the people who help prevent cultural arteriosclerosis.
During the past twenty-plus years, Law has conspired and collaborated
on many projects and in many roles: master builder of doomed props
in SRL shows, master negotiator for his fellow Santa pranksters
on the brink of arrest. He has rappel-danced on the side of buildings,
gunned down an Oldsmobile station wagon in the desert, scaled all
the bridges in San Francisco and New York City, led spelunkers through
the Oakland sewers - and this is the short list. Much of what he
has done is creative, participatory fun, the most famous of which,
Burning Man, would never have made its virgin excursion to the Black
Rock Desert ten years ago without Law's ingenuity and energy. But
even without Burning Man, a look at the broad range of his activities
over the last twenty years attests to Law's vital, catalytic influence
on the evolution of San Francisco culture and art.
A juvi joins
The Suicide Club
John Law's career as
a prankster (a label he prefers to "artist") began in 1977 when
he joined The Suicide Club shortly after arriving in San Francisco
at the age of eighteen. Law says of the club's chief organizer and
avatar, Gary Warne, "He was a very close friend, kind of my mentor
and the only real visionary I've ever worked with - in fact, the
most interesting and most amazing person I've ever known in my life."
(Warne died at the age of thirty-five of a heart attack in 1983,
about a year after the club had disbanded.)
The Suicide Club borrowed
theme and title from Robert Louis Stevenson's novel about a group
of people who lived each day as though it were their last. To invoke
this carpe diem spirit, club members created events which required
them to challenge their fears. In Law's case, terror meant stripping
naked on a cable car (an Easter 1977 event - maybe you've seen the
"Welcome to San Francisco" postcard). "It scared the fuck out of
me. My stomach was tied up in knots. And then when we did it, I
was enormously relieved - who gives a shit if I'm naked." That experience,
according to Law, exorcised worry from future public performances.
In contrast to disrobing
in public, climbing a bridge or rappelling into an empty, 400-foot-deep
gas storage tank "did not scare me. I love climbing. I have no fear
of heights at all. I've got a real kick out of taking people climbing
and letting them see that they could do it." Law has favored urban
structures for events both during and since his Suicide Club days.
"Urban environments are filled with what I call negative space -
underground, on top of buildings, between freeways, on bridge towers
- that average people don't really care about or never observe and
comprehend, not that they couldn't. Everyone I take on a bridge
climb for the first time never looks at a bridge the same way again,
ever. The next time they cross it and think, 'Oh yeah!'"
Part of the thrill of
such urban exploration, in addition to its inherent physical dangers,
comes from the threat of getting caught, a sensation that Law admits
stems from the recklessness of his youth. Now, at 41, John Law reminisces
about his life, occasionally fingering his ample beard (picture
a young Ulysses S. Grant), with a courtesy and thoughtfulness unbecoming
of a onetime juvenile delinquent.
"My parents were pretty
moral and ethical, but I was a wild and crazy kid, hooked up with
people who were doing exciting stuff - stealing cars and breaking
into houses. I was really attracted to that, but I had a lot of
misgivings about the morality of stealing. Then I joined The Suicide
Club in 1977 and here was a group that was actually philosophically
driven in an extremely ethical sense - we did a lot of illegal stuff,
but we didn't do anything I would consider unethical or immoral."
One of the first events
in which Law participated graphically illustrates this distinction.
It was one of the group's "Enter the Unknown" events, where participants
showed up without knowing what the organizers had planned. "Because
I was one of the climber guys, they asked me to help people get
up on the roof of this building where the organizers sat us down
with all these weird implements including buckets and rolls of paper
and said, 'Okay, this is what we're going to do: we're going to
change these two back-to-back billboards on the roof of this building.'
The original billboard read on both sides: WARNING! A PRETTY FACE
ISN'T SAFE IN THIS CITY. FIGHT BACK WITH SELF-DEFENSE. THE NEW MOISTURIZER
FROM MAX FACTOR. 'We want you to decide what they're going to say
when we're done changing them.' So in the best, ridiculous San Francisco
democratic tradition we sat there and argued for two hours and finally
came up with two captions: WARNING! A PRETTY FACE ISN'T SAFE IN
THIS CITY. FIGHT CRAP WITH SELF-RESPECT. Which I thought was really
dull. I mean it got the point across but it wasn't very interesting.
On the other side, the new message read: WARNING! A PRETTY FACE
ISN'T SAFE IN THIS CITY. FIGHT BACK WITH SELF-ABUSE. THE NEW MUTILATOR.
AX FACTOR. I liked that one better. We got caught, but charges were
Two of the participants,
Irving Glick and Jack Napier (the latter of whom Law - somewhat
jokingly - characterized as "bull-headed and autocratic, but funny"),
were inspired to create the Billboard Liberation Front (BLF). The
BLF's most recent campaign to "improve" advertising in public space
got people to think differently about Apple's appropriation of the
images of famous people on their "Think Different" billboards. Amelia
Earhart's image was accompanied with the message "Think Doomed";
the Dalai Lama's, with "Think Disillusioned"; Ted Turner's with
"Think Dividends". The BLF have never been caught since that first
Suicide Club event.
Cacophony Society rises from the ashes of The Suicide Club
The preponderance of
bigger, more grandiose events, organized by fewer and fewer members
brought about the eventual demise of The Suicide Club in 1982. The
club died, says Law, "because after six years, everybody was sleeping
with everybody else, and people were bored." In 1986, six former
Suicide Club members formed the Cacophony Society. (Law joined several
months later - he had recently ended a relationship with one of
the founders and delayed his participation in the group until they
were on better terms.) In contrast to the insular, publicity-shy
Suicide Club, the Cacophony Society was more open to the press and
public. Law describes the Cacophony Society as "a group populated
by geeks and nerds, myself included - a group of misfits, even more
so than The Suicide Club."
from the Richmond
San Rafael Bridge, 1989
by Bob Gelman
One Cacophony Society
event which got plenty of attention from the police as well as from
the press was a beautifully arranged marriage of anti-capitalist
zeal and Christmas spirit dubbed Santasm. In December, 1994, 30
cheap-suited Santas stormed downtown San Francisco venue by holiday
venue. At Macys, Santas rode the escalators and chanted "charge
it, charge it"; out on the street, one naughty Santa (Law) got strung
up and hung from a lamppost in front of the St. Francis Hotel while
another guzzled booze from a Pine Sol bottle. Crashing a Christmas
ball at the Fairmont, the Santas drank wine, ate hors d'oeuvres,
danced and were even applauded by the guests. Law recalls that,
while dancing with a grandmotherly party guest, a security guard
came up to him and said, sotto voce, "Get the fuck out of here!"
So they left and hit the Tonga Room, but before they could get in
their first dance, security booted all the Santas out, even as the
tiki island combo played "Here Comes Santa Claus." Later in the
evening the Santas packed the peep show booths at the Lusty Lady
before going on to the Paradise Lounge where they handed out cigarettes
and condoms to the kids.
The following year Santasm
reached critical mass. Reprising the previous year's pranks, 100
red-clad marauders hit the same places, eating people's food and
drinking their booze; but the greater number induced an ugly mob
mentality that pissed off more people than it amused. Eventually
the cops came and Law assured them that this was just a party that
had got out of control, not a protest as they had feared. "Although
a lot of the events could be construed to have political undertones,
and this is certainly one of them, the Caco-phony Society always
avoided overt politics for many reasons," says Law. Clear of the
suspicion that the Santas had a political agenda, they were free
to leave, and the cops put away their riot gear and sent the paddy
wagons back to base.
Society does Burning Man
Burning Man began as
an annual Baker Beach event put on by Larry Harvey and Jerry James
from 1986 up until 1990 when it was shut down by the cops. Law and
his friend Michael Mikel suggested making Burning Man a Cacophony
Society event in the Black Rock Desert where Law had previously
done an event with "monster truck guys - we'd drive cars fast with
no headlights, shoot guns, and fuck around." A weekend work party
made up of Cacophony friends rebuilt The Man in the neon sign shop
where Law worked. On Labor Day weekend, "a caravan of about fifty
of us drove up to Gerlach and at dawn had breakfast at Bruno's.
The locals thought we were Satanists. About seventy of us went out
to the desert, did the event, and that was the first Burning Man
in the Black Rock."
For seven years, along
with Harvey and Mikel, Law was one of the main organizers of Burning
Man. "It's one of the greatest things I've ever been involved in.
Fabulous. Lots of good things about it." Law stopped participating
after the disastrous 1996 event in which his friend Michael Furey
was killed in a motorcycle accident and several people were injured
by a car that ran over their tent. In addition, Burning Man has
moved in a direction that Law does not support: "Aggrandizing a
central image, even with no purported philosophy to inveigle people,
I find reprehensible, frankly. And it's antithetical to why I was
involved in the event - completely antithetical," he says, his tone
of voice betraying a hint of rancor.
We always encouraged
people to do their own events there. That's why the event has become
what it is - because people realized they could do their own work
there in a really intense alien space, and because the environment
developed a new community of sorts, but a community of misfits.
I don't want everyone to have the same idea - that would be boring.
You can only have so much of a community with misfits; they can
interact, but they're always going to be on their own. I wanted
to encourage people to do their own camps without a center.
But the central
image is not really taken that seriously, even by the organizers,
is it? Even the most earnest Burning Man aficionados refer to the
Man as a sort of tongue-in-cheek mock-symbol, not a serious deity.
You'd have to ask
the organizers how they think about it. They'll tell you something
different. Some people take it very seriously. The Man is designed
to be an impressive symbol, and the architecture of the camp is
designed much like Nuremberg was designed by Albert Spear, to aggrandize
a central symbol and a central concept. Every single artist project
that is now formed within this giant, aggrandizing architecture
is subservient to that central symbol. The artists' focus is on
their own projects - not on the central symbol; they're getting
money to do their art and that's a good thing. I would never deny
that Burning Man has been good for art, nor am I objecting to supporting
art through ticket sales - never have. I'm not damning the event
out of hand. I am objecting to one thing, and that's the aggrandizing
of the center.
I always thought we should
have changed the symbol every year - make it a dog, or a big orb.
One year I wanted to have a giant hydrogen Hindenburg come in and
hit the thing [the Man] and blow it up; it was out-voted because
that made fun of the symbol. Chris Campbell [chief builder for the
Man image for years] and I put a neon happy face skull on the Man
without telling anybody. We had a timer on it which turned it on
for five seconds every twenty minutes so all the stoned ravers stumbling
around would go "Look!" That just incensed Harvey. I mean he was
horrified because it made fun of the symbol. But that was the whole
Harvey wants to
increase attendance into the millions and would like to believe
that the event has the power to change the world, that it has developed
a communal impetus - a kind of movement - which extends beyond the
event itself. (See "Burning Man Grows Up," in Reason, February,
Maybe. But that's
for someone else to figure out. The organizers obviously have different
agendas and different philosophies that developed as time went on.
Draw your own conclusions; I've drawn mine. I think of 'movement',
and head for the bathroom. I have a real problem with that - if
you have a movement, then you have a bureaucracy to control the
movement, and you have people who are interested in power. Institutionalization
degrades the aesthetic of any specific artist; they'll be edited:
Serve the bureaucracy or they'll quit funding you.
Though he's no longer
involved in Burning Man, Law has no regrets.
I had a great time
during my seven years with Burning Man; but it's for other people
now. I'm still friendly with most of the organizers. I help out
with a lot of other projects - but not in the desert, not at Burning
Man. I have pretty strong opinions about Burning Man and I stand
by them. I'm proud of my seven-year involvement, and my input was
crucial in ways largely forgotten. Michael Mikel and I basically
underwrote the event for years. I just hope you realize that I am
not against the event - I just don't want to get a rattlesnake in
my mailbox! My issues are pretty specific and don't encompass the
entire event; they're more about the mechanics. It used to be all
inclusive. Now the poor hippies and punks go out for three weeks,
work their asses off in the dirt for no pay to build an infrastructure
which serves the rich hippies and punks who drive out in Winnebagos.
Kinda like real life. I understand what a wonderful and powerful
influence the event has had but it has devolved into something more
like what I used to go out to the desert to get away from.
You don't seem
concerned with having your name involved with anything you've done.
I have an ego,
and I've had my different names in print [Sebastian Melmoth, Vito
Lawtoni, Ed Norton, to name a few]. You can't do anything in life
without some ego. No, I'm not selfless, but I don't want it [ego]
to get in the way of doing stuff and collaborating with people.
The nature of what I do is collaborative and San Francisco is full
of people to work with.
Chief among Law's recent
collaborations are Laughing Squid (laughingsquid.com), Scott Beale's
resource for underground arts and culture, and urban explorations
which include infiltrations and costumed role-playing games enacted
in abandoned buildings and structures. San Francisco has virtually
run out of abandoned buildings, but cities such as Detroit, Pittsburgh,
Philadelphia, and New York furnish an endless supply of settings
for Law and a national network of adventurous friends to explore
What's left? What
do you want to do in the future?
I want to keep
going. I don't want to repeat myself. I want to have fun. I want
to keep working with people that I respect and admire. There's no
new idea under the sun, but I like working with younger people who
have their own bent on things, and who are really driven by exploration
and discoveries. I mean I've seen a lot of cool stuff, but I haven't
seen everything. I want to keep working with people who turn me
on - that's my main motivation.
by Maya Nayuk
by Maya Nayuk
by Nicole Rosenthal, 1985
by Nicole Rosenthal, 1985
by Mary Spoerer, 1980
by Maya Nayuk, 1997
A John Law
dozen of his major influences)
1. Sir Richard Francis
One of the greatest explorers
ever. A man who personified the finest and most grand qualities
of the Great British Empire while rejecting (despite great personal
loss) its venal, petty and short-sighted characteristics. The translator
of Arabian Nights, infiltrator of Mecca and Medina, the Holy Cities
of Islam, the real discoverer of the source of the Nile, Sufi doctor,
Mohammedan scholar, lover of hundreds of women (and some say men),
warrior, tactician, pornographer, linguist, statesman, poet, spy,
scholar; one of the first anthropologists, a man who lived life
as though each day were his last; an Englishman who, at the height
of the Empire embraced the dozens of cultures and peoples he moved
among with no judgement or condescension. A giant in a world of
midgets. A true hero.
2. Arthur Machen
A novelist who imbued
most of his work with an unparalleled sense of mysticism inspired
by the ancient and darkly beautiful Welsh forests of his youth.
From the hills of his native Caerleon to the smoke enshrouded, lost
alleyways of Edwardian London, Machen created bejeweled stories
of adventure and mystery. The Three Impostors, The Hill of Dreams,
The Terror and The Secret Glory are some of his best.
3. The Suicide Club
The New Arabian Knights
is a collection of interrelated stories written by Robert Louis
Stevenson during the Banquet Years of the nineteenth century. The
lead story, "The Suicide Club" was the main literary inspiration
for the clandestine club started by Gary Warne and associates in
1977 in San Francisco. "The Suicide Club" is the tale of an insidious
group of London dilettantes who form a club for the express purpose
of killing each other off in order to end their jaded lives with
some panache. Like all truly great stories this one is continually
reinterpreted and applied to current events by new generations of
readers. It could and perhaps should be disinterred once again as
a metaphor and perhaps a template for action for the veritable legion
of creative people currently being displaced in San Francisco.
4. T.E. Lawrence and
These two adventurer/spy/scholar/diplomats
were among the few voices of reason in the viperous quagmire that
Middle East politics was in the teens and twenties (and unfortunately
remains to this day). Lawrence of Arabia's exploits and his championing
of the concept of an independent Arab Nation State are well-known;
Bell, though less famous was no less of an advocate of "home rule"
for the peoples of the Middle East as Imperial Europe continued
to carve up the world at the end of World War I. Both were great
adventurers with a commanding knowledge of their chosen region and
a strong sense of ethics in regard to the native peoples they moved
among and had influence with.
5. Mervyn Peake
Peake was an English
illustrator, novelist and noted anti-fascist of the 1930s and '40s.
His illustrations for the works of R.L. Stevenson are still considered
the best. His novel Titus Groan is, in my opinion, the most beautifully
written story in English. The illustrated Captain Slaughterboard
Drops Anchor has influenced any and all of the great cartoon illustrators
who have come since, from Edward Gorey to Dr. Seuss to Maurice Sendak.
6. Rudyard Kipling
7. H.P. Lovecraft
8. Dr. Seuss
9. Roman Polanski
10. Lon Chaney Sr.
11. The Wild Bunch
12. Texas Chainsaw Massacre
13. Once Upon a Time in the West
instructions on billboard alteration as well as BLF's own adbusting
manifesto and history at www.billboardliberation.com/home.html.
about John Law and Don Herron's forthcoming book The Suicide Club:
Chaos, Cacophony, and Dark Saturnalia www.suicideclub.com.
Take the Dashiell
Hammett Tour with host Don Herron (707/939-1214), or pick up his
book, Literary San Francisco, published by City Lights.
for more information about the Cacophony Society here and around
If you want
more Santarchy stories go to www.santarchy.com.
For a great
source on underground San Francisco arts and culture visit www.laughingsquid.com.
for information and listings about exploring abandoned sites;
launching soon, will list events around the country as well.
Writer and teacher
Mark Beers lives in San Francisco, where he resists e-viction and
nurtures the delusion that he will "make his fortune"
teaching in the new economy.