The Early Years

Reflections on Interactive Performance

By Larry Harvey

I am in love with this green earth; the face of town and country; the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet security of streets.

– Charles Lamb

 This essay was originally intended to answer a question put to me by Wendy Clupper, a doctoral candidate in the field of performance studies. She wrote, “Can you tell me what performing was like for you the first years on the playa? And what was your role in the 1996 Helco performance — what was it about?” Had she not asked about my personalinvolvement, I might have answered her with greater brevity. Instead, this caused me to reflect upon a chapter in the unheralded history of Burning Man. What follows is a partial account of our early years and the nature of interactive performance.

Our first years of performance represent a dialogue between the town and country. Our urban shows are now almost forgotten. In 1994, Pepe Ozan and I founded the first of these shows in San Francisco’s SOMARTS gallery. Our second effort was entitledThe Odd, the Strange, the Weird, and the Wholly Other. We installed the Burning Man in an upright position beneath the soaring vault of the former foundry’s 4-story high space. We equipped the inside of the figure’s head with a microphone, a speaker and a video camera. These were connected to a microphone, a monitor and headphones discreetly located in a curtained booth near the base of the statue. A rope and pulley fastened to a ceiling beam allowed participants to clamber into a boson’s chair and be raised high overhead by their friends. This, of course, required that they trust these friends. Suspended immediately adjacent to Burning Man’s large triangular face, participants were urged to talk to this authoritative presence and put questions to it. Those who lurked inside the curtained booth below would then supply the answers. Our sound system automatically transformed their voices into a deep basso profundo.

This installation provoked many absurd dialogues — most memorably, an exchange between a participant and Michael Hopkins (popularly known as Flash), my good friend and a veteran of Burning Man’s early days on the beach. “What do I love?” a participant asked the shoji screen face. “Your car!… you… love…your… car”, the Man intoned. Lowered to the floor, she turned to her companions, jumping up and down ecstatically. “I can’t believe what he told me!”, she breathlessly announced. “He told me that I love my car, and I do love my car! I do love my car!” The Man had once again reflected back to a participant what she projected onto it. Over the ensuing years, these urban shows increased in scope. They expanded to fill the entire SOMARTS complex and were eventually used to premiere Burning Man’s annual art theme.

The idea of an art theme derived from our experience of the desert. The simple act of encounter in an immense open space can be compelling. I remember one of my own first experiences with a large-scale work at our event in 1992. The artist, Vince Koloski, had installed a sprawling geometric pictogram upon the ground, mounting it six inches above the playa’s surface. It was composed of neon tubing in contrasting colors. I still recall my fascination as I walked around it in the dark. With each step, it seemed to reconfigure. It felt as if this object answered to my effort, as if my progress through the space were animating it. It soon became apparent that the Black Rock Desert’s stunning vacancy allowed participants to appropriate artworks as an element of their unique experience.

We also began arranging artist’s installations on an axis in space, and this evolved into a very basic interactive strategy. By placing installations in a row and traveling along it, it was possible to evoke drama on a grandiose scale. In 1994, this Avenue of Art, as it came to be called, featured a series of exploding clowns, created by arch-prankster Al Ridenour, known as the Reverend Al, and members of the Los Angeles Cacophony Society. This arrangement of artworks along a single vector, I now realized, could become a mode of narration, a story that unfolded in a spatial sequence.

The idea of producing a coherent story in the desert began in 1995. It was, in fact, a proto-theme, a burlesque performance created by a small group of Burning Man’s organizers. It featured a mock-epochal struggle between the forces of Good and Evil. This took form as a collaboratively scripted wrestling match. We constructed a raised platform surrounded by ropes in the central camp circle, and here the assembled forces of all that was good and all that was bad contended. It was a tag team affair that matched such contestants as Bo Peep (clinging to her inflatable sheep) against Olga, the she-wolf of the SS Elite. Richard Nixon, skillfully impersonated by John Law, was also afforded a turn. At a critical moment, when trapped in what appeared to be a paralyzing hold, he suddenly produced the lost fifteen minutes of White House tape. Uncoiling this, he strangled his opponent. Participants surrounding the stage castigated the referee — played by Ed Holmes, a veteran performer from the San Francisco Mime Troupe — and rabidly urged on their chosen champions. I was selected by our group to play Albert Camus.

At the height of this conflict, I issued out onto the stage, stopped the action, dismissed the wrestlers, and proceeded to explain to the assembled fans that good and evil are illusions. Our planet is a pebble in a void. Continents exist upon its surface like islands of stagnant pond scum. Warming to this bleak description, I evoked an existential vision of an empty and uncaring universe before which any action shrivels to inconsequence. The gathering mob murmured, stirring uneasily; the outraged wrestlers howled. Bounding into the arena, they hoisted the French philosopher overhead and threw him out of the ring. The finale devolved into chaos. It wasn’t clear which side had won.

Back in the city, in 1996, we created a show called Beyond Belief (I reprised this concept on a much larger scale as a part of our desert art theme in 2003). It was staged on Minna Street, an alley near the heart of San Francisco’s financial district. Within the handsome quarters of the Minna Street Gallery, artist Al Honig erected an altar deluxe, a large, gleaming bilaterally symmetric chrome-plated sculpture crowned with cattle horns-part reliquary, part country star Cadillac. Outside in the alley, we staged formal processions. Performers rode a loading lift up from the basement of the building to make their entrances. We’d claimed an urban space; we meant to probe its boundaries.

One of these processions featured COLLAPSINGsilence, a troupe of Butoh dancers. In another, Crimson Rose led a procession in which Will Roger pulled performer Lisa Galli down the narrow street in a kind of dog cart. A sculptor with the body of a long distance runner, Lisa was naked, but entirely covered with clay and apparently pregnant. We’d equipped her belly with a molded rubber brain that throbbed and gleamed, and we distributed brain tokens, small palm-sized plaster castings of the neo-cortex, to everyone in the street. A panel of bewigged ‘church ladies’ sat behind a folding table selling Burning Man votive candles. The paper label on these candles featured the Burning Man logo and a quotation by the philosopher William James. It read “… the practical needs and experiences of religion are sufficiently met by the belief that beyond each man and in a fashion continuous with him there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and to his ideals. All that the facts require is that the power should be both other and larger than our conscious selves. Anything larger will do, if only it be large enough to trust for the next step”. The subtitle of Beyond Belief read, “Balanced on the borderline where what we think is Art meets what we think of as Religion”. I scripted and directed this show and recruited many of its artists.

Later in the same year, we used SOMART’S to present Hell Yes! Hell No! It substituted consumerism for metaphysical evil. This show was designed to be a prelude to a desert art theme. It employed a more ambitious premise and a more elaborate story than the shows that had preceded it. For this performance, we invented HELCO, a corporate colossus styled as a supra-national conglomerate. The public was informed that it had recently acquired Hell as part of a hostile takeover and was now about to merge with Heaven, creating the first cosmically integrated vertical marketing system. A towering throne was erected in the SOMARTS space, and HELCO’s sales representatives, attired in smart red blazers embossed with a corporate logo, swarmed through a reception area at its base.

As part of this sales pitch, we also produced a relentlessly upbeat video infomercial. Scripted by Stuart Mangrum, publisher and editor of Black Rock City’s newspaper, it featured performance artist Hal Robins as HELCO’s genial pitchman. This campaign and these performers had come to SOMARTS to purchase our participant’s souls. The farce, of course, was broad, yet it probed deep. It’s one thing to laugh at the thought that something so old fashioned-sounding as a soul might be acquired through an act of purchase. Many modern comedies have used this plot. However, it is quite another thing to be accosted by a person who earnestly offers to buy it.

Customers were offered contracts closely typed in nine-point font on legal-size sheets of paper. The font grew ever smaller as the text progressed. Entitled “Standard Short Form Contract For Purchase of Soul”, this legal handiwork appeared to cover every possible contingency. It was authored by an old friend of mine, Doug Holloway, an attorney. As a reward for parting with their souls, ‘sellers’ were allowed to ascend the steep stairs of a dark and sinister multi-tiered throne that projected a full three stories overhead. On a stage beneath its summit sat Satan, played by Flash. As part of our satiric scheme, Satan was understood to have lost his position in the midst of corporate reshuffling. No longer CEO of an underworld empire, he now served as a corporate spokesperson. He had become to Hell what Colonel Sanders is to chicken. Cheerfully bearing up in this role, Flash allowed each customer to sit on his lap. He invited them to whisper their most secret wishes and desires in his ear.

After receiving a bright red lollipop, they descended a second set of stairs on the opposite side of the platform. Near the base of these stairs, we stationed the Soul Sucker, a Rube-Godbergesque sculpture by Al Honig. It was purportedly designed to physically suck each soul from its human body (in reality, its seat vibrated) and deposit this commodity in a second and quite beautiful sculpture by Paul Windsor. Entitled The Stupa of Limbo, it was said to function as a kind of spiritual settling tank. (It was a very elegant piece, composed of opened books, lacquered and laid out in tiers surrounding a glass water tank. Later that year, it appeared in the desert.) One important fact that customers were never told was that, according to the terms of HELCO’s contract, the lollipop was their sole payment for their souls. We also left it up to them to realize that this sugared treat was saturated with cinnamon that would burn their tongues.

In conceiving, scripting and helping to produce these shows, my intention was to provoke and seduce an erstwhile audience for art into interacting with what it beheld. I’d learned that humor is a master solvent in this process. And yet, actually selling one’s soul is potentially a very sober proposition -and in our world of mass consumption, it’s undoubtedly a very crucial one. Taking my turn as part of our sales force, I donned a red blazer. At one point in the evening, as a troupe of giant cockroaches scuttled by (eventually, they mated with an angel, and the angel laid an egg), I tried to persuade a blind man to sell me his soul – however, he declined my deal.

He and I were having fun. We both enjoyed our roles. But clearly a real principle was at stake. Looking around me, I saw other people who hesitated. They seemed to tremble at a brink. These were the thoughtful ones, of course, but many others signed the bottom line. Merrily, they tripped upstairs to meet the Evil One. Interactive performance should provoke such reactions. It should amuse and delight. It should entertain and engage. It should startle folks and make them laugh — but it should also strive to make them think and choose. Though this be farce and Dada, it should have a moral backbone.

That year HELCO reappeared in the desert and attempted to buy out Burning Man. I wrote an announcement for our newsletter that introduced the theme and quote from it below.

Welcome to Hell

Through me you enter into the city of woes,
Through me you enter into eternal pain,
Through me you enter the population of loss,
Abandon all hope, you who enter here.
— Dante Alighieri
This year in the Black Rock Desert the Burning Man Project presents The Inferno – a rendering of Hell in our postmodern age. The place we know as Hell has been portrayed in many ways. It is most frequently an after-world, an abode of the dead, and one’s journey through it is a trial or initiation. Our own interpretation is adapted from the Hell of Dante Alighieri as it derives from Hades, the underworld of ancient Greece. Guarded by terrifying monsters – the Furies, Medusa, and Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Hell – it will be a place where every sin and folly of our age is catalogued, held up for public view, and punished… Most fundamentally, throughout successive ages Hell has been a place of banishment. Whatever we wish to cast out of our world or out of ourselves is here destined to reappear and confront us. Unlike Heaven, the home of the perfect, Hell is, and will always be, a supremely ironic place.

On Saturday night we staged a little show in central camp. Flash reprised his role, now known as Papa Satan. He sat stage right upon a throne surrounded by beguiling temptresses. Behind him stood a group of corporate mascots. They represented HELCO’s board of directors. I remember Aunt Jemima, the Jolly Green Giant, and Mr. Klean. Will Roger played Mr. Klean. Clutching a rag and a spray bottle filled with kerosene, he at one point set fire to the stage. Our skit was structured as a kind of fairy tale. Three times I was tempted to sign over the property rights to Burning Man and Black Rock City by HELCO’s attorney, played by Stuart Mangram. Three times I refused and reeled back. Turning toward the audience, pen and contract still in hand, I finally shouted, “I can’t sign this! I don’t own Black Rock City! Burning Man belongs to all of you! You have to decide!” Everyone present, of course, opted not to sell out. Satan was then chained to the back of a truck and trundled off at the head of a procession into the Inferno.

Thousands filed through the Gates of Hell, created by Kal Spelletich. It looked like an array of toll booths on a freeway. Overhead, I’d asked him to emblazon Dante’s famous admonition in neon lettering: “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.” Kal also created Cerberus, the three-headed hound of Hell, an animated fire spewing sculpture made of metal. As participants descended deeper into the Inferno, they passed an installation created by the Reverend Al. Entitled Tinseltown, it modeled the Hollywood Hills, complete with their famous sign. The area fronting this backdrop featured various cut-out movie idols, edgy music intermixed with drifting riffs of dialogue from classic films, and sported my favorite feature, The Incredible Exploding Box Office. It did, in fact, explode, spewing rockets outward toward the audience at angles nearly level with the crowd (we later discussed this with Al).

I also worked with Flynn Mauthe, who built the much-photographed HELCO Tower. Flynn constructed a big box in imitation of a high-rise (this is practically all of the direction that I gave him). He painted it bright red. Overhead it bore the name HELCO in huge illuminated letters (scavenged from a Payless shoe store sign). Its fenestration made it appear to be nearly twice as tall as its actual height. This structure was surrounded by installations, each a parody of some well-known franchise outlet. The HELCO Tower was ignited and, as racing flames began to sheath its sides, a silhouetted human figure now appeared atop it. This was John Law, one of our chief organizers. I had suggested to John that he wear a Santa suit. Instead, he chose to wear a Western duster. John was an experienced daredevil. He waited till the fire threatened to engulf him. Then, leaping into the darkness, the duster flapping like a pair of raven wings behind him, he plummeted down a zip line and crashed through an illuminated screen of neon tubes.

Once HELCO Tower was reduced to seething embers, the crowd continued across the desert, ending its journey at the City of Dis. This installation and performance was created and directed by artist Pepe Ozan. I’d plucked its name from Dante’s Inferno, but Pepe had actually entitled the performance The Arrival of the Empress Zoe. With proper operatic pomp, it enacted the arrival of a soul in Hell. In that year’s theme announcement, I alluded to it as concealing, “…the Ultimate Pit – a hidden and unhealing wound… this chasm is a fountainhead of boundless rage, appalling shame, and unendurable loneliness.”. This is, in fact, a literal rendition of the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, the premier mental illness in our age of mass consumption.

Among the visions I recall from that night are giant mantis-like insects elevated upon stilts. They stalked ominously through the performance area, interacting with the crowd. Another performance I remember involved two men. Naked, bestial, they were chained to the opposite ends of an enormous trunk. They’d carefully rehearsed their dance, a grotesque pas de deux. First one of them would seize his chain and pull the burden toward him, desperately attempting to possess it. His partner then reacted with a counter effort. Their movements were quite stylized and acrobatic. Weaving their bodies over, under and athwart their chains, they spiraled about, tracing a circuit around the central backdrop of the performance, the gothic towers of the City of Dis.

These tall tapering chimneys were coated with mud mined from a privately owned desert hot spring. This clay-like material was then applied to a superstructure of rebar and metal mesh. The result was mesmerizing. Fractally cracked, like the playa, the texture it produced when dried was riven with fissures. When, at the climax of the performance, a fire was ignited within the base of this clustered array, it luridly glowed, as if it were enmeshed by throbbing veins. After several minutes, it collapsed, and with itThe Inferno disappeared.

The following account is a fictional version of that night. I wrote this several weeks in advance of the event, and it appeared in the desert on the front page of the Sunday morning edition of the Black Rock Gazette.