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 Collapsing Silence, 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.