5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Things About John Law

john law

San Francisco artist and culture jammer John Law needs little introduction in the Bay Area. He was involved in the infamous Cacophony Society since its infancy and is cofounder of the world-famous Burning Man festival. He has been a mover and shaker in the Bay Area art scene for over 30 years. He’s also a partner at Laughing Squid.

John has a new book out titled Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, co-authored with Carrie Galbraith and Kevin Evans, covering the 35-year history of the Cacophony Society. In John’s words, the book “includes almost any kind of ‘making’ at some point in the narrative. Cacophony events and many of the related groups covered by our history often included costuming, building sets, machine performance, street theater, elaborate pranks, and any number of other types of making. However, the main making that went on in the Cacophony Society was the making of culture.”

We’re thrilled that John and Carrie will be on Center Stage at Maker Faire Bay Area on Saturday, May 18 at 6 p.m. hosted by Boing Boing’s David Pescovitz. The session is aptly titled “Cacophony on Demand: Making Your Own Culture.”

One project you’re particularly proud of:
1. I am very proud of my amazing co-authors for the beautiful 320-page history called Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society that we made together. I believe this group, The Cacophony Society to be one of the least heralded yet most influential organizations/philosophies of the last 30 years for inspiring regular folks to make their own culture through play. Cacophony informed and inspired much of what was once called the underground.

cacophony society

Two past mistakes you’ve learned the most from:
1. Thinking that everyone else has the same fears as I. I have been most thwarted in my endeavors by making assumptions about what others might know, feel, or think.

2. Part of the philosophy of Cacophony was to “live each day as though it were your last” and to play your string out to the end. If you are involved in any kind of street theater, pranking, or action, I believe that any reactions from others to what you are doing are as equally valid as your actions. In other words, if you are clowning on the street and you get arrested or punched in the nose, you have to take it in stride. The game is life. People can take that pretty seriously.


Three books you think every maker should read:
1. Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society. Our new book is a sort of how-to manual for creating fun, intense, occasionally dangerous and always amateur culture as opposed to merely consuming the “professional” culture designed and manufactured by Madison Avenue and Hollywood.

2. The Monkey Wrench Gang. Edward Abbey’s great tale about how a small cadre of determined freaks can stand up to the corporate behemoths that rule the world. A cautionary tale of sorts — the kind of ideas Abbey presents in this swashbuckling tale are needed now more than ever as the corporate oligarchy continues to absorb all life and crap out more consumer goods daily. A misanthrope vet, a wealthy anarchist surgeon, a quiet, stealthy and very effective Jack Mormon environmentalist, and the female embodiment of wild nature that all three men revolve around are the vivid characters Abbey brings to life in this colorful tale. The Monkey Wrench Gang is credited with inspiring some of the more militant folks in the environmental movement of the last 40 years.

3. The Anarchist Cookbook. Survival, surveillance, avoiding detection, living “off the grid”, how to deal with law enforcement and with dangerous threatening people, how to connect with like-minded folks during rough times, how to make stuff you need out of common items. All this and more in what was once considered the bible for social misfits and those folks who just want to be left alone to live their lives.

1st book signingJohn (far left) and his book co-authors Kevin Evans and Carrie Galbraith signing their brand new book.

Four tools you can’t live without:
I don’t advertise for brand name products usually, so I’ll try to keep the tools generic.

1. My belt-attached multi-tool (crucial). I use this device at least a dozen times each day. If I’m working on something I invariably forget to bring a screwdriver or file or scissors. The multi-tool saves having to walk back to the toolbox, van, or shop to get the right tool. It’s also the perfect field grooming tool.

2. My elastic-band high-intensity LED headlamp. Exactly what you need for clandestine urban climbing or spelunking. Mandatory for keeping your hands free as you work on anything in dark environments. With a colored filter to avoid detection and a variable focus from wide angle down to small shaft.

3. Dual-lens night-vision goggles. An expensive toy to get good ones if you don’t really use them for anything important, but an indispensible tool to serious urban explorers.

4. OK, I gotta name one brand, no way around it: Google Earth. Invaluable tool for scoping terrain in any kind of exploration. I first realized this while looking for a way into a giant abandoned hospital complex somewhere in the Midwest that seemed impenetrable at first survey. Looking over the terrain from the vantage of some unnamed satellite far overhead a few years back astonished me with the awesomeness of its utility and horrified me at the prospects of how such technology would be (and indeed was already being by that time) misused by governments and business.

john law with doggie dinerJohn with the Doggie Diner heads he’s exhibited at Maker Faire in 2007, 2009, and 2010.

Five people/things that have inspired your work:
1. Gary Warne, founder of the San Francisco Suicide Club, chief administrator of free school Communiversity, AnswerMan Newsletter, Gorilla Grotto, etc., SF. RIP 11/83. Gary was hands down the most completely “visionary” person I have ever known. Visionary is a very overworked word these days and one I do not use often. Gary died at 35 in 1983 and was never to analyze and transcribe the particulars of his rich 15 years of creating events and experiences. And that is the only reason you haven’t heard of him before. I hope our book helps to remedy that omission.

2. Val Vale, REsearch Books SF. Body piercing and tattoos on 14-year-old kids in Topeka nowadays? Blame Vale and his books Modern Primitives and Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. The 1990s “zine” revolution that inspired the early internet geeks? Vale gets some of the blame for his books Zines Vol 1 and Zines Vol 2. Crazy kids cutting loose with deranged pranks, street theater, and becoming performance artists instead of functioning, civil members of society? Blame Vale for his book Pranks! Starting with the seminal punk zine Search and Destroy in 1977, Vale was the initial spark for the popularization of so much of the underground, as well as an early and unstoppable advocate for such important writers and cultural figures as William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard, Genesis P-Orridge.

3. Mark Pauline, machine artist, founder Survival Research Labs, SF. Virtually single handedly (no pun intended) Mark Pauline created a new art form: large-scale transgressive machine art. Every junkyard engineering/machine battle/robot competion/exploding myth “reality” TV show for the last 20 years owes a deep curtsy and grateful thank you to Pauline and his merry band of dangerous slumming engineers.

4. Jack Davis, chief administrator of SOMArts Gallery, SF. RIP 9/07. I wrote this about Jack for the Laughing Squid blog when he passed six years ago: In any town, any scene, any time, you can count on the fingers of one hand the largely unheralded folks that facilitate almost everything of note that happens. They are there early on, giving quiet, confident encouragement and, as importantly for starving artists, the occasional big break in event cost or maybe various services provided but somehow unbilled. These two or three princes never expect anything in return other than to watch the blossoming and growth of what they consider to be (and usually are) the most worthy enterprises. Others who “make things happen” — the individuals, deserving or not, who do get the lion’s share of the credit – “you know who they are” – they’re in the papers, on the radio, these folks know who those princes are and always owe them a debt.

Jack Davis was one of those princes. At crucial points in the life of almost any significant San Francisco art endeavor/scene/organization (underground or established) Jack has, in some capacity, small or gigantic, been pivotal in its life and growth. As director of SOMArts Gallery in SOMA for the last 20 years, Jack gave untold thousands of nascent artists, community groups, and provocateurs their first big or pivotal show and a grand forum for promulgating their ideas and spirit in the local scene.

5. Dale Dougherty, founder of MAKE and chief inspiration for the Maker Movement. He’s had some help and luck, for sure: great colleagues, the right time for a hands-on populist movement, financial backing — but without Dale’s vision and faith you wouldn’t be here and your little kid might NEVER get excited about making something! Go to one of the many Maker Faires around the world and look around at what is going on. ‘Nuff said.

JL in Norwich Insane Asylum Theater copyJohn in the Norwich Insane Asylum Theater. Photo by Julia Solis.

4 thoughts on “5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Things About John Law

  1. Kristian Akseth says:

    Can’t wait for this talk. Now let’s go climb something. Que Viva Cacophony!

  2. John Law says:

    Talk about foot in the mouth! I just looked at the Anarchist Cookbook again – hmmmm maybe not so much. It made a hell of an impression on me when I was 15!!!
    I think I’ll have to replace it with something a little more staid, like Research Pranks! !

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at snowgoli@gmail.com or via @snowgoli.

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