Disrupting Santa: John Law

INTERVIEW. Disruption Network Lab presents its last conference of the year: "Stunts" on Dec 12, 16:30 at Kunstquartier Bethanien. Keynote speaker and Burning Man/SantaCon co-founder John Law knows a thing or two about punking the system.

Image for Disrupting Santa: John Law
A collaboration between Jack Napier (John Law) of San Francisco’s Cacophony-related Billboard Liberation Front and New York billboard artist Ron English. Photo by Scott Beale

Disruption Network Labs presents one final conference for 2015: “Stunts”. Focussing on political stunts, interventions, pranks and viralities, get ready for a day all about punking the system that should be as fun as it is heady. Keynote speaker John Law, co-founder of the infamous Burning Man festival in Nevada and one of the original minds behind SantaCon, where Santas run wild through various cities, kicks off the day drawing from his experience as an artist, “culture-jammer” and member of anarchic prankster group Cacophony Society. He’ll join other speakers, including former Anonymous/Lulzsec hacker Mustafa Al-Bassam on Saturday, December 12 at 4:30pm at Kunstquartier Bethanien.

There’s clearly a sense of humour behind your stunts – SantaCon, for example. Where does something like that come from?

That idea was based on a Danish prank in which a hardcore political group went into shopping malls on Christmas and a bunch of them dressed as Santas and started handing out merchandise to children, saying, “Here, child, Santa wants you to have this present.” They refused to stop, and eventually the police came, took the presents from the children and beat the Santas up. Now you can imagine that those grown-up 40-year-old children from the department store still have that memory [laughs]. It was a very effective political prank. Personally, I had become disillusioned with Santa at the age of nine, when I realised it was all a lie. When children realise that Santa is a lie, they don’t talk about it anymore. It’s just agreed upon to not talk about it. To me, that’s the beginning of a child’s turn to middle-class hypocrisy. Santa was made by corporations based on this cobbling together of various myths, and with the idea of SantaCon I thought, wow, what a great idea! We can take this holiday back and make it something real and fun.

Can you explain the background of the Cacophony Society?

It came out of an earlier group called the San Francisco Suicide Club. It was a group of urban adventurers, pranksters, and street theatre performers . The main thing is that it was not organized around money. Cacophony started a few years after the Suicide Club ended [in 1983]. Anyone could join, and people were expected and encouraged to create their own events. The point was for them to challenge their fears. Because, often, fears that people have are about things that they don’t know much about – and many times the fears are unfounded.

We had an event many, many years ago where we got naked on a cable car. I was mortified of the concept of being in a group of people for this prank – on a big tourist attraction in San Francisco. And then when we finally did it, it was an overwhelming relief and I realised that nobody really cared that much that all these idiots were on a cable car naked.

You also co-founded Burning Man. It’s quite commercial now, isn’t it?

Oh, Burning Man is a very successful business [laughs]. It’s a very different thing from when I was involved in it – I left in 1996. They sell this idea of “free” as a product. It’s a great product, people pay the money and for many it’s the first time that they have sex on drugs. And some artists go and actually get some money for doing very creative things. That event – I have very mixed feelings about it. Very mixed feelings.

Working on any stunts now?

Well – I’m not a primary creative force anymore, but I’m involved in a lot of things. Since the 1990s, I’ve been part of a group going to Detroit. We ended up buying some property there and now we have kind of a loose-knit confederation of home-owners and artists. We have eight or nine houses on the same block in a neighbourhood that’s slowly being revitalised. It is abolutely not a commune. It’s much more of an American ideal wherein we agree upon certain principles.

I’m inspired by other people, I don’t believe in a supernatural world. I believe that we are here to share our time with other humans – to create things together and experience things together. And for me, meeting and learning from new humans is an incredible inspiration. If you have the ability to have a creative life, take that energy and do something creative with other people.

Disruption Network Labs: Stunts Dec 12, 16:30 | Kunstquartier Bethanien, Studio 1, Mariannenplatz 2, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Kottbusser Tor. After-conference, 22:00 | Spektrum Bürknerstr. 12, Kreuzberg U-Bhf Schönleinstr.