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Piss Clear: Do you feel that the Pershing County sheriff's request of Jiffy Lube to remove the 'Men in Action' artwork constituted an act of art censorship and/or homophobia? Was it wrong?

Larry Harvey: I think it was an act of censorship, and I also think they had a right to do it. They were applying their 'prevailing community standards' - not ours - and their's is the compelling legal jurisdiction. But I doubt that this was particularly homophobic. As I mentioned in my essay in the Afterburn report, I'm informed they also asked a group (I'm not sure who) that was projecting heterosexual porn on a large screen on the Esplanade to tone it down, and I'm told this group switched to soft porn.

I would suppose that the issue for local law enforcement was the exposure of children to pornography in a openly public setting. Stories circulating at the time about a policeman calling someone in the camp 'a faggot' and reaching for his gun are completely unsubstantiated. It appears they were concocted by the firebrand (editor's note: Bradley Jordan) who led the protest, and he has lied about a number of other things. Indeed, the sheriff was willing to sit down with camp members to negotiate a compromise solution, and the police ignored activity within the camp entirely. We could find no case for any sinister agenda.

One also has to consider the position of the police. Had any officer been photographed next to the offending sign, this could have easily become a political issue within the county, and the sheriff, of course, is an elected official. However you slice it, the laws of the county were being violated. They have chosen to tolerate nudity, but kids and porn combined remain a hot button issue.

PC: Does the Burning Man organization feel somewhat at the mercy of county law officials in situations such as this? It seems to me that if you made a stink about the 'Jiffy Lube incident,' you would have run the risk of being shut down. So in a way, your hands are tied. Even if you don't agree with them, you have to go along, in order to ensure the survival of Burning Man. Would you agree with this assessment?

LH: Yes, I would agree with this assessment. We've reached many reasonable accommodations with the county about a lot of things. They have actually ceded us a remarkable degree of autonomy and refer to our event as a city. This is real community, and we've worked hard to gain their trust and respect. But they do have a legal right here to assert their own community's standards.

The compromise arrived at was that Jiffy Lube move the sign into the confines of their camp, and this was agreed to by all parties. The Rangers merely mediated this discussion. The only person to ignore this agreement, which actually allowed them to stage a public political protest, was the guy who hauled the sign over to First Camp and demanded my presence. He did this while denouncing me and the other organizers as homophobes. I told the crowd that the viability of our event was endangered, since the Jiffy Lube folks were in violation of an agreement they had already consented to and this would be perceived as breach of trust. The irate leader of this group could, on the other hand, have proceeded directly to the police compound and proceeded to be arrested, but he chose not to do so. Having talked with him for at least an hour afterwards, I am convinced he was looking for publicity and that vilifying us was the shortest and safest way for him to accomplish this.

Someone I know -- let's call him 'Deep Throat' -- ran into one of the principles of Jiffy Lube in New York City, and apparently had an enlightening conversation over several drinks. The story goes like this: the firebrand who provoked all of this was not well-known to the other campers and, in the course of making his opinions known, smacked J.D., the sign's owner and a longtime participant, in the face. This guy was both a newbie and a bully and said later that all Burning Man was about was, 'sex, sex and more sex'. This is particularly ironic, inasmuch as he couldn't seem to get laid. The guy had serious problems. My source in New York opined that, if he'd known it would come to that, he would have given him a blow job. Personally, I detest most ideology, since many conflicts such as this reduce down to just such pathetic facts as this. Politics and bad sex, I've noticed, are frequent bedfellows.

PC: Do you think you handled the situation fairly last year?

LH: As attested to in my Afterburn reply, I really think we did. Everybody, including both the authorities and the Jiffy Lube camp members bent over backward to come up with some reasonable accommodation. It reduces down to the rage of one person.

J.D. is an old friend, and I talked to him afterwards back in San Francisco. He was pretty embarrassed by the entire episode. He asked me if the Project wanted to store the sign and I suggested, since he was building an addition to his house, that he display it there. He said he'd really rather not, and I told him that I'd always admired his taste (I couldn't resist saying this). We're fine with him and Jiffy Lube. In fact, we even had plans to display the sign at our Decompression party, but they didn't manage to deliver it. But we would have put it in the courtyard at the club, not on the street. Show me any municipality in America that would do otherwise. I don't suppose we can expect Pershing County in rural Nevada to exceed the standards of San Francisco.

PC: Many people are still upset over the 'Jiffy Lube incident,' and are planning more provoking artworks for this year. Do you foresee more 'art censorship' on the part of the sheriff? If so, how do you plan to deal with it.

LH: I would suggest that anyone who really wants to be a martyr for the right to display pornographic signs proceed directly to the police compound and present themselves for arrest and get it over with. They will be in clear violation of state and county law and should be prepared to get a good lawyer. Black Rock City has no soverign power to protect them. Part of the irony, of course, is in calling the sign 'art.' The joke used to be that the difference between pornography and art is lighting. In the case of the Jiffy Lube sign, I don't think even J.D. would include the bright pink figures depicted in the category of 'art.' He certainly didn't want it in his living room.

Let's be real. It was displayed at an intersection that the police had to drive by every day on their way to and from their headquarters. At any time they might have been photographed in front of it. This 'art' was also located very close to Kid's Camp. I don't have a problem with that, but the police very obviously did and it is their county, as I've said. I think context meant a lot in this situation.

PC: Were you aware that a sign very similar to the Jiffy Lube piece was prominently displayed at Daddy Love's in Center Camp in 1995? And no one thought twice about it. What do you think it says about the way Black Rock City has changed that six years later, the sheriff wants something similar removed from public view? If it wasn't a problem in 1995, why would it be in 2001?

LH: I believe that was Kal's piece, and it was nice. Homoerotic art is fine with me, but I think, given the importance of context, that it might be advisable to make it more artistic, not a red flag placed purposely in the face of the authorities. People, of course are free to do anything they want, but given what we know, I think it would be disingenuous to whine about obvious consequences. I also think the open playa would be more appropriate than a neighborhood in town. People might also profit from the example of Bianca's. They discovered that a fun erotic club quickly went south after word got out. What had been a sexy pajama party featuring grilled cheese sandwiches turned into a kind of sleazy Tenderloin parlor. They moved to a more discreet location. Maybe folks should use a little common sense. Taste can be everything.

If people are determined to sacrifice themselves on the altar of Nevada law, they're undoubtedly free to do so, but does anyone actually think that this will change the hearts or minds of anyone? Enlightenment can take time, and I'm not sure that large raunchy signs are a good instrument for spreading enlightenment. A little more light in this instance would help, and a little less heat. If someone were really serious about affecting attitudes, I think it would be much more effective to create a camp that allowed parents, children, gays, lesbians, transexuals, and whoever else to learn something about what they could and should have in common (we've already made a lot of progress with crossdressing). This would really be radical, but I'm afraid it would require a good deal more creativity than was evidenced by a big, bright, pink (oh so pink) sign.

2002 Piss Clear
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