Money to Burn: How the KLF Turned a Pile of Flaming Cash Into a Work of Art
"There are a lot of reasons why and we're still discovering reasons everyday."
That’s Bill Drummond, one half of house group, the K Foundation, searching for meaning in his and partner Jimmy Cauty’s decision to set fire to £1 million of their own money. Like many things in the electronic duo’s brief career in the public spotlight, the act was yet one more act of artistic reinvention, taking them from house music pioneers to avant guard artists with something to say about… something.
One could look at their five year career as a pair of visual artists playing at being pop stars–or maybe a pair of pop stars attempting the reverse–with 1992 being the year of both a professional and very real immolation as Cauty and Drummond turned their backs on house music. It was a career which had a lot to do with provocation, appropriation, and often not making a whole lot of sense, changing their identity as often as their mission statement along the way.
The Justified and Ancients of Mu Mu. The Timelords. The JAMMs. Here in the States, Cauty and Drummond were more popularly known as The KLF during their brief stint near the top of the charts when their album The White Room was released back in 1991. They even spawned a impersonators at the end of the ’90s calling themselves The KLF without Bill and Jimmy’s participation–but who who can say if the original KLF had a hand in the fake KLF?
The flaming money stunt simply made literal what Jimmy and Bill had done two years prior at the February 1992 BRIT awards: an on-stage act that involved firing blank automatic rounds at the audience while performing a thrash metal version of their nominated song, “3 A.M. Eternal.” These antics (along with a dead sheep left at the after party) lead the BRIT producers to refuse Drummond and Cauty their award.
In August of 1994, the KLF name had been retired, and was reborn as the K Foundation, which the pair formed for the “advancement of kreation” according to Cauty in a 2003 interview, with the funds originally being earmarked for struggling artists. However, they both decided that artists were meant to struggle, and Cauty and Drummond decided to use the funds for their next act of art terrorism.
The big money burn on the Scottish island of Jura was the ultimate act of artistic implosion. Or immolation, really. According to Cauty, the million they burned in the fire represented their entire profits from their collaboration as The KLF.
Originally, Cauty and Drummond wanted the money to be used as part of Nailed to the Wall, an art piece featuring the million being, well, literally nailed to the wall at a gallery. But unable to find a venue for the project, Cauty and Drummond struck on the idea of making a spectacle of the money in another way: by shoveling it into a furnace in the middle of nowhere, then attempting to answer for the act on national TV.
“It sort of puts you on the level of other artists,” Cauty would later tell an interviewer. “It shows that you’re willing to f***ing go the whole f***ing way.”
It’s hard to say what the pair was attempting to achieve with this act, though: their stated aims seem to change with each interview and in the years since, they’ve both refused to talk about the burn or the BRIT awards all that much. But it’s a fascinating look at a pair of artists who used every part of their act–from their identity to the money that their work brought them–to communicate with their audience.