Burning A Million Quid

In the middle of the night of the 23rd of August 1994 the K Foundation burnt a million pounds in an abandoned boathouse on Jura (near the village of Ardfin if you want to make a pilgrimage). It took just over an hour for Cauty and Drummond to pile the wads onto the flames, while Gimpo filmed it, and freelance journalist Jim Reid witnessed it. The whole story is told by Reid in an article called ‘Money To Burn’ from GQ magazine. Reid admits to feeling at first guilt, then boredom while watching the money burn. In the Omnibus documentary, the K-F’s bank confirmed that a million pounds in cash had been withdrawn (intriguingly, the pictured statement also shows a credit transfer of £1,300,000 going into the Foundation’s account just a few days later!!!), and picked up by a private security firm who also confirmed the amount. Some of the notes remained unburned, were washed out to sea when the tide came in, and were later found by a Jura resident on a beach. He handed £1,500 into the police who traced the serial numbers and confirmed with Drummond that they were his and that he didn’t want them back.

Some ashes (valued in the Omnibus documentary at between £800 to £81,000!) were brought back from Jura, and kept in a suitcase, until Bill and Jimmy asked Chesham brickmaker James Matthews (age 23) to make them into a brick. Bill said the reason for the request would be revealed in 23 years.

The Brick made from the ashes of the money burned by The K Foundation

The film “Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid” was shown to nearly half the population of Jura on the 23rd of August 1995. Unfortunately it was very badly filmed (on Super 8) and all the dialogue is almost intelligible.

But why on earth did they do it?

For the first six months of 1994 the K-F tried to get their art exhibition (which consisted of over a million pounds in actual bank notes) staged. The most likely gallery was the Tate in Liverpool, where Jayne Casey from Big In Japan now worked. Unfortunately it didn’t come off so they had to consider other options. They thought about taking the exhibition across Russia by train, but the cost of insuring a million pounds against robbery by the armed gangs that roam across the Steppes, was too high. They decided that the money was a millstone around their necks, that depressed them. They decided they would have to really burn the money.

They couldn’t decide whether to make the burning public or not. They thought of putting a picture of ‘Nailed to the Wall’ with a flame-thrower beside it, on a billboard in London. A week later the picture would have changed to ashes. Eventually Drummond decided that ‘the shock value will spoil it really. Because it doesn’t want to be a shocking thing; it just wants to be a fire’. However they still took a journalist along to witness it. They thought it was important that the public had faith that they did do it, so they (said they had) destroyed the video evidence.

All through their career the concept of burning a million pounds comes up. When they deleted their back catalogue it was described as being the equivalent of burning millions of pounds. They threatened to burn the K Foundation Art Award prize money (Gimpo was fumbling with matches and lighter fluid when at the last moment Rachel Whiteread accepted the prize). And in the 7th K-F press advert they stated “What would you do with a million pounds? Burn it?”

Also they had made the decision that the money was not theirs, it was the K-F’s. It had to be used for a K-F project, and couldn’t be given to anyone else. The money burning is in effect a massive, and very expensive, publicity stunt so that Drummond and Cauty can go down in history as the men who burnt a million pounds. It is supposed to make you think about money, and its relationship with art. Really what is the difference between spending money on useless objects or publicity, and making the actual loss of the money the publicity? No one castigates Cher for spending her millions on 12 mansions world-wide and not giving them to charity. Why attack the K-F for spending their million and not giving it to charity? Bill once said in a letter to Nick: “…we could have gone and put the money to some publicly acceptable good use (The starving millions, cancer research, Greenpeace; take your pick), but no, we chose to burn it. Why?… What is the appeal?”

If they have introduced an important debate about the nature of money, art and fame, then the money might have been used wisely. It’s not even true that they are fools who have lost their money, as by having “he burnt a million pounds” on their CV’s they will be interesting to the media for the rest of their lives, and able to make it back easily. Just like the first line in every biography and obituary of Divine was “he once ate dog shit on film” the names of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty will always be followed by “the men who burnt a million pounds”. Bill also said, in 1996, that someone once told him, (after seeing the video for Earth Song), that the reason the K Foundation burned it is because they knew they would never be as good as Michael Jackson.

In March 1997, after some years consideration, Bill explained:

One night an audience was asked: is there anyone here that would’ve liked to do this or thought about this? And people put up their hands. That became a regular thing and it would be about ten per cent [of the audience], so ten per cent of the population …or ten per cent of the people who came to see this film! [Drummond laughs uproariously] Or maybe they were just trying to endear themselves to us- but it was a real thing. We realised that it wasn’t like we were so different or so special or so far-out or so fucking fucked-up; we just happened to have a million lying around…Bill Drummond (The Wire, Mar 1997)