Kevin Evans, Carrie Galbraith and John Law (eds.)
“Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society”
San Francisco: Last Gasp Press, 2013. 293 pp.
Event Review: Creating Culture from Mayhem: An Evening with Carrie Galbraith, John Law and Chuck Palahniuk, moderated by Brad Weiners.
Castro Theater (an Inform event sponsored by the Commonwealth Club)
September 23, 2013
Written by Mark Van Proyen
The scene: September 23, 7:30 PM at the Castro Theater, which was filled to capacity. It was like a vast reunion of burners anonymous, they being old time Burning Man participants who for various reasons have stopped making the pilgrimage to the annual desert event. One of the happy perks about being an old time burner is the ability to remember what the event was like during the freewheeling 1990s, before rising costs, expanding population and ubiquitous law enforcement presence started to take their toll. In those days (up until 1997), it was something called a Zone Trip, that being a special kind of exploratory event fostered by the San Francisco Cacophony Society, a semi-secret society of inspired pranksters and intrepid psychogeographers who were always up for some creative mayhem. Usually, said mayhem was or is enacted in, upon or near publicly owned space, which according to the group’s unspoken ethos, was best understood as being a kind of playground. You may already be a member goes one of their sayings, and indeed, many have and continue to extend their membership in this group by doing some very remarkable things.
Even though Chuck Palahniuk was the celebrity draw at the obstreperous Castro Theater event, his contribution was muted, consisting mostly in telling stories about the Hollywood adaptation of his 1996 novel Fight Club, and the embarrassing admission that he had worked as a trainer for the Landmark Education Corporation, even going so far to produce a yellow shoe that was somehow to be understood as a trophy for such an activity. Far more eloquent was John Law, a longtime Cacophony organizer whose roots reach all of the way back to the Suicide Club. One of Law’s many memorable quotes from the event was “find out what you are supposed to do, and then do something else.” Word up.
The book under review here is a an exhaustive chronicle of three decades of Cacophony evolution, starting with its precursor organization called The Suicide Club founded by David T. Warren and the late Gary Warne around 1977, taking its name from the title of a trio of Robert Louis Stevenson stories written in 1878. The groups motto was Chaos, Cacophony and Dark Saturnalia, and the group’s early activities were vey much of a piece with some of the Happenings that Allan Kaprow had organized in New York throughout the 1960s. The difference lied in the Suicide Club’s embrace of a daredevil ethos, which was and still is mirrored in the cri de guerre of “seeking experiences beyond the pale of those provided by mainstream society.” Another point of difference lies in the club’s embrace of satire directed at contemporary popular culture. When Warne died of a heart attack at the age of 35 in 1983, there was a lull in the group’s activities, until its remaining members and philosophy mutated into the Cacophony Society in 1986.
Many of the events spawned by the Cacophony Sociery were and still are truly inspired—for example, the founding of the Billboard Liberation Front which is dedicated to the “improvement” of outdoor advertising by highlighting the ways that it traffics in manipulative falsehoods. Another was the infamous “Sewer Tour” of 1992, where a fairly large group of explorers donned formal dinner outfits and navigated Oakland’s storm torm drain system. More famous were the many Santa themed events, which combined alcohol abuse with cheap Santa suits for very special holiday mayhem—the best of which taking place in Portland in 1997. More intimate events included a suicide note writing workshop and my personal favorite—the Thomas Kinkade in a Wilder Light event from 2009, featuring noble attempts to improve reproductions of the painter of light’s painterly pabulum with a dose of sharp-edged sarcasm.
Obviously, culture jamming was not invented by the Cacophony Society, nor will their efforts be the last word in it—just think of the Occupy movement and many of the more imaginative public protests that have taken place across the globe during the past year. But this recognition tells us that there is still some work to be done insofar as linking their activities to kindred precedents such as the London Psychogeographic Society, The Situationists, Fluxus, the Merry Pranksters, Anna Halprin’s San Francisco Dancers Workshop, The Judson Church Dance Theater, Ant Farm, The Survival Research Laboratories and Emperor Norton’s 1859 reign of anarchic silliness in pre-Civil War San Francisco. Obviously, a full account of these connections would extend far beyond the scope of this short article, but we can look to Claire Bishop’s recent book titled Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012) as a good place to start linking these very complicated dots. Bishop has never been a much of a fan of what has been proclaimed as “relational aesthetic” or “social practice art” in the institutional art world, but her book is nonetheless a stunningly thorough piece of research, even though it is skewed toward Europe and away from California. But that much said, she still comes up with a way to understand how the long roster of participatory art movements might be differentiated:
‘As the ground has shifted over the course of the twentieth century, so the identity of participants has been imagined at each historical moment: from a crowd (1910s), to the masses (1920s), to the people (late 1960/ 1970s), to the excluded (1980s), to community (1990s), to today’s volunteers whose participation is continuous with a culture of reality television and social networking…This could be seen as an heroic narrative of the increases activation and agency of the audience, but we might also see it as a story of our ever-increasing subordination to the artists’ will, and of the commodification of human bodies in a service economy (since voluntary participation is also unpaid labour) (Artificial Hells, P. 277).”
Following from this, we can hone in on how the Castro Theater Cacophony Society event address the most recent manifestations of participatory art by way of highlighting their facilitation of intentional communities that refuse to wait for the moment when a museum curator discovers their activities. Their intended audience has never been the artworld, but instead, they spin off from and return to the culture-at-large. This choice leads them to their most inspired interventions, but also leaves room for events that are little more than frat house tomfoolery, exemplified by such things as the annual Idiotrod pub crawl.
Both the book and the event at the Castro conclude on an upbeat note delivered by Master Cacaphonist Stuart Mangrum, who has inaugurated a useful 12 step program for those aspiring to get in on the fun —again, space considerations leave me no choice here but to say that the book provides a detailed explanation of what all of these injunctions might be taken to mean.. Take it away Stuart!:
Step 1. Make The City Your Playground
Step 2. Take A Zone Trip
Step 3. Cultivate Odd Friends
Step 4. Cacophonize Your Closet
Step 5. Make Something
Step 6. Burn Something
Step 7. Read More, Watch Less
Step 8. Become An Niche Expert
Step 9. Make A Spectacle Of Yourself
Step 10. Pull An Epic Prank
Step 11. Expand Your Comfort Zone
Step 12.Leave The World A Weirder Place
For more information visit: “Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society”.