Burning Man, Santacon, the Brides of March, Improv Everywhere: Whether you know it or not, all of these cultural institutions are, indirectly or directly, part of the legacy left by the three-decade-old, underground, free-form collective of pranksters, anti-consumerists, urban explorers, Dadaists, and culture jammers known as the SF Cacophany Society. The society's recreational "fight club" even helped spawn the novel (and movie) of the same name; author Chuck Palahniuk was a member of the Portland chapter of Cacophony.
And tonight, Palahniuk is sitting down at The Castro Theater with John Law and Carrie Galbraith—two of SF Cacophony's first members and the co-authors of the recent book Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, for which Palahniuk wrote the foreword. To top it all off, their discussion will be mediated by Bloomberg Businessweek's Executive Editor Brad Wieners, who, as a young journalist, covered the group back in the day and is still a good friend of Law.
We spoke with Law, Galbraith, and Palahniuk and asked them to share their thoughts on Cacophony.
On Cacophony's Role in Society
Law: It's about creating your own culture, creating your own play, and not about making a profit, which is really important in a culture that's commodifying so much. It's about doing stuff you're not supposed to do. Fiddling with your environment, but not being an asshole. You can do it with class and confederated responsibility.
Palahniuk: These seeming lunatics are the social scientists who invent the institutions of the future. What they do looks like "play" but it's a laboratory for finding new social models that people enjoy.
Galbraith: Cacophony gave me a venue for exploration. We're being sold this entertainment, so why can't we make our own? I have this infinitive imagination, and can take all these ideas from film and literature and put them into action. I took my grandmother's turn of the century china out to the desert and we had tea at 4 p.m. every day. We sat with people covered in mud drinking from these cups.
On Some of Their Most Memorable Experiences
Law: The most frightening thing I did was get naked on a cable car. I was raised with a prim middle class background. You just didn't do that. And here I was with a group of people that were supportive. If you're alone you're nuts. If you're with thirty people it's a prank. And people didn't really care. They didn't notice. It was a turning point for me.
Palahniuk: It's hard to beat being locked into the back of a truck and driven for miles to an undisclosed location late at night.
On Burning Man
Law: Burning Man used to be a small event. At the beginning it was a completely free, temporary autonomous zone. There weren't a lot of rules. and there was a lot of mobility. It was a group of people who you wouldn't think were joiners coming together. The word community gives me a pain. I prefer a confederation or people that chose to be together for a period of time. It's what Burning Man used to be—a split away from the controllers who control things. Now it's a large Disneyland for naked attorneys on ecstasy. It doesn't have the same amount of radical freedom.
Palahniuk: The purpose of Cacophony Society and other "fringe" groups is to experiment and discover new social models that people enjoy. With Burning Man and Santacon they've succeeded beautifully. They've created new institutions. Those particular experiments were huge successes. The idea is to launch events that other people will readily embrace and adopt.
Galbraith: The Zone concept [the original idea that eventually turned into Burning Man] grew out of my own personal fascination with Eastern European soviet literature and books like Roadside Picnic and its movie Stalker. I was reading Gravity's Rainbow at the time and it's all about zones, about the last two weeks after WWII ended and characters slipping through the different zones. It's about creating a space that suspends reality as you enter it—physical or metaphysical. All bets are off. Getting from A to Z may not happen through C and D. You may not get to your destination and you may not want to. I just told people to meet at my house at 11 a.m. on Friday and we'd be back at 11 a.m. on Sunday. No details. We drew a line on the astroturf and stepped over and all bets were off. And I was with total strangers. It was fantastic. I'm still in touch with some those people.
On the Billboard Liberation Front, a Cacophany offshoot that changes and parodies the messages on billboards by altering the letters:
Law: It's about improving advertising, speaking back to giant corporations that jam advertising down your throat whether you like it or not. Everyone should have their own billboard. It's not about tagging or painting your name. BLF went to elaborate efforts to change the message and left instructions for the sign workers on how to return the sign to its original version, as well as a six-pack for the sign workers. Later on that turned into a twelve-pack of the good stuff and then eventually a fifteen-year-old bottle of single malt scotch. You can do stuff you're not supposed to do, fiddle with your environment, but you don't have to be an asshole.
On Fight Club
Law: He took stuff that he was living and turned it into the book. That novel speaks so directly to a transitional period in our society. It's about kids without fathers, boys without fathers, without role models. How do you define yourself? Who do you model yourself after? I think it's one of the most important books—a touchstone in our cultural time, like On the Road by Jack Kerouac.
Palahniuk: The Cacophony Society inspired my vision of Project Mayhem, so if my work inspires more playful acting out that seems only natural.
On Continuing to Participate in Underground Groups
Law: I'm part of two secret groups now. They're findable but you have to search for them. You have to want to.
Palahniuk: Underground groups are the ONLY groups I participate in. Now I crave anonymity.
Galbraith: I prank quite a bit, with myself and other people. It doesn't get out of your blood. It's there. It's hardwired into you. I know how to get into buildings without breaking and entering. I learned how to do that. It's a different way of thinking. You look at the world different, see the world with different eyes, after experiencing it so viscerally.
On the book, Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society
Law: Our book ties together so many items in history that many people don't know about. Cacophony Society is a thing of the past. The book is kind of a textbook, and a how-to to create a culture.
Palahniuk: It's a beautiful book and I'm relieved that someone has documented this marginal group that would likely never get acknowledged by the mainstream. But it saddens me, too. Once something so vibrant becomes a book—even a beautifully produced book—the party is over. It's like getting your senior annual at high school graduation. Sad and sweet.
Tonight's event, put on by Commonwealth Club's Inforum program, will also include bartending robots, a blessing from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, "Hugging Machines" and more—like (I'm hoping) a prank?
Unfortunately, general admission for the event is sold out. But you can still snag premium tickets here.
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