by Whatsblem the Pro
As our regular readers will recall, Whatsblem the Pro attended the shenanigans at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, where Chicken John Rinaldi’s Institute of Possibility staged an unauthorized guerrilla book signing to celebrate the release of TALES OF THE SAN FRANCISCO CACOPHONY SOCIETY.
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THE ART OF BLEEDING is Al Ridenour’s brainchild, a dark and surreal parody of elementary school health and safety assemblies. The troupe’s videos and live shows blend a profound sense of innocence with a grimy, paranoiac’s awareness of the Great Darkness of existence, drizzle it with burlesque, and wrap it all up in pubescent body shame and the aesthetics of a medical appliance fetishist. Featuring characters like Abram the Safety Ape, RT the Robot Teacher, a bevy of tantalizing nurses who will apparently do ANYTHING for art’s sake, and sometimes Kim Fowley, the Art of Bleeding puts on jaw-droppingly original shows that often test one’s fortitude even as they entertain and enlighten.
Ridenour is notorious as an old-school member and sometimes leader of the Cacophony Society who, for a time, successfully transplanted the beating heart of that august body into the shambling corpse we call Los Angeles. I had the pleasure of speaking with him backstage at the Castro Theater on May 31st, 2013.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Who are you people, what the hell do you think you’re doing, and for God’s sake, why?
AL RIDENOUR: After the LA Cacophony Society burned down in the early 2000s, there were a number of us wandering in a daze, picking at scabs, squinting at reflective surfaces, or straining to make out messages broadcast from our dental fillings. There was much confusion. The desires were still there; we merely lost the structure for effectively processing said impulses. One of the few Cacophony events that survived outside that old, ambitious regimen of two to five monthly events, regular newsletters, planning meetings, and all that, was the Museum of Mental Decay. This was our semi-beloved/feared version of a Halloween haunted house, or as we liked to call it, “a walking tour of a diseased soul.” It was a grotesque living tableau ranging from derelicts gathered around a dumpster trying to sell passersby buckets full of human hair, a Catholic abortion clinic, a clown version of Abu Ghraib, and the like. In particular this was an event that showcased LA Cacophony’s love of horrifying theatrical spectacle. Some serious stagecraft and marvelous performances actually went into this event, and I mention it here because I feel like Cacophony’s vitality in LA was largely due to the city being a magnet for people with creative aspirations. Once those dreams were crushed by the film industry or associated fields of commercialized ‘creativity,’ Cacophony offered an outlet both for their creativity and their newfound misanthropy. Most of the members of the Art of Bleeding were involved with the Cacophony Society, and the Art of Bleeding is sort of a year-round Halloween show, with theatrical manner of presentation and preoccupation with grisly medical scenarios or repellent psychological realities.
The exact form that the Art of Bleeding took was largely dictated by my hunt for a truck. In searching the Recycler for used trucks, I stumbled upon an ambulance, and pretty soon my more utilitarian notions of having a pickup that could transport lumber and thrift store furniture began to drift toward art cars. The ambulance I found seemed particularly suited for an interesting interior display with all those compartments that seemed perfect for miniature dioramas. I began imagining a sort of mobile “museum.” By the time I was recording audio tracks for the individual dioramas and designing a costume look for the museum guide, I realized my ambitions were spilling beyond anything that could be contained inside the vehicle. It just grew and grew in fitful bloody spurts, and once my wife gave me a gorilla suit as a birthday present, the idea of a gorilla as a sort of educational kiddy show host for a kid’s show dealing in distasteful subjects just captivated me.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: When you strip away all the trappings of elementary school health and safety assemblies, what are the real lessons that Art of Bleeding might impart to us?
AL RIDENOUR: Actually, if I would ascribe any seriously satiric intent to the whole mess, the target would in fact, have to do with education. Nothing to do with safety, really, but with socialization, and the notion of inculcating values and such. Even before this thing had taken a solid or at least semi-solid gelatinous current form, I spent quite a while agonizing over the name. There is a subtle (and admittedly failed) joke there, in that bleeding – being a completely autonomous bodily function – can hardly be an art. There is no artifice, craft, or purpose involved when you cut your arm and it begins spurting. So there was a joke there about the absurdity of imposing or pretending there is purpose and intent where there really is none. That’s all very abstract, but if I think back to when I was a kid in school, there are particular experiences that might make it more tangible.
I grew up in the 1970s, when our culture at large was coming to terms with issues of cultural pluralism and philosophical relativism. Maybe our educators were particularly awkward at this cultural stage in conveying these ideas, but I remember sitting in classes where the topic might be “values clarification.” Though it was presented in gentlest and utterly pedantic manner, this relativism was really the sort of gentle grade-school trickle-down version of the screaming meaningless void that existential philosophers had confronted decades before. How could a teacher, an authority figure positioned by centuries of tradition in a classroom, an educational system, and a nested series of sociological and culture structures presume to tell me that my ethical choices are as utterly subjective as my choice of a favorite color? If we are all just merely choosing arbitrary colors, why are we not just having art time instead of sociology? Why can’t we just be painting with our favorite colors? Or why can’t we just paint the room in the teacher’s blood?
To me the dishonest and oxymoronic “everyone is special” philosophy behind a show like Sesame Street is much more sinisterly insidious than anything produced in the 1950s. There is such a profound laziness in that sort of thought, and it’s particularly well exemplified by the daffy mix-and-match laziness of New Age thought. So, the Art of Bleeding is probably more of a parody of that than anything else. The principle of “True Safety Consciousness” at the core of the Art of Bleeding mindfuck is not about a cautious distinction between ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe,’ but more of a New Age epiphany and experience of the boundlessness of The One.
Anyway, It’s not apparent to everyone, at first, but there was a taste of it in the show at the Castro with the robot’s psychobabble about the disfigured Dr. Sunshine representing the female counterpart to the robot’s masculine presence as part of “psychic unity.” There’s always that sort of nonsense in our shows, and of course there’s generally a 1970s feel to the old educational films I tend to remix for the shows. So, the idea of overlaying an ineffable experience with bunch of pedantic, faux-philosophical chatter is, in that way, like presenting the raw experience of bleeding as an artistic and thoughtful craft.
But that’s all a bit heavy, so I added the nurse T&A. That’s what most people remember anyway.
For those who like their satire more old-fashioned, I’ve also gone after more antiquated value systems with stuff like my coloring book, Crayons for Jesus, and countless churchy Cacophony events associated with my nom de guerre, “Reverend Al.”
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: You’re already in Los Angeles. Why don’t you have a show on Adult Swim or something? Is Hollywood too stupid and slow to pay heed to the Art of Bleeding, or is the Art of Bleeding too canny and agile to be co-opted and cheapened by the meddling ministrations of entertainment industry fools? What does the future hold for the Art of Bleeding?
AL RIDENOUR: I have not pursued that, namely because I am very bad at marketing. I would so much rather be making the shows than shopping them around. I’d even rather be making shows than presenting them, and for that reason there are even a few Art of Bleeding shows that have only been presented one or two times. But I’ve always been a fan of what’s presented on Adult Swim, and in particular, I’m a huge admirer of Tim and Eric. They also presented a brief run of a British show called Look Around You, which was much less franticly amusing than Tim and Eric, but brilliant, and eerily close in subject matter to what we do, i.e., a direct parody of educational films of the 1970s and early ‘80s. While we’re at it, a tip of the hat to Wonder Showzen, a PBS kid’s show parody that went to vicious extremes in its satire. Both Wonder Showzen and Look Around You I only discovered once I was well underway with the Art of Bleeding.
Lately, I’ve been moving the Art of Bleeding more toward video production than live shows, not that I ever want to give up the live shows, but it’s so nice to shoot video with the ability to get things exactly the way you want them. I worked ten years in computer animation, and have found myself finally able to go back and enjoy this kind of work again, now that I’m not getting paid. I guess I’ve just never associated making money with doing what you love. That may be a problem too.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: How did you first get involved with Cacophony? What are your fondest memories of participating in the Society and other, similar groups? What does Cacophony mean to you?
AL RIDENOUR: It’s nice to say that it began with a prank. . . on me. It’s not entirely true, but true enough in a pretty, poetic way. Basically, the Cacophony Society has always been pretty wily in defining itself. It’s kind of an absurd concept to begin with – an insider’s club for self-identified outsiders – and then there’s that paradoxical slogan, “you may already be a member.” So, I suppose I was a member all my life, but became more aware of it back in 1990 when I began seeing these flyers around town announcing that the Cacophony Society “is everywhere.” They’d been distributed by the always enigmatic M2 (one of his more permanent Cacophony aliases, though to the Burners, he would be better known as Danger Ranger). M2 was down from SF working temporarily on some consulting job (for the LA Department of Transportation or something like that) and was eager to sow the seeds of Cacophony down here after having made a “Zone Trip” or two down here with his Society comrades. A “Zone Trip” was what they called Cacophony outings up there when they involved some sort of geographic travel, as with the infamous Zone Trip #4 to the Black Rock Desert. There will always be some confusion with Hakim Bey’s concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone because both notions arose at about the same time and both involve experience of a highly subjective alternate reality, or one of one’s own choosing.
In any case, M2’s flyers announced some semi-fictitious events, which I never attended, and I suppose it’s this sort of shifting sand involved in our foundational myth, but I never attended these. Eventually I managed to contact M2 through the post office box listed on the flyer, and we planned our first collaborative event, an infiltration of the UFO Expo West, where we posed as representatives of “the Brotherhood of Magnetic Light.” It was for that event I chose my alias of “Reverend Al,” as it fell to me to preside as spiritual Poobah over a ritual cleansing of the “saucer landing site” advertised in the literature we distributed. M2 attended to constructing the mylar/candles/dry-cleaning bag construction that served as a saucer. I screamed and ranted to confused onlookers about the coming New Age, and vodka and fireworks were involved.
Many of my favorite Cacophony memories are a bit smudgy with booze and smoke and the glare of fireworks. It would be hard to recall as well as pick a favorite, but I do have exceedingly fond memories of a particular moment at a particular event involving the disinterment and planned resurrection of a mummified dead stripper, Bubbles La Blanche, buried in my backyard. The mummy I had so carefully constructed is still proudly displayed in my home, near a prize black velvet painting I discovered on a trip to Ensenada. The painting I had purchased years before the event, and it had always been one of my most cherished oddities as it featured a skull-faced Mona Lisa holding a skeletal fetus. It was not the work of some ironic hipster in LA, but an even more mysterious black velvet surrealist of Ensenada. No one who saw it failed to be impressed. . . but the night we dug up Bubbles La Blanche, the picture got knocked from the wall and the velvet was torn. It was at the end of the evening, and the Cramps were blasting on my stereo, and people dancing on Bubbles’ coffin had knocked the painting from the wall. The coffin had also been damaged, and dragged inside by partygoers not aware of or indifferent to the crickets that I had hidden in the coffin before burying it hours before the party. The crickets were everywhere, the coffin was damaged, and my favorite piece of art torn. But I remember laughing that night, and it still gives me pleasure to see that tear in the velvet. Things break, and it was not only fine, but amusing.
Now Cacophony is eager to preserve what it can of its legacy with the museum show, the documentary, and the new book, and I understand that side of the life cycle too, but it was nice back when we were all wild tadpoles.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: What did you think of the show at the Castro Theater last weekend?
AL RIDENOUR: It was really a dream show for us. To be surrounded by all that talent, and people I’d admired for years. I was such a huge fan of the Church of the SubGenius and vividly recall shuddering with baffled delight as I flicked the pages of that first book back in 1983. Having our videos on the giant screen was particularly satisfying. But I’m also aware of the friction involved with the authors not being involved. I was housemates with Chicken (John Rinaldi) during his L.A. years when he discovered Cacophony, and from years of experience with him, know that he is perfectly happy to cause friction and make enemies. But he’s also changed a lot too, and probably for the better if you believe in all that good/bad stuff. Other than that, I really don’t want to comment other than to note the obvious and amusing absurdity of an un-author-ized publication party. If only the squabbles themselves were more of an actual prank!
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Do you have any plans or any desire to bring Art of Bleeding to Burning Man this year?
AL RIDENOUR: I feel that it’s not monumental enough to be noticed. Don’t you have to do a little more to engage folks up there nowadays? Encase an ocean liner in an iceberg and surround it with a steam-powered army of dancing giraffes, stuff like that?
I enjoyed doing the installations we did with Cacophony back in the smaller days but Art of Bleeding is already of a smaller scale than stuff I did back in 1999. But I’m grateful for the vibrant subculture Burning Man has fostered and happy we can reach those people through online videos and the occasional live show.
Particularly as the Art of Bleeding has moved more toward video, and especially as I spend more hours in isolation with complicated post and animation, I do miss interacting with crowds of weirdos, whether Cacophonistas or Burners (if such distinctions must be made).
My latest project, however, is bringing me back to the “festival arts” of celebrations like Burning Man as well as the guerilla street theater of Cacophony. It’s all about Krampus, a series of Krampus-themed events for December 2013 including an art show, shows with themed performances (hopefully including a Krampus Mass in an old church) and also public Krampus Runs. My wife and I had just visited Austria and Germany, in part to attend Krampus runs there, and when I returned, I learned that old Cacophony comrades-at-arms were interested in staging the same for LA, so we’re all working on suits and carving masks these days. I think it’ll be a big thing. Hopefully big enough to at least justify the mess I’ve made of my house with goat hair and bits of horn everywhere.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Can hot nurses and other people get involved with the Art of Bleeding?
AL RIDENOUR: Yes, and yes! Info@artofbleeding.com always works. There’s also firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re more into fur and horns. . . and you can connect with us on Facebook via the Art of Bleeding page, or through the Krampus Los Angeles page.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Thanks, Al. Break a leg!