The New York Times feels its readers need to be informed about how San Francisco is for a week without Burners. Mellower and more peaceful, it seems.
SAN FRANCISCO — As the annual Burning Man festival wrapped up over the holiday weekend, thousands of weary festivalgoers were somewhere in Nevada packing up yurts, washing off body paint and dreading their eventual re-entry to the real world. Here, particularly in the city’s rapidly gentrifying Mission District, their neighbors were dreading something else: the moment the “Burners” come home.
Pride festival, 2012
Over the last few years, Burning Man — the mass camping trip/rave that participants have deemed indescribable to anyone who hasn’t attended –- has become a veritable staycation for San Franciscans who don’t attend. They say restaurants have more tables, parking spots are plentiful and yoga classes are extra chill.
…”I have no scientific proof that reservations go down, but it’s pop wisdom in San Francisco that anything is easier this week: The bars are less crowded, it’s easier to park.”
Sadly, it’s not clear if there actually is scientific proof to support the Burning Man exodus. The event is big –- it has attracted as many as 70,000 people –- but even if half of those came from San Francisco (which seems unlikely), that would be a tiny portion of the city’s 837,000 residents.
At The New York Times’s request, data scientists from the reservation service OpenTable played with reams of San Francisco reservation data to see if there was a Burning Man lull, but couldn’t find much.
But people in the Mission swear their neighborhood cleared out for the week. The Mission is heavily populated with young tech workers. On weekday mornings, fleets of private tech buses makes non-tech residents feel as if they live next to a high-end Greyhound station.
“Last night I drove down Valencia and did not have any bikers almost side swipe the car as they tried to own the road. After, we dropped into a restaurant…and got a seat. This morning, I made it across the city in half the time as usual. It just seems mellower and more peaceful in this city; it seems like it used to in the olden days. Thank you Burning Man, for giving me this week to enjoy the city I fell in love with decades ago.”
…“With Burning Man we kind of see a mass exodus of a lot of regulars from the Mission area and we’ll get a little bit of a lull, but then all of a sudden we have these people we’ve never seen. Almost half the business we’ve had this week are people who have never been in before,” said Adam Dulye, the chef/owner of the Monk’s Kettle and the nearby Abbot’s Cellar. “People will walk into the bar and order a martini or a Manhattan and it’s like ‘Uhh, we have beer.’”
… “We should do like a Burning Man beer that’s not at Burning Man, just to drive business. ‘Didn’t go to Burning Man? Come get this beer.’”
Perhaps CNet felt a bit left out from my round-up of Burning Man’s recent media blitz. The computer industry news site has just published a story on Burning Man founder John Law’s new book Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society. Flash mobs of 35 Santas – in the days before text messages. Before email, even.
Although the police sometimes thought Cacophony Society members like John Law, left, were up to no good, Law and his fellow Santas were usually just trying to help people enjoy life more. A new book, ‘Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society’ aims to help people understand the influence of the group on modern digital culture.
(Credit: Michele Mangrum)
OAKLAND, Calif. — If you live in Austin, San Francisco, New York, or any number of other cites, the sight of hundreds of Santa Clauses prowling around, ducking in and out of bars, department stores, or parks as part of the annual SantaCon has probably become second nature.
But imagine seeing dozens of St. Nicks walking toward you on a San Francisco street in 1994 or 1995 , when the Internet was anything but ubiquitous, when culture jamming was a phrase no one had heard before, and Improv Everywhere, the Yes Men, and flash mobs were still a thing of the future.
“You could show up with 30 Santas, as we did,” said John Law, an early SantaCon participant, “and [people would] literally be bewildered, and in shock….You can see it in people’s faces. Literally, their jaws are hanging open in shock. People hadn’t thought of it” before.
Though not a founder, Law was one of the first members of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, a loosely-knit group of pranksters, adventurers, and experimenters that helped put SantaCon on the cultural map in the mid-1990s.
Now, a new book, titled “Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society,” goes a long way toward introducing the group, and its exploits, to new audiences more familiar with taking in planned, packaged entertainment than with being responsible for their own excitement and fun.
The motto of the San Francisco Cacophony Society was “you may already be a member.” That’s because, while actual membership may never have been very large, the Cacophony Society was really all about enabling out-of-the-box thinkers to find their people.
Law and fellow editors Carrie Galbraith and Kevin Evans put the book together because there seemed to be a danger that the memory of the Cacophony Society, and the reasons why it mattered so much, might fade away. As Galbraith put it, “the story [of the Cacophony Society] needed to be told.” Before it was too late.
Spawn of the Suicide Club
In 1977, a small, secretive, group of San Franciscans began pulling off a series of pranks and other adventures built around helping the participants challenge their personal fears and explore their fantasies. Known as the Suicide Club, for the next five years, its members did things like climb the Golden Gate Bridge and ride San Francisco’s Cable cars naked. But few were part of the Suicide Club, and by 1982, some felt that its exclusionary nature wasn’t sustainable.
One favorite pastime of the Cacophony Society — and its precursor, the Suicide Club — was climbing bridges, especially the Golden Gate Bridge.
(Credit: John Law)
But the ethos of the Suicide Club had hardly withered, and in its place, the San Francisco Cacophony Society filled the void. This time, though, the goal was to be more open. Anyone could organize an event, and its regular newsletter became the best place for people who had probably never been part of the popular crowd to find out the craziest, and oddest, ways to have fun. “It wasn’t about fashion, and there was nothing cool about the Cacophony Society,” Galbraith said. “It was a bunch of nerds [who] had our own ideas, and our own ways of thinking.”
Whether it was attending marathon watchings of the TV show “The Prisoner,” or sneaking into abandoned missile silos or having dinners on the Golden Gate Bridge, the Cacophony Society was all about promoting silly — and helping those for whom silly living is essential have people to play with.
A signature of the Cacophony Society was a series of events called Zone Trips. The idea was to take a group of people into an alien environment with no preconceptions, Law said. “You were opening up yourself to any interpretation of any environment.”
Added Galbraith, “We made a decision that once you stepped over a line, anything that happened to you was fair game. It was almost like you changed your consciousness. All rules were off. All bets were off.”
One of the very first Zone Trips involved a bunch of Cacophonists jumping in a van and driving to Los Angeles for the weekend. Galbraith’s family was fifth-generation L.A., “but I saw and did things in L.A. I’d never heard of,” she said, things like sneaking into buildings that had appeared in movies or climbing the Hollywood sign.
The most famous Zone Trip was unquestionably the fourth. In 1990, Burning Man was already four years old. But that year, police in San Francisco refused organizers the right to burn their wooden effigy of a man on the beach, citing safety concerns.
It fell to the Cacophony Society to propose an alternate venue: Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, one of the most remote places in the country and a seven-hour drive from San Francisco. A small collection of Cacophonists (and Burning Man’s founder, Larry Harvey) took the trip, and crossing the line they drew in the desert sand, the group inadvertently kicked off what has since become one of the most influential counterculture events in the world.
But the Cacophonists went back to their normal lives. They had bridges to climb, billboards to liberate, Santas to prowl with, and so much more.
One arm of the Cacophony Society was the Billboard Liberation Front, which made temporary modifications to make social commentary on public billboards.
(Credit: A. Leo Nash)
The end was in sight, though. An organization built around local experiences and a newsletter informing members of upcoming nearby events didn’t have a place in a modern communications world.
Whereas groups like Improv Everywhere blossomed in the age of YouTube, thanks to the ability to build a huge audience, and, of course, grow a base of participants — the Cacophonists were discovering that their thing wasn’t compatible with instant, global, digital communications. “Cacophoney as it was is simply not possible necessary today,” Galbraith lamented. “The Internet completely supplanted any need for a newsletter….Geography was (vital). It was all based on place, and the Internet changed all that.”
Plus which, Cacophony’s own spawn was stealing its thunder. As Law put it, the advent of the Internet was only part of the problem the organization was facing. Perhaps more problematic was that, as he put it, Burning Man was “kind of sucking the air out of the room.”
To be fair, Law was a co-founder (and co-owner) of Burning Man, and eventually had a falling out with that event’s leadership that culminated in a (now-settled) lawsuit.
Still, the Cacophony Society was very much an analog group, and by the late 1990s, the world had gone very digital. As a result, the society began to fade away until it no longer existed as a distinct organization.
Yet its spirit remains very much alive. Today’s regular giant public pillow fights, zombie marches, flash mobs, and so many other events found around the world owe it a spiritual debt. Yet some may have forgotten — or, perhaps never knew — how much fun can be had taking your own entertainment in your own hands.
“I’ve been teaching [about the Cacophony Society, among other things] for the last 12 years,” Galbraith said. “I have never once encountered a student who wasn’t hanging on ever word. They want to know. They didn’t encounter this…They’ve got [social games] but they’re not thinking in terms of ways of playing with their social environment.”
More to the point, it’s what happens after those lessons that really matters. “I just tell them the stories,” Galbraith added, “and they go and do whatever they want. That’s the whole idea. You may already be a member. Anything you can think of, you can do.”
Al Ridenour resting comfortably — Photo: Art of Bleeding
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.
It started with an ambulance — Photo: AoB
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?
So much more than just T&A — PHOTO: AoB
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?
The Miracle of Birth — PHOTO: AoB
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?
Abram: Safety Ape — PHOTO: AoB
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.
Bubbles La Blanche — PHOTO: Al Ridenour
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.
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?
RT, the Robot Teacher — PHOTO: AoB
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?