Santas and Burning Man and bridge climbing, oh my

The new book "Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society" illustrates the way much of digital-era culture jamming emerged from a few 1980s- and '90s-era out-of-the-box thinkers

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. 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. 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.

Zone Trips
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. 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."

 

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