Cacophony and the Art of Play
by P Segal

In the days before mobile devices, when another more impersonal plastic object was the preferred repository of public attention, some people already felt the vampiric bite of media — felt it so sharply already, in fact, that they banded to fight to the last for that life of intensely unmediated experience. To live each day as thought it were their last, in the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, was their raison d’etre: to live out in practice what they could imagine, if only for a night. This was the Suicide Club.

The Suicide Club liked to do things that would have been illegal, if anyone had ever dreamed that someone would do it, and mounted legislation against it. There was no law against a midnight walk up and down the cables festooned from the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, on a very foggy night, of course. But surely someone would have proposed a law against it, if the Suicide Club had been caught doing it.

There was no law against a group of people boarding a cable car, and at a pre-arranged stop, suddenly casting off all their clothing for the 30 seconds it would take to snap a photo. No legislation was on the books prohibiting people from nailing each other into coffins for 20 minutes and holding mock funeral rites. They were just the sorts of things that were difficult to explain to cops, or anyone else for that matter. You just had to do it and feel the adrenaline rush to understand why it was such a good thing to do.

The Suicide Club dreamed up exploits that would become international underground phenomena; the Billboard Liberation Front decided to take on the forces of advertising that conditioned the masses to an ever-escalating orgy of consumerism and “improve” the messages that advertisers paid other corporate entities to make public. They would climb up on a billboard and assess improvements, measure and identify the typeface of the ad, match color samples, and got to work on an alternate message. Then they would return to the board and apply the changed panels, affixing them so that they could easily be removed—but not until a whole lot of people had seen them.

They were more than adventuresome; they were also skilled, with extensive knowledge of typography, sign making, neon fabrication, and other essential talents.

They could alter the neon signage advertising Camel cigarettes so that the illuminated message now just said: am_I_dead_yet? The grammatical error in the Apple ad, which had only a photo of Amelia Earhart, the company logo, and the imperative, “Think different,” brought out the still active Billboard Liberation Front members to make it better. All they did was replace “different” with “doomed.” If caught, they could honestly say in their defense that they had effaced nothing, because the changes didn’t damage the original, and it was only an exercise in free speech.

The Suicide Club was founded in San Francisco in the late’70s. Because so much of what they did was on the very borderline of legal, the Suicide Club was a secret society. Its secrecy worked against it, limiting member’s abilities to expand their social milieu; intense, insular, and socially inbred, it eventually disbanded. However, the taste for what they had done together—those unmediated, often risky, and imaginative exploits—could no longer be conveniently satisfied with dinner and a movie. Former members decided to form another group entirely, and the Cacophony Society was born, inviting the public, through newsletters left in cafes, art schools, and bookstores, to come out and play.

The Francisco Cacophony Society brought together the pioneers of the Suicide Club with fresh ideas, different and divergent minds, new interests, and a fiercely creative shared interest in doing oddball things for fun. The weird was so phenomenally varied, so full of material for invention and participation, that Cacophonists rarely ran out of things to suggest in the monthly newsletter, Rough Draft. When they did, that month’s volunteer editor would dream up some faux events too absolutely weird to have any takers, like a midnight swim to the Farrallons, or duct-taping the mouths of hipsters on Haight Street.

What they did, thought about what they did, and how they saw and reacted to what they did, is the heart of Tales of The San Francisco Cacophony Society, edited by John Law, Kevin Evans, and Carrie Galbraith, published this spring by Last Gasp. Like everything the society ever did, the book was written, illustrated, laid out, and edited by the members. In over 320 pages, which include a hidden chapter, the writers, artists, and other creative personalities of Cacophony entice readers to put aside their plastic devices and just dream up their own amusements.

The value of play plummeted with the invention of television; there was no longer any necessity of finding something to do. This hasn’t been the boon to society it once seemed. Philosophers from Plato to Santayana exalted the value of play; psychologists will tell you that it’s through inventive play that children learn how to function in the world, try out new ideas, and see what happens. Children, in this age of compulsive media consumption, no longer play license plate games on a road trip, but are kept quiet with Game Boys and laptop movies. Adults live far more of their lives on Facebook and other social media than they do in the actual world. They consume television, movies, plays, concerts, and online interaction far more than they think up alternate means of passing an evening. Not surprisingly, people are more alienated, depressed, and anxious than ever before, and the power of imagination wanes.

The commission investigating the events of September 11, 2001, concluded that the reason the devastation wasn’t stopped before it happened was “a failure of imagination.” The people entrusted to observing those planes heading our way simply couldn’t believe that anyone would do anything like that; raised, no doubt, on a diet of television, their imaginations had not been developed by necessity. Clearly, those people had never been members of the Cacophony Society or the Suicide Club.

Reading challenges the imagination to picture the characters, places, and times in the pages of a book; television and movies require only attention. Reading, of course, is a waning pleasure, but incessant text messaging has become almost a cultural imperative (“What do you mean, you don’t text?”).

This is not to say that Cacophony discouraged more passive entertainment entirely—most of the members loved a good movie or TV show as much as anyone, and many of the events thrown by members had a literary element to them. Midnight walks through Golden Gate Park, where members stopped every 15 minutes to read aloud their favorite passages from creepy fiction by flashlight, or poetry breakfasts at dawn overlooking the bay, where people regaled each other with their favorite poets, were often found in Rough Draft. The Marcel Proust Support Group was the longest running event, inviting members to read In Search of Lost Time together, at the sensible rate of 10 pages a day for 11 months. Participants met monthly in fin-du-siècle venues to discuss their observations and read their favorite passages to each other. Once a year, they met for the annual Proust Wake, where readers and other Cacophonists consumed a life-sized cake of the dead author, with a head sculpted from marzipan or fondant.

The Suicide Club’s taste for the forbidden leached onto Cacophony, too. They liked to occupy bunkers or abandoned buildings to stage one-off events, and some, like the post-apocalyptic Atomic Café, where people enacted a gathering of survivors, were repeated every year. The ruins of Sutro Baths, at the very north-west corner of the city, was the scene of a remarkably odd event at which participants invented shamanic characters from unknown civilizations and spoke only in tongues. Cocktail parties in industrial wastelands, midnight walking tours of storm drains, bridge climbing, and even walks in the park at midnight were all fairly verboten, but it was the element of getting caught that added a piquant sense of adventure.

Some events, called “ZoneTrips,” called together people to go for a weekend out-of-town to an undisclosed location, never knowing when you left where you were going or what you’d do when you got there. You could find yourself touring California Missions or going to a conference of people who were in contact with space aliens.

Almost all events had some kind of creative element. Inventing a persona for an event—like a White Trash Family Picnic, where everyone’s name ended in –Bob or –Jo— or a costume or action, was standard operating procedure. Some events called for people to work on a project, like the annual Exquisite Corpse, where participants wrote and performed a play, with each writer seeing only the line written before—an old Dadaist entertainment. The Betsy Ross event brought together people to create a new flag for the country, and another event invited participants to create new toys by cobbling together pieces of existing ones.

Attendance at events was hardly mandatory or expected. You went if that particular variety of odd caught your attention, or threw events yourself, depending on your personal preoccupations and interests. Some events drew two people, or one other than the instigator, and some drew a cast of hundreds. Some people liked the potentially dangerous ones, and others liked the literary ones. Everyone liked the idea of doing something different, being different, and dodging all trends.

Oddly enough, the rampant bizarreness of Cacophony set trends globally. One of Cacophony’s most celebrated exploits was a Zone Trip to the Nevada desert to burn a 40-foot tall wooden sculpture, when the police stopped it from being burned at a city beach. Eighty-nine Cacophonists went to the first Burning Man event at the Black Rock Desert in 1990, but now almost 70,000 people come from around the world to play in this annual Temporary Autonomous Zone. Cacophony decided to spoof Christmas consumerism with a Naughty Santa event, which became a national, and now-international phenomenon. SantaCon may have devolved into a red-suited carnival of hard drinking, but no matter. At least it encourages people to put down their plastic devices for a moment. The global attraction of these oddball events suggests forcibly that people crave the kind of stimulation that cannot be bought or consumed anywhere and can only come from doing.

Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society does far more than entertain with stories of what was done before. It offers a manual to those who would also like to be different and imaginative in their pursuit of life and entertainment. It offers a very alternative world view that challenges the advertising-driven concept of the good life and proposes something entirely and absolutely other. The Cacophony lifestyle protects against future failures of imagination and offers the most memorable fun imaginable. As the tagline in Rough Draft suggests, “You may already be a member.”

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