Perhaps you’ve still never heard of the Cacophony Society, Burning Man’s parent group.
Pardon the cliche, but for history’s sake, we’re going to have to talk about fight club.
Fight Club is a book written in 1996 and then turned into a movie released 15 years ago this fall (we won’t provide any spoilers if we can help it). Author Chuck Pahlaniuk confirmed at several book-release events last year the “Project Mayhem” group in Fight Club’s story is indeed the Cacophony Society in real life … a wackier bunch of people, without the men-only Iron John subplot or all the property destruction and violence. (Well, serious violence, anyway.)
“But Larry Harvey invented Burning Man,” you may be saying to yourself. No, he and his homeys Jerry and Dan brought the statue to a “Zone Trip” the Cacophony Society had already planned to take to the Black Rock Desert.
The rest of the event didn’t spring, Godlike, from one man’s mind, and materialize like so much ganja in Shiva’s dreadlocks. Cacophony built Black Rock City. It was a group whim — a hive-mind good time which snowballed and splintered, glittering, like breaking mirrorglass.
Even if you don’t know it, Burning Man is and will always be the Cacophony Society’s yearly extended-family check-in and show-and-tell. It’s a fight club convention where old-timers don’t make a big deal about showing up to tweak and observe the city they created. This product of new collectivist activity reads like a neotribal Kumbh Mela which embraces chaos as spirituality. The event requires, and has always required, a dark army of dirtbags to make it all go flash bang boom.
Burning Man’s blank slate started as an anarcho-cyberpunk paradise away from the squares, on the moon. A living, breathing Internet, this equalizing Paper Street Soap Company in the dust churned art, analog, digital, fire, lust, danger, meetings, and magic into a whirlwind of construction and yelling.
Each event the Cacophony Society produced — not just Burning Man — made participants giddy with self-determinism, amped like Fight Club’s newly-hardened space-monkey recruits in the story. As with the fictional Project Mayhem, the real Cacophony Society formed organically and functioned according the laws of attraction, not coercion.
On Cacophony outings, participants were just as likely to injure themselves as they were to reach epiphanies. Since it’s a leaderless mob, there’s nobody to sue. Even if random events bore anticlimactic or embarrassing results — which was rare — the resulting danger-high and esprit de corps still silently encouraged acolytes to leave the pale, imitative ghost of consumerism for real evolution and hyperreal connections.
This writer was a beat reporter in that hurricane of activity in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s Bay Area. We saw the Fight Club movie on a new-rental VHS one day around the turn of the century, then picked our jaw up off the floor and called Cacophonist John Law to ask: “Did you or Danger Ranger just secretly write a movie?”
…In that phone call, Law assured us he had never heard of Fight Club either, but sure enough, Chuck Pahlaniuk had heard of and observed him … and Danger Ranger, Reverend Al, “Chad Mulligan,” and all the other men and women leading Cacophonistic voyages into the unknown abandoned corners of this devolving nation.
Chuck Pahlaniuk had quantified our fuck-you-it’s-magical experiences into a fantasy (starring Brad Pitt, hubba) where hard-(self-)packed Cacohpony-style punks push themselves over comfort’s edge and into a weirdly-more-adult realm where neither gods nor men hold sway in telling them what to do or how to live.
“Cacophony is the logical extension of punk rock” -co-founder John Law
NO, NOT HIPPIES
“But Burning Man was invented by hippies who followed L. Ron Harvey from the beach to the desert, like Moses,” you may be insisting to yourself. /SLAP. No. Stop falling for monotheistic patriarchal narratives we’ve all been carefully conditioned to follow our entire lives. Harvey did and does his big part, sure, but no.
If the real story of Project Mayhem had a subtitle, it would be Revenge of the Nerds.
In the ‘80s, Reagan-hating geeks in San Francisco, who found the hippies so tiresome, entertained themselves by inventing alternate, darker, and surreal-er things to do as a group. Out of the ashes of the Suicide Club arose the more inclusive Cacophony Society — West Coast daredevils who seeded club chapters in faraway cities and culture-jammed their way to slyly changing humanity with irreverent clown-chimerae.
Oh, how this small and peculiar group butterfly-effected the world.
Ask the Yes Men, Cacophonists who use tactics they learned from the Cacophony Society (and the Cockettes) to demand corporate accountability. See the Yes Men’s new documentary, if you didn’t see them keynote-speak at Chicken’s Castro Theater book opening gala for Tales of the SF Cacophony Society (a.k.a. the people’s history book of Burning Man and other cultural juggernauts).
Ask art superstar Shepard Fairey whom he counts as his primary and overwhelming inspiration for the street-art revolution he helped engender while Banksy was in art school: The Billboard Liberation Front, another Cacophony offshoot, starring essentially the same rather-be-anonymous catalysts who conceived of Burning Man as well.
Perhaps you’ve heard of flash mobs? Well, not only did the Cacophony Society perfect the idea of spontaneous gatherings to perform ridiculous tasks, troll humanity in some fashion, and then disperse before the authorities closed in … the first flash mob was Santarchy, a Cacophony Society Christmastime blitz whose website and 1998 documentary started a worldwide fuck-Santa-Claus sendup of our culture’s mindless holiday spending. Chuck Pahlaniuk, Fight Club’s author, has written about his experiences with Portland chapter Cacophony’s Santacon in Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories.
“But Charlie Todd and Improv Everywhere invented flashmobs,” you may be saying to yourself. No, actually, Charlie’s idea for Improv Everywhere came to him after witnessing a horde of New York City Santarchists come HO-ing around the streetcorner.
This type of crowd movement and leaderless organization — Santarchy never announced its parade routes — eventually loaned itself to Occupy, Anonymous, and the modern protest movement. We’ve said before, during the height of Occupy, organizers called the Burning Man office continuously, asking questions about how to set up their own Temporary Autonomous Zones.
Not that dressing up as Santa Claus or building Mad Max cities from scratch in the desert is all the Cacophony Society did. In fact, Cacophony had been growing exponentially, all over the world, with local chapters conceptualizing their own ideas for brain-scrambling mayhem, long before before Burning Man sucked some of the air out of the surrealist moshpits developing across America and redirecting the whirlwind to a once-a-year desert thing.
A movement is building to re-localize Cacophony, and of course the Burning Man Regionals Network — Burning Man’s intricate web of worldwide reps and offshoot DIY happenings — represents a friendlier continuance of Project Mayhem. Cacophony is a way of life now — a way Generation X throws events; a way the Unplugged do things. You decide your level of involvement.
EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES ON THE FRINGE OF LEGALITY
John Alloway’s Into the Zone documentary provides the most complete cinematic picture of the Suicide Club’s and Cacophony Society’s infiltration into the modern-day mainstream sideshow, and leaves no doubt that for realsies it’s Project Mayhem’s real-life inspiration. A work of art in itself, this zany and sometimes frighteningly intense movie tries to cram it all in, but there’s more story there than will ever fit.
As with the California punk scenes before it, Cacophony in San Francisco embraced mystery and surrealism, while the Los Angeles chapter, also wacky as heck, gravitated towards more … hardcore activities. Then Portland happened, and other chapters began to spring up in American cities, and then the San Francisco chapter revitalized itself with a new round of inspired catalysts (er, Tylers) and a fresh wave of activity called Cacophony 2.0.
Those of us who landed in San Francisco during the Cacophony 2.0 years can only watch Alloway’s doc and feel the FOMOS at having arrived in the city of Cacophony’s birth ten years too late.
Brunches in junkyards, pie fights on the Golden Gate Bridge, man-woman boxing matches, picketing the Academy Awards dressed as clowns, passing off terrible art in hoity-toity galleries … each chapter in each city ran tentacles of sovereignty through the sewers, gaining confidence and inspiration enough to organize more and more secret events. The deed was done: Punk had won. Cacophony spread like oil in water.
SO SECRET STILL, NOBODY EVEN KNOWS IT’S REAL
Black Rock City in modern times can be overwhelming for those of us who have been coming to Burning Man since the late ‘90s. Like neighborhoods in the Mission and Oakland, gentrified in the new century from punk scrapathons to modern hipster overpriceries, our company picnic has not been completely mowed down by yuppies but … it just seems more crowded now than it ever was. Poor-to-middle-class artists still make up much of Burning Man’s population, but the arrival of more and more n00bs has caused a slow dissolution of the “no spectators” rule.
People have broken the first and second rule of fight club.
Meanwhile, neither Burners nor journalists seem to understand the direct-ness of the Fight Club connection; even a random sampling of BRC-DPW interviewees proved to this writer that hardly anyone seems to know the name Cacophony Society.
Which means at least *we* didn’t talk about fight club. But because of rules 1 and 2, only ravers and hippies jump in front of most documentary cameras out in the desert, so the public’s perception remains skewed toward believing Burning Man is all shiny happy naked hot people, electronic dancers on drugs, and three or four billionaires in turnkey camps. The dark side of the event’s roots stay underground, and the silent majority obeying rules 1 and 2 enjoy Burning Man unmolested by a need to quantify or memorialize it.
“I thought it would be a bunch of feather-leather California festival people like me,” one newbie told us after her first Burning Man this year, “but it was mostly … punks. Non-showy pirate punks, who were just figuring out how to live life on the fringes.”
We see what we want to see. Any Fight Club fan will tell you it isn’t just a book and movie, but an ethos. Many will be overjoyed to discover it’s our ethos.
The Cacophony Society’s motto is “We are the e.coli in your primordial soup.” Recruitment is explained thusly: “You may already be a member.”
LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE, CACOPHONY HAS FRACTALIZED
Phenomena exist which are Things now, which weren’t Things before. A million leaderless groups of Makers have brought forth their own variations of new Cacophony-derived or Burning Man-derived art forms. There only used to be one or two of each Thing — the original Things.
Which Things? These Things:
Freakbikes. Interactive machine art. Punk rock circuses. Multimedia, mobile rave installations. Fire-spinning. Pyrotechnic choreography. Art cars. Theme camps. Urban games. Free schools. Drones-as-art. Makerspaces. Maker Faires. Power tool drag races. Junkyard wars. Robot combat. Actual fight clubs.
History will show Generation X’s legacy to be a vast and random collective pastime of repurposing consumer waste into DIY art and interactive playtoys for anti-commercial purposes. Calling this tendency “Project Mayhem” is dumb, so because of rules 1 and 2, there’s still no real name for what all we do with all our spare time, but maybe the Maker movement, or … yes, Cacophony.
Whether during Urban Iditarod runs or Billboard Liberations, many of us picked up techniques for reclaiming public space. See, along with inventing the Internet, hip-hop, and punk rock, Generation X has been doing Things, but — and this is an important distinction, Boomers — for lulz, not recognition. Don’t buy things; do things.
Cacophony isn’t just a loosely-gathered conceptual group buried in the sands of time, but a living, evolving, amorphous punk form of salvation. We all know the two real perks of life in Black Rock City or on any other Cacophonous outing: catching DIY fever, and witnessing (fuck you it’s) magic.
The organizing of a group for a common goal is the high, not the ego which festers when clawing one’s way to the top. This is why in Project Mayhem we have no names.
THE INTERNET WAS BUILT ON CACOPHONY AND WEED
Fight Club’s theme of self-determinism led Anonymous to call for hackers to leak it all, in an event called ‘Project Mayhem 2012,’ shortly before Edward Snowden revealed the Skeksis behind our double-government curtains, and whistles started blowing all over the place. Tyler the literary character, in computerland, is the Man we burn: An empty benevolent-dictator figure encouraging us to be free; Big Brother’s non-evil twin.
Cacophonists were punks, freaks, and nerds. They lived in the Bay Area and geeked on electronics and junk robotics. Some of them went into computers in Silicon Valley; some of them still don’t have email. Heck, the first major-media Burning Man story came from Wired.
We would wager it’s immeasurable, but we have no idea how much of the Internet we use today was invented at Burning Man or by Cacophony Society members in Silicon Valley making social and intellectual connections. Urban adventurers and computer wizards both crave surreal, democratic chaos-play that disallows spectators and strives not to negatively interfere with anyone else’s experience.
Cacophony Society members in analog were the IRL trolls who sprang up at the time of the Internet’s invention. Those who take themselves seriously are easily offended; goading heavily egoed people, after all, results in high comedy most of the time.
On the Internet now, and in the dust out there, if you lose your temper, you lose. Your facts better be able to support your argument because everything else will break or blow downwind. An environment in which egos are kept in check prevents hero worship or rule by cult of personality, and fosters discussion about the essence of things.
“Information should be free” battle cries and Cacophony ideas are currently enlightening humanity. Leaderless organization has paved the way for open-source governance, which looms on the horizon, threatening war pigs in marble halls of power with its unhackability. The hundredth monkey is washing the coconut; that’s what matters. Still — with origin stories as cool as this one, it bears telling.
TOWARD A MORE CACOPHONOUS AMERICA
Cacophonists were and are not joiners, nor is Cacophony a political movement. Most of the world’s Cacophonists at this point aren’t aware they’re Cacophonists. However, Cacophony inspires a certain fever: Patriotic-slash-earth-loving renegades, infected with kinetic energy, become determined to change the world through forward motion and manipulation of available materials.
Whether people now know the name or not, they’re doing Cacophony everywhere. A literal explosion of DIY has enveloped this country. Cable news viewing is down 17-21%, hopefully because people are outside living life, repurposing junk, devolving, and making things.
Cacophony felt like — feels like — reclaiming America itself. Because it is. All public space can’t be corporate space. Some of it must remain, well, public. We must think of excuses to talk to each other and interact in non-transactional, non-consumer settings.
Also, when the world is rotting with unwanted consumer goods around you, it feels amazing to dig bikes or electronic parts out of the dumpster, and make contraptions and stage events with your friends that blow people’s minds. This too is Cacophony.
It’s apocalypse training.
IF IT’S YOUR FIRST NIGHT, YOU HAVE TO FIGHT
So who is Tyler Durden IRL, then? Probably an amalgam of a few primary catalysts, and a dozen more. He’s not one person. He’s you. The point of the book / movie is we can all beat ourselves up sufficiently to build strength, snap out of consumerism’s hypnosis, Be Now Here, and devolve into our higher selves.
Tyler is who we can all become when we remember we’re adult humans who don’t need anyone to cut our meat for us. Cacophonists would rather char that meat with a flamethrower, flirt with death and immortality, arrange a grand picnic in some stylishly-decorated abandoned insane asylum, and generally treat life as a sacred series of blessed events occurring outside of time.
THE PRIMORDIAL SOUP IS BOILING
Truly it doesn’t matter where Burning Man history comes from, not to thousands of Burners, nor to hundreds of thousands of Occupiers, millions of artist-makers, and legions of Fight Club fans who don’t even know how their Things are connected to Cacophony, or even what the hell the Cacophony Society was, or how it birthed Burning Man. The example has been made to follow, and then fictionalized in Project Mayhem and Tyler Durden; we are inspired by Tyler and the Man to do stuff.
A new collaborative society is mulching under leaves of detritus. Scaling back to devolution is the logical answer to consumerism. Cacophony is the weed eating at the cancer of modern America’s impossible model of permanent growth.
Whether you’re an old flashmobbing punk from since before it was called that, or a makerspace founder from since before it was called that, or you’re a new raver at the company picnic about to get jumped in to project mayhem, the lessons of Cacophony — and Burning Man — are the same as the morals of Fight Club’s story. With no spoilers, here they are:
Resist and revolt against modern society’s efforts to infantilize and domesticate you.
Don’t forget you’re a sovereign individual and master of your own destiny.
Have the guts to act worthy of yourself; paint with your own brush.
Spend time instead of money, then watch how fast an interactive community blooms around you, spreading like a bizarro gospel.
Follow Summer Burkes on Twitter.
‘Carnival Cosmology’ by Gary Warne (Cacophony’s founding document)