The Cacophony Society

INDIVIDUAL: agent Carrie Galbraith (of SF Cacophony) 
GROUP SIZE: Several dozen circa 1995, over 30,000 annually in 2016
NATURE OF GROUP: Adults at play
INCIDENCE: The Cacophony Society (You May Already Be a Member) 


All photos provided courtesy of Carrie Galbraith, though shot by various Cacophonists. 

In the 1980 into the 90’s The San Francisco Cacophony Society pioneered many of the actions now collectively known as Culture Jamming; flash mobs, media hoaxes, fake protests, building climbing, ad busting, and billboard liberation (seen here), and started several alt-culture phenomena – Santarchy (now SantaCon), Burning Man, and the concept of the Art Car.

The Cacophony Society was hugely influential on the formation of the Institute of Sociometry. Chuckles The Clown – a member of LA Cacophony – was also an early is agent and got what was to become the is Compound on the mailing list for Rough Draft the newsletter of San Francisco Cacophony and The Zone the newsletter of LA Cacophony. In a pre-internet world, reading about Cacophony’s hijinks, pranks, performances, and philosophy exposed up early is agents to new urban tactics and fellow travelers.

It was an honor to have Carrie Galbraith, a co-editor of the recently released Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society pen this lead off report for our Institute of Sociometry anthology is EMANCIPATION.


May 1996 Issue of Rough Draft – the newsletter of SF Cacophony

Cacophony was not conceived as an art movement. Many members did not self-identify as artists, although there were some noted artists among the members, and many Cacophonists and their fellow travelers would go on to successful careers in the arts. Others would find that their identification with the unselfconscious creative nature of the group and its actions would lead them inevitably to a life in the arts.

Neither was Cacophony political or spiritual, although some of the better known events hinted at a political agenda, and the experiences of the group had consequences that surely lifted the human spirit. It was far too mystifying a concept for any single ego to claim and too slippery a legacy for anyone to actually own. It never offered the slightest tangible profit, although its intangible profit was vast.

A loose aggregate of personalities definitely came together to play, in ways as ingenious and unprecedented as possible; Cacophony brought the concept of playing in the world as adults into mainstream consciousness, through hundreds of events organized by members over twenty years. Cacophony also partnered with other groups of pranksters, performers, and artists, sometimes for one event, or sometimes to produce an annual event over time.


An early Art Car on the road. The Art Car was an invention of Michael Mikel AKA Danger Ranger who found his green Oldsmobile Cutlas partially crushed, but otherwise fully functional, after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. Mikel’s presentation of his natuarall augmented ride as an “Art Car” at the first Burning Man in 1991 led to what is now a fully fledged folk-art movement.

Cacophony championed a creative philosophy of fun, stretching the parameters of what could be seen as entertainment, with a basis in unorthodox ideas and direct engagement with the world and people in it. What constituted fun was left entirely to each member’s generally vivid imagination.

There were many kinds of events, some so bizarre as to defy a category. Others fell into discernible types, or combined different kinds of activities in the creation of a single event. Pranks, urban explorations, literary events, theatrical or musical endeavors, costume parties, urban games, and the mysterious Zone Trips were just some of the categories to inspire collaborative play. Some event agendas included preliminary meetings to make props or prepare a chosen location for the group activity to come. Other activities were not premeditated, but happened spontaneously when friends gathered. Some sub-groups of Cacophony concentrated on specific goals, like The Billboard Liberation Front’s clever improvement of advertising messages in the urban landscape.


A cacophonist at The Fantasia Protest, the brainchild of Dwayne Newtron, which protested the 1990 re-release of the animated Disney animated feature based on its inclusion of genital-less satyrs, obese hippo ballerinas, and Mickey Mouse’s “licentious squandering of precious water resources”, among other transgressions. The protest caught the attention of TIME magazine which ran an expose on it as part of their article on whining as an American epidemic.

Pranksters executed ideas with such finesse that they could fool mainstream media. One notorious prank was the Fantasia Protest, which gathered faux protesters to object to aspects of the famous Disney film. Time Magazine featured the prank in an article about the growth of whining as a national obsession. Groups were invented to march in the annual parade in Berkeley, such as a pro-carnivore posse called People Eatin’ Them Animals (PETA), and the Undead Homeowners’ Association. The Salmon Run pranked the city’s annual Bay-to-Breakers l2k with people in salmon costumes running upstream against the other runners. Let Them Eat Cake gathered a group of people fantastically costumed as l8th-century French aristocrats to give away cake – to the homeless and other willing recipients – in front of San Francisco’s City Hall on Bastille Day.

The city was Cacophony’s playground, and urban exploration plumbed its options. Some events, like the late-night walking tours of the area’s sewers and storm drains, plumbed quite literally. Enter the Unknown newsletter entries and calls for Midnight Walks summoned interested parties to meet at a designated place for a guided ramble through undisclosed terrain.

Literary events were highly popular and took many forms. Some events had a distinctly theatrical flair, and at some of these, the only witnesses to the production were the players themselves. Urban Games used the city streets, hotels, and other locations to stage games usually reserved for the more logical turf of a court or a field. Almost all Cacophonists loved costume parties and wouldn’t settle for limiting them to Halloween. Perhaps the most mysterious of the events were the Zone Trips, calls to venture to a distant and unknown location for an undisclosed purpose. Adventurers willing to show up might find themselves in a place like Los Angeles or Covina or perhaps the most famous of Cacophony’s Zone Trips, The Adventure of the Burning Man, which took Cacophonists to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. Cacophonists returned to the Black Rock Desert annually, and over time, this Zone Trip grew into an international event attended by thousands of people each year.


Cacophonists jamming on the first Zone Trip to the Black Rock Dessert which in 1991 became the new home for an annual ritual that had been previously held on San Francisco’s Baker Beach where Cacophonists lit up a human effigy – an event knows as Burning Man.

While Cacophony played for its own amusement and with little self-consciousness, its ideas live on in it’s progeny. Burning Man is the most visible and successful pop culture phenomenon that was developed with Cacophony know-how. This massive event still claims a philosophy that has its roots in Cacophony’s mores, such as “Leave No Trace” and “No Spectators.”

While Cacophony encouraged others to expand their horizons of creative play, other groups and individuals influenced Cacopohony just as much. Principal among these was the legendary Suicide Club, which developed in San Francisco in the 1970s. A secret society, the Suicide Club eventually suffered from insularity and an inability to draw in new members. When it disbanded, in l983,  former members who missed the club’s innovative source of play reorganized under the new and inclusive umbrella of Cacophony.

The society also found influences and ideas in countless other sources. Novels, movies, history, myth, family stories, urban legend, and folk tales all influenced the group and provided ideas that became events, when filtered through the imaginations of the members. They also found inspiration in historical figures, people who would become beatified in the eyes of many Cacophonists. Two of the “saints” in Cacophony’s cosmology were the self- proclaimed Emperor Norton – a notorious l9th century San Francisco eccentric – and Alfred Jarry the l880’s Parisian writer and legendary enfant terrible.

Like its heroes, the Cacophony Society espoused behaviors thought slightly mad and questioned the values of the bourgeoisie, the ever-burgeoning power of industrial and manufacturing giants, the power of advertising to employ classic conditioning in the shaping of human choice, and the increasingly mediated society that is lulled into complacency by passive entertainment. As with all things that occur in real life as opposed to that depicted on the flickering screen, Cacophony was not merely fun and entertaining. It could be scary, dirty, dangerous, and even exceptionally stupid at times.



The Car Hunt – a collaboration with the anarchist collective People Haters in which a remote controlled Oldsmobile station wagon full of luggage and populated by a mannequin family was chased across a northern Nevada playa with a jihadi style “technical” – a small Toyota pick-up with machine run mounts and trigger happy warriors riding in the back.

Cacophony rose to the challenge of the mediated life and encouraged others not to ignore the potent power of play. Unconsciously, it reflected the wisdom of philosophers from ancient Greece to contemporary America. Plato wrote, “Life must be lived as play.” The 20th century American philosopher George Santayana said, “To the art of working well, a civilized race would add the art of playing well.” And Carl Jung wrote that, “The creation of something new is not accomplished through the intellect, but by the play instinct.” Through its championing of play for adults, Cacophony played a vital role in turning the consciousness of contemporary culture away from passive entertainment, and toward a more vital, creative, and innovative concept of what it means to be entertained.

Atop each Cacophony Rough Draft newsletter was a reminder to readers: “You may already be a member.” The Cacophony Society, never the most competent of “organizations,” remains, to this day, primarily a philosophy, steeped in the tradition of Dada, and geared to living and playing in a world created, in part, through the collective fantasies of its members.

This report is by agent Carrie Galbraith – a double agent for IS and The SF Cacophony Society, and editor of Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society – which was and is hugely influential on is.


This report was originally published in is EMANCIPATION a 130 page book with 2-color letterpress covers printed and hand-bound with a Japanese stitch in an edition of 200. is EMANCIPATION is a 21 year anthology of art intervention and prank collective The Institute of Sociometry edited, designed, and partly authored by Peter Miles Bergman and edited by MCA Denver Curatorial Associate Zoe Larkins. 


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