Posts Tagged ‘pranks’

An Address

Sunday, September 10th, 2017

INDIVIDUAL: Peter Miles Bergman 
NATURE OF GROUP: Residents of 10 addresses in Freemont, Nebraska and 10 addresses in Newport, Rhode Island, selected at random from a collection of phone books on microfiche, who happened to be home when we showed up at their door

An Address from Institute of Sociometry 

Though this is one of IS’s oldest reports, it has, until now, only existed in the form of this 36-minute VHS documentary, produced by Peter Miles Bergman and directed by Siri Noel Wilson in 1995.

In 1993 the Geisel Library at the University of California San Diego, named after Dr. Seuss and famous for its cameo as the spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, had one of every city and town’s phone books in the US on microfiche. Reaching blindly into the library catalog drawer of phone book microfiche films, name out of a hat style, I plucked a microfiche for Freemont, Nebraska and one for Newport, Rhode Island, both towns that appeared to be in the 20,000-30,000 population range, and wrote down the first 10 names and addresses in each that caught my eye.


DUPLICATE – Two years of postcards, letters and Christmas cards

On a subsequent trip to Europe to visit agent 002 Siri Noel Wilson, I wrote postcards to the residents at each of these 20 addresses – from Bologna, Italy; Paris, France; Amsterdam, The Netherlands; and, when I returned to the US, from San Diego, California. I signed each card with my name and mentioned that I lived in San Diego, but I did not provide a return address. Each time I wrote the cards, I did so in one sitting and in the order of the addresses on my list. By the fifth postcard, I’d usually lost sight of the actual human on the receiving end and was essentially writing to the faceless and hypothetical audience I’d assumed would be enthralled by my puerile art prank. Each batch of cards followed the same arc. The first few were awkward but sincere, the next few were fluid and confident, halfway through they became a little sarcastic, toward the end the tone was wholly flippant or abstract, and I closed out the 20 with a few that were poignant and contemplative. Here’s an excerpt: “Hi Wayne! Hi Vicky, I have returned from my travels. That’s a little bit of Euro snobbery I picked up. Really though, I’m going back. It all went by way too fast. In fact, there are whole blocks of time I don’t remember a thing…”

Over the next two years I followed up with homemade Christmas cards and long-form handwritten letters (click to enlarge):


Excerpt: “Hello Mr. John Brooks. This is Peter M. Bergman. I am attempting to take our friendship to the next level by writing you this letter… Some days I want everything to make sense on earth. I want all my activities to mean something. Days like today I realize how dumb that is. So if this doesn’t make sense then it must not be dumb. Does that make sense? … Do you know what entropy is? Entropy is the measure of disorder in a closed system. Entropy always increases and available energy always decreases in a closed system – such as our universe. Isn’t that neat? … I think you getting these letters from me is a sort of disorder in your life. But it’s good because now we are friends! To get your name and address I just picked a phone book from the library and viola! … I think I’m going to have ‘Evidence of Entropy’ on my tombstone. It’s good to think of these things now you know. You never can tell when that sneaky ol’ entropy is going to mess with you!”

In the spring of 1994 all of the addressees on my list received a postcard written in Sharpie with some form of, “Good news! Siri and I are coming out to visit you this summer!”


This “Ariel view of Mission Bay with Sea World” postcard (and 19 other in this tranche) notified Thelma and all the other recipients in Freemont, NE and Newport RI on our impending  visit.

Freemont, Nebraska highlights:

Siri and I had no idea what we had gotten into as our Greyhound bus pulled into Freemont, but we were thoroughly prepared to document it with a micro-cassette recorder, 110 film camera, and Siri’s two super-8 movie cameras – one with sound! After we got situated at the Ranch Motel, a motor lodge across the highway from the bus station, we found a phone book with a town history. Named after General John C. Frémont, “The Pathfinder,” Freemont was a Mormon Trail stop, then a Telegraph town, then a railroad town, a highway town, and ultimately a bedroom community for people working 35 miles away in Omaha. The phone book also had a map, which we used to begin charting out our visits.


Our “Weekly Rental” – The Ranch Motel in Freemont

Our first visit was to Thelma Surface. Thelma lived in Nye Square, a retirement community with the slogan, “Be In Charge of your Life.” This was the first of many unexpected hurdles in our quest for immediate and authentic face-to-face encounters. The receptionist seemed to be on the lookout for us, explaining her trepidation about our visit since Thelma was living in a place where she was protected from “people on the outside.” After asking us a long series of suspicious questions, she buzzed Thelma’s room. Thelma hesitantly came out to greet us, right around the time the Freemont police showed up. We all had a pleasant conversation in the lobby area of the retirement community about Freemont and the social norms and customs that Siri and I didn’t quite seem to understand. The police, after ascertaining that we were no more harmful than the typical idiotic twenty-something Californians, offered us a ride back to our hotel – which we declined.

The next day we asked directions from, and subsequently made friends with Brent Harnish, a home-for-summer long-haired college kid close to our age who was happy to drive us around during the rest of our stay, hang out with us, and generally praise us as the only cool thing to happen all summer.


The home of Wayne E. and Vicky Sund in Freemont

Wayne E. Sund, who lived on the edge of town in a subdivision, was in front of his house washing his car and his boat. When we walked up the drive and introduced ourselves he chuckled with a subtle no-no-no head motion, strode forward and shook our hands. When we asked him about his reaction to the cards and letters he said, “After a while I thought, well you know… If I KNEW when he was coming I’d have my 12-guage at the back door. But apparently he’s harmless. I don’t know, I don’t KNOW! It was like, who the HELL is this?” Wayne was a funny guy who appreciated the random nature of our encounter. He had his young kids come out to meet us in a “you’ll want to remember this day so I can tell you this story over-and-over as you age” kind of way.


Wayne Sund – in retrospect our visit to Wayne was a highlight of the early 90’s for IS. In many ways it has never quite worked out as intended in such spectacular fashion since. 

The young woman who answered Kathy Sherman’s door told us that Kathy was home, unhesitatingly invited us in, and announced in a super excited loud voice that Kathy had visitors. We guessed that our greeter had Down syndrome. Another roommate, also with Down syndrome, came out of the back room. We figured out quickly that it was a group home. We put away our camera. When Kathy came down the stairs her roommates clapped and cheered. She was beaming. Though we were naïve and inexperienced as documentarians, we did understand that this situation had transcended the authenticity we were seeking and had the potential to go straight to exploitation. Though Kathy was very excited to have us visit, she had zero recollection of ever having received any mail from us. I’m sure the cards and letters did make it to her, but on the afternoon we visited, she wasn’t able to connect me to the cards, which I had sent several months to a couple of years prior to our visit. It didn’t matter. We had a great time visiting and talking about life in the group home, about Freemont, who we were, and where we were from. There was never a question about why we came to visit. Reflecting on the experience outside, I had the first inkling of my own boundaries when working with real live people as an art medium. Siri and I could have easily filmed our entire visit to the group home, and even received verbal consent on camera, but that consent could not have been anything more than a technical acquiescence to be filmed. Aware that the group home residents did not understand that our project was a prank and that their names and images could be used for decades to make people laugh and scratch their heads, we determined that there was no ethical way to use any footage. More importantly, the moment was so genuinely human that worrying about capturing it would have simply distracted us from living it.

George O. Suydan wasn’t home. When we explained to the bewildered woman who answered the door that we were Pete and Siri and had been sending mail to George she lit up and exclaimed, “Oh Bergman! Yea! I’m his daughter in law. Nice to meet you after all this time. I’ve seen you in the pictures. Dad goes ‘WHO IS THIS’ and I said, ‘I don’t know, somebody friendly!’ He really appreciated and got a kick out of all the cards you sent!” Over lemonade on the porch, she told us George unfortunately had been relocated into an assisted living facility in Omaha. When we offered to start writing to him at his new address she replied, sadly, “He’s not all himself.”

Felix Unger’s son answered the door and went to get him.
“Hi! I’m Pete and this is Siri.”
“Oh yeah?”
“We’re the one’s who’ve been sending you postcards.”
“You the one sending postcards? Oh yeah? What are you guys doing here?”
“We’re just breezing through town and thought we’d visit and say hi.”
“Oh yeah?” (chuckles) “Well that’s weird ‘cause I was wondering where they were coming from. You know I get these in the mail and you don’t know what’s going on so basically I file 13 most of ‘em”

I’d given each recipient the name of someone else in their town I was writing to. I’d given Felix John Vecerra’s name – as it turns out someone he saw every day at work. “I talked to John Vecerra yesterday at work, or on Friday. When you said on the last one about your vacation to talk to John Vecerra. So I went and asked him. He said ‘I don’t know the guy either!”


The only piece of correspondence with a drawing – sent to John Vecerra of Freemont.

We caught up with John when he was on the way out of his apartment. When we introduced ourselves as Pete and Siri, the people who’d been writing him postcards, he seemed apprehensive. “Oh yeah? That was you? How did you pick me?”

“Out of the phone book. We picked ten people out of the Freemont phone book.”
“Oh yeah? What was the reason for that?”
“Just, I don’t know… To meet some different people…”

He invited us to breakfast the next morning at McDonald’s out on the highway. Over Egg McMuffins that John described as “not too exciting, but a way to start the day,” he told us about some area history and labor politics at the Hormel Factory where he worked with Felix Unger and was high up in the union.


John Vecerra outside of his address.

Scott Strouf’s house was about a mile out of town, but he wasn’t home. Riding back in the bed of a farm truck we’d hitched a ride from, Siri and I reflected on our visits. A few of them hadn’t panned out. People were no longer living at the addresses on my list or no one answered. The phone book on microfiche I’d grabbed may have been outdated. The addresses that were good, however, were really REALLY good. The people of Freemont had been openminded and either glad to meet us or very good at masking their anxiety.


Freemont Nebraska – Summer Crazy Days!

Newport, Rhode Island lowlights:

We did have one highlight in Newport. One of our first encounters was with a young couple, David and his girlfriend “Sweets,” who lived in an apartment building previously occupied by David Del Nero, who we had been writing to. After some confusion about having the same first name as our addressee, they became intrigued by our explanation of why we were lugging film cameras around Newport knocking on strangers’ doors and invited us back for dinner. Later that night in their apartment, David predicted we wouldn’t have as much luck in Newport as we reported having in Freemont. David described Newport as “pretty, but kind of a blue velvet pretty.” It is a town inhabited by a transient population of second home owning vacationers, Navy sailors and rotating faculty at the Naval War College, tribal New England fisherman, and the mega rich.


A case of mistaken identity! Dave and Sweets of Newport.

Newport was home to the monumental summer mansions of the Vanderbilts and other agriculture, railroad, and banking barons of the 19th century. Though life in the mid-1990s was considerably less opulent, many of Newport’s residents were still quite well-off, biding their time between Newport, New York or Boston apartments, and their boats. They were still heavily vested, philosophically if not outright financially, in a patrician East Coast class system.

Most of the addresses in Newport that were on our list were no longer inhabited by any occupants I’d written to. After a couple of days knocking on the doors of current inhabitants, ignorant of, or having purchased the home from, our addressees, we clued in that the Geisel Library’s phone books on microfiche were over a year out of date. We knocked on Ruth Erickson’s door, but it appeared to be an uninhabited house. Disappointed but resigned, we moved on.

Later that afternoon we caught up with Wilfred J. Buckley Jr., a fifty-something man who was out painting his porch. Wilfred had received some of the most sincere letters. Here’s an excerpt, “Wilfred, I want to share something with you. I want you to get a glimpse of what I’m like and have it make you happy. I want you to smile when you get a letter from me. That’s all I want. Sometimes, however I think people are just afraid of things like letters from strangers. I guess that’s just how it is…”


Wilfred Buckley Jr. of Freemont – a circa 1995 video still of a 110 photo reshot on a copy stand and then photographed while playing on a television of someone who never wanted their picture taken in the first place!

“Are you Wilfred?”
“Hi, I’m Pete and this is Siri. We’re the people who’ve been writing you those you postcards.”
“What was that all about?”
“Just for fun, kinda’.”
“You know you scared the hell out of a little old lady! Ruth Erickson? She’s about 85 years old and she got so damn scared with the cards that she moved out of her house and moved in with her daughter.”
“Really? Oh NO!?”
“Yes! And the daughter has gone to the police about it.”
“Well that’s certainly not what we intended.”
“Well I don’t know what you intended but it was strange and that’s what happened.”
“Did they upset you?”
“Uh, I really didn’t know what the hell they were doing and they upset me because up until August 1st I was on the road. My job put me on the road quite a bit and I would leave my wife here. She didn’t know what the hell to make of it.”
“Well we didn’t know…”
“Well… That’s… Doing it to a 20-year-old couple is different than doing it to an 80-year-old lady.”
“We had no idea, that’s why.”
“I didn’t particularly care for them to be very truthful.”
“We didn’t say anything threatening, or anything”
“No, they really weren’t that friendly either. They were kind of strange cards. In fact we still have the cards and letters in the house. That Christmas card you sent was kind of weird.”
“That’s too bad it was taken the wrong way but…”
“Well, I’m serious you had that woman really, really upset.”

Though Wilfred was hostile, he was measured. He didn’t threaten us, he scolded us – and rightly so. We packed up the next day and silently boarded the Greyhound out of town.


The East Coast in a nutshell. 

There is a time in the life of every antisocial, sarcastic, and angry young art punk when they reach this fork in the road. If they’re sober enough to make an informed decision, they can choose the right path by reflecting on the actual humans their shenanigans have targeted and avoid the path of nihilism and a life-long war on the happiness of everyone around them, and lastly but most importantly, themselves.

Though late 20th-century American ‘society’ deserved a good deconstructing, the unsuspecting individual civilians who comprised it did not deserve to have their lives upended for simply being listed in the phone book. Learning about Ruth Erikson’s reaction to my cards and letters caused me to realize, albeit a bit too late, that the unwritten rules of the art/life symbiosis dictate that it’s not appropriate to antagonize someone for artistic value if they themselves have not thrown some chips into the game… After the visit, I never sent another card or letter to anyone from Freemont or Newport.


A version of An Address premiered at Sociometry Fair ‘96. The final edit, a 36-minute VHS documentary, produced by Peter Miles Bergman and directed by Siri Noel Wilson in 1996 (available at the top of this report) won Best Documentary at the Denver Underground Film Festival in 1997. 

This report was written by agent Peter Miles Bergman and appeared for the first time 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 (use the code ISAGENT for 11% off). 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. 


Old Glory and The Valor Project

Thursday, August 3rd, 2017

INDIVIDUAL: Old Glory Condom Corporation – Worn With Pride
Country-Wide, President Jay Critchley
GROUP SIZE: Approximately 100,000 
NATURE OF GROUP: The cumulative number of AIDS cases reported in the US in 1989 (as of 2006 the cumulative number of AIDS related deaths is 650,000. Currently, an estimated 11.2 million people are living with HIV/AIDS) 
INCIDENCE: Old Glory Condom Corporation and The Valor Project 

This report was written by agent Jay Critchley – an early IS agent, mentor, and influence on is’s deployment of elaborate pranks as an art form. A version of this report was originally published in 1996 in The Report #1 an Institute of Sociometry zine of incidence reports that was discontinued in 1999 after issue #4 and was exhibited on a tri-fold display at Sociometry Fair ’96 in San Diego. This is also the third report in is EMANCIPATION, a handmade book in an edition of 200, and the official anthology of is at 21.


Jay Critchley circa 1990 with an Old Glory Condom

“The better part of valor is discretion.” − Shakespeare

Old Glory Condom President Jay Critchley first invoked the words of Patrick Henry at a 1989 press conference of the patriotic condom corporation. At the conference, held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s List Visual Arts Center, Critchley called on President George H.W. Bush to organize an army of safer sex soldiers to fight HIV/AIDS and redefine what it means to be patriotic: to protect and save lives.

The actual business, Old Glory Condom Corporation, which marketed condoms and T-shirts bearing the flag-inspired logo worldwide, was launched on Flag Day in 1990, concurrent with the World AIDS Conference in San Francisco. The corporation filed for a trademark from the US government for its logo and its name, but the Trademark Office ruled, “it was immoral and scandalous to associate the flag with sex” and denied the application. Center for Constitutional Rights lawyer David Cole protested the decision and the trademark was ultimately granted after a three-year legal battle.


The Product…

Old Glory Condoms – Condoms with a Conscience received widespread media coverage, including a front page piece in The Washington Post and a feature story in People Magazine. Senator Jesse Helms, an architect of the culture wars, inadvertently created the first global safer sex commercial by holding up the Old Glory logo and denouncing its trademark in the US Senate, in an episode that was broadcast on CNN.

Condom use remains the essential HIV preventive practice. Despite the draconian anti-sex attitudes of the U.S. government and the Roman Catholic Church, the elementary and effective condom remains the most essential means to control the spread of HIV.

The Valor Project, another safer sex project initiated by Old Glory Condom President Jay Critchley, proposed a simple proposition: collect, categorize, and archive used condoms – including those mailed in, delivered, or gathered from city streets. It was a sex-positive, “hands-on” endeavor that commended people for enjoying safer sex in the midst of the AIDS pandemic.

The Valor Project proposed to establish a collection point where individuals, couples, or groups brought their used condoms and documented their sexual experiences. For this project, AIDS organizations and education and prevention workers who reached out to diverse communities would be invited to participate and help coordinate The Valor Project with their existing efforts. It was through this initiative that IS agents first become pen pals and collaborators with Jay Critchley. After coming across a photocopy of his used condom submission forms IS agents began to collect and mail in their evidence of safer sex. For Sociometry Fair ’96 IS agents, under Jay’s direction and in accordance with the parameters of The Valor Project, created a tri-fold display with a map of San Diego that pinpointed where safer sex practices took place, and an archival display of the condom specimens that were collected in San Diego over the course of six months.


The Valor Project flyer received in the mail in 1995 with used condom submission forms received (and subsequently used for submissions) by San Diego IS agents.

The Old Glory Condom Company, and the legal battle over its trademark, was reported on from 1989-1993 by: Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, The Provincetown Banner, Diamondback, High Performance, Legal Times, The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, New York Woman, Newsweek, People Magazine, The Provincetown Advocate, San Francisco Chronicle, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.

This report was most recently 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. 


The Cacophony Society

Friday, July 14th, 2017

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.