Filed under: Art Pranks, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Pranksters
‘The Cacophony Society’ is more than just a clown show
by Richard Chang
The Orange County Register
February 10, 2012
Grand Central Art Center is exploring one of America’s most playful fringe organizations in ‘The Cacophony Society – Zone Show.’
Multi-colored fliers line the walls outside Grand Central Art Center’s Main Gallery. A blue banner hangs from the ceiling and reads, “Welcome Homeland Security.”
A red, black and white sign just inside the Main Gallery mysteriously states: “You may already be a member.” Further inside, chaos and mayhem ensue.
Grand Central Art Center
125 N. Broadway
Santa Ana, California
Through April 15, 2012
11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and Sundays
11 a.m.-7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
“The Cacophony Society – Zone Show” is the newest exhibition at Santa Ana’s Grand Central Art Center. It opened Feb. 4 with a massive reception attended by thousands crowding the Artists Village, and continues through April 15.
The show looks back at a series of events, pranks and performances by Cacophony Societies in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, New York and, before them, the original Suicide Club of San Francisco.
For the uninitiated, the Cacophony Society – created in 1986 – is a loosely organized collective of guerrilla artists, Dada pranksters and oddball eccentrics seeking “experiences beyond the mainstream.” The society grew out of the ashes of the Suicide Club, founded in San Francisco in 1977.
Cacophony Society members have a taste for surrealist sabotage, gluing toasters to light posts, infiltrating cults, and filling teddy bears with cement and placing them on actual store shelves.
The society’s best-known activities have been the Burning Man festival at Black Rock Desert in Nevada, and Santa Claus rampages that have occurred in cities around the world. One society member, Chuck Palahniuk, penned a Cacophony-inspired novel titled “Fight Club,” which became a major 1999 motion picture starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.
The Grand Central exhibit was organized by Cal State Fullerton professor and gallery director Mike McGee and members of the Los Angeles Cacophony Society, namely Al Ridenour, Jon Alloway and Albert Cuellar. The show is filled with fliers, posters, photographs, costumes, installations, gag products and original art overhead – none of which is labeled.
“The style of Cacophony is madhouse,” said Ridenour, founder of the L.A. Cacophony Society. “It’s dense, with lots of angles. The show consists of old props from events, photos, videos and loops. There’s footage from events. It’s meant to be an immersive experience.”
Without a doubt, there’s a lot of clowning going on in the Cacophony Society. Members have often dressed up in clown costumes and acted accordingly.
But members have also worn dog costumes and crashed a Beverly Hills dog show. They’ve put on bandages, fake blood and zombie makeup and attended political conventions, holding signs that scream, “Zombies for Gore.” And, of course, they’ve donned the red and white Santa outfits and careened through downtown districts with drunken abandon, prompting the city of Portland to respond with police in full riot gear in 1996.
“Their whole thing is really about nihilism, and about a celebration of the individual,” McGee said. “It’s the individual over corporate mentality. They’re always trying to do things that get people to look at things differently.”
A Created Controversy?
Before it even opened, the Santa Ana exhibition caused some controversy, though much of it was self-generated. When organizers of the exhibit and the reception outside were in the process of obtaining permits, their plans fell under the scrutiny of Downtown Incorporated of Santa Ana, which produces street fairs and Santa Ana’s monthly Art Walk, and a police officer in charge of issuing permits for the city.
Mike McCoy, who works for the Santa Ana Police Department’s Division of Homeland Security, raised concerns about initial aims to set objects on fire with a barbecue propellant. He voiced those concerns to Vicky Baxter, executive director of Downtown Inc., who subsequently asked the exhibit’s organizers for details on the opening night activities.
Here’s where things got a little screwy. Either intentionally or accidentally, members of the L.A. Cacophony Society saw “Homeland Security” and immediately set off the alarms to their constituents. On its website, cacophony.org, and through press releases, the Cacophony Society warned that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was getting involved in a peaceful domestic assembly, inquiring in Big Brother fashion about the activities planned for the Feb. 4 opening.
In reality, the federal Department of Homeland Security was never involved. It was just McCoy, the officer who works for the Santa Ana Police’s Division of Homeland Security, and for a few days, a handful of people managed to create a firestorm out of mere kindling.
McCoy declined comment, but Cpl. Anthony Bertagna, spokesman for the Santa Ana Police Department, said, “They’ve got the wrong Homeland Security. Part of (McCoy’s) regular duties are to work with city staff to approve and review city permits.”
“The whole brouhaha is kind of funny,” McGee said at the time. “The Cacophony Society wanted to burn piñatas but they can’t. ‘Homeland Security’ is a red herring. It’s just Mike (McCoy’s) title.”
The made-up controversy did attract attention, however, and between 3,500 and 4,000 people showed up to the opening reception, held on the promenade outside Grand Central in conjunction with Santa Ana’s monthly Art Walk. A bevy of art cars, zany performances and musical acts were part of the festivities. Even a Homeland Security Hospitality Station was set up, offering free coffee and donuts.
Into and Out of the Zone
Though the Feb. 4 opening was a well-attended event, Cacophony Societies (or lodges) in Los Angeles and other cities slowed down their activities by 2003 or so. The aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, and America’s heightened sense of security have had something to do with it, says Alloway, a Cacophony member and director of the documentary, “Into the Zone: The Story of the Cacophony Society.”
“It was a really, really great thing in its time,” said Alloway, who describes himself as “terminally 39” years old. “It did a lot for me, it did a lot for a lot for a lot of people, but it was a very temporal experience, and that time has passed. It never had any grander aspirations whatsoever. It was just doing stuff for fun.”
Over the years, Alloway attended many Cacophony events, and he filmed a number of them. He assembled the footage, plus interviews with Palahniuk and other Cacophony members, into his documentary, which he screened to a sold-out audience at Santa Ana’s Yost Theatre on Feb. 4.
Alloway is still putting finishing touches on his film. He hopes to show it at different events across the country, including art car gatherings, and in Europe. You can learn more about the documentary at intothezonemovie.com.
As for L.A. founder Ridenour, he’s thinking about writing a book about the Cacophony experience.
“It’s important because it tells people that you can go further,” said Ridenour, who happens to be married to comedian and actress Margaret Cho.
“There are circumscribed limits you have on your life. You don’t need to stay within those. You can go beyond those. There are experiences that you can have in the middle of the night in abandoned buildings. … It’s out there, and there are groups that have done it. You needn’t feel alone, if that’s something that’s exciting to you, if your life has become repetitive or boring or meaningless. It’s that kind of stimulation of breaking some rules.”