Is a friendly game of strip dreidel a matter of concern for the Department of Homeland Security?
To celebrate an exhibit and a documentary detailing the high jinks of prankster crew the Cacophony Society — best known for helping to spawn Burning Man and SantaCon in the early 1990s — the group is creating a "Caco-palooza" at Santa Ana's Grand Central Art Center, which includes a film screening and a block party outside the Art Center during Santa Ana's monthly Art Walk on Feb. 4.
The street party, organized by filmmaker and longtime society member Jon Alloway and Cacophony Society prime mover Al Ridenour, will offer live entertainment by Cacophony-flavored (read: cheerfully yet darkly subversive) musicians and performance artists, such as "Chuckles the Klown offering a playful yet safe yet really playful demonstration on needle safety," "Dr. Sunshine, who uses uplifting humor to teach about hideous disfigurement and tragedy," and strip dreidel, which crosses a phone booth–size version of the Hanukkah toy with teen party game Spin the Bottle.
While planning for the event, Ridenour received an email from Vicky Baxter, executive director of Downtown Inc., which produces the Santa Ana Art Walk. Baxter wrote that she had received a call from "Mike McCoy, Homeland Security," who issues permits for events from the city, saying that he had "spent some time looking at the event website and is concerned about what will be presented to the public [and] is asking for a detailed description of what will be presented to avoid any issues with public complaints or controversy." Ridenour responded with an accurate yet clearly tongue-in-cheek letter to McCoy, reprinted in a blog post at our sister paper O.C. Weekly, that included a satire of hand-wringing over controversial art by referring to "the threat of civil disturbance raised by the exhibition of art by Thomas Kinkade, 'Painter of Light.' "
Santa Ana Police Department did not return calls seeking comment, but Baxter said the incident was a misunderstanding. McCoy, she explains, is a Santa Ana city police officer in charge of special event permits, and the "Homeland Security" mention was a little misleading — he works on security at the municipal, not the federal level. "It just got blown way out of proportion," she says.
But the Cacophony Society picked up this morsel of controversy and ran with it. The event now will have a Homeland Security Hospitality Station, offering doughnuts as well as space for DHS to offer literature. The Cacophony Society's motto is, "You may already be a member," meant to stress the inclusive and anarchistic spirit of the group. They'll now be selling T-shirts that say: "You may already be a terrorist."
"They're just shoveling comedy fodder our way," says a highly gratified Ridenour. "The absurdity of it is welcome — that's what we traffic in. It makes us all feel needed."
Alloway says with a laugh, "We wanted to be shut down! If you get shut down, you get a publicity bonanza and you never have to produce the show, but that didn't quite pan out."
The Cacophony Society is all about the absurd — pointing it out or creating it from scratch, whether in simple forms, such as misleading fliers stapled to telephone poles, or in more elaborate ways, like pouring cement into stuffed animals and replacing them on store shelves. Raising an inflated sense of alarm in the humorless — as in, "Oh my God, what are all of these people dressed as dogs doing at the Oscars!?" — is a favorite Cacophonist pastime, all for the fun of tinkering with sleepwalk normalcy.
So if your primary goal is to avoid controversy, the Cacophony Society isn't going to help. Its activities are unsettling, yes, but not dangerous. (Disclosure: I participated in several Cacophony events in the late 1990s and early 2000s.)
The Cacophony Society began in San Francisco in 1986, influenced by the likes of Dada, the early-20th-century anarchist, anti-art movement, and Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film Stalker and its concept of "the Zone," a space where people can fulfill their innermost desires. The group later opened main branches in L.A. and Portland, as well as smaller branches in other cities.
Some of its events went mainstream. Members of the San Francisco branch who decided to burn an effigy on the beach but were shut down by police wound up creating Burning Man, the outsider-art gathering in the Nevada desert that now attracts 50,000 people. SantaCon, aka Santarchy, the gathering of hundreds of drunken, Santa-suited pub crawlers, had its origins in a Cacophony event designed around the idea of "taking what people want and giving them way too much of it." Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club, was a member, and some of the stunts in that book and the Brad Pitt film version — such as reillustrating airplane-safety instruction cards — were inspired by the group's doings.
The Los Angeles branch began when Michael Mikel, one of the original founders of Burning Man, came to Los Angeles and began germinating interest by putting up fliers for events that may or may not have actually happened — no one is sure. Ridenour saw a flier and contacted Mikel, and was anointed head of the L.A. lodge.
Ridenour eventually retired from his post in 2000 and shifted his focus to his performance art group The Art of Bleeding, but a revived lodge sprang up in 2008 and continues to run SantaCon, the L.A. Marathon Rest Stop and other events.
Beyond officially designated Cacophony events, the Cacophonist influence is seen in activities such as flash mobs, public scene-makers Improv Everywhere and sewer-spelunking Urban Explorers.
Alloway and Ridenour are pleased that the film will be screened at the "Cacophony-friendly" Yost Theatre, which prior to its restoration had been, variously, a vaudeville venue, a jail and a porn theater.
The Cacophony artifacts on display at Grand Central Art Center include the mummy of exotic dancer Bubbles La Blanche (an artifact of a burlesque séance reanimation prank), giant salmon suits, dog costumes, the "Cement Cuddlers" stuffed toys and, for good measure, a passed-out clown in a three-man circus tent.
It's easy to see why the group would court controversy. Says Ridenour, "We're all kind of getting on, and it just warms the cockles of my heart that there's still somebody that worries that what we're doing is not right."
Into the Zone: The Story of the Cacophony Society screens at 4 p.m. on Sat., Feb. 4, at the Yost Theatre, 307 N. Spurgeon St, Santa Ana, followed by a Q&A discussion. The opening party for "The Cacophony Society Zone Show: You May Already be a Member" is 7-10 p.m. Feb. 4 at the Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana; the show runs through April 15.