“Carnival Cosmology” by Gary Warne

This year’s Burning Man theme, “Carnival of Mirrors,” seems to be continuing in the default world, with some not-so-pretty funhouse mirrors clanging and shattering against each other every time non-understanders-of-the-dirt-rave make a dissonant mainstream commercial exploitation device or hone in on rich people and two-day bug infestations in the desert. Instead of maybe talking about how a temporary city for over 70,000 people appears and disappears each year with precision and grace.

However, those of us still cleaning up the desert out here haven’t borne the full brunt of the squares’ warped notions of Burning Man. We’re still away from mass media and mainstream life, safe and sound in the Resto bubble.

We in the Department of Public Works are still riding high on the like-clockworkness of this season’s staging and strike — and still happy to be rolling around the desert as roustabouts in our very own circus sideshow. We are all carnival and circus fetishists here, to some degree. For many of us, life and work are the same thing, to be ridden like a … well, like a carnival ride.

Wouldn’t you know it, Burning Man’s — and the Cacophony Society‘s — dang paterfamilias Gary Warne once wrote himself an infamous essay about just such a concept. We’re posting it in full, because it needs to live on the Burning Man site and we can’t believe it doesn’t already.

Never heard of Gary Warne, have you? Tragically, he died suddenly at age 35 in 1983, but not before leaving a huge scorchmark on the earth. It’s no understatement to say we are all still playing in his smoke and ash.

Gary Warne, c. 1979
Gary Warne, c. 1979

Gary Warne founded the Suicide Club with four other people in 1977, while he was teaching classes on pranks and hijinks as part of the budding “free-school” movement at UCSF’s Communiversity.

The proto-punk Suicide Club morphed a few years later into the Cacophony Society, “a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society.”

Early Cacophonists were the ones who invented Burning Man, after 89 people took one of Cacophony’s newly-notorious Zone Trips out to the Black Rock Desert in 1990, inviting Larry Harvey and Jerry James to bring along their wooden statue the cops wouldn’t let them burn at Baker Beach.

Tyler Durden Invented Burning Man

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.

art by Kevin Evans from Tales of the SF Cacophony Society
art by Kevin Evans from Tales of the SF Cacophony Society

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. (more…)