by Molly Hankwitz, June 2020.
The Suicide Club, pre-cursor to the more notorious Cacophony Society, was founded by Gary Warne, Adrianna Burk, David Warren and Nancy Prussia in San Francisco in 1977 and was finished by about 1982.
Pro Arts gallery, Oakland, held a talk on the Club as part of the retrospective exhibition SIGNMAN: JOHN LAW curated by Natalia Mount. The talk was certainly an open nod to the ideas and the friendships forged in the ultimate “now” of being around at that time, and searching for the soul of creative practice. At the same time as a contemporary gallery talk, the substance of the Club’s activity was showcased to a new, younger audience and gave depth to knowing the work of John Law, Oakland artist. The gallery space was full of Law’s art and audience and one time members of the Club were peppered throughout. Cacophony Society leader, and co-creator of early Burning Man events, John Law, and Don Herron, Suicide Club member and founder of the Dashiel Hammett walking tours in San Francisco were both present and engaged us with lively conversation.
Such underground groups and events (there were many) have have scant representation in scholarship. Their anarchical, free-thinking, and unconventional methods legendary at the time are often difficult to pin down or discover in documents. Arguably, this fact alone leads to the ongoing legendary status some art groups have garnered. The Situationist International for example, owes much to their own ambiguity in terms of curious writers and artists speculating on their past. Competitive efforts at authority revolve around who can get to the rare collections; who knows enough French, and who understands radical politics of 1960s Paris. In the case of the Suicide Club’s elaborate surrealistic escapades, news articles, photographs, and other ephemera, likewise, cannot tell us much about what it was like to take part. But, to start off, the speakers dispelled myths that suicide had anything to do with their objectives. Nor was it or any attempts at it ever a prerequisite for Club participation. Rather, Club members needed to participate in varied street theater events and pranks such as when 30 members rode San Francisco cable cars stark naked and wrote post cards along the way to commemorate their excursion. (see links below) Elaborate games in odd locales and urban explorations and inhabitations of abandoned industrial buildings, cemeteries, sewerways, waterways, and bridges were noted as some of these “locales”. They also tried “infiltrations.” Infiltrations of the Unification Church and The American Nazi Party were particularly impressive and resonated with media-hacking performance/actions such as those of The Yes Men.
It’s difficult to recreate exactly how underground “live” art was received or how it impacted participants, but as art history it is compelling to revisit the spirit of the time from perspective of those who did the work. Law describes the Suicide Club as semi-formless; an ad hoc and an action-oriented conceptual art group, whose claim to secrecy was due to public nudity or trespassing, both illegal in San Francisco, CA. In several newspaper clippings and photographs, members in costume appear grinning, suggestive of the delight in getting away with something. Between the top-secret dramatic locations, the scant documentation, and unpublished scripting which took place during their events, their’s was an art of liminality or impossibility in a sense; deliberately defiant of particular categorization and with an orientation toward “thrill”. The work was not made for an audience but for those who practiced by participating in the work. If we fill in the blanks, we can concieve of their events as similar to the psychogeographical works of the SI; an effort to experience experience, however romantically, in a capitalist world; an effort to touch the inner mind and conscience and dream-state of the artistic imagination.
Radical gestures such as the public nudity gave the Club its legendary status and that status was once again earned when they morphed into The Cacophony Society, a profoundly non-art collective effort to be absurd; dadaist. The Cacophony Society influenced many artists and audiences through their highly-visible public works. Santacon, for instance, was a playful and amusing critique of retail commodity culture. When dozens of Santas flood the pre-Christmas retail scene, identically dressed, they present the spectacle of capitalist Christmas as the hall of mirrors it is. The 2014 publication of the Cacophony Society book, Tales of the Cacophony Society, and John Law’s retrospective reflect upon the great post-modern fun artists had at that time.
Other detailed descriptions of the Club’s activities included the effort and care which went into planning while confirming that participation could be anyone invited by any member and that all one had to do was to be willing to make events happen. There was rarely a dull moment when the Cacophony society was around, because art became an unofficial stream of events intervening in the boredom of American urban public space.
One considers some of the excess and liberation of the San Francisco art scene such as early gay liberation art made here when gay rights barely existed elsewhere, or when women’s performance took over in the 1960s and 1970s. Lynn Hershman Leeson, Suzanne Lacey, Annie Sprinkle were all makes of this scene, so well documented by art historian/writer Moira Roth. In these efforts, it was often exclusion from the art world which triggered the rise in momentum. The first project of San Francisco’s experimental scene has been the shelving the white-walled gallery space and focusing energy instead upon uncontrolled, anarchic bodies and the performance of experience. The Suicide Club challenged normative social reality and the control of public space. Hence, even the name, Suicide Club, suggests an act of poor taste, or at least one pointing social reality out of the way of denial. Moreover, their disregard for the strictures of public safety as purported by the ‘safe’, the Club sent a message of physical and spiritual freedom. The more private, immersive experiments were expressions of art-as-engaged-experience not as something passively viewed.
Today, even more so now in the post-Covid Zoom world, multiple screens, dependent upon device/platform/information, display art as a thinly-veiled augmentation of everyday life; a spectacle which simply circulates and mainstreams artifacts amidst efforts to avoid market research lifting.
This distanced seeing/experience cannot possibly replace the experience of art; as much as we also attempt to make it an artform and to be networked. Art cannot be learned or performed as a packaged event, or a mere expression of information tourism, reliant upon data and image gluts. Art, thus made falls forever over backwards into its own mistaken quantification. The work of art becomes a game.
John Law is a professional artist, a sign painter by trade wit a studio overlooking Oakland from the Tribune tower. His unconventional works have rarely intersected in any predictable or packaged way with the official art world. But, as a leader of the Billboard Liberation Front, and “fueled by a single passion: the timely improvement of outdoor advertising” he made climbing up interstate billboards and altering the meaning of advertisements into a revolutionary, culture jamming practice. Always maintaining an artistic career deliberately out of bounds, he has been a catalyst as an artist. Cities of the Bay Area were used by the Suicide Club as a backdrop upon which to play, to dream; to ignite artistic relevance and passion. Who the dreams were for or what the fact of dreaming meant remains in the artifacts, the players, the memories of the Club’s existence.
A Legacy in Art
The conscious formulation of an ethos which embraced artistic freedom and experimentation was behind the Suicide Club’s antics. Law described himself scouting for useable, vacant structures: waterways, accessible rooftops, empty warehouses, and anchored ships. He and other members would study access to these locations as a form of artistic reconnaissance to see if they could get in and use them. An accessible space would then become immersive worlds for the future event. But it is also clear that the mere act of transgressive trespassing and illegality was part of the art; a way of defying law and order thinking and of laying claim to the city. Such was established a methodology in defiance of surveillance, in what the late Cacophony artist Cary Galbraith referred to as “the zone”, resonating with Hakim Bey’s “autonomous zones” and the “ambient unity” laments of the SI, who rethought Paris as a place of play.
In one of these events, lines of a script and directions were typed on a typewriter as the group progressed, making immediate any form to the operations of the event and allowing for experimentations in the constructs of power, much like an Yvonne Rainer film questions the structures of authority in filmmaking. Thus, props, space, and ideas were in a collective convergence or flow in these Club events, similar to the manner by which VR or “game worlds” adjust according to players’ choices while changing in physical atmosphere. Desire, action, expression unfolded according to a collective plan or agreement and the makers were the audience. Once they dressed up, each as a different animal, and got on a public MUNI bus. “Who was going to arrest a bunch of people dressed as animals?,” Law said with a smile. How much defying of authority could they get away with?
The anti-logic was clear. The Pro Arts audience nodded and grinned. Some audience had been there dressed up as the animals. “Only about 20 people would know anything at all,” Law stated when asked about secrecy. He then recalled how women members were challenged to learn new skills. Word processing or food preparation would be sidelined for climbing a long rope three stories to reach the window, instead, or by swimming in freezing-cold water on a dare. Contemporary “escape rooms” which come with a high priced ticket and reservation or the adult-only “pirate parties” of the 2000s might be considered bourgeious examples of said- relief from ordinary lifestyles.
Immersive artworks are now produced with VR and AR. These artforms have a history in experimental film, projection art, and video installation. Immersive, emotional, even learning environments have had two main directions. One, they are designed to allow single or multi-viewer interaction with virtual elements and narratives as part of a “game” type world – the most obvious analogy for immersive display – and open the concept of “world-making” to collective input (think Minecraft) and to “game-changing” where game-space and “storyline” and characters are co-created by viewers/players. Of equal if not greater potential, however, due to its more direct route to the senses, in terms of experience, is the use of programming and visuals to re-direct expectations of game play (frequently the thought processes of military industrial entertainment) in order to produce shocking, surprise effects and experiences for the viewer/participant. In these works, viewers identify with and experience the emotional landscapes of others and learn to judge the formulations of “navigation” from a critical standpoint.
Tamiko Thiel and Zara Houshmand’s (with activist Susan Hayase) VR installation, Beyond Manzanar, first produced in the 1990s, has been recently revamped as an immersive installation and expands on mainstream concepts “game-worlds” to raise questions of “the connection between the racial profiling and scapegoating that led to mass violations of Japanese Americans’ rights and the similar fear and hate-mongering aimed at Iranian Americans during the “Iranian Hostage Crisis” (November 1979 to January 1981) to those who experience the art. Beyond the expectation of play that is inherently part of the VR spatial imagination, Beyond Manzanar is a highly controlled “experience” in which, despite the choices of movement which a participant might expect to “get” or to “want”, the viewer/participants find themselves imprisoned inextricably or bombed from above in locations associated with beauty and peace. The logic of “freedom” is undermined by the reprogramming of spatial expectations, through the subversive mapping of Japanese and Iranian cultural spaces deployed visually and technologically. Arguably, this intent to immerse the viewer in an unfamiliar logic, so as to job them out of their everyday way of seeing is close to the intentions of The Suicide Club when they sometimes took up a perilous ‘playspace’ for the pleasure of experiencing what was unanticipated. Both artistic efforts utilize immersive reality for purposes of experimental investigation into ethical and meaningful action as well as to critique social norms and convention.
Beyond Manzanar stills from video.
John Law’s retrospective, SIGNMAN: JOHN LAW, a collection of neon-works, photographs and small sculptures was enmeshed with themes of transgressive movement. The use of police tape, the adumbrated billboards, even the unlikely publishing of his photographs, billboard and climbing work in media of the time, offer a glimpse into Law the artist who worked to suggest a function for himself as artist within and without convention. Ultimately, the work of John Law, and the Suicide Club, can be read as a deep and authentic understanding of the public and private city as a space upon which anarchy can act, and be rewarded.
The work of The Suicide Club and The Cacophony Society speaks to a lineage of artists who went after uncontrolled expression amidst encroaching surveillance, taxing of flows, gated communities; law and order, hegemony, sexism, and the pervasive privatization of urban life.
Links and Resources
Photo of the Reenactment of the Summer of Love by Greg Mancuso,
All other photos (with exception of Playland, n.a.) courtesy, Molly Hankwitz.
The Suicide Club archive – https://www.scribd.com/document/213747288/Cacophony-Society-00-Lanc
The Suicide Club chronology of events – http://www.suicideclub.com/events/
Suzanne Lacy Performance/Installation – https://www.suzannelacy.com/performance-installation