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The Unkillable Arts Underground

Against all odds, San Francisco's counterculture is thriving. You just have to know where to find it.

SLIDESHOW

Flask Mob, Skate Park, 2015

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Camp Tipsy, 2013

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Suicide Club member in Training, 1978

Photo: Robert Campbell

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Cacophony Society Golden Gate Bridge Dinner party, circa 1990

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TWAT Dinner Party, 2015

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St. Stupid’s Day Parade, 1995

Photo: Courtesy of Cacophony

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Camp Tipsy, 2014

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TWAT Dinner Party, 2015

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Rupa and the April Fishes concert, Signal room, New Year’s Eve 2015

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Apple billboard defaced by Billboard Liberation Front, 1999

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Signal Room, New Year’s Eve 2015

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Fallen Cosmos, 2015

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Flask Mob, Skate Park, 2015

Photo: Evan Thompson

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Leigh Crow in Club Inferno at the Hypnodrome, 2015

Photo: David Wilson

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It’s practically pitch-dark, and I’m crouching alongside 13 other people on a patch of grass and fallen branches off a muddy trail below the 338-foot summit of Yerba Buena Island. There’s a road just ahead, and somewhere off to the right we can see the headlights of a security guard’s car. If he notices us, the jig will be up, which is why we’re hunkered down like a bunch of commandos. We’re waiting for the number two in charge, a 20-ish guy named Albert stationed at the front of the group, to give us the signal to cross the road.

“Walk briskly, don’t run,” Albert whispers as we scamper across the asphalt, one half-bent trespasser trailing another. Suddenly the light down the road gets brighter, and Eugene, our leader and the mastermind of this ninja excursion, materializes out of the dark and barks, “Run!” We all take off up the trail. Wiping the sweat off my face, I wonder what the authorities will do if they catch a gang of backpack-toting intruders wandering around at night near the vulnerable midsection of the Bay Bridge. But the scare turns out to be a false alarm. The security guard hasn’t seen us.

We stumble up to the summit and gather around an old wooden building, one you’ve likely seen before: It’s the structure you glimpse for a split second at the top of your windshield as you’re hurtling into the tunnel on the bridge. The building, an old air traffic control tower, has a trapdoor through which we enter. After squeezing through a narrow cleft in a wall, we find ourselves at the foot of a stairway lit by battery-powered lights and adorned with World War II–era posters. We climb up three stories and emerge in a square room, about 25 by 25 feet, with large windows on every side.

I knew more or less what I was going to see, but seeing it is still a revelation. We are looking at one of the greatest urban vistas in the world. To the west is glittering downtown San Francisco, an electric Valhalla whose arching Rainbow Bridge floats mere yards below us. To the west and north, the Golden Gate Bridge soars above the black waters of the bay, the lights of Marin and Richmond in the distance. To the east, the Bay Bridge’s ghostly white suspension tower and wild profusion of cables explode in a psychedelic close-up. To the south, the bay stretches off to points unseen.

We are the only 14 people in the world who are taking in this enchanted panorama. And because this old tower is slated to be demolished in a few months as part of the impending development of Yerba Buena Island, very few people will ever see it again. That knowledge—and the fact that we had to make our way up a dark hillside and crawl on our bellies to get here—makes the few hours we spend here unforgettable. That’s why we did this: to escape the normal, to capture the sublime.

Forget what you’ve heard about the cultural death of San Francisco, the end of its experimental streak, the commodification of its soul. Though artists and bohemians are indeed in full flight to Oakland and beyond, the countercultural urban underground is alive and, yes, still thriving in this town. On any given night of the week, some group or another—from a two- or three-person sleeper cell to a hundreds-strong flash mob—is rooting around in the sewers; throwing an avant-garde dinner party; placing an abandoned piano on a seaside cliff and setting it aflame; holding a comedy night in a former nunnery; breaking into a working factory; subverting a billboard; staging a concert in which the spectators play electronic instruments; spitting, swallowing, twirling, jump-roping, and belly dancing with fire; or creating an elaborate three-dimensional version of a Hieronymus Bosch painting in an abandoned warehouse. Some of these events/parties/who-knows-what-the-hell-they-are are hosted by established groups with web presences and email addresses and names—the Institute of Possibility, the Elsewhere Philatelic Society, Fou Fou Ha!, Cyclecide, the First Church of the Last Laugh, the Latitude Society (now sadly defunct), Sunset Piano, Flask Mob, Big Dick’s House of Big Boobs. Some are thrown by organizations so deep underground that their names cannot be published. Very few of these coteries advertise or market themselves in any traditional way, opting instead to spread the word by email, text, Snapchat, or mouth. Despite this covertness, their events have a huge following: Chicken John Rinaldi, the acerbic P. T. Barnum (or, some would say, Boss Tweed) of the San Francisco underground, contends that “tens of thousands” of Bay Areans regularly participate in these near-nightly happenings—the world’s weirdest silent majority.

Indeed, the current scene—which is still anchored in San Francisco but with tentacles spreading throughout the Bay Area—is so heterogeneous, vast, and fast-changing that it’s almost impossible to define. Each event and each group is just one bucket in a vast, absurdist sea. “Finding the underground is an impossible task,” Rinaldi says. “If you set out to list all the groups and stuff going on, it would take so much time that when you were done, you’d have to start over, because it would all have changed.”

Nonetheless, there are some consistent themes—modi operandi that will turn up again and again within the following pages. One of them is the underground’s obsession with urban exploration, often of the extralegal variety. Those drawn into the undercity are naturally thrilled by the heightened sense of place that results from being somewhere illicit. But there’s a hard-core subset who scorn any mission unless it involves lawbreaking or physical danger (preferably both). For these renegade virtuosos, the exaltation of breaking into a working factory or climbing a bridge is its own reward. They work solo, or in groups of two or three, and conduct such difficult and dangerous missions that they won’t divulge their destinations. The only way they share their experiences is by taking (often extraordinary) photographs and videos. Other urban explorers are more interested in creating events, using a derelict building, or a tunnel, or even a well-known but off-limits civic space as a kind of stage set. What binds them together is that they’re all experience junkies—and the weirder and more intense the experience, the better.

Eugene Ashton-Gonzalez, the leader of the aforementioned caper to the place he calls the Signal Room, is an urban explorer who (usually) leans toward the theatrical rather than the breaking-and-entering end of the spectrum. I meet him the day before our Yerba Buena expedition, at a café in downtown Berkeley. The 30-year-old former actor, Moth storyteller, chef, and video game designer describes himself as an “experience designer” or “place maker,” his events as “transgressive theater.” “I like to create magic circles, separate from reality,” he tells me. His signature events are elaborate five-course dinner parties, called Eat My Heart Out, for which he interviews five people and works with a chef to create five “edible metaphors” that reflect their individual stories.

I ask Ashton-Gonzalez if he might take me on one of the excursions he leads, and so, at the end of our conversation, he tells me to be at a churro stand on Treasure Island the following night. That is how I end up on Yerba Buena Island, in a magic cockpit suspended above the bay. My fellow travelers are a friendly and unpretentious bunch, all in their 20s and 30s, evenly split by gender and eclectic in ethnicity. Most are veterans of these kinds of furtive excursions. Eugene hands out candles, cautioning us to keep them below the level of the windows. Gathering us into a circle, he welcomes us and gives us each a hug. After this brief ritual, he invites us to have a drink at a jury-rigged bar atop a counter, which Eugene has stocked with whiskey and glasses. He and a few coconspirators have also hauled in a bunch of chairs, a couch, the lights, the old posters, and even an upright piano. There’s water to drink and a five-gallon bucket downstairs to pee in—all the comforts of an outpost on Mars, two miles away from my apartment.

We spend the next couple of hours drinking, storytelling, and talking shop. One thirtysomething guy hanging out by the bar opines about dealing with the police: “The young ones often don’t want to feel like they’ve become a total cop, so you can be more real with them. The old ones, you grovel.” After a chilly visit to the roof, Eugene announces that it’s time to go. With a few others, I gravitate back to the Signal Room’s window to soak in the intergalactic view for the last time ever. Then we tromp down the stairs and return to Treasure Island via a mercifully easier western route. As we walk, some of my companions tell me about a mind-blowing event in an incredible, secret location that they recently attended with hundreds of other experience seekers. It was put on by a group about which I’ve been hearing for weeks and weeks, and whose name I’ve sworn not to divulge—the Skull and Bones of the San Francisco underground.

In one of this shadowy group’s elaborate events, a revival held in a church, attendees were judged in the main sanctuary by a priest and his clergy and then either led to a basement hell equipped with whiskey, piñatas, and a washtub band or taken to a bell tower stocked with absinthe, violinists, and heavenly views. I’ve since tried to interview the principals of this group, but they don’t want publicity and implore me not to share anything more than I already have here. All they’ll say is that they’ve put on 18 events in four years. As I spend more and more time drifting around the underground, the specter of the Group That Dares Not Speak Its Name drifts tantalizingly overhead, like the sentient red balloon floating just out of reach of the little boy.

Finally, we make it down the hill and emerge onto artificial, pancake-flat Treasure Island. I say my goodbyes, get back into my car, and drive off. Ten minutes, a mile and a half, and a universe later, I’m back in my apartment on Telegraph Hill, wondering if I actually just did that.

 

The San Francisco underground has a million ancestors, and none: By its nature it is a self-generating species, like those parthenogenetic creatures that give birth to themselves. Even so, its current culture was in large part shaped by one particular group: the Cacophony Society, which grew out of a tiny organization called the Suicide Club. In underground circles, the Suicide Club has an almost untouchable status. It was among the first to organize urban explorations. Its members were early practitioners of culture jamming, billboard defacing, and creative pranks of all kinds, many of which involved letting the air out of overinflated capitalist balloons. Both the Suicide Club and its offspring, the Cacophony Society, were inspired by a grab bag of influences—punk rock, science fiction, fantasy, the hyperintellectual avant-garde French movement the Situationist International—but their real precursors were the Dadaists, those playful early-20th-century creators of absurdity, and the Surrealists, who sought to capture the underlying strangeness of life. Their collaborative, experiential, nonsensical ethos echoes in many aspects of the cultural underground today. It’s them that we have to thank for Burning Man, and for the far less culturally enriching SantaCon.

To get the inside story on the Cacophony Society and the Suicide Club, I speak to John Law, a former member of both and coauthor of Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, a 2013 book chronicling the group’s history and adventures. Like his fellow Cacophony member and author Rinaldi, Law turns up around every peculiar corner of San Francisco’s underground scene. I spend a chilly morning with him in his Bayview warehouse, which he shares with the avant-circus bike troupe Cyclecide. The 5,000-square-foot space is filled with bikes, big art, and a huge neon collage composed of old beer signs.

Law explains that the Suicide Club—named for a Robert Louis Stevenson story about a diabolical club, one death-seeking member of which is chosen by lottery to be killed each month—was the 1977 brainchild of a brilliant iconoclast named Gary Warne. Warne’s uniquely intense vision derived from his fear-filled childhood, which was dominated by his mentally disturbed mother. As an adult, he became obsessed with challenging his fears head-on: His mantra was to live each day as if it were his last. During the Suicide Club’s secretive five-year existence, its 100 or so members climbed the Golden Gate Bridge, enacted the Fatty Arbuckle murder case in costume on San Francisco streets, infiltrated the Moonies and the American Nazi Party, and somehow managed to enter cofounder David Warren as a contestant in a baby beauty contest at the Opera House. The club dissolved in 1982, for a familiar litany of underground reasons—dissipation of creative energies, members who knew each other too well, and disagreement over whether it should open itself to the public. The next year Warne, at the age of 35, died of a heart attack.

“Gary Warne was a true visionary, the only one I’ve ever worked with,” says Law. “He had nonstop ideas. It was all about overcoming his fears. He was trying to become himself, and in the process, he invited all of us along, and he created this entire fucking culture. The Suicide Club encouraged people to take their fantasies and to make real-life events out of them.” 

Key to the club’s success was the simple principle of strength in numbers. “Climbing the Golden Gate Bridge, urban exploration, sewer walks—these were all crazy ideas,” says Law. “But if you have 30 people, you can do them. If you’re in the sewers and you get caught, but you’re with 30 people in formal dress, what are the cops gonna do? Twenty-six of us were caught altering a billboard, and the charges were dropped. The cops thought it was kind of funny.”

The Suicide Club’s successor, the Cacophony Society, was less secretive but equally intent on fantastical adventures: Its members canoed under wharves, toured sewers, and took weirdness-seeking out-of-town “Zone Trips”—one of which, to a Nevada desert, would become the biggest countercultural event in the world. Its Billboard Liberation Front, spearheaded by Law, pulled off anti-consumerist defacements—turning Apple’s “Think Different” into “Think Doomed” and altering a Camel billboard’s neon lettering to read “Am I Dead Yet?” The front’s most elaborate effort, at the McDonald’s at Haight and Stanyan, featured a grotesque animatronic Ronald McDonald shoving a hamburger into a fat boy’s face while dozens of society members swarmed the restaurant dressed as demonic Ronalds.

The Cacophony Society “ended as an organizing mechanism” in 2005, says Law, but its signature themes—urban exploration, Dadaist pranks, invented festivals—have gone on to define much of today’s San Francisco underground. Case in point: Nicky Dyal and Richie Rhombus’s recent Transcendental Women’s Anatomy Tasting (TWAT) party. “We came up with the idea,” Dyal explains, “for a cookbook with seven chapters and seven recipes that tasted like pussy.” They hired a chef to create the recipes and presented the food on human platters—naked women, to be precise, whose real-life romantic partners, clad in formal attire, served as the waiters. More than 100 people paid $20 each to attend.

Dyal, an accomplished rock climber, and Rhombus, an artist and designer whose real name is Richie Israel, met each other last September at an abandoned bowling alley while preparing for an event that they decline to identify. (Asked if it involved the Group That Dares Not Speak Its Name, Dyal refuses to confirm or deny my suspicion. She then says cryptically, “There’s underground, and then there’s the center of the earth.”) After hitting it off at the alley, the two conceived the TWAT party, Dyal says, to provide a safe, sensual place where people could explore the often-taboo subject of objectification: “We made it really easy for people to be happy to talk about sex. We created a space where the platters could explore their role as consenting objects, and people who attended the dinner got to explore their relationship and comfort and discomfort with objectifying things and people.”

“I knew it would be cool, but it was fucking cool,” says Rinaldi, who rented his 2,500-square-foot Mission district space to Dyal and Rhombus for themance.

“The respect that people had for the event—I couldn’t believe how gracious and artistic it was. I thought, this is the most cutting-edge, sex-positive event going on in North America.”

The TWAT party was sui generis, but a lot of people in the Bay Area are working in a similar vein. One of them is Benjamin Juster, who calls himself an “immersive experience designer.” While Burning Man is a background influence for many people in the cultural underground, for Juster it was a bombshell: “I was one of those jaw-on-the-floor, eyes-dilated, in-awe people,” he says of his first time there, in 2009. The experience inspired his future trajectory, but an event that he recently pulled off owed more to the Cacophony Society than the playa: In a “social hack” called Busking for Bitcoins, Juster and a couple of friends drove down to Silicon Valley, where they stood on a corner and held up signs asking passersby for bitcoins (which could be purchased by credit card on Juster’s laptop). “I was trying to highlight the gulf between the haves and the have-nots,” Juster says. “We got a full spectrum of responses, from irate to interested to completely confused, which is what you want at a social hack.” Their efforts raised 1.5 bitcoins, equivalent to $650.

A much larger and more immersive event staged by Juster, called the Righteous Route, played with the concept of organized religion. The elaborate three-day quest, held at a private retreat center in Lake County, was attended by 600 people, who were tasked with figuring out which of three allegedly holy skillets embodied the meaning of life. A dark angel, signifying the apocalyptic End of Breakfast, dropped down on a zip line to conclude the event. It was a lighthearted satire, more Dr. Seuss than Jonathan Swift, but for a subset of attendees, says Juster, it proved emotionally overwhelming. “Some people were raised in cults, and they had to leave,” he says. “They thanked us afterward, but they spent the day crying in their tents.”
 

So what does the current reality-bending experiential underground say about our cultural moment? Compared with the confrontational pranks pulled by the culture jammers of the Cacophony era, many of the events of the new generation seem more immersive, more festive, more sensual, easier for anyone to experience—Burning Man writ small. Some might say that an underground in which hard-edged satire and aggressive pranks have been replaced by pretty views and warm-bath stimuli is a little too comfortable. But there are a million ways of breaking away from the routine. Who says every cultural experiment has to mine the left side of the brain? The new generation is engaged in another, nonanalytic kind of exploration. And they’re also motivated by a quest for community—one that’s driven by the brave new world of Instagram, Flickr, and Tumblr but is also a reaction against it. Today’s all-pervasive electronic communication facilitates the underground and allows it to be documented. But primary experience, not documentation, is what the underground has always been about. And climbing into an abandoned building or consuming a communal feast is about as non-virtual an experience as you can have.

A more pressing concern than whether the new underground is as edgy as its ancestors is whether money-drenched San Francisco will remain hospitable to it. The Suicide Club and the Cacophony Society flourished in San Francisco, says Law, because the city harbors “a collaborative atmosphere, unlike Los Angeles or New York. San Francisco is not as career-oriented. People come here with these wacky ideas, and they’re not afraid someone is going to steal them.” But the tech economy has changed that: “San Francisco and New York have been over for a while for young artists.”

Then again, you wouldn’t find anything like Richard Davis Trapani’s LoveTech.org in the old days. LoveTech designs new electronic musical instruments that allow beginners and experienced musicians alike to play a veritable symphony of sounds at the touch of a controller or keypad. “Both traditional musicians and DJs who would like to become more musically expansive use them,” Trapani says. LoveTech’s instruments have been used at Burning Man as well as at big events like Sea of Dreams and Vau de Vire shows. At Fallen Cosmos—an immersive re-creation of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, created by Rinaldi’s Institute of Possibility—LoveTech staged an “edible orchestra” in which finger food equipped with sensors made music when touched.

Still, for every LoveTech succeeding in modern San Francisco, there’s another cultural innovator that is being forced out of town. Among them is the Vau de Vire Society, headed by Mike and Shannon Gaines, which has created huge events like the Edwardian Ball and the New Bohemia New Year’s Eve extravaganza at the Armory. I visit Mike Gaines at Vau de Vire’s 10,000-square-foot rehearsal space–storage facility on Bryant Street, which was recently sold to a developer. They’d been evicted and had to move out imminently. “We can’t afford to stay in the city anymore,” says Gaines. “This space would rent for $45,000 a month now. We were paying $10,000. There are a few places in the Bayview, but they’re still $20,000 a month. We’re artists, and we need to get back to work. Across the pond is calling us.”

But it’s not just the rents that are endangering the underground. Actor-writer-producer Mark Petrakis, a veteran of the scene who created and starred as Spoonman in the brilliantly eclectic metaphysical variety vaudeville show of the late ’80s–early ’90s, the Cobra Lounge, is no tech-basher—he has worked with cutting-edge tech creators for years. Nonetheless, he acknowledges that the money generated by tech has sparked a fundamental shift in creative energies. “If you’re a 20-year-old kid in San Francisco in 1983, wandering around looking for something exciting, maybe you fall into the art scene,” he says. “Now you’re waiting for the Google bus. I’m not upset about it, but the kind of energy that was around then is not here anymore. How do you do that stuff if you’re making that much money?”

Rinaldi, contrarian as ever, disagrees that the scene is under duress: “There’s more creative stuff happening than ever,” he says. He acknowledges that soaring rents and lack of venues pose challenges but believes they can be overcome. “I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m just saying it’s worth it.” John Law praises Rinaldi’s Camp Tipsy, a 10-year-old annual summer event held at Lake Lodoga in Colusa County in which 2,500 participants build insane boats, as an example of a wildly successful underground event created without spending big bucks.

The same goes for the St. Stupid’s Day Parade, a delightful pie in the face of mainstream society that has been holding a costumed April Fools’ Day march through the financial district since 1979. The parade is the brainchild of 70-year-old Ed Holmes, aka Bishop Joey, who is still enthusiastically spreading the dogma of the First Church of the Last Laugh. Holmes acknowledges that the “energy is being dissipated by this new crowd, which is interested in career rather than community,” but he remains optimistic. “There is enough of that community that it will infect the new crowd. There are embers left, and those embers can come back.”

I watched those embers flare up with a vengeance on a Saturday night in early January, when Cyclecide held a Viking funeral for deceased Motörhead bassist Lemmy Kilmister. A band of about 50 pranksters gathered at an obscure beach near India Basin, where a gasoline-drenched boat carrying a standing effigy of the hard-living metal hero, complete with bass and bottle of Jack Daniel’s, was towed out into the bay and ignited by a fusillade of Roman candles fired from the shore.

The underground abides. And if it’s not your daddy’s underground, so much the better. “We didn’t invent this shit,” John Law says. “People have been sneaking into deserted buildings since the Second Tang Dynasty. I don’t want to be that old guy saying, ‘We used to do that better in the old days.’ It’s all about doing the things you imagine.” In the end, that’s how I prefer to think of the underground: as the persistence, in the face of reality, of imagination. Whether or not you’re part of the shenanigans, it’s heartening to know that somewhere out there in the night, the Group That Dares Not Speak Its Name is climbing around some strange urban cathedral. I’m dying to go to one of its events—but even so, there’s a part of me that holds back. In this age of total information, it’s good to know that the naked city still has secrets.

 

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco

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