It’s an exciting moment for a certain type of person when you find you are not a solitary traveler into the voids of the city. Those abandoned or forgotten spaces embedded in your urban landscape are sometimes animated by people who are equally obsessed with what has been overlooked in the sprawl, and while it might be a slight disappointment that you don’t have these little secrets all to yourself, it ends up being a greater joy in finding ways to collaborate on bringing them temporary life.
Last night at Housing Works in Soho, a panel met to discuss this idea of using experience, art, or other transformations to reclaim space, an idea that is certainly nothing new, but has been morphing over the decades, and is not over yet. The theme was Tales of Cacophony: How to Make Your City a Playground in honor of the release of the new Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society book, but it was really about the whole strange and informal collective of people who share this interest in subversion through city space. The San Francisco-based Cacophony Society is legendary for their genesis in the 1980s, following the activities of the equally adventurous Suicide Club, in interventions in urban life, ranging from the roaming Doggie Diner to Burning Man (to just mention what makes the front cover, illustrated throughout by the art of Kevin Evans, but here’s a super cut of more), and the panel included book authors and members John Law and Carrie Galbraith. They were joined by NYC organizers Charlie Todd of Improv Everywhere, Ida Benedetto of Wanderlust Projects, and Jeff Stark of Nonsense NYC.
Housing Works was packed for the event, with the best seats available when I wandered in up in the balcony, which gave a good glimpse of the crowd, where there was a wide range of ages, although it skewed towards the young and curious who had probably heard more about the Cacophony Society events rather than attended them. There were also roving clowns disrupting things occasionally, although it wasn’t really clear to me where they came from, but the panelists didn’t seem too perturbed. They took turns discussing their experiences of invading urban life, from Law bringing people to the top of the Golden Gate Bridge, to Benedetto remembering how the abandoned buildings on the Lower East Side filled with the punk DIY movement of the 1990s felt like the safest places in the world to her, to Todd describing the influence of the freezing Grand Central performance. It was a wide breadth of experience over decades, both pre-9/11 and post, when urban exploring has irked counterterrorists. They also talked about the challenges of getting people to show up, to too many people showing up, to encounters with the police, all jumbled into a narrative that above all seemed inclusionary rather than exclusionary as sometimes these clandestine events seem to be. True, often there’s major vetting and networking to get to some great party in an underground bunker, but Galbraith also described just inviting strangers to her home for an adventure where they wouldn’t know what would happen. You definitely have to put yourself out there in some way to maybe find yourself suddenly on the opposite side of your usual experience in a city, but at least from the openness with the panelists both during and after the event, the door is usually cracked open to those who want to open it.
The Cacophony Society motto, “you may already be a member,” definitely is how I’ve felt when suddenly encountering something like the Wanderlust Projects’ Night Heron, a speakeasy in a water tower where the most vivid memory of it wasn’t just climbing into the gorgeous wood interior illuminated by candlelight, but running into a friend and collaborator in the darkness of the roof. I’ve also run into friends or passing acquaintances in the dark reaches of some warehouse party drenched in light installations or other more abandoned location, emphasizing that you’re in the right place by being in the wrong place.
For me, the most interesting of these “wrong” places have been the cemeteries of New York City, which despite being this fascinating memorial to every type of person who has walked through the streets before us are rarely visited by people not at funerals. I’ve tried through cemetery tours with Atlas Obscura, to bring people to these places that are not just obvious in their beauty, like Woodlawn in the Bronx and Green-Wood in Brooklyn, but also the run down and vandalized decay of Bayside Cemetery in Ozone Park, the staggeringly large Calvary Cemetery in Queens, and soon with my first tour there later this month, the incredibly touching Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, where the usually private grief for animals is celebrated with no restraint.
Yet my own personal interest in memorial and remembrance aside, what all these projects have in common, from the Improv Everywhere flash mobs of elegantly dressed people at Coney Island or Jeff Stark’s upcoming collaborative Empire Drive-In of reclaimed junked cars at the New York Hall of Science or even just taking your own step into an unknown space, is keeping a feeling of wonder in the city. It’s a feeling that even if you walk the same route everyday, you could encounter something that will change your idea of what that street or building or anything means. And if you spend time inside a place that is in a way forgotten, whether it’s something as epic as the top of the Brooklyn Bridge or as small as an overgrown burial ground on Staten Island, it changes your perception of the city irrevocably, and suddenly you want to bring people there with you, and that’s what the Cacophony Society has inspired.
Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society by Carrie Galbraith, John Law, and Kevin Evans is available from Last Gasp.