“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.

“Carnival Cosmology” stands as one of the two founding documents of the Cacophony Society, along with Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone. It’s the only essay printed, in full, in not one but two core Cacophony books — Chicken John’s The Book of the Is and Galbraith/Evans/Law’s Tales of the SF Cacophony Society.

Gary Warne is literally the first Tyler Durden, the original, the maverick who inspired the other mavericks who inspired the book Fight Club. Basically, Gary Warne is the person who devised and/or pioneered flash mobs, urban exploration, urban games, billboard liberation, the Chinese New Year’s Treasure Hunt, the Dashiell Hammett walking tour of SF, free schools, and other cultural phenomenae we now take for granted as having always existed.

It can all be traced back to San Francisco, as usual, to some freak who was inspired by his insipid upbringing in squaresville to change the world through bold and unproven social experiments in sovereignty, free thought, and not-taking-life-so-seriously.

Gary Warne leads the early Suicide Club through some hijinks at the Kennedy Hotel, c. 1977
Gary Warne leads the early Suicide Club through some hijinks at the Kennedy Hotel, c. 1977

and now, the essay that birthed project mayhem:


– Gary Warne

The world is a midway; cities are its sideshows. The only difference between children and adults is that there is no one to take care of us. When we left home it meant we were lost on the midway
 and, unlike God, the carny boss will only let us ride as long as we pay.

No one will come to find us. Some children will hurt us, others will stop to play … some are still deciding. But you can sneak in too.

I have been exploring a world of adventures, exotic locales, mystic essences, confronting my fears was the immediate goal, the predominant focus of the explorations and challenges. Now, nine months later, my fears have become wafer like and crumbling, shadows of their former selves. Now I find fear only a final, non-evolving image that stills other possibilities, the creation of more intoxicating future images, that prevents me from entering into a visionary dialogue with whom I could become.  […]


Recently I have walked past the place where my fear images blotted out what would have come next if I had not been afraid. I climbed the Golden Gate bridge three weeks ago immersed in images of falling thru space into the ocean. There was nothing to fantasize beyond this one, final, deadly image.

Fantasies of my friend’s deaths were perhaps even more vivid and recurring. People who didn’t go asked their companions to call them when they returned, no matter what the hour. Those unable to express their love in this way simply asked for the rent before their roommates left for the climb. The image of death, for many THE culminating fear image, blots out all other possibilities.

The subject of fear has fascinated me for many years. That night I felt I understood it much better. Fear is a freeze on the future, the filter or floodgate that stops our imaginings; something within us that stops us from becoming more powerful and loving, rather than fearing those things that are more vivid than our fantasies, more powerful than our magic, more mysterious than our own mysteries.  […]

Gary Warne and his Summer of Love 10-Year Anniversary prank. "He might have looked like a hippy," says Warne's number one protege John Law, "but there were few less hippy folks around than Gary Warne."
Gary Warne and his Summer of Love 10-Year Anniversary prank. “He might have looked like a hippy,” says Warne’s number one protege John Law, “but there were few less hippy folks around than Gary Warne.”

I buried the predominance of fear in my own cosmology that night. After many months of incredible experience and a rich new flood of images and emotions I began to see the colours and textures beyond the death images, beyond the fantasies of authority and arrest, beyond inner visions of my own failure of stamina or confidence. And something more began to emerge.

I am not speaking at all metaphorically when I say that it was the bright lights and moving colours of the bigtop, carnival, amusement park-midway. Once I was on the bridge I was greeted instead by moonlight on still waters and the skyline of the city diminutively reduced to scale on a plywood board, ready for display.

The outline of the city floated across in, all of shades, autumnal colours of yellow and orange. Our height did not make them that way; it allowed me to see them that way as the houses, ships and lights below took on a bathtub, toy like countenance. The height silhouetted by sky and underscored by the sea allowed me to place it within a gigantic midway, rather than myself as a stick figure man within the reality of the cities overwhelming back buildings.

Two months before I had climbed the Oakland Bay Bridge and for the first time the metaphor had become real. The bridge was obviously a jungle gym made to climb rather than drive over: the cars just using it for the in between times. The girders were so huge that you could climb inside them like chimps, risking nothing but a strained heart from the excitement. It was then that I was first struck with the feeling that we were here to play, if nothing else, here to play with the world and other people.  […]

Warne even pranked himself and Communiversity with this fake flyer in the late '70s  #projectmayhem
Warne even trolled himself, Communiversity, & the hippy-dippy flower-empowerment movement with this flyer for a fake school

Before that I visited a ghost town in central California and it became the spook house of a long bankrupt carnival, disappearing into a marshy bog at the same pace it was swallowed up by the past.

As I walked along the tracks at night that led to the town, unsure if I was going the right way, a bouncing yellow light appeared behind and we waited for the predictable “hey you kids, get out of here!” only to have it explode instead in to a supernaturally silent coal black train screaming into the night ahead, shaking the ground in great heaps and gulps of air as it roared past.

My mind elongated with it, as it did as a small child in front of the tv, when Daffy Duck sold Elmer Fudd a new house and then turning to leave, opened the front door and let a train rush straight at the camera, straight at Elmer, straight at me, right through his living room and mine, my child’s mind simply gasping at the possibilities.

Other possibilities are becoming much more apparent. The world is becoming a total play environment and I am becoming something else entirely. The future is no longer on a circuit like the news, entertainment something an entrepreneur plans as I expectantly read the notices in the bleached parchments on the corner stands. It is an imagination away.

-Gary Warne, 1977


Santarchy, or Santacon -- created in the '90s by Warne's prodigies in the Cacophony Society -- was the first flash mob after Warne's spare-change prank and "clowns on the bus," both told online and in the Tales book. Warne's carnival cosmology changed the way people mobbed together, forever
Santarchy, or Santacon — created in the ’90s by Warne’s prodigies in the Cacophony Society — was the first flash mob after Warne’s spare-change prank and “clowns on the bus,” both told online and in the Tales book. Warne’s carnival cosmology changed the way people mobbed together, forever

Related posts by this writer:
Early Man: Proto-DPW
Early Man-Man: proto-Burnin’ Dude builders and inspirational catalysts
John Law and Last Gasp announce Cacophony Society history book
How the Fence Began
Tyler Durden Invented Burning Man


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About the author: Summer Burkes

Summer Burkes

Summer Burkes has been rousting about at Burning Man since 1998. She first met her dusty DPW / Cyclecide / Bike Club fam-dambly on the back of The Bucket. A Cacophony Society enthusiast, Summer loves explosions and cake.

One comment on ““Carnival Cosmology” by Gary Warne

  • Corvus says:

    Thank you for this; it’s always interesting to explore the roots of Burning Man. Now, if only there was some more information on Mary Grauberger.

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