Welcome to the first story in a three-part series that unpacks how our 2021 theme — The Great Unknown — summons Burning Man’s origin story. Long before the Man touched down (and burned up) in the Black Rock Desert, the Cacophony Society and its early Zone Trips defined Burning Man’s irreverent spirit. As subsequent episodes are published, we’ll add them to the Into the Zone series page.
The 2021 Burning Man theme doesn’t just look to the future, to the unknowns and unchartered experiences ahead. It’s also a tip of the hat to our favorite desert city’s origin story: how a network of artists and reality hackers came up with the wild idea of bringing Larry Harvey’s Man to the Black Rock Desert back in 1990.
Here we weave the circuitous tale about how a Russian art film inspired a crew of urbex-crazed individuals to embark on explorations into imaginary unknowns, and how these adventures would ultimately lead the Man from Baker Beach to its destiny in a vast, prehistoric lake bed in Northern Nevada.
Back in the late 1980s, when Larry Harvey and his crew were raising and burning the Man on Baker Beach, a group from deep within the Bay Area underground began to make their mark on Burning Man culture. The Cacophony Society was a band of tricksters and event organizers with a penchant for urban exploration, raucous parties in forbidden spaces, and very public culture jamming interventions.
We’re going to let the story tell itself, by weaving first-person anecdotes of three people who were there: Michael Mikel, aka Danger Ranger, Burning Man Project co-founder and one of the original Cacophonists; Stuart Mangrum, Director of Burning Man’s Philosophical Center and another Cacophony veteran; and Judy Kokura, an unwitting participant and photographer of the first Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert.
The Cacophony Society’s Band of Urban Pranksters
Whether it involved stepping across a line to enter a space apart, or hosting an end-of-the-world fancy dress party in an abandoned building, early Cacophony Society events were very much the precursors to the whimsical and absurd happenings that took Burning Man culture into the weird zone. Beyond goings on in the Black Rock Desert, we have Cacophonists to thank for costumed urban invasions such as SantaCon, Brides of March, and The Urban Iditarod. But know this: those three mainstream events sit at the tip of a very, very deep iceberg.
We are fortunate to have a few Cacophony Society instigators in our midst. Mikel spent years organizing Cacophony Society infiltrations, excursions, and events in the Bay Area. The Cacophonist’s penchant for taking costumed rituals and celebrations into unexpected places — everywhere from laundromats to abandoned bunkers — massively impacted the emergence of Burning Man culture.
We’ll let Mikel take it from here…
What kind of stuff did you and the Cacophony Society get up to?
Mikel: The Cacophony Society would sneak into an abandoned building or an underground tunnel or some of the places we weren’t supposed to be. And we would have these events or experiences.
One that was particularly memorable for me was the Atomic Café that I helped organize. So the scenario was: it’s the end of the world and you and some friends are going to get together and you’re going to go out in this bomb shelter and have a party, have a dinner, et cetera.
The third Atomic Café, we snuck into this seven-story abandoned government building south of market in San Francisco. It had been abandoned for 14 years. There was a large roll-up door and a ramp that you could drive down to get in. So first we went up, we climbed up the fire escape, we got in through a window, and we took over this building.
We got two rental trucks. We had everybody meet in this bar a few blocks away, and we loaded them into the back of these rental trucks. So nobody knew where they were going. We had people stationed with radios on the buildings across the street. We brought the trucks in, we rolled up these doors, and we drove down into the basement of this huge building and bizarre apocalyptic place.
We had everybody get out. We had candles in bags, lighting the way up to this huge blast door. And we had brought everybody underground. There were about 120 people. We opened the door and inside was a live band playing music, a fog machine, lasers, lights. It was incredible. We had brought in a generator and we plugged the exhaust into the plumbing system; the exhaust went up on the roof. So we had an incredible, incredible event experience party.
Then we loaded everybody back into the truck and we left the building. And to this day our guests do not have any idea where they were. Brilliant.
Urban Explorations into A Place Apart
Before we dive into the Zone Trip and its influence on Burning Man culture, it’s important to understand the role of “Stalker,” Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 darkly absurdist science fiction film. In this epic tale, widely considered a cinematic masterpiece, we follow the circuitous journey of three men who navigate a wild and always-shifting expanse called The Zone. They are desperately searching for a room reputed to grant anyone their deepest desire.
Stalker contains so many allegories relevant to Burning Man culture and Black Rock City, it’s hard to know where to begin. We’ll let you watch the film and draw these parallels yourself.
Let everything that’s been planned come true. Let them believe. And let them have a laugh at their passions. Because what they call passion actually is not some emotional energy, but just the friction between their souls and the outside world. And most important, let them believe in themselves.
— Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker
Tarkovsky’s film served as the inspiration for a series of urban adventures known as Zone Trips. The brainchild of artist and Cacophony Society organizer Carrie Galbraith, Zone Trips were multi-day journeys of exploration that functioned as catalysts for experiencing familiar spaces as if they were fresh and unfamiliar. And yes, the first Burning Man event in Black Rock City was… a Zone Trip — number four, to be exact.
We asked Mikel and Mangrum, another former Cacophonist, to unpack some of the artistic and cultural roots of the Zone Trip.
What differentiated a Zone Trip from other Cacophony Society events?
Mikel: The difference [with a Zone Trip] is that you went to a place overnight. You went on a road trip. So you went to a place apart and you spent the night there. Most of the [Cacophony] events, you know, would last for an hour or two or three, and then you’d go home. But a Zone Trip, you go to a place apart, you are there for more than one day.
What was it about the late 20th century that made it so compelling to embark on these journeys of exploration?
Mikel: This was a time when we were immersed in consumer culture bombarded by advertising. And there was this lack of real experiences for people. We had television, and it was blasting away at us all the time. And there weren’t a lot of real deep experiences that we could do. And you know, you go to a movie, everything is passive. You watch sports. So we were kind of a rebellion against the culture at the time, the popular culture. And so we would do these things, primarily urban explorations.
There must be an artistic tradition behind the Zone Trip. Where did it come from?
Mangrum: For Carrie Galbraith, the Cacophonist who actually came up with the idea, I think it was mostly about trying to forget everything you knew about a place, so you could experience it through new eyes.
Of course there was also a deep surrealist sentiment in Cacophony, and it sort of recalls automatic writing or exquisite corpse or other ways of peeling back the brain. Or the Situationists, another early influence, with their detournement — taking things out of context — and exercises in psychogeography, for instance spending a day walking around Paris with a map of London. As we know, place gives context and sometimes it gives too much context. So if you can short-circuit that somehow, you’re not overwhelmed by what you thought you already knew about something, you’re open to the discovery.
“We’re going into a place apart, a place that’s different from the world you’re used to.”
How did the first Zone Trip come about and what happened?
Mikel: The first Zone Trip was organized by a couple of Cacophony Society members… They discovered that they had both lived as youngsters in this town of Covina in Southern California, but they had never met. So they decided to take a trip together and go and visit this town of their youth. That was going to be the first zone trip, and they listed it in the Cacophony Society newsletter.
Every month there was a newsletter that was mailed out to all of the members and which listed a dozen or two events that you could do. Anybody could list an event to do anything as long as they didn’t charge other than the costs. It had to be non-profit and anyone could attend. And that was one of the principles Burning Man inherited is that everyone is welcome to have the experiences. So anyway, this was listed in the newsletter.
Mikel: And so we went down there, and we went to this little town, a suburb of LA. At one point we got down there near LA and I got this idea: we’re going to a place apart. I’d seen the movie “Stalker.” So I was grounded with the idea of going into a place apart.
I had everybody get out of their cars. I drew this line on the ground and I had everybody line up. And I said, “We’re going into a place apart, a place that’s different from the world you’re used to.” I had everybody step across the line. And that kind of sets up a state of mind where you actually begin to look at things differently.
I had brought a bunch of white lab coats and some scientific instruments. And we did this like a scientific research project into this little town of Covina. And I had printed up these postcards, which we handed out and people would write answers to a question about the town, usually some kind of silly question, and some of those were mailed out and it was very surreal. It was so much fun.
COMING SOON: Into the Zone — Episode 2: A Bad Day at Black Rock.
Cover image: Contact sheet of photos from Zone Trip #4: A Bad Day at Black Rock (Photos by Judy Kokura)