Carrie Galbraith (1956-2018), Creator of the Cacophony Society ‘Zone Trip’

This blog post was originally published January 25, 2018 on John Law’s personal blog.

Carrie Galbraith
Carrie at the 1st Atomic Cafe 1989

“Oh Death, where is thy sting?”

This was the quote from Corinthians that was chosen out of dozens suggested by the 40 people crammed into Gary Warne’s Circus of the Soul bookstore on Judah St at 10th in San Francisco’s calm, prosaic seeming Inner Sunset neighborhood in January of 1977. It became a motto of sorts for the just birthed Suicide Club. The average age of those proto adventurers was around 27, the very same age of the famous dead or soon to be dead rockers of the infamous 27 Club. We weren’t blithely challenging death, foolish young people that we were, rather we were grasping at some pithy or even profound literary subheading for our newly founded, DADA influenced urban adventure/pranks “secret society.” The typical twenty seven year old does not have a friend or acquaintance die every week or so, and surely wouldn’t consider adopting such a colorful descriptor knowing it might actually challenge the reaper, insuring that he or she might have to pay then or at some later date.

I harbor no regrets for that youthfully exuberant remonstrance, not yet anyway. With that said, the dying time certainly seems to be here looming bleakly over me, over us, black shadow of deaths hooded cloak darkening thoughts and days.

When I started out on what was to be the ongoing wild ride of my life in San Francisco, I was a mere seventeen years of age. Within a year of being here, I fell down a rabbit hole and into the Suicide Club. As noted, most of that first crew of fellow explorers, pranksters and friends were, on average ten years or so older than me. Today, they and some of the other friends and co-conspirators I have accumulated over forty years of adventures are leaving this mortal plane much too frequently, for the spirit world or for the Big Sleep, depending upon your beliefs around such matters.

It seems that every month I learn of the death at least one old friend or long time friendly acquaintance. In the last two weeks alone there have been wakes for four: Stephen Parr of Oddball Cinema, Jack Wickert who held down “The Farm” at Chavez under the highway 101 and the houseboat community on China Basin, talented multi-instrumentalist and composer Ralph Carney and local artist and raconteur Ron Donovan. Just yesterday another old friend John Wilson, Cell Space’s shopman, artist and all around fine man died of a brain tumor. I am loath to look at social media, tests, or emails, fearing another friend has passed. This is simply too much…

One death in particular, has been far too ‘unimaginable for me to imagine’ – unthinkable in a way that has made it difficult for me to acknowledge it actually happened. She was way too important and fine a person to have passed without honoring her in some way, howsoever inadequate it might be.

Camera Obscura

Amelia X, Carrie Galbraith, John Law
Amelia X, Carrie Galbraith, John Law

SF Cacophony Society Annual Golden Gate Bridge Dinner
SF Cacophony Society Annual Golden Gate Bridge Dinner 1990(ish?)

Carrie Galbraith was my friend, co-author, event collaborator and for thirty years a steady, calming, inspirational and encouraging presence in my life. Her pre-Cacophony life was one of physical and intellectual adventure. For years she crewed on big sailboats, travelling extensively along the California coast and beyond. She went to Venice on a Fulbright to study art and while overseas discovered Eastern Europe, the one region of the world that she was first and most intrigued by and soon to be most in love with. She studied and taught in Poland, Romania, Croatia and elsewhere in the thawing “Eastern Bloc’ as it slowly disengaged from the brutal embrace of the Soviet Union. According to her sister, Holly Carrie, around the age of nine read the whole set of the families World Book Encyclopedia (a fixture in any middle class home of the 1960’s, mine included) and when she got to Poland decided she would go there some day.

At a later age, Carrie developed a fascination for Russian literature and filmmaking, prominently the film Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece of confusion, promise and sinister bewilderment. She loved the novel this film was based upon also – Roadside Picnic written by Boris and Arkadi Strugatsky, a novel that I suspect, is as dark and confusing as the film. The spectral imagery and seemingly nihilistic, yet almost spiritual essence of the movie is the setting for “Stalkers”, sort of illicit visitors to the forbidding Zone: trespassers and tour guides to this alien territory where physics as we know it is not in effect and the laws of science do not seem to apply; light is different as is sound, normal occurrences and movements are weighted with a strange dread, people that enter The Zone even with the assistance of the savvy Stalkers might never escape back to the world and their lives.


Descent Into the Zone

Things can happen there: marvelous, revealing, terrible or even hideous things. Those entering take that risk, hoping for a revelation that will help define their world or a denouement impossible to accomplish anywhere else.

Carrie joined The San Francisco Cacophony Society shortly after it started, bringing a studious sensibility and serious dedication from her life as an artist to the nascent Cacophony crew. Cacophony and the earlier Suicide Club were comprised of folks most of whom would not have self-identified as artists. Most of our “events” were street pranks, urban climbing and exploring, psychologically challenging group sessions and costumed foolishness. Suicide Club avatar Gary Warne had a virtual aversion to being labeled an artist or to have his creations so noted. Until Carrie and the fellow art students that followed her from the classrooms and studios of The San Francisco Academy of Art and California College of Arts (and Crafts) and into the streets, rooftops and sewers of Cacophony, the group had not considered itself to be an art endeavor. We thought of it as a social and cultural experiment, an excuse to get dressed up in costume and play in strange and occasionally dangerous environments, and (natch) a group of friends and lovers you could count on if things got weird… Carrie brought an unpretentious, craft and skill based art sensibility into Cacophony, seamlessly melding it with the prankster and adventure spirit she found already there. It was an art invasion that even Gary Warne would have appreciated. Her events were always thoughtful, inclusive and encouraged participants to delve deeply into their creative cores, using the tools of a serious artist to create something a little off, a little odd yet crafted as unpretentious art. I consider her immersion into Cacophony to be a tipping point for that group. Carrie scored her BA’s in Fine Art and Illustration at the Academy (and a later MFA in Bookmaking at The Art Institute of Philadelphia) and had attracted a coterie of younger artists to her: Sebastian Hyde, Kevin Evans, Dean Gustafsen, Corey Keller, Vanessa Kuemmerle, and others. These were the some of the people that defined Cacophony and consequently made Burning Man happen, creating many of the rituals, and some of the infrastructure that insured the early survival and success of that event. It was Carrie’s unique ability to inspire while seeming to be in some almost Zen like state of serenity that set her apart. Her innate modesty and calming persona insured that her guidance was only occasionally noticed – not nearly as much as deserved, or as much as some of the other principals in the group who were much louder. She was never self-laudatory or pushy in any way, yet her influence was inexorable, quietly powerful and, as it turns out, profoundly influential. Carrie’s first Cacophony event inspired a brief, insightful look into the kind of group she was joining and what type of person would (and would not) be attracted to such a group. She told the story illuminating this revelation often at the dozens of readings over the years that she and I did for our book.. It was a crowd pleaser. To clumsily paraphrased Carrie and her story: “I found the Cacophony “newsletter/mailer “Rough Draft” in a Café. The graphics initially attracted my eye, but when I read the event write ups and got what this group was proposing, that was when I got really intrigued. One event, a “Midnight Walk” noted in the text to meet at the 7th Ave ball diamond inside Golden Gate Park at Lincoln Way at 10 O’clock at night on {Wednesday}, to wear dark clothes and bring a flashlight and a potluck dinner in a knapsack. When I told my roommate, a prim and buttoned down accountant that I was planning to attend an event with people I had never met, in the park at night, she became very agitated and spent some time and effort trying to talk me out of it. “you could be raped!! Assaulted!! KILLED!!” She cried.. I insisted I was going, and she became quite angry and slammed the door on me on my way out. I went to the event, had a fabulous time, and never looked back. The people I met became my friends and some became family. My roommate moved out not that long after.”

Exquisite Corpse

Carrie was a primary organizer of some of Cacophonies  most successful and more importantly, most sublime events. Along with Louis Jarmilowicz, Jayson Wechter and others, Carrie created three Exquisite Corpse theater events based on the old surrealist writing exercise. As opposed to most Cacophony events, these plays actually took place in active theater & performance spaces. Written by the audience just before curtain call, the weird synchronicity and group mind that was invoked was truly marvelous, and in my experience unprecedented. The first took place at the Haight Library, second at Noe Valley Ministry and the third and most ambitious at the Victoria Theater on 16th St.

Carrie conceived and was primary organizer of perhaps the signature Cacophony event, Atomic Café.

The Atomic CafeFactoid by Kevin Evans

Taking place in a huge underground Spanish American War bunker near the Golden Gate Bridge, dozens of Cacophonists dressed as nuclear war survivors and convened underground bewailing the end of the world. The bunker was faux finished, completely decorated and bejeweled as an actual café with red check table cloth seating, canned food, music movies, wall murals of important icons such as Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, atomic mushroom clouds, etc;  group interactions, games, stories and all around end of the world bonhomie ruled the night.

1st Atomic Cafe
Eric Chipchase, JL, Carrie Galbraith 1st Atomic Cafe

Outside, Federal police searched in vain for the “giant party” the knew was taking place somewhere in their curfew-ed jurisdiction, but simply could not find it. We had sound proofed the bunker, sealing it to the outside, making it impossible to find and equally impossible to enter should one find it.

It was her Zone Trip that really changed the world though. She and fellow Cacophonist Phil Beweley (r.i.p.) found they had both grown up in the archetypal booring non-descript LA suburban enclave of Covina, the two being only a few years and unaware of one another at the time – thoroughly apart in their high school careers, yet absorbing the same blasé atmosphere. They determined that they must do some kind of event commemorationg the normalcy of this burg and their blandly typical SoCal upbringinging. This is where Carrie could really shine. She conjoined her love and knowedge of Stalker and super imposed the movie, the Russian novel it was based on, and all the otherworldlinessness of the Zone and the Stalkers that navigated it onto her childhood world, creating a strange and quite memorable road trip that was to resonate in ways none of us could have imagined. Eight of us drove to Covina in two cars, stopping alongside the freeway somewhere near the Ventura exit around three in the morning. Carrie used a bent up piece of auto body metal to draw a line in the dirt which we all stepped across, ritually and metaphysically stepping into the Zone. After arriving in Covina around dawn, we passed out self addressed stamped envelopes (to mail back to the Cacophony PO box) with cryptic questionnaires to the early risers we encountered on the streets. We measured and explored odd implements, signs, park portals, building frontages and the like. We visited Carries birth home and performed curious rituals to the consternation of the current occupants. And, after having an Orange Julius when the small shop opened, sped off to the larger LA area exploring and discovering the weird and inexplicable things and places we ran across in our random, meandering tour.

Homestead (B&W Zone pix by Lucija Kordic)

Carrie Galbraith in Another Dimension
Another dimension

Covina Zone Trip
Zone crew downtown Covina

Carrie Galbraith and Lance Alexander
Carrie Galbraith & Lance Alexander

Phil Bewley and Carrie Galbraith
Phil Bewley & Carrie Galbraith

On the surface, our expedition looked prosaic and most of what we did was not spectacular. What made the event, and the reason we repeated it a few months later, was the collective mind space we agreed to join into and the conscious decision to view the environs we were exploring as a thoroughly alien place; a Zone where anything could happen. Yes, it was the LA Basin, a weird enough place without obscure Russian metaphysics superimposed over its spirit, but that group mind, agreed upon by all was implemented, shifting our consciousness into an otherworldly and never to be thoroughly explained experience of an alien landscape. The event was a life changing thing. The next Zone Trip was also to LA. We stopped at Magic Mountain Amusement Park, called the Church of the Subgenius radio show Puzzling Evidence at 4AM and then Michael Mikel drew a line in the dirt under the massive clown holding a lolly-pop and we crossed into The Zone again. The third Zone Trip was to the Black Rock Desert in September of 1990. Called The San Francisco Cacophony Society Zone Trip #4, Bad Day at Black Rock, (the mysterious missing Zone Trip was never confirmed but must have happened… making the two LA Zone Trips #’s 2 & 3) this event was the first Burning Man on the Black Rock Desert.

Zone Trip Origins
Factoid by Kevin Evans

Carrie Galbraith ‘s vision and art directly inspired so much of what Cacophony represented and informed the best of the Burning Man aesthetic and mysticism. She was our Stalker, even those of you who have never heard her name.

Carrie drew the line in the dirt first.

She and I had many discussions about the weird borderland between art and life, between serious aesthetic constructs and free spirited, unselfconscious play, between thoughtful observation and guileless freeform action while we were working along with Kevin Evans on our Cacophony compendium, Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society.

Watts Towers Cacophony Zone Trip
Carrie Galbraith & Phil Bewley at Watts Towers Cacophony Zone Trip #2 1989. Organizers of the Zone Trip. Both are now gone.

As a serious student, teacher and professional artist, she recorded and archived everything she made as an “artist”. Her one off, hand made art books, some of which are in museums and collections around the world, were meticulously documented and handled as the exquisite art objects that they are. But she only sparsely recorded her Cacophony endeavors, which she spent so much of her creative energy and time on for many years. To paraphrase from memory, she often told me: “It’s almost like Cacophony was so much my LIFE, that I never really thought to record it as I did with my ART.”  With that simple observation, she nailed it for me as to what The Suicide Club and later Cacophony really were for participant/members and what early Burning Man offered to its community. Your art should be your life and your life must be your art.

Goodbye Carrie, See you in the Zone……