It was 2007 at the public library, and then-mayor and incumbent Gavin Newsom was duking it out with the other San Franciscans who wanted to be the city’s next mayor. He joined then in a panel at the public library, where candidates delivered the usual types of answers, except one particularly emphatic contender.
What was to blame for San Francisco’s problems? Chicken John Rinaldi was asked. “The zombies,” he responded evenly. For each subsequent question, Rinaldi gave the same answer.
And, when the debate concluded, spectators saw them outside: Hundreds of bloodthirsty, pale, zombies awaiting them on the library steps.
“See?” Chicken John said.
The zombies were one of the first examples of San Francisco “experiential art” that Caveat Magister, a.k.a. Benjamin Wachs, witnessed; he writes about it in his latest book “Turn Your Life Into Art: Lessons in Psychomagic from the San Francisco Underground.”
Wachs, Mission Local’s bar columnist, found himself inducted into that secretive art world more than a decade ago, and has since engineered surreal experiences of his own, like the Magic Bar.
The Magic Bar — which isn’t its real name — is where the best drink of your life awaits. But there’s a catch: To get a drink, you must tell the bartender a prayer from the heart. Based on the prayer, the barkeep will concoct a special drink never to be recreated. At least, that’s what Wachs tells nearly every person who wanders in. And customers usually discover it is the best drink they’ve had; not because of its contents, but because of Wachs’ mystery and his magical story.
“It’s not easy to turn bullshit into magic — it’s the psychological equivalent of turning straw into gold,” writes Wachs.
But it’s an ability that he and others mastered during their years of putting on local events and experiences. If done right, it produces the phenomenon of “psychomagic,” when a realistic experience confronts a person’s psyche.
“Something deep within you … is suddenly summoned to the conscious world, and accepted, in a way you feared could never happen,” Wachs writes. “How else could it feel but miraculous?”
Wachs writes that few locals knew how to create psychomagic better than Chicken John, Larry Harvey and John Law. Eventually, Wachs grew close to all three, and learned from them how to create successful experiences.
“While it may seem grandiose to say right now, one of the most common goals of great experience design that has developed in the San Francisco scene is to do just that — to liberate people from their habitual ways of looking at the world, and free them of their complexes,” Wachs writes.
Eventually, Wachs decided this world and its magic should be shared. So far, it remained as most underground scenes are: Largely secretive and exclusive. But, after talking with a close friend in 2018, Wachs became inspired to finally write about it.
“There is tremendous fun to be in a secret society, but the closer you get above ground, the better off it is in the long-run,” Wachs told Mission Local.
It wouldn’t be until 2019 that Wachs embarked on “Turn Your Life Into Art” and, he said, it started “pouring out.” He finished most of it in three weeks.
“Something in my creative unconscious said, ‘this is what we’re on right now. This [book] has to happen right now,’” Wachs said.
He based “Turn Your Life Into Art” on his own lived-experience and those of key figures like Chicken John, Law — who helped found the mischievous Cacophony Society and is a member of the Suicide Club — and Harvey. Law and Harvey are credited as two of the founders of Burning Man, the annual event where artists trek out to the desert and build a city in a matter of days.
Wachs mapped out, step by step, how to create the psychomagic experiences that he loves so deeply. Like a textbook, to illustrate each step, Wachs provides relevant examples, including the zombies, the Magic Bar and Burning Man.
An extreme example is the Circus Redickuless, which Chicken John engineered. He invited anyone to run away and join the circus, they just needed a ridiculous act — and no discernible talent. One act was a reverse stripper, in which a naked person seductively put on clothes as the crowd chanted, “Put it on!” There was the Man Eating Chicken, who was actually a man eating chicken. Thus, the circus ran for a few years, and participants traveled all over the country making almost no money. Hundreds joined, according to Wachs.
Sure, it was stupid. But it allowed people a chance to rethink their lives and morals and, if dissatisfied, to escape them. That’s the real magic, Wachs said. And with this new text, he hopes others discover it.
“This is something that anyone can do,” Wachs adds. “That’s one of the extraordinary things.”
“Turn Your Life into Art” by Benjamin Wachs is published by Burning Man, 388 pages, $20. Buy it here.