Open Source Culture & Culture Hacking

Napalm Santa
{My Talk given at BIL 2014 in Vancouver}

ADDENDUM: It’s important to consider that Open Source Culture & Culture Hacking, can only be experienced through active participation. Spectators are not Culture Hackers, and will miss the important visceral experience of what Hakim Bey defines as Immediatism.

Many people know me by my art persona Napalm Dragon. I’ve been Hacking Culture since the early 90’s through various art forms including street theatre, immersive arts events, and Fire as Art.

If you want to know where the contemporary fire arts culture germinated, I’ll tell you very clearly, that a dear friend of mine brought Fire Staff to North America. In 1996 her and I partnered up with my Fire Breathing skills to hack that Culture and invent something all our own. No one gave us permission, everyone warned us against it. No one had seen fire presented like this before, and we started the Vancouver Fire Arts scene and watched it spread like wildfire down the West Coast and across North America.

Napalm Fire

We did this by jamming with groups like the notorious Spiral Tribe of England, and came up with entirely new permutations of the Open Source Fire Culture you see today. We fused performance art, live music, electronic music, giant puppets, and elements of urban tribalism to express what we loved because it was fun and we loved the visceral rush of the experience.

What you see here today, is an Open Source Culture Hack being celebrated by the Vancouver Cacophony Society.


Bunnarchy: It’s like Anarchy with Bunnies

What I want to talk to you about today is Culture Hacking, and the Open Source Culture that we hack. When I talk about Open Source Culture, I’m talking about Culture itself, and the memes and Archetypes we adopt, transform, and transmit. I won’t be talking about GNU or the culture of Open Source Programming.

Instead I will talk about an idea I have defined as Open Source Culture and Culture Hacking in the context of people like the Decentralized Dance Party, John Law and the Cacophony Society, Steven Colbert and everything he does, and Amanda Palmer, perhaps one of the most relevant Culture Hackers in the music industry right now.

We are to people, what programmers are to technology.

I want to talk about the kind of work and play we do as Artists and Pranksters to access open culture, hack it to our desire, and use it as we please.

Wikipedia describes Culture as follows:

In the 20th century, “culture” emerged as a central concept in anthropology, encompassing the range of human phenomena that cannot be directly attributed to genetic inheritance. Specifically, the term “culture” in American anthropology had two meanings:

  1. the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols, and to act imaginatively and creatively; and
  2. the distinct ways that people, who live differently, classified and represented their experiences, and acted creatively.

In the 20th century with the rise of commercial air travel, Culture became distinct from genetics. The invention of commercial flight in itself was perhaps the single most influential factor in what eventually became the Civil Rights movement of the United States.

Commercial flight accelerated cultural evolution as average people began moving around the world at unprecedented speed on an unprecedented and massive scale. The People began transmitting culture well beyond the geographic boundaries that defined limitation to genetics. We moved past these boundaries and cracked open the myth of race.

With the advent of Television we could now see the Race Myth melt away before our very eyes. We could now transmit culture beyond the human boundaries, and watch it be adapted everywhere. We could see clearly that Culture and Race were distinct, with commercial flight we could see genetics travel past its geographic boundaries and adopt Culture, and with Film and Television we could also see Culture transmitted beyond its geographic boundaries and be adopted by genetics.

Yes, for century’s colonialism imposed culture on people, but it did so under the racist fallacy of “Race and Culture being indelibly linked”, and did so through Proprietary Culturalism controlled by institutional elites. Culture & Genetics were distinct, yet mediated by the powerful influence of the people who owned the transmission of Culture, and the transportation of Genetics. The Distinction was suppressed.

They imposed Proprietary Culturist ideas on people through cognitive biases that reinforced the controls of these oppressive Proprietary Cultures.


For instance:
“Black People sit at the back of the bus”.

And then Rosa Parks hacked that Culture and opened it up for anyone to do the same.

Rosa Parks accessed the Open Source Meme of Civil Disobedience, hacked it to suit her needs, and sat at the front of the bus. What she did for people with black skin, and the culture imposed on that skin, was change the very course of history and power. Her motivations were just, but what she did was far more powerful than just sparking the civil rights movement as an issue of giving Black People the rights to civilized living, she gave all of us the rights to culture itself. She cracked open the very myth of race, hacked culture to separate it from that myth, and showed the rest of us that culture was no longer the domain of the elite, but the domain of everyone. She was an average American woman who demanded to be respected as such. Being an Average American Citizen was no longer just the domain of White Men. 

We the people had for many thousands of years been convinced that Race was real and Culture was indelibly bound to this Myth of Race. Race is an illusion that makes Culture a closed program, written for region, and attached to genetics for archaic powers to control.

Those who held power and control over the mass media, struggled desperately for the next 40 years to suppress, control, and commodify Culture as a proprietary and completely mediated experience. But what Rosa Parks did, rippled through the very fabric of cultural evolution and “We the People” embraced the idea that WE have the power to hack our own culture.

We discovered very quickly that Culture (like programs) exist in proprietary forms, like Christianity, Catholicism, or Judaism; and it also exists in open source forms, like Hippies, Punks, Burners, and Artists.


The Hippies were the rock gods of DIY and Culture Hacking, and opened the flood gates of Open Source Culture. They adopted an Open Source Cultural hybrid of Science and Religion, until the corporate media commodified and ridiculed it.

punksThe Punks railed against commodification, by expressing a nearly unmarketable aesthetic to express their iteration of Open Source Culture. The corporate media sanitized and commodified versions like New Wave, Billy Idol, or the Grunge Scene from Seattle.

Don’t get me wrong, the media serves a purpose. But institutionalized corporate media create powerful incentives; and just like technology, the success of one by the suppression or commodification of the other is questionable.

These are just a couple of examples known to you because the corporate media captured the open source culture, changed the source code and sold it back to you in a superficial, mediated, proprietary version. “You want Grunge? You have to pay for it. You are not free to experience it without a corporate label backing your grungy ass in a form that is consumable by the Proprietary Culture”

While these iterations of Open Source Culture suffered by seeking institutionalized media validation, many groups went underground, hiding from the prying eyes of the corporate media for various reasons.

card_back_boarderOne of the most influential yet unknown groups started in 1977. The Suicide Club was born from free classes held at a University in San Francisco. Anyone could teach a class, and anyone could attend them. They began hacking culture and providing its source code free to anyone who wanted to use it, and inviting them to share it back to the open source cultural participants.

For those of you who know GNU, this might sound familiar.

But most profoundly what Gary Warne discovered, was that as Culture is transmitted, those of us who embrace certain kinds of free reign self-reliant Archetypal traits tend to gravitate to ideas and memes encapsulated by these open source cultures, and reject the ones that don’t agree with our egos. We filter ourselves out of situations that don’t agree with us culturally.

One night he hosted a course on Pranks. People showed up with note pads, ready to sit in on a lecture and were greeted at the door with a pie to the face, and a bucket of feathers. Most people left, incensed that they’d been pranked. Some people figured it out, and for the next few hours joined in on greeting late comers with a pie to the face. What happened was a revelation about the old saying “separating the wheat from the chaff”.

Gary realized that rather than sitting as subjective judge to the individuals, the individuals (and the archetypes they embraced) would separate themselves. He presented an idea, and the idea caused people to weed themselves. Like chaos theory suggests, the environment and conditions created self-assembly.

What he discovered very quickly was the line between the Sadist and the Prankster. As he said it, “Unlike the Prankster, the Sadist doesn’t like it when it happens to them”. He had unlocked a secret that cut through the very fabric of Culture. Unlike “Open Source Culture Hackers”, the “Proprietary Culturists” don’t like it when they can’t control it.

And so was born the Suicide Club, which later reformed as The San Francisco Cacophony Society. Many of you will NOT know about them because they kept themselves out of the media spotlight, to enable themselves to Hack Culture unhindered by Commodification, or Bureaucracy.

… And this is where the story gets REALLY interesting.


The San Francisco Cacophony Society stayed underground, exploring many amazing memes.

  • They explored the sewers of San Francisco, in Tuxedos and Ball Gowns.
  • They hosted Posh fine dining luncheons in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge
  • Inspired by Dutch Prankster Artists, they hacked a meme and created the Santa Rampage that was hacked into Santa Con, and is now being hacked by the Vancouver Cacophony Society as Santarchy

Santarchy: is like Anarchy with Santas.

They did all of this, and true to the ethics of Open Source Culture they did not commodify it for easy consumption, and invited anyone who embraced this open source philosophy to open their own independent Cacophony Society Lodge, which became the plot for a film written by a member of the Cacophony Society.

When Fight Club was released in theatres it was modeled after elements of the Cacophony Society and the Cacophony Society archetypes were revealed to the mediated public. “We are everywhere”, was a Cacophony Society phrase that later permeated the Burner culture that grew from one of the most famous Cacophony Society events.


But most notably, for the Cacophony Society, and for Open Source Culture, we did something that previous cultural groups had failed at. We gathered and contributed our local Open Source Cultures to the dusty remains of an old lake bed, and created the longest running, self-sustained, Open Source Cultural event ever.

In the late 80’s the San Francisco Cacophony Society hosted (Culture Hacking) Zone Trips to strange locations “beyond the pale of Mainstream”, and during Zone Trip #4 “A Bad Day in Black Rock”, gave birth to an epic Open Source Event that came to be known by the sculpture they made and burned there.

Burning Man: A name, stamped on an Open Source Culture, looking for a home base.


But the story doesn’t end there.
With the advent of the internet, we witnessed an unprecedented transmission of Open Source Culture, instantly, on a Global Scale. Culture was now entirely free of mediation, anyone with access to a computer was granted unprecedented access to Open Source Culture, and the varieties of permutations hacked by the World Wide Citizens of the Internet Age. The Internet itself, became the bittorrent, of Open Source Culture.

The most fascinating example of this are Flash Mobs.
Started by a fellow in New York, and Culture Hacked by the Cacophony Society, then turned into The World Wide Pillow Fight Club (by yours truly) as a mysterious Vancouver Cacophony Society prank, Flash Mobs went on to be distorted and commodified by Proprietary Culturists who missed the point and didn’t understand that “No Permission” and the element of surprise is a big part of the experience of participating in a flash mob.157544145_640

Flash Mobs (as the Cacophony Society hacked it) were never really about the spectators who witnessed them, they were about the people who participated in flash mobs, and the fact that the participants were never quite sure what was about to happen.

But what I find most fascinating about this Culture Hack, is that in its “just for fun and silly” way, it’s one of the most profound statements of a free and open society.

I know this because here in Vancouver it’s become an annual tradition. We have never asked permission, and the city has never shut it down. But in other countries around the World, it was. Most notably when a group decided to host one in Moscow, the secret police showed up to arrest the 5 people brave enough to laugh for ten minutes slamming each other with pillows.

Why would the Soviet Secret Police be so terrified by people with pillows?
Think about it.

… and here we are Today, at one of the best examples of Open Source Culture and Culture Hacking.

BIL, the Open Source Cultural friend to TED.
Here we see open source ideas being embodied, hacked, and transmitted, and it’s happening right here in Vancouver. With BIL & TED changing cities, we are seeing something profound happen here. We are seeing Culture moved and embraced beyond geopolitical confines and further opened up to interpretation.

So I invite each and every one of you to ask yourself this question.
Am I a Sadist, or am I a Prankster?

Bunnarchy 2012If you are a Prankster, then invite Bunnarchy to your after parties tonight, and consider how you can Hack Open Source Culture, and how you can share and transmit these Open Source Cultural expressions with groups like the Cacophony Society.

Afterall… “You may already be a member

Dance, Play, Sing, Listen to Great Music, and LAUGH until you can laugh no more. Have fun hacking these cultural memes and enjoy the near chaos that evolves from these experiments in Joy and Spontaneity that permeate Open Source Culture. Live free and be free to live.

Because at the end of the day the more fun we have with this, the more profound it will be. The more we create, improve upon, and maintain a free and open society worth enjoying, the more we will thrive despite the challenges of living in an open and free society. Nothing is perfect, so accept what’s been done so far and step in to add something to it.

As the old saying goes “All the world is a stage” and the very act, rather than the aesthetic, is proof positive we truly live in an open society that embraces Open Source Culture, and the people who Culture Hack and share it for the sheer pleasure of the experience.

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