WARNING: MAY CONTAIN NUTS
Feeling powerless? Helpless? Is the system dragging you down? Try pouring coffee into your computer, or making a joke to a prostitute. ‘Subversive pranking’: it’s the new protest
Christian Koch, The Face
At this very moment, in a place like east London, or Wales, or the outskirts of Manchester, someone is planning to disrupt the way that you live. He or she might be opening beer cans in your local supermarket and handing them out to passing children. Or stickering a subversive slogan onto a flyposter on the Tube, right next to where it will catch your eye. Someone might be phoning your local paper, claiming to have been shot outside a neighbourhood club (the story will appear the following day). Or they could be working in Burger King, spittin’ on your onion rings…
None of these people are protesters in the all-chanting, all-marching, all-placard-waving sense. But they are protesters, and they are political, even if their aims seem obscure. Maybe the things they’re protesting against are too big or too nebulous. Not just corporations, but the entire capitalist system. Not just the government, but the whole way we live our lives. Against such foes, you have to change your tactics. All you can do is (have a) laugh.
After years of agitating on the edge of society, radical protesters are slowly beginning to infiltrate mainstream consciousness. Culture and media ‘jammers’ like Mark Thomas, Chris Morris and Trigger Happy TV occupy prime slots on TV. The anti-royalist group Movement Against The Monarchy managed a major coup in June, when they reached the front page of the Daily Mail by dropping their trousers outside Buckingham Palace as part of their ‘Moon Against The Monarchy’ campaign. And Vincent Bethell, the naked protester and star of a recent Channel 5 documentary devoted to his cause, announced on 13 August that he will now remain permanently starkers until the law prohibiting nudity is changed.
But while these provocateurs target public figures, multinationals and the higher echelons of society, there are insurgent cabals and individuals across the UK who are more intent on disturbing random members of the public. Beginning as an underground network of ‘zines and mail artists ten years ago, inspired by a cut-price cocktail of Situationism, surrealism, class war and subversive humour, these groups have swelled over the last decade, aided in no small way by the Internet. Having rejected anarchy as a term synonymous with Chumbawumba and smelling like an old floor mop, they no longer aim to overthrow hierarchical institutions of power.
Pranksters realise that they can’t stop politicians from delivering their spiels, or corporations from delivering their advertisements, so they attempt to ‘jam’ their reception through techniques such as spoof adverts, sick satire and agit-prop pranks. Like Adbuster’s subversion of a Gap advert that showed a photo of Hitler clad in khakis, ‘subversive pranking’ aims to force people to reconsider the power of advertising, the media and the hypocrisy of conservative social standards.
And it works. Although the Reclaim The Streets' May Day protests did very little damage to capitalism, the defacing of Churchill’s statue with red paint and a green-turf mohican had a huge impact in the mass media, becoming an emblem of the protest, a visual soundbite. That, the guerilla gardeners who covered the road in turf and even the man dressed up as a nun carrying bags of rhubarb, demonstrated that we have now reached a stage where social commentary can take the form of apparently meaningless pranks. Better still, the authorities don’t know how to respond. When Anne Widdecombe suggested on Newsnight that the May Day protesters should be locked up, Jeremy Paxman screamed: “You want to imprison people for planting some trees?” Today, radical protest is more about having a party than joining one.
Brimming with intellectual and nervous energy, Stewart Home is still buzzing from a deliberately boring speech he gave last week at a Fortean Times conference, which was so tedious that a third of the audience walked out. A 38-year old with a grown-out skinhead, clad in a navy bomber jacket covered in tears and stains, Home has made winding people up his life’s work. He’s a nihilistic art terrorist, a pulp fiction author (sample titles: Cunt and Blowjob), a pamphleteer and a musician (of sorts). Though a self-confessed plagiarist, Home has also been very influential, not only to the likes of Morris and Thomas, but also to artists like Damien Hirst. Home’s ‘Necrocards’, which looked like organ donor cards but bore the legend ‘I want to help others experiment with my body after death’ are similar in concept to Hirst’s ‘Leave Your Body For Art’ cards.
The Necrocards, 50,000 of which were handed out inSoholast year to drunken businessmen, clubbers and heavy metal fans, caused a considerable stir. Written about in magazines and snapped up by collectors of weird ephemera, they demonstrate that certain sexualities can still unsettle a supposedly unshockable society. “At the time, I had three friends who were undergoing liver transplants and I was seeing them needing donor cards,” Home remembers. “I think my Necrocards make people think about donating organs, as well as addressing issues of sex and death.”
Home recently scammed some lottery funding to finance his latest venture – hoodwinking prostitutes for a new audio CD. “I ring them up and say I want to have sex with someone who can dislocate their body so that their limbs look torn off,” he says in his high-pitched cockney whine. “I also say that I want to have sex in Scotland, to see where I can have the most powerful orgasm.”
Very nice, but what’s the point? Home is vague: “I want people to develop a more critical attitude and make them more conscious of themselves.” Like most pranksters, he holds one, vaguely superstitious tenet dear: that however obscure, strange or minor the agitation, it will eventually come to have a significant effect on society. From 1990 to 1993, for instance, Home held an ‘art strike’, where he undertook no cultural activity at all for three years, other than ‘staying in bed and watching loads of bad kung-fu movies.” He believes that the cultural nadir of 1992, when one in four galleries closed and art sales dropped 60 per cent in one year, was a result of the ‘psychological impact’ of the propaganda surrounding his strike.
You may laugh. You may think that Home is slightly mad. But think about it, arguments these days are rarely fought on the issues themselves. Instead, you try and destabilise the other side by whatever means you have at your disposal. Think about Widdecombe’s trashing of her old boss Michael Howard (“He has something of the night about him”) or the insistence from the Labour spin machine that Gordon Brown is “psychologically flawed”. The most successful pranks have a similar effect. They smash your vision of something. They destroy your trust.
Pranksters want to show you that the institutions that you thought ruled your life benevolently – or at least neutrally – are in fact, stupid, quixotic, pointless and cruel. Last year, a man in a Wiltshire village dressed up as a policeman and knocked on the doors of two elderly women, telling them that a close relative had died. Though a stark illustration of the trust we invest in the police and the power they have over our lives at times of crisis, the prank was morally reprehensible by any standards. While not necessarily more humane, most pranksters are funnier and more sophisticated. In the mid-1990s, a joker at the Channel Tunnel headquarters circulated a memo asking for volunteer suicides, enraging bosses. And last year, a group called the ‘Barbie Liberation Front’ attacked gender stereotyping by switching the voice boxes of Barbie dolls with those of GI Joes. When prompted, the GI Joes would say things like “Wanna go shopping?” while the Barbies would gruffly announce: “Vengeance is mine!”
The prankster’s Bible is a magazine called Hoax! which someone purporting to be called John CS Quel runs from his home in Brecon, Wales. Quel, who was once implicated by a Sunday newspaper as being a prime suspect in the Mardi Gras bombings, also runs Mark Thomas’ ‘officially unofficial’ website. Sometimes Quel aims just to disrupt (sending kippers through the post, re-arranging road signs – “puerile”, reckons Stewart Home). More often Hoax! advocates pranks which reflect Quel’s militant anti-work stance: accidentally crashing your computer terminal by pouring coffee into the keyboard, dyslexically re-filing files; leaving magnets lying around on the top of discs, and sending fake memos between bosses.
The world of work is prankster’s juiciest targets and their most conventionally political. Chester-based Anxiety Culture argue that most of us squander our lives away in boring, purposeless jobs due to groundless financial fears, deluding ourselves that the work is enjoyable. As a critique of capitalism, it beats smashing up McDonalds. Liam Daley, from youth marketing consultancy, Informer, published a report on youth culture and protest-pranking called New Protest in June. As he notes: “People now realise that politicians don’t control the world. Corporations do.”
“Take the day off work and phone in sick,” advises Anxiety Culture ‘inactivist’, Brian Dean, who quit a high-paid but hideously dull job as a computer consultant in the mid-1990s, and hasn’t worked since. “Politicians see jobs as a cure-all for social ills. We’d like to see this notion discredited. We’d like to see leisure replace employment as an achievable political goal.”
To this end, the sophisticated Anxiety Culture website features spoof adverts and subversive stickers that you can print out and leave around the workplace. “I’ve had a lot of people telling me the amusing places where they’ve applied my stickers,” says Dean, proudly. “My Crap Job Watch sticker can be found in Job Centres and my ‘Avoid Meetings – Stupidity Is Contagious’ stickers in boardrooms.”
As rallying cries go, it’s not exactly ‘Workers Of The World Unite’ – although that didn’t manage to overthrow capitalism either. Thanks to modern cynicism about politicians, pranks stand a much greater chance of destabilising society than grand, over-arching ideological statements. “Groups like Anxiety Culture do farcical things with heavy political issues which makes us laugh and sits in with our need to be entertained,” reckons Daley. “It’s not about dogma and you don’t need a Guardian-reading mentality to appreciate it.”
In Britain, over the past decade, two things happened which opened our minds to the pranks which opened our minds to the kinds of pranks that political pranksters have been pushing for years. The first was the election of New Labour. For everyone now under 26, it was the first election in which we’d been old enough to vote, and the first Labour government we could remember. People were optimistic – maybe over optimistic. Whether it was the government’s fault or our unrealistically high expectations, disillusionment soon set in when things didn’t seem to change.
The second was the huge explosion in Internet literacy. Cheap, accessible and impossible to censor, the Internet is radical protest’s natural element. Unsurprisingly, hoaxes abound from ‘hacktivist’ computer saboteurs such as Electronic Disturbance Theatre, anarchist website Urban75, (which receives over 70,000 hits a day) and the cyber-age activists at theICAwho were taken to court in 1998 by Marks & Spencer after creating simulation websites that carried erroneous information about prices. Last year, the London-based Mongrel Collective placed an anti-racist hoax online, creating a search engine that flashed black faces on the computer screens of surfers looking for racist websites. Lack of internet censorship meant that the Movement Against The Monarchy was able to mobilise hundreds of people into marching in executioner attire and handing out ‘Hurry Up And Die’ leaflets at the May Day action and on the Queen Mother’s birthday.
Aside from increasing the profile of pranksters, the internet has also engendered a shift in people’s attitudes. The burgeoning media-literacy of the public over the last ten years and an increasing cynicism of PR (who really believed William Hague’s ’14 pints a day’ claims?) has been grasped by pranksters everywhere. “I think attitudes have shifted over the last decade,” says Brian Dean. “Newspapers used to report that cannabis was highly toxic and caused brain damage. I’ve not seen any reports like that for a long time. The reason is we have a better informed and less gullible public.”
The pranksters’ critique of the media takes varying forms.Stewart Home recently phoned one local paper to say that he’d been shot outside a local nightclub: they printed the story unchecked. At the other end of the scale is Luther Blissett, a loosely organized group of anarchists, academics (Umberto Eco is affiliated) and authors, named after the English footballer who suffered a disastrous season at AC Milan in the mid-1980s. Blissett was chosen as a symbol of heroic failure because, says one activist: “he was a nice Afro-Caribbean who had problems with the Italian way of playing football and become the target of racist jokes.” There are now thousands of Luther Blissetts sprinkled around the world, who use the name to publish erudite philosophical texts, stage exhibitions, and to cover up hoaxes and acts of cultural sabotage.
In 1995, Luther Blissett duped an Italian prime-time TV missing persons show into searching for a fictitious British artist called Harry Kipper. To highlight the homophobic way in which AIDS is covered in the Catholic press, they fooled a right-wing Italian newspaper into running a fabricated story on an HIV-infected prostitute who pierced the condoms of her clients. And as a protest against the ‘hysteria and reactionary opinion manipulation’ around the subject of paedophilia, they falsely claimed that a venerable Italian priest was involved in a child sex ring, creating a media storm.
In Britain, Luther Blissett is behind a plethora of pamphlets, tapes, CDs and zines that would otherwise remain anonymous. Henri Beauchamp runs the Parasol Post newsletter in Leicester, writing under the Luther Blissett moniker. Beachamp, a disillusioned ex-Trotskyist who works as an NHS library assistant, became involved with such stunts to “exchange ideas and for a vicarious social life.” Furthering the multiple-name stratagem, Parasol Post is currently writing a fake Stewart Home novel, plagiarising reams of text from the author’s previous novels and weaving them together into an intertextual minefield.
However weird, marginal or self-indulgent this may sound, the activities of the pranksters continue to be hugely influential, their techniques often adopted by the very forces they oppose. In New York last year, record company employees inspired by US TV subversive Michael Moore ran into the traffic, waving placards advertising CDs; this spring, competitive pricing website Scanner employed people to stand outside Virgin Megastores with placards bearing the slogan ‘Overpriced CDs Sold Here’. The right-wing Countryside Alliance used graffiti sloganeering, daubing phrases on city walls in their protest against the mooted ban on fox hunting. Even the Women’s Institute seemed possessed by the spirit of rude subversion when they slow hand-clapped Tony Blair in May. “The bourgeoisie has picked up on these humourous activities,” frets George Mckay, author of DIY Protest: Party And Protest In Nineties Britain. “That’s really worrying."
Yet Luther Blissett, Anxiety Culture and all the other groups have huge creative reserves of creativity, anger and an endlessly swelling band of acolytes with innovative, disruptive ideas of their own. “Politics and people getting angry is set to be the defining issue for the next decade,” predicts Informer’s Liam Daley. “People can lobby Parliament until they’re blue in the face, but it’s not going to get them anywhere.”
George McKay agrees: “Until the Blair government, we had 18 years of a Tory regime. People though that with a left-wing government there would be no more need for activism. They couldn’t be more wrong..."