>text: Christian Koch
>graphix: Hoax!/Totally Normal/Institute of Fatuous Research/Stewart
>Home/Luther Blissett/Fuel and Transport Advisory Committee/Act Up!/
>THE FACE - October 2000
>Feeling powerless? Helpless? Is the system dragging you down? Try
>pouring coffee into your computer, or making a joke call to a
>prostitute. 'Subversive pranking': it's the new protest.
>'There's no such thing as a joke' - Joe Orton
>At this very moment, in a place like East London, or Wales, or the
>outskirts of Manchester, someone is planning to disrupt the way you
>live. He or she might be opening beer cans in your local supermarket and
>handing them out to passing children, or stickering subversive slogan
>onto a flyposter on the Tube, right 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 peopie 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 mighty 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 pranksters 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 August 13 that he will now remain
>permanently starkers until the law prohibiting public 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, inspined 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 Chumbawamba
>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
>spiels, or corporations from broadcastIng advertisements, so they
>attempt to 'jam' their reception through techniques such as spoof
>adverts, sick satire and agit-prop pranks. Like Adbusters' subversion of
>a Gap advert that showed a photo of Hitler clad in khakis, 'subversive
>pranking' alms 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 Ann 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 with 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 aiso
>been very influential, not only to the likes of Morris and Thomas, but
>also to artists jlke Damien Hirst. Home's 'Necrocards', which looked
>like organ donor cards but bore the legend 'I want to help others
>experiment sexually with my body after my death' are similar in concept
>to Hirst's 'Leave Your Body For Art' cards.
>The Necrocards, 50,000 of which were handed out in Soho last 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 going to
>hospital 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 I want to have sex in Scotland, to see where I can have the most
>Very nice, but what's the point? Home is vague, 'I want to get 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
>6O per cent in one year was a result of the 'psychological impact' of
>the propaganda surrounding his strike.
>You may laugh. You may think Home is slightly mad, but think abouth 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
>'psychologicaily flawed'. The most successful pranks have a similar
>effect. They smash your vision of something. They destroy your trust.
>Pranksters want to show that the institutions 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
>to tell them that a close relative have 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-Nineties, 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, then returning them
>to toy stores. When prompted, the GI Joes would say things like, 'Wanna
>go shopping?' while the Barbies would gruffly announce, 'Vengeance is
>The pranksters' Bible is a magazine called HOAX! which someone
>purporting to be called John C.S. 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, rearranging road signs -'puerile',
>reckons Stewart Home), More often, HOAX! advocates pranks which reflect
>Quel`s militant anti-work stance: crashing your computer terminal by
>pouring coffee into the keyboard, dyslexically refiling files; leaving
>magnets lying around on the top of discs, and sending fake memos between
>The world of work is the pranksters' juiciest target, 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 end protest-pranking called 'New Protest' in
>June, As he notes, 'People 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 highly paid but hideously dull job
>as computer consultant in the mid-Nineties, 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
>achievable political goal.'
>To this end, the sophisticated Anxiety Culture website features spoof
>adverts and subversive stickers you can print out and leave around the
>workplace. I`ve had a lot of people telling me the amusing places
>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, overarching ideological statements.
>'Groups like Anxiety Culture do farcical things with heavy political
>issues which make us laugh and sit 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 kind of ideas that political pranksters had 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 overoptimistic. 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 cyberage
>activists at the ICA who 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 website 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
>engendered a shift in people's attitudes. The burgeoning media-literacy
>of the public over the last ten years and an increasing cynicism about
>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 Brain 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 guilible 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 organised group of anarchists,
>academics (Umberto Eco is affiliated) and authors, named after the
>English footballer who suffered after a disastrous season at AC Milan in
>the mid-Eighties. Blissett was chosen as a symbol of heroic failure
>because, - says one activist, 'he was a nice Afro-Caribbean guy who had
>problemgs with the Italian way of playing football and became the target
>of racist jokes,'
>There are now thousands of Luther Blissetts sprinkled around the world,
>who use his 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
>Italian press, they fooled a rjght-wing Italian newspaper into running a
>fabricated story on an HIV-infected prostitute who pierced the condoms
>of her ciients, 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. Beauchamp, 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 inertextual 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
>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
>George McKay agrees: 'Until the Blair government, we had 18 years of a
>Tory regime. People thought that with a left-wing government there'd be
>no more need for activism. They couldn't have been more wrong'.