By Majken Sørensen
During martial law in the early 1980’s in Poland, graffiti in favour of the illegal trade union Solidarity was quickly painted over by the authorities. This left “blobs” on the walls, so that everyone knew that this was covered graffiti. Activists who identified with a new group called Orange Alternative started to work on these “blobs” by giving them arms and legs so that they became little elves. According to Kenney, who has written about the Orange Alternative and its place in the fall of the communist regimes in central Europe, elves made passers-by “consider the point of the struggle over wall space, and wonder why little elves were threatening to the communists”.(1)
Several years later, the elves came to life at an Orange Alternative happening on Children’s day, 1 June 1987, one of the happenings which became what Kenney calls a “catalyst” for the Orange Alternative. An invitation to the happening was distributed at schools and universities around the city of Wroclaw, and almost 1,000 young people showed up. There they got a red cap, and then they were elves.
Since it was Children’s day, the elves handed out candy to people, danced and sang children’s songs. When the police started to take some of the elves to the police cars they followed without protesting, kissing the police and throwing candy out through the windows. Then the crowd started to shout “Elves are real”. Accounts of this surreal celebration of Children’s day went around Poland in the underground press, providing new images of what protest could look like. (2)
Are activists more creative now?
Sometimes I hear people say that there is so much more humour and creativity in activism now than there was previously. Maybe they are right, but I’m not convinced. The more you start to look for humour and talk to experienced activists about it, the more your will find, also 40 years ago. However, humour is fleeting and difficult to catch. Political humour is often so specific to a particular situation that it can be difficult to grasp for those who have not lived that situation, have an intimate knowledge of the language and the subtle workings of the political power.
Everyone who has tried to joke in a foreign language while they are learning it will probably understand what I’m talking about. So humour can be difficult to catch for outsiders, but why don’t those who perform it document it better? Sometimes they do, which is why we know about older examples. But activists have always been busy with their day-to-day activism, and documenting actions has been a low priority.
Political humour comes in many different forms – cartoons, parody TV news, stand-up comedy. Events like the Orange Alternative’s elves in Poland I call humorous political stunts. They ought to be particularly interesting for nonviolent activists because of their potential for confrontation. A humorous political stunt is a performance/action carried out it public which attempts to undermine a dominant discourse. It is either so confrontational that it cannot be ignored or involves a deception that blurs the line between performers and audiences. It includes or comments on a political incongruity in a way that is perceived as amusing by at least some people who did not initiate it.
Going through a large number of humorous political stunts, I have found that they fall into five different types which I call supportive, corrective, naive, absurd, and provocative. Below I explain what I mean with each notion and give an illustrative example.
Supportive humorous stunts
Supportive humorous stunts are framed as attempts to help, support, protect from harm, and celebrate. Those who carry out supportive stunts appear supportive and rational, but what happens is that the target is invalidated. The pranksters do not openly dismiss the truth and rationality the power holders and representatives of the dominant discourses present; instead, their truth is exaggerated and overemphasised. Usually irony plays an important role in supportive humorous stunts, since the support is only pretended. The target will know that they are being watched, and the audiences are presented with an image of the power holders’ vulnerable sides. Here the protesters do not appear irrational in their relation to what they actually oppose, as they are constructive, helpful and supportive. By acting in this way they attempt to undermine their opponents’ claims to truth and power and to transcend the unequal relations of power. For an audience who is used to conventional, non-humorous political protest, at first glance supportive stunts look like real support. Only a closer look reveals an underlying message that exposes and disconfirms those who first appeared to be receiving support.
Opposing landmines and cluster munitions
In Belgium a network working against landmines and cluster munitions in 2005 sent a landmine clearance team to the headquarter of AXA, a bank which had increased its investment in mines while other banks were reducing their investment in this industry. In the press release they wrote:
Today, 18th October, activists from the campaign “My Money. Clear Conscience?” symbolically demined the headquarters of AXA in Brussels. A landmine clearance team went in search of landmines, cluster munitions and other controversial weapons. This action is needed more than ever, as research from Netwerk Vlaanderen reveals that AXA invests heavily in two new US landmine producers. (3)
This stunt was a constructive attempt to highlight AXA’s investment in landmines. Instead of staging a traditional political protest, the landmine clearance team, dressed in reflexive orange vests, protective helmets, and equipped with instruments for mine detection looked out for the safety of the employees of AXA. This way, they engaged with their opponent by applying a different type of logic to what the conflict was about. The demining team of approximately 10 people used orange and white tape to close off the area and displayed signs saying “danger, mines” and “demining in progress”. You can watch a 3-minute video about the action here and get an impression of the employees’ bewilderment, surprise, amusement and worry.
Landmines and cluster munitions are a serious issue, and there should be no doubt that the organisation is serious in its critique of AXA’s continued investment in this type of weapon. At the time of the action, the Ottawa Treaty, an international ban on anti-personnel landmines, had been in place for 8 years. Netwerk Vlaanderen had been campaigning for more ethical investments for 3 years, and while most banks had decreased their investment in weapons, AXA had not been willing to cooperate with the group. (4) To make this more public, the group decided to do the demining action.
This stunt fit the “supportive” category because it is framed as being helpful and concerned about other people’s safety. For the opponent, it is challenging to find an adequate response to a supportive stunt because they are not openly criticised, but instead they seemingly receive support and help.
Corrective humorous stunts
Corrective humorous stunts aim to transcend the inequality in power by presenting an alternative version of “the truth”. They hijack the identity or the message of their target in order to suggest a correction. This type of stunt unmasks the dominant discourse by disclosing an alternative version of persons, institutions or messages. Just like in the supportive stunt, this happens when the discourse and rationality of the target are exaggerated and overemphasised.
The pranksters “sneak in” while the powerful are looking the other way or are busy somewhere else, in order to reveal what they consider a more “correct” version of who the target really is. This way, the pranksters communicate to the power holders that they are being watched, but the corrective is usually performed for the sake of the audience to whom the true colours of the target are revealed.
Corrective humorous stunts frequently share the same goal with non-humorous protests: they want to inform the public about an alternative version of the truth. The Yes Men with their concept of “identity correction” are by now a world famous example of this.
Parodying a government agency
Many other groups have used similar tactics of hijacking identities and messages. In 2010, the Swedish government formed a new agency called Forsvarsexportmyndigheten (Swedish Defence and Security Export Agency, FXM). The purpose of this agency was controversial, and has been the centre of a debate about free speech on the Internet.
In May 2010, the oldest Swedish peace organisation, Svenska Freds- och Skiljedomsforeningen (Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society, SPAS) started a webpage called forsvarsexportmyndigheten.se. The page was a parody of the official page, which used the domain fxm.se. At a glance, the pages looked very similar in design, but the content presented the work of the agency in very different terms.
On fxm.se, the agency described its activities this way:
On August 1 2010 the government established the Swedish Defence and Security Export Agency, FXM, with the purpose of streamlining and better prioritising government efforts for Swedish defence export. An operational defence industry in Sweden has defence and security benefits. With the help of cost sharing and cost recovery the supply of equipment for the Swedish armed forces can become more cost effective. (5)
SPAS explained the purpose of the agency in more straightforward terms:
The Swedish Defence and Security Export Agency, FXM, should encourage economic gain for shareholders in the Swedish arms industry. The Agency is a government lobby institution paid by the Swedish tax payers and aims to sell as much weaponry as possible. Commercial interests are the guiding star. The running of the agency is based on the praxis which Swedish arms export, or what we call defence export, is characterised by: concerns for democracy, human rights or the risk of war are completely irrelevant. (6)
When first asked by the media what they thought about the parody webpage, the agency had no comments. (7) A few months later, FXM said that they had not wanted this domain name anyway, since they wanted to become known under its abbreviation, FXM, and the full name was too long and complicated for non-Swedish speakers. (8)
However, FXM then proceeded to file a formal complaint with .SE, the trust which regulates the Swedish domain name .se. In July 2011, the .SE ruled that SPAS had started the page in “bad faith” (the literal translation from Swedish is in fact “evil faith”), and that the organisation had no legitimate right to the domain, which should be handed over to FXM. If SPAS wanted to continue satirising over FXM, it could do so without using this domain name. (9)
The supportive and corrective stunts share some similarities. On the surface, they appear logical. Behind the initial apparent logic, they base their challenge to power on the moment where the audience must ask itself whether this is meant to be taken literally, or whether someone is joking.
Naive humorous stunts
In naive humorous stunts activists pretend not to understand that what they do can be interpreted as a protest, thus they bring the unequal relations of power to everyone’s attention in a way which is rather direct, but covered behind naiveté. While the supportive and corrective stunts exaggerate and overemphasise the rationality of the power holders in order to get their message across, those who carry out naive stunts pretend that they are not aware that they have challenged any power. If anything looks like a protest, that must be a coincidence. Hašek’s book about the good soldier Švejk who challenged the authority of the army without ever framing his actions as protest is a classic literary example of a naive prankster. The purpose of the stunt is not to present a more correct version or to unmask, but to utter a dissenting message under the disguise of naiveté.
In Burma, any kind of open criticism of the military junta has been discouraged for decades and anyone doing it ran a great risk. But in spite of the persecutions and harassment of all dissidents, political humour was repeatedly thrown right in the face of the regime. In 2010, on the day that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was to be released from her house arrest, a magazine which follows international sports made a remarkable front page. The magazine, called First Eleven, had a headline which said “Sunderland freeze Chelsea” and “United stunned by Villa and Arsenal advances to grab their hope” accurately referring to well-known British soccer teams. So how was a headline about a football win so remarkable? Some of the letters were changed into a different colour, to reveal a second version of the text: “SU free. Unite and advance to grab the hope”. Above the headline was a photo which added to the subversive message: “a striker going for goal as the opposing team moves in to block him”. (10)
For this action, the newspaper was suspended for two weeks, a relatively light punishment if the history of repression in Burma is taken into consideration.
This type of stunt fit the naive category not because the activists would be called naive by their opponents -quite on the contrary- but because they frame what they do in such a way that on the surface they are not doing anything wrong at all. They pretend to avoid the logic of power and protest altogether, and instead they simply do something which is normal behaviour under the circumstances – like announce a football result.
Absurd humorous stunts
In absurd humorous stunts, the activists frame themselves as innocent clowns who point towards society’s absurdities. Their relation to the rationality of the dominant discourse is to defy it altogether. The absurd stunt shares some similarities with the naive stunt regarding the apparent naiveté of the activists, but whereas the participants in the naive stunt appear not to understand, the absurd pranksters refuse to acknowledge any kind of rationality. Their message is that the whole world is absurd, including the apparently powerful. All claims to power and truth are challenged with silliness, slapstick or total craziness. Everyone is assumed to be participants in the play they stage, but the previously prevailing rules and roles are altered. The absurd pranksters are unlikely to suggest that this has anything to do with protest: it is only the context and the audience’s interpretations which can reveal any intent to criticise.
When trying to give rational responses, the opponent is confronted with even more silliness and absurdity, with the world turned upside down. The only thing predictable is that the performers will continue to be unpredictable. All attempts to deal with this as conventional political opposition will only contribute new components to their absurd plays.
The Orange Alternative in Poland
The example from the Orange Alternative that I started this essay with is an absurd stunt. Orange Alternative was a small group that mainly worked in the city of Wroclaw, but later spread to other cities in Poland. They initiated happenings which brought colour and carnival to the greyness that characterised both the communist regime and the opposition in Solidarity. Instead of staging a protest march or a fast as other protesters did, they arranged events which involved the audience. In addition to candy, they also handed out toilet paper and sanitary pads (scarce during communism) on other occasions. The concept of “socialist surrealism” and the mocking of the socialist realities guided the happenings, but Orange Alternative was a co-organiser of events, not the only organiser, since the police and passers-by also had a say in what was to happen. (11) The happenings were never an open expression of dissent, since any independent organising, no matter the reason, was a threat to the communist desire for total control.
In contrast to Solidarity, Orange Alternative was unpredictable and appeared irrational. The regime never knew what would come next. The little elves did not resist arrest, but instead kissed the police and gave them flowers. This way, they became difficult for the regime to repress, since arresting someone for playing an elf seems ridiculous, even for communists. The happenings became a training ground for protest and socialised people to the idea of independent organising. They encouraged people to come out in the streets where they learned that a few hours of detention was not that dangerous after all. (12) This way, Orange Alternative prepared people for what was to come a few years later, by lowering levels of fear.
The absurd stunt is not as confrontational as the provocative stunt which I will turn to below, but rather attempts to be an eye-opener. It is the type of stunt which is the furthest away from protest, since it might just as well expose hierarchies and domination within a protest movement. To the degree it is possible to talk about design at all with this type of stunt, it is intended to make people question everything they hear and see. The absurd stunt questions all dogmas and only vaguely hints towards possible political alternatives. In comparison, the corrective stunt brings forward an idea about what a more “correct” presentation of a person, company or message could be.
Provocative humorous stunts
Provocative humorous stunts are the type of stunts closest to conventional protest since they generate their humour simply by daring to directly confront those in power. The pranksters do not deny the unequal relations of power, as in absurd stunts, or present any alternatives like the corrective or constructive stunts do: they simply appear not to care about the consequences of their actions. That way the activists amuse and impress their audiences with their boldness and devil-may-care attitudes. The almighty who are confronted with a provocative stunt become ridiculous since they are humiliated right under their nose, and turn out not to have total control after all. The pranksters openly act as provocateurs in order to expose vulnerabilities and humiliate the conceited power holders.
Provocation in St. Petersburg
In Russia, an art collective called Voina has made itself loved and infamous because of its creative stunts that expose Russian authorities. In June 2010, they painted a giant penis on Liteiny Bridge in St. Petersburg in just 23 seconds. Liteiny Bridge is a bascule bridge, and the action was done just before it was opened to let a ship pass. When that happened, the penis was standing erect for several hours just in front of the unpopular secret police (FSB) headquarters in St. Petersburg. (13) You can watch the photos here.
Russian authorities were presumably not very amused by this painting, and had it removed straight away. Members of Voina faced prison sentences for this and similar actions. The circumstances in authoritarian Russia make this different from performing the same stunt in a more democratic country.
Although the supportive, corrective, innocent, and absurd stunts are confrontational as well, the provocative appear to depend especially on the audiences’ recognition of the irreverent attitude of the activists. From sympathetic bystanders they get a “wow, how courageous”. However, many other nonviolent actions can generate that feeling without being humorous at all. The participants in a humorous provocative stunt appear unconcerned about the power of the institutions they attack: the Voina type of action does not present itself as if it has any other purpose than to provoke and send a different message to a large audience: “We do not care very much about potential consequences”.
Nevertheless, only the activists themselves know if they expect their actions to have consequences that are more than symbolic. Voina’s action suggests “You are not that powerful after all, because we can do this right under your nose, and we refuse to be scared of you”. And to the wider audience it adds “Why are you so scared?” “See, they just pretend to be powerful! Why do you believe that?” With this refusal to be intimidated they contribute to transcending the rationality of the so-called powerful. When someone finally says that the emperor has no clothes, people’s fear may start to decrease, and what started out symbolically might set the snowball rolling towards more sustained challenges.
The provocative stunt does not attempt to appear as a serious threat to those in power. This can either be because the organisers really do not have any intentions of doing more than a harmless prank, or it might be because they find a humorous strategy more likely to be successful. This is exactly why power holders are caught in such a dilemma about how to react. From a rational point of view what authoritarian state leader would be scared because someone paints a giant penis? That they bother to react can be interpreted as a sign that these types of humorous stunts are indeed unsettling.
Just as the supportive and the corrective stunts share some similarities, so do the absurd and the provocative ones. Even if the absurd stunt seems to be the furthest away from conventional protest, and the provocative stunt the closest, both the absurd and the provocative stunt refuse rationality. The devil-may-care attitude of the provocative stunt is admired by some because it is seen as courageous and bold. It is a clear provocation and not camouflaged as anything else. The absurd stunt refuses the existence of all rationality. It might be interpreted as a disguise for protest, but only the pranksters themselves will know if they consider the world absurd altogether, or if they see absurdity as a useful tool for communicating dissent.
The problematic situation for a state leader or others in power positions is that if they let a few challenge them, more may follow. And that could end up in a situation out of control. At the same time they are also aware that brutal force against humorous actions may backfire and a reaction against repression may also spin out of control.
Humour is a special way of communicating. In itself, it is neither good nor bad. It can be used to hurt other people, and it can be used to make them happy, just like other methods or mediums for communication. Humorous stunts are a game of pretence, interpretation and appearance. They operate within a play frame, and depend on establishing a resonance with one or more audiences that this is humorous, and that ambiguity and multiple meanings and interpretations are acceptable. For all these examples, the opponents of the pranksters may not find them funny at all. However, as Palmer has pointed out, it is not the privilege of the butt of a joke to decide whether something is funny or not. (14)
The play frame and the use of humour do not mean that the humorous political stunt stunt is devoid of a serious message; in some cases this message is even deadly serious for the people involved. Some stunts are realised under regimes with a long record of severe repression, such as the Burmese military junta. Challenges to their version of the truth are not treated mildly, even when the challenge is done with humour. Humorous stunts are just one method in a greater struggle for power and meaning-making, which is not playful at all.
This text is adapted from Majken Jul Sørensen, “Humorous political stunts: Speaking “truth” to power?”, European Journal of Humour Research, vol. 1, no 2, pages 69-83. The full text can be downloaded for free at www.europeanjournalofhumour.org. Here you will find many references to more literature.
1. Padraic Kenney, A Carnival of Revolution – Central Europe 1989 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002). 158.
2. Kenney, A Carnival of Revolution – Central Europe 1989: 1-2,157-64.
3. Netwerk Vlaanderen, “Demining Team Begins Its Work at Axa,” Netwerk Vlaanderen.
4. Netwerk Vlaanderen, “Demining Team Begins Its Work at Axa”.
5. Försvarsexportmyndigheten, “Om Fxm [About Fxm],” fxm.se,
6. SPAS, forsvarsexportmyndigheten.se, http://forsvarsexport.se.
7. Ardalan Samimi, “Svenska Freds Kapar Krigsmyndighetens Domän [Spas Hijacks War Agency’s Domain],” dagensmedia.se, November 26, 2010.
8. Ola Jacobsen, “De Skal Få Sverige Att Exportera Mer Vapen [They Are to Help Make Sweden Export More Weapons],” Metro, January 26 2011.
9. SE, “Beslut 487 [Decision 487],” July 4 2011.
10. Radio Australia, “Burma and the Difficult Art of Humour,” November 22 2010.
11. Mirosław Peczak and Anna Krajewska-Wieczorek, “The Orange Ones, the Street, and the Background,” Performing Arts Journal 13, no. 2 (1991).
12. Kenney, A Carnival of Revolution – Central Europe 1989: 190; Bronislaw Misztal, “Between the State and Solidarity: One Movement, Two Interpretations – the Orange Alternative Movement in Poland,” The British Journal of Sociology 43, no. 1 (1992): 62.
13. Nick Sturdee, “Don’t Raise the Bridge: Voina, Russia’s Art Terrorists,” The Guardian, 12 April 2011.
14. Jerry Palmer, Taking Humour Seriously (London ; New York: Routledge, 1994).