Does Political Protest via Pranksterism Have a Place Today?
L.M. Bogad, a master of theatrical spectacle as a way to protest government policy, talks to WhoWhatWhy about “tactical performance.” Does it have a place — as a kind of force multiplier for protests — when all politics is devolving into entertainment?
Donald Trump often seems more of an entertainer and performer than somebody running for office. This is no accident. As a former reality-TV star, he has learned that his primary audience cares more about his persona than his policies.
Who is going to follow his lead? Indeed, just how “new” is Trump’s performance-based approach to politics? Others long before him realized the power of political theatre.
Not new at all, says L.M. Bogad, a professor of political performance and the author of “Electoral Guerrilla Theater.” In this week’s podcast Bogad tells Jeff Schechtman that, long before Trump, politicians and political activists have mobilized street theater, theatrical protest, and performance skills to win elections.
The difference today is that, to garner attention, politicians need to be more creative in crafting “irresistible images,” using “sociodrama” and scripting” for a particular effect.
As we approach likely protests during the summer’s party conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia, Bogard compares today’s protests to those of the 1960s, talks about the uses and danger of violence, and argues that satire still has a place in bringing about change.
From Occupy Wall Street to the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, street protest remains a viable way to be politically effective. But when it comes to political theater, can anyone out-Trump Trump?
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Full Text Transcript:
Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio Whowhatwhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
If there ever was a need for proof that politics and entertainment were now conflated, this election cycle proves it conclusively. And while on the surface it seems that this trivializes our politics, makes fun of serious issues, gives the advantage to those more experienced at entertainment than policy, it also opens up powerful and unique opportunities to use entertainment in the form of street theater, theatrical protest and political performance as a means to move the needle on a whole range of important issues. Our guest today on Radio Whowhatwhy is one of our nation’s experts on understanding and using theatrical protest. L.M. Bogad is an author, performer, and the founding director of the Center for Tactical Performance. He’s a professor of political performance at UC Davis, and a cofounder of the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army. His previous book is Electoral Guerilla Theatre, and his newest work is Tactical Performance: The Theory and Practice of Serious Play. It is my pleasure to welcome L.M. Bogad to Radio Whowhatwhy.
L.M. Bogad: Thanks so much, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: As our politics in real life have become more theatrical, have become almost a kind of a theater unto itself, has that lessened the power of political protest, of political theater?
L.M. Bogad: Well, that’s a great question. I mean we have so many… it’s getting more and more, almost exaggerated in tone as the years go on. I have had several friends question me ‘Trump’s faking it, right, that’s a performance right?’ I mean, it’s both the performance, and he’s not faking it in the sense that there’s things that are really at stake with these performances, right? He is a persona, right? So, in that context of this overwhelming, kind of barrage of images and information we get every day, and sort of an overwhelming-like tone that gets more and more raw and more and more outrageous. I still think that the challenge, it’s just a new challenge for us, which is that protests have to get more creative, more visually stimulating, more surprising and playful perhaps. So, I do think that older forms of political protest may be, while very well intentioned, may have less impact because they kind of get swallowed up by this entertainment culture that we have, and it’s easier to ignore. I don’t believe it, I think it’s unfortunate, but if you have hundreds of thousands of bodies in the street these days, I think it’s a great feat of organizing. And I think it’s too easy for this sort of centralized action to ignore it. So, I think there’s a need to do that, very serious organizing for protest, and think theatrically, and think in terms of socio-drama, and creating, for example, an irresistible image that both communicates what you want to the story that you want to tell, but is so irresistible it’s almost just gripping that even media that is not sympathetic to you will reproduce that image. So I don’t think protest is irrelevant, I figure it’s just new challenges, and I think that sort of creativity is at a premium.
Jeff Schechtman: And as that creativity has to be pushed out as the envelope has to be expanded to the extremes, does that run the risk of while it may make it more attention grabbing, does it run the risk of trivializing it in some way?
L.M. Bogad: Well here’s the thing, and that’s great too. I’ve worked with groups as a writer, performer, advisor and also research groups that focused on being funny. And I think that can be great, and it’s not necessarily trivializing. It can go that way. Some groups like Billionaires for Bush, which the website’s still up there. You know, basically, creating a sort of cartoon oligarchs who follow Bush or Karl Rove around, and made these media spectacles that were very silly, but made the point about the class inequality. So that kind of action may seem like it’s trivializing, but if it’s done with the right balance, I actually think that satire can show that you’re taking an issue seriously enough to make fun of it. That may seem contradictory, but we have a great tradition in this country of that. And I think that satire’s the sort of unstable cocktail of idealism and cynicism. So it’s not only cynical. Because when you’re critiquing something in this way, the way that Colbert handled his opportunity to roast Bush at the press club dinner, some may say that was trivializing, but the ideal is suggested; like I want something better, and it does matter. This is the way I’m trying to get it. So yeah, there is a little bit of cynicism in there but I think it’s a healthy kind of cynicism. But having said that you know, actions like Billionaires for Bush, and other things like the Oil Enforcement Agency, which took Bush at his word and said okay if you really think we should get off of oil, as he said in one of his State of the Union speeches, we’re going to pretend you meant that and we’re going to create this Oil Enforcement Agency and go and raid auto shows and places like that to try to pretend these are your policies. But there’s also the other side of tactical performance; it’s not all satirical, right? Some things consisted of being very creative, but in a very somber way. So, just one quick example that I think certainly is not trivializing was the group One Thousand Coffins. And this is a recent example from the Bush Administration, where the Bush Administration had said okay, you can’t take pictures of the flag-covered coffins coming home from the wreck in Afghanistan. And, they knew that was a powerful image, and I understand why they would want to ban the photography of those coffins. People made a legal case against that, and tried to take it to the Supreme Court. Eventually Obama just overturned it. But before that, what this group did, and again, not funny, not satirical, the group called One Thousand Coffins said alright, let’s create those coffins. Let’s create that image. And they made a thousand coffins, covered them with flags, and marched them through the streets of New York and D.C., and it was this gripping, very somber image. They worked with progressive veterans, troops, who wanted to work with them to create this. Essentially, they were performing the censored image. They said, this is censored, maybe we can’t – okay, let’s use performance and make this image happen. And sure enough, they got a tremendous amount of attention, and it was an image that couldn’t be ignored, and that’s the sort of thing I refer to as an irresistible image.
Jeff Schechtman: If we look for the various golden ages of political satire historically, what do we see in terms of the forces that came together to really generate and encourage that, because it does seem that in our current environment, because views are so extreme, because reality seems to be so different for each side, that somehow satire is not as powerful as it has been in previous times.
L.M. Bogad: Yeah, I mean, that’s a good question. I think sometimes when there’s more repression, and satire has to work harder in an almost clandestine way, it’s harder to do and it’s more dangerous, but there’s a higher bar for work that’s going to get out there. So I’m thinking about work under, I’m thinking about Vaclav Havel, the playwright and working under Czech censorship. He wrote some brilliant plays that were very coded and clever and electrifying for the audiences. And there’s many other situations like that. I want there to be more freedom for everyone. But when you have to actually work harder at your craft to get it out there, Vaclav Havel went from prison to being the president afterwards. It’s an incredible story, but I think that’s maybe one of the elements; it’s that if there’s more pressure on your work to be more playful, more clever, to be coded, that’s one element. I guess that’s the main thing. I think in our time now, we still have these wonderful opportunities though, so I would add that it’s not so… There’s plenty of people to reach and communicate with in our current body of politics, you know what I mean? I don’t think that this is like a low point. I take what you’re saying. I’ve often had to say to folks, we’re not trying to convince the other side with this campaign, that’s probably not going to happen. But there’s so many people that aren’t participating in the process, so many people who have given up or they’re apathetic or they’ve dropped out. Those are some of the folks you want to electrify and reach and get participating. So I think even now, your point’s well taken, but I think even now there’s a role for that kind of tactical performance, be it satirical or otherwise, and I think surprise is a key element here, Jeff. I think that the element of surprise, I don’t mean shocking people because I don’t think you can shock people so easily anymore in this culture, you know, it’s such an extreme culture in that sense. But, without trying to convince your ideological opposites to change their mind, I think that if you’re playful and surprising in your actions, I think there’s a lot of people in the middle, and a lot of people who’ve dropped out who you can engage with on an issue: be it climate change, be it the minimum wage, be it homelessness or human rights. If you do an action that does somebody a favor in a good way, surprising them, they’re walking down the street, they’re going to work, and then see something happening that isn’t hostile, isn’t self-righteous, you know what I mean, isn’t holier than thou. But it is clearly some kind of political engagement that they want to stop and give 30 seconds to and then take a moment. And it’s hard, but I refer to that as earning a moment. That’s a term from theater; if you want to preach at people and get your point across, if you’re a great social play, you want to earn that moment by surprising them. It’s hard to do in this culture because we’ve seen everything before, but it happens once in a while. I’ll give you an example really quickly. I’m a big fan of making picket lines more fun, and more playful because I think that since protest is an art form, cliché means it’s bad. It’s a bad art form, it’s a bad protest if your protest is cliché. And picket lines are often very cliché, and I mean sort of like the later picket line for the most part, a boycott, not that. And so I think that often people will just kind of try to ignore it or cross the street because they see it as something either as hostile, they’ve seen it before, they don’t need to pay attention, they fill in the blanks just like when there’s a clichéd movie you barely have to pay attention to. And so if you can do something with that picket line that’s actually engaging, friendly, creative and pose your story: why are we out here doing this? You might earn a moment to get somebody to think twice and say oh yeah, that’s a legit point those guys have. Even if I don’t agree with them right now, at least I talked to them or I listened for a second, and maybe later I’ll come around a little bit. So anyway I have a lot of examples of creative ways to make a picket line that would make them more playful and effective. And I think that’s almost it, because that’s one of these daily life moments that we have a chance to make more theatrical.
Jeff Schechtman: There’s been a lot of talk lately about the sixties, the protest movements of the sixties and the context of the political climate today. When you look back at the protest movement in the sixties, how do you view those protests?
L.M. Bogad: Well one thing, their media structure was a bit simpler, I’m not saying they had it easier or anything. But the media was a little bit less monopolized on the one hand, and there still was this social contract a little bit that huge corporations had to provide news as a way of earning their right to use the public airways. They had that sort of social contract still happening. The news wasn’t a profit center. So they were in – I’m not saying it was fair or easier, but I do think there were fewer channels, so there was less distraction for the public. And at the same time it really was a different – not a great one – but a different environment. So I think they had the ability in that context to try to get a little more attention because I see the point of tactical performance is to be a force multiplier for your movement, or a voice amplifier. And I think in the sixties, also because of the culture overall was a bit more conservative and a bit more easily shocked, you see what I mean. That you could then do some of these actions. So when they get these, I’m just going to pick an obvious – the Yippies, when they levitated the Pentagon, quote-un-quote, and did this whole action like that. Or when they dropped dollar bills; they rained down a suitcase full of dollar bills on the Wall Street – the New York Stock Exchange, and everyone went crazy and went grabbing the money. Those kinds of spectacular actions could really resonate in that environment, you know. And at the same time, someone in that kind of movement wasn’t necessarily doing, they weren’t only specifically to stop the war, but to create a counterculture. And I think they successfully did that, but part of the problem of this is when you do create a counterculture, some folks join it and some folks are polarized against it. I think that’s inevitable, it’s just part of it, but the more you take that tone, there’s a lot of people who will be left out, it’s just because they’re a little too old, what have you. So I’m for a movement that is open to anyone’s skills or any identity, however you identify yourself. So I think that was a little bit of a counterculture scene there. It was responding to – and I’m not down-talking it because I think they did some effective actions, you know, in terms of the war and a bit earlier; the Civil Rights Movement. And I think that what may have gotten lost in the historical record a little bit, is a lot of these folks in the late sixties who were so outrageous; the Chicago Aid, etc. They were influenced by the much more staid, and almost devout tone of the Civil Rights Movement, that we had happen just earlier. Some of them had participated in that, and then had been beaten up in the South as part of other registration drives, etc. And they were influenced by that and then a few years later they got very countercultural. Part of the logic underlying both of those movements though, even though they looked very different, comparing the hippies and the yippies to the Dr. King movement might seem strange, but they had this underlying idea of thinking in terms of socio-drama; creating confrontations in which you’ve already set the situation up so that when the authorities show up and repress your action, you’ve already set up a scene where they’re the antagonists; they’re the bad guys because you thought tactically in that way. So I think that the Civil Rights Movement had a lot of influence on something as strange looking as the yippies because someone of them trained with that movement and learned oh yeah we actually have to think in terms of symbolism, in terms of rituals and telling our story on the world stage with this new technology. So I think overall the movement, which in all its many parts, a lot of it was experiments, sort of flailing around. You know, running a pig for president, Pegasus for president. And then deciding what was their relationship to violence, you know, against the state, and that was a big dividing point. So I think it was a great experiment in some of the works, if I may say.
Jeff Schechtman: Which really raises the question of whether or not the goal of some of this protest is simply to shock and call attention to a particular issue or whether it needs to have some kind of narrative arc as part of it; that it needs to tell a story in some way.
L.M. Bogad: This is one of the binaries or the dichotomies in tactical performances, like is this a direct action – we’re directly blocking the train that’s coming through. There’s a train with nuclear waste coming through town – we’re going to block the train. We’ve physically done something, that’s a direct action. An indirect action is we’re going to do something that changes people’s minds, calls attention to the problem, gets the senator to change their vote; that’s an indirect action. I do think that that’s a false binary though. I think that the sweet spot is the hybridity. It’s when an action both has some kind of direct impact on the issue so that it’s not just trying to get in the media as the only measure, that’s not good to only be focused on it to get in the news. But that it does both things. You can have a direct impact, but also try to make the movement more attractive for people to join because your action was interesting and seemed like a good thing to take part in. And then also to – yeah, that indirect action side of it – to tell your story, to fight the battle of the story. There’s almost a narrative battle in terms of, well for example, this is what this corporation is saying about their activities. And we want to tell the story that they’re actually polluting the environment. Well this is not a direct battle, it’s a battle in more of the narrative. Sometimes though you have to block the road in order to get the chance to tell your version of the story. The two functions kind of overlap in that sense.
Jeff Schechtman: Which raises the question about violence and the role of violence in these protests. We’ve seen some of it already in the political campaign this year, we may see more of it in Cleveland or Philadelphia; talk a little bit about that.
L.M. Bogad: Sure. I’d like to make distinctions between violence, force and pressure. So, I think we are facing a situation where look, Trump doesn’t only have experience in reality TV, but also with professional wrestling. So that’s what I’ve been thinking of when I see him so “get him! Get him!” and people attack the protestors. I’m like, this is like very high stakes, late Roman Empire kind of action influenced by professional wrestling rhetoric. So yeah, I’m concerned about what’s going to happen. My friend David Solnik made this clear: sometimes fighting the battle of the story just disintegrates into the story of the battle, where it’s just about how many people got hurt, how many windows got broken, and then it just degenerates into a conversation about that – you know, property damage, or human damage. And that’s unfortunate if you’re angle was to tell the story, was to make your critique of let’s say Trump, and to elevate what you want. It’s not just about purchasing what you’re against, it’s telling people what you want, right? So I think that actions that focus on pressure as opposed to violence, you can find pressure points on the body politic, you know, like acupressure in the human body, you can find points on the body politic and say, let’s put some creative pressure on this point, and even though we don’t have a lot of resources and we don’t have tons of people, if we make this symbolic intervention right here, I think this is a point where we can get a lot of movement towards what we want. And that’s kind of easier for me to say than for people to do, but I think that’s more of the goal. It’s the question of what are the images we are creating and will it build a movement and make it bigger, or will it actually make the movement a bit more marginalized. So I don’t want to condemn any particular tactic all the time, I think it depends on the situation, but for me it’s about that kind of creative acupressure on the body politic and I think it is more likely to get the story up and build a bigger movement and being surprising. If there is going to be suffering, I go back to the idea of the way that the Civil Rights Movement theorized themselves. A lot of people have written about the Civil Rights Movement; they had all the agencies and the smarts and they totally theorized their own work, and they talked about not just socio-drama, but creative suffering, which is like, look, if we’re going to get hurt, let’s be creative about it and get the most we can out of it because we’re suffering out here anyway. So if there’s going to be a situation that’s dangerous, let’s have set it up ahead of time like the lunch counter sit-ins, where we’ve rehearsed it, we know exactly what we’re doing. We understand there’s going to be some violence from the other side because they’ve become quite predictable in their response to things, but let’s set the situation up so that when these sit-ins get attacked and then the police arrest the victims and not the perpetrators, for example which is exactly how they set that up, it becomes this global spectacle of racist cruelty that tells our story and that actually puts pressure on authorities to change the situation. So I’m just giving that example. I see that as a super sophisticated and thoughtful way to go into a dangerous situation, really more prepared than your much more powerful and aggressive opponents, right? So that’s the kind of thing that I think is a great example.
Jeff Schechtman: What’s different though is the nature of the coverage today, the fact that it is wall to wall, the fact that it is 24/7, and it’s almost as if the event, the action, the political theater, the performance, has to somehow be designed very clearly with coverage in mind.
L.M. Bogad: You know, just recently the hunger strikers in San Francisco who did this very risky hunger strike against police brutality. And you know a lot of people heard about it but a lot of people didn’t hear about it. And I think ideally, that’s the kind of action that would get a lot more attention. Whether however people felt about it, positive or negative, it should be something, you know in my mind, that people should know is happening. So yeah, it’s almost like the media – I really don’t want to say that the purpose of the thing is to get into the media – but I do think that’s one of the goals. And to be conscious of the story you’re telling and what it looks like. What does winning look like? What is the goal we’re going for? And how can we, without only making the action about reaching the media, how can we use other forms of media and make our own media, right? And use the Internet, use this free stuff, YouTube, Facebook, etc., social media to tell the story as well. And sometimes if something gets big enough on that level, because it becomes a mean that spreads, that’s another way to get into the bigger outlets. But I do want to talk about a little bit other forms of measurement, like sometimes we’ll do an action right, and I would joke like okay how many widgets of social change did we create today? How effective was this? And it’s very hard to measure, if at all. So some of it would be oh we got a lot of media coverage, but okay, that’s one thing. Well how many people actually saw this happen in their immediate moment, they walked past us, they stopped, they talked to us. Even if those numbers aren’t as big, it’s a more profound engagement. And then they go and tell their friends at work what happened, where they make a little – I always like it when I see people taking a video of an action on their cell phones. I don’t know what going to happen with that, but they might show their friend later. Look what happened! This is wild. Other forms are empowering the people who do the action, and you know, you might have met somebody who is thinking about becoming part of the movement; they do a fun, creative action and it opens their mind up and now they’re going to be part of the movement for a long time. So you know what I mean, there’s different measures of what the actions do. Be it the Oil Enforcement Agency, or a sit-in or street theater. Sometimes it makes the members of your groups a tighter-knit group because now they have these stories, they have these common experiences. So I think it’s about building a movement, making it stronger and reaching out to new people, be it through the media or however.
Jeff Schechtman: From that perspective, when you look back at something like Occupy Wall Street, was that a success or a failure?
L.M. Bogad: I’m on the side of success, and that’s the thing, and that was a great question because of course I heard a lot of people say that it didn’t do anything. And I think folks who don’t think it did anything might have an unrealistic expectation in the first place. Like yeah, Occupy didn’t turn all the banks into cooperative credit unions in a few months. Citibank’s not your local cooperative credit union, no that didn’t happen. It didn’t totally overthrow and change the whole economic system. But it was never going to do that. It’s the beginning of a movement. These tent villages that sprang up all around the place, including in Davis here, and in Berkeley. A lot of towns, even throughout the Midwest, etcetera, like that was an amazing, symbolic evocation of the Hoovervilles, right, from the last depression, which came from too little regulation of the big banks, etcetera. So I mean it was this amazing – it had a direct impact on the landscape, and had a symbolism to it – and, I’m not the first person to say it, but it did change the conversation around class and the outrageous inequality going on and where that comes from. And it did suggest measures – some folks didn’t have enough of a specific platform. I think that it was pretty clear what they were about, if you were willing to actually listen. And it wasn’t dogmatic and sectarian, but it did make clear, and it changed the conversation in the country around these issues of inequalities. And also, the energy doesn’t just disappear. Like when those tent cities around the country were dispersed, including as you know the pepper spray incident here in Davis was around one of – the beginning of a student, sort of occupied tent setup. So that’s one of our infamous moments, actually was part of this wave. It’s not really then that disappears and okay, the village, the little occupied tent villages are gone and it’s all over; it takes other forms. People now have been radicalized. They gained a lot from this sort of pre-figurative experience of creating a little village. How do we keep things clean here? How do we share resources? How do we have collective, sort of meetings where we learn how to listen to each other, right? I mean, the occupied villages were an exercise in minimizing hierarchy and talking about new ways of being. So, that’s a radicalizing in a good way experience for thousands of people who then don’t disappear; they go on and do other things. And that a lot of the history of these movements is, okay great that movement ended, but then most of those people went on and created this new movement. So there’s examples of occupied people preventing home foreclosures in their neighborhood, and creating human blockades so that the bank can’t evict people, and so then the bank renegotiates the mortgage because they don’t need the aggravation. Like, that’s happened here and here around the country. It’s not as spectacular; Wolf Blitzer isn’t going to talk about that incident, you know, on CNN. But, I think that it’s a great example of participatory democracy continuing through other forms, so I think Occupy was a great success, if you have a realistic view of what it was about.
Jeff Schechtman: L.M. Bogad, I thank you so much for spending time with us today here on Radio Whowhatwhy.
L.M. Bogad: It’s an honor Jeff. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio Whowhatwhy. I hope you’ll join us next week for another Radio Whowhatwhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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