“Beautiful Trouble is essential reading for the socially engaged artist.”Ken Krafchek, Graduate Director, MFA in Community Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art
Running for public office as a creative prank — not to win the election, but to get attention for a radical critique of policy or to sabotage the campaign of a particularly heinous candidate.
A group of eco-anarchist “gnomes” running for city council in Amsterdam; Reverend Billy, an anti-consumerist performance artist, running for mayor of New York City; a drag queen running for the Australian senate as the queer doppelgänger of far-right racist politician Pauline Hanson. These are all examples of electoral guerrilla theater, in which creative activists run for public office to inspire critique of the electoral system or the choices on offer.
The term electoral guerrilla yokes two seemingly incompatible approaches. Electoral activists work within the state’s most accepted and conventional avenues in an attempt to reform the system peacefully. Guerrillas, in the military sense, exist on the extreme margins of the social system, constantly on the move, launching surprise attacks against the state before disappearing again. This contradiction is what makes electoral guerrilla theater a wild card in the repertoire of resistance, both for the target and the activist. It is an unstable and problematic combination that can take all players involved by surprise.
Winning is rarely the goal. However, by piggybacking on the massive media attention that elections gather, a clever guerrilla campaign can attract much more public attention than might otherwise be possible. Craft a compelling and funny character that fits your critique, say, a pro-corporate pirate who wants to get in on the easy plunder that Wall Street has been enjoying, for example. Craft your persona, and start crashing mainstream political events — or make a scene when you are prevented from crashing. Even better, earn more scandalous attention by crashing your absurdity through the front door of the power structure by getting a slot in an “equal time” debate, or getting on the ballot with your silly character name, or getting interviewed by the straight media in character.
Couple things to keep in mind:
Do what they do but with a critical difference see THEORY: Alienation effect. If you’re doing this right, by absurdly aping the clichés of the “proper” candidates you can call attention to the fact that they are just as socially constructed and fake as your pirate/gnome/witch/etc. Cut ribbons. Kiss babies. Bring out the empty symbolism of these rituals, and insert your own radical critique, alternative meanings to them with a few quick jokes.
Combine serious and playful elements in your election platform. You should actually have a serious point you’re making, and in the middle of all the absurdity and pranks, while you’ve got people’s attention, make that point. Jello Biafra did a great job illustrating this principle during his run for mayor of San Francisco in 1979. Some of his “if I am elected” platform made folks laugh bitterly; some planks — like suggesting that beat cops be elected by the neighborhoods they patrol — made folks think “hmmm…actually that’s not a bad idea.” Get people’s attention with humor and follow up with a few simple, radical, The-World-We-Want-to-See ideas see TACTIC: Prefigurative intervention. In this way you’re not just talking about what you’re against, but what you’re for.
When done right, electoral guerrilla theater is serious play at its best.
Don’t forget this is a joke. Elections are a seductive power ritual. If you are doing well as an electoral guerrilla, you’ll get a lot of attention due to your clever, critical pranks and incursions into the field of “legitimate” debate. This may lead to you or members of your crew to think, “hey, we might actually win; let’s tone this down and get more respectable.” The campaign then becomes just like the other boring candidacies, except without the money or insider connections. Yawn. The end. The power of the electoral guerrilla is in great part the fact that you are not trying to win state power but to call its core premises into question.
If there is a candidate running that you actually do support, take care to craft your campaign in such a way that it amplifies theirs, or at least doesn’t interfere with it. Don’t let your satire upstage your ally to the point that it detracts from their campaign.