Nula: Butterflies Rise is a decision-making game that explores the experience of living with anxiety.
Inspired by puzzle adventure games of the early 90s like Myst, the surreal comedy of Flann O'Brien, and the author's experience of living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Nula creates an immersive textual experience, an insight into the daily struggle anxiety can be.
Prank, Hoax, Glitch: A Rumination on the Trickster
ABOLISHING THE ONLY ADVENTURE
Robert D Pelton writes not of the prank but of the trickster as an entelechy, ‘an active form shaping both ends and means. It is the transforming power of the imagination that pokes, plays with and shatters assumptions of a culture’s sense of origin and boundary. Deceiver, thief, cannibal, inventor, benefactor, magician, it reveals involvement with all this is non human, chaotic’.
In my wanders through the Savoy archive (recall that Savoy is the post-punk Mancunian publishing house/record press slapped with obscenity charges in the second half of the 20th century), I found myself adrift in a soup of textual pranks. From letters signed off as fictional characters, to strange press releases thanking the arts council for funding never received, to ironically unlistenable pop records functioning as demented parodies of punk’s commodification — all of it couched in imagery linking sex, violence, and laughter — the prank’s place in the Savoy archive acts as a surfactant between fiction and life.
PRANKS and TRICKSTERS became conceptual prisms through which I approached the Savoy ephemera: was this letter/comic/chapter/pamphlet/poster meant to be a prank, I would ask myself? A Hack? A Code Scramble? Who was the victim? Is a prankster a kamikaze?
My attention was soon tickled by the history of another post-punk publishing operation, one across the ocean from Savoy, which also dabbled in pranks, albeit in a slightly more meta and self-conscious way than Savoy had. This American operation, called ‘Re/Search,’ didn’t activate pranks through fiction, but rather through auto-anthropology — that is, through the self-conscious examination and classification of the role of the prank in post-punk Bay area culture.
Two art-texts in the Re/Search archive specifically dealt with pranks: ‘Pranks!’ and ‘Pranks 2’ — both iconoclastic catalogues filled with writing, images, and interviews paying homage to a variety of subversive tricksters, Situation-esque media pranksters, and provocateur outsider artists from the post-punk epoch. Among the artists included in these directories were American prankster and cultural jammer Joey Skaggs, the king of trash himself John Waters, and the Anarchist-pranksterish-neo Dadaist cultural jammers known as The Cacophony Society. The general thread was a commitment on the part of V. Vale (the Re/Search founder) to documenting and archiving the practices of artists and writers who made it their business to stage sardonic send-ups of global business agendas, neoliberal politics, and the monolithic spectacle of everyday consumerism.
The introduction of Pranks 2 declares:
'The society that has abolished adventure makes its own abolishing the only adventure’.
It’s a Situationist slogan, and it gets at the anarchical ken of punk pranking — the inward-turning self-defacement involved in attempting to mock the enveloping machinery that contains all of us.
Pranking typically involves self-defacement. It’s for this reason that the punk prankster can function as a sort of martyr (but similarly, can become a bully or a sort of cultural terrorist, depending on where the prank’s energies are directed).
When Savoy published, in 1992, the novel ‘Lord Horror’ and the associated ‘Meng and Ecker’ comics — all horrific picaresque capers in which New York and sometimes the UK were reimagined as retro-factual Auschwitz hellscapes (to suggest that fascism indeed lived on after World War 2) — one of their main send-ups was of Manchester’s 'God's Cop' James Anderton. James Anderton, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police in the eighties, was responsible for the censoring of Savoy, as Savoy was, according to him, obscene and proto-fascist. In reality, Anderton was a hypocrite. He was a proponent of the use of automatic weapons by police in Manchester, a covert National Front supporter, a terrorizer of Manchester’s Caribbean community, and a notorious homophobe.
By way of subversive text prank, Savoy printed an extensive web of comics, novels, and record sleeves which employed obscene lampoons of Anderton. They crafted a thinly veiled caricature called ‘James Appleton’ who would be made to repeat actual bigotries spewed by Anderton in real life. James Appleton appeared through the Lord Horror mythos — a net of cultural products produced by Savoy including music releases, comic books, and several novels in a freak economy of dissemination and self-promotion — and no matter how much censorship and raiding Constable James Anderton would subject Savoy to, his caricature was put out into the world. It was a text-prank the likes of which Manchester had never seen — one that operated through re-mixing fiction with reality in ‘hyperstitional’ feedback loops: productions that make themselves real, that effectuate their own reality, and disrupt authorized versions of it.
One of Savoy’s main tactics was to mingle fiction and reality through blurring boundaries between their characters and themselves (the humble authors and publishers), and also through the insertion of fictionalized depictions of real people into their various mediums (generally people who in one way or another represented the mainstream man). They achieved this slippage through misquoting political and cultural actors on their record sleeves and book covers, and using horror show characters from their most demented comics to sign off in real letters.
But it wasn’t just through text that these hyperstitial pranks played out. Singer and ex-rockabilly rockstar P.J Proby was another vehicle through which Savoy pranked fact and fiction together. Proby was a trouser-splitting washed-up rocker from the fifties, whom Savoy re-packaged in a variety of spoof albums. Some of these same spoof albums even claimed Madonna as a guest act, which thereafter provoked outraged headlines, which themselves became readymade spoof fodder... Their entire Proby charade was a complex burlesque of pop culture and its attendant marketing exercises, bundled into the bizarre packages of re-recorded hit songs.
This brings us to the second phase of a prank: its aftermath. Part of the use value of punk humor is in its application as a provocative tool: one that causes outrage or confusion in such a way as to allow the fiction of the prank to modulate reality. The key difference between a prank and satire is that while the latter darkly mirrors, the former produces a change of state. It uses the fiction of the prank to actually rearrange the world that it’s pranking. In the case of Savoy, its practical jokes produced headlines, media coverage, and censorship, which revealed the extent to which certain cultural facades were simply not allowed to be probed at the time. In effect, it produced an outcry whereby the objects of their pranks (the media, militant policing) rose to the very heights of their caricatures.
Savoy’s text pranks often exploded from the inside out, but this provided more material to be cannibalized, regurgitated, and republished.
Take for instance Savoy’s various lampoons of Margaret Thatcher — published with the intention to shed uncomfortable light on the clandestinely burgeoning fascism brewing in Manchester in the eighties. They were met with a slew of sensationalist tabloids about Savoy’s comics and novels in which the publishers were opportunistically framed as anti-Semitic proto-fascist punks. Savoy’s head was on the pike. But recall the situationist phrasing: makes its own abolishing the only adventure.
Politically charged pranking and hijinx can be traced back to a moment in punk and post-punk history in which elaborate hoaxes were staged by leftwing actors with the intention of critiquing the irresponsibility of mainstream media (and the politicians and celebrities depicted therein).
When Joey Skaggs, the American conceptual artist and media hoaxer (he was one of the pranksters interviewed in V. Vales’ Pranks 2) would spool out “alternative facts” and absurdist news stories, it was with the intention of inflaming and shedding light on the depravity of discourse within the media. It was a call for skepticism. In 1995, his ‘Soloman Project’ consisted of him posing as a crazed computer scientist who had invented a new software which (purportedly) worked to sentence criminals through data-crunching. In character, he hooked-lined-and-sinkered national television networks, where he appeared live to discuss his faux software. His pranking, as in the case of Savoy, turned its critical energy towards dominant faces of ‘authorized reality,’ and the intention was to open up space for intelligent rumination about media, about science, and about headlines.
But what of the recuperation of pranking? It’s the inevitable caveat, the hostile shadow hovering over this discussion.
Recuperation of subculture is a sub-stratum process of digestion, and its progression travels through many stomachs. This is noted in a review of ‘PRANKS 2,’ penned by a writer in LA weekly:
‘How do you disrupt the monolithic spectacle in a context where the visual and rhetorical vocabulary of anticonsumerist culture jamming has been completely subsumed by the advertising industry, where cranks are yanked, asses jacked and celebrities punk'd in the comfort of your home theater every day through the good graces of Viacom?’
A good question, which the author goes on to answer:
‘…a good prank doesn't just entertain, it interrupts mass slumber and invites individuals to think critically for themselves’.
But what about a different sort of appropriation of the punk pranking sensibility — not by the likes of Ashton Kutcher and corporate-backed reality television, but by misogynists and white supremacists? The past five years have seen the alienated aesthetics and vocabulary of punk humour being co-opted by the far-right Reddit troll, such that today, the critical function of the trickster, the troll, and the prankster have been warped. In the lead up to Trump’s election, alt-right comedy was weaponised alongside post-internet aesthetics to target latent middle-class resentment, epitomized by the American Sketch Comedy Troupe Million Dollar Extreme. Using the aesthetics of deconstructivist absurdity often favored by Adult Swim comedians such as Tim and Eric, and a feigned ignorance of world history, Million Dollar Extreme deployed online comedy and public pranks to spread reactionary cultural myths about ‘the feminization of everything’ — rallying white men around pro-white ideology.
A great deal can be said about the appropriation of punk alt-comedy by the far right, but it can be condensed into one idea: generative, creative, and politically productive alternative comedy and pranking must be deconstructivist. It must not be constructivist of a narrow worldview; instead it must lay open a void in which entirely new concepts might foment. Savoy’s and other cultural jammers’ punk pranks from the eighties and nineties were antithetical to a prescriptive worldview, and were positioned to denaturalize and highlight prevailing oppressive structures. The alt-right appropriation of pranking is therefore merely an optical and aesthetic recuperation — beyond the deployment of shock and irreverence, the similarities between cultural jammers and Reddit trolls are wishful.
Pranking from the post-punk cultural-jammer era derives part of its power from the ways in which it is elusive. Signs and signifiers slip away then bob up again elsewhere, as the borders of reality are re-arranged. Something is hard to pin down when the spectacle of the comedy occupies the space of its critique. Its terrain is therefore tricky, often beyond the pale of prescription. It might be said that the prank’s remit is the production of productive confusion. And certainly, it is the moment of this confusion that is most generative: something opens up, a space is made, and the glitch casts intro relief that which is already glitchy.