Politics is a Drag
Larry Bogad’s Electoral Guerilla Theatre
At first glance, Larry Bogad’s informative and engaging Electoral Guerilla Theatre seems an odd book to exist, chronicling three underreported satirical election campaigns. As the author acknowledges, the words in the book’s title—”electoral guerilla”—are contradictory. In addition, the book does not seek to provide a comprehensive account of guerilla theatre, a subject in which Bogad specializes (full disclosure: I participated in numerous street theater campaigns with the author, most recently at the 2004 Republican Convention, as reported extensively in Theater2k.com and elsewhere). The book offers an analysis of the fake candidacy as performance, extending Bertolt Brecht’s concept of the Verfremdunsgeffekt, Augusto Boal’s concept of the “spect-actor,” and Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea of the carnivalesque to the phenomenon of the satirical candidacy. Bogad concerns himself with the eco-anarchist Dutch Kabouters; the drag queen U.S. Presidential Candidate Joan Jett Blakk; and the Australian drag queen Pauline Pantsdown, a parody of extreme-right parliamentarian Pauline Hanson. As Bogad puts it, the modern ritual of the annual election is much like the Bakhtian carnival: “[the election] has been exalted as an event where the floodgates open up, when the masses can freely express and liberate themselves. It has also been denounced as a mere stream-valve for dissent which further legitimizes a hierarchical system while being utterly unable to change that system’s basic structure for the better.” As he puts it, the satiric campaign is an application of Brecht’s distancing strategy to this stale ritual—by parodying the unspoken normative rites of political campaigns, they create a space for a radical critique of the system.
The examples that Bogad’s book provides are entertaining as well as informative. In 1970-71, the Kabouters (Dutch for “gnome” or “pixie”), were a benignly disruptive public art group who sought to draw attention to the ecological destruction of both capitalism and the Old Left parties by (among other things) running for Amsterdam’s city council. Much to their surprise, they won. The subsequent victory divided the Kabouters—some of the council-Kabouters sought to use the electoral process to legitimize their agenda, while others sought to disrupt what they saw as a charade. Meanwhile, street-activist Kabouters saw all of them as taking energy and attention away from direct action. One might argue, as Bogad does, that this divide is part of the natural shelf life of radical activist groups, and that the Kabouters deserve much of the credit for Amsterdam’s vaunted progressivism, but the group’s eventual divide provides an emblematic example of the fracturing of the 1960s left. In the second example, Joan Jett Blakk’s 1992 campaign provides a bridge between the AIDS movement of the 1980s and ‘90s and the theatrical activism of the contemporary global justice and queer-positive movements. Jett Blakk sought to criticize not only the Bush and Clinton campaigns, but the assimilationist strains of the gay rights movement, and to combine a queer agenda with a broad social-justice campaign, using comedy to draw attention to these issues. The final example, the candidacy of Pauline Pantsdown, is the most specific, as it was intended to deny victory to a single candidate, the racist Pauline Hanson (a mission which proved successful). In both instances, electoral victory was viewed as impossible. Like the Kabouters, however, these two give a glimpse into the tension between grassroots movements and media-driven campaigns. Many Queer Nation chapters saw Jett Blakk’s campaign as a drain on resources that became disconnected to its aims, and while Pantsdown was generally beloved by the multicultural organizations with which she worked, the DJ creations of her alter-ego Simon Hunt (in which Hanson’s words were cut up and layered over a beat) became radio and club hits.
This is a valuable and worthwhile book for scholars of performance as well as practitioners of alternative theater, and moves beyond theory and instruction to be a funny and compelling read. There is some territory that I would have liked to see explored in greater depth—for example, while Bogad acknowledges that any tactic can be co-opted, the book doesn’t acknowledge the increasingly effective right-wing use of celebrity “outsider” candidates. Additionally, while Bogad acknowledges the high price of universal suffrage, especially in authoritarian countries, recent developments—like progressive populist movements in Latin America, or the voter fraud that has led to our own disastrous right-wing government—have demonstrated that, while the picture is far from simple, electoral politics are not as irrelevant as the left has come to believe. On the whole, however, it’s lively and important book, a worthwhile addition to the histories of both theater and political movements.
Larry Bogad is Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of California at Davis. His writings appear in TDR, Radical Society, and The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest. Electoral Guerilla Theatre is currently available from booksellers everywhere.
Jason Grote is the author of 1001, Maria/Stuart, and Hamilton Township. He is writing the screenplay for What We Got: DJ Spooky's Quest For The Commons, and co-hosting the Acousmatic Theater Hour on WFMU.