Almost 20 years ago, the small, quirky Bay Area post-punk publishing house Re/Search released what would improbably become one of the most influential art texts of the past quarter-century. Pranks! was 240 pages of melon-twisting interviews with iconoclastic trickster-artists like Survival Research Laboratory’s robot-destruction guru Mark Pauline, archetypal media prankster Joey “Cathouse for Dogs” Skaggs, obsessive Outsider artist and explosive provocateur Joe Coleman, and Canoga Park’s own Jeffrey Vallance with a too-short precis of his early, pre–“Blinky the Friendly Hen” oeuvre.
Pranks! included anecdotes from (eek!) Earth First! ecoterrorists, proto-Borat comic interviewer Mal Sharpe and the Church of the SubGenius’ Paul Mavrides, plus bite-size essays on everything from pranks in literature to guerrilla tactics of the Viet Cong. The book was a bit of a shambles. Some interviews were barely relevant while a lot of obvious subjects — Andy Kaufman, for example; or Chris Burden — were skipped over; but that, as opposed to some dry academic treatment, just added to its feeling of cultural immediacy. Those with their hearts and minds set on tenure might cite Slavoj Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology or Dave Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon, but over the past two decades the single most common volume in the libraries of young practicing artists interested in actually exploring the boundaries of creativity has been Pranks!
Many of those artists show up in the long-awaited just-released sequel, Pranks 2 (Re/Search, 196 pages, $15) — The Yes Men, with their inspired absurd-extremist versions of global business agendas, for example, and monochrom, who jiggered the 2002 Sao Paulo Biennial with a completely fictional avant-garde Austrian artist named Georg Paul Thomann. Editor V. Vale checks in with several of Volume 1′s luminaries — Realist editor Paul Krassner, the always incisive Jello Biafra and, of course, Joey Skaggs (though to learn about his latest “legitimate” enterprise, the Universal Bullshit Detector Watch (TM), you’ll have to visit www.bswatch.com) — and rounds up a decent array of new faces from the Billboard Liberation Front to hacker chef Marc Powell to urban explorer Julia Solis.
Solis, the author of New York Underground: The Anatomy of a City, is the culminating interview in the series that forms the core of Pranks 2– charting the adventures of the ’70s-’80s Bay Area secret society the Suicide Club, its much more public spinoff the Cacophony Society and subsequent activities of the principals thereof. Under the surface of the familiar (and eventually tiresome) 100-drunken-Santas-in-a-mall spectacles lies a compelling saga of deep and subtly disruptive investigations on the borders of reality, from the infiltration of cults to the exploration of abandoned mental hospitals and crumbling industrial infrastructures.
With the same sense of journalistic immediacy, Pranks 2 follows its predecessors’ model in patchwork coverage — there are no essays here about flash mobs, A(R)(TM)-Ark or the Museum of Jurassic Technology, and still no Andy Kaufman. There is, however, an expanded sense of urgency — even desperation — to the interviews: 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?
And as Biafra and several other commentators observe, the past two presidential elections and the war in Iraq are hard to top for mischievous sleight of hand. But the bottom line remains that a good prank doesn’t just entertain, it interrupts mass slumber and invites individuals to think critically for themselves. While it could never be the revelation the first volume was, Pranks 2 could easily be an equal inspiration for the next generation of tricksters — whose work will undoubtedly be featured in Volume 3.”
The original 1988 Pranks! was a footloose, freewheeling, and freethinking tribute – and a vital underground history of pranks, tricks, and acts of mischievous subversion. One of RE/Search’s more popular (and groundbreaking) DIY encyclopedias of fringe culture, it laid out the case for pranks as an art form, compiling stories from the likes of ’60s survivor Timothy Leary, punk pachyderm Henry Rollins, post-punk performer Karen Finley, and activist group Earth First! In the process, it planted the seeds of monkey-wrenching good times in yet another generation of impressionable boundary stompers and button pushers.
In this category are loose, entertaining histories of the San Francisco Suicide Club, which pied folks like Nixon hired gun Charles Colson and took over mortuaries for vampire games; Suicide spin-off the Cacophony Society and its outta-hand Santa invasions; and the Billboard Liberation Front’s ad campaign rewrite jobs. These tall, brave, and goofy tales – along with an effort to reach out to hacker-pranksters like Marc Powell – give Pranks 2 the oomph and heft that… vaults it aloft (like a flying clown), above the morass of phoned-in sequels.”
–Kimberly Chun, San Francisco Bay Guardian
If the world seems one big con, from WMD to transit fare increases, then a prank might be the most appropriate response. Considering the distance most people feel from control over their daily lives, it might be one’s only recourse. That was the thesis RE/Search Books, the underground’s Interview magazine, put forth when it published Pranks! in 1987. Drawing its subjects from the worlds of activism, music and art, Pranks mapped a stance of challenging social relations and reactions. From tales of Yippies levitating the Pentagon to artists creating fake businesses or turning Telly Savalas billboards into S/M tableaux, it showed that free-form play was a common and secret history not owned by any one discipline. And, yes, with motivations more complex than Punk’d.
With the publication of Pranks! 2 (RE/Search, 212 pages, $19.95) almost 20 years later, not only has the generation that memorized the first book come of age (my own dog-eared copy inspired more than a few acts of youthful, enigmatic vandalism — belated apologies to the city of Windsor), but the stakes for misbehaviour have been raised. As you can now be arrested for photographing a building, gluing its doors shut suddenly carries a sexy risk.
Strangely absent from the first volume — considering RE/Search’s San Francisco address — was a history of that city’s Suicide Club in the 1970s. Amply documented here, the Suicide Club was a secret collective of urban explorers, sewer spelunkers and exhibitionists whose members would go on to spawn both the Billboard Liberation Front and the better known Cacophony Society. An inspiration for Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk was an early member), the Cacophony Society continue to commit nonsensical attacks such as “Drunk Doctors” (members get wasted and wreak havoc while wearing scrubs at bars near hospitals), and Santa and clown mobs. Think what you want about clowns, but you probably haven’t lived until you’ve heard a cop command, as one did to Cacophony member Jarico Reesce, “Put the balloon animals down!”
Art makes up the final section of Pranks! 2, with the funniest stunt courtesy of Georg Paul Thomann. A member of the Viennese Actionists and peripherally involved in early punk, Thomann is a complete fabrication. He was invented as a project for the Sao Paulo Biennale by the Austrian art collective Monochrom. As they say in their interview, “It’s not the first time a fake artist was invented but it’s the first time a fake artist represented a whole country at a giant art fair.” Take that R. Mutt.
Monochrom spent the entire event dodging the press and curators who wanted to meet Thomann, deflecting by claiming, “He’s just sitting in his hotel room. We’re rather happy he doesn’t show because he’s quite an asshole.” Soon after, curators were claiming to have known the reclusive artist for years. It was a successful prank because social form and pretense were illuminated with a giddy light and for one moment the playing field was levelled. Not with an explosive-laden van, but by inspiring a new perspective.
As hacker Marc Powell explains to editor V. Vale, “Hackers look at intellectual property like any social metaphor: as something to be hacked. Not destroyed, but unravelled.” If Pranks! 2 has a singular mission, it’s breaking through everyday reality’s increasingly hard shell.”
–Brian Joseph Davis, Eye Weekly
Not just for kids anymore, pranks are the focus of this weekend’s Re/Search Books “Pranksfest L.A.,” celebrating the publication of Pranks 2, the hotly anticipated sequel to 1988′s Pranks. Re/Search publisher V. Vale promises rare video clips and audiovisual presentations of actual stunts, and will be moderating a panel with local maniacs Rev. Al Ridenour, Feederz founder Drank Discussion, and Jerry Casale of Devo (operating lately under the nom de guerre “Jihad Jerry”). Featured in Pranks 2 are monkey-wrenchers The Yes Men — whose website, gwbush.com inspired the president to say, “There should be limits to freedom” — and billboard liberator Ron English, who parodied Apple’s “Think Different” advertising campaign. Reverend Al’s latest project, “The Art of Bleeding,” a cabaret act that comes on like Benny Hill’s Grand Guignol, presents talking apes, robots, and legions of nurses prancing around in their scanties. Yes, protest, riot and vote to your heart’s content, but these are perfunctory things. The prank represents an escape from the modern trinity of failure, servitude, and prostitution. Because giving a skinned sheep’s head to Betty Ford, as ur-prankster Boyd Rice once did, doesn’t make the wheels of authority turn so much as it shuts off the machine entirely, if only for a little while.
–David Cotner, LAWEEKLY
…San Francisco’s RE/Search Publications is back with Pranks 2, a new volume of anti-corporate and anti-stupidity shenanigans meant to teach a little and laugh a lot between the lines of social protest. Two rockers find their way inside: Entertaining malcontent and spoken-word sage Jello Biafra hacks off about hacking scenarios, and Ministry’s Al Jourgensen shares tales of subversive resistance within his major-record-label deal. Other political artists turning everything sideways include the Yes Men, John Waters, painter Ron English, comedian Margaret Cho, master satirist Paul Krassner, and those brilliant modifiers of the advertising landscape, the Billboard Liberation Front. Highly recommended, this is smart stuff for those witty enough to throw ideas instead of bombs.”
–John M. James, Positively Yeah Yeah Yeah
Some people think a good prank is pissing in a friend’s Coke. But V. Vale takes them to a higher level: In his book Pranks 2, he describes them as ‘humorous deeds, propaganda, sound bites, performances, and creative projects which pierce the veil of illusion’ and ‘unseriously challenge accepted reality and rigid behavioral codes and speech.’ Vale follows that explanation with a rant against corporations, labeling pranks one of the last freedoms of expression. Unloading in a Coke shows a lack of spirit ? unless your friend is a congressman.
As the founder of RE/Search Publications, Vale has brought underground icons and hell of a lot of J.G. Ballard to the mainstream (but only through independent bookstores). He’s serious about his subjects, as revealed in any one of his seminal books (and nearly all of his books are seminal) about writers, pagans, punks, angry women, strange music, bodily fluids, masochists, and Ballard. Pranks 2 comes a brisk 19 years after the first version (seminal), which paid tribute, in the form of profiles and interviews, to the anarchists and outsiders who made their cultural mark tweaking society in the ’70s and ’80s.
The new book follows the same tack. It also features some of the same figures. You should bitch about neither. We can all stand to learn a little more about the Yes Men, Survival Research Laboratories, Frank Discussion, Jello Biafra, and Joey Skaggs, and the book more than makes up for any navel-gazing with new profiles of S.F. groups the Suicide Club, the Cacophony Society, and the Billboard Liberation Front. There’s even a bit about Bambi Lake.”
–Michael Leaverton, S.F. Weekly
Thanks especially for PRANKS 2, the best book in years. I’m happy to preach that book’s greatness.”
– Zack, The Gut (MySpace page)