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PRANKS! Excerpts and Reviews

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In childhood, nothing is more cool than pulling a very clever prank. The child who places the flaming bag of dogshit on somebody’s welcome mat, so that an adult will stamp it out, is quickly elevated to a mythical status in the neighborhood. Who would have thought that such activities provide the seeds for meaningful adult action?

This is at least part of the premise of Pranks, the latest effort by San Francisco’s vanguard publisher, Re/Search. In the book’s introduction, editors V. Vale and Andrea Juno describe great pranks as creating “synaesthetic experiences which are unmistakably exciting, original and reverberating, as well as creative, metaphoric, poetic and artistic. If these criteria be deemed sufficient, then pranks can be considered an art form and genre in themselves.”

In this hefty collection of essays and interviews with 37 artists, musicians, writers and unclassifiable individuals who work in a mischievous manner, the editors attempt to venerate, with marginal success, the notion of the prank by placing it in artistic and socially conscious contexts.

Most of the pranksters who are profiled work at upsetting the traditional expectations of daily living as a way of forcing people to see the world in a new way. This is, basically, the function of art. Joey Skaggs, for example, works with the notion of credibility by creating preposterous businesses and then markets them according to established consumer sales practices. Skaggs received international press for devising a false panacea made of cockroach hormones. Although the pills never really existed, the interest in the concept was phenomenal. By generating such interest, Skaggs clearly has a sense of the advertising media’s capabilities; he also forces the public to see its own tendency toward blind trust. Skaggs begins to break down accepted systems on a relatively massive scale.

Much of the satisfaction of reading this book stems from the idea of the individual undermining a world run by corporate megastructures. In a civilization that is operated by organizations too large to be comprehended, the prank seems to be the only way to retaliate with some satisfying effect.”

Glen Helfand, San Francisco Sentinel

 

Two publishers who defiantly go against the grain and come up with something that is wholly original. Publishing here is treatment more like a weapon: primed, cocked, and ready to go off. Aim at your reader’s head and…fire!

Adam Parfrey’s latest shot is a collection of essays from the pens of the perverse, it makes for both enlightening and disturbing reading. Here is the perfect bunker book to be read just before your eyeballs drool out of their sockets and run down your cheeks as the first burst of atomic fire streaks from heaven. Parfrey has edited a new book of revelation, a collection which is almost as awesome and terrifying as the original biblical text.

In these pages we read about werewolves, a female necrophiliac reveals all, the texts of the satanic ’60s Process Church Of The Final Judgement are given a reading by electronic musician by Boyd Rice and Fakir Musafar explains why he gets off having his nipples squeezed and distorted by giant G-clamps in the name of art…

This is a weird book. ‘What can the world be coming to?’ you may ask as you leaf through its pages. Apocalypse Culture is a book to separate the sheep from the goats. Some of its chapters are so astonishing, so anti-civilisation, that they almost freeze the brain with horror and dread (the interview with Peter Sotos of Pure magazine, a publication devoted to all kinds of sexual deviancy, is one chilling example). Elsewhere, the theory that Parfrey puts up for Michael Jackson being the Antichrist is, albeit well argued, almost comic relief in contrast.

Apocalypse Culture is worth owning for more than just curiosity of fetish value, it sinks its teeth into the gangrenous side of your nature and just won’t let go. It makes you think about things that you probably wish never existed.

On a slightly lighter note comes another slab of ideas from the Re/Search team. After their enormously successful Incredibly Strange Films investigation comes Pranks!, a study of “devious deeds and mischievous mirth”. Some of the contributors to the previously mentioned Apocalypse Culture collection have overspilled into Pranks!, the most notable being Boyd Rice whose exploits actually made me laugh out loud, especially his tale of subtle sabotage at Disneyland.

Other pranksters include such masters of mirth as joking Jello Biafra, happy Henry Rollins, joshing John Cale, merry Monte Cazazza and our very own delirious Danny Kelly who blows the whistle on the jolly japes of those lovable English soccer hooligans. A riot of fun which also acts as a substantial social document. Laugh ‘n’ learn.”

—NME

 

If you’re looking for offbeat humor, you just can’t beat the latest publication from Re/Search Publications, Pranks!. This volume is the 11th from editors Andrea Juno and V. Vale, whose past hits include Incredibly Strange Films and The Industrial Culture Handbook (a guide to “deviant performance artists”). Juno and Vale have established quite a reputation for quirky, “hip” humor that Pranks! is bound to add to.

Pranks! is a collection of interviews with famous (and infamous) pranksters of the recent past. All the big ones are here: Abbie Hoffman talks about levitating the Pentagon, Timothy Leary tells of fun and games with acid, Paul Krassner discusses his infamous “account” of LBJ violating John F. Kennedy’s head wound and Earth First! member Mike Roselle talks about the outrageous environmental group’s stunts and sabotage in the name of Mother Earth. Other interviewees include Jello Biafra, Mark Pauline, Karen Finley and John Waters (who claims that his ultimate goal is to “work my most pernicious ideas into the mainstream product”).

Pranks! is subversive humor at its best (or worst, depending on your point of view). Obviously, this book is not going to appeal to someone who thinks Johnny Carson is risque. But it’s an engrossing and wildly funny excursion for those who like to take a walk on the weird side.”

—Eileen Ecklund, SF Guardian

 

Those pranks against the media that were revealed in the last two months — one involving a fictitious school for panhandlers; the other, two Chicago actors who posed on television talk shows as real-life participants in sex therapy — were part of a much larger tradition of mischievous acts.

Published several months ago by a San Francisco firm called Re/Search Typography and Publishing, Pranks! is the definitive treatment of the subject, offering extensive interviews with 36 contemporary tricksters. They include Alan Abel, the brains behind the panhandler jape. He even discusses how he has pulled that particular gag before.

Actually, Abel has made a whole career out of such stuff, including a faint-in on Phil Donahue’s show (“Phil attributed this to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease”); staging a mock-wedding for deposed Ugandan dictator Idi Amin to give him legal haven in the U.S. (“the bride had an argument in the middle of the ceremony because she thought fifty thousand dollars was not enough for this assignment — to marry him, that is”); and various other hijinks.

Also interviewed are Boyd Rice, who once printed up a flyer purportedly from his high school vice principal that pleaded for legalized torture; Jello Biafra, who proposes changing all traffic lights to a permanent green — “make it a little like Italy where only drivers who sharpen their skills survive”; and the notorious Joey Skaggs. Skaggs has tricked nearly every publication around with such gags as his announcement that he was going to be the first to wind surf from Hawaii to California; the sidewalk vigilante organization “Walk Right!”; and his proposal, as “JoJo, the King of the New York Gypsies,” to rename the Gypsy moth: “call it the Hitler moth — we Gypsies have taken enough abuse.”

Beyond this mass of sometimes amusing, sometimes alarming material – all elegantly designed and easy to read; Re/Search may be a small press, but there’s nothing amateurish about its production — is an eclectic and determined publishing philosophy.”

David Streitfeld, Washington Post

 

‘The anthology collects interviews with artists who’ve integrated fraud, impertinence, scandal, even criminal behavior into everyday life, just as avant gardists integrated these qualities into art — where it became passe.’ Pranks! has become something of an art underground best seller in postpunk/postindustrial circles across the country. In the Sargasso Sea of contemporary art criticism and culture commentary this oversized paperback stands out like the Island of Dr. Moreau, a deceptively lush atoll teeming with dangerous postmodern mutations. I showed it to a stodgy poet pal of mine a few weeks back who’s been out of touch for years writing little Zen hiccups he hangs from trees. He cracked up in my kitchen over John Truebee’s account of how he answered an ad in the back of the Midnight Globe promising $20,000 in royalties for self-published songs. Truebee mailed them some lyrics about Stevie Wonder’s dick, along with the $79 they wanted to make a record out of them. A month later, he received a seven-inch 45rpm from Nashville along with a photo of Ramsey Kearney, the “singer” who’d crooned his obscenities in a monotone over the most banal C&W backing track. He recorded it onto cassettes and sent it around to L.A. area underground radio stations. Thanks to repeated airplay on KROQ FM, it became a “hit.” Now for a provincial poet reduced to hanging haiku on his trees, you can imagine the mirth and possibilities this prank provided.

Pranks! comes replete with serious prankster polemics that lean towards the didactic, but the high falutin’ commentary is nicely balanced off by the plethora of photo documentation and yarn spinning it comes packaged in. That trend-o-matic Timothy Leary is featured here with a revisionist history of LSD fitted to the format. I suppose they had to include him, along with Abbie Hoffman, for counter cultural continuity. Most of hese pranksters I’d never heard of. Unearthing them must have been an undertaking. Collecting and organizing all their data seems an even bigger archival accomplishment. Aside from its entertainment value, Pranks! is a directory you may want to use to establish contact with these artists, musicians, writers, and performers to find out more about them. Their addresses are included with each interview so you can write for their records, rants, books, videos, etc., or simply exchange information.

The hoaxes perpetrated by these folks are anything but typical. As Mark Pauline of Survival Research Laboratories puts it, “A prank should have a resonance and a ring to it. It should speak of the higher aspirations of human activity. It should go far beyond limitations one would ever expect it to have — the element of surprise transposed onto some kind of poignant act that ultimately is a violence against the society.” The extent of this violence varies with each contributor’s idea of what a consciousness raising prank should consist of. For the environmental action group Earth First, it could mean spiking trees to protect endangered forests. Others use media manipulation, forgery, graffiti, phone calls, shock art, impersonation, and put-ons. Anything to subvert the thrall of induced “control” and consensus reality. Meanspiritedness doesn’t take as much thinking out as the deconstruction of a mental gridlock, so finesse is of paramount importance for those who approach pranks as an artform. That’s the message here.”

—The Fessend

 

Pranks! is a hilarious book that had me laughing out loud. At the same time it is a manual of cultural subversion that administers a hot-foot to the archetypes of authority and robotic propriety. In a series of over 30 interviews, counterculture figures, performing artists, filmmakers, and other assorted provocateurs describe their favorite pranks and the philosophies that motivated them.

Media manipulator Joey Scaggs tells us how he fooled the New York Times and the television networks with his Cathouse for Dogs (“Get your dog a little tail!”), Gypsies Against Stereotypical Propaganda (“Rename the gypsy moth!”), and other hoaxes. Paul Krassner recounts the creation of The Realist and the Yippies. Dead Kennedys lead singer Jello Biafra discusses his campaign for mayor of San Francisco, musician-artist-writer Boyd Rice tells us how he presented a sheep’s head to Betty Ford (impulsively, believe it or not), and Abbie Hoffman describes how he ran a pig for president. From psychedelic revolutionary Tim Leary to raunch-film director John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Hairspray) to the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, the lineup of interviewees is truly remarkable.

But Pranks! isn’t just a recounting of naughty anecdotes. Many of those interviewed, such as Earth First! environmentalist Mike Roselle, perform their pranks as the most direct way of getting serious points across. And thanks to the intellectual style of interviewers Andrea Juno and V. Vale, Pranks! comes off as a statement of avant-garde philosophy — a kind of cosmic wake-up call from an extended underground of surrealist artists.”

 

Ted Schultz, Whole Earth Review

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