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Situationist prank is a term used in the mass media to label a distinctive tactic by the Situationist International, consisting of setting up a subversive political prank, hoax or stunt; In the terminology of the Situationist International, stunts and media pranks are very similar to situations. The détournement technique, that is "turning expressions of the capitalist system against itself," was the essential element of a situationist prank. The Situationist tactic of using détournement for subversive pranks is such a distinctive and influential aspect of the Situationist International, that they are sometimes labeled as a group of political pranksters.
This tactic was used by the Sex Pistols to mock Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee celebrations. It also inspired the culture jamming movement in the late 1980s. The expression situationist prankster has been later established as a typical label used on those who perform media pranks or publicity stunts.
Notre-Dame Affair on National TV
One of the earliest Situationist pranks, The Notre-Dame Affair was an intervention performed by members of the radical wing of the Lettrist movement (Michel Mourre, Serge Berna, Ghislain Desnoyers de Marbaix and Jean Rullier), on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1950, at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, while the mass was aired live on National TV. Michel Mourre, dressed in the habit of a Dominican monk and backed by his co-conspirators, chose a quiet moment in the Easter High Mass to climb to the rostrum and declaim before the whole congregation a blasphemous anti-sermon on the death of God, penned by Serge Berna.
Taking advantage of the apathy of their colleagues, five "Pro-situs", Situationist-influenced students had infiltrated the University of Strasbourg's student union in November 1966 and began scandalising the authorities. Their first action was to form an "anarchist appreciation society" called The Society for the Rehabilitation for Karl Marx and Ravachol; next they appropriated union funds to flypost "Return of the Durruti Column", Andre Bertrand's détourned comic strip. They then invited the Situationists to contribute a critique of the University of Strasbourg, and On the Poverty of Student Life, written by Tunisian Situationist Mustapha/Omar Khayati was the result.
The students promptly proceeded to print 10,000 copies of the pamphlet using university funds and distributed them during a ceremony marking the beginning of the academic year. This provoked an immediate outcry in the local, national and international media.
Sanguinetti's Report to save capitalism
By 1972, Gianfranco Sanguinetti and Guy Debord were the only two remaining members of Situationist International. Working with Debord, in August 1975, Sanguinetti wrote a pamphlet titled Rapporto veridico sulle ultime opportunità di salvare il capitalismo in Italia (Eng: Veritable Report on the Last Chances to Save Capitalism in Italy), which (inspired by Bruno Bauer) purported to be the cynical writing of "Censor", a powerful industrialist. The pamphlet argues that the ruling class of Italy supported the Piazza Fontana bombing and other mass slaughter, for the higher goal of defending the capitalist status quo from communist claims. The pamphlet was mailed to 520 of Italy's most powerful individuals. It was received as genuine, and powerful politicians, industrialists and journalists praised its contents and guessed the identity of its high-profile author. After reprinting the tract into a small book, Sanguinetti revealed himself to be the true author. Under pressure from Italian authorities, Sanguinetti left Italy in February 1976, and was denied re-entry to France, from which he had previously been deported in 1971.
The situationist tactic of a détournement-based hoax was notoriously used in February 1977 by the Sex Pistols, who played their version of "God Save the Queen" while sailing down the River Thames past the Houses of Parliament to mock the Silver Jubilee river procession in honor of Queen Elizabeth II.
The expression situationist prankster has been later established as a typical label used on those who perform media pranks or publicity stunts, as in the cases of The KLF, the K Foundation, Genesis P-Orridge, Harun Farocki, and others.
A growth of campaigns using tactics such as the Flash Mob or Subvertising in recent years can be traced to situationist pranks. These tactics, notable in stunts by The Yes Men, campaigns by Green Peace, and guerilla art by Banksy, have been characterised by their appropriation of establishment symbols, shifting the intended purpose of public (now private) space, or creating bizarre reality hacks that merely remix the cultural context, as opposed to providing something entirely surreal. Some surreal pranks continue to exist in more subversive movements, such as the Alley concept, and are traceable to situationist pranks in their deliberate constructions of surreal situations that juxtapose the Spectacle thereby aiming to reawaken authentic desires and liberate everyday life.
The concept forms the primary genre on popular Australian television series "The Chaser's War on Everything." Worldwide media attention followed their successful entry into the G20 Summit held in Sydney, Australia - September 2007. The group formed a motorcade with a Bin Laden-esque character inside a limousine flying flags of a non-existent country.
- Ken Knabb Gianfranco Sanguinetti
- Holt (2010) p.252
- Marrone, Gianfranco (2005) Sensi alterati: droghe, musica, immagini, p.45, quote:
[...] gioco al complotto, alla manipolazione dei media, alla beffa, alla "grande truffa," o al detournement -- inventato dai situazionisti e ripreso dai punk -- che appunto del situazionismo sono talvolta concreti continuatori. Pensiamo in questo senso al fin troppo noto caso, esagerato dai media, ma paradigmatico, del manager dei Sex Pistols, Malcom McClaren, a partire dal quale, nell'estate del 1977, si scatenò, con grande scandalo, il lancio del gruppo dei Pistols in pieno Giubileo della regina, e l'interesse della stampa per la nascente scena punk. Tuttavia, anche in questo caso non si tratta, come invece e' stato spesso sostenuto, di freddo "gioco a tavolino", di cinismo, di furbo lancio di un prodotto da parte di chi aveva studiato i media e lavorava sulla guerriglia semiologica (cfr. Fabbri P. 2002, p.40), di una tattica che sarebbe poi stata facilmente sfruttata e fatta propria da quel momento in avanti dall'industria culturale mainstream.
- Sandlin, Jennifer A. (2009) Critical pedagogies of consumption p.240 quote:
Through artistic interventions, hoaxes, tactical media pranks, or what the SI called "situations," culture jammers direct public attention ...
- Franks, Benjamin (2006) Rebel alliances: the means and ends of contemporary British anarchisms p.315
Stunts are very similar to situations but have an additional characteristic, namely that the imaginative interaction is aimed at the mainstream media, the intention being that they broadcast the prank to a wider public
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- The Chaser's war on Everything - APEC Motorcade Sep 12, 2007 - Chas dressed as Osama bin Laden the Chasers drive a disguised Canadian motorcade ...
- Holt, Douglas and Cameron, Douglas (2010) Cultural Strategy: Using Innovative Ideologies to Build Breakthrough Brands, Oxford University Press