Situationist prank  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

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.

The tactic was reprised by the punk movement in the late 1970s, with Malcolm McLaren's launch of the Sex Pistols, The expression situationist prankster has been later established as a typical label used on those who perform media pranks or publicity stunts.


By Situationists

Notre-Dame Affair on National TV

Notre-Dame Affair

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 lived 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.

Strasbourg scandal

On the Poverty of Student Life

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 the SI. Working with Debord, in August 1975, Sanguinetti wrote a pamphlet titled Rapporto veridico sulle ultima opportunita 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 was to show how 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 the communist claims. The pamphlet was mailed to 520 of Italy's most powerful individuals. It was received as genuine, and powerfully politicians, industrialists and journalist praised its content and guessed on the identity of its high profile author. After reprinting the tract into a small book, Sanguinetti revealed himself to be the true author. Scandal raised after the revelation, as it successfully exposed the truth and hypocrisy on the mass slaughters, and under pressure from Italian authorities, Sanguinetti left Italy in February 1976, and was denied entry to France.


Film Hurlements en faveur de Sade (Howls for Sade) (1952) by Guy Debord, had 24 minutes of black screen. Book Mémoires (1959) by Guy Debord and Asger Jorn had the cover made of sandpaper.


The situationist tactic of a détournement-based hoax was nototriously reprised by the Punk movement, like in Malcolm McLaren's 1977 launch of the Sex Pistols.

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 (critical theory) 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-esq character inside a limousine flying flags of a non-existent country.

See also

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