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Practical jokes and comics: the season’s best art books

Wednesday, Dec 13 2006

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 précis 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 WatchT, 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.

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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®TArk 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.

One category of prank that didn’t make the cut is the subject of an entire volume unto itself, from the always-hip Gingko Press. The self-explanatory Cry for Help: 36 Scam E-mails From Africa (Gingko Press, 80 pages, $17) rescues a sampling of the obscure-but-ubiquitous literary subgenre authored by this or that close relative of this or that assassinated Nigerian warlord offering millions of U.S. dollars in commissions to helpful Westerners who will assist in the bank transfer of even larger sums of undocumented cash. Beautifully illustrated in faux off-register woodcut style by Henning Wagenbreth, Cry for Help belongs on the shelf of every lover of modern literary peculiarities, somewhere between Annie Dillard’s Mornings Like This: Found Poems and Alfred Jarry’s Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician.

Gingko, in cahoots with Dan Nadel’s PictureBox Inc., has also produced an ultradeluxe compilation of a dozen or so short works by Quebecois artiste Julie Doucet, whose Dirty Plotte kicked fanboy ass to Seattle and back in the ’90s. Those expecting a collection of her feverish, clotted postfeminist graphic narratives are in for a shock. Her latest work, Elle-Humour: Julie Doucet (PictureBox, 144 pages, $40), ranges from pop media collage to Tomi Ungerer–style illustration without missing a beat or straying into comic book storytelling conventions.

  • Practical jokes and comics: the season’s best art books

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