THE SCHOOL OF SWINDLE
Lies and deceit as methods of artistic media critique: A new
handbook encourages "communication guerillas" to fake
When honorable Don Pierino Gelmini read his newspaper one morning in January, he froze in horror: "Don Gelmini arrested", wrote the catholic Italian paper Avvenire in bold letters. The text below the headline informed that the famous priest and man of charity was involved in a child pornography scandal and might have cooperated with Belgian child rapists.
The whole story was a blatant lie - but the priest, who was concerned about his reputation, had to justify himself in countless press and TV statements.
A few days later, a certain "Luther Blissett" acknowledged to the malicious fake, saying that he wanted to stop "mass media hysteria and reactionary opinion manipulation" concerning the subject of pedophilia.
In Italy, Luther Blissett has become quite notorious: A collective of left-wing artist and political activists practices a bizarre buffoonery under this freely usable, "multiple" name. The pseudonym was apparently taken from an English football player of Caribbean origins - in the early '80 s, the real Luther Blissett played one season for AC Milan but was soon sold off his contract because of his miserable record.
The series of Blissett fakes began with harmless jokes: At a press conference near the Venice Biennale in 1993 (sic), the media hoaxer presented a monkey - who had allegedly escaped from an animal test lab - and his oil paintings. Meanwhile, Blissett doesn't even refrain from faking entire books: Last summer, an anthology of texts and interviews with the New York cult writer Hakim Bey created a craze particularly among Internet freaks.
After a couple of respectful reviews, Luther Blissett spoofed the publisher and the readers by declaring the whole book - a mixture of wilfull nonsense and mystical babble - a fake he had created himself.
Now the swindle school of the self-appointed communication critics is supposed to establish itself in Germany, too: "Now I do it myself!" say bold letters on the cover page of the "Handbook of the Communication Guerilla", which was just released by two anarchist publishers from Hamburg and Berlin. On the first glance, the work resembles a popular brand of car repair guides. Next to a certain Sonja Brünzels and an "autonomous a.f.r.i.k.a. group", the editor is - for the first time in Germany - "Luther Blissett".
On almost 250 pages, the authors indulge in anecdotes and reconstructions of historical and contemporary hoaxes, or "fakes". They frankly admit that they want to challenge the intelligence monopoly on disinformation, true to Roland Barthes' saying: "Isn't the best subversion that one which disfigures codes instead of destroying them?"
Long before Luther Blissett, names like "Monty Cantsin" and "Karen Eliot" circulated in the Anglo-American art scene; their legitimation consisted in a maximum possible popularity and glamorous habidahery.
Media pranksters with a more or less political background were active in Germany, too. In the early '90s, the journalist Jürgen Pomorin created major confusion with fake news, like a travel agency booking offer for summer vacation in the squatted houses of Hamburg's Hafenstraße.
Behind the Luther Blissett project however is an elaborated concept in terms of media theory and art history; it refers to practically everything in the avant-garde of this century: Surrealists, Situationists, Neoists and Mail Art - the guerilla activists extensively take from the convenience store of art history. "Everybody knows that the media lie", declares Luther Blissett, "we want to show possibilities to defy them."
Perhaps the most important intellectual ancestor of the Luther Blissett swindle is the novelist Umberto Eco, a professor of semiotics in Bologna. In his collection of essays "Über Gott und die Welt" [a German reader of various essays he wrote for "L'Espresso", FC], he already coined the slogan of a "semiological guerilla" in 1985 [*]. Crediting Eco with malicious pleasure, the postmodern cultural terrorists prefer the label "psychogeographical warfare", but the objectives are similar: To stir up the "cultural grammar" of the ruling semiotic regimes in order to subvert the information age.
"Baader-Meinhof meets Baudrillard" says American communication theorist Mark Dery about the German handbook. In the U.S., fakes belong to the strategy of the ecologist and enviroment protection movements since the 1970s. The basic rule for any communication guerilla fighter is to remain anonymous or, even better, use a "collective identity".
For the next years, the editors of the German handbook predict a whole wave of "communication guerilla" actions. A pamphlet on "Media Rioting" in the radical leftist rag "Radikal" - signed, just as the "Handbook", "autonome a.f.r.i.k.a. gruppe" - resulted in police search warrants and arrests among the supposed editors.
This March in Rome, Luther Blissett stood trial for the first time - in the form of four young Italians who had been caught as fare dodgers. However, the accused could neither convince the conductor, nor the judge that a collective identity needs only one ticket.
[*] Translator's note:
Eco didn't write his text on the "semiological guerilla", as "Der Spiegel" suggests, in 1985, but in 1967, which should be obvious to anybody who has actually read it - after all, it says so on the very first page of the German 1985 reprint! Apart from that, Eco's definition of the "semiological guerilla" has almost nothing in common with a.f.r.i.k.a.'s concept of "Kommunikations guerilla", which the authors of the "Handbook" even acknowledge in their text. It seems that the journalist didn't read Eco at all and the "Handbook" only superficially - indeed a proof that the "media lie". [FC]