Book Review
Electoral Guerilla Theatre: Radical Ridicule and Social Movements. L. M. Bogad. New York: Routledge, 2005. 235 pages. Cloth $97.00; paper $33.95.

L. M. Bogad’s politically infused work, Electoral Guerilla Theatre: Radical Ridicule and Social Movements, situates the rise of “electoral guerillas” in liberal Western democracies within an interdisciplinary discourse of performance theory, cultural studies, and political science. Bogad defines the electoral guerillas as “political actors and performance artists, guided by aesthetic concerns and theories as well as sociopolitical agendas and grievances” (8). The book is framed by theoretically- driven introductory and concluding sections, while the body of the text is divided into three detailed case studies. The first chapter, which focuses on the Kabouters, “an anarchist, carnivalesque, grassroots group active in Amsterdam in the early 1970s” (39), is largely concerned with what happens when performance artists and activists actually gain positions of power through guerilla techniques. The second chapter, which discusses the electoral campaigns of Chicago drag queen Joan JettBlakk, examines the problems of celebrity involved in counterculture movements. Finally, the third section is a study of Australian artist Pauline Pantsdown, a drag performer who successfully sabotaged the campaign of conservative politician Pauline Hanson. The case studies are organized in a manner that effectively guides the reader through the successes and pitfalls of electoral guerilla politics; Bogad is mindful of the limitations and fragility of political satire and performance, and explores both the negative and positive aspects of “speaking mirth to power”.

The introductory section of the text begins by describing documentary filmmaker Michael Moore’s attempt to register a ficus plant as a legitimate electoral candidate, first in New Jersey in April of 2000, and later across the United States during the 2000 electoral season. Bogad uses the anecdote as a springboard into a discussion of electoral guerilla tactics, which combine “Brechtian distantiation, Boalian spect-actorship, and the Bakhtinian carnivalesque” (Bogad 8), as well as Tracy Davis’ concept of theatricality, to create a speech-act that counters the dominant hegemonic discourse. Drawing on Nancy Fraser’s concept of subaltern counterpublics, Bogad claims that electoral guerillas exist in and represent marginalized groups that are regularly excluded from the stylized, highly performative American electoral system. Bogad refers to the “legitimate” participants in the system as “straight” candidates, and separates their performances from those of the guerrilla artists. Bogad also makes a distinction between his articulation of an electoral guerilla and other activists: suffragists, emergent party members such as Ralph Nader, “soft” satirical politicians such as the Rhinoceros Party of Canada, and shadow elections such as the mid-twentieth century Bronzeville campaigns in Chicago. Bogad’s clear and concise prose moves quickly through the theoretical framework of his thesis, and though the material is dense, it provides a solid basis for Bogad’s ensuing arguments.

The first section of the text is the longest, and at times, Bogad loses his overarching point in the smaller minutae of Dutch politics. However, the chapter offers a wealth of information on the activist politics of the Kabouters, including the 1970 Jericho action, which involved one hundred Kabouters following a robed leader six times around the Nederlandse Bank. On the seventh time around the building, Bogad notes, “they ran, shouting and playing instruments” (75). By providing such detailed examples of the performative techniques that led to the success of the Kabouters, Bogad is able to pinpoint precisely where guerrilla theatre can lose its coherence and fall apart. Ultimately, the Kabouters divided amongst themselves over the intent of their political performance—some members began seeing the group as a legitimate political force—but their actions had concrete and lasting effects in the Netherlands.

Bogad moves from his discussion of Dutch politics to an account of African America drag queen Joan JettBlakk, the alter-ego of Chicago native Terence Smith, who ran for mayor in 1991 and President of the United States in 1992. One of the strengths of this chapter is that it addresses the tension that can arise within activist groups that invest themselves in an iconic spokesperson, rather than performing as a group. Queer Nation/Chicago, the activist group backing Joan JettBlakk, collectively pursued media attention in order to gain support and visibility; however, the pressures of the campaign created a split between Joan JettBlakk, the performer, and the group supporting her. Additionally, the group itself experienced factional ruptures. Bogad’s articulation of these problems serves to underscore the ways in which guerilla politics can act effectively, and the direction it might take in the future if artists hope to be successful.

The third section of the book, which is arguably the most engaging, details the work of another drag performer, Pauline Pantsdown. The Australian artist is an effective final case study for Bogad’s argument, as she is perhaps the most successful of the electoral guerillas examined throughout the text. Pantsdown, alter-ego of Simon Hunt, targeted right-wing, notoriously racist politician Pauline Hanson as the object of her ridicule and scorn. Pantsdown modeled her persona after Hanson and created songs and video that quite literally appropriated Hanson’s voice and image. Pantsdown spliced together the politician’s soundbites to compose two popular songs, “I’m a Backdoor Man,” and “I Don’t Like It,” the second of which was accompanied by a music video. Bogad evaluates the effectiveness of Pantsdown’s performance, and concludes that she “was more consistently successful in mocking Hanson’s politics and appearance than in exposing her constructed nature” (197). Bogad rightly claims that Pantsdown’s performance illustrates the potential for electoral guerilla theatre to “sabotage an opponent, galvanize a counterpublic, and, perhaps, further polarize an electorate” (201).

Bogad concludes by warning the reader that electoral guerilla theatre runs the risk of being co-opted by hegemonic forces, and cannot be viewed as a solid and impermeable political institution. It is to his credit that, rather than writing a polemic in blind support of electoral guerillas, he has thoughtfully evaluated the potential for both the movement’s success and derailment. Electoral Guerilla Theatre: Radical Ridicule and Social Movements gracefully moves through the history of guerilla politics, and points to where the movement might go next. Although candidates such as Jello Biafra and Miss Joan JettBlakk may be unable or unwilling to operate within the parameters of the “straight” electoral system, they can effect lasting change. Bogad suggests that perhaps such a shift is exactly what we, the public, should be seeking.

     —Allison Mader, University of Calgary

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