by LM Bogad (AKA Cpl. Punishment, AKA Col. Ovtruth, CIRCA)
19 November 2003: The Clown Army crossed the Thames at
We quickmarched with tight discipline, determined expressions on our brightly painted faces. The sun gleamed off our helmets: inverted collanders with bright green fuzzy trim.
Our mission: To welcome the American President to London.
In camoflauge and fluorescent pink fuzzy epaulets and fringes, with banners that proclaimed: “DIGNITY UNITY MIRTH: CLANDESTINE INSURGENT REBEL CLOWN ARMY.”
Armed with rainbow-colored feather dusters on our shoulders, and marching to the beat of a snare drum and the incessant barking:
“LEFT! LEFT! LEFT!”
We stopped on bridges, in train stations, on street corners, turning, saluting and smirking in perfect unison, chanting in classic drill call-and-response:
Cpl. Punishment: “EMPIRES FALL!”
Army: “HA! HA! HA!”
As our communiqué, written by Subcommandante Klepto (nee Pozzo) , declared, the CIRCA had at first celebrated “the auspicious news that for the first time in over 500 years, a fool is being allowed back into the Palace on official business.” However, we were dismayed to find out that the recipient of this great State honor was not a proper member of our noble order, prepared to playfully speak truth to power and keep the Queen on her toes, but that it was the dreaded “Dubya,” who, given his mendacious and cruel performance record surely would “not honor the dignified role of palace fool.”
This was an insult to clowns everywhere, and so we mobilized, mustering from Whitechapel, Sheffield, Bristol, Birmingham, Amsterdam, and even Chicago to absurdly assault the Palace with radical ridicule. This fictional “rationale” for our “army” provided more than an entertaining press release. It gave us a thru-line for our performance as we navigated the geography of protest-jammed London—in dramatic terms, an “objective” for our individual and collective characters as we improvised with police, other protestors, shopkeepers, passersby, and the media.
We gathered at the London Action Resource Center, drilled in close formation, rehearsed creative improvisations, and created colorful uniforms, banners, and even a cannon that fired pretzels and a carbohydrate-laden ammunition wagon. A fledgling affinity-group sensibility formed during those first few dyas, which would be both strengthened by the action to come and diluted with the addition of untrained new members in the middle of that action.
Tension And Release: Clowning In The Face Of The State
What followed was a two-day campaign of mayhem, silliness and near mass clown-incarceration. Our serious play was filled with tension, which generally resolved itself with surprise, laughter and relief, only to build up again as the action continued. There was tension with the police and Beefeaters, who seemed to think we were taking the piss. At times, when they were marching just in front of us, we were able to make it look as if they were literally marching to the beat of our drum, as if they were the vanguard of our army, to the amusement of ourselves and other protestors. However, elsewhere, police patience snapped, and we were only able to avoid arrest by spontaneously breaking into mass groveling mode—crawling at their feet, shining their shoes, and begging to be let go so we could go to McDonalds and see our corporate cousin Ronald. The patrolmen were both amused and, it seemed, a bit embarrassed, so they let us go.
At another time, most of CIRCA was in fact detained for over an hour on the street by the police. Bags were searched, and they seized our pretzel-laden caisson (but not the cannon). This provided a moment for clowning with the rank and file of the policemen, which if nothing else was a personally gratifying experience for the rank and file of CIRCA. For those of us who escaped, running from the police with the low-to-the-ground posture of Groucho Marx while whooping like Curly was liberating in both practical and spiritual senses. For those of us who were cornered, it was fun to strip unnecessarily in mock-submission, or to use mime skills to pretend to be lifted off the ground or thrown about by bewildered constables.
On the corporate side, there was tension with the Esso security guards as we fired our low-velocity pretzels in their general direction to the great cheers of the crowd. Here we were able to use a typical circus clown routine and convert it to a radical political agenda. We gathered a crowd through exaggerated buildup of anticipation for the firing of the cannon—warning passersby to look out, gesturing and quaking at the mighty piece of ordnance while our comrades laboriously loaded it. When a large enough crowd of protesters had stopped and gathered around, we gave them a last big warning and pulled the string. A pretzel sailed through the air, landing about two feet from the end of the muzzle. We let out a great cheer of victory, arms raised in triumph.
There was also creative and positive tension within our group, pitting our military metaphor against our egalitarian affinity group-structure. We had no leaders and frequently huddled to discuss our next move, shooing the massing media away. One dynamic we played with was to march and gesture in tight drill formation and, at a given moment, break out into total clownarchy—scattering and causing trouble all over a given city block. With a whistle and a drum, we would then zip back into formation and march off. This dynamic attracted attention and responses, but also was an expression of the internal tension of the group, and the central contradiction of our clown-soldier mixed metaphor. Making decisions was a constant improvisation between the calls of the chosen sergeant-of-the-moment (usually the person whose diaphragm could stand calling the march loud enough), who chose tempo and direction, and the murmurs of different desires that traveled up and down the ranks.
There was even tension between us and other demonstrators with different public performance styles; we about-faced and quietly fell back before a women’s silent anti-war vigil in Leicester Square, but considered disrupting a clichéd “die-in” as bad theatre later on (we didn’t). A few demonstrators said they appreciated “the effort we’d made”; however one burly fellow told me “Ewww…we HATE clowns!” I sunnily replied “Well, at least we’re not mimes!” He considered this, nodded, and said “Fair enough.” It’s good to have at least one group below you in the hierarchy of aesthetic contempt.
We experimented and played with the larger column of protesters. Marching in the middle of the mass was nice but it was hard to keep together, and we often got penned in. Staying on the sidewalk and “reviewing the troops” was fun for a while, but we had to move on. We moved faster as an entirely separate column, and we got to reach more non-protestor passersby with our clowning, but as a smaller group we were more easily rounded up by the police.
We were arguably at our best when improvising, as with our camouflaged guerrilla maneuver across St. James Park to the Palace, when we commando crawled, rolled in the leaves, and tiptoed from tree to tree, concealing our brightly colored selves by holding single leaves in front of our faces. When a helicopter flew above us, we held the leaves over our heads. Passersby stopped, stared and smiled—and we told them to “shhhh!” Some stopped their daily routine for minutes to watch us as we made our way across the park. This maneuver, totally unplanned, was a playful breakthrough moment for the group—a joyous, sarcastic spectacle.
When our final commando crawl got us to the police line around the Palace, we stood and read our manifesto. Subcommandante Klepto, looking at the pompous peaked awning that had been placed above the front door, said “It’s the Big Top! Let us in!!” To no avail.
The campaign ended. Our rival fool fled the fair shores of Britain. The international press, even some of the American press, noted that the crowds in London were so large that Bush spent most of his time cooped up in the Palace in order to avoid any visual record of him being confronted by protestors in the media. On the day of the actual ceremony, his limousine picked him up on one side of the Palace and drove him around to the other side to be received by the Queen and the Palace Guard in a ceremony whose emptiness had been thus heightened. The clowns, like any militia, demobilized and returned to our homes, tending our crops of squirty-flowers and resewing our tattered uniforms.
But we hoped to spread, and recruit. What if, at the next event, we had not a dozen, but a proud Clown Brigade of fifty or one hundred, in columns of independent and flexible affinity groups?
The Clown Army Retreats!
The Clown Army met again 5-7 March 2004 at the “Response-Ability Retreat, “an Arts-Council funded artist-activist gathering convened in a beautiful old house in Wiltshire. The house belongs to the family of activist and author Zoe Young, and she has often donated it as a resource for movement events. The gathering was a combination of CIRCA veterans of the Bush protest, more traditional activists looking to learn from our clownish example, and a few professional clowns who were hoping to get more involved in global justice movement politics. This combination proved very fertile and there was a real sense of communitas and playful banter, barter, and gifting throughout our workshops, presentations and shared performances. We developed more absurd and confrontational drill routines, rituals, and tactics. Characters were developed with truly groan-inducing humor: Corporal Punishment, Private Space, Private Moment, Private Ization, Colonel Ovtruth, and General Confusion have all joined the ranks of CIRCA.
Mirthful May Day in Warsaw?
The G8 will meet on May Day in late April Poland, and CIRCA hopes to test and further develop some of our latest training and experience at that site of contestation. We do not know how our particular combination of aesthetics and street tactics will work at that site, how it will “talk to” the other protesters and how the agents of that state will react. It will be a great challenge to our operational flexibility and affinity group structure. We are toying with the idea of wearing reversible suits, so that with one deft mass-motion we can shape-shift back and forth from the Clown Army to the Clown Corporation, to mock privatization and corporate globalization’s rhetoric of solemn inevitability. Our experiment with collective tricksterism and tensive individual/mass creativity in the face of state and corporate pressure continues.