Back at the start of last week, wherever you turned in mediaworld you found someone sticking their oar in (sorry) to the discussion on wayward idealist Australian Trenton Oldfield and his Pankhurst-esque self-sacrificial boat race stunt. I shan’t bother now to throw in my two cents about the morality of Oldfield’s actions, but I do think that what he has done impacts negatively upon those of us whose business and/or passion it is to grab headlines with acts of disruptive showmanship.
The first thing to say is that this was a pretty bland stunt. What I’m more worried about, however, is what this will do for police and public paranoia in the run-up to the Olympics. Already at boiling point, the police and LOCOG have spent the past few months whipping each other up into a frenzy over crowd control and health and safety. This will only confirm their worst fears. Any innocent reveller or spectator at any event could be a dangerous, subversive madman! Time to send in the thought police.
Generally, too, this event comes as part of a zeitgeist increasingly antithetical to the art of the stunt. The (largely negative) commentary on Oldfield’s actions focused more than almost anything else on how dangerous his actions were, how he endangered his life, how he caused inconvenience in restarting the race. Outrage at his politics would have been much more interesting- not to mention more favourable for his agenda. Caught in a pincer movement between a blandly litigious society on the one hand and a media landscape oversaturated with ill-considered stunts on the other, the public have no appetite for maverick antics.
Perhaps what’s been lost is a belief in the stunt as a piece of fun, a joke, almost a gift. Rather than a piece of direct action or a forcible promotion, a stunt should be playful, gentle and, preferably, crazy. A stunt’s impact comes from laughter, and from the sheer joy that persuades people to share. All the classic stunts share this aspect, whether they be making a serious point- Joey Skagg’s giant bra springs to mind (link)- or selling a bit of fluff like Reichenbach’s T.Arzan (link).
I call for a return not only to creativity in stunting but a permissiveness and relaxation in its execution. In our red-tape age it’s easy to forget that a public performance should be joyful. Whether you’re an activist or a marketer, try and perform, not preach. Theatres are far more fun than churches.