Activists embrace absurdity as a means to heighten awareness for a variety of causes. But not every wacky idea works.
Photo courtesy of the Naked Handstander
As millions feel a maddening cultural angst driving them to trash their suddenly clunky-seeming old smartphones for a new iPhone 6, the media stumbled upon a quirky new folk hero to embody our discontent: the Naked Handstander. An anonymous, stout (yet spry) golden-locked man, the Handstander travels the globe, occasionally finding a beautiful landscape or renowned monument that inspires him to drop trou and spring upside down on his palms (often to the chagrin of local authorities). Ostensibly—and this is where the iPhone connection comes in—he’s protesting planned obsolescence, a common gripe against Apple products. If the connection between handstands and alleged corporate-planned decay of electronics to promote wanton consumerism seems unclear to you, you’re not alone. But that’s the point.
The Naked Handstander is part of a motif in modern activism, something we might call WTF protests—he even has a WTF section on his website—that prompt interest with absurdity. In this case, clearly relating inverted, fleshy dangling to a hot new tech product raised eyebrows and brought much attention to the Handstander’s campaign. And he’s far from alone: The world’s full of equally or more successful WTF protests, dragging our attention to complex causes through oddity.
Photo courtesy of the Naked Handstander
The Handstander’s first “protest” was in 2009 on a black sand-and-pebble beach in Vik, Iceland, but it was five years and 17 countries later before anyone even picked up his story. The lack of promotion and the irregularity of his protests didn’t help, as didn’t his dependence on interested parties being able to actually find him at any given point. But much of people’s ambivalence probably just came from how tenuous his message was. Attempting to explain what nude handstands had to do with planned obsolescence, the Handstander has said in interviews, “There is too much crap consumed and disposed [of] daily in the world…we need to put things on their head and end this throw-away culture…[if we don’t] we will be left naked, wondering what happened and where we went wrong.” It takes some unintuitive poetics and mental jiu-jitsu to get from nude dude on the beach to the Handstander’s self-conception of his message, and the content of the protest is easily lost in the form. (Notice how few of the Handstander articles spend any appreciable time discussing what planned obsolescence means or the valid refutations against it, focusing instead on the situational absurdity.)
Alice Newstead's shark protest
But the WTF activism that really takes off—gaining immediate attention focused on the issue and not just the image of the protest—seem to be from campaigns where the logical leap between symbol and subject is short and intuitive, and the message is clear and concise. Take for instance the time in 2006, when a group of 11 men and one woman from Leader, Saskatchewan sold a 2007 calendar of themselves posing nude in potholes…to force the government to address potholes. Or the time a British performance artist painted herself metallic silver and hung herself from hooks in a San Francisco storefront to protest de-finning sharks. Or even the time people in 7-foot pigeon costumes ran around London’s Trafalgar Square in 2001 to protest a ban on pigeon-feed vendors. All of the events were absurd and at first blush opaque, but they were also highly visible, drew immediate coverage, and easy to connect to a relevant issue.
Photo courtesy of Tcancer.org
There’s even an effective WTF protest going on in America right now, as a man rolls a 6-foot ball from Los Angeles to New York City to raise awareness of testicular cancer. (The ball is named Lefty, and the man is a cancer survivor.) According to the ball roller, everywhere he goes he’s so visible and compellingly strange that people always come up and ask him what he’s doing—and he has a clear, logical answer for them. For all the aspersions you can cast on the Naked Handstander for absurdity, the strange clearly works, so long as the message is relevant to the oddity, highly visible, and clear.