LiteratEye #32: Pranks With a Novel Twist — An Interview with Elusive Wu Ming

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Filed under: Literary Hoaxes, Pranksters

Here’s the thirty second installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.


LiteratEye #32: Pranks With a Novel Twist — An Interview with Elusive Wu Ming
By W.J. Elvin III
September 25, 2009

band0-200The counter-cultural creative arts collective Wu Ming, based in Italy, evolved out of the madcap Luther Blissett phenomenon (see LiteratEye #15).

Blissett scattered into a million little pieces, becoming an incredible world-wide prank epidemic. For a time it seemed everyone was doing bizarre creative "actions" and attributing them to Blissett.

Then some members of the group that launched the Blissett project morphed into Wu Ming.

Apparently they are now four culturally revolutionary Italian novelists cranking out very popular books.

Being anonymous – the name means "no name" in Mandarin – they are only identified by number, Wu Ming1 through Wu Ming5.

Right. And we just said there are four of them. Well, one of them must have dropped out. Or something.

Anyway, Wu Ming1 and Wu Ming5 will be in the U.S. in November for several events. You'll find their schedule on the blog mentioned above.

Wu Ming1 represented the group in answering our questions. Here's how the electronic interview went:

LiteratEye: Wu Ming seems to take a free-for-all attitude toward use of its material by anyone who wants to copy it or concoct some sort of spin-off. There's quite a little culture war going on at present around ownership of published material, copyright, use of one author's characters by another author ... If, let's say, Dan Brown's hot new book contained vast chunks of your latest novel, Manituana, that would be okay?

WM1. Actually, if that happened, we’d sue Brown’s ass off, and give a good chunk of the money to good causes around the world.

Our books can be reproduced by anybody, partially or totally, as long as it isn’t for commercial purposes. You can download them for free, you can Xerox them, you can use chunks of them, or even the complete text, on your blog, you can print the text on a T-shirt, whatever, as long as you don’t re-sell them.

You’ve got it for free, then you have to distribute it for free.

LiteratEye: But the reality is, there are people who will exploit what you are giving away.

WM1: If you wanna make money off our work, you have to get in touch with us and negotiate the thing so we have a share of the revenues. In that way, a movie producer is not allowed to make a film out of one of our books without paying us. In that way, no-one can lock them up, no-one can turn our output into their property, they can’t put a copyright on the book… because there’s already one, ours. We’re the owners of the rights, which means that we’re free to do whatever we want with our works, we can, for example, put them on line for download.

LiteratEye: Sounds like you have some kind of rule or guiding principle...

WM1: Our output is free for the people, free for those who don’t have money to buy the books, and costly for the cultural industry or anyone who’s in bad faith.

LiteratEye: Your efforts are obviously purposeful and evolving. It looks as though pranks are history for you, a “been there, done that” thing that you now look back upon. Is it fair to say you view pranks as stepping stones in service of a greater cause?

WM1. During our Luther Blissett period, from 1994 to 1999, we played a plenty of pranks, and some of them were huge, hyper-orchestrated, trans-national tough stuff, we made some poor bastards feel very miserable, we put spanners in the works of some hateful campaigns and acts of repression.

Our actions ended up in the press and on the TV evening news, hundreds of people were involved. We were full-time pranksters, working around the clock to take people by surprise, baffle the public opinion – meaning, the collective ghost that goes by that name — and put into practice a famous phrase coined by Dario Fo — which he passed on as a quote from Mao, which means that the phrase itself was a prank! – "It will be a laughter that buries you!"

Of course he was addressing the powers-that-be. We were professional radical pranksters, but even in that period, specific pranks were already in the service of a more general cause.

LiteratEye: I sort of intuit, but could you talk more about the cause?

WM1: Well, you could describe it as an alternate reality game, a strategy of world-building. We wanted to create a great context in which as many people as possible could co-operate and make experiments together, experiments on identity, on responsibility, etcetera.

It was a social network long before today’s social networks. Never forget that the Internet was still quite primitive in those days, and in Italy it was way more primitive than in the U.S.

The alternate reality game was about the reputation of this imaginary hero, this social bandit, Luther Blissett. That went on until the last day of the 1990s.

LiteratEye: So you left Luther back in the last century. And what got you headed in the present direction?

WM1: In January 2000 some of us launched a new project, one that’s more focused on literature. We were already storytellers, because Luther’s pranks were stories, we prepared scripts, we wrote texts, fake newspaper articles etcetera.

Joey Skaggs was obviously a big influence, as his pranks have always been very carefully organized. As is the case with Joey, our stories were meant to be performed on the stage of the world.

When we wrote Q as the final contribution to the project, we understood that we could narrow and sharpen the focus, we could write and publish literature. What we experienced in writing Q — an allegorical recapitulation of our prankster activity! — was extraordinary freedom, we felt good about it, and the novel was a hit, it became a best-seller and long-seller.

LiteratEye: While I look up ‘allegorical recapitulation' maybe you could say something about what exactly is Wu Ming these days?

WM1: Wu Ming is a collective of authors experimenting with both genre and literary fiction, now we’re full time novelists. This doesn’t mean, however, that we’re not pranksters anymore.

Once a prankster, always a prankster. We’re working in a subtler way, injecting pranksterism into our activities in an inconspicuous ways.

Many characters in our novels play pranks, there are many hoaxes going on in the worlds that we create, or re-create. And we still play pranks ourselves, sometimes we claim responsibility for them, more often we do not.

Pranks themselves have evolved, we changed the way we play them.

LiteratEye: Reading Manituana, I wondered if your research was virtual, or did you visit the areas you write about in the book, did you talk to modern Iroquois about their history and the continuing fight for rights and compensations?

WM1: Some of us visited those areas before writing the novel, nay, years before entertaining the very idea of writing the novel, while some others visited them after the publication. In fact, last year we published a Manituana spin-off called Grand River. It’s a travelogue, it chronicles the experiences two of us had when they visited the places in Canada where the Mohawks settled after the war.

They visited the Thousand Islands, looked for Molly Brant’s tomb in Kingston, Ontario, visited the Joseph Brant monument in Brantford etc.

As to me, I had a brief encounter with Mohawks in March 2001. In those days I crossed the Atlantic, landed in New York City, rented a car at the JFK and drove northwards through the New York state, until I reached Burlington, Vermont, where I joined a rally of activists who wanted to cross the border and go to Quebec City. Thousands of people were converging on Quebec City, because there was a pan-American summit of presidents and heads of state to sign the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, a sort of magnified NAFTA.

The border with Canada was closed, the authorities had the instructions to reject anyone looking like an activist, whatever that means.

LiteratEye: Bummer. So what did you do?

WM1: From Burlington, we went to Akwesasne (I think it was Akwesasne, but it was a hectic day), a Mohawk reservation. Mohawk activists were supposed to accompany all of us through the border, it was meant as a symbolic gesture, to trace the roots of today’s resistance in the struggles of Native Americans (or First Nations, as they call themselves in Canada).

I don’t know who had had the idea in the first place, anyway, there was this second rally at the reservation, there were speeches, songs, somebody spoke about Leonard Peltier, it was like that. Everybody was awaiting the moment we would march all together to the border station.

LiteratEye: Sounds like a recipe for trouble? How'd it go?

WM1: At one point a Mohawk activist, a guy belonging to the Wolf clan, took a megaphone and made a short speech whose key point was: "This is our land, you’re our guests, everything’s gonna be very peaceful. We have troubles with the FBI, please behave, don’t fuck with our community, no stupid provocation, my brother is in prison," and so on. It was like a mantra, he kept repeating those two words: "Very peaceful", "Very peaceful."

Anyway, it didn’t work, the march was stopped by the police, none of us could enter Canada. My friends and I drove a few miles eastwards and crossed the border in some other, less militarized place, of which I have faint memories.

Two days later, in the midst of the riots in Quebec City, we bumped into the same Mohawk guy. He was throwing stones at the cops. He recognized us, greeted us with a big grin on his face and, as if anticipating a question, said: "Over here it’s different. I don’t need to be peaceful."

photo: Wu Ming Foundation


(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact Literateye@gmail.com)


Check out previous LiteratEye episodes on The Art of the Prank.