We are the Clowns of the Rebellion! The commentators, the rebels, the soothsayers. A new resistance movement; the Rebel Clowns are a performance group that I set up in the Extinction Rebellion protests of 2019. But for a clown who says ‘yes’ to everything, how does a clown resist?
Clowning and protest was the focus of my Masters research exploring ‘Small Circus Acts of Resistance’. With the spotlight on the smallest act of all, the clown, I delved into the long history of clowning, politics and protest.
Clowns are no strangers to the circles of power. Since we have been performing clowns have had their place in ancient sacred festivals, in medieval courts of kings and queens and with the people in the streets and in circuses. They have served a unique and important purpose, "to turn established protocols on their heads, and to provoke a new understanding of, and appreciation for, the human condition through a celebration of foible and a mockery of power."
For clowns co-opted into politics they occupy an ambiguous and mutable position, “at once critic, police, hero, enemy, representative of the people and a threat to the social order.” This was the case with the Clandestine Rebel Insurgent Clown Army (CIRCA). A form of non-violent political activism, rebel clowning understood and utilised the unique power and position of the clown as a tactic against globalisation, war and other issues. The Clown Army arrived alongside protesters in 2003, dressed in flamboyant combinations of army fatigues, brightly coloured fake fur, stripey socks, colanders, carrying noisemakers, sex toys, glitter, bubbles, bouncy balls and whistles. The movement radically transformed public space and binary power structures of the non-violent direct action movement.
Clowning allowed participants to explore authoritarianism through parody and ridicule. “Instead of resisting, the clown collaborates; instead of obeying and hating, the rebel clown mocks and slips away”. Rebel Clowning provided another form of resistance; subverting and inverting the oppositional spaces of protest, of police and protester. It was also able to inject values often seen as distinct from the political realm: joy, pleasure, desire, diversity and horizontal power structures.
In my Masters research I aimed to explore mechanisms of the clown that could shift the balance of power; to resist. I discovered, like CIRCA, that through parody the clown can highlight the hypocrisy and absurdity of authority and implicit rules that maintain the status quo. Through playing games, the clown can encourage participation and interactions with others, unlocking the subversive power of play within each individual. While a simple game of mirroring can offer spectators a moments of self-conscious awareness of their complicity in upholding rules that maintain the current systems of power and authority. Parody, participation and play offer effective tools of resistance for the clown.
For the new generation of Rebel Clowns these mechanisms have been central to exploring important political, social and environmental issues of our time. Let loose on the streets of Bristol, the Rebel Clowns have created performances including bringing Black Fri(deity) to life to challenge the new religion of consumerism and capitalism. We have also created a playful healing space to help people deal with their grief...in all its stages, post Brexit and the Election in 2019.
Working with resistance can offer interesting tools for the clown and for us. Where we feel resistance we and can feel our edges, and know ourselves and our boundaries. Physically, resistance can give us something solid to lean into or to rest on. We can also push against and find new pathways and possibilities.
You can explore resistance in the following Clown Workouts:
In ‘Playing with Resistance’ Holly guides you through an embodied exploration of resistance, asking what do we do when we don't want to play?
In ‘Moving with Resistance’ Robyn offers an embodied experience of encountering different types of resistance in the air around us.
Can clowning be used to flip a difficulty or some adversity into something amusing? Maggie Irving offers perhaps another solution to meeting resistance in this video ‘Flipping It’.
 Clowns by Ezra LeBank and David Bridel, London and New York: Routledge (2015)
 Clown by Jon Davison J (2013)
 ‘We disobey to love, rebel clowning for social justice’, Isabelle Fremeaux, and Hilary Ramsden, H. Leicester, UK: National of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) (2007)
A giggle of clowns attempt to take back our public spaces
John Jordan’s work merges the imagination of art and the radical engagement of activism. He is a writer, lecturer, artist and activist. He set up C.I.R.C.A and works in the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination infamous for fermenting acts of mass disobedience. I found this fantastic video from him which outlines 16 Principles for creating beautiful trouble through art and activism. Watch here
A group of clowns 'lighten' the mood of a very serious festival
At festival of independent journalism I explored ideas of resistance through play. Click here to read more...
Today I met an amazing lady, Stefania Placenti, who has just completed her PhD in Italian theatre studies at Bristol. Her thesis dealt with the links between movements of protest and theatre in particular the occupation of spaces as a form of resistance, with reference to the Occupied Theatre Movements in Italy born in 2011. Her research covers a number of theatre occupations, examining the historical, socio-economic and political context in which these movements occurred.
An interesting section in her thesis examines the language the occupiers used to perform their protest. From this chapter I was inspired by their approach using their physical presence to resist. From being, to walking and then talking, each action begins to change the narrative of a space.
Our so-called public spaces are culturally defined, but by who? Is it a shared agreement? Are the public spaces in our cities actually public? It can be difficult to escape capitalist ideologies in the centre of Bristol, with advertising and shopping dominating our view and the narrative to buy more to feel better.
In my next workshops I plan to further explore public spaces, to examine the dominant narratives and then poke them with a stick.
A group of clowns try to instill authority and boundaries at a festival where there is none
Through a series of workshops at PLAY Festival I explored the ideas of resistance where there is little or no authority to oppose. Click here to read more...
I love charts and schematics. I found this in my search for definitions of political resistance in The Deep Green Resistance Book. Considering the scope and form of my research I am working in area of Education and Awareness Raising. Is it possible to move to the right along that axis towards to confronting and dismantling power without conflict?
Jumping through Hoops was a creative action depicting the 'hoops' society requires us to jump through to have access to basic rights, care and security. This was the result of revised workshop methodology that explored the meeting point of circus, street theatre and protest with circus performers and activists. Click here to read more...
In Barnaul, Russia, January 2012, cuddly toys protested the re-election of Putin and electoral fraud, taking the place of protesters who were arrested at previous demonstrations. The toys carried slogans like ‘I am for clean elections’ and ‘A thief should sit in jail, not in the Kremlin’. Authorities reckoned that the toys represented an ‘unsanctioned public event’ and their protest was banned. Police recorded slogans in their notebooks. The organiser stated that ‘We wanted to show the absurdity and farce of officials’ struggles with their own people’.