The article analyses three instances of artistic activism from the 21st century in terms of their dramaturgies of humour. The cases examined are the procession of “the human gorging society” by Viennese collective Rebelodrom in 2013, the 2012 lecture-performance “The Return of Border Brujo” by Chicano performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña and the ongoing Tracking Transience project by US-American artist Hasan Elahi. By extending the concept of dramaturgy from theatre theory to the study of protest and activism in the public sphere, and by interpreting the chosen artistic actions as protest, the article seeks to contribute to humour research from a perspective that focuses on its performative dimension, rather than on its functions or effects alone. The term “dramaturgies of humour” refers here to both principles of ordering as well as of unfolding an idea, which inform an act as humorous. In these instances of artistic activism, humour does not simply mark one characteristic or component of protest, but is indeed the embodied, performed means through which the protest is constituted. The article employs a reading of Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on the grotesque, and in doing so, adapts the concept originally developed in relation to literary texts to the study of artistic activism. Such a focus on the dramaturgies of humour leads to two notable insights: first, that protest using a ludic aesthetic creates and sustains a highly ambivalent relation between activists and their opponents, specifically through a playful questioning of the logic of protest in terms of opposition. Second, the dramaturgy of humour in protest reveals a strong historicity: each of the examples reference the past in sophisticated ways, and the shifting narratives of memory are integral to humour as a link between memory and imagination.
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