Marcel Steiner’s miniature theatre…on a motorbike
Our entire lives have been commodified by big tech, scavenging our data and cobbling it together to create a Frankenstein image of us at which content, adverts, and even dangerous lies can be targeted in a way that maximises our engagement, strengthens our addiction, and keep us locked in a comfortable bubble where our views remain unchallenged and our horizons never expand.
As a result, so much of our existence nowadays is pre-programmed, predicted and driven by algorithms. And the bubble-world of lockdown we have inhabited for much of the past two years has only entrenched us deeper into this doom-scroll labyrinth.
But as the world re-opens and live experiences return, a couple of sanctuaries that might protect us from this ad-tech dystopia have also re-emerged.
One of the most powerful of these, when at its best, is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The world’s biggest arts festival is a whirlwind of colour and creativity, but it’s also the dark, challenging, experimental underworld of live entertainment; one where many worldviews are catered for and where the great impresarios create almost as much outrage as shock.
Maverick director and Fringe veteran Tony Kaye
It’s not perfect; despite accusations that it’s a socialist commune, the Edinburgh Fringe is actually capitalism manifest; a brutal marketplace of 3,000 shows vying desperately for an audience that doesn’t need them and owes them nothing.
And much like many other markets, it isn’t a level playing field; the deck is stacked to favour the biggest marketing budgets, the most prominent venues, the strongest web of industry connections, and the Fringe Society – the closest thing we might have to the “invisible hand” – is doing little to even the odds.
But in such unforgiving conditions mavericks thrive. Those who are brave, creative and foolhardy enough to stray from the beaten track of convention can stumble across game-changing innovation.
At its best – and this might just be one of those years – the Fringe is teeming with these characters.
In my 40 years as a publicist, I’ve become something of a magnet for mavericks; inventive, spontaneous, eccentric, with a slightly dangerous edge, they enhance our existence.
Hank Wangford’s cow dung flinging contest drew the crowds
There was Archaos, the punk circus whose performers narrowly avoided arrest for sawing a car in half and driving half of it down the Royal Mile; Marcel Steiner who, among a plethora of stunts, erected the world’s smallest theatre on the back of a motorbike; Jim Rose, who taught me to hammer a nail up my nose and burn off most of my body hair without injury.
There was the world’s first underwater concert, a vacuum cleaner ‘ballet’, a ‘homo sapiens’ zoo exhibit and a highly unsuccessful cowpat flinging competition. Each of these improvisational experimentalists wrote themselves into Edinburgh Fringe legend by shunning the conventional and embracing their inner maverick.
Punk circus performers Archaos
I’m heading back to the Fringe this year to tell the best of these stories in a one-man TED Talk on Acid called False Teeth in a Pork Pie: How to unleash your inner crazy. The show, starting next Wednesday deals with my fantastical journey from a meat and pastry factory in Southwest England to a career in publicity that transported me to the trailblazing underworld of fringe arts, and on to the West End, Hollywood and into the world of brands and boardrooms.
Throughout this time, I’ve remained obsessed with the maverick, and if I were, to sum up what makes these characters so special it is that, unlike the rest of us in this tech-addled world, they are not pre-programmed.
This takes us back to my opening argument; a life dictated by algorithms and notifications is devoid of unpredictability and spontaneity. The maverick is someone who embraces these as a fundamental philosophy for life; in our sterilised digital world they are acoustic, unfiltered.
Among this year’s acts are Circus company Lost in Translation
Of course, a completely unfiltered approach to life can land you in trouble. A vintage example is Tony Kaye.
Also an Edinburgh Fringe veteran, the renegade film director became a legend in ad land for his avant-garde masterpieces. He turned an advert for Dunlop tyres into a psychedelic, post-apocalyptic Western epic, Tested for the Unexpected, that ranks as one of the great 83-seconds in film history.
He was lured to Hollywood to make the film American History X but fell out spectacularly with the studio when a tussle for creative control of the project turned into an all-out brawl.
His maverick spirit was in full force throughout; he spent $100,000 of his own money calling out the Hollywood elite via full-page adverts in Variety, and then turned up to a negotiation flanked by a rabbi, a Catholic priest and a Buddhist monk.
The world’s first underwater concert in 1985 is
Tony was eventually offered a way back into Hollywood by none other than Marlon Brando.
They were going to embrace the nascent 21st century by making a series of DVD acting masterclasses, taught by Marlon, directed by Tony.
But they needed support, and Brando summoned Kaye to a gathering of Hollywood’s best and brightest and told everyone to come in character as someone other than themselves.
Suffice to say it went on to be one of the most notorious and offensive fancy dress parties in the history of the world and that particular project ended up sleeping with the fishes.
But it makes a great story (full version in my show) and it illustrates the kind of thinking that can wrest us from the grip of the algorithm, the philosophy that bursts into life every August in Edinburgh.
It’s astonishing to witness the lengths people will go to in their attempts to make their show stick out and it creates some truly unique spectacles. The media will tell you a lot about comedians you see on television and famous actors doing vanity projects, but underneath that shiny veneer, there’s a whole society of mavericks who have launched themselves out of their pre-programmed existence and created something truly special, something we can all experience if we tear ourselves away from our screens.
To book tickets for Mark Borkowski’s show from August 17 to 21 click here.