Marcel Steiner’s Miniature Theater… by motorbike
Our entire lives have been commodified by big tech, taking our data and tinkering with it to create a Frankenstein image of us on which content, ads and even dangerous lies can be targeted in a way that maximizes our engagement, boosts our addiction and keep us locked in a comfortable bubble where our views go unchallenged and our horizons never expand.
As a result, much of our existence today is pre-programmed, predicted and driven by algorithms. And the lockdown bubble world we’ve inhabited for much of the past two years has only rooted us deeper into this doom-scroll maze.
But as the world reopens and live experiences return, a few shrines that could shield us from this ad-tech dystopia have also resurfaced.
One of the most powerful of these, when at its best, is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The world’s largest art festival is a whirlwind of color and creativity, but it’s also the dark, challenging and experimental underworld of live entertainment; one where many worldviews are taken into account and where great impresarios create almost as much outrage as shock.
Tony Kaye, director of Maverick and veteran of Fringe
It’s not perfect; despite accusations that it is a socialist commune, the Edinburgh Fringe is in fact a manifesto of capitalism; a brutal market of 3,000 shows desperately vying for an audience that doesn’t need them and owes them nothing.
And just like many other markets, it’s not a level playing field; the game is stacked to foster the biggest marketing budgets, the most important locations, the strongest network of connections in the industry, and the Fringe Society – the closest thing we could have to the “invisible hand” – does little to level the playing field.
But under such unforgiving conditions, non-conformists thrive. Those who are brave, creative and reckless enough to think outside the box of convention can stumble upon groundbreaking innovations.
At its best – and this may be one of those years – the Fringe is full of these characters.
In my 40 years as a publicist, I have become something of a magnet for mavericks; inventive, spontaneous, eccentric, slightly dangerous, they enrich our existence.
Hank Wangford’s cow dung throwing contest drew 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 smallest theater in the world on the back of a motorbike; Jim Rose, who taught me how to drive a nail up my nose and burn off most of my hair without hurting myself.
There was the world’s first underwater concert, a vacuum cleaner “ballet”, a “homo sapiens” zoo exhibit and a very unsuccessful cow dung throwing contest. Each of these improvisational experimenters have written themselves into Edinburgh Fringe legend by eschewing the conventional and embracing their inner maverick.
Archaos punk circus performers
I’m returning to the Fringe this year to tell the best of those stories in a solo TED talk on acid called False Teeth in a Pork Pie: How to release your inner crazy. The show, from next Wednesday, is about my fantastic journey from a meat and pastry factory in the South West of England to a career in advertising that transported me to the pioneering underworld of the arts fringes, and in the West End, Hollywood and in the world of brands and boardrooms.
All the while, I’ve remained obsessed with the maverick, and if I was, to sum up what makes these characters so special is that, unlike the rest of us in this tech world, they are not pre-programmed.
This brings 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 them as a fundamental philosophy of life; in our sterilized digital world, they are acoustic, unfiltered.
Among this year’s acts are the 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 a veteran of the Edinburgh Fringe, the renegade director has become a legend in the land of publicity for his avant-garde masterpieces. He turned an advertisement for Dunlop tires into a psychedelic post-apocalyptic Western epic, Tested for the Unexpected, which ranks among the highest scoring 83 seconds in movie history.
He was lured to Hollywood to make the movie American History X but dramatically fell out with the studio when a fight 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 ads in Variety, then found himself in 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 return to Hollywood by none other than Marlon Brando.
They would embrace the dawning 21st century by making a series of DVD masterclasses, taught by Marlon, led by Tony.
But they needed support, and Brando summoned Kaye to a gathering of Hollywood’s best and brightest and told everyone to come forward as someone other than themselves.
Suffice it to say, it was one of the most notorious and offensive fancy dress parties in world history and this particular project ended up sleeping with the fish.
But it makes for a great story (full version on my show) and it exemplifies the kind of thinking that can wrench us out of the grip of the algorithm, the philosophy that comes to life every August in Edinburgh.
It’s amazing how far people will go in trying to make their show stand out and it creates some truly unique shows. The media will tell you a lot about the comedians you see on TV and the famous actors who do vanity projects, but underneath that shiny veneer there’s a whole society of mavericks who’ve blasted themselves out of existence. pre-programmed and have created something truly special, something we can all experience if we tear ourselves away from our screens.
To reserve tickets for the Mark Borkowski show from August 17 to 21 click here.