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Tactical Embarrassment

On January 25, Etoys, one of the giant corporate Internet shopping centers, dropped its spurious but deeply pocketed Santa Monica–filed lawsuit against tiny Swiss art group etoy, whose Web site has been named etoy.com since 1995 — two years before the online toy store had even registered its name in America. The unlikely victory in this David-and-Goliath scenario was due, in no small part, to the systematic “tactical embarrassment strategies” of another “art” group, a shadowy collective with a vivid and distinct corporate identity known as ®™ark. Operating in the venerable tradition of media pranksterism trailblazed by Joey Skaggs and Jeffrey Vallance, ®™ark (pronounced “artmark”) is decidedly of the Abbie Hoffman strain of creative arts, directing the tools of savvy sensationalist media pandering toward a general critique and specific active interruptions of the global corporate juggernaut. Its Web site (www.rtmark.com ) functions as both a clearing-house for information about the group’s activities and as a broker matching investors with saboteurs, resulting in “cultural dividends” such as the restoration of etoy’s Web domain.

Using FloodNet, a “dispersed disruption of server” program that overwhelms a Web site’s communication lines with more requests than it can handle, ®™ark and other online activists interrupted activity on eToys with a “virtual sit-in” during the Christmas rush, as well as calling for the more traditional boycotts and divestment. While ®™ark may not be responsible (as it claims) for a $4 billion drop in eToys’ value over the holiday season, it at the very least orchestrated an uncomfortably warm glow of media attention on the inequity of the dispute, and stirred disquiet among the online corporate giants that was proved justified by the high-powered denial-of-service assaults on Yahoo, Amazon, eBay and others in early February. Previous to the etoy controversy, ®™ark managed to incur the wrath of the Bush machine by using the Internet domain of gwbush.com to mount an elaborate and hilarious faux– Bush campaign site, which looked legitimate at first glance but contained a profusion of damning scuttlebutt. In 1996, ®™ark allegedly paid a $5,000 bonus to a fired software designer for hacking homoerotic content into the macho helicopter-rescue video game SimCopter. Other high-profile ®™ark stunts have included the Internet-marketed Deconstructing Beck CD, which pushed intellectual-property buttons in the manner of John Oswald’s notorious Plunderphonics CD and Negativland’s high-profile tussle with U2, while making Beck’s already sample-heavy pastiches sound like somebody playing a leaf-blower.

The deliberate use of the media’s hunger for good stories has been a part of the artistic process at least since Stravinsky started throwing vegetables at the premiere of his own Le Sacre du Printemps in order to ensure a history-making riot. Both the Dada and Surrealist movements suffered when their respective ministries of propaganda outstripped the actual activities of the original artists. Andy Warhol’s entire career may be seen as a series of calculatedly newsworthy shifts in strategy — painting to silk-screen to foil balloons to film to conversation. But it wasn’t until the late ’70s that artists actually began to widely recognize the Media as a medium, cheap, abundant and awaiting manipulations — with a built-in audience that no gallery could hope to rival. The Bay Area’s Billboard Liberation Front (BLF) is credited with spearheading a widespread underground network of politically motivated collagists who transform public advertising into a self-reflexive glitch in the commercial landscape. Jeffrey Vallance took a more indirect approach, initiating postal tie-exchanges with world leaders and appearing on Sam Yorty’s television show to present a portrait of the ex-mayor surrounded by moths. Media critics like the aforementioned Skaggs and comedian Alan Abel set up elaborate front companies to question the credibility of journalistic authority by luring reporters into covering ridiculously fake stories. Negativland coined the term “culture jamming,” and cultural critics began writing theses. Anonymous artists blanketed the 1980 Republican Convention with copies of J.G. Ballard’s typically extreme short story “Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan” carefully typeset to mimic an official GOP press release. This last tactic was widespread in the post-punk age of cheap design and reproduction technology, and is reflected exponentially in the vast amount of creative pranksterism on the Net, as well as in the growing percentage of gifted young artists who choose to devote their talents to projects such as Adbusters’ high-profile parodies of — or ®™ark’s double-edged mimicry of — corporate culture itself.

®™ark traces its origin to the impromptu sponsorship of the San Diego–based Barbie Liberation Organization’s 1993 consumer intervention, which swapped the speech chips of a few hundred shoplifted talking Barbies and GI Joes before returning them discreetly to store shelves. Although it was an idea that seemed to have been in the air for a while, the BLO’s masterful video-press-release package resulted in a torrent of media coverage, including the pinnacle of subversive pop-cultural recognition — a reference on The Simpsons. It is, in fact, in the arena of mass-media infiltration that ®™ark may be said to operate. Its mastery over both the Internet and the little-known medium of the video news release — basically an advertisement for a product shot and packaged in a manner that can be easily re-configured as a television “news” story (“a small company outside Bakersfield is making it easier for parents to conduct drug tests on their children at home!”) — is self-evident in its videotape Bringing IT to YOU!, distributed by Seeland, the distributor run by Negativland. Mimicking the dorky state-of-the-art 3-D animation and generic up-tempo jazz-rock lite of corporate promotional spots, Bringing IT to YOU! was the centerpiece of an ®™ark presentation at MOCA a couple of weeks ago. Presented midway through the "net.net.net" series organized by CalArts, ®™ark’s lecture was delivered via a Personal Roving Presence (or ProP) — a boxy, immobile robot with a computer-generated face given to seemingly random slo-mo hebephrenic facial tics and the projectile emission of subversive fortune-cookie tickets saying things like “Take what is not rightfully yours.” In addition to introducing the video, this entity, channeling the voice of ®™ark operative Frank Guererro “from an undisclosed location,” emphasized the surprisingly clear agenda of Chomskyesque critique underlying the organization’s Yippie-style burlesque. Registered as a corporation, ®™ark operates on the assumption that the same legal structure that allows some corporations to maim with impunity also protects ®™ark clients — both the initiators of sabotage and investors in the mutual funds that finance and motivate their realization — from punishment. It even seems that ®™ark’s more flamboyant activities are mere bait (as well as excellent entertainment) leading to the time when this basic premise gets challenged in court by some Giant Corporate Squid PR-challenged enough to bite. In the meantime, surreal episodes like the ProP’s lurching flamenco duet with Spanish dog-poo activists La Fiambrera ( www.sindo minio.net/fiambrera/) in front of a blurry slide of some shrubs in Seville keeps the hip & wired segment of the art world guessing what exactly ®™ark is doing.

Whatever it is, ®™ark is doing it right. Both the Bringing IT to YOU! video and the ®™ark Web site are included in the Whitney Biennial, which opens this week in New York. Curiously, the bestowal of institutional approval from the therapeutic crown-jewel display cases of the very rich has not rendered the members of ®™ark appropriately docile. Their first act, announced at the MOCA lecture, was to put their four tickets to the gala opening reception up for sale on eBay, their page reading in part, “Offered: artist ticket (for two) to the Whitney Biennial’s exclusive VIP party for patrons, curators, and Biennial artists only. This is one of the only shortcuts we know of to being the honored artist at this most important of American art exhibitions. For the duration of the event, you, as artist, will be able to speak with an array of influential curators, wealthy patrons, and other important artists.” The bidding topped out at over $2,000 each. (The high bidder then claimed to want only to purchase the artist’s identity and, that done, instructed ®™ark to offer the tickets to the next highest bidders — gratis.) Most spectacularly, though, in an attempt to circumvent a request to remove all active links from its site for its inclusion in the Whitney, ®™ark has created another shortcut to Whitney status by turning its own site into a Trojan horse, rotating a library of uncurated Web sites, allowing anyone who submits a URL to ®™ark to be included in the prestigious venue. I’m there (http://pages.about.com/dghrvy/index.html).