Until last November, the Zurich-based Internet artists who call themselves ”etoy“ were known mostly to other Internet artists — and the organizers of the prestigious Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria, which awarded them the coveted Golden Nica award in 1996. But all that changed when Santa Monica–based Internet retailer eToys filed a domain-squatting lawsuit, claiming that the artists’ Web site had exposed the toy company‘s customers to profane and violent images.
EToys succeeded in shutting down the artists’ Web site, but also turned etoy into a Net cause celebre — and created a PR nightmare for itself. Internet activists, followed closely by the media, rose up against what was perceived as a corporate hijack — particularly since the artists had their domain name first. With public opinion heavily against it, eToys in January not only dropped its suit (after the holiday shopping season, of course) but agreed to pay the artists $40,000 in legal expenses — as close to an admission of fault as a corporation is likely to give.
Etoy‘s victory over eToys was painted as a David-and-Goliath affair, the triumph of defenseless Internet artists over the big, bad U.S. corporation. But that facile characterization obscured the complex relationship between the artists’ message, Internet commerce and the media — a nexus that made the legal battle a dream come true for etoy.
”David and Goliath is about small against giant,“ said ”agent“ Zai, the press spokesman during the fight and now ”CEO“ of the arts group. ”But the significant thing in our case was that hundreds of small attacked the giant from all sides. The buffalo started to drink water in the wrong place on the river at the wrong time. Soon all the piranhas had eaten him up.“
The etoy artists‘ willingness to share credit for their legal victory has less to do with modesty than with their core mission, which is to reach as many people with their ideas as possible. Etoy does this by twisting the familiar into unfamiliar shapes. They are corporate-mocking Internet artists who take the form of a corporation in a multilayered act of both emulation and ridicule. They even go so far as to take in real money for shares, much of it from fellow artists, but also from some surprising sources — including former Austrian Chancellor Viktor Klima, a Social Democrat.
”Etoy is much more than your typical group of artist hackers,“ said author and National Public Radio host Douglas Rushkoff, who joined etoy’s advisory board late last year. ”It is an organism, a virus; an entity of humansilicon origin yet with no known biological or technological predecessor. The boys who have volunteered for etoy have quite literally surrendered their lives to the technosphere. Those of us lucky enough to have interacted with them or their mediations will never experience the man-machine-network interface in quite the same way again.“
Etoy will do anything that gets a reaction, pretty much.
”It‘s a company that doesn’t have any other purpose than to promote ourselves,“ agent Kubli told me last year at the Ars Electronica competition. ”There are certainly ironic aspects, or self-ironic . . . Reactions are very polarized. People love us or they hate us.“
”Us“ are male artists in their early 20s who have grown up in a media culture whose ubiquitousness they not only accept but embrace. Together informally since 1992, and active since 1994, etoy artists see the media not just as a marketing tool but as part of their art. And etoy seeks to master the art form. The etoy artists understand that from a media perspective, nothing is worse than boredom. They know the value of good, clear quotes. And they show respect for the media, as the massive archive of articles at the revamped www.etoy.com site attests — in French, Italian, German and English.
The love for the media is not just about getting ahead. Etoy artists were offered $500,000 to turn over their domain name to eToys — and said no. As Zai and Gramazio, the two key figures in etoy, explained recently during a long series of conversations at etoy‘s temporary headquarters in Zurich, what matters to etoy is connecting with an audience. They hate isolated art. That’s why the eToys battle was such a bonanza, but it would be a mistake to think it was mere luck.
Etoy came up with its name as a sort of creative accident, the members trying a list of thousands of catchy four-letter words generated at random. (Once they all saw ”etoy,“ they instantly agreed — ”It was like magical,“ remembers Zai.) This was before the ascendance of ”e“ as a prefix. But in choosing their .com domain name, they were intentionally associating themselves with the big corporations that understood the Web was a potent branding tool. Other Internet artists were using long, complicated URLs — and seemed hostile to etoy‘s notion that the art was the name and the identity more than any ”content“ at the site.
”We realized we were more concerned about the address than what we would put in the page itself,“ said Gramazio. ”We were paying money for certain brands and trademark stuff before the product itself . . . People would say, ’What the fuck is this? This is not art. Art should be a page.‘ We were saying, ’No, it‘s about the name, that’s the art.‘“
It’s easy to miss etoy‘s commitment to layers of meaning, and many have. The artists made their name with a 1996 ”digital hijack“ of search engines, rerouting more than a million people to make a point about the power of search engines to define the online experience, but they are not really hackers. The CIA sent agents to join Austrian police in probing the incident. The investigation went nowhere.
Later that year, the etoy ”shares“ were released, playing with the idea of art ownership on the Net — an artist can’t exactly ”sell“ a home page to a collector — as well as lampooning ludicrously overvalued Net stock.
After the Oklahoma City bombing, the artists offended a wide spectrum of observers by posting shots of the decimated building with the caption ”Such work needs a lot of training.“
One of etoy‘s most beloved projects is outfitting an actual container-ship container into a massive, self-contained work tank painted etoy orange. The artists talk about the container in a way that sounds ironic, but the container exists — and is on its way across the Atlantic right now for an upcoming show in Chelsea. It’s an odd idea, one that throws people, and that‘s just the point.
”When we first started the container, everybody thought — and I’m sure still now many think — that this is a fake, that we talk about the container but there is no container,“ said Zai. ”But etoy doesn‘t fake. For us it’s much more interesting to place something that doesn‘t fit anywhere. The first minute you’re confronted with the whole etoy universe, you can accept it or hate it. If you accept it, you will find lots of different things. Of course some other people like this idea of placing something that doesn‘t make sense. They like this kind of starting point.“
If there is a unifying theme in etoy’s different projects and incarnations, it‘s jolting the audience into a reaction. The artists had great fun playing with the idea of seven near-identical etoy agents, all wearing sunglasses and orange jackets, with shaved heads, and more or less the same body types (no fatsos in this crew), so that they could play games like having one etoy agent start an interview, and another finish it, unbeknownst to the reporter. Now, etoy agents are reverting to individuality: Zai sports a short, conservative haircut and a perpetual look of engaged, thoughtful good cheer; Gramazio favors a buzz cut that calls attention to his dark, intense eyes — often blinking, like a philosopher trying to get a little more traction as he works through a big idea.
These guys can take a simple question and pursue it from a dozen or so different angles: for example, athe influence of Andy Warhol.
”Warhol is maybe more important than a lot of other artists because he dealt with public opinion,“ said Zai. ”He was not just an artist — making something interesting or beautiful — he created emotions.“
Added Gramazio: ”It was not a thing where you could say objectively, ’What is the quality of this guy?‘ Either it was not art, or they couldn’t understand it at that time or it was genius work.“
Of course, the intellectual complexity of etoy was almost completely obscured in the battle with eToys, which began when a customer complained after stumbling on obscene language on the artists‘ site. (A posting urged visitors to ”get the fucking flash [animation] plugin!“)
EToys has avoided public comment in recent months, and did not respond to an interview request for this article. But in December, eToys’ vice president of communications, Ken Ross, told me, ”There was profanity, there were sadomasochistic images, there were images of terrorist activity. That‘s upsetting to many people . . . Obviously, we also took into account that one of the stated intents of etoy is to disrupt business.“
Etoy pleaded guilty to using bad judgment in letting one of its members post the ”flash plugin“ reference, and freely admitted to courting controversy. But it dismissed talk of sadomasochistic images, and a perusal of the site last summer, before the legal wrangling began, revealed nothing even remotely titillating.
As for a press strategy, eToys tried to demonize etoy, an approach that quickly backfired when it became clear that the agents were internationally known artists — and at least as likely as the toy retailers to catch a break in the all-important realm of media interpretation.
Actually, the etoy edge went further. Denied use of www.etoy.com, etoy built an online video game called toywar to join the battle against the corporate goons trying to bully the Internet artists. The toywar game’s graphics were playful and clever, a soundtrack album of lullabies was produced — and 1,500 people took part, many of them firing off long e-mails to eToys whenever etoy sounded the alarm.
”You see, the product in the end was toywar,“ said Gramazio.
Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow, best known for penning Grateful Dead lyrics, joined the etoy ”crisis advisory board“ in December, along with Infoseek Japan chairman Joichi Ito and Rushkoff. ”This is the battle of Bull Run,“ Barlow said. ”This is the point where people begin to realize there is a difference between the Internet industry and the Internet community, and the Internet community needs to bind itself together and find a common voice.“
Clearly, the ultimate loser in the legal battle was eToys, whose stock price, above 80 in October, had plunged under 20 by January. At press time, the price was 4 34.
But some of their supporters also missed the point, etoy said.
”A lot of people think that we were making art, then we had a huge problem, and we had to solve the problem to go back and make art again,“ said agent Gramazio. ”This is really not the point, but the fact that people think that is interesting. We point them back and let them know they just missed the art in between.“
Another legacy of the widely followed case was a reaffirmation that ideas, not money, drive the Internet. And in this area Zai and Gramazio and Kubli and the other etoy agents had eToys so laughably outgunned, it‘s almost a shame the court fight didn’t drag on longer to give the artists more time to run circles around their slow-moving opponents.
Case in point: Attorneys for eToys at one point were arguing that every single etoy agent had to come to Santa Monica for a court hearing. Etoy in 1998 had arranged a press conference for Viktor Klima, who was still Austrian chancellor, knowing full well that the resulting footage would be invaluable propaganda — not to mention hilarious, drawing big laughs at Ars Electronica.
”So we wanted to have Klima in Santa Monica, and Judge John P. Shook could ask why he invested,“ Zai said. ”It‘s obvious that a guy like Klima doesn’t do a one-hour thing with strange guys with bald heads in front of television if he‘s not sure that this thing is not pornographic or whatever.“ Unfortunately, the legal fight ended before Klima could appear.
Etoy isn’t going away. The group has an exhibit in Manhattan through May 10 that will play off its toywar game, which was of course much more than a game, though again, etoy‘s love of layered meaning meant that no two participants had quite the same idea of just what it was. I wrote an article for Wired News poking fun at the game, even as I celebrated it; the etoy agents loved this angle. But some of the so-called Internet activists thought that any tone of irreverence in discussing etoy was anathema.
Other Net types objected to what they saw as relentless self-promotion from etoy, but in fact, etoy artists kept their mass e-mails to a relative minimum — it was etoy’s supporters who barraged people with e-mail. This points to another problem: Etoy artists are lavishly thankful to all those people who supported them, but if anyone expects etoy to become activists, they‘re shooting way wide of the mark.
”We are still here because of the community,“ said Gramazio. ”Without it we would have lost it all . . . To Europeans, the American has so much Coke and burgers and TV that he doesn’t care anymore, or maybe he cares but he cannot react. And for us it was amazing to see suddenly that this was inverted, because of what happened now in America with this story, with the media, this Internet activist scene [that] we don‘t have here in Europe. People [in Europe] don’t have this maturity, people don‘t know, maybe, why they should be pissed with this company . . .
“We must give back something to the community. And at the same time we have to take care not to become activists. We have not to be stuck in the position where we say we are ideological fighters for a better world or Internet or whatever else. Otherwise we cannot operate anymore. We cannot shock. We cannot manipulate.”