THE ART OF CONFUSION
Frank Guerrero of ®™ark interviewed by Sylvie Myerson & Vidyut Jain
Anti-corporate saboteurs ®™ark have been causing trouble since 1993, when they started off as an Internet bulletin board. They have grown and developed to such an extent that they are now at the forefront of "culture jamming"-subverting the language of corporate and advertising culture to point out what is brewing beneath the surface. ®™ark operates somewhere in the gray area between activism and performance art, or what Hakim Bey once referred to as "poetic terrorism."
< ORIGINS OF ®™ark >
> From looking at your web site (www.rtmark.com), it seems there's a certain amount of ambiguity about whether a specific project should be taken as a joke or a really serious act of sabotage.
A lot of the projects do use humor as a means for slipping under the radar of social acceptability. Now just because a lot of the projects are funny doesn't mean that ®™ark's mission isn't serious. It is a serious system that means, through a combination of real actions and theater, to criticize and hopefully undermine the role that corporations are taking in supplanting democratic or social processes of governments. This is our main reason for being.
We feel very strongly that corporations have been slowly but surely supplanting and subverting the processes of government that were put into place so that the people could have some sort of say in their political and social destiny. It seems like this is an important moment in globalization-with all these international borders coming down-at least for capital, though not necessarily for people. We see it as a real problem that's boiling over.
So ®™ark is a way to attack that system from within using primarily theatrical and pedagogical means. We're there to destabilize the system in such a way that people might get a little entertainment and at the same time have those projects ask a few questions of them.
> How did you develop from your original structure as a bulletin board?
When the bulletin board went up in 1993, it was a networking tool that worked mostly through word of mouth. But ®™ark changed and is now coming into its own by using the Web as an open-ended networking and databasing tool.
We have a database that lists basically three things: the project idea, a funding amount and, lastly, workers. So you can come to the site and read through the list of ideas. If you see one that you like, you can offer to sponsor the project with some money or you could offer to perform the project. If it's an idea, let's say, to change a gas tank in a production automobile so that the gas tank can only hold two gallons of gas instead of 20, and you happen to be working on a production line where they're installing gas tanks, you might volunteer your services.
It's an open-ended system, and you can come to it with money, or you can come to it as a worker with an idea looking for money … That's probably the most common thing. People submit ideas they want to carry out themselves but need to raise some capital to do it.
> So ®™ark is a facilitator?
Yes, ®™ark is a facilitator, and ®™ark's primary reason for existing is to use the corporate veil as a way to permit people to offset their liability for participating in these projects, many of which fall into the gray areas of the law … [Some] of these projects receive cease-and-desist letters and legal attacks.
As a corporate entity, ®™ark is able to take these projects and provide a corporate umbrella for them, absorbing some of the liability and displacing it from the workers and the funders. This is the way the business world works anyway. If you form a corporation, your corporation can go bankrupt or, in the case of Union Carbide, have a major avoidable accident that kills 8,000 people, and yet the corporation stays in business despite having these crimes on the record. We feel that in this way ®™ark can highlight what we see as a double standard for corporations and people with the limited liability potential of corporations.
< VOTEAUCTION.COM >
> One of your projects caused quite a stir during the U.S. presidential elections last year. Voteauction.com, a site created by James Baumgartner, was described as a project "devoted to combining the American principles of democracy and capitalism by bringing the big money of campaigns directly to the voting public. We provide a forum for campaign contributors and voters to come together for free-market exchange."
The site used parody to point out that elections are influenced by the amount of money poured into the process by large corporations. Voteauction.com was closed by Network Solutions without any kind of notice after the Chicago Board of Elections filed an election fraud lawsuit against the domain. The New York State Board of Elections also told Baumgartner that they could press charges against him.
Having received this threat, Baumgartner closed his site, selling it to Hans Bernhard, an Austrian businessman who took the site outside of U.S. jurisdiction. What was your involvement in this project?
We helped with the Voteauction launch by putting James in touch with a worker (a publicist who could help him get the word out), and by procuring a small investment to help him pay for some of his hosting costs and phone bills. … Later on, when James was under attack, we helped negotiate the sale of the site to ubermorgen.com in Austria.
> To what extent was this intended to be a parody? It seems like some well-meaning people took it at face value, as a genuine subversion of the electoral process.
Many famous satires have been taken seriously by some of the public. Even things like Swift's "A Modest Proposal," despite being completely unbelievable, made people genuinely angry about eating babies… But perhaps the lesson here is that even something as outrageous as suggesting babies as food isn't that outrageous, given the past relationship between the English government and the Irish, and the circumstances of the potato famine. And in the case of Voteauction, it really isn't that outrageous for a company to be selling votes, given the way that elections work in this country today.
> Was the project a success?
It was extremely successful because it was seen by millions of people and became a subject of public debate around the world. I think in many of those news stories it successfully demonstrated just how corrupt our so-called democracy has become.
< YES MEN AT WTO >
> The Yes Men at WTO is another fine example of creating confusion and certainly one of ®™ark's funniest projects. It is summarized on the ®™ark site: "In early 2000, ®™ark transferred Gatt.org-which people sometimes mistake for the World Trade Organization's official Web site-to a group of impostors known as the Yes Men. ... In May 2000, the Yes Men received an e-mail inviting Mike Moore, Director-General of the WTO, to discuss the WTO at a conference on international trade matters [hosted by the Center for International Legal Studies in Salzburg, Austria]. The Yes Men decided to do the ethical thing … and to try their best to fulfill the request. In late October, one Dr. Andreas Bichlbauer-the substitute "Moore" decided to send-spoke at the conference. His lecture described the WTO's ideas and ultimate aims in terms that were horrifyingly stark-suggesting, for example, the replacement of inefficient democratic institutions like elections with private-sector solutions like an Internet startup selling votes to the highest corporate bidder. None of the lawyers in attendance expressed dismay at Dr. Bichlbauer's proposals."
The only people who seemed to react to Bichlbauer's outlandish remarks were some Italian delegates who were offended by his statement concerning the impossibility of a merger between KLM and Alitalia due to the basic laziness of the Italian worker.
Posted on the ®™ark site is a hysterically comical series of letters and e-mail correspondence between Dr. Bichlbauer, Professor Campbell (the conference organizer), "Mike Moore" and his administrative assistant, Alice Foley. Through the series of letters, memos and e-mails, we see the farce unfold.
The whole thing really goes over the top when the Yes Men prolong the hoax by announcing that their representative has been "pied," contracting a grave illness from a bacterial infection. (Was the pie intentionally poisoned? Possibly by an offended Italian delegate?) Dr. Bichlbauer is promptly disposed of and a memorial service announced. The hoax is revealed as messages expressing both sadness and confusion pour in. Finally, a conversation takes place concerning the point of the exercise.
> So what was the point?
The Yes Men use affirmation to make their point. It is an unusual rhetorical strategy, almost a reverse-psychology approach. Instead of debating their opponents, they assume their opponents' identities and enthusiastically affirm their adversaries' beliefs. It's an unorthodox approach, but hardly new or original. In fact, I think something like Swift's "Modest Proposal" also falls into this category, in a sense.
The point of this Salzburg action was to enhance the legibility of the WTO's policies. To that end, the Yes Men gave a kind of uncensored version of the WTO's positions … There was an audience of legal experts who basically did not object to Andreas Bichlbauer (real name: Andy Bichlbaum) explaining that the WTO believed in doing away with all cultural differences (for example, siestas) that get in the way of free trade.
Since the expert audience agreed that Voteauction.com was a model for making elections more efficient and opening new markets, it appears that the Yes Men failed to cause any revelations at the event. However, clearly this should be a wake-up call to all of us who care about our votes … or any kind of representative government reflecting social interests.
> So why did Bichlbauer's offensive remarks not cause a stir?
I think it reveals that belief in late capitalism runs so deep that even an audience of specialists in trade and law refuse to see a fundamentally antisocial, if not fascist, message in the text. When that happens, people can only be blind to their complicity in an oppressive system.
< CONFUSION >
> Although you claim to use pedagogical means, it seems that creating confusion is one of your preferred tactics, and this is one of the recurrent criticisms made of your methods. Don't you think that this might just result in preaching to the converted and antagonizing the other side, further polarizing the debate?
®™ark is one of only a few organizations who try to support these bizarre projects, so I think that is why we become known for confusion … Try to find a "legitimate" funding organization interested in the value of confusing people, and I think the list will be pretty small. And yet, if we sample history, I think we will see that confusion is a very important aspect of human communication, one that is as useful and prevalent as a more didactic approach.
We believe that all methods must be pursued in the interest of change. Certainly, those who are taking a more direct approach are doing the most important job for creating change. But there are people out there doing those things, and we happen to be better at something else. We believe that confusion is a very valuable state.
> You attack corporations and large international organizations, yet you get reviewed in Artforum. Are you artists, activists, anarchists or a little of all three? Do you care how people perceive you?
All of the above. Most importantly, we are people. We see all media outlets as potential sites for communication and dialogue to a wider audience. If we end up in art mags, so be it. We also like to be able to express ourselves in business publications, sports rags, etc. We do care about how people perceive us; we hope that through ongoing outreach we can contribute to the growing movement against unfettered global capitalism.
The interview first appeared in March, 2002 in 'In These Times' (www.inthesetimes.com). The first part of this interview, in which Guerrero discusses the group's mission and tactics, is condensed from an earlier interview conducted by Sylvie Myerson with Vidyut Jain for the nonprofit arts magazine Sandbox (www.sandboxarts.org), issue #7: Art vs. State.
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