Will Dada for Food
Secret organizations are offering saboteurs big bucks for big mischief -- in the name of art.
By Ellen Barry
JANUARY 26, 1998: ®TMark changed Jacques Servin's life, but he has never had the pleasure of an introduction. He sometimes dreams about the group -- "they were this big organization, and they had this big building, and I was wandering through it" -- but at this point, a year after he carried out a high-profile act of corporate sabotage for ®TMark (pronounced "artmark"), their relationship has probably reached its permanent form: they know who he is, but he will never know who they are.
It's a shame, because he'd like to say thank you.
"I'm not a fearless person. I just kind of do my job," says Servin, a 34-year-old computer programmer from San Francisco. "But I saw this on the list [of ®TMark's projects] and it triggered my natural willingness to do something like this."
What he did was to reprogram a video game called SimCopter so that, instead of rewarding the player with an image of scantily clad women rubbing themselves against the hero, the screen showed two boys in swimsuits planting kisses on each other. The next day, Servin was fired. Right away, things started getting better. He made the evening news, and he made friends, and -- by the time the buzz over his prank had died down -- he was making double his old salary. He also made $5000, which ®TMark sent by money order, telling him only that the funds had come from an anonymous donor. But the real payoff, he says in retrospect, was a little more metaphysical.
"I felt more powerful. I brought down a system a little bit. I embarrassed a whole company," he says. Even at this remove, he regards that single act as a watershed in his life. "I affected a stock!" he says, more than a year after the fact, in a tone of apparent delight.
In the dozens of interviews he granted after the SimCopter project, Servin didn't mention ®TMark once -- he was under explicit orders to pass himself off as a totally independent, unremunerated prankster, even though he got the idea, the instructions, and the funding from ®TMark. There was a similar gag order in the case of the Barbie Liberation Organization, a group that in 1993 received $10,000 in ®TMark funds to switch the voice boxes of 300 GI Joe and Barbie dolls so that the GI Joes said "I like to go shopping with you" and Barbie said "Dead men tell no lies." Then, a few months ago, ®TMark got back in touch with its former collaborators to announce that it was going public, and wanted assistance in advertising its activities.
"It seemed like a change in policy," says Igor Vamos, a spokesman for the BLO, "but I figured we owed them."
This could turn out to be the year that organized sabotage comes out of the closet. The Foundation for Convulsive Beauty -- an anonymous organization that did not surface after vigorous electronic inquiry -- has publicized its pledge to award $20,000 on March 1, 1998, for 1997's "Gilbert Kelly Award for best act of creative subversion affecting any highly visible commercial product."
And ®TMark, which considers the Foundation its "philosophical forbear," has taken an aggressive step into public view. ®TMark now maintains a Web site at http://www.paranoia.com/~rtmark that lists both the sabotage projects it is hoping to assign to the right person (e.g., for "an employee of one of the three largest car manufacturers in the US [to cause] at least hundreds of cars to be shipped with gas tanks that hold between half a gallon and a gallon of gas only") and the amount of money available on the missions' completion (in this case, $2500). Other projects are seeking financing, such as a proposal to ship out paper cups bearing "the likeness of any widely despised historical figure." ®TMark representatives promise that this year, one of their "workers" will carry out a project as high-profile as the Barbie and SimCopter projects, thereby drawing attention to ®TMark's cause. (See "Standing offers.")
Unlike most anarchist theorists in the past, though, ®TMark singles out corporations as the ultimate -- and in fact the only -- enemy worth addressing, representatives told me. The idea is this: protesting the government is pointless, since corporations now "rule the planet." Protesting corporations is a subtle business, says an ®TMark spokesman. Labor unions have been ineffective at changing the way people think, because their tactics are not dramatic enough, and they "certainly haven't made workers militant in the least," a member writes. So ®TMark has dispensed with the picket-line model of activism.
"People know how to protest the government -- there's a huge history to that, a lot written, a lot of examples -- but not how to protest corporations," wrote one spokesperson. "We hope to redirect people's thinking about protest now that power has been redirected."
The method ®TMark has come up with relies on high-concept, nonviolent, nonharmful internal sabotage. Generally, the project is assigned to someone willing to lose his or her job for the cause. Over the past five years, 17 projects have been funded and carried out, and in three of the cases, the perpetrator has been fired as a result, according to ®TMark.
Ideally, the project should make individuals feel just the way Jacques Servin felt -- as if they have the power to affect institutions. Ideally, corporations themselves will be forced to adjust to the growing ranks of activist workers "by giving free rein to their conscience, and also by making life good enough for the worker so that the few thousand dollars that can be offered by ®TMark (or successor organizations) will not seem significant." This utopian vision will be attained when workers make clear their ability to wreak daily havoc, forcing corporations to acknowledge them as formidable forces and abandon what is commonly known as the "corporate mindset."
Ideally, this would usher in a whole new relationship between the corporation and the individual. "Perhaps," ®TMark muses electronically, "each corporation will have an aesthetics and philosophy department."
®TMark's concept is based on the assumption that employees have a deep-seated desire to misbehave. Fortunately for ®TMark, this is the case; as Martin Sprouse documented in his 1992 book Sabotage in the American Workplace (Pressure Drop Press), practically everyone who is employed already misbehaves substantially, with or without a philosophical underpinning. After interviewing hundreds of workers -- who had done things as mundane as stealing office supplies, and as aggressive as knowingly cashing bad checks -- Sprouse came to the conclusion that "work is the one place where people actually get revenge."
Sabotage of the more theatrical variety can even be a professional asset. Through his new Web-based organization, Whistlesmiths, ®TMark alumnus Servin makes the case that a high-profile act of subversion can make a worker appear bold, irreverent, and original ("Do you feel trapped by your job? Did you know that getting fired creatively, with much attendant publicity, will most likely enhance your career?"). As well as principled. What makes ®TMark's task easier is that most of their collaborators have their own political messages: the Barbie Liberation Organization, for example, was organized to challenge gender stereotypes and had planned the voice box switch long before its members had even heard of ®TMark.
As far as ®TMark is concerned, its anonymous spokespeople write, one political message is as good as another. What's essential to ®TMark's cause is the moment of public shock. This nondenominational political theater lies at the heart of ®TMark's ideology: there is no ideology. There is just an assault.
"We're hopeful about our chances for survival because our program and agenda are relatively nondogmatic," one representative wrote. "We don't have points over which to argue. . . . The only requirement we have for new projects is that they subvert things, with a purpose."
To date, though, those purposes have been traditionally liberal-left: the feminist Barbie project, the gay-rights SimCopter gag. ®TMark spokespeople say they would gladly accept a conservative project, such as an anti-abortion message, so long as it "also points out the crassness of consumerism and helps highlight the massive control corporations have over our heads." Ideally, however, ®TMark projects would be pure dada -- dictators on paper cups, for instance, bring home no message other than that culture can be messed with. But even with the promise of cash rewards, ®TMark doesn't come across too many underemployed dada activists.
It would be wrong to call ®TMark's masterminds revolutionaries; they consider revolution impossible, at least for the time being. Instead, they want to make people think differently. And they hope that after the Idi Amin Dixie cups have been recalled, companies will go to work trying to make room for the power of the individual. But in the few projects that have been carried out, the quantifiable impact disappears like a footprint in a mud puddle: in the case of Jacques Servin, for instance, his employer came out with a program to remove the kissing boys within one day of the bug's discovery. And after the Barbie Liberation Organization went to all that trouble savaging Mattel's approach to gender, Vamos was left wondering if the money he received had come from Mattel's competitors -- or even from Mattel itself, because there is no such thing as bad publicity.
It's hard to measure the effectiveness of this kind of tactic; ®TMark's anarchic strategy is so oblique that it can be infinitely misunderstood. And to wait for the psychological changes to reach the point of social upheaval -- a world in which corporations worry about their cumulative impact on human identity -- would require the patience of a million swamis, as well as truly evangelical optimism. It's a form of revolution for activists who have given up on the idea of revolution.
In that, ®TMark is not without historical precedent. In Russia, the Soviets used to ship high school students out to the collective farms to pick potatoes in the late summer; the teenagers would take the opportunity to lose their virginity and practice drinking vodka. My friend Yuri used to tell me about it, and he always said there were two kinds of teenagers: the teenagers who earnestly assisted in the harvest, and the teenagers (Yuri was one of these) who sat on the harvesting machines and threw potatoes into the engines.
When the Party breathed its last, in 1991, credit went to Mikhail Gorbachev, and to Ronald Reagan, and to the martyred dissidents who risked their lives railing against the system. Perhaps some notice should have gone to the generations of adolescent potato-throwers, who may not have envisioned real change but who did their part by stubbornly gumming up the works. Then again, the potato-throwers didn't tend to disable the harvesters for very long. The machines burped, faltered, and then roared back to life.
Ellen Barry can be reached at email@example.com.
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