The magic columns of these palaces
Show to the amateur on all sides,
In the objects their porticos display,
That industry is the rival of the arts.
For sale the bodies, the voices, the tremendous unquestionable wealth, what will never be sold.
As the 20th century began drawing to a close, I created Gyro Worldwide as an art installation in the form of an ad agency. The sixth installment of the Arcadia project, Gyro Worldwide consisted of two offices and more than sixty employees who I hired over the course of twenty years. I instructed them to solicit advertising business from top U.S. corporations, and then use that platform to transmit a reckless new American creed of consumption, free living, and hedonistic disregard for any consequences. I wished to erase the old order and leave something weirder and wilder in its place.
Today, we know of the exploits of Bernard Madoff and the trillions of dollars in phantom wealth whipped up by the financial industry. At the heart of these cons is American greed and American appetites, our desire for instant pleasure, wealth without work, and fun without limit. This free-living Gyro ethic took hold beyond my most optimistic expectations. It brought about a second Gilded Age and transformed the stuffy auditorium of American popular culture into a freewheeling pleasure-dome of infinite delight. The party raged for the better half of the last twenty years. It now threatens to topple the entire global economy.
Part public sculpture, part continuous theatrical performance, and part factory for the production of images, Gyro was a machine designed to accelerate the culture-wide move towards hedonistic consumerism. I took the American iconography of rebellion--fast cars, automatic weapons, sexy girls--and wove them into mainstream advertising, thus holding a mirror up to the hollow velocity of postmodern desire. I gazed deeply into that mirror, and what I saw was awesome. But it couldn't go on forever.
By the millennial years, it was clear that the Gyro project had succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. The American consumer was devoting himself nearly full-time to leisure, consumption, and the accumulation of debt. The high-velocity spending culture of the 90's had metastasized into a culture of luxury over labor. Low-income workers were taking out home equity loans to subsidize 22-inch rims for their new SUVs. Patrons at VIP lounges paid thousands of dollars for tableside delivery of a bottle of champagne lit up by a few sparklers. Illusions, all, but never again will illusions be so beautiful, or so available. This orgy of unfulfilled desire and unchecked spending formed the basis for the new global economy. By absorbing the Gyro ethic of excess, America made itself over into a nation of more/now/faster. The country's original Puritan ethic of privation and hard work had been erased. Desire reigned unchecked over the land.
Gyro wasn't the only firm feeding these phenomena, but we were the most honest about it, and latent in our work were the next set of solutions. In other words, we wanted to feed and feed and feed this nationwide kegger until it exploded into some new, strange beast never before seen. We embraced the contradictions of swaggering commercialism head-on. At times, we even dared to rub the consumer's face in the fact that the joke was on them. By making the mindless bliss of commodity culture apparent and readily available to all, we sought to transcend it.
Now that the limitless appetite of the American consumer has ruined the global economy, there is nothing left for Gyro to do. It is time to move forwards (and also backwards) to a new epoch, one of where America creates real wealth through simple living and hard work. The party was a blast, but now the party is over. The work, meanwhile, goes on.
Visit Quaker City Mercantile to discover the current phase of Gyro’s journey.
No forces have shaped the last three hundred years of world history more than imperialism and nationalism. Nationalism is not just the will of a people to achieve self-determination. Understood in a world-historical Hegelian sense, nationalism is the essence of group consciousness, the unified thinking that springs from any linked set of identities and voices. Drawing on the work of theorist Fredric Jameson, we can see how the popular press and the growth of nationalism are intrinsically linked. You don't need to watch the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics or the North Korean Mass Games to see what nationalism looks like. The roots of nationalism can be observed at any punk rock show or the 300 level of an NFL game. Nationalism is what happens when the crowd gets big and reaches a boil.
The "we" of the editorial page, the mob, and the nation-state--anonymous, collective, omnipotent--are one and the same. Nationalism begins when the "I" fully identifies its political interests with a larger "we." For the third segment of the Arcadia Project, I chose nationalism as my subject.
With Evil Empire, my polemic against Britain, I attempted to rekindle the original fires of nationalism laying dormant in the American heart. Like the popular press at the dawn of American nation, I adulterated truths with half-truths. I salted my arguments with ad hominem attacks. These were blatantly inflammatory attempts to inspire hatred of America's mother country. I tried to linguistically represent the violence that comes with independence, that moment when the Enlightenment desire to see the world anew achieves full self-consciousness, demanding a sudden and painful break with the old order of sovereignty.
I demanded an absurdly large sum--more than thirty trillion dollars--in "reparations" from the British government for the misdeeds it has inflicted upon America and the world. I formed a group called the International Committee for British Reparations, which held a press conference and launched an online campaign demanding payment of the thirty trillion. We collected thousands of signatures from aggrieved citizens all over the world. Once again I showed how easy it is to obtain legitimacy in a 24-hour news cycle world with an insatiable desire for content.
With a website and a microphone, I established myself as a bona fide international mediator within a few weeks. We quickly won a tremendous amount of attention from the British media. I appeared on the BBC five times and was a guest of the hit television program, the Richard and Judy Show. The Daily Mail wrote about my ideas in a two-page spread. Back home, I began receiving hundreds of angry email and letters from British citizens, some threatening me with death. The hatred and hypersensitivity laying dormant in Britain's nationalist/imperialist ego spilled out all over the Internet, with loyalist bloggers attempting to refute my charges and calling for my head. It felt like 1776 all over again.
By challenging the virtuous reputation of one of the world's wickedest nation-states, I suggested that history is far more nuanced than the comic-book version that we've been fed. Because they are so close to the ideological heart of the Western intellectual establishment, Britain's crimes have generally escaped our notice. The numerical atrocities the British people have committed in the name of nationalism dwarf those of Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda; and yet they have escaped our notice. By challenging the dominant narrative of history's heroes and villains, Evil Empire points the way towards a more anarchic, open-source method of historical inquiry, where there are no sacred cows, no absolute facts, no point within the consensus so established that it need not be challenged. Like the Wikipedia, an open-source, collectively edited set of facts, Evil Empire flattened the hierarchy of who gets to decide what is true.
Where Nietzsche forged an individual morality "beyond good and evil," I drained the tired moralizing out of foreign affairs. Grudges, so far as I can tell, are the driving force behind most of our contemporary geopolitics. By airing and demanding amends for past grievances, Evil Empire hinted at a future where we are masters, not slaves, of our own history.
I commissioned Penny Rimbaud, the vocal anarchist and drummer for the band Crass, to write the forward to Evil Empire. I find it interesting that I, someone who has made tens millions of dollars profiting from the capitalist system, found common ground with Rimbaud, who has advocated the abolishment of state rule and property itself. We shared a common hatred for British rule. Together we mourned the countless lives lost to the excesses of nationalism. The text of Evil Empire was marketed in Britain and the United States and a hardcover book. It sold tens of thousands of copies. Evil Empire showed a way forward from the cynicism and despair expressed at points by the Arcades Project.
Like the rest of my Arcadia Project, Evil Empire demonstrated that the public wants more than mindlessness and commodities. Apparently there is significant demand for new histories, new evaluations of so-called historical truths, and new works of outside imagination. Like Evil Empire, these works can be promoted, hyped, and brought to market through existing market structures. Thanks to digital technology, it has never been cheaper or easier for a lone genius to push his ideas forward. Evil Empire proved that the consensus can be played like a game, and invited every citizen of the world to partake in the fun of rewriting history.
Visit the British Reparations website and purchase the Evil Empire book.
The Enlightenment began in the sixteenth century, with Rene Descartes' bold declaration: "Cogito ergo sum." "I think therefore I am." Today we have regressed from Enlightenment to a highly relativistic and flexible set of frameworks for deciding what exists, what is true, and what is meaningful. The news cycle generates an infinite present in which lies are instantly and infinitely repeated, thus transforming themselves before our eyes into truth. From Swift Boats to global warming to the Wikipedia, Western society's lazy willingness to choose hearsay over evidence echoes the blind ecclesiastical authority that brought on the darkness of the Middle Ages. The motto of this age might be: "I say it, therefore it is."
The truths most susceptible to corruption are the stories we tell about ourselves. Some of our most august arbiters of truth have fallen victim to first-person hustlers like JT LeRoy, James Frey, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair. With Virus, I rewrote my own life story as a high capitalist epic. I invented a narrator, Harriet Bernard-Levy PhD., a French critical theorist. Bernard-Levy wrote using academic jargon. She has a tendency to complain about the most basic facts of working for a living, an inability to accept that socialism doesn't work an capitalism is an amazing system--not perfect, to be sure, but the closest thing to perfection that we imperfect beings could ever hope for.
The sophistication of Bernard-Levy's writing belies a deep naiveté about the facts of life in the 21st century, the same naiveté I have observed among numerous academics who believe their theoretical apparatus allows them to penetrate the surface of our commodity universe and reveal the true nature of advertising. These people are fools who make talk for a living. "Talk," is actually a rather generous way to denote their noisemaking, as it implies comprehensibility. Really they just make noises with their mouths. When it comes to advertising, they have no idea what they are talking about.
I love Walt Whitman's phrasing of the West's original Homeric narrative authority: "I was the man. I was there." My story, as told through Bernard-Levy's voice, is presented is both a classic American bildungsroman in the Horatio Alger style, and the history of American capitalism itself. The first act is agrarian, in rural Pennsylvania. Then we have an industrial phase working in my father's print shop. Finally, after my Odyssey around the world and triumphant return to Philadelphia, we have the final act, where I build a fortune manipulating symbols in the global economy of ideas. I marketed the book through Gold Crown Books, the online illusion of an apparently reputable publisher thrown together in a few days by my assistants.
I promoted Virus through traditional media--press releases, author appearances, glossy double-page spreads in prominent magazines. I made every effort give the book's public surface the appearance of factual legitimacy. Like many works of outside art, I knew that Virus would not get the coverage it deserved. So I bought it. I bribed the traditional media to shout my own version of the truth, and they did so gladly. They money made them blind to the book's inherent argument: Many of Gyro's innovations, especially the invention of viral, online marketing, foretell the end of the easy, monopoly-profit days for the traditional media. Like my other viral work, I designed the campaign around Virus to convert readers into web-browsers. The print ads contained the address of the Virus website, where I posted a short semi-satirical film that compared by biography to other great Pennsylvania innovators like Warhol, Franklin and Carnegie.
At times, Bernard-Levy implies that my career is a kind of subcultural treason, that I buy DIY culture on the cheap like some raw material and then arbitrage it to my clients. By the end of history, she has come around to the idea that I add value. The arbitrageur merely moves a commodity from one place to another. I perform the ideological equivalent of turning sheet metal into a Chevy. I strip forms down. I give them new shapes. I repackage, recontextualize, reinterpret, and refine them into chimerical exotics, hothouse hybrids, unrecognizable transformations. Not only does Virus document this process; it, too, is a product of it.
Bernard-Levy is a ghost, but the facts of my story, as told through her, are consistent and verifiable with the set of credible facts that we know as "the record." Is this enough to make my story true? Is a book's existence in the marketplace as an advertised, salable commodity enough to justify our belief in the sentences between its covers? Or must my story be endless repeated, transmitted over and over again through glossy magazine ads, billboards, viral YouTube videos, and websites like this one? Can a man sell his story to the public, as though it were a widget? Is endless repetition in the marketplace of the mind sufficient for any set of half-baked lies to be accepted as unquestionable truths? Who owns "truth," and the right to label and market a story as "true?" These are a few of the questions that drove me to create Virus, the Arcadia Project's fifth and most recent installment.
Virus: The Outrageous History of Gyro Worldwide
The fourth installment of the Arcadia Project was an experiment in mass media called Derrie-Air. As a modernist in the tradition of Benjamin, I believe in the timelessness of certain forms. I believe that the physical aura of paper will insure that print media lasts forever, even in today's shifting media landscape where more ephemeral digital forms are quickly arriving on the scene. I collaborated with another conceptually-oriented business entity--a local Philadelphia newspaper--to conduct an experiment in the effectiveness of mass media. We produced a series of thirty-six ads for DERRIE-AIR, a fictional airline where passengers paid by the mile and the pound. Under the Derrie-Air scheme, an obese passenger would be two or even three times as much for the same flight as a healthy, normal passenger. I dubbed this concept "pay what you weigh."
Like the other installments of the Arcadia Project, Derrie-Air used the public consciousness and ordinary advertising vernacular as an artistic medium. The results were extraordinary. The Derrie-Air homepage received millions of pageviews--more than 435,000 in a single day. The campaign received coverage from more than two hundred news organizations and was discussed on thousands of blogs. Before Derrie-Air, carbon emissions issues were a dull and fear-laden issue languishing in the minds of public policy wonks. Who, after all, really wants to talk about a worldwide climate-change apocalypse? Derrie-Air made the warming of the planet into something we could all talk about, something funny.
The Derrie-Air concept of paying by weight was later discussed on the Colbert Report, one of the most authoritative sources of news/satire in this age of irony and distrust. The click-through rate on the ads at the Philly.com website was more than triple the rate of an ordinary ad. If the success of a conceptual art project can be measured not in traffic, but by the befuddlement of critics, Derrie-Air was again a triumph. Among the appellations ascribed to the project were "prank," "hoax," "experiment," "promotion," and "test-gimmick."
Derrie-Air commented upon trends in American consumption and served as a catalyst to convert them back into raw attention. The first world is ashamed of its overconsumption, ill-health and obesity. Our public is vested in the notion of equality--that everyone, no matter how fat or lazy, should pay the same amount of money for the same goods and services. We like to pretend as though we care about the environment, so long as we're given ways to care that don't have much of an impact on our beloved luxury consumer lifestyles. (We savaged these notions with the phrase "green luxury.") Finally, we are obsessed with technology and the future. We refuse to accept the absolute permanence of certain modernist forms, like print. Turning print advertising into web traffic into raw attention is a simple matter of identifying and playing into these various insecurities.
There are even more disturbing conclusions that can be drawn from the Derrie-Air experiment, conclusions that cut to the heart of our epistemology and hopes for the future of Enlightenment. I concluded from Derrie-Air's success that the public wants to be lied to. They have come to enjoy and seek out "entertainment," which is really just a polite byword for deception. They want casinos that look like pyramids, yogurt that tastes like ice cream, and conceptual art projects disguised as ads. They don't want pure deception, but a mixture of truth and falsehood. This lets them fool themselves into thinking that the illusion is real--that they are not being fooled. And it allows them to arrogantly believe their fellow audience/public members are fools, even as they delight in being entranced by the very same spectacle.
Our present obesity is more than a physical phenomenon. Just as the cheapness of bad food has caused a softness of the body, so the cheap availability of bad information has caused a ring of flab to grow around our minds. The causes of overindulgence are the effects of overproduction, of surplus. These are the symptoms of the mall--a physical environment of maximum revenue and perfect control--and the intolerable boredom that follows.
The producers, meanwhile, are masters of the situation. Like Walter Benjamin's description of chess players at the Café de la Régence, "clever players could be seen playing with their backs to the chessboard. It was enough for them to hear the name of the piece moved by their opponent at each turn to be assured of winning." In the information realm, this suggests that the public's counterplay can be anticipated and engineered in advance. Derrie-Air sought to make this relation visible to all.
Advertising is the economy of human attention. If you have something to sell, there's no cheaper, faster, easier or less imaginative way to get maximum attention on a minimum budget than positioning your product next to a nearly naked female body.
Staring down at us from billboards and out from magazine pages, the female body works as advertising vehicle because it inspires the ideal consumer response to a product. It is the embodiment of unattainable desire.
Advertising usually presents women as passive objects who are acted upon. And the consumption that advertising promotes--though it may be dressed up as an act of rebellion--is equally passive. Before the retail environment swallowed the natural world, satisfaction was wrested by violent force from the land. Today satisfaction is not longer a visceral atavistic exchange but a hollow, symbolic one, obtained by calmly waiting in line and exchanging symbols of credit for symbols of desire.
With the Bikini Bandits, I restored the old sense of blood-and-guts dominion to the act of consumption and the feminine form. Possessing perfect feminine forms shown to their best advantage by skimpy bikinis, I armed the Bikini Bandits with automatic assault rifles and a vicious frontier ethic of take everything, subjugate everyone, and pay for nothing. I juxtaposed the life-giving symbols of feminine submission with the life-taking accoutrements of masculine sovereignty. I wanted to elevate the possible role of women in the global marketplace, from disposable ornaments to predatory robber barons. And, after being personally subjected to three decades of sexless, emasculating, politically-correct feminism, I wanted to demonstrate that physical beauty and liberation are not incompatible.
I found my bandits sliding up and down the poles of Delilah's Den, the premiere Philadelphia-area "gentleman's club." Working with exotic dancers struck me as an especially appropriate medium for this exercise. The strip club, after all, is where cash is exchanged directly for a few minutes of proximity to the feminine ideal. By giving these women guns and filming them overthrowing the masculine establishment, I would reveal their true relation to their beauty-addled customer base.
In the first Bikini Bandits feature, I challenged the fundamentalist Christian establishment by sending the bandits to "hell," where they converse with Satan who orders them to desecrate the Virgin Mary. I cast Dee Dee Ramone as the Pope, suggesting how quickly the American economy of dissent enshrines rebels as icons of the establishment.
In the second Bikini Bandits feature, I pitted the Bandits against "Mr. G," CEO of the evil "G-Mart Corporation." The film included footage of the bandits breaking out of prison and shooting up the meeting of the corporate board. Here I sought to identify feminine beauty as a powerful force with the potential to violently disrupt the prevailing order. The bandits interpret the ornamental ethic of "use what you got to get what you need," to their own purposes, as justification for gunplay and larceny. To my dismay, the statement: "Left unchecked the world will be overrun by an army of assholes," proved to be prophetic. The film ends, however, on a hopeful note, with our heroes escaping the stone-walled prison of masculine entrapment through a transcendentally earth-shaking orgasm.
The Bikini Bandits project did more than create a culturally significant film. I paid strippers to help me make my art, and this allowed them to see themselves as something more than playthings for men. By enlisting them as full collaborators in a creative endeavor, I gave them a platform to showcase the tremendous attention-drawing power.
The Arcadia Project is a sequence of six projects that together form a phenomenology of attentional economics and American pop culture at the beginning of the 21st century. Transmitted to the public through the medium of advertising, the Arcadia Project seeks to provoke new lines of thinking about the relationship between technology, the media, sex, truth, and the accelerating global economy. It sets forth advertising itself as a new system, a collective game we play to better understand ourselves and our place among one another.
The Arcadia Project is named for Arcas, the son of Zeus and the greatest hunter in all Greek mythology. Arcas nearly died on a burning altar during a feast given by King Lycaon, and he nearly killed his mother while hunting in the woods, having mistaken her for a bear. Zeus saved him both times, and eventually turned him into the Big Dipper. The legend of Arcas hangs over the Arcadia Project as a warning against parasitical rapaciousness. Those who profit from art must do more than hunt and harvest. They must produce as well, and give something back to the culture they feed on.
The Arcadia Project is also a direct reference to Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, a collection of notes and observations that recorded the dawn of mercantile commodity culture in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. One hundred years later, as capitalism makes another huge upshift, the Arcadia Project intends to be a direct continuation of Benjamin's masterpiece.