By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
PRANKS ARE POWERFUL things. When Abbie Hoffman and his fellow Yippies emptied a bag of dollar bills over the floor of the New York Stock Exchange three decades ago, they watched grown men in pinstripes scramble for the money like kids at a parade. The stunt was pure New Left--both scornful and self-righteous--but it made a point, and did so by reviving a time-honored tactic of Native Americans, Surrealists, and Bugs Bunny: Embarrass your enemies. Now a group of laptop anarchists is tapping that prankster tradition by offering cash rewards through the Internet for acts of political and public sabotage.
By their account, the anonymous members of ®ark (pronounced "art-mark") met in 1991 through Internet news groups, and coalesced around a common interest in Karl Marx and anarchist thinkers like Hakim Bey. (Cue a hearty cry of "Viva la Internet!") But ®ark acts less like a revolutionary cell than a combined anarchist bank and temp agency: Taking the title of "matchmaker," the group hooks up anonymous funders with willing saboteurs.
The Web site (http://www.paranoia.com/~rtmark/projectlist.html) shows a clear, guiding intelligence at work; inverting the usual leftist equation, the pranks reflect ideological flexibility and tactical seriousness. ®ark offers a $750 bounty to anyone who will "substitute copies of a video documenting slaughterhouse techniques... for a porn video produced by any of the largest porn studios." To earn $600, you can "rent two top-floor rooms each in three Times Square hotels on a busy weekend night at the height of tourist season in New York" and "from the hotel windows, hang giant banners which read: 'New York welcomes Saddam Hussein.'" $2,500 will be yours if you're an employee at a Big Three car company and cause at least 200 cars "to be shipped with gas tanks that hold between half a gallon and a gallon of gas only." In all cases, "the media must report on it."
Obviously inspired by the Situationists--those French opponents of "everyday life" whose tactics of disruption were adopted by the Yippies--®ark's overall project is utopian in method, banking on the notion that one deed will beget others in a cascade of public pranks that will shape, if not overthrow, the fast-food joint we call mature capitalism. In its manifesto, the group fingers corporations and corporate culture as our worst enemies, and makes the point that these new enemies require new kinds of protest.
These ideas have struck a chord among a professional class of would-be cubicle radicals for whom sabotage provides a way to rebel from within without embracing the traditional collective approaches of unionism. (Not for nothing did the Boston Phoenix title their ®ark profile "The Dilbert Front.") Recently, a 34-year-old San Francisco computer programmer, Jacques Servin, altered a video game to replace the usual scantily clad women with an image of two guys kissing each other. Though he collected $5,000 from ®ark, he was also summarily fired. But the media scooped Servin up, and he soon found a better-paying job. "I felt more powerful," Servin told the Phoenix. "I brought down a system a little bit. I embarrassed a whole company."
Servin's act of rebellion was rewarded by the market, a force that, according to ®ark's manifesto, is like a "virus" that "mutates to encompass whatever is irresistible--in ®ark's dreams, social conscience and a concern for beauty." ®ark not only knows its pranks will be co-opted and subsumed into corporate culture, but looks forward to it. When I e-mailed the group about my concerns with this limited utopianism, one that assumes no conflict real between the bottom line and the human spirit, an anonymous writer replied:
Perhaps it won't conflict with the bottom line. Really, most of us don't care whether corporations go under or not, but we figure that if they don't feel too financially threatened by us or our products they'll adapt rather than squash. We think there's a good case to be made for ethical and aesthetic adaptation to whim being good for finances. But then, that massive utopianism isn't really what we're about, it's sort of just an afterthought.
Since the group seems to downplay unions, I asked if there might not be an alliance to be made between unionists and pranksters. "Yes, of course," the answer came. "We don't want to downplay unions. We just think they're addressing different things from us. We're attacking corporations at the root."
Still, cultural agitation without political accommodation can be dangerous; the old saw that the Yippies gave us Nixon, and punk gave us Thatcher, has a megabyte of truth--will the prank revolution bring its own reactionary crackdown? The members of ®ark seem to doubt it: "Rather than try to drown the activist message... corporations will try to assuage the activist impulses of workers by giving free rein to their conscience."
Until that day comes, the "help wanted" section for saboteurs should be a growth market.