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The Last Laugh

As public awareness of corporate shenanigans increases, culture jammers and other activist gadflies find themselves in need of new tactics and allies

By John Rodat

Here’s an old saw, grown dusty in its shed: We shape our tools and they, thereafter, shape us. Marshall McCluhan said it back in the infancy of the information age, and it seems difficult to counter. So the question is, when information itself becomes co-opted and enlisted in the service of vested interests, when it becomes propaganda, what is its effect on us? When language is shaped to shape us, how do we respond? “Preemptive self-defense,” for example, begins its life as double-talk, a thin justification for aggression and the violation of international law, then struggles through an awkward and contentious adolescence toward achieving its majority as policy—and another new reality verges on institution.

So, what’s a revolutionary to do? In the gibbering face of corporate-fed governmental propaganda, can you fight fire with fire? Can you overmatch propaganda with propaganda?

Who better to ask than a propagandist?

Igor Vamos is so described on RPI’s faculty detail Web page—though it also notes that he is a multidisciplinary artist and an assistant professor of video art in the school’s Integrated Electronic Arts program.

“Usually people associate the word propaganda with enforcing a power or the status quo—you know, with Stalin, Hitler and Goebbels,” Vamos acknowledges, “but it’s a term that can also be associated with subaltern voices in media that serve a political agenda.”

Pleased to media: propagandist Igor Vamos. Photo by John Whipple.

Vamos is therefore comfortable with the term to typify his work as a media artist. “It clarifies part of the practice I’m engaged in, which is creating media events, or creating spin with a political agenda,” he explains. “It’s unabashedly political; there’s no notion of objectivity associated with it.”

Though Vamos’ work is by definition and design both political and subjective, he says he attempts to shy away from shallowly or narrowly reactive commentary. He prefers to explore the means and methods by which information is disseminated—using them to his own ends—and the ways in which societal structures come to bear on the message received. He prefers to leave his projects open-ended, metaphorically phrasing his findings in the form of questions:

“Unlike a lot of left critiques of media and power, I don’t think the people within the infrastructure necessarily are trying to promote the agendas of the owners, though there may be editorial controls and self-policing that makes things like that happen. . . . It’s just that there aren’t that many activist organizations that are equipped to produce stories at the volume and the scale and with the legitimacy that business can produce the stories. Those are the sorts of practices that I’m interested in: How activist organizations and groups that want to be critical of politics and culture can create stories at the scale that these large companies and PR companies can.”

The most famous such event that Vamos orchestrated was the Barbie Liberation Organization, a project in which a fictional guerrilla cell of children’s toys was depicted “revolting against the companies who made [them]” by “carrying out corrective surgery on [them]selves” to counter the sexist roles imposed on them by their corporate manufacturers.

“In the early ’90s, Mattel came out with the Teen Talk Barbie Doll that said, ‘Math is hard,’ ” Vamos recalls. “They were already creating these superloaded gendered toys, but there’s a difference when it gains a voice. Barbie might already have been shocking as a symbol to someone who’d never seen one before, but when you finally hear it say something like ‘Math is hard,’ that really set people off, people who had not previously been conscious of it.”

Though Mattel did pull the “math is hard” Barbie from shelves in the face of significant public outcry, most notably from feminist and teachers’ groups, Vamos had already been instigated to action by the almost comically offensive vapidity of the doll.

“I began thinking of other things she could say,” he says. “And she could say, of course, anything, because you could outfit her with a recording chip. . . . Recordable chips, which were available at Radio Shack at the time, were kind of expensive and held just a little clip, but I discovered that there was a talking G.I. Joe as well. The reversal seemed appropriate because at the same time, G.I. Joe was saying just as absurd things, just in the opposite direction: He said things like, ‘Dead men tell no lies,’ and made machine-gun noises.”

So, with the assistance of a network of friends and collaborators, Vamos instituted a nationwide “shop-giving” (the opposite of shoplifting) campaign: “The idea was to purchase the toys everywhere around the country, do the surgeries on them, switch the voices, then put them back on the store shelves for people to buy a second time. It was a synchronized effort, so they’d end up on the shelves at the same time and, presumably, they would be opened on Christmas day.”

The BLO’s timing was right on, and as they had thoughtfully provided consumers with contact numbers for local and national media outlets rather than the standard product literature, news spread quickly. Children displaying G.I. Joes that breathily giggled, ‘Cheerleading is fun,’ and Barbies that huffed with steely resolve, ‘Vengeance is mine,’ were featured on evening news programs from Boston to San Diego, on local affiliates as well as on the major network broadcasts.

Vamos says that though there was a “trajectory of response from anger to excitement,” most people responded favorably to the humorous aspect of the project; and that while it may be unlikely that anyone was changed fundamentally, the project successfully forced an important public conversation about gender politics.

“It wasn’t pointing out anything new,” he says. “It was just pointing out existing things, it was highlighting something. It is didactic, but the didactic layer is not the level of interface with the viewer. The person that gets this toy, or sees the Barbie on TV saying ‘Dead men tell no lies,’ they’re not being told outright that they should be more feminist; they’re being presented with the object in its original state, but with a switch, and being asked to make a decision based on the evidence. It’s not saying, ‘This is what you should think’; it’s saying, ‘Look at this.’ ”

In the ensuing years, other politically motivated organizations, culture jammers interested in using the promotional techniques of mass-culture consumerism in a struggle against that same system, have utilized similar strategies to call attention to the effects of corporatization and globalization—albeit in more leading, unambiguous ways. For example, in the pages of publications such as Adbusters, which specializes in detournment—the alteration and manipulation of corporate imagery and advertisement in order to expose its alleged evils—a reader can find provocative and often funny reinterpretations of popular ad campaigns: In a cologne ad mocking Calvin Klein, a hairy potbellied male torso is presented—rather than the de rigeur lithe and denuded boy model—beneath the bannner “Reality for Men.” Another, a takeoff of the Gap series featuring celebrities of the past in chinos, boasts “Hitler wore khakis.”

For his part, Vamos finds much of this style of criticism heavy-handed and misguided.

Children displaying G.I. Joes that breathily
giggled, ‘Cheerleading is fun,’ and Barbies that
huffed with steely resolve, ‘Vengeance is mine,’
were featured on evening news programs.

“I haven’t been as concerned with that type of criticism as Adbusters or other culture-jamming interests, because there’s this way that kind of critique can backfire,” he explains. “Most people don’t want to be told that they aren’t aware, that they’re being manipulated. If they like to watch TV, they like to watch TV, you know? It seems like the power is more complex than that. That kind of subvertising, we’ll call it, subverting advertisement with the idea that it’s a pedagological exercise that helps people become aware of advertising, that it gets them media literate, has its limitations. I just find that way too facile and confusing. It’s like, ‘Hitler? Gap?’ It’s just stupid. I’m sorry, but it really is. Now, to say that the Gap corporation has some fascist tendencies or to say that the effects of their activities are similar to, say, the repercussions of Hitler’s government is not entirely inaccurate, but if you can’t be more specific then you run the risk of alienating people for no reason.”

He concludes, with a laugh, “If you’re gonna use Hitler, you’ve got to have the right context for it. You’ve got to save Hitler.”

This is not to suggest that Vamos advocates a kid-gloves policy. Sometimes, he contends, it’s appropriate to goad, and be informative when the bait is taken.

“There are plenty of tactical media projects that rely on that antagonism, the antagonism of a large corporate brute to launch a story,” he says. “One good example would be They put up a Web site, a satirical Web site about George W. Bush, and it would have been just one of thousands, except the Bush campaign singled them out and sent out a cease-and-desist letter, and complained to the FCC, and tried to put them out of business. As a result, they were able to go directly to the press with it, with a very threatening legal letter, and show them that the Bush campaign was moving to try to stomp out criticism. . . . If they hadn’t prosecuted, nobody would’ve been paying attention. But it became a struggle over that information, and that’s what made that story happen.”

‘It is possible that it was successful in showing what an idiot he is,” says Ray Thomas, spokesman for RTMark, the organization behind the Web site. “On the other hand, when Bush got on TV and said [of the site’s creator], ‘This guy is just a garbage man; there ought to be limits on freedom,’ maybe he was doing that on purpose. Maybe his handlers told him this is the way to appeal to a certain block of voters who love to hear that kind of talk. Maybe we actually served him. You never can tell.”

Speaking by phone from his home in Paris, American expatriate Thomas cites the difficulty of evaluating or quantifying the degree of success achieved by subvertising, tactical media operations, or any other form of indirect action. Despite the high regard of Vamos and others in the “field” for the work of this loose, decentralized group, to hear Thomas speak, it sounds as if RTMark, which operates as a type of publicity machine-cum-agent provocateur on behalf of the anti- corporate set, may be suffering something of an identity crisis. In the past, RTMark publicly touted its existence as an incorporated entity and the attendant limited liability from any prosecution that might result from the pranks it promotes at its Web site (offering a $200 reward, for example, to anyone who hacks into a mainstream news media’s Web site and posts an article by Michael Moore critical of President Bush). In so doing, they hoped to illustrate the means by which corporations habitually use the legal system to evade responsibility for their own actions; now, however, Thomas wonders if such bulletins are needed.

“The real function of RTMark is to publicize the abuses that are committed all the time by corporations—of democracy and of trust; to publicize the way corporations operate,” he says. “Of course, now it’s much less necessary for that, because it’s pretty widely known, thanks to Enron and various other things, the way things work. For example, almost everybody knows the pending, possible war in Iraq is strictly a corporate thing, strictly for financial reasons, whereas with the first Gulf War, it was a fringe element.”

Thomas says that increasing global awareness of the negative consequences of corporitization has been surprisingly rapid and has worked on several fronts.

“It’s been a cumulative process punctuated by watershed moments,” he claims. “Ever since the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, we in the First World have noticed that there’s a significant and visible unease with the way corporations have been directing the world. Of course, it’s been in the Third World for a quite a long time, this kind of protest, and many demonstrators have been killed; but since Seattle, and later Genoa, where the first First World protester was shot, there’s been a growing public awareness of the dissent against the corporate regime. And with the Enron thing, you’ve got the average Joe in the street—not just the professional protester—realizing that they’re being robbed blind by these corporations. People realize that Enron was not the exception but pretty much the rule.”

The inspired absurdity of the projects RTMark endorses (encouraging lacrosse or jai alai teams to attend protests to protect demonstrators by catching and returning tear gas canisters, or replicating U.S. foreign policy by dropping food bombs on impoverished American communities), still has its place in Thomas’ heart, though:

“I’d say it’s a mission,” he says. “The essential aim of any activism should be either to mobilize people—like a union organizing to fight for basic living standards—or to educate people. I’d say we’re just on educational side of things, just trying to communicate a message as widely as possible, and, yeah, humor is really useful for that.”

But as for the ability of parody, satire or pranksterism to bring about lasting changes in policy, Thomas is pragmatic:

“In some cases it can end up that way, that you can make your point clearly enough in smart enough way,” he says. “But it’s not really an overall kind of real solution that we’re pushing towards. In individual cases it works great, but it’s not an overall answer to anything.

“RTMark is elliptical, a little bit,” he continues. “It’s a wink-wink thing. I think at this point, things are so out of control—you have this imperial power now in America, it could almost be called a dictatorship—it calls for more direct response. Anything elliptical or metaphorical is not really necessary now.”

Vamos still considers himself a tactical media practitioner, a propagandist, though the Barbie Liberation Organization has been quiet of late. Currently, he’s working on a project with the Center for Land Use Interpretation developing a “random-access multi-media machine,” which is basically a laptop, a Global Positioning System and an old Crown Victoria, that allows a viewer to trigger artworks (audio and image) displayed on an in-dash computer by driving to “tagged” positions, thereby activating the physical world, imbuing it with new meaning.

When it’s mentioned that the political component of this project seems obscure, Vamos points out that it shares motivation with the work of the BLO.

“It’s a kind of literacy,” he says. “It’s enhancing the legibility of certain things, in this case it might be the landscape. It does it by reassigning certain signs and symbols, or by creating an interpretive layer that allows you to see those things differently. Just like the idea of switching voice boxes in the toys was that it made what wasn’t immediately apparent extremely visible.

“That’s the advantage of tactical media: its flexibility,” he explains. “It becomes one approach that can slip through cracks that other forms of activism can’t; but then again, it can’t do things that other approaches can. It’s much more important to have actual social movements that have agency and effectiveness and membership, that have dedicated people who will show up at a street protest. And it’s even more important to have legal groups like the ACLU that are pounding away at the legal system to make sure the doors don’t close on civil liberties. Tactical media projects attach themselves to social movements, but it doesn’t work the other way around. You can’t start a social movement out of a tactical media project.”

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