|by Austin Bunn
|First the Barbie Liberation Organization was awarded $3000 after swapping
the electronic voice boxes in some hundred GI Joe and Barbie dolls so that
the GI Joe figures mewed, ''I love school--don't you?'' and Barbie barked,
''Dead men tell no lies!'' Later, a programmer was paid $5000 for inserting
scenes of homoerotic cavorting into SimCopter, a macho slaughterfest computer
Like a MacArthur Foundation for aesthetic anarchy, ®TMark (www.paranoia.com/~rtmark) is an elusive activist organization that has funded more than 20 acts of ''creative subversion'' since its inception five years ago. The group, supported by money from unnamed donors, refers to itself warmly as ''Satan's Temp Agency.'' But while many of its projects have been guerrilla attacks, ®TMark's newest effort, a 13-tune CD of ''very illegal'' resamplings of alternative icon Beck, is the first commercial product ®TMark has backed--and the lawyers are already calling.
Deconstructing Beck, released last week and sold only through e-mail, was produced by Dartmouth grad student ''Philo T. Farnsworth'' (the name of the inventor of the television) and released on his indie label Illegal Art (detritus.net/ illegalart/). "Farnsworth'' created the disc using $5000 from ®TMark plus his own credit cards, and pressed 10,000 copies, which go for $5 a pop.
As legally dodgy as it may be, the disc is effectively an homage to Beck's own musical vulturing. One of rock's preeminent song scavengers, Beck himself samples extensively, but legally. The tracks on Deconstructing Beck, composed by artists and technicians from the underground bootleg circuit, are recombinant pastiches of his original hits. One piece by ''Jane Dowe'' takes the first half of Beck's song ''Jackass,'' from the album Odelay, cuts it into 2500 pieces, and reshuffles the order. For ''Farnsworth,'' the disc is intended as an affront to the bureaucratic strictures of sampling law. ''I want to challenge the notion that what I am doing is illegal,'' he said. ''I'm not trying to cause a media ruckus.''
But for ®TMark, the foofaraw is exactly the point. As the vociferously ideological side of the operation, ®TMark hopes the disc will ''call attention to the stranglehold that corporations have on our souls,'' said an anonymous ®TMark source, who spoke through a voice distortion device. So why Beck, the humble prince of the junkyard? ''Although there's plenty in Beck to make intelligent people listen to him, almost all Beck consumption is predicated on trendiness and conspicuousness,'' replied the spokesperson. ''He's a terrific artist, but a product is a product.''
In the war against the trademark symbol and copyright laws, ''Farnsworth'' and his cohorts have countered product revulsion with more product--what Gareth Branwyn, author of Jamming the Media, calls ''postmodern folk art.'' ''In a world where we are constantly bombarded by corporate culture,'' Branwyn asked in an interview, ''why can't we take the detritus and make art out of it?'' Not surprisingly, the Illegal Art Web site is hosted by detritus.net, a resource site dedicated to resurrecting ''cultural garbage'' and promoting ''media-tweaks.''
Deconstructing Beck itself is the latest in a line of risky culture-jamming through music. Most notably, in 1991 the band Negativland (negativland.com) put out a single entitled U2 that includes a hefty sample of ''I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.'' The single was taken out of circulation after a lawsuit.
Illegal Art's disc may be just the prelude to bigger, more ambitious acts of subversion by ®TMark and others. On March 1, the Foundation for Convulsive Beauty will announce the winner of its $20,000 Gilbert N. Kelly Award, given to the ''best act of creative subversion'' (e-mail fcb@MailMasher.com for rules). ''Consumer terrorist organization'' Decadent Action has scheduled World Phone In Sick Day for April 6. And ®TMark's site has a list of other funded projects just waiting for applicants. The groups stress the benign nature of their pranks--no physical injury or fundamental damage to a company's bottom line.
Meanwhile, ''Farnsworth'' just wants to recoup his costs. ''It'd be nice to get a little bit into the plus,'' he said.
|This document last modified Tuesday, February 24, 1998, 3:22 PM EST.|