By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
No security in sight. At 3 a.m., Central Park's upscale haunted house, the Dakota, was boarded up tight behind iron gates, just as Hocus Focus, the underground art action group, had imagined. They circled the block in the getaway car. This was a highly symbolic détournement an act of cultural distortion in the style of the Situationists. Not only were they plotting to liberate John and Yoko from corporate bondage, but to do it right where Yoko, who'd willingly sold herself and John, was sure to see it. Not to mention Steve Jobs, the Pied Piper himself, who was rumored to have a Dakota pied-à-terre. The target was Apple's award-winning "Think Different" campaign, which uses stark, romantic black-and-white photographs of some of the world's most unorthodox creative geniuses to sell product.
With a writer as lookout and a theater director piloting the escape car, an artist code-named Swimming Horse began slapping wallpaper paste on the Dakota's pristine brownstone. Up went Hocus Focus's poster version of the Apple campaign's John and Yoko ad the famous photo of the pajama-clad pair in their flower-power bed. Hocus Focus had blacked out the "Different" (leaving "Think") and added "Imagine lovers are not hucksters." The Apple logo had been chomped of its juicy fruit.
This time, Hocus Focus dispensed with the press release (headlined "It Could Have Been William Tell") that they'd sent out after earlier actions in San Francisco and L.A. The mainstream media couldn't care less. And the group found the alternative press so jaded that, as one SF Weekly editor put it, "We have a rule: no more billboard stories." Only San Francisco's anarchist paper Live Wild or Die had given them ink a big spread with photos of their first actions, the détournement of gigantic "Think Different" Bob Dylan and Amelia Earhart billboards on Nob Hill and near the Bay Bridge.
The group's Situationist roots prepared them to make an end run around media blackout. "Four hundred thousand commuters come past that billboard every morning," Swimming Horse told Hawkeye and Climber after the taggers had scaled the five-story image of Amelia on Highway 101 to post the assertion that ". . . no product is a hero." Talking directly to people without the mediation of the media nicely replicated their message about not living through expropriated images.
Hocus Focus doesn't deny the "Think Different" campaign has been a huge popular success that's why they believe it's important to target it. Apple adsters TBWA Chiat/Day's feel for boomer icons is right on the money. Most reaction to the campaign has been delight that counterculture heroes are being celebrated. "But think how much great publicity this gives the Tibetan cause," one artist friend told a Hocus Focuser, shocked that the group had papered New York's Tibet House with a poster of Apple's Dalai Lama ad altered to read "Marketing Is Censorship." Featured geniuses (or their estates) were apparently only too glad to go along, though Jacques Cousteau's widow refused to let her husband's image be used by Apple. (As it turned out, the Dalai Lama thinks a little too differently for Apple. Worried about angering the Chinese government and shutting off the world's biggest market, Apple pulled the Tibetan leader from their Asia campaign.)
But Hocus Focus isn't just a "counter" group like the Billboard Liberation Front, which specializes in wiseacre billboard alterations. (Still, Hocus Focus was delighted when, after Apple blacked out their slogan on Amelia in San Francisco, BLF hit her a second time, posting "Doomed" on the billboard.) Hocus Focus's détournements are often deliberately puzzling "open meanings" that challenge people to think (if not differently).
When the group papered Wall Street the night before the Yankee ticker-tape parade, they riffed on their brand of culture jamming. Paste was flying as their Gandhi poster with its message, "Corporate colonization of the unconscious" was slapped up on the stock exchange and the group dodged cops and security men. Like Apple, Hocus Focus sees many of the figures in the "Think Different" campaign as heroic creators. But to Hocus Focus, using these heroes as "savage appliance hucksters" strips them of their cultural potency. They aren't simply co-opted, but become dead to us. "We are in a constant energy exchange with archetypal figures like these with whom we engage to orient ourselves psychologically. The morphing of these figures into retail salespeople creates direct psychic disorientation within us," argues one of the group's mission statements, in their heady brew of Jung, Marcuse, and Debord.
In the nights that followed, Hocus Focus drifted through the city to J. Crew and Smith & Hawken in Soho, to the imposing Miles Davis billboard on 23rd Street, to the Voice and the Public Theater off Astor Place. Their mission persists, in the hands of local sympathizers in the East Village and Ludlow Street and on the Internet at www.hocusfocus.org, where the group's work can be viewed, downloaded, and (eventually) détourned.