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 game.
Like a MacArthur Foundation for aesthetic anarchy, ®ark (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, ®ark's newest effort, a 13-tune CD of "very illegal" resamplings of alternative icon Beck, is the first commercial product ®ark 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. Farnworth" (the name of the inventor of the television) and released on his indie label Illegal Art (detritus.net/ illegalart/). "Farnworth" created the disc using $5000 from ®ark 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 "Farnworth," 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 ®ark, the foofaraw is exactly the point. As the vociferously ideological side of the operation, ®ark hopes the disc will "call attention to the stranglehold that corporations have on our souls," said an anonymous ®ark 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.com, 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 ®ark 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 ®ark'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.
Addressing the Problem
For Web surfers, domain names have long been as much a crapshoot as a corporate front door. But on February 25, Network Solutions Inc. (NSI), the organization that has exclusive control over the registration of domain names, will implement its revised Domain Name Dispute Policy, effectively removing itself from any quarrels over fractious URLs. But the barriers to clarity and common sense may only increase.
Which isn't to say that the Net wasn't woolly to begin with. In some strange permutation of its "brand," Wired Digital currently owns the rights to lenin.com and nakedpeople.com (among others), but chooses not to humiliate itself by using them. Typo.net reroutes unsuspecting surfers with poor typing skills to its own advertising sites (try "yaho.com"). And some URLs seem like specific attacks, or at least very tricky bait for newbies. A ruling two weeks ago by the Second U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a decision last year to keep Richard Bucci's antiabortion site, at plannedparenthood.com, offline because of the confusion he had caused (the original family planning organization is at plannedparenthood.org).
The issue, however, is far from solved. In one of the more flagrant recent abuses, jewsforjesus.org, a broadside against the missionary group Jews for Jesus (at jews-for-jesus.org, is still live. Launched in December, the simple site proclaims "Click here to learn more about...the Jews for Jesus cult" and directs users to a site run by Outreach Judaism. In a case currently being tried in New Jersey, Ron Coleman, the lawyer for the site's webmaster, claims that his client hasn't violated the trademark of the legitimate Jews for Jesus because that group uses a Star of David in its name instead of an o--a graphic element that can't be included in the domain name.
What's really missing here is an organized body to vet these issues--maybe the last thing we can expect to see. For the past five years, Network Solutions has controlled the domain-name registration, supported by exclusive contracts from the National Science Foundation. Like much else concerning the Net, the general philosophy has been laissez-faire. "We register names on a first-come, first-served basis," said Network Solutions spokesperson Cheryl Regan. "We don't get involved in the dispute process."
But the autocracy of Network Solutions is coming to an end. The Department of Commerce has proposed opening the system to the free market by March 31, letting users register their names through multiple competing services. Enough questions remain about that changeover that Network Solutions anticipates maintaining control until late this year.
For now, Network Solutions is staying out of the Jews for Jesus imbroglio, while the imposter site continues to redirect its share of pilgrims. According to Coleman, it's a matter of civil rights. "Where does First Amendment end and trademark begin?" he asked. "We're just looking for order."
Signal and Noise
Kudos to RBI: Small World Sports, a spin-off from Small World Software, has launched a volunteer information site (harlemrbi.com) for baseball-and-mentorship nonprofit Harlem RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities). The company has developed a program to draft East Harlem kids into Web design....EThe Tao of MSFT: A brilliant list of haikus from the "Microsoft Poet operating system" trafficked the Net last week. A sampling: "Wind catches lily/scatt'ring petals to the wind/segmentation fault" and the more tragic "With searching comes loss/and the presence of absense/'My Novel' not found."
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