A new form of street theater is messing up traffic on the information superhighway
Here's how: Let's say you're a slave in a cubicle somewhere who happens on rtmark.com while surfing one day on the corporate dime. Among the things you'll find posted is a list of 'projects' looking for seed money, including the acts of digital monkey-wrenching at which RTMark excels. Their unique 'mutual funds' allow people to invest in these outrageous, legally dubious ventures while remaining anonymous and out of jail--just like real mutual funds! That's partly the point. Certain funds even have celebrity managers such as NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu (Media Fund) and cyberculture critic DJ Spooky (Frontier Fund).
RTMark's first attention-grabbing action came in 1993 when it helped the so-called Barbie Liberation Organization switch the voice boxes of over 300 Barbie and GI Joe dolls for sale in stores. Since then, the group has had a sporadic string of successes. One was a biting parody page, gwbush.com, which sprang up when the presidential contender's staff forgot to register domain names similar to the campaign's official site, georgewbush.com. A fierce rebuke from Bush's lawyers transformed a forgettable prank into an instant media sensation and an Internet hot spot.
According to RTMark's chief financial officer, Frank Guerrero, the group got the same response--a cease and desist order--when it released Deconstructing Beck, an album composed of remixed sound samples taken from the pop star's work. Beck is a notorious sampler himself, but he pays for his lifted riffs; the RTMark album was a protest against a practice that, in their view, bars anyone without big money from working in the vital modern art form of musical collage. More recently, RTMark came to the aid of a small Swiss art site, Etoy.com, when the newer eToys online toy merchandiser tried to big-foot them out of their domain name. RTMark organized a massive protest that had thousands clogging the online toy dealer's site with bogus requests last year at Christmastime.
RTMark's first line of defense is surely familiar to their targets out there in the global economy. In 1997, amidst the national frenzy over e-business start-ups, RTMark launched a public offering of its own, emerging as an official corporation, complete with a sleek new Web site. As Guerrero explains, the group wanted not only to hold up a funhouse mirror to the profit-driven world they hope to disrupt, but also to use their new corporate status as legal protection. The strategy was to 'provide a corporate umbrella' for its projects, Guerrero says, while 'absorbing some of the liability and displacing it from the workers and the funders.' (Like the names of other RTMark principals, 'Guerrero' is a pseudonym.)
If media attention is both the tool and the litmus test of the successful theatrical prank, then, by all appearances, RTMark is doing well. The 'cultural dividends' produced by the group's projects may be more symbolic than actual, but don't let that fact distract from the seriousness of the organization's mission or the importance of comedic, satirical actions as part of a larger social movement.
RTMark 'complements what might be considered the more respectable traditions of the new left,' says Guerrero. If, as many have said, the current wave of protests against corporate greed is a renaissance of '60s activism, then RTMark may be the Abbie Hoffman of our digital era.
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