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Interview with ®TMark

Richard Barbeau

Archée has interviewed Ernest Lucha, one of five members of the activist group ®TMark, about ®TMark's participation in the 2000 Whitney Biennial. As we know, ®TMark, which was invited to take part in the new Internet section of the Biennial, unexpectedly (and against the rules of the contract) diverted visitors at the Whitney to a special Web page that sequentially shows hundreds of sites - freely submitted, always accepted. It is an alternative Whitney Biennial, in the middle of the "real" Whitney Biennial. As a spokesperson, Ernest Lucha describes for us the unique mode of action of the group. He also shares with politically concerned artists ®TMark's very pragmatic approach to social action outside of museums - for as Lucha says, how can we change the world from the closed realm of art institutions?

? : First of all, how would you describe ®TMark's activities?

®TMark : ®TMark is a brokerage that permits anonymous investors to fund sabotage projects that publicize the corporate abuse of democracy in some way. We use our limited liability as a U.S. corporation to free investors from the legal and ethical responsibilities of funding actions such as these - actions which, like many corporate behaviours, can result in human, environmental, social, cultural, psychological, economic, or other damage to the biosphere. Such damage can occur accidentally, or even in the pursuit of profit.

Of course, as decent, pleasant people (like most in the corporate world), we hope that the actions we sponsor will only lead to greater profit, and no damage to anything. Who wants damage? But ®TMark, like any corporation, is a machine and a separate entity, it has its own rules, and our wishes are not allowed to interfere in its bottom-line functioning.

One note on "profit": the primary difference between ®TMark and other corporations is that we define profit differently. For other corporations, the bottom-line drive is financial profit, that's all they can aim for. For us, it's *cultural profit* - which we define as the publicizing of corporate abuses of democracy.

One other small but important difference: unlike other corporations, ®TMark draws the behavioural line at human damage. We will not support projects, no matter how profitable they are likely to be, that have a high risk of hurting humans, physically. This is just an arbitrary line we have drawn. We hope we can hold it and that we are not sued by our investors for it...

? : This notion of "limited liability" seems to be important here. In what does it consist? And what is your criticism of it?

®TMark : Yes indeed, the concept of "limited liability" is an essential cornerstone of corporate power, along with their status in the U.S. as "natural persons" - that's a whole other interesting story you can read about at length in the Poclad site, for example.

"Limited liability" is essentially freedom from responsibility. With corporate "limited liability" protection, one can do many things without full financial or legal responsibility for what happens. The corporation, that entity, takes on that responsibility itself. Of course it cannot be punished.

In the early days of the U.S., the concept was invented so that public works projects like harbours could be built and if someone perished during their construction, as was somewhat likely to happen, the director of the project would not be thrown in jail. If this protection didn't exist, no one would undertake the project, or so it was thought.

This is a very crude description of this principle. Suffice it to say that a protection engineered for the public welfare has been expanded to permit types of activity that are not so concerned with the public good. People still often say that "limited liability" is necessary for today's corporations, and that without it nothing would get done and capitalism would grind to a standstill. Others say capitalist competition and vitality would benefit from elimination of this principle. Who knows? All that is certain is that it permits some criminal behaviours on a truly gargantuan scale, and with practically no retribution.

"Corporate crime" is a little attempt we made last year, speaking for Candidate Bush, to come up with an alternative to "limited liability." It's a bit of a "modest proposal" but not really - something along these lines, drawn up by experts, would certainly be effective and interesting.

? : You enumerate four keys to any successful project: the worker, the sponsor, the product, and the idea. Could you elaborate on these conditions and illustrate them with a recent project?

®TMark : I quote from "A System for Change" on, describing the so-called "SimCopter hack":

A stripper, who played action games and knew that Maxis, Inc. was beginning work on its first such, put forth the idea: that someone add very visible homoerotic content to this new game.  Thus the product and idea blanks were filled first. An unemployed programmer liked the idea and declared his availability. Shortly after this a shop owner with activist leanings also fell in with a reward. The first programmer was unable to get himself hired at Maxis, and his name was removed from the worker blank; several other programmers volunteered and one of them, already at Maxis, was chosen based on his higher likelihood of success. At this point the project was launched. The programmer fulfilled the project idea by making swimsuit-clad men appear here and there and express their mutual affection in a very dramatic way; by the time Maxis, Inc. discovered this and fired the programmer, the game had been shipped all over the country. To make the "homoerotic content" more visible, the result was publicized in the media.
There are big variations. In the case of the "Secret Writers' Society hack", the programmer himself came up with the idea, and the funds were provided completely anonymously (we are not to say who provided them).

The website projects that we have done ourselves are entirely different - no one really funds them. A similar kind of cooperation occurs - people provide the domains and help with their development and maintenance - but ®TMark simply enlists the help of its associates to fulfill it, rather than sending out open calls via the project lists.

? : Your participation at the Whitney Biennial is also very different from this four-part system. And at the same time, it could be interesting to ask what might correspond, in this case, to the worker, the sponsor, the product, and the idea. Nevertheless, what is your relation with the art world? Why have you been chosen by the Whitney?

®TMark : We are always happy to gather new audiences. We have appealed to some very large audiences (CNN or CanalPlus viewers, AP or Die Zeit readers, etc.) and also to some very small ones - activist lawyers, copyright activists, and art people (curators, critics, artists).

Unlike our other micro-audiences, the art world is, in a way, all image - there is a great interest in the way things look, but of course almost no interest in the way those images influence the rest of the world. Our other micro-audiences (copyright activists, etc.), are almost entirely concerned with the way their things influence reality. But art people - qua art people, and they may have many different guises - are more interested with what the word "reality" means than in how to affect it. Another way of saying this is that once you enter a museum, you find that your head has become a "museum head," and all things become acceptable and interesting - and also completely unable to shock you and thus affect you deeply.

So our involvement in the art world has had to be parasitic. We are of course very happy that the art world likes us - the publicity sometimes reaches people who then become involved in our enterprise, there is occasionally a bit of money to be received for lectures or whatever, and of course it simply feels good to our human egos to be written about and praised and all that. But it is much, much, much more important that our other audiences continue to connect and understand our messages; in a purely pragmatic sense, this is about a million times more important than the receptivity of art audiences.

Still, when we speak to art audiences, we do try to do a bit more than make money - we try to communicate that it is essential for artists who would be activists, who would have an effect on the world, to pay precious little attention to the gallery and museum scenes, to be as purely parasitic as possible, and to aim their production at the real world. And that doesn't mean sculptures in the open air.... We aim all our art-related production - e.g. our Whitney site, which is all any visitor at the Whitney can see of - at conveying this message: it's about the only message we can convey, because informing museum visitors of the problems of corporate power, or of anything else of such a political, propagandistic nature, is about as sensible as wearing a ball gown to bed.

Not that artists shouldn't make art for museums - if their primary concern is not changing the world, but rather an aesthetic or spiritual project that does not depend on large numbers of viewers.

There are a good number of artists, increasing in number, who are realizing the futility of making political work for museums, and turning their efforts outside (La Fiambrera, from Spain, and Kommunikations Guerrilla, from Germany, are two excellent examples); and there are also some excellent curators who are permitting the hijack of their museum and gallery budgets for work outside of their institutions, aimed at real world effects. This is a very good situation, and will only get better with time.

? : So you put a lot of stress on relating to a large public in order to change things. But isn't the potential for this kind of dynamic present in all kind of realms? Don't you think, for instance, that there is still potential for change in a world in which all things are acceptable and interesting? Let's say that an artist feels anxious about the fact the Whitney Biennial is funded by corporations like France Telecom North America, and Reuters America - will he be still considered as acceptable and interesting by the Museum? In other words, is awareness of how artistic and cultural institutions work even possible?

®TMark : Of course it's possible. And museums don't tend to censor for reasons like that, I don't think, unless they're funded by corporations, in which case there is almost always a wink-nod censorship system firmly in place, or by individuals like Mrs. Whitney who have no problem censoring art quite explicitly. Generally the people who direct museums and curate art are adventurous, intelligent people who consider their actions and their actions' ramifications, and are eager to explore deeper levels, to whatever level practical considerations allow. That's why they're in the field.

Our concern isn't whether it's possible, but whether it's powerful. An artist can spend a great deal of time justly criticizing the museum and other cultural institutions, pointing out how terrible they are - perhaps most interestingly these days, how they're compromised at every turn by their reliance on extremely dirty corporate money, for example. This can make for some very good, intelligent art, which is a very excellent goal in itself.

But if the point is to change things, then one has to question its power. In a best-case scenario, perhaps these criticisms will result in the institution improving a bit - perhaps the director will discover that there is in fact enough government money available that the museum no longer has to take money from corporations or from individuals. (Of course this would be a strange discovery - there in fact isn't any government money, that's why museums take corporate money and charge for admission, except when the noblesse oblige of the corporate sponsors takes care of the admission charge, and everyone cheers the noblesse, and no one remembers that a few years ago all museums were free anyhow.... It's like bemoaning the stock market's fall by saying college tuition won't be payable now, and forgetting that the stock market is, in a way, the reason college costs so damn much!).

So perhaps an artist who focuses on the institution could actually change something about the way that institution works. It's doubtful, but perhaps possible. The question then becomes, does it matter, in any real sense? Can that lesson, that the institution has learned from the artist, spread out beyond the institution and affect anything bigger than this extremely rarefied environment? I think that this question is the same as for any other artwork: can something within a museum affect the outside world? And unless one is of a mystical bent, one would have to say no.

Unless, of course, some lunatic like Jesse Helms or Rudy Giuliani takes note of the exhibit and decides to give it a bunch of free publicity by attacking it. Then, everyone wins! But try to think of a work of art that affected things like that without being attacked.... And there are certainly some easier ways of getting idiots like that to react. The news media are full of people who are just itching to report things that will get idiots like that to react. You have thousands and thousands of eager collaborators.

Once again, we don't think art in the art context is pointless or uninteresting - 100% on the contrary! Art and the support for making it, for museums or anywhere else, is one of the things - like good education for all, like good health care for all - that are absolutely essential for a civilization to be considered civilized. But it is also possible for artists to work outside the walls and constructs of the museum, and that's when the work can become not only intellectually and spiritually exciting, but politically so as well. The efficacious side adds a whole dimension that's beautiful in itself - look at Fiambrera. We're the furthest thing from art critics, but it sure strikes us as beautiful.

? : On the other hand, the situation in which we actually find ourselves would seem to be quite new, in the sense that the contemporary art world is not totally closed in on itself, now that it is expanding into cyberspace, a space that is shared by different types of culture (economic, social, political, etc.). Thinking about the idea of being a parasite, and your intervention in the framework of the Whitney Biennial as well, can we consider that there might be a new kind of effectiveness, one that would now be infectious?

®TMark : Yes! This is entirely possible. The medium does have that potential, and is used in this way by many people who might be considered artists at some point or other, and who may or may not consider themselves that. In this domain, the strength of the internet could be seen as the very things that some curators see as its problems: the fact that it is almost impossible to commodify and turn into a plaything for the very rich. The internet will always be a strange choice of mediums for anyone whose primary interest is in being an artist, rather than in something else.

For artists, the internet is a very poor canvas. Regular canvas is much better, and for those who want interactivity, CD-ROMs are much better. The only thing the internet offers is exposure - which is actually a hindrance to art, because the usual mechanisms of art thrive on restricted access, which permits pricing. But it's terrific for activists.

For activists, the internet is a really great telephone. That's all it is, but that's a lot. And just as activists have used the telephone to its full advantage - with phone trees, for example - so they are using the internet.

Of course corporations -  whose only aim is money and power - are also using this telephone to the fullest, but that's another story....

? : On the one hand, you compare the part you play as a matchmaker to the one of a curator and you attach an aesthetic - and also creative - value to the efficacy of an action (in Curation). On the other hand, the fact that a trademark (®TMark) has ended up in a museum exhibition may lead us to consider names of artists as trademarks as well, quoted on a stock exchange. We would have here examples of this idea of infection or contamination. Thus does the effectiveness of your work (especially the one at the Whitney) rest on the fact the museums and corporations aren't immunized at all against "parasites"? How could they immunize themselves?

®TMark : Well, the fact that ®TMark has ended up in a museum exhibition simply reflects the values of the museum, I think: whatever is outside it, whatever is beyond its borders and hence, in a very crude sense, sublime, the museum is interested in. It's actually a good deal more complicated than that, I'm sure, but we aren't art critics and can't really address such a question. My point is to say that no contamination of the museum is possible, because it's all contamination - the museum seeks to contaminate itself, constantly. And yes, ®TMark is shown in the art scenes because they love contamination, I suppose... or maybe it's something else.

Corporations, however, do not like to contaminate themselves. ®TMark has never been embraced by a corporation, to our knowledge.

Perhaps more interesting to us, as not-art-critics, is the question of what effectiveness means in each context. We talked a bit about that earlier - that in the art context, all we can hope to do is maybe communicate our idea of what is interesting to do, to those who might engage in such activities. Beyond that, our efficacy in the art context must be measured in dollars (U.S., please). We receive money, sometimes, to speak, and that's great, the money pays some of our operating expenses and sometimes, when specified, goes to specific projects like any other investment.

Regarding corporations, our efficacy can be only in the arena of public opinion, i.e. the media. Dealing with the corporations themselves - eToys, etc. - is of no interest to us. What I mean is that the ®TMark-eToys interaction, for example, is not intended to "speak" to eToys, or to influence eToys, or to influence anyone who works there - except insofar as that results in media attention.

In other words, there is absolutely no benefit to "dialoguing" with corporations. They are really, really perverse beings, who have one and only one thing on their minds: money. You cannot improve them. You cannot turn them into "responsible citizens." You can attack them, but they will simply morph into something else - they will adapt their marketing to absorb your criticisms, etc. The only reason to interact with corporations is if there results from that interaction some real-world effect: media attention, leading to greater public awareness, leading to enlightened legislation (that's our theory).

I might even dare to say that dealing with art institutions is the same. Why bother attacking them unless you can really make a profound statement that could lead, at some distant point in time, to reform of not just a museum (who cares!), of not just the entire worldwide network of museums (who cares!), but rather of institutions in general. Better to just use them for what they're worth (mostly, dollars or marks or whatever) and focus attention on the real world.



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Cette publication a été rendue possible grâce au soutien financier d'Hexagram, du groupe de recherche des arts médiatiques (GRAM), de la Faculté des arts de l'UQAM, de la Chaire du Canada en esthétique et poétique de l'UQÀM (CEP), ainsi qu'à une subvention, pour une quatorzième année consécutive, du Conseil des arts du Canada (CAC).