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October 7, 2013 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Abuse of Power Comes as No Refrigerator Do

Surprise, surprise, something weird happened on the internet last week. Or rather, a weird internet thing that had been happening for 1259 days came to a pretty unceremonious conclusion. On 24 September, it was revealed that two particularly enigmatic internet presences, Horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Book, were part of a long-running performance art piece.

Pronunciation Book began posting videos to YouTube in 2010, ostensibly as an English pronunciation guide for non-native speakers. Initially, the videos appeared innocuous and well-intentioned, usually between ten and 30 seconds long; at times, words were specifically relevant to popular vernacular (“How to Pronounce Quvenzhane”, “How to Pronounce Niall Horan”), at times a more general spread. Three months ago, Pronunciation Book began a series of ominous countdown videos. Starting with a promise of, “something is going to happen in 77 days”, the videos grew progressively longer, featuring cryptic passages, at times forming an oblique narrative—day 34 features a narrator listing “objects that [he] had moved with [his] hands that day”.

The internet thus did what it does best, espousing wild conspiracy theories, dissecting every second of every video posted during the last three years. Someone put the high-pitched noise that appeared at the end of each video through a spectrogram, which revealed an image of a suited, headless man pointing towards the viewer. Beyond that, however, no one came close to figuring it out.

On the day of revelation, Pronunciation Book posted a video explaining how to pronounce Horse_books, followed by a woman speaking directly to camera, who introduces a “man named Dalton”.

“Dalton is dangerous. He is rich, he is strong, and he is going to crash the stock markets.”

We’ll come back to Dalton.

Horse_ebooks, which since 2009 has posted contextless half-sentence excerpts from obscure ebooks (initially exclusively about horses), posted a phone number on the same day. The number was traced to an address in Manhattan, which was also listed in the video’s description. The address turned out to be Fitzroy Gallery in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. For 11 hours on 24 September, Jacob Bakkila, who operated Horse_ebooks, and Thomas Bender, the man behind Pronunciation Book, answered phones and spouted non-sequiturs followers of Horse_ebooks had grown used to.

The internet was pissed. But sizable pockets of the internet were anticipating Pronunciation Book’s climax to be the announcement of a new season of Battlestar Galactica, so I have little sympathy for them.

Jacob Bakkila, who is also Buzzfeed’s creative director, acquired the Horse_ebooks account from Alexei Kuznetsov in 2011. Kuznetsov operated the feed using a spambot as a means of publicising products. Bakkila assures that after purchasing, he operated the account manually, impersonating the bot’s posting pattern by posting a new snippet roughly every two hours. In an interview with Vice, he cites Jenny Holzer as an influence, and goes on to draw a comparison between himself and Sam Hsieh, a New York–based performance artist whose endurance pieces, lasting up to a year, featured the repetition of simple acts like punching a time clock, on the hour, every hour.

The man named Dalton, it turns out, is part of an interactive video project, a kind of choose-your-own-adventure story, which serves as the next stage of the project. The video is shot on cheap, antiquated equipment; a decision, the pair says, that acts as homage to the interactive CD-ROMs of the 1990s. The player takes on the role of financial regulator, and is tasked with reigning in Dalton from destroying the global economy, turning the work, according to Bakkila, into an exercise in mythologising the 2008 financial collapse.

Are you keeping up? Me neither.

For a work so meticulously executed, there seems something improvised about it. The work is so sprawling, and from the unlikeliest of sources, that the reaction from anyone other than the aforementioned angry internet-dudes is something closer to incredulity. It should, however, be remembered that Horse_ebooks’ unintentionally philosophical jabbering appealed to a corner of the internet who ardently refuse to be taken seriously. Thus, the sense of indignation about being asked to consider a work of art by the creative director of Buzzfeed, a website whose irreverent, easily digestible, GIF-laden lists are considered a shining example of our ever-shrinking attention spans. Granted, I probably could have called this article 15 Reasons Not to Take Jason Bakkila Seriously and you may have enjoyed yourself more.

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