Is there anything mysterious remaining in cyberspace, anything beautiful and unknown left in the wake of the mainstreaming of the internet? One hopes so.
That hope drove the popularity of Horse_ebooks
, a Twitter feed whose ostensibly-automated clickbank spam seemed to form, over time, a kind of robotic poetry.
Whether or not a bot could be an artist was just the right sort of question for the social media age. Were Tweets like "I Will Make Certain You Never Buy Knives Again
" and "Crying is great exercise
" accidental brilliance from the mind of a machine, from some distant winking server lying unknown and undiscovered somewhere in Russia?
After two years, the mystery was solved: Horse_ebooks wasn't a bot. Since 2011 it's been the project of Jacob Bakkila, who ran the feed as a corollary to his longtime friend and colleague Tom Bender's Pronunciation Book
YouTube channel. "Horse_ebooks Has Been a Buzzfeed Exec Since 2011
," gloated the Gawker headline. "Human after all
," said a wistful-sounding New Yorker. The Daily Beast was much harsher, proclaiming Horse_ebooks "dead
The internet was angry, and several reactionary narratives emerged: Bakkila stole a pure, innocent bot's soul for some internet entrepreneurship. The pair just had to be the exact sort of "internet moguls" intent on smoothing out the kind of digital wrinkles that made an aberration like Horse_ebooks so special in the first place. They were making an alternate-reality game; it's been marketing all along.
Enter Bear Stearns Bravo - an FMV game
My friends were sharing petitions online
aimed at urging Bakkila to give "back" the Horse_ebooks account and let it be a bot again. A few days after the furore struck, Bender emailed me and said he thought the pair was being misunderstood: Bear Stearns Bravo
, the project to which Pronunciation Book and Horse_ebooks had always been leading was not an ARG, was not marketing, but art.
Do you believe business can be art? How about 1990s-style full-motion video adventure games with real actors, and all the awkward dissonance of a lost age?
Bakkila and Bender first worked together on a fictional tourism video documentary called "This is My Milwaukee
." On the project, which contained elements of the interactive and surreal, the pair became attracted to the conjunction of performance with business (the video purported to be commissioned by the Milkwaukee Tourism Commission, itself a fictional construct).
"A business is an abstract thing," Bender tells me over Skype. "You can interact with a business, by talking to its employees or by looking at its building... but you can't touch a business directly, because it's an intangible thing. With all these things we've done, with This is My Milwaukee and then later Horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Book, we've chosen a way to manifest that business that's different each time."
In other words, while Horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Book were abstract performance art, they also were, on a practical level, functioning businesses; the Twitter feed really did spam links, and the YouTube channel could gain followers and host ads. But Bender says all along, since 2009, the plan was that their individual projects would segue into Bear Stearns Bravo
But to Bender and Bakkila, art was always first: "That's what this fundamentally is: an art project that takes the form of these businesses," Bender says.
The Night Trap influence
In 2009, Bakkila sent bender a YouTube clip of Night Trap
, 1993's infamous high-camp interactive movie game. "It was amazing, and we felt the time was right to revive that medium which had been dropped in the mid-90s," Bender says.
They didn't know exactly how much time and production such an endeavor would take, he admits, although he knows the impractically-high time and cost investment of filming real actors for interactive games was part of what doomed the game industry's foray into the form back in its time. But although FMV games ultimately made for impractical design objects, Bender and Bakkila remained attracted to the odd emotional landscape they created.
"You're right in saying that to industry insiders, it felt like a vestigial thing, a wrong path that never worked out," Bender tells me. "On the other hand, there was something amazing about them aesthetically, the feel of them. Part of that was the time in our lives when we experienced them. CD-ROMs that had these 'adult games' on them, the controversy around it, and the feeling of seeing people in live action like that in a time when just looking at video on a computer was a novel thing. That's something we felt, emotionally, was really interesting."
And the sentiment of odd-toned "adult" video games had, to the pair, a resonance with the "high-finance nihilism" of the mid-2000s as personified through Bear Stearns, the failed Wall Street investment and securities firm that collapsed in 2008. "Something about the feeling of those games felt appropriate [to that]," says Bender. "The other piece was no one had really tried to do a large-scale interactive movie like that, with streaming video. Now we have YouTube, and the YouTube API, and its technically possible to build these things in a way it wasn't before."
"That's not to say we believe it's the future of gaming," he laughs. "This might be the last large-scale FMV game that gets made."
The interactive video game episodes that comprise Bear Stearns Bravo
are accompanied by BravoNET, a social network designed to emulate the clumsy, tangible structures of the early Prodigy and AOL-led internet. There is, when you look at it, a natural lead-in to the material from the surreal Horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Book, in that all three projects seem to explore the particular humanity in imperfect technology, and the dissonance that emerges when the mechanized touches the naturalistic.
"We would do all of this anonymously, if we could," Bender says. "I would prefer to have none of our names on anything, but I think we live in a time when that's just not possible. You can't escape the trail. But I think the feeling you're describing is what's interesting about it -- you have these anonymous 'business structures,' but when you look closely, there seems to be some kind of narrative. Not a step-by-step plot, but you can feel the emotional weight of the narrative in them. In this case, the narrative [of Horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Book] serves as a prequel to the events of Bear Stearns Bravo
. I don't want to talk about that too explicitly, because I think a lot of the pleasure for viewers is figuring that out on their own."
But the pair's over-arching strategy -- to reveal their beloved online robots as manned entities that lead into Bear Stearns Bravo
-- continues to incite emotional backlash online, by digital culture fans in love with the idea that Horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Books were mysterious accidents of machines, the nearly-sentient, imperfect offerings of some lonely server or some strange throwback internet-worker impossible to know and discover
"I can definitely empathize with the reaction," Bender says. "I don't think there's any 'correct' reaction for this. We expected some degree of controversy, and I think that's ultimately a good thing. I think it means people are engaging with the art we're making, and that's good. About what people expected or believed it to be, I think it's... I think all I would say is we were glad people were really engaged with it."
"I think when you have art that takes a very unusual form, there can be a rush to categorize it as something it's not"
On the petition to change Horse_ebooks back into a bot
? "I think the fact it exists is wonderful, and so futuristic," says Bender with enthusiasm. "I love that we live in a world where there are petitions about whether things are humans or machines, and which we prefer. But for me, in terms of observing Jacob operating Horse_ebooks, I feel that a lot of what people loved about it was fundamentally his writing, and his poetic sense. I think there's somewhat of a misconception that it was a recently switched-over thing... in reality I think what made it great was his authorship and his writing."
The instant cynicism that greeted the reveal, the widespread assumption that there had been some disingenuous, marketing-oriented motive all along, the whim of a pair of "internet executives" seeking $7 per subscription to BravoNET rather than something "pure," is perhaps a sign of the times, in Bender's view. "I think when you have art that takes a very unusual form, there can be a rush to categorize it as something it's not, just so that it can be understood," he says.
"In my head there's not such a big separation; it's not as if these were two "pure" pieces and then there's this sort of thing we're charging for for the purpose of making money... we've been laying the connective tissue for years. Bear Stearns Bravo
itself is a work of art we view in the same category as the other two."
"We didn't realize how difficult it would be to make an FMV game"
The subscription fee follows the performance-business model the pair aim to pioneer. Charging for a fake, vintage-style internet service provider doesn't feel any less authentic than having Horse_ebooks Tweet real clickbank links ("It didn't feel inappropriate or offensive, but then, I don't want to say anyone who feels that way is wrong"). On a practical level, Bender says, it's necessary to recoup the cost of creating the work. Made in a small Bushwick, Brooklyn studio primarily by a core team of four people including himself and Bakkila, Bear Stearns Bravo
's development aims to cleave closely to how an FMV game would have been made in the 1990s, from custom tech for the interactive video work to camera and actors.
"We didn't realize how difficult it would be to make an FMV game." he says, noting the time investment in a single scene with numerous variations. "We shot everything on tiny green screens... it was really an accurate way to re-make those games."
Ultimately the pair's ongoing work is an effort to recapture, not dispel, the sense of mystery about the internet that's becoming increasingly rare in an age of streamlined online business. For artists in particular, that streamlining can have a lot of drawbacks. "We were insistent about not talking about [the project], maybe even to the point of craziness, because we really wanted to create a mystery on the internet, and have a surprise in a way that doesn't exist anymore," says Bender. "And we were happy to be able to release something that is not a brand... it's nothing but an art project. Nothing behind it is secretly providing money. It's purely yelling into the void and making art."
Early internet domains were aimed at earnestly simulating real-world exploration, with huge "navigation" buttons and the aura of exploring rooms, where everything had a physical metaphor. Fat buttons depicting coffee cups, or chat rooms named after cafes, form some of Bender's earliest memories of computing online. "That was the most formative aesthetic experience of my life," he says. "That's something we've tried to bring back -- BravoNET is in some way a literal recreation of that."
"The feeling of these 'rooms', and the glimpses of what you would see in between the rooms, you're right in saying it's been lost in the professionalization of the internet," he adds. "Everything's a media company, every website looks the same. But it's still possible to create bizarre, fascinating websites with dark corners."
"If this is not an art project, I don't know what it is"
The Bear Stearns Bravo
game ("first and foremost an art project, but this part of it manifests itself as an FMV game") begins very lucidly, he says, but quickly devolves into the "gleeful nihilism" of high-stakes finance, a representation of the madness of the banking collapse.
"We didn't want to feel confined by something that was just a banking parody -- somewhere around the first half of the first 'CD,' if you will, it really becomes its own universe, rather than hammering on bankers, which is really not the point," he says.
"There's a lot to delve into; there's a lot more than what's on the surface. It's a very large game, and trying to evaluate it a week or two after it's released is too soon," Bender adds. "I hope people step back from it, once the emotion has died down, and look at it as a whole, and draw their conclusions from that."
"If this is not an art project, I don't know what it is," he adds. "I just don't know what else you can call it."