Tweets As Performance Art: @Horse_ebooks Revealed

A series of cryptic tweets led to a Manhattan art installation, an online ‘interactive video experience.’



Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “@Horse_ebooks: digital performance art with a corporate twist” was written by Adam Gabbatt in New York, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 24th September 2013 20.58 UTC

Fans of the peculiar Twitter account @Horse_ebooks, which for years has churned out apparently random fragments of text, were disappointed to learn on Tuesday that it had a more corporate connection than they had assumed.

But for those willing to look beyond the betrayal, a series of cryptic tweets would have led to a Manhattan art installation, an online “interactive video experience” and the chance to be spammed by @Horse_ebooks over the phone.

@Horse_ebooks had been behaving in the manner of a spam bot for years, tweeting out snippets of sentences seemingly culled at random every day. Previous attempts to trace the source of the account, which has over 200,000 followers on Twitter, had suggested that a Russian spammer was behind it.

Now those 200,000 followers know the truth: that whatever its earlier incarnation, the man now controlling the account is Jacob Bakkila, that he took control of it in September 2011, and that he sees his tweets as a “conceptual art installation”.

The revelation prompted howls of outrage and existential crises from some corners of the internet as Twitter users found themselves cheated of one last supposedly pure pleasure. (Bakkila is the creative director of Buzzfeed, a website at the same time loved and loathed for its appropriation of internet memes.)

But for those able to accept that a real-life human was responsible for the spam, the blow was off-set by the publication of an multi-faceted “interactive art project” and a one-day, Manhattan-only installation featuring Bakkila and his co-conspirators.

The drama began on Tuesday morning when @Horse_ebooks posted a phone number on its Twitter account. It also tweeted the words “Bear Stearns Bravo”, and linked to a video from the similarly-cult-but-in-a-less-successful-way YouTube channel “pronunciation book”. The channel, which has published near-daily videos explaining how to pronounce English words and phrases since April 2010, explained how to pronounce “horse ebooks” before a woman speaks into the camera, apparently directly to the viewer.

“There is a man named Dalton. Dalton is dangerous. He is rich, he is strong, and he is going to crash the stock markets,” the unnamed woman says.

“You are ready. And you are the regulator who will see the shining data in the stars of Bear Stearns Bravo. Bear Stearns Bravo.”

It is not immediately apparent what the purpose of this message is – “I still have no idea what the fuck is going on,” one commenter has posted on the YouTube video – but the caption beneath the video offered a clue. “Today only: Bravospam, 195 Chrystie St, NYC, 10002,” the message read. It also linked to bearstearnsbravo.com.

At the Bravospam address, which turned out to be the Fitzroy Gallery in Manhattan’s lower east side, a small sign confirmed that this was the correct location.

Inside the small space, four separate projectors lit up different sections of the white walls. On each, different characters appeared, sometimes interacting with each other, sometimes looking into the camera silently.

In the backroom of the gallery Bakkila was sat at a table with Thomas Bender, his childhood friend and the brains behind the pronunciation book YouTube channel. The two men were repeatedly answering telephones that were ringing in front of them. On answering, each would read out a short message from a pile of papers on the table.

A sign in the corner offered some explanation as to what was going on, both in the gallery and in the wider sense alluded to by the commenter on YouTube. “On September 14, 2011, Jacob Bakkila began the conceptual art installation Horse_ebooks. He has since performed, in secret, as a spambot on the social network Twitter, posting a piece of spam roughly every two hours for 742 days,” it said.

“In the back gallery is the performance art piece Horse_ebooks 2. A phone number has been shared online [the number tweeted out by @Horse_ebooks on Tuesday morning], inviting the world to call and receive spam messages similar to those posted in the Horse_ebooks installation.”

Seena Jon, who went to school with both Bakkila and Bender in Pittsburgh, is the producer of what he described as an “interactive art project”. He was summoned from the rear of the Fitzroy gallery when the Guardian began to ask questions.

“It’s in several parts,” Jon said of the social media, online and real life art piece. There is a “performance piece”, he said, where Bakkila and Bender answer the phones and read out supposedly spam messages to the callers. There is the “conceptual piece”, consisting of the video loops in the art installation. Finally, there is the “interactive element” – a video in which the viewer can make choices over the eventual outcome, which is available at bearstearnsbravo.com.

Jon said the Bakkila’s effort in relentlessly tweeting as @Horse_ebooks should be lauded, not lamented.

“Jacob is horse [ebooks] and he is performing right now, and he’s been performing for 742 days,” he said. “You can equate his performance in this to any of the other great performance artists of our time I think. The dedication and the will to do something like this is something that not all of us can achieve.”

Asked about those who were upset to learn that a man was behind the account, Jon was sanguine.

“I think every great piece of art, a lot of people are going to love it and a lot of people are gonna hate it. And we knew that,” he said.

Jon said the Twitter account was “part of the universe” of the overall project, the main focus of which appears to be the interactive BearStearnsBravo video – a virtual, comic voyage into the underbelly of the financial giant, apparently around the time of its collapse.

The project took five years to make, Jon said. Bakkila, a creative strategist at Buzzfeed, and Bender came up with the idea, with Jon and others joining to offer help as the “upwards of 100” actors filmed their parts in the video.

“I can’t really give people any interpretation of this art, other than just to tell people to explore it,” Jon said. “And the discoveries you’ll find will be amazing.”

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