The art of apparent nonsense

@horse_ebooks and This Is My Milwaukee

It was human after all: The creators of @horse_ebooks revealed that the absurdist Twitter account was a conceptual art project. But when I found out its creators were also responsible for Pronunciation Book and This Is My Milwaukee, pieces of an Internet mystery finally started to come together after 5 years.

The revelation

@horse_ebooks was ostensibly the work of a “spambot” randomly regurgitating snippets of e-books it was attempting to promote for sale, the catch being that these “random” snippets just happened to be brilliant and oddly poetic, zen-like or ominous depending on the message. Pronunciation Book, meanwhile, was a set of absurd “instructional” YouTube videos about how to speak basic English words that also became foreboding as a 77-day countdown ticked downward.

The worlds of these formerly disparate Internet memes collided when The New Yorker published an admission from Jacob Bakkila of Buzzfeed and Thomas Bender of Howcast that they were the creators of both popular projects.

After the revelation, The Atlantic crowned @horse_ebooks “the most successful piece of fiction” ever published exclusively on the Internet, while The New York Times published further details about how Bakilla first discovered the account in 2011, bought it, and turned it into a deliberate, ongoing effort.

Both projects are now effectively over, as the creators came forward to promote their next project, Bear Stearns Bravo, which they kicked off through a special performance art piece in NYC. The one-day-only exhibition, Bravospam, brought @horse_ebooks to life, featuring a phone number that observers called to hear “spam” that was similar to the popular tweets. The creators of the project spoke the messages live in real time from behind a desk at the installation.

Building a mystery

While some people across Twitter seemed disappointed that @horse_ebooks was the result of a human mind rather than artificial intelligence, I was busy having an epiphany. I spotted an unmistakable credit at the bottom of the page on the Bear Stearns Bravo website: Synydyne. I was ecstatic to see that logo again.

Synydyne is a largely mysterious and secretive “art collective” founded in 2006. I learned about them thanks to a post on Reddit in 2008 that pointed to This Is My Milwaukee, an absurd, confounding, hilarious, and enthralling 10-minute video that purported to be from the “Milwaukee Tourism Commission” but was filmed in NYC and set in a fictional post-apocalyptic world. It reminded me of the BBC series Look Around You and Adult Swim shows like those by Tim and Eric blended with elements of futuristic dystopian sci-fi and puzzle-solving.

The video was complemented by an alternate reality game that featured dead drops across NYC over a couple of months at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009. The items gave players a series of clues that culminated in a lightly-attended event in early 2009, in which some of the characters from the video appeared in real life and sent participants on something of a scavenger hunt across the city.

After that, nothing else happened and Synydyne appeared to drop off the map. It was all so damn weird that I tried to figure out who these people were and what that thing was. The only other work of theirs I could find was a mock instructional video on Howcast called “How Not To Get Mugged” from 2007.

Several years later, Synydyne has resurfaced, and the answer now appears to be simpler than many of those who followed This Is My Milwaukee imagined at the time. These works aren’t some kind of elaborate viral marketing for any particular corporation or product. They’re simply pieces of conceptual and performance art led by two people whose day jobs are at Buzzfeed and Howcast.

Living fiction

Jacob Bakkila, Thomas Bender, and their collaborators at Synydyne create and perform works of art that are designed to obfuscate and confuse. Through pieces like This Is My Milwaukee, @horse_ebooks, Pronunciation Book, and now Bear Stearns Bravo, they’ve crafted these incredible alternate realities that consist of puzzling non-sequiturs, and they’ve done it to push the boundaries of art.

I feel like these projects resonate with people because it’s exciting to be a part of that living fiction. @horse_ebooks was genuinely fascinating not just because it made us laugh, but because it subverted elements of what we consider to be our real world. What’s more “real” anyway, a spambot or a human imitating one?

I enjoy and embrace these conceptual and performance art pieces for making us question that bizarre intersection of modern technology and life, and most of all, for accomplishing it through the art of apparent nonsense. [Medium | Tumblr]

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