New York Times - August 17, 2000
Cultural Sabotage Waged in Cyberspace
By ALISSA QUART
THIS summer, Frank DeGraff, a 19-year-old college student, decided that he wanted to invest money through the Web, so he started working three jobs. When he had saved $200, he went to RTMark.com and placed the money in one of the site's funds, the Education Fund.
But instead of money, the only returns he was promised were acts of cultural sabotage. Mr. DeGraff is hoping that his investment will be used for projects like making "anti-souvenirs," aimed at various social injustices and offered to tourists, or purchasing recorded books by conservative pundits so leftist speeches can be recorded over the original material and the tapes can be put back onto sales racks in book stores.
Clearly, this is no typical investment firm. RTMark (its name derives from "registered trademark" but is pronounced "art mark") describes itself as a brokerage that "supports the sabotage of corporate products." Its projects have included switching voice boxes in Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls and creating Gatt.org, a look-alike Web site that lampooned the World Trade Organization.
"Before I met RTMark through the Net," Mr. DeGraff said, "I thought I was alone in feeling like corporations were destroying this country."
But if the popularity of RTMark is any indication, Mr. DeGraff is far from alone. Last winter, the nine-year-old group managed to summon thousands of Web surfers to the defense of a small Swiss art project called etoy (www.etoy.com). The online toy seller eToys ( www.etoys.com )had tried to shut down etoy by filing intellectual-property trademark suits, even though the Swiss group had owned the domain name since 1995, before eToys existed.
While eToys demanded that etoy give up its domain name, RTMark helped coordinate a denial-of-service attack during Christmas week. An estimated 10,000 members of this network of cybercrusaders sent multiple e-mail messages to eToys, requesting information and using false names to subscribe to an eToys registry. The action, something of a virtual sit-in, brought down the company's servers.
Ultimately, thanks in part to RTMark's efforts, the art group won the right to keep its domain name and received $40,000 from eToys to cover legal fees.
But even after this very public action, RTMark remains something of a mystery. The group's three core members use assumed names -- Candid Lucida, Ray Thomas and Frank Guerrero -- and refuse to reveal their real names. They say they are in their 30's and work as a schoolteacher, a lawyer and a financial analyst. Their "fund managers" -- volunteers who help bring in investments and help choose and allocate money to projects -- also tend to have a sketchy understanding of who is behind RTMark, they say, because most of their transactions occur via e-mail.
Mr. Thomas says he puts 10 hours a week into RTMark and lives in San Francisco, thousands of miles from Mr. Guerrero, who lives in upstate New York. Ms. Lucida, who lives in Los Angeles, said, "We met on the Web and still work over the Net."
Zach Exley, the network's collaborator on a parody George W. Bush Web site that drew complaints from the Bush campaign, said he had never met any of the three in person.
"We behave like a corporation and stay anonymous to limit liability," Ms. Lucida said. In truth, some of the group's actions could be considered illegal, said James Boyle, a professor of law at Duke University Law School, but other actions could fall under "fair use" or First Amendment protection. "Mostly, they are relying most on being small, mobile and intelligent," Mr. Boyle said.
RTMark's motto is to attack without causing physical injury, and its projects sometimes go to extremes. There is the yearly Corporate Poetry Contest, for example, in which users send in actual e-mail exchanges with customer service representatives.
Some entries sound like found poetry composed in business-speak.
This year, RTMark has championed small art sites -- among them JKREW, Leonardo magazine, Healthnet.org and Bigmissmoviola.com -- in more domain name skirmishes with corporations of similar names that have told the small sites to stop using those Web addresses. Among the future projects on its Web site is an action to place unconventional greeting cards into supermarket displays; the cards do things like congratulating people for eating free-range pork or congratulating gay partners for their marriage.
Faceless, playful political theater against big business is not new. RTMark is a part of a lively strain in American protest politics that includes anarchists and Yippies. It is a contemporary cybercrusade.
RTMark offers ideas for anti-corporate pranks without charge on the Web, much as online groups in the open-source movement believe in making technology available to users so they may alter it as they see fit. Like these groups, RTMark argues that the freedom to appropriate and transform corporate products and Web sites is good for intellectual progress.
As one of RTMark's supporters put it during the etoy struggle, "The etoy battle allowed us to point out that the Web has been corporatized."
Mr. Thomas said, "We want to show that domain-name lawsuits companies slap on artists are just like the lawsuits they spring on ordinary people when they are fighting toxic waste in their communities."
But like any guerrilla network given to over-the-top spectacles, RTMark can make mistakes. The Bigmissmoviola.com domain name struggle in June is a case in point. When J&R Film/Moviola Digital demanded that Big Miss Moviola, a women's film distribution network, refrain from using "Moviola" in its Web address, the network's 26-year-old founder, Miranda July, got in touch with RTMark. RTMark promptly sent irate e-mail messages to J&R/Moviola's employees and threatened another virtual sit-in, akin to its etoys war.
But this campaign had a different ending. For one thing, J&R Film had trademarked "Moviola" in 1965 for its brand of film-editing equipment. For another, J&R Film/ Moviola is a small family-run company with about 60 employees.
"RTMark may have an interesting, important message about corporate abuse of power," said Dana Newman, a lawyer for J&R/Moviola, "but our situation simply does not fit neatly into their agenda."
Ms. July, for one, has given up her fight. While she still respects RTMark, she says, she feels that her battle was swept up into the group's larger agenda and tactics.
"I could save the name Bigmissmoviola.com but be completely defined by the battle," she said. She has since given up the struggle for the name in any form and plans to rename her Web site.
Nonetheless, the group's pranksterism continues to entice "investors" and, now, owners of New York City art galleries. In September at Exit Art, RTMark will present a parody on biotechnology and gene patenting, using the PowerPoint software that is often used for board-room presentations. Regarding that exhibit, and one planned at the same gallery in 2001, Ms. Lucida is typically blasé.
"We appreciate the art world attention," she said, "but we wouldn't want to wind up in a museum."
Mr. Thomas added, "We are activists, not artists."
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