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TV Ads Cause Fear

A wonderful confluence of streams in my life poured into my lap last night while watching the news. I haven't written for TeeVee in a while because nothing much has been interesting to me in the world of TV lately. And of course I've been concentrating on my art crticism and commentary. But last night, I saw on the news that the great city of Boston was nearly paralyzed by a marketing attempt which was mistaken for a terrorist threat -- and the marketing attempt was for a TV show, Cartoon Network's Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

You can read in more detail about it on CNN's site or in probably a thousand other places on the Web. The short story is this: To promote Aqua Teen Hunger Force, an advertising firm hired some artists to create these little electronic blinking-light objects and stash them around Boston and other cities "as part of a guerrilla marketing campaign". Someone in Boston spotted one and thought it was a bomb and all hell broke loose as the police and various armed forces became convinced Boston was about to be blown to bits by a circuit board full of LEDs. Finally, someone at Cartoon Network noticed what was going on, told the police, and everyone switched from fear to anger. The anger so far has come down almost entirely on the heads of Peter Berdovsky and Sean Stevens, two of the artists responsible, who were arrested and charged with "placing a hoax device in a way that results in panic".

What really shocked me was that the artists were arrested. Because I did something similar -- albeit not involving any electronics -- and, coincidentally -- or not -- my sign was removed almost while the panic in Boston was going on.

I am also amazed that America has turned into a nation of jingoist paranoiacs. We wave our flags, we support our troops, we slap yellow ribbons on anything that moves, and the minute an artist -- even a commercial artist -- twitches in the direction of doing something out of the ordinary, we go totally insane.

What the hell is wrong with us? The parade of self-righteous suits berating the Cartoon Network and its hirelings for its callous behavior was longer and more bloviatious than anything I've seen on TV in a long time. If the artists had planted actual bombs they might have been better received.

I remember reading once -- I forget the author -- that the leaders of the Soviet Union had become so paranoid they were afraid of poets and painters. Now that the Soviet Union has dissolved, is America turning into it? Is northern Alaska going to become our Siberia? Or maybe we can just rent part of the real Siberia. I'm sure they've got plenty of gulags we can re-open.

Our law enforcement agencies are guilty of hearing zebras when they should be hearing horses. Chances are any odd little blinking-light device is going to be someone's art project, not a terrorist attack. Does this mean terrorists might disguise their bombs as art installations? Sure. But then the terrorists could be communicating using coded transmissions in Artforum, too. Hell, they could be embedding subliminal messages in the photos on the cover of Time magazine! And have you tried circling every twenty-third word on the front page of the New York Times? There are messages there....

This insanity isn't getting us anywhere. You might think there's an intelligent art installation here -- and there is. Someone did it already, in fact: Clinton Boisvert, back in 2003, put some black boxes with the word FEAR painted on them in the Union Square subway station. And guess what? The police got afraid. Are they poststructuralists that they should react towards the symbol (the word FEAR) the way they would towards and actual object that should be feared (a bomb)? Maybe the NYPD has read too much Foucault.

People are going to say the Cartoon Network and their contractors had it coming, that they should have thought ahead more. That what they did was reckless. Even people who are defending them are probably going to say what they did was not very smart, not careful enough. Just as people were very angry with Clinton for his art prank.

I call bullshit. What these artists did was not reckless, it was playful. It was not stupid, it was a goof. And if this whole country is going to opt for fear instead of fun, for pain instead of play, for bombs instead of art -- if our default stance is going to be a fearful crouch from here on out -- I won't stand by and accept it.

No. We cannot spend our lives suspicious of everyone, peering out at the world through slitted, piggy little eyes. We can't assume everyone guilty until proven innocent. We can't start in a place of fear and hate. When you start with fear and hate, you can't get anywhere anyone wants to go. You can only get to the gulag. And no one wants to be at the gulag -- not the inmates, not the guards, not the warden. No one.

We have to stop this now. We have to stop this within ourselves. We have to stop.


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