What inspires a person to stage a hoax – a ruse designed to trick others into believing something false? Long before the days of “fake news” on the internet and sophisticated trick photography, some people simply loved to create mysteries to amaze or confuse others. And some folks still enjoy folklore and legends so much that they continue to believe, even after the mystery is debunked.
From so-called “culture jammers” (those who have perpetuated multiple major myths, like PT Barnum) to tricksters who are responsible for some of the most famous one-time hoaxes, we are going to look at the history of hoaxing and the performance art that such stunts require. We even managed to score an exclusive Q & A with one of this generation’s most far-reaching and culturally significant social artists, Zardulu.
Read on for Zardulu’s take on Trump and the modern media later.
P.T. Barnum, the showman and founder of Barnum & Bailey Circus, is one of the most historic hoaxers of modern times. “I am a showman by profession…and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me,” he said. Barnum’s first major hoax was a “Feejee” mermaid,” composed of a fish tail and monkey head, that was meant to lure crowds to Barnum’s museum of oddities. He justified his hoaxing this way: “I don’t believe in duping the public, but I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them.
Although Barnum was best known as a huckster who profited from the promotion of “freaks” with physical abnormalities (Tom Thumb and Bearded Lady Annie Jones, among others), he later served two terms in the Connecticut legislature and in 1875 was elected Mayor of Bridgeport.
You’ve probably heard this story, from England in the 1700s. A pregnant young woman named Mary Toft saw a rabbit one day and was so disturbed by it that she had a miscarriage. She later informed her doctor that she had given birth to multiple animal parts after her fright. A nearby physician came to examine Toft, and while he was with her she went into labor and delivered three cat legs, a rabbit leg, and the spine of an eel.
This gruesome tale attracted quite a lot of attention and even the British Royal Family became interested. Over the next few weeks, the new local celebrity Ms. Toft “delivered” a variety of animal parts for each curious visitor who came to see her. Finally, a group of skeptical doctors called for a closer examination of Toft, and under constant supervision she was unable to duplicate any animal birth. She confessed that she had been manually placing the dismembered parts and pretending to go into labor.
A series of five photographs taken by two young girls in the early 1920s caught the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous author of the Sherlock Holmes mystery series. Doyle even used the pictures in an article he wrote about fairies and viewed the images as irrefutable proof that such beings existed.
In a letter to a friend, one of the girls wrote “I am sending two photos, both of me, one of me in a bathing costume in our back yard, while the other is me with some fairies. Elsie took that one.” Even after an investigation, Kodak could not declare with certainty whether the pictures were real. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the women admitted the photos were a hoax.
Alan Abel is one of the most prolific hoaxers in modern times. Since the 1950s, he’s created several well-known pranks that led to total media frenzies. His first hoax involved acting as a golf instructor and telling his pupils (execs at Westinghouse) that they could improve their games by standing in ballet positions.
One of Abel’s longest-running pranks began in 1959 with a fake campaign first covered by the Today Show, the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA). Abel even recruited famed writer and TV personality Buck Henry to act as the group’s spokesman in many appearances over the years. His other hoaxes range from faking his own death (the NYT even ran an obituary), to beginning a sham school to teach “professional panhandlers” to con folks more easily, to staging a mass-fainting incident on the Phil Donahue Show, to starting a false crusade against all breastfeeding. A film about Abel’s life, Abel Raises Cain, won Best Documentary at the Slamdance Film Show.
Some people don’t create hoaxes out of the sheer enjoyment of it. In 2010, the nation was riveted when a 20-foot wide metallic balloon shaped like a flying saucer was carried through the Colorado sky, followed by helicopters. The harrowing footage was aired live worldwide. The problem? The balloon was reportedly carrying the six-year old son of Richard and Mayumi Heene, the balloon’s creators. The child, Falcon, was later discovered hiding safely in the attic of the family’s home.
In a TV interview after the event, the little boy let it slip that the entire stunt had been an attempt for attention, as Heene’s parents were simply looking for publicity for their family band as well as an upcoming reality television appearance. Both parents served jail time.
Situationist International (SI) was an international group of intellectuals and artists from 1957 to 1972, with a focus on revolting against advancing capitalism. The group employed tactics of subversive stunts and media pranks in order to denounce the capitalist movement and many credit SI for the concept of hoaxes as art.
Notable hoaxes conducted by original SI members include the Notre-Dame Affair, a political intervention aired on live television from the famous French cathedral on Easter Sunday, and a Guy Debord film which included 24 minutes of black screen time. Each of these tactics involved the SI hallmark of “appropriation of establishment symbols” to completely change those symbols’ meanings. The legacy of the situationist movement can be seen everywhere, from the early founders of the punk rock movement in the 1970s to flash mobbing, and guerrilla art such as that created by Banksy.
The Woolshed Company’s Viral Experiment
You simply can’t argue with 310,000,000 views. One Australian video production company is responsible for some of the most major viral videos you’ve seen over the past few years, including “Hawk Drops Snake,” “Man Fights Off Shark Attack,” “Lion Takes Revenge On Trophy Hunter,” and much more. These clips, being shared around the world at a breakneck pace, had one thing in common between them: a team of production and distribution experts intent on coming up with viral content.
In late 2016, the production firm decided it was time to come clean, telling the Huffington Post that their videos’ success was a savvy and effective way to draw in new business eager for publicity.
The Surgeon’s Photo of Loch Ness Monster
Most people have heard of the Loch Ness Monster, or Nessie, the lake monster in Scotland. Nessie’s existence has been hotly debated since her first “appearance” in 1933. Nessie’s story began after a new road was built along Loch Ness, granting passersby better views of the water. Reports and unclear photos of a large “monster” began coming in from the public. In 1934, the first photo of Nessie’s head and neck appeared, taken by a gynecologist named Robert Wilson. This particular image is referred to as the “surgeon’s photo” because Wilson refused to allow his name to be used. The picture was heralded as proof of Nessie’s existence for years.
In 1933, the makers of a documentary about Nessie uncovered an uncropped version of the photo, which showed a white object being towed through the water in order to produce the wavy, rippled effect many believed to be the lake monster. The Surgeon’s Photograph is widely considered to be an early, elaborate media hoax.
Zardulu, the anonymous and mysterious cultural phenomena who’s been called everything from a “contemporary mythmaker” to a “wizard” to a “viral hoaxer,” is a fascinating and culturally influential being. Crafting elaborate acts of performance art in an effort to infuse the world with magic and wonderment, Zardulu embodies a spirit of unflagging curiosity and creativity. Her works frequently go viral, spawning reactions ranging from joy and excitement to incredulity and skepticism.
Zardulu goes for the grandiose in her mythmaking. The more far-fetched or ridiculous an idea, the better. She’s cited Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (1917) as one of her earliest inspirations.
A Mythical Menagerie
Zardulu has only publicly acknowledged responsibility for a handful of hoaxes, such as the beaver dam prosthetic leg, raccoon riding a gator, and Bagel Pigeon, to name a few. She also admitted to staging the Selfie Rat video (a subway rat that appeared to take a self-portrait with a homeless man’s camera in New York City) after a collaborator on that project stepped forward and spoke to The New York Times. It’s not a far leap to determine that she had something to do with the creation of Pizza Rat, along with Pita Rat and Pole Dancing Rat.
Again, she has not publicly admitted to these herself, although The Washington Post reported in fairly certain terms her responsibility for Pizza Rat. Another alleged assistant implicated Zardulu in the Three-Eyed Gowanus Canal Catfish story, and it appears that Zardulu may have autographed the fish used in that hoax, although she hasn’t spoken about it.
Getting In Touch Was Surprisingly Easy
I wanted to speak with Zardulu myself and ask some questions of my own. I tracked down her email address and sent a message requesting an online chat. I did not know what to expect, but much to my surprise, Zardulu agreed to a question-and-answer session. These questions were submitted by myself and my colleagues. Here they are…Trendchaser’s Questions For Zardulu.
When did you get started doing your performance art?
I started making short films on a giant camcorder with my friends when I was in middle school during the 80’s. I maintained the same friends through high school and college, where we continued to produce short films, though with considerably better results. As for fabricating viral scenarios, I don’t like to give a specific timeline, so I say less than ten years and more than five.
What drives you to make this art?
The same thing that drove Paleolithic artists to paint the oxen on the walls of Lascaux cave in France.
Zardulu’s Early Life
Have you always been a unique/creative individual or do you have a mundane past life?
I’ve always been very creative but it wasn’t something that was encouraged when I was young. I wasn’t discouraged, but my parents didn’t buy me books on how to get into art school, they bought netbooks on how to get into medical school.
I think some of my creativity comes out of the mundane nature of my professional life. I have many friends who are creative professionals and they almost universally tell me that their personal, creative output has become nonexistent.
“Zardulu is the way I want the world to see me”
How do we know Zardulu isn’t a hoax itself?
Well, as Magritte suggested with his painting “The Treachery of Images,” images are not the things themselves, only representations. In the same way, when you use a picture of a sunset on your vacation as an avatar, it isn’t you. It’s a representation of you, the way you want the world to see you. Zardulu is the way I want the world to see me.
Do you ever feel like your work does harm? To people / the environment / a cause?
No, I don’t think my work has had any negative effect on anyone. If you are suggesting that it has, I’d be happy to respond to something more specific.
What habits or rituals help you maintain a mind capable of creating such works?
I read medieval grimoires, which are collections of magic rituals. For whatever reason, they capture my imagination. I suppose because I see these rituals as symbolic representations of deep, psychological processes, in the same way as the psychologist Carl Jung. He also dabbled in magic, at one point writing the Liber Novus which included the channeling of the Gnostic prophet Basilides and the titan, Abraxas.
Have you ever stopped? Or almost stopped? Why?
Yes, I stop from time, change subject matter and technique. There are diminishing returns on doing similar work over and over again.
What is your creative process? Do you have a brainstorming session with a circle of trusted advisers? Do you keep spreadsheets? A bunch of sticky notes? HOW DO YOU PLAN THESE ACTS OF MYSTERY?!?!?!
Ideas come to me all of the time. Sometimes they are fully developed and sometimes they are just foundations that I build on later. I keep notes on all of them and at any given time I may have 20 or 30 ideas I’m working on. I use some of them immediately after conception while others I spend years getting them to the point where I’m ready to use them or when I feel the time is right.
Taboos And Travel
Do you have a mission? How has it changed over the years?
Like a painter, I enjoy making my fantasies into realities. They generally have a symbolic nature to them which is relevant to me and my environment and at the time.
Is there anything you consider taboo when planning your projects?
I don’t do anything that would scare people or harm them.
If you could revive one dead historical figure for use in your work, who would it be?
I have already revived dead historical figures for my work.
Do you keep your antics stateside, or have you gone international? If you HAVE gone international, can you describe the act and why you chose to “perform” it/”enact” it in another country?
I have worked internationally but I am not as familiar with the intricacies of the first amendment rights of other countries and would rather not say specifically where or what I have done.
How has travel impacted your work?
It requires a lot of planning and funding. Sometimes I think about doing my work for entertainment purposes so I could do it on a larger scale. I’m quite conflicted about it but I think I’d do it, given the right opportunity.
The Inevitable: Donald Trump
Are you responsible for Donald Trump and how did you do it?
I’m not responsible for Donald Trump but we have both used our country’s longing for a shared mythos to fabricate our narratives. We become very different when you look at the intentions and consequences of our narratives.
How will your work be different in the era of Trump?
Before Trump, there was a year’s long news famine. It’s seemed like they’d put just about anything on television. I recognized this and took advantage of it. He takes quite a lot of airtime and newspapers have switched to hiring instead of firing reporters. I’m still able to get a story going from time to time but it’s definitely more difficult.
What’s Next For Zardulu?
With whom would you love to collaborate?
Banksy. His fans love his work in part because they don’t know who created it. Fans of my work don’t even know that it was created.
What themes do you hope to tackle in 2017?
I’m trying new things, writing a few articles, contributing artwork to some articles. Really, I’ll try anything that comes my way. I’m interested in accruing as many experiences as possible.
And possibly the most obvious question of all: How do we know this is really Zardulu?