Horse_eBooks and Pronunciation Book Explain Their Digital Conceptual Art
Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender answering phones at the Fitzroy Gallery.
Save for a popped bottle of champagne, there was no hoopla when two of the internet’s greatest mysteries, Twitter’s Horse_ebooks and YouTube’s Pronunciation Book, came to an end—742 days of nearly incessant tweets and more than 800 videos after they first began. For the final leg of their elaborate “digital performance art” projects, Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender barked lines of spam to thousands of callers from all around the world—including, they claim, the government, JP Morgan, and Cindy Sherman. But there were no cheering crowds in the Fitzroy Gallery on New York’s Lower East Side where they had been holed up for the day. No Susan Orlean. No conspiracy theorists in shiny tinfoil hats rushing up to meet the guys they’d tried—and failed—to unmask for so long. The handful of stony-faced artist-types in the audience finished taking their Vines and scampered away. It seemed like everyone was too busy tweeting, think-piecing, or hopping to the next social media mystery to stay for this IRL finale.
But even after 11 hours of answering calls, Jacob, a hulking Buzzfeed bro who looks like he belongs at the round table on some sports channel, was still charged with adrenal energy. He took long gulps of champagne and interrupted conversations with the urgency of a monster hiccup. Thomas, on the other hand, had eyes that were reddened by fatigue, and leaned against a wall, waiting for me to address him.
The lack of fanfare for this unlikely pair was especially surprising given the hundreds of thousands of diligent netizens who’ve followed their respective projects for the last three years. 4chan users pinpointed Thomas’ location to New York City based on police sirens and thunderstorms heard in the background of his videos, and devoted an entire Wiki to dissecting its mythology. Horse_ebooks became one of the pioneers of “weird Twittter,” with devoted fans even tracking down the real-life horse in its profile picture. Yet, aside from an exposé on the Russian hacker who originally owned the account by cyber-stalker extraordinaire Adrian Chen, the internet’s obsessive sleuthing over these two cryptic accounts was about as efficient as their attempt to solve the Boston Marathon bombings—in other words, most of it was clumsy and embarrassing.
Minutes after hanging up the phones for the last time, Jacob and Thomas spoke to me about how they stayed under the radar, their love for seapunk, and why Horse_ebooks falling in love with Pronunciation Guide was actually an artistic critique—no, but seriously though—of the financial collapse that happened between 2007 and 2008. They also gave me insight on their latest project, "Bear Stearns Bravo," which is an interactive video game based on a battle between corrupt banks and powerless regulators. Here's what they had to say.
VICE: Did you fuck up at all during your marathon phone-answering session?
Jacob Bakkila: It’s almost impossible. We wanted this to be as much of a conceptual performance as possible with very little intonation when we read it. And we tried to keep that consistent.
You weren’t reading tweets from your Horse_ebooks account, though.
Jacob: This was almost identical. It was from the corpus—low-quality information products—that I tweeted when I performed the Horse_ebooks online installation. But this was all new. We had our engineer dump 400,000 items of spam, and I only used content that was garbled almost to the point of incoherence.
What was your day like as Horse_ebooks?
Jacob: When I was performing online, that was never automated. If I was tweeting at 3AM, that was because I was up at 3AM. I set my alarm so I would wake up roughly every two and a half hours to tweet. It was very difficult. In terms of hours a day, it becomes incalculable. It becomes woven into your everyday life. You’re constantly thinking about it. You have to run into a place so you can get to a computer or cellphone coverage. You have to leave the club. If you’re caught underground in the subway you start to panic. Like, gotta keep performing as a robot.
So you didn’t have a tweeting schedule? Everything was just based on when you had time to duck away?
Jacob: What’s interesting is that spambots on Twitter don’t want to appear automated. To be more convincing, they want to appear like humans. So it’s machines impersonating human biorhythmic schedules. What I did was impersonate a machine’s impersonation of a human. It would’ve been easier to do it every hour on the hour. But it had to be in a simulation of what a machine imagines our schedules are.
Did you have any close calls? I imagine there were hordes of people on your tails. Did you use a code name for this project?
Thomas Bender: We called it “Good Morning!” And yeah, we had these close calls. One time, we announced this thing called “bread tacos” on Pronunciation Book. And one night I wasn’t sleeping because I thought, Oh shit, we’ve already tweeted that. People are going to Google that phrase and realize Horse_ebooks said it first. Everything’s going to come crashing down. I also had someone show up to my office. A coworker told me, “Chief is here looking for you,” and I was like, “Who?!” Chief is one of our characters. He ended up staying there for a while, then he went away. It was a little unnerving.
There was a community of people who were researching Pronunciation Book obsessively. But I think imagining that Horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Book are connected is such a conceptual leap. Except for comments like, “Oh this is like the Horse_ebooks of YouTube, haha,” no one got that we’ve been using the same phrases and words for years. They have this shared mythology.
Were you inspired by any artists to create Horse_ebooks?
Jenny Holzer is a big influence—on both of us—as is Sam Hsieh, an 80s-era New York performance artist. Sam did a bunch of pieces that I saw at the MoMA where he punched a time clock on the hour, every hour, for a year. He also lived in a cage that he made for a year, taking photographs of himself and not speaking. Sam's endurance pieces were so moving and simple. He’s probably the biggest influence on me as an artist.
Was Pronunciation Book inspired by certain artists, too?
Thomas: David O’Reilly. He’s a young Irish artist who does this amazing live 3D work. He did this thing called “Octocat Adventure.” It was a series of videos that were like a child’s drawings. He posted one every day. They were supposedly made by an 11 year old. And then, on the final day, midway through one of these crude animated videos, it turns into this crazy 3D thing. He built up all of these subscribers. It was an amazing reveal. I think something like that—making something that seems to have one purpose, but actually has another, and embracing a low-fi look—was an inspiration.
A still image of “Bear Stearns Bravo.”
So you are inspired by low-fi aesthetics too?
Thomas: With “Bear Stearns Bravo,” we chose to shoot on a really cheap old video camera. We’re going for this look from 90s CD-ROM interactive videos. They were all commercial failures. But they had an amazing aesthetic.
Jacob: We’re huge fans of late 90s multimedia aesthetics. It reminded me of the internet before we had good spam filters. Like, seapunk… I love seapunk. I get whatever degree of irony is appropriate for that.
Are you nostalgic for the 90s?
Thomas: If there’s ever a time to make interactive videos, that time is now. People tried to do it on CD-ROMs. They tried to do it in theaters with multiple projector screens. And these things always failed miserably. So maybe we finally have the opportunity to pick that back up from 1996 and implement it.
Jacob: Naturally, there’s some nostalgia for the 90s. Everyone from 16 to 30 has created an elaborate myth about what that time was like. Some of it is myth making. Some of it is de-contextualized. But every generation does that. We’re just able to re-edit it with a certain deftness that’s a little frightening. We’re able to convince ourselves better than the previous generations.
You were writing “Bear Stearns Bravo” for years while doing Pronunciation Book and Horse_ebooks. Does that mean they were just elaborate buildups for your video piece? Is “Bearn Stearns” the real focal point of all your efforts?
Jacob: We consider ourselves principally video artists with some emphasis on conceptual and performance art. We’re influenced by data and the amount of information we create these days. Horse_ebooks is connected intimately to “Bears Stearns Bravo”—it’s a personage in that world. And so is Pronunciation Book. Some of this is a reaction to corporate personhood and what it would mean if these things were people.
Thomas: With Horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Book, what would it mean if they fell in love? That’s what we’re trying to do [with Bear Stearns]: let people feel the emotions of banking.
Jacob: It’s also about mythologizing the financial collapse of 2007 to 2008, which I feel is really important and hasn’t been investigated too heavily yet. There’s no coherent response.
How did you adopt the Twitter account from Alexei Kuznetsov? What drew you to the Horse_ebooks account?
Jacob: It was in 2011. He was a tricky guy to track down. There was no purchasing involved, although I bought some of his ebooks. He had a variety of bots. And that was the funniest one to me. There was this weird discordance of a machine trying to be a human by appearing as a peaceful creature.
Thomas: Also, the photograph is just fantastic.
Jacob: Yeah, great picture, great horse. The actual horse died this summer. There was a dedicated fan base who found the original horse that was in the picture. A lot of it is the idea of symbols, which are obviously very powerful, but speak to emotional holes that are far greater than any rationalization that people who like or hate this might make. Sometimes we simply like to look at nice pictures and read absurd sentences. I would attribute most of the enduring interest in my piece based on those two factors alone.
How did Susan Orlean get involved? She seems like a pretty random person to break this story.
Thomas: She was a fan of Horse_ebooks. Jake reached out to her. And she was really interested in it. She’s been working on a piece about us for a year.
Any more internet mysteries you want to reveal? What else do you have planned now that this is all over?
Thomas: Sleep for 36 hours. We have thousands of video footage for people to explore. But in terms of the next thing, I don’t think any of us know. I’m sure we’ll do something again. But I don’t think any of us are rushing into anything big.
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