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Catching Up with the Artist Who Stages Viral Rodent Videos

After a chocolate-stealing squirrel caught Canadians’ attention this week, we asked artist and apparent “Pizza Rat” rodent trainer Zardulu about the story’s authenticity and whether that matters.

by Sarah Berman
08 January 2017, 11:34pm

Zardulu photo via Facebook

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

If you want to get into an existential debate about the true nature of reality, Zardulu is full of perfect counterpoints. No matter what kind of clear, indisputable fact you think you're putting down, the masked artist will gladly find a way to question and twist it.

Zardulu first shook up the world of viral videos when she was suspected of (and later claimed responsibility for) staging the iconic Pizza Rat clip that set the internet on fire last year. Since then she says she's been working on many more surreal and absurd "illusions"—her word for successful media hoaxes. She's taken credit for clips of a raccoon riding a crocodile in Florida, three-eyed catfish in the Gowanus Canal, and another rat that took a selfie on a New York subway platform.

This week it was a squirrel that made headlines for taking a Crunchie bar from a convenience store shelf before darting under a car with the chocolate in its teeth. The story was widely picked up (complete with recycled "nuts" puns) by most major media orgs—and for the record has not been proven a hoax. (We did our own breakdown of the squirrel's inherent relatability). Regardless, the entire news cycle basically proved one of Zardulu's central points: that we need rodents to explain our lives to us, and bring a sense of wonder into our boring existence.

Though she wouldn't say whether she was involved with the squirrel thief in Toronto, she told VICE the video "would be very easy to fabricate." In her experience working on over 80 illusions, several of which involved animals, she says it wouldn't be too hard to practice and create the scene.

"Having worked with many rodents, training is almost always accomplished by withholding food until a desired behavior is performed," she told VICE. "If the desired behavior is to get the food, like a candy bar, then the training becomes even easier."

Zardulu says rodents have often been part of her viral successes. "I've used domesticated Norwegian and Black rats in many videos," she said. "Simply putting them in public with a piece of atypical rat food, people video them and they go viral almost every time."

This visual bait, according to the artist's claimed oeuvre, is often left for unsuspecting passersby to film and get excited about. That those observers sometimes believe the illusion to be authentic can help launch the clip to super-meme status.

Of course, Zardulu's claims of orchestrating viral hoaxes have been challenged as yet more trickery. But if you ask Zardulu, exactly what parts of a video are authentic, and what aspects may or may not be staged (including her authorship), doesn't really matter in the end. She's an advocate for myths over facts—an admittedly frustrating premise for a journalistic interview. Her motive isn't so much to deceive as it is to give a platform for us to laugh at ourselves and get outside boring rationality.

Strangely, Zardulu does not intend to comment on the quality and health of our media apparatus. While the world wrings its hands over the rise of "fake news" influencing elections, she welcomes the blurring of real and fake in the search for deeper truth.

Though she says each stunt should be judged on its intentions and repercussions, she doesn't blame journalists for wanting to jump on board, particularly when she's put so much work into backstory and details. "There is no set of standards for determining the validity of a story that can't be overcome by a little pre-production and a couple good actors," she said.

Zardulu says we, the media but also humanity, can't help getting swept up in an exciting animal drama (just like us, but cuter!) and even suggests that may not be such a terrible thing.

You might wonder why rodents, as opposed to more classically cute and meme-worthy animals, are at the centre of these viral videos. According to Zardulu, the small, skittish creatures seem to be a perfect foil on which to project our own human frailties.

"I don't believe that people are drawn to rodent videos simply because they are anomalies. That would be like interpreting a myth in a literal sense," she told VICE. "I interpret it more figuratively, that the rodent is giving form to some unconscious process."

It's a place to direct our cynicism, our snark, and also our ever-narrowing imaginations. "Rodents flow in dark and mysterious currents beneath the city streets, as our thoughts beneath the presence of ordinary experience."

This is how Zardulu justifies what she calls "harmless" hoaxes—because she sees a crisis of imagination. "With the Age of Enlightenment, realism became the authority," she told VICE. "It's eroded imagination ever since." So many artists scramble to attach their work to something autobiographical or factually true, yet sometimes art and abstraction are better and explaining.

"Many of the greatest human achievements came during Ancient Greece, when philosophy and mythology, rational and irrational, all blended together."

In this sense, a staged rodent stunt can stand as a perfect blend of real and unreal, rational and absurd. On its face the squirrel is in fact stealing a chocolate bar from a shelf. It does run away with surprising speed and intention. That the store owners have a backstory involving over 40 stolen chocolate bars seems especially outside the limits of reason, but who am I to judge.

Zardulu isn't deterred by the rise of Infowars or other conspiracy movements—the kind that point at just about anything and call it fake. She's not being cynical when she says it's time to embrace what I'll call post-truth.

"We're all standing at the shore of reality with the waves of the transcendency lapping at our feet," she told VICE. "The ground is no longer reliable and there's nowhere to run. I say, let it wash us all away."

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