So, if you had to predict what happened on election day in Loudoun County one week after the Loudoun County Republican Committee (LCRC) made national news for circulating an image of Obama as a zombie with a bullet hole in his forehead, what would you say:
A.) As news of the image spread, outrage grew in the week leading up to the election, handing the Republican candidates in Loudoun County a devastating setback at the polls.
B.) There was nationwide bipartisan agreement that depicting the president with a bull hole in his head was disturbing.
C.) Interest in the image peaked a day after the news story broke; a week later, the GOP in Loudoun County enjoyed unprecedented success at the polls.
Hmmm. Anyone? Beuller?
Here’s Mark Sell, Chairman of the LCRC, in a press relief the day after election results were tallied:
A unified Republican Party – and the voters of Loudoun County – are celebrating a historic victory last night with our sweep of the Board of Supervisors and breakthrough victories in key local assembly races, including victories in the new 13th State Senate and 10th and 87th House of Delegates districts.
As our narrative of excellence in managing government and job creation took hold, the people of this bellwether county have put four years of Democratic misrule behind them, contributed mightily to our Party’s recapturing of the State Senate and sent a loud, clear message that will reverberate into 2012.
The Republican candidates for Loudoun County’s governing body, the Board of Supervisors, picked up every single seat; statewide the GOP won the majority in the State Senate.
So, that image clearly didn’t hurt the party. Indeed, Loudoun Insider, who originally broke the story on the LCRC’s use of the zombie image, floated a pretty implausible conspiracy theory (yes, I know that’s redundant) after the election results came in:
The more I think about this and talk with others, the more I think it’s pretty clear that this was one of those silent dog whistle ploys to fire up the Republican base. And it worked beautifully.
Here’s the reasoning: mid-term elections are always plagued by low voter turnout; so, you galvanize your (lunatic) base with a mainstream media circus of your own creation; mix, stir, and voila instant landslide victory!
None of Loudoun Insider’s readers bought this though: one clever poster pointed out that, if this was in fact the plan, then the Insider himself inadvertently provided the lips that blew into the dog whistle and got the GOP dog pound into a lather. And another poster noted: “Guys, that’s some ‘dog whistle,’ if it not only called out lots of Republicans, but told most Dems to stay home.”
The blowback gets the Insider to revise his original thesis:
Whatever happened in what sequence, [the use of the Zombama image] had no negative effect on the local elections. If anything I think the controversy fired up the Republican base into a frenzy. Sell’s “apology” played into that perfectly. Who knows what the real intent was, but the anti-Obama rage theme was the winning ticket for the LCRC.
The old riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma? The snake swallowing its tail? Or, is it possible that the circulation of an image of the nation’s first black president as a zombie with a bullet hole in his head played no role, one way or the other, in the mid-term elections?
If the voters in Virginia were happy enough to let the image return to the swamps of the Internet unremarked and get on with the business of electing Republican candidates in droves, elsewhere on the web a skirmish broke out, improbably enough, over who could claim to have “created” the Zombama image. In one corner, Pop-Monkey, aka BeastPop Artworks, aka Jared Moraitis, a graphic designer from North Carolina. In the other corner, Head For The Mountains, aka HFTM, a defunct hardcore punk band from St. Louis. The evidence, as I presented it in my previous post on the zombie image, tilts heavily in favor of Moraitis as the “originator” of the Zombama image, but the members of HFTM, eager to capitalize on the press coverage, took to the pages of Facebook to discredit Pop-Monkey.
First, a quick recap:
The version by Pop-Monkey can be dated to 3/16/09; the earliest reference to the HFTM version I’ve found is 10/14/09.
A comparison of the two images appears to further support the argument that the HFTM version is a copy of Pop Monkey’s version in reverse: the rotting ear and the exposed brain move from the left to the right in the copy; the exposed muscle from the right to the left. The copy also alters the campaign button and the eye on the left, adds a couple of flies around the president’s head and, of course, the blood-dripping bullet wound in the president’s forehead.
Seems pretty clear, if not irrefutable.
But out at BeastPop Artwork[aka Pop-Monkey]‘s Facebook page, on November 4 the boys from HFTM showed up to accuse him of copying their design! First, the lead singer weighed in:
Then the drummer followed up:
The boys from HFTM aren’t exactly convincing or particularly gifted rhetoricians, settling on ridicule and the ad hominem attack to make their case. The fact that BeastPop won’t back down and that he holds the copyright for the non-bullet-in-the-forehead Zombama further stokes Mattie Mo’s rage:
So, that’s the best argument in HFTM’s arsenal?
The accusation that BeastPop backed away from the controversial version doesn’t pass the smell test either. BeastPop’s project was, as stated in the announcement for the sale of his version of the tee-shirt design, to criticize the loyalty of Obama’s followers and to comment on Shepard Ferry’s iconic image from Obama’s presidential campaign. HFTM’s version set out, on the other hand, to “shock,” thus the addition of the bullet hole. Why would someone interested in critiquing Shepard Fairey turn to the HFTM version and remove the bullet hole? It’s nonsensical.
It doesn’t take long for HFTM to throw in the towel on their version of events, for within an hour of Mattie Mo’s post calling BeastPop a “cry baby,” the fight seems to have gone out of the band members. Apparently the prospect of being sued for copyright infringement and mounting a defense that goes beyond calling BeastPop a FAGGOT seems too daunting for the boys, so Mattie Mo lays opens HFTM’s ledger for all to see:
And with that self-penned epitaph, HFTM appears to have swallowed its own tail and disappeared.
I’ve gotta admit, I was surprised to have this disagreement take a hard turn into the copyright infringement parking lot. Here’s the paradox: though it’s not entirely clear what he meant by this, BeastPop’s initial explanation for why he conjured the Zombama image was that he intended it to serve, in part, as “commentary on appropriation art.”
But, what is the content of that commentary? Without any further information, one could hazard a guess that it was either:
A. Appropriation art is the art of the dead feeding off the art of the living, as may be seen in Shepard Fairey’s unacknowledged appropriation of the Associated Press photo in designing his iconic Obama Hope image. Thus, appropriation art is essentially bad;
B. All art is appropriation art: just as Fairey transformed the AP image into art by means of appropriation, so too has BeastPop transformed the Fairey image through his act of appropriation. Thus, appropriation art is neither good nor bad; it is inevitable.
In his response to Mattie Mo, BeastPop clarifies his intent:
Hmmm. This is a pretty slippery slope.
Original photo; Shepard Fairey’s original; Pop-Monkey’s original parody; HFTM’s illegal copy
So, Shepard Fairey was taken to court by the Associated Press for using their copyrighted image without attribution. Fairey initially argued that his graphic design was based on a different photograph, but this was eventually shown to be a lie; although Fairey was discovered to have destroyed evidence he established his use of the AP image, he insisted, nevertheless, that his use of the AP’s image was covered under the Fair Use provision of copyright law, because it transformed the original, and was thus protected. The copyright battle was carried out for two years in the courts before Fairey and the AP settled in January 2011, with Fairey agreeing to get permission from the AP in the future if he were to use another of their images and the court not ruling on whether or not his use of the image was covered under Fair Use.
Meanwhile, back in 2009, Pop-Monkey sits down with the Fairey image before him and redesigns it as Zombama. Why isn’t this copyright infringement? By Pop-Monkey’s lights, his design is a parody of Fairey’s and is, thus, protected under Fair Use. Then HFTM’s for-hire designer comes along and either transforms Pop-Monkey’s piece or parodies it or, well, copies it (the last being a crime).
In ad copy for the third iteration of his Zombama image, which was posted on October 6, 2011, Pop-Monkey further clarifies his intentions behind his design:
Hope? Change? President Obama, are you feeling okay? This undead president is only interested in eating the flesh of the people! Attach whatever political statement you’d like to this design. All I’m trying to say is that I have fun with ridiculous parodies of self-important “street artists”. That’s all.
Thus, the content of his “commentary on appropriation art” goes something like this: Shepard Fairey is pompous and not really an artist. In other words, BeastPop’s Zombama image isn’t making a grand political statement or taking a significant stand on the issue of copyright: it’s just a jab at a better known artist.
Could HFTM’s for-hire designer make the same argument in defense of his design: it’s a parody of Pop-Monkey’s parody of Fairey’s copy of the AP photo? And just how darn “original” is that AP photo, anyway? Isn’t it just a copy of the president’s face, which may seem for a second or two like the actual original here but is, in fact, a copy of the long line of poses of past presidents?
What about this unnamed for-hire designer? Who is he? Why doesn’t he just come forward and make a statement about his work? Why so shy?
Since writing the previous post, I’ve realized I overlooked a possible clue to his identity. The filename for the bullet-in-the-forehead Obama that the LCRC used, the one that pops up on the top of the Google search for “Obama” and “zombies” is: obama_zombie_by_xxDinkMeekerxx-1.jpg. Searching the web for references to xxDinkerMeekerxx, one finds numerous repostings of the bullet-in-the-forehead image on Tumblr, crediting xxDinkerMeekerxx as the creator of the image. Who is Dink Meeker?
Dink Meeker, it turns out, is a minor character in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game science fiction series, which apparently pits earthlings against space traveling insect-like aliens. Here’s the SparkNotes description of the character, which has to be quoted, because the quote establishes that SparkNotes saves us from having to subject ourselves to the original:
Ender’s platoon leader in Rat Army, Dink is a very good strategist who always looks out for Ender. He tries to stop Bonzo and warns Ender of the plot to kill him. Dink is one of Ender’s squadron leaders in the battles with the buggers.
Further researcher turns up an artist who goes by the handle xxDinkMeekerxx who maintains a gallery at DeviantART, the self-proclaimed “largest online social network for artists.” Could this be the person Head For The Mountain’s hired to design their tee-shirt?
He might be, but nothing on xxDinkMeekerxx’s DeviantART site approaches the skill level of the bullet-in-the-forehead Obama:
Eponymous “Fuck the World” print (l) and “Beauty is the Beast 4″ (r) by xxDinkMeekerxx
Whoever xxdinkmeekerxx is, he stopped posting new pieces to the xxdinkmeeker site two years ago. Dink’s still out there still, clicking on other sites and favoriting other fantasy-based designs as recently as a week ago, but he’s not posting any new work or declaring himself to be either the originator of the bullet-in-the-forehead Zombama or as the copier of Pop-Monkey’s version.
And there the trail goes cold. With Pop-Monkey and the members of Head For the Mountains keeping quiet, the name of the designer of the bullet-in-the-forehead Obama remains a secret–for the time being.
Disappointing, isn’t it?
The state of political discourse at this moment, I mean. The self-avowed conservative punk band that turns out to be uninterested in capitalism and to disrespect both the framer’s conception of property and a broader civil commitment to truth. An artist who turns the president into a zombie, but then washes his hands of the political significance of his image, wrapping himself with the flag of copyright: it’s just a parody, relax! It would seem that the only person with something to say here–the unknown author of the bullet-in-the-forehead Zombama–is the person who is choosing anonymity, perhaps because he knows he just photoshopped Pop-Monkey’s version and because he now understands that he crossed some invisible line when he put a bullet in the president’s head. Indeed, when the Riverfront Times broke the story on the origins of the image, Mattie Mo is quoted saying he called the artist and told him, jokingly, “to delete everything off of his computer and move to a shack in the wilderness somewhere.” The joke being that the Secret Service would be showing up at his door any moment.
There is another place, beyond the realm of zombies, where young people are trying to figure out what the politics of the twenty-first century might be: the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Much criticized and ridiculed for its lack of a concise set of talking points and a narrow list of demands (this past weekend, presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said the protestors should “get a job” and “take a bath”), OWS has sought to exercise the right to assembly with no clearer agenda than bringing attention to the jobless present and the failure of our representative government to create conditions favorable to the success of the majority of the population.
While I will be writing at length about OWS in the future, I bring the movement up now because Shepard Fairey released an image on November 18th designed to recall his original HOPE poster and to give voice to the aspirations of the OWS movement:
Fairey’s image replaces President Obama with a figure well known to the younger set of OWS protestors– V, the hero of Alan Moore’s dystopic graphic novel, V is for Vendetta. V, who wears a Guy Fawkes mask at all times, is an anonymous, anarchic superhero, determined to bring down the fascist government that rules in the Britain of the graphic novel and to return the power of self-government to the oppressed and deluded citizens. (I have written at length about V is for Vendetta and its relationship to the hacker group, anonymous, here and here.)
It’s a richly suggestive substitution, one that signals the deep disillusionment Obama supporters have experienced over the past three years: where Fairey’s original image identified Obama with Hope, his OWS image voices a collective uncertainty about whose side Obama is on. V sports a “We are the 99%” button” and looks out at us from behind the mask, anonymous, a sign of a silent, popular revolution that is already underway.
The comments Fairey released with his new image provide his gloss on how to interpret what he has produced:
This image represents my support for the Occupy movement, a grassroots movement spawned to stand up against corruption, imbalance of power, and failure of our democracy to represent and help average Americans. On the other hand, as flawed as the system is, I see Obama as a potential ally of the Occupy movement if the energy of the movement is perceived as constructive, not destructive. I still see Obama as the closest thing to “a man on the inside” that we have presently. Obviously, just voting is not enough. We need to use all of our tools to help us achieve our goals and ideals. However, I think idealism and realism need to exist hand in hand. Change is not about one election, one rally, one leader, it is about a constant dedication to progress and a constant push in the right direction. Let’s be the people doing the right thing as outsiders and simultaneously push the insiders to do the right thing for the people. I’m still trying to work out copyright issues I may face with this image, but feel free to share it and stay tuned…
It’s a funny twist, using the image of V/Guy Fawkes “as constructive, not destructive,” since the “politics,” as such, in V is for Vendetta is reform through mass destruction: V does, after all, realize the plot Fawkes famously failed to execute, bombing Parliament back to the Stone Age and bringing Big Ben (the nation’s timepiece) crashing to the ground.
Fairey seems to want the implied threat of the image, but not its realization: “idealism and realism need to exist hand in hand, ” he insists, moderately. The confusion over what Fairey means exactly by his repeated references to “the right direction” and doing “the right thing” is compounded by his final sentence, which closes with an expression of his own concern over the copyright issues raised by this image. Is the OWS image infringing on the copyright of the original HOPE image? Or the AP image?
Stay tuned for the next episode of …. As Time Stands Still.
Will a functional political model for the globalized economy and the networked world emerge in the years ahead? Or are we doomed to carry out all future discussions of civic values and the social good exclusively in terms of our age’s God term–Deficit Reduction?
Can there be democratic societies constituted solely on the binding concept of indebtedness? Can democratic societies be peacefully bound together by the constant invocation of a fear with no name or face?
Or is it essential that, at some point, if the social structure is to avoid complete collapse, some transcendent, affirmative concept of commonality has to be spoken into being? A treatise for a functional political structure in the twenty-first century remains to be written and its absence is felt most immediately in the evacuation of symbolic actions of any claim to a deeper transcendent meaning. “It’s just to shock,” “I’m just trying to make a buck.” “It’s just a parody.” These “explanations” point to a world where everything would be fine if we just got back to shopping like the good zombies we are.
There will be those who will say, “It has ever been thus.” To which I’d say, perhaps, but consider the following thought experiment.
I maintain that, if you are of a certain age, you and I are likely to share a set of images from the Vietnam War era.
Ready to give it a test?
Buddhist Monk Thich Quang Duc self-immolates in Saigon, 1963 (t)
A South Vietnamese Police Chief executes a Viet Cong officer in Saigon, 1968 (m)
Villagers from Trang Bang, erroneous targets of a friendly fire napalm attack, flee, 1972 (b).
What does our shared points of reference signify?
I think the last war conducted with an active free press produced collective images of war’s horrors that were shared regardless of political affiliation, regardless of one’s status as Dove or Hawk. These images were on the news, on the cover of newspapers, in mass-circulated magazines. Support the war or not, it was hard to deny that war, itself, involves savagery, unimaginable violence, the suffering of innocents, terrible mistakes, chaos winning out over control. See enough of these images and get daily updates on the nightly news of the growing death total and, eventually, popular opposition not just to this war, but to war in general, grows.
Do we have collective images of the war in Afghanistan? Either of the wars in Iraq?
Is it possible, in our image-saturated age, for any single image to lay claim to the nation’s attention? Is it possible, in a nation that wages war for a decade and keeps the casualties in the all-volunteer military out of the headlines, for its citizens to think seriously about international politics? war? violent death?
Watch the debates. Tune into the nightly news. Surf the web.
In one of the catch phrases of our time, I’m just sayin’ that you’re going to find a lot of people who are just sayin’.
To come full circle: here are the first two entries from About.com’s guide for making sense of how people are dressed at OWS:
Comic book characters and zombies: we’ve got a lot of work to do.
While this post may be read on its own, it continues ruminations on the Zombama image begun here.
Mark Sell’s press release may be found here.
Discussion of the settlement between the AP and Shepard Fairey may be found here.
All quotes from BeastPop’s Facebook page may be found here.
BeastPop’s ad copy for the final Zombama design may be found here.
The information about Ender’s Game series comes from here.
The information about Dink Meeker comes from here.
xxdinkmeekerxx’s DeviatART site may be found here.
The Riverfront Times story has been delinked owing to malware.
The Gingrich quote may be found here.
Fairey’s OWS image and his comments may be found here.
The images from the run up to the USA’s entry into the Vietnam War and thereafter are ubiquitous on the web. How central are they to our collective memory? Type in two or three nouns from any image and search images:
The About.com suggestions may be found here.