Jeff Greenspan: Hello. How are you?
Audience: Good. Fine. Great.
Jeff Greenspan: Everyone is okay?
Jeff Greenspan: Really? Thank you, Marc, for having me, and a big hand to Tobi for all the music, and to Marc, and for the whole festival, right?
Audience: [Applause and cheers]
Jeff Greenspan: It’s really an honor to be here. Thanks for having me. I just wanted to say before I kind of get started, growing up my grandparents would tell me how lucky I was to be an American because America is a very special place. It’s a place where anybody - anybody could grow up and become president.
Jeff Greenspan: And if my grandparents were alive now, I would look them in the eye, and I would tell them, “Shut the fuck up.” Maybe not anybody - anybody should be president.
This is a man who has gathered his power and strength through fear, through many different ways of establishing fear in our country and abroad. One of the ways he likes to do it in America is to tell people that Mexicans are taking our jobs. Mexicans are not taking the jobs. Robots are taking the jobs. And once the robots have all the jobs, trust me, Mexican robots will take their jobs. I know they will.
Audience: [Laughter and applause]
Jeff Greenspan: My name is Jeff Greenspan. There isn’t going to be a lot of audience participation here, but I do want to know how many people here are in creative professions or making things. Cool. Then I’m somewhat in the right place.
How many people have had some struggles maybe moving a personal project forward or maybe moving to another milestone in their career or job or is looking to make those steps? Okay. Cool. Also, I might be in the right place.
I don’t pretend to have any real answers. What I’m not pretending to have is what’s worked for me, and so I work a lot with ideas. We all do, actually, whether it be an idea for a startup, whether it be an idea for an art project, whether it be an idea for maybe a new type of government. Whatever idea you have is very fragile because the minute you have that idea and it comes out of your – from your brain to your mouth, I find it’s generally under attack from people who will tell you it can’t work, for people who tell you you’re crazy to think that you can do this thing.
So what has worked for me is to be stubborn and naïve: naïve enough to believe that my crazy idea could actually work and stubborn enough to block out all the people who are telling me that it won’t. So I’d like to talk about some pivotal times in my career and in some of my art projects where being stubborn and naïve have helped, so just about who I am and why I might have something that might be relevant to you guys.
I’ve worked at some logos. These are pretty logos of places I’ve worked for even larger logos for the companies that, you know, work with those ad agencies. So I’ve worked many, many years at advertising agencies for very large brands. And I left advertising for a while to go work at Facebook. This is me with my Facebook 15. That’s the 15 pounds you gain when you start working at Facebook because there’s unlimited food all the time.
And after working at Facebook, I went to become the chief creative officer of BuzzFeed. I held that job for about maybe 10 or 12 minutes before they realized that this is not a good fit. But I’m actually a little bit well-known for my art projects. One of them was the hipster traps. These were–
Audience: [Laughter and applause]
Jeff Greenspan: Thank you. This was a commentary on gentrification. No, but these were bear traps that I put around the city, and I baited them with things that hipsters tend to enjoy. At the time, it was a Pabst Blue Ribbon and neon Wayfair glasses and that yellow thing is a Fixie bike chain.
Are you okay, Tobi? All right. Okay.
But throughout all these art – throughout all these jobs and throughout all these projects, again being stubborn and being naïve have been very helpful. Even in the hipster traps - the hipster traps. Okay. So here’s one way that I was naïve.
So my friend Hunter Fine and I, who I did this project with, we had this idea. We were watching our neighborhood become overrun with, you know, a certain variety of usually white person, a hipster, and this one has a whole good camera in it. This one is different. And so two ways we were naïve about this. I’ll just show you a few pictures of it, though, in real life.
We thought we were going to do – well, I’ll get to that in a second. Actually, no, I’m just going to walk you through some of the things that happened with this project, and then I’ll explain, you know, why we were so naïve. So this actually became a really big deal around New York. It was on the front page of the daily paper that you get when you go into the subway. And as you can see, it bumped the nuclear crisis in Japan, so a very, very important story.
And the hipster traps were then ripped off by this awful chain store that’s called Hot Topic. They made a T-shirt. We brought some legal action against them. It was ripped off again by – well, I guess you can tell, but I’m not going to say the name of the razor company. If you look in the top right, they just took a hipster trap. Again, we had a legal action against them, and we won. Yeah, artists sometimes win.
And so one of the ways we were naïve is, well, you know, we wanted to put these out on the streets of the city, and we thought we would do a test. We didn’t know if they would blow away. We didn’t know if they would be stolen, stamped on. We didn’t know what was going to happen. And it all started with this picture.
So we put this out on the street on – I don’t know if you guys are familiar with Manhattan, but it was like Avenue A and 7th Street, as what we thought would be a test just to see what happens when we chain one up. Do we get arrested? Will people steal them, like we said?
What happened was somebody came by and walked by, a few times, just kind of like pacing and said, you know, is that a hipster trap? And that was the first time we had heard that word by somebody else because that’s what we were calling the project. We were like, yes, that’s exactly what it is. We’re so glad that–
Jeff Greenspan: Of course it’s a hipster trap! He’s like, “Is it an ad for something?”
I’m like, “Oh, no. No, no, no. It’s just a piece of art.”
He’s like, “Is it yours?”
We’re like, “Well, it’s yours now. It’s on the street.”
He’s like, “Well, can I take a picture of it?”
And we said, “Sure, of course.” And, you know, he said good-bye and went on his way.
And then Hunter and I went home–this is years ago, in our defense–to try to figure out Tumblr because we thought this would be the way we would distribute this idea. How do we get this idea out there? So first we thought we were just doing a test and we would do the real project later once we figured everything out. And then we were getting to work to figure out how to get the idea out there.
So we’re back at my apartment trying to, you know, create a Tumblr page because we hadn’t done one before. It’s obviously very simple, but we hadn’t done one before. And I get an email from the guy who took that picture on the street. We had exchanged email addresses when we were on the street. And he goes, “Hey, I really loved your hipster traps and the Internet seems to like it too,” because at that point, just four hours later, it had a quarter of a million views on Reddit. And in the morning it had just shy of a million.
So I bring up about being naïve in this case because I do get a lot of emails or I have conversations with people who want to start a project, but they feel stymied or stuck because they’re like, “Well, how will I get it out there? How will I distribute the idea? How will I get press?”
I don’t know. I didn’t know doing this. If I had stopped to figure all those things out, if I needed to be sitting in the realm of knowledge and not in the moment of naivety, the project never would have happened, you know. So I think it’s wise to sometimes being in a place of not knowing. And I think we live in a culture where there’s a lot of premium put on being right, having the answers, playing nice, not being stubborn, forming consensus. And I’m not saying there isn’t a place for that. And I’m not saying, when I say be stubborn and naïve, that you should be an asshole. And I’m not saying that you should be stupid. I’m just saying sometimes the dominant narrative of how you should act isn’t always going to lead you towards success.
So I’m just going to walk you back, if you don’t mind, through some moments in my life where being stubborn and naïve kind of played a role in my life and moved me towards some degree of success. This has always been a thing for me. I’m 46 now. If you don’t mind, does everybody here, or does anybody here, know who Howard Stern is?
Jeff Greenspan: The radio announcer, comedian. So when I was 19 years old, I was going to a community college. If you don’t know what that means, in America that means you had really shitty grades and/or no money. So I had both, and so I was going to this community college, and I always wanted to work in radio at the college radio station. And I got a job at the college radio station. And very quickly after I was there, we got a letter in the mail saying that we weren’t allowed to talk about school administration policies on the air, which I thought was counter to what a college radio station should be about. It should be about freedom of speech, freedom of expression.
They also started changing the format of the music and it was going to become an easy listening light radio station. This didn’t really feel representative of the student body, and I was 19, just beginning my journey of being naïve and stubborn. And I said, well, we’re going to form a protest, so I got the other radio DJs there to have this. I mean I’m not – looking back – we’ll get into that later.
We formed this protest, and it started getting a little bit of attention. At the time, Howard Stern was on in three cities, not all over the world. And I got a call from his producer, Gary Dell’Abate, if you listen to the show, saying, “We’d love to have you on the air to talk about this protest. Howard really loves what you’re doing. He’s such a fan of free speech.” So I’m going to play you – I was supposed to be on the air for five or ten minutes. I was on for about 35 minutes. I’m embarrassed, but this is me when I was 19 on the Howard Stern show, so.
Is there sound? No? Oh, how do I get it to play something that’s in here? Thank you.
Marc Thiele: Did you–
Jeff Greenspan: Yeah, well–
Marc Thiele: It says, no sound.
Jeff Greenspan: What do we do?
Marc Thiele: …a new machine.
Jeff Greenspan: Oh, no.
Marc Thiele: There’s sound there.
Jeff Greenspan: Okay.
Marc Thiele: Oh, try that now.
Jeff Greenspan: All right, try that.
[Start video recording]
Howard Stern: Now let me explain something to you. What does your father pay for you to go to Nasser Community College?
Jeff Greenspan: What does my father pay?
Howard Stern: Yeah, that’s what I asked you.
Jeff Greenspan: Well–
Howard Stern: Don’t repeat the question.
Jeff Greenspan: How do you know my father pays for my school?
Howard Stern: Because I know.
Jeff Greenspan: It’s not true. Anyway, it’s $750 a semester.
Howard Stern: $750?
Jeff Greenspan: Yeah….
Howard Stern: Well, maybe you should play whatever you want.
Jeff Greenspan: …pay taxes … radio station, so we think that we should….
Howard Stern: $750.
Robin Quivers: To go to Nassau Community?
Howard Stern: What are they paying the professors?
Male: You can’t – you can’t go – you can’t get your kid into a good preschool for under $5,000 a year.
Howard Stern: That’s got to be a school that if the draft comes back, everyone is just going to pile into.
Robin Quivers: I was going to say, how long are the semesters? You must go to school once a week or something.
Howard Stern: Delphi laughs at you.
Jeff Greenspan: Howard?
Howard Stern: Yeah.
Jeff Greenspan: Can I tell you when and where this protest is…?
Howard Stern: No, not yet. I’ll let you tell that at the end because–
Jeff Greenspan: Okay.
Howard Stern: Let me explain something to you.
Jeff Greenspan: Okay.
Howard Stern: I’m going to explain the real world to you.
[End video recording]
Jeff Greenspan: So this was a 35-minute humiliation, but I was naïve. I was stubborn enough to kind of stick by my ideals and naïve enough to think that Howard Stern would have me on as a guest and be gracious. Of course, he needed to create the theater of there being, you know, a conflict between us.
In the end, though, that bad press for being on the Howard Stern Show caused the school administration to change their policy and let the students discuss what they want to discuss on the air, play the music that was representative of their culture, and have debates about what was happening at the school administration on the air. So I thought it was successful. I’m not suggesting that’s the way to always go. But it was the breeding ground of – of whatever.
So after college I went into advertising because I was very naïve, and I didn’t even know there were – I mean there are many parts of the industry. I’m not suggesting there’s only two parts, but that there was an account side and a creative side. And I just got in on the account side. I had no schooling in advertising. I never took a class in creativity. I never took a writing class or an art class.
And very quickly after I was working at these agencies, I got held up at gunpoint. And when I got held up at gunpoint, I guess I was 25 years old and I realized that life is very, very short. And I went into my boss and I said, you know, “I quit. I need to do something creative with my life. This is not what I want to do.”
And he goes, “Well, what is your plan?”
And I said, “I don’t know. I’ll go wait tables, and I’ll take theater classes or something.”
And he goes, “Well, this doesn’t really seem like a real plan.”
And I said, “Well, you know, I need to do this now.”
And he goes, “Well, I have an idea. Why don’t you just stay and work here. Go take a class in something. And then when the class is over, I’ll fire you, and that way at least you’ll get benefits, and you’ll at least have a plan.”
So my idea was to take a writing class at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and I needed, in my mind, to take a class with this guy Sal DeVito who ran or still runs an agency called DeVito/Verdi that did ads like this, which at the time print was a dominant force in advertising, and they did very, very provocative advertising. And I wanted to study under him. The problem was there was a year and a half waiting list to get into his class.
Now I didn’t know this guy Sal DeVito could be a tyrant. I didn’t know that he sat in the back of the class with cards that simply said “Seen it before,” “Bored,” “Unoriginal,” or he would take a lighter and burn work off of the wall if he didn’t like it.
One day an ad fell down off the wall and I went to go pick it up and tape it back up, and he goes, “Stop. Greenspan, don’t touch it. I don’t want you to catch what it’s got.”
This was the type of guy, but I didn’t know who this guy was. And since there was a waiting list of a year and a half, I kept calling his ad agency two or three or four or five times a day trying to get him to let me be in his class. And finally he calls me back. And he kind of talks like this, you know, and he’s like, “Why are you calling my fucking agency ever fucking day? Who the fuck are you?”
And I explained my situation. And he’s like, “Well, there’s like a waiting list. You’ll have to wait.”
I go, “No, I can’t wait. I must be in your – I must be in your class now. I’m going to find out where the class is. I’m going to sit outside the classroom door. And when kids go to the bathroom or leave, I’m just going to find out what the assignments are and just do them. I’m going to be in your class.”
He’s like, “Oh, really?”
I go, “Yeah.”
He said, “Well, then I better take your money,” and he let me in his class.
And he hired me for his agency on the last day of the class. So I was really happy that being – if I had known what a dick this guy could be, and I say that lovingly if this is being taped, you know. He’s a great guy. I owe a large part of my career to him. But if I had known his personality, I never would have done it.
So later on, being stubborn and naïve kind of played an important role in my life. I went to go work at an agency called BBDO, and I was hired to be in charge of AT&T’s digital creative, which at the time meant doing banner ads. Banner ads suck, say the guys who created banner ads.
What’s ironic about this is – so I just want to read this. “The creatives who were responsible for the Web’s first banner ad for AT&T in 1994, the creativity is disappointing at best. It’s easy for me to say it sucks, but I don’t know what the better thing is. Most banner ads aren’t serving any value. They’re in the business of interrupting what you’re doing.”
And I was hired, you know, a good salary to make, to do this. And I said to my partner, “We can’t do this. We can’t. We can’t make these banner ads.”
And he said, “Well, that’s what we’re hired to do.”
I go, “Fuck that. We’re not going to make these. We’re going to do interesting things with the client’s money to get them the attention they want for the stories they want to get attention for.”
And without going into too much in the weeds in it, he goes, “Well, we’re going to lose our jobs if we doing do them.”
I said, “We’ll lose our jobs if we do do them. We’re going to lose our jobs either way. Once the industry catches up to how bad these ads are, we’ll have a portfolio of banner ads, and that’ll be our legacy here, and they’ll remove us. Or if we do this interesting, provocative ideas that we’ve been talking about doing for AT&T, we might get fired, too, anyway, but at least we’ll have fun, and we’ll have a really cool body of work in our portfolio. I want to have fun, then get fired. I don’t want to do banner ads, then get fired.”
Jeff Greenspan: Stubborn and naïve. I need money. So, you know, Christmastime rolls around. It’s right before Christmas, and lots of people were gunning for me to be fired. I had been told that almost the whole account team was like you’ve got to get rid of Greenspan. He refuses to do the assignments.
And then the people were like, “Well, who is doing the banners?”
It’s like, “We shuffled them down to the Atlanta office. They’re doing them, but the budget is for Jeff’s team to be doing them. We were doing other things that luckily were winning awards and actually moving the client’s product online, which meant BBDO was getting larger budgets from AT&T to do more provocative, interesting, digital work.
But around Christmastime I was called into the office of one of the executives, and there was an envelope there. I was like, oh, shit; this is the pink slip. I don’t know if you have that here, but the pink slip–I’ve never even seen one, but–it’s supposed to be when you’re fired. Like they give you that, you know. And so he’s like, you know, “A lot of people here are really unhappy with you.”
And I said, “Yeah. I’m aware.” And I go, “But really, we’re going to do this right before Christmas? Really?” And I opened the envelope, and it was a sizable bonus.
And I went into the office sure I was being fired, but he said, you know, “We recognize how hard it was to do this.” And it wasn’t just me. It was the whole team that worked there. But to swim upstream and try to do this work in the face of people who don’t want it, I’m just again suggesting this is not a great career path to plot, but if I wasn’t stubborn, it wouldn’t have happened.
And if I wasn’t naïve to know what a good – how good that job is and was, to have an executive creative director, David Lubars, who brought me in his office and said, “A lot of people want you fired. We’re going to wait and see what happens later,” you know. “We’ll figure it out when the award season comes out, and we’ll see what happens.” So I was very grateful to have that as what was going on in my career.
But in my art projects also being stubborn and naïve was very helpful. In 2004 – oh, we’re going to get political. How apropos. In 2004, President Bush was running, and I was very dismayed at what was going on in the media and how people had relinquished seemingly their power to speak up to power. And I didn’t want to bash Bush. I just wanted to do something that got people into the spirit of speaking back up to authority, so I created this.
This is a very old picture, so I’m sorry. This is not the right compression or anything. They don’t make this file type any more. This was a seven-foot soundproof booth, and inside was footage of George Bush. Again, very old video. This is the best I could find of George Bush just listening, not speaking.
And you could go into the booth and say whatever you wanted to him. You can tell him he was doing a great job. You can tell him he was an asshole. But he would sit there and just kind of nod contemplatively and listen to you. And the idea was to get you into the habit of realizing that you have a say in this conversation. So anyway, I’ll let that play for a bit.
So we built this thing. We found the footage. We built the booth, and we never thought, me and Rory Ramish (phonetic), who built it, where will we plug this in? So now I had a seven-foot Bush booth in my living room, but I don’t know where the fuck to put it. Like, well, who is going to see this thing?
We went to some stores that we thought were liberal and progressive. They’re like, we’re not going to put this – no, we’re not – we’re not going to put it in our store. You can’t put it out on the street. We didn’t know what the hell to do.
And then a comedy club that I used to work in comedy, and he said, you know, “Why don’t we put it in the lobby? We’ll put it there for a week or two until you can figure out where it goes.” And people loved it.
And someone who went to that comedy show owned a gallery and loved it and asked for it to be in their gallery. And after it was in that gallery, another gallery saw it and asked for it to be in their gallery. And then it got into a group political show in New York City that got a lot of attention. And then an art group, an art collective in Amsterdam caught wind of it because it was getting press and asked if I could send them the specs and the tape so they could build one in Dam Square, and they built one in Amsterdam. And another art collective in Chicago built one, so at one point I had three Bush booths kind of running around the world.
And I bring this up because I was so naïve. And again, a lot of people come to me and say, well, they ask me about different parts of their project and how will they achieve those goals before they even start making the project. If we thought it through, we wouldn’t have done it. We were idiots, you know. And I’m glad that I was an idiot. I’m glad I didn’t think through–
[Bush video interrupting]
Jeff Greenspan: Yeah, anyway. It gets better, right? Maybe not all the time.
So again, this is a situation where, you know, when I was telling friends that I was going to do this, they’re like, “This is stupid. How are you going to do this?” I needed to be stubborn enough to block those voices off and naïve enough to believe that somehow it would work.
And that happened again with another project called the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument 2.0. But it’s actually more affectionately known as the Snowden Statue. Is everybody or most people here familiar with who Edward Snowden is? Yes? In America it’s a different answer, so if it’s no, please let me know. Otherwise this will really suck for you if you don’t know who he is. All right, tell the person next to you if you don’t know who he is.
So in New York, in Brooklyn, in Fort Greene Park there is a park called the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, and it honors those who lost their lives during the Revolutionary War. It’s a very large monument. This is a small part of it. This is one corner of it. So it’s a huge square. Each corner has a pillar like this with an American eagle. And in the middle is a huge, huge, huge spire.
And we thought it needed a bit of amending, so what we did is we worked for about a year to have a statue of Edward Snowden made and a nameplate, and we cemented it to the top of this martyr, this pillar. Thank you.
Audience: [Laughter and applause]
Jeff Greenspan: What we wanted people to do is reflect on who are your heroes, who are your villains, and who is telling you who is who. We also wanted to connect the two narratives: those who lost their lives during the Revolutionary War for the foundation of America, the ideals that it was founded upon, and those who we felt were continuing to lead those fights, people like Edward Snowden. So I’ll play you a quick clip of a news piece here if it works. Let’s see if it works.
Jeff Greenspan: You may not have been able to hear it, but they said they were searching for DNA as if we, like, ejaculated all over it before we installed it or something.
Audience: [Laughter and applause]
Jeff Greenspan: But what made us really happy is the narrative that started getting carried into the media.
Jeff Greenspan: So we were really happy that it wasn’t just a stunt that was like, oh, look what they did. Stories in the New York Times and on Internet news and NBC were about asking the question we wanted to have asked: Was the Patriot Act passed too quickly? What kind of surveillance is allowable? Is Edward Snowden a hero? Is he a villain? Let’s at least ask that question.
This is from the – let’s see if it will play. Yeah, so this is before they cut off the cement and they were just covering it up. This is a great quote that was on Reddit.
“There now exists a video of a U.S. government employee literally using the head of an American eagle, which is the symbol of America’s freedom, as a foothold while throwing a tarp over the image of a man who is fighting for government transparency. If I saw this in the street, I’d assume it was a bunch of drama students doing street theater and I’d roll my eyes at the heavy-handedness of it. You cannot write this shit.”
What was also great is, after it was taken away, another group of artists who we had never met at the time came back that night and reinstalled it as a hologram.
Audience: [Laughter and applause]
Jeff Greenspan: And that made us so happy because, you know, there’s a lot of talk about if you do a project, sometimes you’re only preaching to the converted or to the choir. And I used to get really down about that too. I’d say, well, are these projects doing anything? Yes, they’re getting attention in the scroll of the feeds on social media. And yes, they get press. But are they doing anything?
Maybe you can’t change everyone’s mind. But if you inspire someone else to take another action, and it might not be an action as theatrical as a hologram reinstallation of a statue, but when people see other people speaking their voice, maybe someone else is maybe too timid to do that. Maybe they live in a family where, at the dinner table, saying Edward Snowden might be a hero is punishable by no dessert. Who knows what’s going on around the houses of America. But when people see other people emboldened, it makes them feel like they can take on that fight as well, so we were happy to see that that happened.
We also released 3-D code so people could print their own. And I’m going to get to the stubborn and naïve part. I just want to walk through a little bit of what happened with this. So this was taken away by the police. A very, very famous and prominent lawyer in America came forward. Even though we were anonymous, we were able to work with him. We eventually were outed by the AP–I’ll explain how–the Associated Press. But he got the statue back. So this is, to me, a great photo of Edward Snowden in police custody.
And he got it back, and so what happened was he got the penalty reduced to being in the park after dark, which carries with it a $50 fine. Hey, you got to use your white male privilege somehow, right? If I were a black man in America, I think it would have been a different type of a fine.
But he got it back for us, and when the press heard that, all they had to do was go down to the central station and say, “Well, who in the last 50 years has gotten a fine for being in the park after dark? Oh, these two guys?” And then we were outed. But luckily at that point we had paid our $50 fines and we were fine, and this is Andrew Tider, who did the project with me. He’s an amazing artist and my creative partner and great friend. And this is in his living room.
But what was really, really, really wonderful about this project is, before it was in his living room, it spent six months at the Brooklyn Museum, which is a really amazing institution in New York, so people from all over the world were able to see the statue and hear the story behind it.
So being stubborn and naïve: Naïve enough to believe that we could pull this shit off. I mean it took forever to figure out how are we going to do this? How will we not get caught? What do we do when we are caught? How do we get someone willing to make the statue with us in a way that we could afford to have it made?
And it’s too – I could do a whole talk just about the Snowden statue if people would let me do that, if people wanted to listen to it. But here’s something that happened that I haven’t talked about before. Right before we went to cement this in – the sculptor lives in Los Angeles. We flew him out, and he knew what we were doing.
And he said, you know, “I’ve been doing some research, and did you know that there are human remains buried underneath this monument?”
And we said, “Yeah. We know that.”
He’s like, “Well, I didn’t know that. This is desecrating a grave, and I will not have any of my work be associated with this. You cannot cement this on top of this monument.”
And we were like, “Well, you know, we have the statue. This is what we were planning to do the whole time.”
He was like – he just protracted conversations for hours crying, screaming. And finally, you know, he said, “Listen. This was a partnership. This wasn’t a commission.”
And we said, “Okay. Well, that’s fair. If it’s a partnership, then we all have a vote. I vote we cement it. Andrew votes we cement it. I’m sorry that you don’t vote that we cement it, but we’re cementing it.”
And we didn’t want to just dig over another artist, so after hearing how torn up he was inside about this, we said, “Fine. You know what? Then we won’t install it. We’re going to get a storage unit, and we’re going to put it in there, and that’s where it will stay, and the project will not exist.”
And then he felt that we were holding his art hostage. And we said, well, you know – ultimately we got him to acquiesce, but let me explain this. These were very, very difficult phone calls and conversations with almost all parties brought to tears screaming, crying. People are very passionate about this. And I can only imagine that you all have worked on projects where maybe there’s not screaming and crying, but there isn’t going to be concensus. And at some point you have to be stubborn enough to say, “This is how it’s happening.”
Now we’re not always in positions where we can do that. Certainly not with clients. But there might be times in your life where you need to be stubborn enough not to believe all the people who are telling you that what they say is the way it needs to be done. And some of those people might be your collaborators. Some of those people might be your mothers and fathers.
My mother was not happy about this the day before we did it. There was bail money set aside, passwords to social media given so that I could, you know, get help. And begging me and Andrew not to do this project. But sometimes you have to just say I’m going to be stubborn enough in the face of all these people who probably do really love you telling you not to do what you’re about to do.
And that happened again on another project called We Are Always Listening. After doing the Snowden project, we became very interested about government surveillance. They’re in love. And so a very – something that you would hear a lot in America when government surveillance came up, after Edward Snowden revealed how widespread it was, was, well, I’m not doing anything wrong, so I don’t care if they listen to me. I mean what are they going to find out, my recipes? You know. About my sex fetishes?
So we did a project to put that to the test. If you’re not doing anything wrong, do you really care if you’re being listened on? And this was a project that we did, and this news report can kind of sum it quickly, and then we can hopefully have….
Jeff Greenspan: So these were the recorders, and this was a story in Wired magazine. All we did to get this press is we just sent a letter that said, “We are listening while you read this letter,” and a tape recorder. And then it was like the front page of Wired. It got a lot of press all around the world, and it did expand to other cities. In fact, it expanded to Berlin. It was done here in Berlin as well.
So, yeah, freelance spies in New York City are publishing a private conversation. It was in the New York Times. And so we needed to be anonymous, but we also needed to distribute this idea. How do we get the press to be on message if we can’t sit down and have an interview with you? Well, we could do an interview as agents for this new division of the NSA. Here’s an excerpt from Canadian radio where I’m Agent 2.
[Radio interview played]
Jeff Greenspan: Yeah, so as the reporter in the beginning said, there was a link on the website, which simply the word “angry” with a question mark, and if you clicked it, it took you to the–wow, really bad compression. I’m sorry–ACLU, which is kind of like the people’s lawyers in America. And they were trying – the Patriot Act was due to sunset, and it needed to be voted upon, so we were trying to get people to write to their local representatives demanding that they vote to let this part of the Patriot Act sunset. So when you went to this page, it had an automatic filled out email. You put in your zip code, and it would tell you who to send it to, and it would do it all for you.
Lots of people told us not to do this. A lot of people who told us not to do this were lawyers, so it took a lot of stubbornness to finally find – you can always find a lawyer that will tell you what you want to hear if you call enough lawyers.
“Yeah, there’s like this small, tiny, gray area that you might be able to get away with it.”
“Would you defend us if we are in that small, gray area?”
“Yeah, you’ll probably get a lot of press, so I’ll go on TV and represent you. Sure.” That’s kind of how it works.
So we did not go to jail, and we were able to get 10,000 people a day for the first week to go to the site and protest this, which for a site with no media budget and no real plan, we think is a real success. And like we said, it got a lot of this narrative out into the press where people do see these things. If you’re a reader of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Wired magazine, you start getting indoctrinated into the thought of, hmm, maybe I should be questioning what the surveillance policy of my country is. Maybe I should be aware of how I’m being surveilled myself and what information is Facebook or Twitter or any of these other social feeds sharing with governments, my ISP, my Internet service provider. But again, we needed to be stubborn enough to block out all the voices that told us not to do this project and naïve enough to believe that we could pretend to be a new division of the NSA and actually record people. I wouldn’t do it now if I look back on it.
Another project where being stubborn and naïve was very useful was something called The Captured Project where we had people in prison draw people that we feel should be in prison. Here’s a quick little – and let me just say by “should be” we mean the heads of corporations that are destroying the environment and the economy and our world.
Jeff Greenspan: So each portrait at the website was presented with two sets of crimes: the crimes of the company that the CEO represented and then the crimes committed by the artists who drew the portraits. And so here are some of the press and some of the portraits. These are the Koch brothers, if you’re not aware of who they are. They own our governmental system for the most part.
Some of the headlines here. So we did this project. We had about 30 different portraits of CEOs and chairmen who run companies that we think are doing disastrous harm to the planet, and then we made a book. We made 1,000 copies of this book. We don’t know how to make books, by the way. And we sold them on our website for $40 a pop.
Here are some of the spreads. Again, on the left, all the crimes committed – sorry, on the top, all the crimes committed. Here’s Pfizer. They’ve poisoned the public. They’re guilty of racketeering, bribery, fraud, price fixing, AIDs profiteering. They’re experimented on children without the consent of the adults in Africa. And this is not just us making this out of our ass. We spent two years researching all these company corporate crimes.
Here’s the head of Chevron and the crimes that Chevron is guilty of committing, drawn by Daniel Raines who is serving three years for possession of a stolen vehicle. Here’s the head of Monsanto, drawn by someone who is serving 17 years for manslaughter.
And so eventually this project got so much attention that we were able to get a wall donated to us in New York City, and we got this whole wall painted. And what’s really cool is this is painted on the wall of the former – a former MATSA company. And this building is going to be destroyed, so very soon a wrecking ball will literally go into the Koch brothers’ faces.
But like I said, we made 1,000 of these books. We sold them for $40 each, and we gave all the profits to Bernie Sanders’s campaign.
Jeff Greenspan: Let me tell you about all the people who told us we should not and cannot do this project. This was a project originally presented to a client. We had – can I say the name? Yeah. James Cameron’s executive producers for a TV show called Years of Living Dangerously, which is a show about climate change, came to Andrew and I asking to get attention for their show in social media. And this was one of the ideas we proposed. We said, why don’t we find all these companies who are engaging in climate change crime and have them drawn by people who have committed crimes that we can better understand? And they loved the idea - most of them.
There were other people during this presentation who were like, yeah, it’s a great idea, but you want us to work with rapists? I’m like, well, we never said rapists, but, I mean, no. We think we should work with the criminals who are committing the same crimes that these companies have committed. GM is guilty of manslaughter. We can find an artist who is guilty of manslaughter. We can match the crimes with the art.
And to make a very long story short, they said, we’re going to take one of your other ideas. We presented them a few ideas, and they bought another one. And they said, this is an idea that is just too polarizing for us to get involved in.
But we took the idea, and we expanded it beyond climate change crime and did this project instead. But when we started this project, we reached out, you know, to prisons. Won’t this be a great idea? So I just started calling up prison wardens saying, hey, wouldn’t this be great? We’re going to have some of your prisoners do this project.
They were like, “Are you out of your mind? You’re not – not only are we not going to help you. You are not going to do this project. You do not want to start giving prisoners political voice. You do not want to start giving prisoners your home address or phone number or email. This is a dangerous thing for you to be doing, and you should not be doing it.”
So then we went to people who do art therapy in the prisons, and we said, “Hey, isn’t this a great idea?”
And they said, “Hey, we don’t – it took us years to get permission to bring pencils into the prisons. We’re not going to collaborate with you and lose that chance.”
So nobody would help us, and everyone told us, “You can’t do this,” from a client, to those who run the prisons, to those who are actually sympathetic to prisoners and want to help them grow through art. It felt like nobody was going to let us do this project, but we were stubborn enough to block out all those voices and naïve enough to believe that we could.
So in the end what I’m really suggesting here is, you know, we live in a world that, through the search bar on any browser, we live in a world where we can find anything. And I’m simply suggesting that, in that type of a world, we may have lost something, and that’s not knowing. I get a lot of emails and phone calls, and I hear from people who want to do projects or want to do something in their life, and they want to find the answers on how to do it. And if they can’t find the answers, or if the answers seem too difficult, they just don’t do it. And if I didn’t – if I needed to know the answers to any of the projects I just shared with you–how would I distribute them, how would I execute them–I would have just said, fuck it, I’m not going to do it.
So I think it’s really important to stay in a place of naivety, and I think – not all the time, but sometimes stay in that place. And if you’re in, whether it be at work or at home, in your private life, your projects, or your career, if people are telling you that your ideas about who you want to be, the projects you want to engage in or, like I said, the type of world you want to live in politically, if people tell you that idea is impossible, you might want to say, “Fuck that shit.”
Thank you very much. This is the longest I’ve been off my cell phone in a long time. Thank you.