Last weekend, a pop-up shop called Dumb Starbucks appeared in Los Feliz, Los Angeles, five miles east of the Hollywood Hills. It seemed like any other Starbucks store, but it gave away “dumb” versions of items sold by the Seattle-based coffee giant: Dumb Iced Vanilla Latte and Dumb Blonde Roast. For full effect, there were compact discs with names like “Dumb Jazz Standards,” “Dumb Taste of Cuba,” and “Dumb Nora (sic) Jones” by the registers. Californians waited in line for hours for the “horrible coffee,” while Starbucks grew flustered at the use of its “protected trademark.” Before the caffeine buzz could wear off, the loud voices of the social-media sphere started wondering: Who put up Dumb Starbucks? And was it a legitimate political statement about consumerism—perhaps an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street—or a well-executed viral marketing stunt?
A bulletin in the window of the faux café provided a clue. It read, “In the eyes of the law, our ‘coffee shop’ is actually an art gallery and the ‘coffee’ you’re buying is considered the art.” But the mystery of its provenance continued until Monday morning, when a man named Marc Horowitz chimed in. He posted on Facebook, “My project is causing quite a stir—lol.” His declaration received more than a hundred likes and more than a little media attention.
Horowitz’s story seemed logical. He is, as the Hollywood Reporter wrote, “an L.A.-based conceptual artist” known for his social experiments. In 2005, when he was working as a photo assistant at Crate & Barrel, he snuck his phone number into the home-furnishing chain’s national catalogue with the message “Dinner w/ Marc.” Thirty thousand people called, and he spent the next year crossing the country in a small R.V., eating dinner with some of them. The project, known as “The National Dinner Tour,” made the rounds on local news and late-night television. Five years later, he was selected, from over nine thousand applicants, as one of AOL’s twenty-five “innovators and visionaries.” The judges, who included the director of the Whitney, awarded Horowitz a grant of twenty-five thousand-dollars for his “socially oriented projects and playful enterprises.” Days after he received the prize, Horowitz launched “The Advice of Strangers,” in which he relinquished control of his life to the public for one month, making daily decisions based on the results of Internet polls.
Horowitz posted the Hollywood Reporter article on his Facebook page with three smiley faces, which seemed to end the story. But, a few hours later, the comedian Nathan Fielder held a press conference in the familiar Starbucks-green apron and revealed that he was, in fact, responsible for the gag, and that it was a promotion for the upcoming season of his Comedy Central series, “Nathan for You.” Horowitz’s post had been a hoax wrapped in prank.
It was also, Horowitz contends, art. The bulletin in the window claimed that Starbucks’s giveaway coffee was art, but Horowitz believes that the art actually began when he claimed Dumb Starbucks as his own. On Monday, as part of a lecture on appropriation and hijacking, for the Internet-studio-art class that he teaches at the University of Southern California, Horowitz posted his claim on both Twitter and Facebook. It was “an experiment and lesson,” he told me in an e-mail. “It blurred authorship and caused confusion within the media hysteria. With this simple gesture, I was able to steer the global media discussion around Dumb Starbucks.”
Susan Orlean recently wrote about Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender, the duo behind the Twitter account Horse_ebooks. Their generation of tweets was a high form of the weird and the cutting edge, a mashup of prank and performance art. Her article explains that “a lot of net art defies the attributes usually associated with art: it isn’t singular, it doesn’t require the artist’s hand, it isn’t necessarily visual, it is often intangible, and, because it is usually distributed free, it is hard to collect and monetize.” This, it turns out, is a pretty accurate description of Horowitz’s disquieting, free, and interactive work. When I pressed Horowitz to demonstrate the magnitude of his most recent hoax, it quickly became clear that, for him, duping wasn’t exactly the point: what mattered was the unravelling. “My project is about social-media appropriation,” Horowitz said. “In art, there is an entire history of appropriation: from Picasso to Duchamp to Rauschenberg to Warhol to Richard Prince to Jeff Koons to Christian Marclay.” Besides, he added, quoting the artist Jeanette Hayes, “When you put something on the Internet, it’s mine.”