Video Insurgents

Making the world safe for television viewers

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The Mindbomb compound in Lutz looks as likely to shelter rightwing survivalists as subversive video artists. And it's about that hard to finagle your way into. Mindbomb mouthpiece Photon Phil has to check with fellow Mindbombers before he'll grant permission to visit. Bringing a photographer, he says, is out of the question.

A dilapidated stockade fence conceals most of the equally decrepit house. A pickup truck and a white van sit just inside the closed gate, which bears a sign that says "beware of dog."

The dog turns out to be a sweet-tempered border collie/retriever mix. Photon Phil, Arto Norris and Fuzzy Wheeler, three members of the Mindbomb collective, are similarly polite and undangerous looking. In fact, the trio bears an eerie resemblance to the Lone Gunmen in The X Files. They have real names but prefer to use noms de guerre to preserve the sense of mystery and subversion. It's easy enough to figure out their names if you want to; just go to the website (mindbomb.tv), and you'll find them all, complete with contact info.

Inside the house, the living room has been turned into a studio where the Mindbombers create what they call their "subvertisements" — national commercials, hacked from television and altered to create satire.

One of my favorites is the dreamy Chevy Tahoe ad that uses a poem, with ethereal music and gorgeous shots of mountain streams, meadow flowers and amber waves of grain to create the illusion that handsome, outdoorsy, sensitive individualists drive SUVs. The final frame is a romantic shot of a lone figure savoring a waterfall, in the company of his beloved SUV. Mindbomb has kept the commercial largely intact, changing only the text of the poem. It starts out like this:

"I remember an era a long time ago

when I fought for the Earth and the sea.

But now I think my comfort comes first

And everyone knows it but me."

Another skewers a self-important ad for CNN news with the tag line, "We rotate the same 15 minutes of sensational news 24/7. Our stockholders wouldn't have it any other way."

What Mindbomb does, says Fuzzy, is attempt to counteract the manipulative power of television advertising and news.

"TV is a one-way medium," he says. "We're told what we need to be happy, healthy, beautiful and safe. No one's saying 'don't consume.' That message is never on TV." Mindbombers know they'll never achieve the ubiquity of television ads, but they are working to get their message out through art galleries, film festivals, the Internet, public access and college television stations.

"We'll do broadcast masters for anyone who will accept them," says Phil. "When the Web gets more video friendly, we can put out 30- to 45-second videos that people can pass along through e-mail." The group also wants to take their message to the schools. "We'd like to reach younger kids," says Phil. "Especially those who are being poisoned by the messages of mass media," adds Fuzzy.

In addition to their website, you can see their work on Joe Redner's public access show, and at the upcoming Chinsegut conference and Ybor Festival of the Moving Image (see this week's cover story and Film column for details.)

Mindbomb is part of a larger movement sometimes called "culture jamming," altering political and consumer messages for satirical ends. "Jamming" in this usage refers to the practice of interrupting or jamming broadcast transmissions. One of the longest-standing domestic culture-jamming groups is The Billboard Liberation Front (billboardliberation.com), a San Francisco-based guerrilla group that has been altering billboards since 1977. Another is Adbusters (adbusters.org), a not-for-profit media foundation that sponsors culture-jamming acts and publishes a website and magazine filled with spoof ads, including the take off on the "Got milk?" ad featuring Dick Cheney with a crude oil mustache and the words "Got oil?" scrawled on his bald pate.

"We don't want to be preachy," says Fuzzy. "We want to have fun and reach people through humor."

Among their funniest pieces is an ad for Big Red that features a sexy woman, shot for maximum sex appeal. Mindbombers have added flashing circles over each bouncing breast, the left reads "buy" and the right reads "gum;" a text box below reads, "this gum will not get you laid."

Such fun isn't cheap. Video production is labor intensive, and the equipment is still fairly expensive. All three Mindbombers interviewed have full-time jobs, and they say they have been known to dig discarded equipment out of trash bins. Phil shoots and edits videos for medical professionals and rides his bike to work. Arto designs and builds sets, and Fuzzy works, ironically, in the advertising industry. He does not see his job as antithetical to his art. "It's not a crime to make a commercial," he says. "It's just that commercials have a disproportionate voice."

Phil adds: "We're the ghosts in the machine. Everyone's gotta work, but everyone should do something to help — especially if they work for one of the big evils, like oil or insurance."

Senior Editor Susan F. Edwards can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 122.

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