The Myth Maker

Zardulu. Photo used with permission.

A New York City performance artist called Zardulu claims to be behind many of the most outlandish stories of the past year. A deep-dive into causing amazement and wonder in an age of fake news.

In June this year, the digital newswires briefly lit up with the photo of a raccoon riding on the back of an alligator. The picture was featured on countless publications, among them even the venerable BBC. But “Gatorboarding”, as the incident came to be known, wasn’t without controversy. After having being called a fake, fact-checking site Snopes took up the matter, ending their investigation with the ominous line “Time will tell if Mr. Jones surfaces to provide corroborating evidence for his Gatorboarding photo.”

Which facts can you trust?

In many ways, the fact-checking is as absurd as the story itself. Here was a perfectly harmless – if unlikely – incident, a nice story for the slow summer months. But in hindsight, the story stood for what would become a much bigger controversy: In the fallout of Donal Trump’s election, the internet became embroiled in a fake news scandal. If even the animal pictures were staged, which facts could you still trust? And who would go through the trouble of setting up such an elaborate hoax?

The answer to the latter question – if one is to believe it – is a New York City performance artist called Zardulu, who has claimed or been revealed as the mastermind behind this and other stories. It’s a person that vehemently rejects the term hoax, and instead prefers the term “Zardulism”.

An alleged Zardulism: The infamous Pizza Rat that delighted the internet in late 2015.

The artist is completely anonymous. On the internet, she inhabits the personality of nefarious-looking wizard, with the bio reading “I am the Mythmaker. Writer. Artist. Founder of Zardulism. (…)”. Even by the internet’s standards, it’s an eclectic appearance – and to our knowledge nobody knows the true identity behind it.

That, of course, is all part of Zardulu’s mission. The artist believes that myths are sorely lacking in our 21st century existence – and that new ones need to be created. In her self-authored “The Founding and Manifesto of Zardulism”, the artist writes:

“In their classical sense, myths are dead. (…) They were once messages in bottles from shores our ancestors had visited, how they made the passage and what beauties awaited us along the way. We no longer gain these valuable lessons from mythology. It is produced with the sole purpose of exploiting us and has stripped out lives of substance and forced us into a repetitive and automated process of life.”

“In Zardulism, the imaginary streams into the actual and washes over it, flood it until it has been engrossed. (…) Zardulism asserts that the creation and perpetuation of myth is art of the highest form. (…) Zardulism is the master we crave in an attempt to counter our mastery and understanding of the world.”

You can read the Manifesto here

Zardulu’s story isn’t just intriguing, it’s also timely: Both in the U.S. and Europe, political polarization is on the rise, and the battle lines that get drawn between opposing factions are often based on the question of what is factually correct. That’s why we reached out to Zardulu with some questions.

Where is the line between a myth and a lie?
Well, by definition, a myth is a lie. However, referring to something as a lie creates a negative connotation. It’s the same with the term hoax. One difference I think is the intent and the consequence of the lie. To lie for financial gain is fraud. To lie in an effort to defame someone is slander or libel. To lie simply to establish a sense of wonder in the world, that’s mythology.

The difference is authorship: A myth exists without there being one specific person that we can attribute it to. But once we know who is behind it, we start to wonder about the purpose or the intention of that person. Do people misunderstand you sometimes and think that you do it for attention or financial reasons?
Every myth was written by someone. Unicorns, mermaids, dragons. They didn’t just enter the collective consciousness. Someone put them there. I’ve never made a dime off of what I do. Quite the opposite.

The internet is a hype machine: It skews towards the scandalous or the unexpected, spreading the most outlandish news at lightening speed. In this game, Zardulu isn’t just training rats and setting up alligators, the artist is effectively gaslighting: Calling in question our collective sanity as the animal kingdom around us behaves in unexpected or unlikely ways.

Of course, making such claims is a whole lot easier than verifying them. The artist, after all, hides behind an opaque identity, a mask, and a wacky nom de guerre. But if their mission really is to delight and surprise, it’s the very mystery that enables it.

Would you prefer that people would not know that you are behind the rat and the racoon on the alligator?
That’s really why I hadn’t come forward. However, I’ve learned a lot since I first suggested that no one reveal the works of Zardulism.
Why?
The raccoon riding the alligator was sent out on news wires around the world. It appeared in the largest papers in China, India, Russia. Everywhere. Tens, maybe hundreds of millions of people saw it. When I told the Washington Post that I fabricated it, the story got a few hundred shares. No one cares about the reveal so, no one ever hears about it”

What makes a myth so appealing is that it makes for an engrossing story. A good myth also plays on our confirmation bias, reaffirming the belief that there are truly astonishing things in the world – a perfect escape from the “repetitive and automated process of life” as Zardulu called it in the manifesto.

Zardulu, posing with the props for “Gatorboarding”.

But that quality of a myth is a double-edged sword: As much as a myth is wondrous, it is still a lie, only exponentially more powerful because of the way it is delivered. The internet is awash with ideological battles about “fake news”, right down to the double whether such a thing exists or simply serves as an excuse to silence inconvenient opinions. Sharing the picture of an alligator and a raccoon suddenly seems to stand for a much more dangerous tendency: That of buying into a hype because it sounds good.

One myth’s revelation can lead to a whole other myth. I guess you are the prime example of that.
For me, I wanted to be in the conversation about fake news. No one was covering any other aspect of it than the divisive political mythology. For me, there’s a trade-off: I’m exposing a myth I wrote but I’m getting the Washington Post to publish an interview with a wizard. For me, that’s an artistic sacrifice that I’m willing to make

Did you also mean to highlight how easy it is to lead people to believe in things once it is on the news or even just social media?
The “gotcha” aspect has never been my motivation. It’d be like a painter who is painting something just based on what they think would be a positive reaction. It’s creatively vapid.

There is the danger that it brings people to the point where they doubt everything – even the real maybe danger is too judgemental but you get what I mean. The belief in the fake can make us disbelief in the real and thereby take away all enchantment
People used to rail against Rene Descartes and Cartesian philosophy for the same reason. The idea of a Dues Deceptor, or evil demon, that could alter our sensory information and control our reality. In the end, it didn’t cause society to crumble but it did lead to a lot of interesting philosophical discussions and still does.
I agree. I mean I want to believe in what I know is not real.
Does it hurt children to believe in fairies? No, no more than it hurts adults to believe in a raccoon riding an alligator.

The self-proclaimed mythmaker puts a focus on staged animal behavior that leaves the rest of us amazed and puzzled. Animals inspire her, she says. To her, a subway rat taking a selfie is as inspiring as Adele Bloch-Bauer was to Gustav Klimt. But it is about more than pure aesthetics or the viral characteristics of a pizza-carrying rat in an age of trending animal videos.

Zardulu thinks of her work as true myths, the way the ancient Greeks or Romans did. The raccoon riding the alligator is absurd. But so was Sisyphus attempt to roll up that rock.

“Perhaps the alligator represents the mythological boatman, Charon. Hermes acted as psychopomp bringing souls to Charon for passage into the netherworld. Of course, Hermes was also the trickster, like me. You could also look at the raccoon and alligator in archetypal patterns of love and cruelty or bravery and sacrifice.”

Ultimately, this could be her rebellion against an age that has exchanged deeper meaning and narratives for memes and gifs. Zardulu says, that there are still about 60-70 myths that she has not yet disclosed. Some she cherishes and wants to share them with the world. The biggest mystery however, remains her persona. In the movie The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey’s character Verbal Kint says that the greatest trick the devil had ever pulled, was to make the world believe he doesn’t exist. “I suppose it’s the problem with being anonymous is that you can’t really prove you’re real”, she says. Could Zardulu’s ultimate trick be to convince the world that she does, in fact, exist?

Maybe