A Dangerous Mind: Chatting With William Etundi, Jr.
The interviewer would like to thank Stephen Hershey for his assistance in preparing this article.
Daniel Pinchbeck: Thanks for joining us, Will. Tell us a bit about your background. Where are you from?
William Etundi, Jr.: I'm from the Bay Area in Northern California, and Sacramento. My mother is white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Like, white, white. And my father is African, from Ghana. They met in college in the seventies, and I was born in 1979 -- 32 years old, now. Yeah, I basically grew up in California with my mom. I spent some time during the summers with my dad, who lived in Houston.
My upbringing was very progressive in Northern CA. A degree of "coming of age" happened for me there, mostly in San Francisco, giving me new outlooks and perspective. Specifically, my mom went to seminary and became a Methodist minister when I was nine years old. That's when I lost religion -- when it was taken off the pedestal for me. I began looking at it more deeply and was privy to more theological discussions. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was eleven, and that changed my life.
She became a liberal, progressive minister? Are Methodists very progressive?
Not in the south. In the west, yes, especially in the Bay area. She interned at a church in the Castro when I was about twelve years old. I spent a lot of time in the Castro district, seeing this culture that I otherwise wouldn't have been exposed to -- this really proud, gay culture, very progressive. It was transformative for me. It taught me the value of gathering for the pure cause of celebration, creating community and identity, as well as the cultural and political opportunities that can stem from that. I moved to New York City when I was eighteen, still holding those ideals, and the rest is history.
Did you go to college here?
Briefly. I've been involved with computer programming since an early age. I spent two and a half years in business school studying marketing, and upon the dot com boom I was offered a job as Senior Designer at a major advertising company. I was young, only about twenty years old. See you later, college.
At the same time, you started doing different types of political activism?
Exactly. Actually, I started a bit before that. Around '97-98 I got involved with Reclaim the Streets, a political movement based around doing these large-scale renegade street parties to raise awareness around different issues, like the local gardens movement.
Once, we took over Avenue A between 7th and 6th Street. [Mayor] Giuliani was about to bulldoze these community gardens that were pretty much the only parks the locals had. Children had been raised there, picnics happened all the time, people got married, and, you know, poor people who didn't have any other place to go often stayed there. The last low-income people remaining in those zones really gathered around this community of gardens.
We erected two huge tripods, and I was up on one of them. There were two on each end of the street, we blocked the streets with these constructs that the police couldn't undo. There was a marching band, and it was a complete celebration. The idea was to create a political moment that was engaging and enticing rather than alienating. We had signs stating, We Will Celebrate Until We Win. There were gardens literally being planted in the middle of the street.
Eventually, they started shaking the poles and we came down and got arrested. I spent the night in jail. It was my first arrest in New York City.
What happened with that movement?
The movement continued for a while. Giuliani was giving away these parcels of land to developers who also happened to be his big campaign contributors -- people like Richard Singer and Michael Capaldo. But the judges in New York City are more progressive, and they saw what was going on.
There was a big battle over one garden in particular, over on 7th Street, called Esperanza, which means "the garden of hope." We were battling this whole build out for an entire year. People slept in the garden every night to watch for bulldozers. It was this really beautiful, long-protected thing. We had gatherings around a fire pit every day. None of it was "protest," it was just basic community.
Eventually, hundreds of people got involved in this. The bulldozers finally came at around five o'clock in the morning, one day. It was on the exact day the judge was supposed to hear the trial discussing some legal things that would potentially save the gardens. Bulldozers show up, and the calls go out. Everyone mobilizes within a couple hours, and the garden fills up with hundreds of people.
It turned into an immense, five-hour battle. Police tried cutting people out. Bulldozers were literally going through, tearing down trees that people were actually in -- full on fucking street battle. By the time the judge heard the case the garden was destroyed.
But the judge heard about what was going on in the streets. She was so upset that they went ahead and acted before she had a chance to hear the case that she put a moratorium on any development on any of these disputed lots. It ended up saving about two hundred other community gardens.
There were additional donations from people like Barbara Streisand, and other celebrities started getting involved. A lot of gardens ended up being preserved, actually.
Where did you turn your focus after that?
I was really into the space between people being "comfortable" and a "standard way of living" -- the standard way of thinking, being, and direction, and being someone who believes they have the power to create social, economic, and political change.
Soon, I saw this group of people who clearly identified themselves with the possibility to make things beyond themselves happen -- activists, writers, and creative people of all types. I deeply wanted to create a bridge that could help people within the "standard way of living" see the other side, or taste it, or get introduced to it, and inspire them to live a life that could be more affecting than just going to school, going to work, and then retiring.
What was that?
That was the launch of Complacent Nation, which -- as Reclaim the Streets was going, I wanted to go off in the direction of bridging this gap, so I created the web identity known as Complacent Nation.
To announce it, I threw a big party in Williamsburg where I told everyone to bring seven dollars in one-dollar bills. No one was told why. All of it ended up in this huge bag of money, in this crazy party, and it was nuts. The bills were stamped with the word, Satisfied? -- this was in November of 2000, by the way. So, the day after Thanksgiving, the biggest shopping day of the year, I took this huge bag of money with half a dozen helpers, three cameras, and full suit and mask -- the mask being a happy face with a straight bar mouth -- climbed to the top of a phone booth in the middle of Herald Square, the biggest shopping district in NYC, took out the money in big fistfuls, and tossed it out into the crowd.
It took maybe seven seconds for it to become full scale. It never turned to violent-style riot, but everything did stop within seconds. Literally, within seconds. You know, $2000 doesn't seem like a lot of money, but take some ones and crumple them up to make them kind of floaty... I was surprised at how long it lasted.
Another reason I chose that location is that right around the corner the PETA people were doing their "Fur is Murder" chant they do every year in front of Macy's. That was the exact style of protest I wanted to speak against -- well, not against, exactly, but show that that way of doing things is not effective. It's alienating, and you see these kids with dreadlocks, and they're coming from out of town, screaming, "You're killing animals!" A person almost wants to buy a fur coat just to piss them off. It's anti-effective. And they want it to be.
The launch of Complacent Nation was something you couldn't miss. You wanted it on this guttural, visceral level. And hopefully, as these dollars are floating down, you grab at them, engulfed in the melee, read the word, Satisfied? and maybe something comes through. The website address was also there. So, then you go to the website, and get more of an idea.
Obviously, activism, pranks, and acts like this have a pedigree also.
Exactly. It was actually Abbie Hoffman's first action that inspired me, which was really the introduction for the yippies to come on the scene in their time. They threw several hundred dollars into New York Stock Exchange trading floor, which caused all of Wall Street to stop, back in '67. Satisfied? was directly inspired by that.
How did the street art movement have any impact on your activism? I'm curious.
Yeah, but we didn't really call it street art. I was actually a tagger in high school, and that was part of where my politics sort of came from.
That was straight up running around the city with spray paint, owning different parts of town. But the idea of creating space and owning places and making statements outside of normal boundaries was essential to my development.
We did huge sticker campaigns through Complacent Nation. Those little straight-bar smiley face stickers were just the right size to go over most heads on subway advertisements. We'd take over huge subway lines.
Do you still think viral marketing is a big component of the work?
Definitely. It's bigger than ever. Also, I wouldn't call it viral marketing, maybe "viral communication."
Andrew Boyd, a close friend of mine who did Billionaires for Bush and different campaigns like that, that's his thing. They do amazing work that gets out messages in ways that you can't get out in other ways. It kind of gives people enticement, and then they find out more about whatever it is.
What do you think about the persistence of that kind of culture jamming? Do you feel it has much of an effect? My personal feeling is that it mainly reaches the already converted. It has an ambiance of smugness to it.
I think it can be useful to keep the conversation going.
I agree. It feels necessary at the same time.
I do feel some of the antics we did to oppose the war were so easily packaged as the oddballs that pro-war forces could point and say, "If you oppose the war, you're like these freaks dressing in costumes and marching down the street. You don't want to be like them, do you?" And people might respond, "Well, I kind of think this war is a bad idea, but I'm not them, so I'm not going to say anything."
I feel like we were really exploited in that way. In hindsight, I don't know what would've been a better way to do things. Being less silly, maybe, but you can't put a call out for that.
It reminds me of when Reverend Billy ran for mayor. During his campaign, he maintained his comedic image, but no one in opposition took him seriously.
It's a hard line to walk. In one sense, that comedy and personality is what gets you noticed to begin with. But, does it get you noticed while making what you say effective in a quantifiable nature?
What about your own reputation? Complacent was also about throwing events?
The parties were about fundraising for projects. There would be a big protest or something someone would be trying to do, or some project I was going to put out, and we'd throw a party just to get money to do what we'd really want to do, which was this type of action, or make some stickers, or send people to D.C. for a WTO protest or IMF action.
The parties were never intended to be the thing, but they kept getting bigger and bigger, and it kind of took all the oxygen in the room.
Like you were saying, maybe the protest culture seemed kind of stuffed in terms of effectiveness.
Exactly. With protests, we'd keep going through the same motions, and speaking to the same people, whereas the party culture was completely reinventing itself, and had this sort of vibrant performance aspect with ideas and things that were happening.
To outsiders, it seemed like one drunken mess after another, and it was, to a degree. At the same time, a vibrant quality of people were coming to city with fresh ideas and wanting to try new things. We were basically saying, "We're taking over this big illegal warehouse and you can try out anything you want. In fact, we'll even pay you for it." As a young performer, that's a fuck yeah moment. There was nowhere else to do that. Some of the shit we got away with was insane.
How did the 9/11 aftermath affect your thinking?
We had some big projects afterward. Being young and naïve, I was thinking we could usher in a huge moment of humanity and bringing people together. We put together what could've looked like a prayer walk. But our event wasn't a protest. It was a hard concept to pin down, but it really made sense in the moment. We held candles, and signs saying Hope Will Prevail. Of course, this was way before Obama.
And, it didn't prevail. It was fucking partisan and war and backlash and anti and pro, and it was a complete cluster fuck after that, which was really disillusioning.
What are your political views now? Do you feel that any type of meaningful change is possible within the current political system?
Well, to round off a big piece of my evolution toward where I am now, we had this huge opportunity in 2004 -- at that point, the Bush administration had so clearly failed. This type of thinking, and this type of being is clearly doomed, and the American people have to understand this.
If you remember, they benefited as much as they could off of 9/11, and they exploited it to every degree they possibly could. All they did was cause more war. Even in 2003, it was becoming obvious that this was a huge mistake and not working. I thought we'd been given a real moment to show the groundswell of street political movements from community groups could really make a difference.
And when the Republicans had the audacity to have the Republican National Convention in New York City, a place that's the antithesis of all of their policies -- except for some of the big companies headquartered here -- you know, if you're gay, poor, not white, etc., which is New York City, then this is the last place in the world that Republicans should be holding a convention.
It was obvious they were just doing it to exploit the memories of 9/11 for their political gain. There was no way this was going to work 3-4 years on. So, I spent a year of my life organizing street protests, community groups, and really building a community-based movement.
Were you still working in design at this point?
No, I'd left advertising and started working for a leftist tech group called the May First Technology Collective. We worked with Brooke Lehman to help people find housing and put meetings together to get people plugged in. I'd dedicated my whole being to that.
We had a huge party in the summer, and at that point, it was the biggest party I'd ever done. About 3500 people came and we raised $50,000, which seemed like a lot of money for a protest movement.
When the convention finally came, we just got fucking destroyed. We had better funding, better communications, and better infrastructure than ever before. Major funders like George Soros and other big "respected" names were behind us. The Dursts gave a huge space for our independent media center. I mean, it was insanely well organized. People from around the world came to protest, and the police just hammered us.
Illegal arrests across the board. It was annihilation. And, they won. They won the day. They carried the message, and Giuliani -- I remember the day it all came crashing home. It was the third day of the convention. On the front page of the Post, they had their little right-wing machine where this front page spread would often become the quote of the day afterwards, and what he said was, "The citizens of this country owe it to the victims of 9/11 to re-elect George W. Bush."
That was the message that was going to carry the day, when there's hundreds of thousands of people on the street representing the real true voice of America?
Republicans do not represent this city. I mean, come the fuck on. If we can't make an impact after years and years of work while Giuliani just says one disgusting thing, then what can we do? I watched my girlfriend get arrested illegally, just rounded up in the street and penned up and hauled away. I just thought, fuck this.
That was the end of Complacent Nation. And it took me a few minutes to figure out what was coming next, but it started The Danger, which was pure hedonism. There was nothing left. A total jump off the cliff into thoughtless hedonism.
Sounds a little bit like what happened culturally between the sixties and seventies. You made your own little transition there.
Yeah, my entire dream was over. For about four or five years, my life became deeply reckless, insane partying. Sometimes it got out of control.
Anything in particular?
Well, Halloween, for one. We always had about several thousand people, more than we could handle. The whole city just wanted to be at our Halloween party every year.
This past year got so insane; I was actually traumatized by the whole thing. We had capacity for about five thousand people. We had four warehouses all around the neighborhood, and we had it all planned out. We were going to use the streets as an expansion point.
At least eight thousand people tried to come. People were rioting to get in. It became this whole, almost religious obsession to get to this event.
Promotionally, I played with a lot of those things -- naming events things like, "Within the Land of Ash." The language I used kind of flippantly was to create this urgent atmosphere, where, it was more than just a party. It was a pilgrimage. Explicitly. People really responded to it.
Two of the warehouses got so crowded, that when the fire department finally came, I thought, thank God, man...
Why do you think people responded to the "pilgrimage" aspect so powerfully?
I use a lot of loaded religious language, and that's taken in both consciously and unconsciously. In general, people are looking for meaning, and some think they can find it in nightlife. It has the community, the euphoria, and the elements that make a gathering, religious or not, so intoxicating. Adding loaded religious language just fuels the fire. It's a collective mood.
It seems like a lot of what you've done over the years with these parties is negotiation. Dealing with semi-legal and non-legal spaces, orchestrating events, etc. How have you found all of that interaction?
It was interesting. I was in such a thoughtlessly reckless place, that I gave myself this rock star mentality. You know, you just don't give a shit. I'm just going to fucking do this.
I'd be escorting cops around completely explicitly illegal on-so-many-different-levels things with this attitude of everything is fine.
I'd be holding this energy when people are swinging off ceilings and trying to guide policemen and firemen through this completely absurd situation. I was in such a whatever state of mind, and it seemed easy. But soon, I realized I was carrying a lot of energy that was making me really crazy inside.
What's been your transition since?
Well, I hit thirty, just getting out of my Saturn Return, and just began figuring out my adult life. You know, if you don't die a rock star, eventually, it's just not cute. It's really cute at twenty-seven, twenty-eight. Beyond that, it's not going to work anymore.
Growing up became a bit of a process. Also, as far as doing illegal parties, I never want to see anything like this past Halloween ever again. It was so dangerous.
For me, it would've been, maybe, flee the country and go live in Africa. For other people -- I mean, these people's lives were at risk, and at my hands. I mean, they put themselves in this thing, and people crowded in, but we lost control, and I personally take responsibility for that.
No one was hurt, but it was by a miracle. If you take responsibility for those things, you don't go right back into that.
I thought maybe that's what you were saying in general; that you went through a phase of not giving a shit, and now you're feeling more the necessity of becoming a responsible adult, or human. Did this process eventually lead you to Artists Wanted and see.me?
I've always wanted to create a space that provides real utility to people. We're sustainable and we have a staff, and everyone gets paid well and has health insurance, and it's a real workable company. We went through the private side and had a lot more leeway. It's tough, you know. We're a startup, and we're up and down.
What's the overall model for your current projects?
Artists Wanted is about creating a huge international community of artists and creative people. We have opportunities for them to show their work online by creating these portfolios, and now we're going to do that through see.me.
We hold large competitions with big name judges who see the artists' work and give feedback. The artists give each other feedback. Then, by the judges' definition, the people who have the most viable work go to the next level.
It's a way for people who don't have access to the resources of other artists, or the network, to skip the tiring process of getting out there, trying to meet people, and get that one, slim chance of "making it happen." Also, if you're not in NYC, you don't have the same opportunities to make it otherwise.
It's mostly competitions then?
Yeah, mostly. Our big newsletter is our main thing. We have about 147,000 people on the list. It goes out weekly, and includes different things that artists might want to be involved in. Our Facebook page is super active. It's an online place for people to connect who don't really have a lot of other connections, but in a very curated way. It's curated very tightly and we select our artists carefully.
see.me is just a simple platform for people to show their stuff online in a really easy way. Pay a low monthly fee of about $7-$9 a month and create a really awesome website. Upload as many images as you want, and galleries you want to show. Unlimited everything, and you're done.
Everything that you're doing now, do you see it weaving back into the social and political activism at all?
Well, I have this space in DUMBO that I'm working on transforming into being a space for what I truly believe in. To host different art projects that don't really have a home, to host political discussion, to host critical meetings, build-outs, etc. It's the space I've always dreamed of creating and curating that could open itself to any of those projects that are aligned to my aesthetic, as well as other, externally interesting ideas.
A talk I'm doing tomorrow is really emblematic of what I want to do, which is an unspoken series of stories that haven't been told anywhere else. No recording, no tweeting, no blogging, no video, no pictures. It's people telling their real stories -- stories about crime, sexuality, religion, etc.
You're going to requisition everybody's cell phone at the door?
We'll just ask them to respect the rules, I guess.
Again, what about your political philosophy? Is there a potential for change? The system now seems to have gathered this corrupted inertia, as I'm sure you agree. Where do you see that headed?
I think our best opportunities lie in creating local communities, in every possible way that means. Local doesn't necessarily mean geographical. It could be local communities of interest groups -- for example, Reality Sandwich has these really in-depth, and, from what I've seen, really active communities natured around very local subjects. It's about creating places where people know, identify, and can build together.
One thing that was really amazing about the large parties was how it created a local economy. The bartenders and performers and everybody were able to get paid, at market rate, in a way that didn't have to compromise their identities and goals.
And, I'm hoping this space I'm building in DUMBO will be another part of that puzzle to be self-sustaining, as well as pay people on the regular to display and host events, or just work the bar and do basic things.
There are different ways of creating these local, self-supporting systems. Again, similar to how Reality Sandwich has been. On one hand, you have the local locals, but then you also have the local network of ideas and support.
I don't have a lot of hope for changing the minds of the world. It's not a goal I'm activating on. People who are looking that way, I wish them the best of luck, but it's not something I'm interested in.
Is that a tried or blind alley for you, or . . .
Blind alley is a good way to put it.
We were in Colombia together recently. How has your work with shamanism and indigenous traditions affected you?
Just to backtrack a bit more about the local stuff -- you know, I was really struck by what the Kogi said down there. They don't want their message to go out to the world; they don't want to go traveling around speaking to a bunch of people.
They're actually speaking in upstate New York this weekend.
But, it's not ... they aren't about having a stadium. They're more about the small group dynamic, having us take our own initiative and control, and having that conversation. That's what I mean by local. We were in Colombia doing a very local activity -- and that was very far away for us.
As for what shamanism means to me, it's part of practice. One could say spiritual practice, or however you want to put it.
Do you feel that the types of ceremonies and practices help you with your own self-understanding or self-healing process?
I remember one of my first, life-changing psychedelic experiences. It happened when I was twenty-two years old. I was on mushrooms. We had this bag of mushrooms leftover from Burning Man, where I had this really intense, bad trip. Like, I was Dick Cheney, and Dick Cheney was me, and thinking, "we're evil, we always kill everybody," and shit like that. You know, that trip.
We decided to finish them on a random night, like a Tuesday night, or something, with a friend of mine that I'd just met from Australia. This really amazing woman and I had this really insightful trip of like, the "this is what life can be" experience, where I realized the power of doing media work. It had always been this flippant, "for some reason, I'm really good at computers" thing. I'd never been trained as a designer, but all the materials that go out, they're all designed by me.
That trip told me, "You need to focus, and think about how much power comes with what you're doing, and where you're about to go to."
Bodily, I came into a place of power, strength, and comfort with who I am and what I'm doing, from where I'd been an unclear, sexually awkward self, not clear of who I was -- for me, a lot of that comes from being mixed race. And that trip completely ripped that out. I realized I'm a human animal.
In the same way that ayahuasca is really powerful, you realize that you're this basic, bare bones human animal, which is really liberating. Not so much that you're this brain attached to this meat stem.
It's true. There's a wholeness to you when you accept that, you know? That was extremely powerful. Totally life-changing. And, it stuck.
From there, I'd had pretty powerful psychedelic experiences, but it wasn't until my first ayahuasca experience that I'd had another deeply spiritual, emotional, life-changing level of insight that I walked away with.
It's almost really hard to hold on to your first time with ayahuasca. It's like holding an armful of ping-pong balls, and each one is extremely precious. Each step you take, you keep dropping more.