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
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?
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?
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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?
bigger than ever. Also, I wouldn't call it viral marketing, maybe "viral
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Were you still working in design at this
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.
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.
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?
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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?
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
What's the overall model for your current
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?
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
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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.
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.