This year’s New Frontiers program at the Sundance Film Festival was bigger and more aggressive than ever, but one of the most startling presentations came from a man who wasn’t there.
The cast of multimedia performance piece “ABACUS” is credited to Paul Abacus, Nick Konow and John Luna, but only two of those are real people.
The eponymous Abacus, who the Sundance catalog credits as “the visionary/prophet/madman/cult icon,” is a man who believes passionately in the dissolution of national borders. He has a Wikipedia page, has been profiled in Southwest Airlines’ in-flight magazine and is the subject of a TED talk.
He also doesn’t exist. Paul Abacus is an invention, a persona created by real-life performance artist Lars Jan and his production company, Early Morning Opera, whose works have been commissioned by the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, Symphony Space, REDCAT, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
While Paul Abacus doesn’t have a birth certificate or a social security number, Jan and his collaborators are entirely sincere about the ideas that make him tick: They created Paul as a vessel to represent their belief that too many of us are being fooled all too often.
Jan let Indiewire in on the secret before Sundance and we asked if he would provide a primer on how to invent an imaginary person. So, with information as power, this is what he told us. — Dana Harris
We fabricated a person — Paul Abacus — in order to conduct an investigation into how contemporary persuasion works, particularly in the form of presentations. You know, those setups with a charismatic speaker and a projection behind. The lingua franca of our world today.
And, we wanted to figure out just what makes a person “exist” in today’s heavily screen-based world. Making people think that Paul was real was not a stunt. No one’s being punked Ali G-style and we’re not selling mp3s like Aime Eguchi.
We want to point out the fact that many, many folks out there on those screens are just making up who they are. The more money they have behind them, the better produced their fictions. Who believes in these fairy-tale suits, hot news anchors, on-message politicians? Our answer: Too many.
Just how are these people concocted, anyway? Here’s Early Morning Opera’s guide to manufacturing a small-scale public persona:
1. Substantiate the identity via one or more people, preferably with some authority. Curators always gave a short introduction prior to every presentation of “ABACUS,” in which they talked about first encountering Paul in the Japanese subway. That’s all it took for the audience generally to buy his existence, even in a theatre.
2. Create an online trail, however small. This one’s uber-obvious, but we’ve found that it doesn’t take more than a handful of well-placed Google hits to define the history and work of a person for nearly every viewer.
3. Point attention, preferably cameras, at your mirage. We outfitted Paul with a team of personal paparazzi. In our culture, 10 cameras pointed at a person instantly substantiates not only their existence, but also their worth. People on the street inevitably want to know who that is; one of our staged bystanders or fans tells them, “that’s Paul Abacus!”
4. Don’t keep the whole shebang a total secret. Letting key folks in on the secret not only helps amplify the effect of #1 above, but also creates a community intent on growing your genie. People love to rub lamps.
5. Create barriers. We shield Paul from the public with cameramen and security, amplifying his clout, while preserving his remove and the right degree of anonymity. Sort of like embodying the essence of the velvet rope.
6. Overbook. Paul’s too busy to make most events. He would be slated for talkbacks, panels and interviews, but was almost always unable to make them, because of a more pressing, important commitment.
7. Create a biography full of rich details that are challenging to substantiate. Aim for compelling specifics that don’t leave much of a breadcrumb trail. For example, Paul lived in the Japanese subway for a year, worked as a park ranger and had a stint as an aquarium salesman.
8. Give your persona credit for complex, hard work. Leadership, vision, writing, big ideas, all of it. The downside being that the someone(s) who did the work don’t get the credit.
9. Find a great actor who’s willing to have his work go unnoticed. We work with one. We’re not telling you his name, although he has lamented a few times the fact that he essentially has a one-man show in Sundance that no one can know about.
10. Like Tom Waits said, make your persona big in Japan. Or anywhere that’s both culturally chic and linguistically opaque to your primary audience on the web. We often call Paul “a Japanese cult-icon” which a) makes most people think he must be interesting; and b) is very difficult for anyone other than a Japanese person to investigate on the web because of all that katakana, hiragana, kanji and so on.
For more information about Paul Abacus, there’s a 1 pm press conference today at The Yard. “ABACUS” will play two more times at Sundance, tonight and Friday, at 7:30 pm. “ABACUS” next plays REDCAT in Los Angeles February 2-4. Learn more about “ABACUS” here.