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Messing With the Culture Industry Armada


+ review of The Real World XI: Chicago


MTV’s The Real World is taped in a different city each season. The network tries hard to keep each specific location secret during taping. But this season, in Chicago, locals soon learned the house’s address in Wicker Park, a diverse neighborhood working people could afford to call home until recently, when the process of gentrification began. Largely in response to MTV’s role in glamorizing this process, hundreds of residents, activists, artists, and others took to the street outside of The Real World loft. The protests resulted in a good deal of bad publicity for the show, in print, on television, and widely on the Internet. This drew attention to the changes in the Wicker Park area and increasing antipathy to MTV and The Real World.


One person responsible for much of the attention is Nato Thompson, an art curator, writer, activist, and member of the Department of Space and Land Reclamation (DSLR), who was arrested while protesting outside of the loft. His arrest made him a focal point for the media. Having known Nato from his time here in the Bay Area, I contacted him to get his take on these events and the various issues that inspired them.



PopMatters:

It is now public knowledge that the 11th Real World complex was located in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, but how did its “top secret” location get out initially?



Nato Thompson:

That was quite simple. As top secret as it supposedly was, they ridiculously decided to move into a space right on the main street, North Street, which used to be home to a much-loved local coffee house called Urbis Orbis. We had heard they were coming, and once we saw the building painted marmalade and the security cameras go up, we figured something was up.



PM:

You were obviously an active member of the protests outside that building, but there were many groups involved, such as the Department of Space and Land Reclamation, the Wicker Park Real World Consortium, Free the Real World 7 Campaign, and Autonomous Zone. Who organized the protests? And what tactics were used to get so many people there?



NT:

Lying, cheating, stealing, extortion. No, really, it was a lot of various people with gripes against everything from gentrification to MTV to famous people. Chicago is great because MTV is just hated here—at least amongst our posse. It isn’t something we go looking for, but if they decide to land like a spaceship in our backyard, it makes a lot of sense to give them a healthy dose of vomit. People arrived for a few reasons. Flyers were circulated by an unknown party that indicated a “casting party” was going to take place at The Real World house.


Realize that Wicker Park has been going through the [usual] gentrification process, and during that time, an abundance of horrible, phony yuppies in awful shoes were everywhere. So, they showed up. Then, of course, the anarchists and DSLR and other folks were more than happy to spend a Saturday night harassing the culture industry’s multicultural heroes.



PM:

Having been arrested, you are proof that there were incidents between protesters and police. Were there any confrontations between protesters and cast members? Protest groups and MTV?



NT:

Sure, but not nearly enough. The cast, initially, were convinced that we were a massive fan base there to usher them into MTV heaven. They would exit the door and say, “Hi, I’m Tony,” or whatever. It was funny because it took them a considerable amount of time to realize that maybe, just maybe, some people not only didn’t like MTV, and also, as a result, didn’t like them. These kinds of paradigm shifts take time for some people.


We had a few verbal tiffs with the MTV crew and cast. I know that the cast members were perpetually harassed throughout the neighborhood by various locals. I even had one actress say to me, “You’re trying to save the Mexicans, but in fact you’re driving them out by being here.” I said, “I’m driving them out? What are you talking about?” She said, “Yeah, you’re a hypocrite. In fact, I’m half Mexican myself.” I said, “Wow, aren’t you a hero? I’m glad the Mexican people can put their faith in you.” She was fairly ridiculous, but it was nice to see that she had done enough work to have even the most basic defense of gentrification ready. Was a slight education occurring?


My dad works in film and I have as well, but nonetheless, I didn’t really feel bad for the crew and cast—they make a lot of money working on these things. A little harassment for [MTV’s] unethical methods is simply the right thing to do.



PM:

What exactly got you arrested?



NT:

I’m not sure. I think it’s because I was in front of the building, writing on the sidewalk in chalk. I was easily accessible when the po-po decided it was “arrest time.”



PM:

Were you surprised that MTV pressed charges against you? What was the legal outcome?



NT:

Sure. I didn’t think they would want the bad publicity. But they are far more arrogant than I ever imagined. They aren’t the super-slick spin-doctors you think they are. They really will fall over themselves just to get their endorphins pumped up, with a megalomaniacal will to power. I think they’re prosecuting us because we dared mess with their Culture Industry Armada! Two producers would show up in court; one looked like Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley and the other looked like Jeff Goldblum, both totally dorky and slimy. As far as the outcome, I really don’t know. It still isn’t over. We have yet to go to court. I sometimes like the idea of writing my prison diaries because MTV hired COINTELPRO.



PM:

All of the incidents, including your arrest, were conveniently left out of the series, although there was paint all over the sidewalk and splattered around the front door in some episodes. What kind of “vandalism” went on?



NT:

I can’t say for sure. There was a large demonstration that blocked the main street. Maybe 300 people showed up and someone grabbed a large bucket of red paint and nailed the door. It was quite a moment. The security guards tried to arrest the guy, but the crowd pulled him away. So, right, the door got nailed in the uproar.


As far as not showing the protests on the show, well, I thought they actually would, just to get some publicity. You know, a lot of folks were betting that they would use the protests in the show as fuel to prove how totally hip and self-reflexive they are. Co-opt it like MTV knows how to do. Well, guess what, that isn’t true. I was rather surprised. I am now leaning to the belief that showing that people actually think MTV sucks ass, is just not good in the long run for them. It’s kind of a crack-in-the-dam theory.



PM:

How long did the “disturbances” last altogether? There were more than one protest and incident with police, right?



NT:

It lasted probably about a month. After the arrests, the police protection got fairly serious. They had the gang tactical units out there and cordoned off the building for a block in all directions. For a little bit, it was like the WTO [World Trade Organization protests] or something, obviously on a much smaller scale. Anyway, the [local] press went nuts and ate the story up. And well, we didn’t want to spend too much time dealing with someone [MTV and the cast] so obviously dorky, so we moved on.



PM:

I read something where this guy Jack Wasserman, who owns the Local Grind coffee house, was openly excited about the business he assumed the show would bring. Also, a neighborhood resident named Blair Fischer griped: “Gentrification is a reality. I don’t know what you’re going to do with protests. It won’t change anything. It’ll just make people more afraid to live here.” What do you think?



NT:

That dude at the Local Grind is a big chump. His coffee stinks and as can be popularly confirmed, his pants do as well. You know, new business owners that want to serve snappy eats to the newly arrived yuppies will talk up a storm about serving the community so long as they aren’t forced to deal with the community that can’t afford their tasty éclairs and lattes. As far as Mr. Blaire Fischer goes, it should be noted that people did and do live there. Rents were affordable. People were cordial.



PM:

The series brought Wicker Park received a lot of media attention. Has the neighborhood changed since the taping?



NT:

The neighborhood had changed before the taping. Just a few months before, Starbucks moved down the street. It was a done deal. [MTV] wouldn’t come until the welcoming carpet had been laid; they were kind of a rock video maraschino cherry.



PM:

What do you think about the way The Real World shapes its “reality”?



NT:

It’s a commercial, right? It’s not a show. I don’t think they ever really pretended to be anything else. Chicago saw it as their commercial and MTV saw it as theirs. I wouldn’t really expect anything else from a show owned and operated by Viacom, the second largest media corporation on the planet.



PM:

Beyond the The Real World, MTV also airs programming that “exposes” subcultures, from backyard wrestling to “furry” sexual fetishes. How do you feel about all of this “lifestyle” programming?



NT:

Like I do about most programming. It’s just visual stimulation to make you feel okay about schlepping it at your job in the morning and alienated enough to keep your purchasing power up. I don’t really have any specific gripes against MTV except that back in the ‘80s, they were one of the first to really capitalize on the commodification of counterculture. Now it is a network trope.



PM:

With cooptation and commodification having become the tactics of choice with which establishment “power” counters opposition, where do you see this kind of activism going into the future?



NT:

Well, I sure hope people find it fun and entertaining to attack the supposed “objective” media. The information war is serious and though it is veiled in things as trivial as pants, sodas, tunes, and dish soap, the people behind it are dead serious about maintaining control. The good news too is: they aren’t used to being messed with. Just like the cops in the Battle of Seattle, they don’t have a game plan. This just means that you’ll get good and generally funny results. You might get arrested, but come on, big whoop. Mess with sitcoms and quasi-sophisticated shows like Movies of the Week. They’re all just one giant, boring pastime that has insidious underpinnings. Not only that, but revealing points of dissent against major media is incredibly important. Putting holes in their credibility always has long-term effects. Always. It all adds up in exposing popular disillusionment.



PM:

After all the noise Chicago made for MTV, where do you see The Real World going into the future?



NT:

I have no idea. How is that dumb thing still on the air? You know the idiocy on television defies all common sense. I suppose the Emmys, or at least Israel. Some friends and I figure that The Real Third World is just a stone’s throw away.

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