If you weren’t paying close attention, you might have missed an unbelievable news story that came out of rural northeastern Wisconsin last summer. Two buddies were canoeing in Forest County when they came across a beaver dam with a prosthetic leg sticking out of it. They pulled the uncanny appendage from the water and took it home, wondering how it ended up as construction material for an industrious rodent. Then, one of them had a hunch: What if the anonymous amputee who’d apparently lost his leg had posted a Craiglist ad about it? Searching through nearly three weeks of posts on the website’s lost-and-found board, they found their man and happily reunited him with his limb. “Just did what I thought was right,” one of the men said later. “I hope that if I lost my leg that someone would return it to me, too.”
If that all seems just a little too pat to be true, don’t worry: the friends have proof, in the form of cell phone footage they just happened to be shooting when they made the discovery. A story about their find, with video included, was published on the website of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and syndicated by USA Today, then picked up by the Associated Press and its wide network of affiliates, and then reblogged across the internet. When introducing a video segment about the find on the Weather Channel, one correspondent seemed skeptical: “This is just one of those stories, where you’re saying to yourself ‘Did this really happen?’ Or is someone pulling my leg?’”
It was a casually clicky news item, with an uplifting ending and a tenuous relationship to the truth. “It seems so ridiculous, but at the same time, garbage does flow into beaver dams,” said Elliot Fuller, one of the men who supposedly discovered the leg, in an interview with SPIN. “And the beavers do put stuff in their dams. So it’s just enough reality. It’s like, where is the line between so ridiculous that no one would believe it, and ridiculous enough to make a news story, but still believable?”
Several months before the prosthetic incident, Fuller had contacted Zardulu, a pseudonymous artist whose medium is the media. Zardulu specializes in walking that fine line between plausibility and absurdity, staging surreal scenes like the leg in the dam and coaxing news organizations into covering them as if they’d actually happened. In photos, she appears in a veil, a fake beard, and a cartoonish turban–looking, as the Washington Post put it, “like an old animatronic fortune teller, recently escaped from a carnival machine.” She told the New York Times that she was born in Manhattan in 1971, but she’s otherwise unforthcoming with biographical details.
Fuller had heard about Zardulu on an episode of the podcast Reply All, which focused on her best-known creation: a rat that had supposedly taken a picture of itself with a sleeping man’s cell phone in a New York City subway station. The vermin received national news coverage in 2015 before the sleeping man admitted it had been a hoax. That man, an actor and comedian named Eric Yearwood, appeared on Reply All to tell the story of Selfie Rat, claiming that Zardulu had smeared peanut butter on the phone’s shutter button, enticing a rodent she’d trained for the occasion to press down on it. Fuller was intrigued by the artist’s sense of whimsy, and he sent her a message via social media, asking her to get in touch if she ever wanted help staging something similar in his home state of Wisconsin. She replied quickly. “It was like, ‘Yes I want to do something,’” he said. “And then a significant amount of time passed, and then it was like, ‘This is what I want to do, and we have to find a beaver dam now.’”
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Early this month, Zardulu contacted me out of the blue via Twitter direct message. She’d been a SPIN reader as an adolescent, she said, and wanted to discuss her work with someone who had a background in the arts. “Art is always derivative of the environment it’s created in,” she wrote in her first message. “I always wonder if the art world will look back on this ‘post truth’ era and see value in the myths I create or, at least, symptomatic of it.” After a few minutes of conversation, she sent a link to the USA Today version of the beaver dam story, claiming it was one of her creations. After a few days, she sent proof: photos of the dam and leg that had not been published in the media, a video showing an “alternate take” of the staged discovery scene, and posed portraits of herself in costume, holding the leg and a taxidermied beaver. Zardulu’s proposal to journalists is canny and difficult to turn down: the opportunity to debunk a viral news story, at the small cost of promoting Zardulu’s work while you’re at it.
Over DM, she was chatty, philosophical, and eager to have her work treated as serious art, rather than zany internet ephemera. She peppered her conversation with references to Marcel Duchamp, Rene Magritte, and the ancient Greek diviner Hegesistratus. She abhors the term “hoax” as a description of what she does (she prefers “myth”). Every time I attempted to arrange an interview in person or over the phone, she politely declined. “Meeting with the Washington Post was dreadful,” she said. “It’s just hard to put on a costume, mask and meet in a dark alley. No offense, I just don’t trust anyone.”
I always wonder if the art world will look back on this ‘post truth’ era and see value in the myths I create or, at least, symptomatic of it.
She makes a well-considered argument that her work is especially relevant in the age of “alternative facts” and “fake news”–disseminating disorienting tableaux via the same Facebook feeds and online media outlets through which Trump and his allies funnel their propaganda. “People in powerful positions have taken advantage of the absence of mythology and written their own in the form of commercial advertisements, political and economic systems,” she said, sounding more than a little like Roland Barthes. “We are creatures of mythological thought, from the very beginning. What my work does is use the media, who writes the modern myths, to write some of my own.
“If we’re talking about false belief, we have to start at the early stages of our evolution,” she went on. “If an individual heard a rustling sound in the forest and they ran away, they survived. It didn’t matter if it was a predator lurking in the shadows or the wind. False belief did not result in the individual dying. However, if the individual was skeptical of the rustling and it happened to be a predator, they died. I believe that’s how we’ve evolved into creatures of mythological thought. Trump has created a mythos that has rallied a portion of the population that was being neglected.”
In our DM interview, Zardulu claimed to have created between 60 and 70 “myths” that have received media coverage, beginning seven or eight years ago. She says that she only began taking credit for her work because her Selfie Rat collaborator admitted it had been a hoax. Pressed for details about some of these early, uncredited stories, she sent a link to an item on the blog Brokelyn about an alligator that had been supposedly seen swimming in a New York City waterway. “Here’s one that failed,” she wrote. “I attached a remote control submarine to this alligator and drove it around parks on the Hudson. I only saw one photo end up online.” The story fits Zardulu’s M.O. She’s also responsible for the three-eyed catfish of the Gowanus Canal, and has made unconfirmed insinuations about the mega-viral “pizza rat” video. She frequently uses taxidermied animals to symbolize the “reunification of man and nature,” she told me, and the sighting of a remote-controlled alligator swimming around Manhattan sounds as likely as that of a real one. But the tipster for the Brokelyn story said he’d taken his photo from the banks of the East River, not the Hudson.
The precariousness of my situation became obvious as our DM conversation continued: I am a member of the media, and I was talking to an artist whose speciality is disseminating fiction through the media. In a way, the myth of a masked artist named Zardulu creating fantastical news stories is just as potent as the one about gators in the sewers. After Zardulu took credit for staging Pizza Rat, the man who’d filmed and uploaded the video emphatically denied that she’d been involved. I asked Zardulu if she’d ever considered taking credit for a story she didn’t actually create. Her answer: “I never comment either way.”
I asked if she could tell me about the first piece she ever created. “It was before people talked about things going viral but it made its way from local to national news and got a lot of attention,” she told me, declining to identify the piece. Later, on the phone with Fuller, I asked if he’d ever had a similar conversation with Zardulu. “She told me not to say this, so I doubt she’ll confirm it and she’ll probably send me an angry message,” he said. “But we asked her what the first thing she ever did was, and she said that it was the Montauk Monster. I guess she does taxidermy, so she took a dead raccoon, she said, and put a parrot skull in its head, and then burned off all the fur. Just put it on the beach, and walked back and forth telling people to go look at it. And someone took a picture of it.”
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Between finding a suitable beaver dam using Google Earth satellite imagery, placing a dummy Craigslist ad for the leg, and waiting long enough that the timing didn’t look suspicious, preparation for the Wisconsin stunt took months, Fuller and Zardulu said. Zardulu had purchased the prosthetic limb for $10 at a thrift store a year earlier, not yet knowing how she’d use it. Fuller recruited his friend Jason Franklin to lend a hand, and in August, Zardulu traveled to Wisconsin to execute their plan. (Franklin declined an interview for this piece.) The three drove several hours from Fuller’s home in the Milwaukee area to a dam outside Wabeno, with two canoes in the back of Fuller’s truck. In the canoes, they made one pass by the dam to shove the prosthetic leg inside, and a second pass to pull it out. Fuller and Franklin recorded video on a cell phone on the second pass, acting like they had just found the leg. For more dramatic footage, Zardulu had wanted Fuller to get out of the canoe to retrieve the leg, but when he dipped his arm to test the water, several leeches clung to it. They settled on grabbing the leg while remaining in the vessel.
Zardulu didn’t wear her costume while they were working, and Fuller described her as “normal, mid-30s, blonde hair.” He doesn’t know her real name, and said that he usually called her “Zar” in conversation. “She was way more serious about everything than I thought,” he recalled. “Serious about the artistic aspect of the whole thing. I think I called it a prank one time, and she was angry. Like, ‘Don’t ever call this a prank, or anything I’ve ever done a prank. These are not pranks. If this is a prank, then everything Picasso ever did was a prank.’ Something to that effect. And I was like, ‘Hey, sorry.’ Then I got kind of a lecture about how the context that things are done in is what defines them, or something.”
After they’d produced the video, Fuller called the front desk of the Journal Sentinel, where the story was assigned to a summer intern. Fuller felt nervous about lying to a stranger about something so ridiculous, but he told the story that Zardulu had laid out for him: that he and Franklin had been canoeing, and that they initially thought they’d stumbled on a dead body. Fuller never spoke with Mark Warner, the man who’d supposedly lost his leg, and he figured that Zardulu had coordinated with him separately. “To their credit, they really did due diligence to establish that this was fact,” Fuller said of the newspaper. “But there’s no way to establish that it’s not real, you know? There’s not any loopholes. There’s really a beaver dam there. There really was a leg there. We really did pull it out. Every variable is real, except that it was all thought up by someone.”
Don’t ever call this a prank, or anything I’ve ever done a prank. These are not pranks. If this is a prank, then everything Picasso ever did was a prank.
I asked Thomas Koetting, deputy managing editor of the Journal Sentinel, if anyone on staff voiced concerns about running the beaver dam story. “Most of us have little or no memory of the story, so we’re not able to answer questions about context,” he answered. “For us, it was a small story online and I’m told just a brief in the print newspaper. If true, it sounds like a lot of effort for not much impact. Beyond that, we’d be responding to second-hand versions of events, and a main source who’s anonymous. That’s not much for us to work with.”
It’s hard to fault anyone at the Journal Sentinel. I’ve been there, locking fact after fact into place on a story that seemed too outlandish to be true, wondering whether I was seizing a career-making opportunity or falling victim to a hoax. There’s always more work that can be done to corroborate a given piece of reporting, and every story demands a judgment call from reporters and editors about when it’s time to stop digging and publish it. When you’re working the local human interest beat, the bar is a lot lower than it would be if you were chasing a government scandal. The Journal Sentinel had solid reporting: three corroborating sources, plus video–it’s just that all of those sources were telling the same coordinated lie. (The antipathy many journalists seem to hold for Zardulu is no surprise, given her knack for embarrassing them.)
At one point, I told Zardulu that the evidence she’d provided hadn’t fully convinced me that she was behind the beaver dam story. “Do you think I bought the same canoe, oar, beaver and went to the same dam?” she asked, as if fooling me wouldn’t be worth the effort. I answered that it would be just as easy to ask a similar rhetorical question in defense of the original story: Do you think an artist from New York really bought a prosthetic leg, flew to Wisconsin, and canoed through leech-filled water, just to dupe some local paper? With Zardulu, you have to throw Occam’s razor out the window.
The exchange reminded me of what’s so beguiling about her work in the first place. While the president is telling lies about voter fraud and a close advisor is citing an imaginary massacre to justify his spasms of authoritarianism, in a country where foreign for-profit peddlers of falsehoods sway our elections and crusading conspiracy theorists wage armed rescue campaigns at pizzerias, Zardulu is in Wisconsin with a prosthetic leg, or in Florida with a taxidermied raccoon. Her work isn’t effective as media criticism, exactly, because the stakes of the stories are so low. Instead, sitting somewhere between Andy Kaufman and Richard Brautigan, she invites us to visit another America, where the humid swamps of Manhattan still bubble with life below the streets and every fairytale you read in a book or watch on the evening news is actually true. The most successful pieces by Zardulu are the those that she hasn’t revealed–the ones that may not exist at all–because they charge the air with her peculiar electricity. Every six-legged cat, every viral Facebook story: is this real or is it Zardulu?
“In a sense, it does ruin it,” she said when I asked if she felt conflicted about taking credit for the Wisconsin job. Several times, our correspondence turned prickly because my aims as a journalist were fundamentally opposed to hers as a mythmaker. “Why wake the world from a beautiful dream when the waking world is all so drab?” she once said when a reporter questioned her about Pizza Rat. This quote hits at the heart of Zardulu’s dilemma: like almost any artist, she would like to be recognized, but the success of her work depends on keeping her audience dreaming. To claim it as her own, she has to wake us up.