An assistant puts a cigarette into the creature’s mouth. Smoke billows from its blood-soaked mouth. Hacking coughs are muffled under layers of rubber and moist green fur.
The creature is lowered into the water. It floats on its back, starfished, and spins erratically. A voice rises over the swell and the seagulls: “How do I fuckin’ steer this thing?!”
The voice is instantly familiar to anyone who watched cable TV in the small hours during the ‘90s, or has listened to satellite radio in their car, or has taken their kids to watch numerous beloved animated properties. Bart Calvin is the big, wounded animal Gen X loves to watch wriggle and writhe in its own filth. No matter how malformed BC’s body becomes as a result of his addictions, we can’t bring ourselves to have him put him down; no matter how mangled his voice gets, we pick up what we need from the crushed cadence, filling in the blanks from the stand-up specials, best-of compilations and multiple sequels we’ve consumed.
BC is a precious ruin, and the nostalgia his surviving form engenders has brought him here: scaring bathers dressed as a mutant sea creature while members of the Yoghurt Sickos content collective circle to capture the lulz that will go out to their millions of subscribers.
BC is here because he became an unmarketable mess, his flakiness stopped being charming when it took an aggressive turn during an episode of the Bumpy & Slowpoke radio show – he went on an extended tirade against his ex-wife, his bookie, his dealer and “the demonic cocksuckers who’re tryin’ to hold me down.” Blacktyde Media announced it was digitally replicating CB’s voice for the next Law Horses movie; his spot on Bumpy & Slowpoke was filled by a younger, hungrier comic; his stand-up specials on the Blacktyde Media archive were prefaced by a warning that they contain “views and attitudes from a different time” about being an unrepentant lush, degenerate gambler, unfaithful husband and all-round dirtbag.
It seems like culture’s sculptors lost their patience for such messiness; they switched out that kind of catharsis for physical discipline. The kids line up to mortify themselves, in the hope of pleasing a nebulous deity who swings the big shiny keys to nirvana in front of them.
The assistant dives in, grabs the creature’s legs and submerges them. Some of the stiffness goes out of the creature’s limbs and it stays upright. The creature starts to thrash its arms and the voice says: “Get the fuckin’ head off!” The assistant lifts off the creature’s head and we see BC red-faced and gasping, spluttering as he says: “I can’t fuckin’ breathe in this thing!”
Standing and filming at the water’s edge is sokdonk – the most high-profile content creator in the Yoghurt Sickos collective, its logistical and philosophical centre – who tells BC that he only needs to get “a couple of good scares,” and asks him if he needs his puffer. sokdonk throws the puffer to the assistant, who puts it in BC’s mouth and gives him three long hits. BC wheezes, coughs, then seems reanimated, regaining some flicker of his old irrepressible spirit.
The creature wades towards a knot of bronzed bodies with only its head above the water, then it bobs down and comes up again behind the bodies, growling and flailing its arms. Some bodies scream and shamble towards the beach, but other bodies back away bemused – it seems like an underwhelming scare, but sokdonk tells me: “We’ll make it squirt in the edit.”
Then the actual prank goes off – one of the bodies turns out to be a plant, they grab the creature by the throat and push it under the water with both hands. The creature is underwater for a distressingly long time, sokdonk pumps his fist and says: “Raw product, OPU!” (CB has been renamed OPU by sokdonk, it stands for “Our Problematic Uncle.”) The body lifts the creature and drags it onto the sand, laying in a few kicks to its stomach before walking off.
We run to the beach and gather round the creature. sokdonk crouches over the creature and says with a snicker: “How you feeling, bro?” The assistant drops to his knees and takes off the head. CB gags, coughs up fluids, then struggles to say: “You motherfuckers.” Everyone laughs and chants “OPU.” The assistant gives CB a hit from the puffer and helps him up to a sitting position. sokdonk says: “You think you were dying there?” CB says: “I kinda did.”
The original Dadaist tendency of the Yoghurt Sickos has hardened into something much slicker and more cynical since their content started gaining traction – a network of content creators is sequestered at a sprawling waterfront property once owned by a disgraced financier (you know the one). The newbie content creators live in a communal dorm area, stuffed into bunk beds like grunts waiting to be deployed into a war that relentlessly chews up young bodies; while those with the larger platforms have individual quarters. Everything is about eyeballs; your place in the structure is determined by your current subscriber and view counts – once exalted creators have been known to slide into barracks hell after being cringe or illegal.
Yet BC is exempt from this pecking order, by virtue of his legacy media clout.
I follow BC up the stairs, he leaves a trail of water from his wet T-shirt and his sandals squelch with every step. He goes into the bathroom. His room is spacious and full of light, there are framed posters on the walls for movies and stand-up specials; when he catches me looking at them, he says: “That’s all the bitch left me. ‘A few little reminders,’ she told me. It’s like fuckin’ torture. But you gotta look at somethin’, right?” His voice has a nasal quality now, and he has a slight lisp, it’s often difficult to determine where one word ends and the next begins. He sits on the bed in his dressing gown. I ask him how he feels about what happened today. He runs a hand through his graying but still full head of hair and says: “You think I haven’t done more fucked up things to stay alive in this business? It’s a fuckin’ blackmail ring, kiddo! Why not bring it all into the open, I say. You know, there’s no bullshit with these kids. They don’t walk around actin’ like they’re makin’ great fuckin’ art here.” He looks at the posters and says: “Hey, at least I don’t have to pretend to be a fuckin’ horse no more,” laughs and shrugs.
I leave BC to take a nap and speak with some of the newbies; they all give me the same spiel – “very excited,” “grindset,” “massive exposure” – bright-eyed and ready for the hostilities.
I sit in on the editing of the footage from this afternoon – sokdonk has recorded an intro, which has all the usual jarring cuts and strange voice effects, in which he informs us: “So, this weird old dude is hanging around the palace, leaving his stink all over the place. He’s from, like, the ‘90s. Go ask your meemaw and peepaw. Anyway, he used to be someone and he wants to hang, so we thought we’d see just how bad he wants dat yog! Like and subscribe, pissdrinkers!”
There’s banging on the door of the bland guest room they’ve got me in. It’s sokdonk, he smirks and says: “You might wanna see this.” I follow sokdonk down the hallway to outside BC’s room. A newbie’s confused face is lit up by the display of the camera he’s trying to set up.
The assistant comes down the hallway, struggling with something heavy. When he gets closer, I see he’s holding a bucket. Liquid is sloshing over the sides. The smell is overwhelming.
The assistant hands sokdonk the bucket. sokdonk turns to the camera newbie and says: “We set?” The camera newbie nods and blinks rapidly. sokdonk holds up the bucket and says: “Okay, so this old weirdo’s still hanging around. We’re getting really sick of the smell of this dude, he doesn’t wash himself, or something. So we’re gonna give him a taste of his own stink. All the boys have done a donation, so let’s go and give OPU a bath!” The assistant carefully opens the door of BC’s room and steps back to let sokdonk enter, followed by the camera newbie.
sokdonk says: “Time to wake up!” He dumps the bucket onto the bed. BC gasps and growls as he staggers to his feet. sokdonk giggles, looks at the camera and says: “Had another accident there?” BC takes a swing at sokdonk, who dodges, hops on his toes, and dances around BC.
I get out of the way as BC stomps out of the room, emitting a hoarse groan which turns into a scream as he reaches the hallway. The camera newbie follows, and I hear BC say between coughing fits: “You no-good little motherfucker! I know all about this! I know about your fuckin’ uncle, man! He was just as much of a fuckin’ creep as you! He was part of that whole fuckin’ thing they uncovered! But he knew where all the fuckin’ exits were! He got the fuckin’ tip-off! How’d you think he got this place so fuckin’ cheap?! How’d you think he didn’t get took down, huh?! I’ve made a lot of dough for your family, and yeah, I’m grateful for the second chance and all, but you gotta start treatin’ the talent right. That’s all I’m sayin’…”
BC’s voice trails off when sokdonk goes into the hallway. I peer round the door frame and see sokdonk pull BC into a hug, then hold BC at arm’s length and say: “You fucking stink, man! Take a shower!” As he walks away, sokdonk says, “That was epic, bro! Keep that fire!”
The edited footage of BC’s diatribe has his voice replaced with the sound of a baby crying, and a cartoon dummy covering his mouth – sokdonk lets out a high-pitched giggle when he watches it back in the editing suite. I ask sokdonk about what BC said, and he says without looking away from the screen: “Bart was the clown at my sixth birthday party. It was a favor for my uncle. He was Funzo the Clown. I cherish that day so much, because it helped me to bond with the other kids when we all threw food at him. It was the first time I felt part of something.”
I hear raised voices as I approach BC’s room – BC says: “Are you fuckin’ crazy!?” sokdonk says: “Just think about it, bro! Imagine seeing that for real! Think of the eyeballs that would get! We could put it behind the paywall, if you want, but you’d be a total legend after that!” BC says: “Look, Bumpy & Slowpoke made me do some fucked up shit, but this is too much!” sokdonk says: “I mean, it’s gonna happen anyway, so why not, you know, document it?”
When I come back, sokdonk is gone and BC is hunched on the bed. I ask him what’s going on, he starts to laugh, then says: “I owe money to some people who don’t fuck around. They saw me in the video when one of their kids was watchin’ it, and they figured out where I am. Now they’re sendin’ a guy over to settle up. And that fucker wants to welcome them in and film the whole thing.” I ask him how the people coming to collect might feel about this arrangement, and he says: “Ah, he’s gonna cut ‘em in on the revenues. Everyone’ll get their beak wet, Joyce. He keeps tellin’ me, ‘This is the realest shit ever.’ Say the chant: eyeballs are everything!”
sokdonk shows him into the room, saying: “Oh, sure. We’ll pixelate your face, disguise your voice. It’s cool.” He’s tall and muscular, with a chinstrap beard and a shaved head, wearing a zipped up black hoodie and tight black jeans, seemingly unaffected by the heat from the lights beating down on the platform where BC is waiting. BC has a heart-shaped patch of sweat on the chest of his white T-shirt, which has “I Died At The Cellar” written on it. sokdonk turns to one of the cameras that are running and says: “Looks like OPU’s been a naughty boy, been dodging his gambling debts, now it’s time to pay up. But he’s a broke-ass bitch, ain’t got no liquid assets, so he’s gonna have to make a flesh deposit. Do your thing, [name redacted].”
We all see it for real: BC and the collector stand across from each other. BC grins and says: “Maybe a little off the ears, they’ve always kinda stuck out. Gimme some of those fuckin’ elf ears, that’d be cool. And there’s plenty down there.” BC lifts his T-shirt to show his gut, then says: “Or you wanna finger? How ‘bout this one, huh?” BC lifts his left hand and sticks his middle finger in the collector’s face. They seem locked in this posture – then the collector traps BC’s finger between his palms, bends BC’s finger back and lowers BC’s hand onto the table in the canter of the platform. On the table is an assortment of blades. The collector turns to sokdonk, who smiles and gives him the thumbs up. The collector brings his fist down onto BC’s finger, then lands a blow to BC’s nose. BC stumbles, shakes his head, and says: “Okay, fucker, let’s start choppin’.” I’m startled by the sound of a camera hitting the floor. I want to look away, but I keep watching BC’s face as it breaks into an expression of intense relief.
— GRSTALT is a kind of artistic clearinghouse. GRSTALT are partners in a global initiative to erase the author.