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Where Pizza Rat, fake news, and art collide, there’s a wizard named Zardulu

Zardulu with rat Zardulu
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

A few months ago, around 11 at night, my phone lit up with a Twitter notification. I had a direct message from Zardulu, the self-described wizard and performance artist who has claimed to be the mastermind behind the viral Pizza Rat video that took the internet by storm in September 2015.

“hello,” she said.

Three questions immediately occurred to me:

  1. Was Zardulu DMing “hello” to all of her Twitter followers for unexplained mystical/artistic reasons known only to herself?
  2. Zardulu is known to give interviews now and then — she’d done one with my colleague Aja Romano last year. Did she want me to write about her?
  3. Was Zardulu planning to use me to get to Vox, and through that platform develop a new viral hoax/myth?

The answers, as it turns out, were no (give her time), yes, and maybe.

I spent the next few weeks chatting with Zardulu — always over Twitter — while also talking to art historians who could comment on the nature of her work, and fellow journalists who’d dealt with her in the past.

It was an always fascinating but often opaque process. Zardulu’s persona is shrouded in mysticism, and she presents herself as equal parts wizard and artist who works in the medium of viral videos.

Her work is rooted in surrealism and classical mythology, and while some viewers feel as though her videos are just trickery dressed up with pretension, they’re organized around the idea that disrupting the mundane is a basic service to human existence.

My goal in talking to Zardulu was to get a handle on the motivations behind her work, and what makes it different from the fake news we can’t stop talking about — to determine what, if anything, separates performance art from a “hoax.” And the whole time I wondered, fruitlessly, if she was creating another, larger art project, and if I was part of it.

“She sounds like an art villain”: enter Zardulu

Zardulu first entered the public consciousness just over a year ago, not long after the internet was overtaken by a slew of viral rat videos. The most famous was Pizza Rat, the scrappy little can-do rodent trying to get his dinner home at the end of a long day like any other New Yorker. One of the more obscure examples featured Selfie Rat, who used a sleeping commuter’s phone to snap an adorable, bewhiskered selfie. And in the midst of it all was Zardulu.

In January 2016, John Del Signore reported for Gothamist that Selfie Rat was a hoax, and although he couldn’t find definitive proof, he was pretty sure Pizza Rat was too. Selfie Rat, he said, was the work of two actors from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre who were hired by a performance artist named Zardulu. “When she described the project to me, it seemed pretty weird,” Eric Yearwood, one of the UCB actors, told Del Signore. “Especially the part where there wasn't going to be any sort of revelation at the end of it. I would not be able to take credit for it and neither would she."

Meanwhile, another source that Del Signore quoted — anonymously, because Zardulu had required them to sign a nondisclosure agreement when they’d worked with her to plan a different stunt — expressed confusion over the artist’s apparent MO. "[She] makes these fake scenarios, releases them as real through news, social media and whatever else,” the source told Del Signore. “Many have been HUGE stories. Weirdest part is that she never comes forward or capitalizes on them whatsoever."

But the scope of Zardulu’s work, and her elaborate persona, wouldn’t emerge until February, when the podcast Reply All spent an episode talking about her. In conversation with Yearwood, hosts Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt learned that Zardulu had plans. “She has a big vision and she was describing the [Selfie Rat] project as a piece,” Yearwood said. “A puzzle piece. In this grand tapestry of illusions that she wants to create in New York City.”

“Wow,” Vogt responded. “She sounds like an art villain.”

Zardulu’s persona is actually less akin to that of a comic book villain and more that of a slightly kitschy pagan wizard, all flowing mystical robes and masks and rat insignias. Her Twitter feed is filled with enigmatic thoughts, and her manifesto with arcane symbols.

Her medium of choice is viral videos, but they don’t always involve rats. Zardulu has also taken credit for the three-eyed fish that appeared in the Gowanus Canal, and for a picture of a raccoon riding an alligator.

And her mission is this: to create fantastical displays and have them go viral, making the world a more magical place in the process.

As Zardulu tells it, Zardulism is about mythmaking

“In their classical sense, myths are dead,” says Zardulu’s manifesto. “We have rejected any connection to the mythology of the uncivilized world.” The only myths that our contemporary world creates are provided by “those who wish to exploit us,” who “produced images to dictate what we needed and desired.” Those myths can take the form of ads, which tell stories about how buying certain products will make us happier, better, more beautiful people, or they can take the form of false news stories distributed by people in power.

Zardulu’s manifesto
Zardulu’s manifesto.

Zardulism is a reaction to this exploitation. The practitioner of Zardulism — the Zardulist — creates new myths, myths to which we can have an authentic emotional reaction: viral videos, images of animals doing weird things in which we can recognize ourselves. Zardulist myths are, Zardulu writes, “pearls of merriment for the world to enjoy.”

In the past year or so, she has slowly become more public about her work. (“I don't do animal fauxtography any more,” she told me offhandedly. “So, I've been talking about some of my pieces.”) She told the Washington Post that she was behind Pizza Rat, and even did a video interview with a reporter; she told me she was behind the prosthetic leg found in a Wisconsin beaver dam, and sent me pictures to prove it.

Zardulu with beaver and prosthetic leg
Zardulu with the prosthetic leg and taxidermied beaver she used to stage an art piece where the leg was “found” in a Wisconsin beaver dam and returned to its owner.

“Like many of my pieces,” she said, “it deals with the reunification of man and nature. It is also an homage to a Persian oracle who was the first person recorded to have fashioned a prosthetic leg.” (Hegesistratus, the Persian in question, is sometimes described as a soldier and sometimes as a prophet.)

“I see taxidermy as symbolic of our separation from the human soul,” she explains.

Zardulu considers herself the realization of the surrealist dream

I asked Zardulu why she thinks myths are so important. It’s basically a surrealist idea, she told me. If, as the surrealists believed, art comes from the unconscious, then the ideas art conveys are often built on Jungian mythological archetypes. That means art is, by its very nature, mythological, and vice versa.

Zardulu sees her work as following in the footsteps of André Breton, the founder of surrealism. As she wrote to me on Twitter:

Breton imagines a world where fantasy and reality blended together in a super reality, or surreality. That's easy to see in the art produced by the painters in the movement.

However, if one wants to blend fantasy and reality, they can not truly do so if the audience is participating. They know what they are looking at is a painting.

So, I take my fantasy and present it as reality to an unknowing audience. Thus creating a true surreality. I suppose you could say that Zardulism has used the digital era to make Breton's dream of the surrealists come true.

I decided to ask a few art historians to weigh in on that idea.

“It would be misleading to call her a surrealist,” said Elliott H. King, an art historian at Washington and Lee University who specializes in Salvador Dalí. But he added that Zardulu’s work does have an affinity for surrealism:

I think of Salvador Dalí’s 1942 autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, where he writes,So little of what could happen does happen.” In other words, Dalí might say, it is disappointing how normal things usually are. Why, he asks, when he orders a lobster in a restaurant is he never served a cooked telephone? Everything is so predictable — where is the unexpected that could make daily life so much more interesting? Cue Zardulu to imbue the quotidian with a sense of the extraordinary and surprising — what surrealism vaguely called “the marvelous.”

Surreal Things Exhibition Opens At The V&A In London
Salvador Dalí's “A couple with their heads full of clouds” shows the surrealist marvelous.
Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

King thinks that Zardulu’s work also draws from the Situationist International, or SI movement, of the 1950s and ’60s. SI emerged from surrealism and Dadaism, with added Marxism for flavor, and a major part of its theoretical apparatus revolved around the idea of “the spectacle,” in which people living under advanced capitalism experience life primarily through their objects.

“Things that were once directly lived are now lived by proxy,” writes Situationist Lawrence Law. “Once an experience is taken out of the real world it becomes a commodity. As a commodity the spectacular is developed to the detriment of the real. It becomes a substitute for experience.”

Or, as King puts it, “The easiest way to think of ‘the Spectacle’ is the movie The Matrix: The spectacle is invisible but everywhere, according to SI theorist Guy Debord, and one way to dismantle it is to craft ‘situations’ — moments of absurdity that acknowledge and subvert expectations, thereby disrupting the established order.”

Zardulu’s myths, her “pearls of merriment,” work the same way that SI situations do, to disrupt the spectacle of capitalism and connect her audience to a more vital, authentic life.

Zardulu “removes the framing mechanism that separates fiction from everyday life”

Pedro Lasch, an artist, art history professor, and director of the Social Practice Lab at Duke University, sees Zardulu’s work as being visually rooted in the experimental avant-garde films that Alejandro Jodorowsky made in the 1960s and ’70s. “His films were basically byproducts, filmed happenings of sorts, that would perpetrate certain myths and mythmaking,” Lasch says. “Jodorowsky is the grandfather of that type of work and has been really important and inspiring to several generations of artists now.”

But philosophically, Lasch says, Zardulu’s mythmaking tradition was born in 1729. That’s the year Jonathan Swift published his satirical essay “A Modest Proposal,” in which he suggested the poor of Ireland sell their babies to the rich to eat.

“I actually think ‘A Modest Proposal’ is one of the most radical artworks in history,” Lasch says. Less, he explains, for its contents than for its form: It was printed as a pamphlet, with nothing to distinguish it from the earnest political pamphlets of its day. “What he effectively did — and what Zardulu does, and many other artists, those of us who are interested in this type of practice,” Lasch says, is “remove the framing mechanism that separates fiction from everyday life. And that can be a very confusing act. Like once theater leaves the stage and enters everyday life, or once an artwork is not on the wall but is literally in people’s experience, a lot of much more radical questions are raised.”

Lasch himself works in that tradition today. He’s the artist behind “Twin Towers Go Global” and “Phantom Limbs,” a 2012 art piece for which he spread the false news story that New York’s Twin Towers were being rebuilt in cities around the world — either in cities that were contested territories at the time (Baghdad, Cabo) or in cities that had previously recreated New York’s annual Twin Tower memorial light beams (Paris, Budapest). The project was, he wrote elsewhere, both a memorial to those who died on 9/11 and an analysis of “the ruins of the very modern/colonial system that produced the Twin Towers in New York and that also shaped the ideological battle that led to their brutal destruction.”

“I think one of the things that myths and what these days we often call fake news have allowed us,” Lasch told me, “is to confront something that is actually happening — like in this case the light beams — that is in itself bizarre; reality often beats fiction — but then bring us into the category of art.”

On a very basic level, Lasch’s project is also the project of political satirists and the Situationists and the surrealists and Zardulu, whose shared intention is to disrupt the mundane with the extraordinary; to place a distorted mirror into reality that reflects our experiences back at us in a form so heightened than we can at last realize how odd it truly is.

But this kind of work brings with it certain ethical questions: Is it just lying? How is it different from fake news?

Is there a functional difference between a hoax, fake news, and art?

When John Del Signore first started to report on Zardulu for Gothamist, the word he used most often was “hoax,” with all of its attendant notions of someone trying to gull the innocent for base material gain. The idea that there might be any kind of artistic or political impulse behind the Pizza Rat and Selfie Rat videos seemed absurd: They were just funny animal clips, and obviously someone was fabricating them for some sort of as-yet-unknown but doubtless nefarious purpose. “Is Selfie Rat just the tip of a rotting, viral iceberg made of elaborate hoaxes?” he mused.

“I try to avoid using the word hoax,” Zardulu told me, “because it immediately devalues things that I consider to be cultural treasures.”

“Would you argue that there's a difference between your work, which is created with artistic intent, and the fake news created by someone with a political or commercial agenda?” I asked.

“Of course, the difference being the intention and the consequence. That's how we judge everything else,” she replied. “I started doing what I do long before Trump and the alt-right starting fabricating news stories.”

“All art is lying,” Lasch pointed out when I spoke to him. “We tend to separate storytelling from lying, or making a painting from deceiving, but it actually is deception. We’re asking people to believe in something that isn’t there.”

But then by that logic, is fake news art?

“I think people are okay with being played with a little bit, if it’s not someone trying to purely profit from it,” Lasch said, “That’s what separates it from political gain in terms of the way it’s been used in politics now.” Lying as an artist, for artistic purposes, in other words, is very different from lying as a politician whom the public is supposed to be able to trust, for purposes of political gain. A performance artist who stages a rat doing something funny and puts a video on YouTube is doing something extremely different than the president of the United States making a false claim about voter fraud.

“I have never made any money off of my work,” Zardulu said firmly when I asked her. “I have an unrelated, full-time job and where others might use their free money, I use mine to create my art.”

I reached out to Del Signore and asked if he still thought Zardulu was a hoax. “I think a prankster would probably try to claim credit and 15 minutes of internet fame by now,” he responded, “so this seems more like the work of a conceptual ‘artist.’”

So why, then, is Zardulu coming forward about her work now? What does she have to gain? She says it’s part of an evolution in her process. “I used to think that people finding out about my work would destroy it,” she says. “However, after people found out that I was training rats to make viral news stories, I kept staging more and more videos of rats doing ridiculous things and they would go viral every time. I realized, people don't care if things are real or not. They want an experience of wonder.”

We don’t have any idea who Zardulu actually is

“I wonder about myself,” Zardulu told me. “I recognize that what I do is out of the ordinary. As comfortable as I am with my artistic philosophy, still I wonder: Why?”

Throughout her time in the public spotlight, Zardulu’s identity has remained a mystery. Given her frequent use of Upright Citizens Brigade performers in her work, many have speculated that she is actually the creation of a collective of people who met at UCB, most likely including Eric Yearwood. The fact that she appeared in a video for the Washington Post doesn’t necessarily disprove that story: The woman wearing the Zardulu robe and mask for that interview could easily have been a single representative of the group, or someone they hired.

“I am not and have never been in UCB,” Zardulu said when I asked her about the theory. But her persona is as much a part of her work as the videos she creates, and any time the question of her identity comes up she likes to start talking about the mysterious nature of identity in the digital age. When the Huffington Post started asking questions last June, she sent them an email with the subject line, “Please send proof that you are real.” When I started asking her about it during our interview, she sent me this:

It's a strange thing getting asked if you're real. Do they mean to ask if I really wear a fake beard and a robe or if the images I post of myself are really me? Are any images of you really you or are they how you want the world to perceive you?

In the digital age we can be anything we want. We can be a stoic business person on our LinkedIn page and be smashing a beer can on our foreheads on our Facebook page. It's the age of the avatar.

So, here I project to you, the wizard, Zardulu

Am I real, yes. Am I a joke, no.

This whole article might be a piece of Zardulist art; I can’t know for sure

As a viewer of art, I like that Zardulu’s work is so slippery and deceptive: That’s part of the pleasure of it, the idea that it opens up a world full of possibilities and marvels.

As a journalist, I find her extremely paranoia-inducing. It is disconcerting and difficult to build a story around a series of conversations with artists who tell you very plainly that their work is about deceiving journalists.

After I transcribed my conversation with Pedro Lasch, it dawned on me that every anecdote he gave me involved artists planting false stories in the press through some means or another. Otherwise innocuous statements began to jump out at me: “Artists, like politicians, should not be taken at their word,” and, “They were also exploiting a moment where some media did not have very thorough checking mechanisms, although apparently that’s still the case.”

Zardulu herself certainly didn’t set my mind at ease.

“What philosophy, what form of creative expression most defines the era we live in?” she asked me rhetorically during our interview. “False misrepresentation.”

Oh, god, I thought. I could very well be in the middle of a high-concept art piece I have no means of understanding.

For an art fan, the idea was exciting. But for someone with a responsibility to report the truth, it was also terrifying.

The only thing to do, I concluded, was fact-check absolutely everything I put into this piece as scrupulously as possible. I got to work researching.

At one point during our talk, Zardulu mentioned that her work was inspired by a childhood acquaintance with a wizard who bred unicorns. (Well, one-horned goats. Close enough.) I found the wizard’s website and verified that his internet presence dates back to at least 2007, so if Zardulu invented him, she’s been playing an extremely long game. I wrote him an email asking if he could confirm or deny that he knew Zardulu as a child.

He wrote back, polite and confused. He’d never heard of her. Could I give him a hint as to her real identity? “If I had any clue who she was back in the day — whenever that was,” he wrote, “I’m sure I’d remember her.”

Oh, hey, I realized. I could probably get this guy to tell me who Zardulu really is. It could be a scoop! A genuinely new piece of information to add to the Zardulu saga.

But what purpose would I actually be serving? It’s clear by now, after more than a year of video after video, myth after myth, that whoever Zardulu is, she is or they are genuinely committed to the artistic project of the Zardulu manifesto. Would knowing the identity of the person behind the mask, whether that’s a collective of improv actors or some millennial Brooklyn art girl, actually add value?

Or would it just destroy the persona that is part of the way she does her art? Would it be as bad as doxxing the author Elena Ferrante? Does saying, “Hey, the person who makes this art you like is actually another person whom you have never heard of” achieve anything constructive at all?

I sent the “unicorn wizard” Zardulu’s Washington Post video interview and clarified that I didn’t want him to reveal her actual identity; I just wanted to see if I could verify one of the few biographical details she’d provided to me.

“I do think I know who this one probably is...” he wrote back, and we left it at that.

Zardulu, in the meantime, keeps building her myths, and over the past few months she’s granted interview after interview. She is, for lack of a better term, hustling. She’s thinking about doing something with cat videos, she told me, and she wants to revive her old advice column. “Where does an occult-obsessed, viral-news-fabricating internet wizard go?” she asked me. Probably the Hairpin, I told her.

The spree of publicity she’s embarked on might very well be part of a new Zardulu myth, and this article might be part of it too. I can’t say for certain.

But I think Zardulu would like the fact that I can’t stop wondering about it.

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