The funny part of the story is this: the whole project started with a single word—“bukkake”.
In the fall of 2009, as my hometown of Vancouver was making preparations for the Winter Olympics to arrive the following February, I finally managed, after two years, to figure out a way to bring my friend Lauren with me to Florida, where I had lived for three years prior to moving to Canada. My parents gave me the money for plane tickets as an advance on a present for graduating from Emily Carr University of Art and Design, and the two-week break of the Olympics gave both Laurie and me an opportunity to get away from our normally scheduled obligations and take a vacation. Right away, I knew I wanted to take Laurie to see EPCOT—I had told her many times before about the Canada Pavilion in the World Showcase, and about the horrible cheesy Canadian stereotypes propagated in the park.
Years earlier, on my previous visit to the park during Spring Break in 2007, I had met an employee originally from Toronto. He had paid his own way through art school and initially worked for Disney as an animator. His fortunes had changed, however, when Disney disbanded its traditional department in Florida in favor of going totally digital and, to remain in Disney's employ (and on US soil), he had to take a job as a clerk at the Canada Pavilion gift shop, dressed as a lumberjack. Here was an entirely qualified professional who had been forced into a job that was obviously beneath his level of job training--caricaturing his own country of origin, no less—to maintain a steady salary. It all struck me as really unfair.
As I was pondering the upcoming trip with Laurie, it occurred to me that it would be the perfect opportunity to make an artistic intervention; my great disdain for the Walt Disney Company was certainly a factor in that choice. I decided I wanted to do something that would disrupt Disney's “storybook” atmosphere, something which would bring the visiting tourists back down to Earth. However, it had to be subtle—I didn't want to ruin the vacation for Laurie, and I didn't particularly want to get thrown out of the park. The concept that came to me was to discreetly leave behind slips of paper printed with words that would refer to a source of embarrassment for each nation represented in the World Showcase.
The problem then became determining what each piece of paper should say. The word "bukkake" was my first idea; I thought it would be hysterical to leave a piece of paper with the word in the Japan Pavilion, where some tourist would be sure to find it. The single word "Tibet" followed similarly for the China Pavilion. I began to research the other countries.
In the course of my research, I began to realize I could do so much more with the intervention aside from simply engaging in juvenile mischief. Each country had its own shady side, things far more serious than deviant sexual practices. Eventually, I abandoned the bukkake idea, and settled instead on Japan's widely publicized illegal whaling industry. My online investigation of the subject turned up the following information, which became Japan's slip:
Despite the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on commercial whaling which took effect in 1986, Japan has illegally continued to hunt more than 1,200 whales each year in the guise of “scientific research”.
I kept Tibet as the focus of China's exposé slip, dropping the single word "Tibet" in favor of a more concrete factual grievance:
Since communist China’s invasion of Tibet in 1949, hundreds of Tibetans have been jailed for peacefully practicing their religious beliefs, and 6,000 Buddhist monasteries have been demolished.
I then looked up a map of the park to see what other nations I would have to investigate. There were 11 pavilions; in addition to Japan and China, the park also had pavilions based on Mexico, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the UK, Norway, Morocco, and the colonial United States (called "The American Adventure"). There was also a small “Outpost” area, comprised of a refreshment stand and gift shop, which was supposed to represent a generic central African country. I included the Outpost, which brought the number of slips I had to produce to 12.
I continued my research from there, starting with Norway. After much trouble looking over what appeared to be a remarkably clean history and national policy, I found two blemishes on Norway’s name: its whaling industry (for which I was already criticizing Japan), and some rather damning allegations of its historical anti-Semitic biases. This is what became Norway's exposé slip:
A few facts about Norway's alleged anti-Semitism:
• Jews were constitutionally banned from entering Norway between 1814 and 1851.
• While the production of Halal meat for Muslims is legal in Norway, the production of kosher meat has been banned since 1929.
• As a result of the deportation of Jews to Nazi Germany by Quisling, at least 764 Norwegian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
• The Oslo Synagogue has been the target of repeated vandalism, including a shooting in 2006.
Next, being an immigrant to Canada, I was naturally curious about the practice of seal clubbing. This is what I found:
Since the year 2000, over one million seals have been clubbed to death in hunts subsidized by the Canadian government.
For Mexico, I decided to look up the drug trade, and the territory war which had been widely reported in 2009 for spilling over the U.S. border:
Altogether, Mexican drug cartels draw in between $13.6-48.4 billion every year from the trafficking of illegal substances into the United States.
The Morocco Pavilion's heavy Islamic influences made it the perfect place to address issues of civil rights in conservative Islamic society. I finally settled on Morocco's policy toward homosexuality:
Homosexuality is illegal in Morocco, and punishable by imprisonment for a period of 6 months to 3 years and a fine of 200-1,200 dirhams.
I had already done quite a bit of research into the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Hutus and Tutsis within Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I knew this was the issue I wanted to address in the exposé slip for the Outpost. This is what I finally came up with:
Between the Second Congo War, the 1993 Burundi Genocide, and the 1994 Rwanda Genocide, the conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis has resulted in more than 5 million casualties in the past 20 years.
While contemplating Germany, I knew right away I wanted to stay away from Nazism—it was too obvious, and I felt the project would be better suited if I found something about Germany that was much more obscure. I wanted tourists who found these slips of paper to be genuinely shocked upon learning the information contained within. I also wanted a very current issue that would reflect the problems of a modern postwar Germany. Digging deeper, I finally found that the country is a hotspot for human trafficking, especially for the sex industry. The legalization of prostitution in Germany had opened the floodgates to traffickers from all over eastern Europe, particularly Russia, and from Africa.
The legal status of prostitution makes Germany one of the world’s top destinations for sex trafficking; according to 2008 figures, there are approximately 252,000 illegally trafficked prostitutes from outside the country.
Due to its position as the sole period-specific pavilion in the park, the American Adventure was the only one for which I did not present a current problem. I decided to address the history of slavery in the United States. From growing up and going to school in the South, I already knew of anecdotal instances of cruelty toward slaves, and I had an understanding of the history of the practice. The one specific thing about which I still was curious was the true magnitude of it. It was not long before I found my answer:
It is believed that approximately 645,000 Africans were abducted from their villages and sold into slavery in the United States between the 16th and 19th centuries.
Because of its history as an imperial power, I tried a different technique with France; I began my investigation with an examination of France’s historical ties to its colonies. The big elephant in the room, I soon discovered, was its relationship with Haiti, particularly after the January 2010 earthquake which had devastated Port-Au-Prince. To understand the great extent of Haiti's casualties and suffering, I found, it is necessary to know about France's role in its existence as a sovereign nation. Haiti gained its independence from France through a slave revolt in 1804; since then, France has frequently abused its hegemony over its former colony. In summation:
France’s policy regarding its former colony of Haiti, beginning with its demand of 150 million francs in 1804 as reparation for "lost land" (a debt which took Haiti over 140 years to repay), is largely responsible for creating the impoverished conditions which led to the deaths of an estimated 200,000 Haitians in the earthquake last January.
Italy presented me with an even greater challenge than Norway. I was hard pressed to find anything negative relating to Italian current events, other than its history as a fascist nation. Unsatisfied, I looked closer at Prime Minister Berlusconi’s administration, to see what its detractors’ main criticisms were. As I did so, I learned more about Berlusconi's media empire—that he was something of an Italian Rupert Murdoch. The topic I decided to address here was freedom of speech and censorship, which I stated thus:
With Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's control over both the state TV channel RAI and his own channel Mediaset, the US organization Freedom House ranks Italy’s freedom of speech as worse than all other European countries except Turkey, including former Soviet bloc nations.
Finally, the last slip I researched was the UK. I was running out of issues, until it dawned on me that I hadn't addressed the topic of prison reform. Looking into it, I found that the UK, like the US, has a less-than-stellar record with its prison system:
According to Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, in the UK, “(j)ail is now so commonplace that 7% of all children during their school years will experience their dad’s imprisonment, more than those affected by divorce in the family."
My research complete, I printed off the slips using my father's printer, cut them out, and covered each in a coating of packing tape to weatherproof them. On average, the finished products were each about twice as large as the fortune inside a fortune cookie. These I placed into the pocket of my small Moleskine sketchbook, so as to smuggle them through park security. I had told Laurie about my project over breakfast at the airport in Seattle, as we were making our way down from Vancouver to Tampa. Having a bit of a mischievous streak herself, she loved the idea, and enthusiastically volunteered to be my accomplice in executing the intervention.
On Friday, February 19th, Laurie and I drove the two hours to Orlando from my parents' house in Lakewood Ranch (near Bradenton/Sarasota, and an hour south of Tampa). That night, we had dinner there and stayed at a hotel. The next morning—Saturday, February 20th, 2010--we checked out and visited EPCOT. After going through security and paying about $80 admission each, we commenced our tour of the World Showcase. Laurie wanted to save Canada for last, so we began at the other end of the Showcase area, with Mexico. I moved the slips from my sketchbook to my camera case, where it would be easier for me to pull them out without being noticed.
The Mexican Pavilion consisted of a large ersatz Aztec temple, inside which was a large indoor plaza with a fountain, gift shop, Mexican artisans, and a restaurant. We located some drinking fountains near the back, and this was determined to be the place where I was to put my first fact slip. I softly indicated to Laurie it was time to quickly but inconspicuously leave the pavilion. As we left, I felt a cold chill as I heard someone call after me. Was what I left found before we could even move on? Could the whole experiment be over already? I was particularly nervous because I knew Disney's park staff was trained to be vigilant in cleaning up litter. As it turned out, my cover had not been blown; it was merely a friendly tourist who realized I had accidentally left my sketchbook behind as well. The close call shook me up—I figured that, with Disney as litigious as it is, getting caught could have potentially had some legal consequences, in addition to me being ejected from the park.
Moving on, Laurie and I found ourselves in the Norway Pavilion next. In the center of the area there was a large Norwegian stave church, which was actually a museum display of Viking memorabilia. I determined the stave church to be the right place to leave the second slip, so I stealthily left it on one of the covered wooden railings on the exterior of the building as we left. Not even Laurie realized I had left it until I gave her the signal to move on.
Next, our pathway through the park led us to the China Pavilion. After enjoying the guqin performance (the Chinese long zither) for several minutes, Laurie and I exited the performance hall and made our way deeper into the pavilion, past the shops, until we came to a group of outdoor telephone kiosks set into an alcove. I was wary of the park staff, all of whom were easy to identify by their attire; I made sure each time to place my slip at the right moment, when I would not be seen by Disney employees. The China Pavilion was teeming with vendors; the telephone kiosks seemed the only place I could leave the third slip without arousing suspicion.
The Outpost was located between China and Germany. It proved to be a tricky place to leave a slip, because it was small, all out in the open, and there were two vendors watching over the whole area. To make matters worse, there was also a bit of added pressure from Laurie, who became irritated and wanted to leave when one of the vendors began singing "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" from Song of the South—quite off key, I might add. I finally made my move, leaving the fourth slip in the brim of a hat at one of the vendors’' kiosks, for a tourist to find while browsing the merchandise.
The Germany Pavilion consisted of a large open square flanked by a beer hall and restaurant on one side, and various shops selling glassware, clocks, chocolates and wine on the other. I deemed the wine store best for leaving my message in secrecy—it was dark, less crowded, and I could stand at the wine shelves without anyone noticing me. I left the fourth slip on one of the shelves, among the bottles of imported German wine.
By the time Laurie and I got to the Italy Pavilion, we were both hungry, so we decided to have lunch there, at the restaurant Tutto Italia. Our waiter was from Turin, according to his nametag, and he brought us a basket of assorted bread and two plates of spaghetti. Over lunch I discussed my perception of the artistic merits of the whole project with Laurie. She argued that what we were doing was purely a social experiment; I, on the other hand, chose to frame it as a public intervention, with an artistic element. The object of artwork, I said, is to alter the public's perception of its surroundings; by that logic, this project was surely artwork. When we were finished with lunch, we walked over to the Neptune Fountain in the opposite corner of the pavilion and I left my Italian fact slip on the fountain's ledge.
We decided to rest a little at the American Adventure. It was there that I remembered about the scheduled performances which took place at each pavilion, and I told Laurie that if we waited a few minutes, we would see the Fife and Drum Corps. Sure enough, within ten minutes the band—a Colonial military marching band comprised of five musicians—entered the main plaza and began playing "The Star Spangled Banner" and “Yankee Doodle". Unfortunately, I underestimated the effect it would have on the project; the Fife and Drum Corps naturally drew a large crowd of tourists, which made it far more difficult for me to be inconspicuous about leaving something behind. I finally ended up leaving the American fact slip in a planter toward the edge of the pavilion, where there were less people.
When Laurie and I got to the Japan Pavilion, we were just in time to see the performance by Matsuriza, a trio of traditional taiko drummers. We watched the drummers play for several minutes, in perfect synchronization. It was one of the few parts of the park that still genuinely impressed me. After two of their songs, we went inside the Japanese gift shop to get out of the hot sun. I knew I wanted to leave the Japanese fact slip somewhere inside, but finding the right place was a challenge. There were kimonos and fans and shelves full of manga—and lots of people. Eventually, I found a good place for the fact slip, on a shelf of Hello Kitty plush toys.
Compared to all the other pavilions, the Morocco Pavilion was the least crowded, and consequently the easiest fact slip to leave behind—particularly since the Islamic architecture of the pavilion provided lots of cover. It was really heating up outside, so Laurie and I found shelter inside Fes House, supposedly a mock-up of a typical Moroccan home. It was covered in geometric tilework, and the central focus of the room was another fountain. While the room was vacant save for Laurie and me, I placed my slip on the ledge of the fountain where somebody would surely find it.
Laurie and I wandered around the France pavilion for several minutes. I considered leaving my message about Haiti amid a shelf of Eiffel Tower miniatures, but the vendors were too close for me to do anything without them seeing me. By this time it was well into the afternoon, and the crowds at the park had grown significantly since the morning. It meant my slips were more likely to be found, which was good news--but it also meant the initial act of leaving them was far riskier. I had long since given up any notion of taking photos for documentation of my actual process of leaving them, as I felt doing so might compromise the stealth I required. After many unsuccessful attempts to escape the crowds and leave my French fact slip, I finally managed to place it undetected on one of the outer window sills of the perfume shop.
If France was difficult, the UK was damn near impossible. Tourists and park staff swarmed everywhere. I tried leaving it near the Beatles paraphernalia, near the swords in the toy shop, in one of the red telephone booths—but all my attempts were thwarted by the sudden (if unwitting) appearance of a Disney employee. Finally, Laurie and I found ourselves in the tea shop, and I boldly determined I wanted to leave the slip in a teacup for sale. It took several more minutes of waiting for just the right moment as shopkeepers and browsing tourists passed, but eventually I finally made my move, and we were fast to leave. It was my most nerve-racking slip all day.
Finally, after eleven previous stops, Laurie and I came to the place which had been the embodiment of all my cynicism toward Disney: the Canada Pavilion. The last time I had been there, I was still a Floridian, and had only briefly visited Canada twice. This time I was a resident, though I was still technically an American, and I had brought a bona fide citizen with me—one to whom I had told the story of the animator from Toronto, and the lumberjack outfits, and the fiberglass totem poles. Finally, Laurie could see that my stories were less exaggerated than she thought. We browsed the Northwest Mercantile gift shop, made to look like a British Columbia First Nations longhouse, and found ourselves surrounded by Vancouver Winter Olympic merchandise. It was surreal, considering how far we'd both come from there, only to be bombarded by the very same trinkets of commercialization.
As we scouted for the best location, Laurie and I both reached an agreement, that the only true and logical conclusion for the project was for her to leave the final slip behind instead of me: a genuine Canadian leaving a confession about seal clubbing in the Canada Pavilion in Orlando, Florida, at the same time as Vancouver was host to the world. It had far greater symbolic value than if I had done it. I handed her the slip to place anywhere in the pavilion she so desired, and she chose the bench right outside the gift shop, beside the totem poles. Our project successfully completed, we made our way out to the park exit, both satisfied that we had at least put a sizable dent in the Disney illusion.