Wry Society: The art collaborator

More than a mere collector of beautiful things, social media big-shot “Zippo” has a vision of himself as a work of art. Words by Sam Leith. lllustration by Phil Disley

Image: Phil Disley

“I’m calling it Seven Heads for Hekate,” said the artist Antonio Fez, adjusting his wire-framed glasses on his nose. Fez was a slight figure, dressed in his unalterable uniform of charcoal poloneck, collarless charcoal jacket and charcoal slacks. His head was shaved and his look was intense. “Hans-Ulrich has recommended your involvement, yes?” 

Zippo – as Mark Zipprich was known in the tech press and to his hundreds of thousands of employees – tried to conceal how flattered he was by the great curator’s interest in him. He was a collector, of course – and well-advised. But this seemed to be an acknowledgement that he wasn’t just a philistine with a chequebook. He was a connoisseur.  

He tossed his hacky-sack from hand to hand and leaned back in his chair. “So…” 

Fez seized the momentum, spreading his thin fingers wide. “It’s a work intended to foreground contingency.” Zippo looked a bit blank. “Chance!” Fez continued. “Chaos! An immersive or ephemeral performative work in the virtual space, with your imaginary ontology as the, shall I say, rebus, at the centre of its fields of signification. You are one of the most powerful people in the world. You control information itself. What a coup to submit yourself, voluntarily, to the workings of chance in the name of art!” 

Zippo had made a great deal of money building his social media network RadHive without ever knowingly being a rebus or having an ontology. He liked the sound of this. His old rival Pez – with his collection of Vettrianos and second-rate Warhols – had never attracted the attention of Hans-Ulrich, let alone a conceptual artist as hot as Fez.  

“OK,” he said. “What do I do?” 

Fez produced a memory stick from his jacket. “Meet Deadlock,” he said. Deadlock, Fez explained, was an ArtBot – which, given access to Zippo’s social media account on RadHive, would use “fractal uncertainty algorithms” to turn Zippo’s life into a work of art. In the ordinary run of things, Zippo wouldn’t let anyone within a hundred miles of his login. But, he reasoned, this wasn’t the ordinary run of things – and, besides, like all sensible social media tycoons, he had made sure that his own account contained little or no private information. 

When Zippo gave him the nod, Fez slipped the stick into a port in the wafer-thin laptop that was the only thing on Zippo’s desk. Then he turned away while Zippo logged into RadHive. “What now?” said Zippo. 

“That’s it,” said Fez, stowing the memory stick in an inside pocket. “The work begins in 24 hours. I believe ARTNews will have a report announcing the work up within the hour. And now what happens? Who knows?” 

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As Zippo took his microscooter across the office towards his personal elevator that evening, he did indeed wonder what would happen. Would his gallery of flattering photographs with celebrities be fractally remixed? Would his carefully curated set of contacts find themselves inundated with the Buddhist koans that had been a signature of Fez’s groundbreaking early work? 

The first sign that art was happening came the following lunchtime: 16 missed calls from journalists before he’d finished his first Virgin Mary. Then the special phone rang. It was his CTO, Benny, and he was shouting: “What are you doing?”

“Doing?” said Zippo. Benny brought him up to speed. Starting at midday, Zippo – or, at least, Zippo’s account – had been buying and selling shares in RadHive in vast, market-moving quantities, and seemingly at random. The share price was a rollercoaster and already tech sites were using words like “meltdown”. But – how? Zippo had given Deadlock his social media account, he protested to Benny – not his financial details and passwords…

“You do know how much data you can hoover from a RadHive login if you have the expertise,” said Benny. “That’s how we make so much money.”

“You’ve cost me a fortune,” Zippo said to Fez later that day.

“Not me,” said Fez. “Deadlock does what Deadlock will.”

“I should sue you.”

Fez raised his hands. “Not a very good advertisement for the security of your platform.”

Zippo kneaded his hacky-sack until his knuckles turned white. As the mastermind behind the planet’s greatest disrupter, he knew exactly what he should do – but Fez’s smug expression made the words stick in his throat. Eventually, he squeezed them out: “Would you like a job?”

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