When we published that cringe-inducing video of a performance artist dousing herself with milk for a small yet earnest audience in a Bushwick backyard, we theorized it was probably just a viral marketing stunt for big dairy. ("UDDERLY IRRESISTIBLE!") But the truth is even more sinister: It was viral marketing for an NYU film student who made the video as part of a class on how to make a cinéma vérité short film... a film so believable it could fool people into thinking it's real.
The class, Intermediate Production: The Short Commercial, is taught by adjunct professor Daniel Stiepleman, who's been doing it for four semesters now. A (glitchy) website associated with the class asks viewers to watch a video and then guess whether it's real or not; some of the videos are made by students, the others document real incidents. Steipleman tells us that so far the "Milk and Honey" video has gotten the most attention out of all his students' videos; the Comedy Central show @midnight featured it last night.
"Film students often think that if I make a movie that gets my plot across and looks pretty, that means I made a good movie," Stiepleman says. "The challenge behind this project is to make a film that people think is real." Asked why he thought "Milk and Honey" worked, Stiepleman tells us, "One of the things we talk about in the class is that if you want it to work, it helps to make a video that people want to believe is true. It's kind of in vogue now to mock hipsters. It's just believable enough that it gave people a target they were looking for anyway."
Indeed. The video's director, Rick Swenson—who we *think* is a real NYU student (he says he's a senior in the film program)—tells us he came up with the idea by cobbling together Internet trends. "Hipster culture, living in Brooklyn, being in college, that sort of thing," Swenson tells us.
But the "hoax" element here is understated and simple: The woman identified in the YouTube video as Katherine Tarpinian really is Katherine Tarpinian, she really is a young performance artist, and this is actually a video of her doing a performance of her own design for a small audience in Swenson's Bushwick backyard. Swenson says he shot it in one take. Unfortunately, what's not "real" is the beloved man who dramatically removes his sunglasses at the 2:12 mark; Swenson says that was his direction. The mattresses, however, are usually there. "We have a lot of parties," Swenson explains.
Swenson's collaborator sent us the video on Wednesday with a bullshit email explaining that "a friend of mine attended a backyard performance in Bushwick a few days ago, put on by a girl whose name I don't know." Had we known the video was made for an NYU film class, would we have run it? Probably. The performance itself is weird enough, and, yeah, hipsters-Brooklyn-art-scantily-clad-young-woman. Dot com.
Stiepleman says he doesn't instruct students on specific media outlets to contact, but his course does touch on "basic network theory. Figuring out who would be interested in your movie and how to reach out to influencers who can get people to watch your movie. In this case the student who made the video did their market research and figured out this video was right for your demographic."
Asked if he sees any ethical problem with submitting deceptive videos to media outlets, Stiepleman says, "No, I think there's a difference between hard-hitting news and what's entertaining and funny."
Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin, however, isn't having it. "It is ludicrous that NYU would allow its film students to waste their precious time and tuition dollars taking a class with the goal of punking the media with fake viral videos," Dobkin said. "As a country, we are diminished when the media is forced to waste its time on inauthentic virality, when it could be pursuing stories that benefit the public interest, on topics like corruption, injustice, or real cats that actually exist and aren’t fake." Or investigating real cat contest voting fraud.
"I demand this 'professor' be fired, or at least embarrassed, maybe with a viral video of him slipping on the street in a really funny way," Dobkin added.