The Strange Journey of the Omnipresent Schwa

If you haven't seen the omnipresent Schwa, you probably will soon. Bumperstickers and t-shirts with the eerie alien head motif are popping up in the most unlikely places. What is Schwa? It's a product line, it's an art project, it's a cultural myth, it's the latest hipster trend, in some strange "two-dimensional way," it just might be the "truth." The Schwa mythology goes something like this: Aliens landed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1948 and have been secretly controlling the U.S. government ever since. Wearing the Schwa image will protect you from the invaders who would like to use your brain as storage space for their extra data. The Schwa project now boasts two books (Schwa and Counter-Schwa), cartoon/ad reprints in a vast number of print media outlets, a site on the World Wide Web (http://www.theschwacorporation.com/), and a host of weird stickers, key chains, and various promotional objects. If your population density is sufficiently great, we bet you a nickel you spy a Schwa bumpersticker tomorrow. Spiros Antonopoulos and Kyle Silfer say that it took forever to interview Schwa creator Bill Barker by e-mail. This is the result. KYLE: You seem to have a particular fascination for product packaging and its associated iconography. When does Schwa stop being parody and pass over into the realm of product?BILL: I made one-of-a-kind products, things in bags with staples, and placed them in galleries. I liked the way -- by using pegboard holes, staples, and bags -- a handmade item would appear to be simply one unit from an endless production line of that item. I did a few shows, got some good reviews and realized that I couldn't stand the art industry, that the gallery itself masked the fact that it was just another business. I thought it would be much more honest to simply make something and market it. About that time a friend got me interested in the enneagram, which is a method of understanding personality and its basic defenses. I saw how I could use the theory to do drawings that would have an effect on many types of people. Right at that time someone gave me a xerox of a paper called "The Secret Government," which outlined some of the basic ideas about the Roswell incident and stated that the US Government has been secretly controlled by alien powers since 1948. The article was strangely horrifying to me and made me think what an awful, corny universe this would be if it were true. And I felt that, in some two-dimensional way at least, it was true; that almost any action against that would be justified, even if aliens were not here! I did 5-10 drawings that week. They had a strong effect on everyone who saw them. I added all the packaging, key chains and stickers later. So Schwa is and is not a parody. And it definitely is a product.KYLE: Are you saying that your drawings are consciously modeled on a theory of evoking a particular response?BILL: Well, my work is not modeled on a linear theory of specific effects but on a broad method of using ideas, symbols and objects in an approximate or intuitive way with a good guess as to the final effect. I don't know the origins of the enneagram but I do know of two histories for it. The first is that it was developed in Central Asia by Sufi visionaries in the 16th Century and was kept as a secret part of their order. At the beginning of this century the mystic Gurdjieff was shown the theory and brought it to Europe. He does hint at something like it in some of his writing, but it is never shown in its full form as far as I know. It shows up again in the 1960s at an Aria conference lecture given by Naranjo. A few people at the conference were fascinated by the theory and returned to the United States to do research and finally publish books on the subject. Those books are in your local bookstore right now. The second history of the enneagram is that everything before the Arica conference didn't happen. Basically, the enneagram is a way of dividing people into nine types based on their primary way of defending themselves against a chaotic world and in any social order. Some people view life from a basis of fear and always seek security, others have to have constant approval and instantly know what you want them to be, still others hate pain and can seek only pleasure, and so on. I couldn't begin to do it justice here, this is just to give you some idea of what I'm talking about. Also, my view of the enneagram has been altered by discussions that clarify and rationalize the theory to a point not available in your local bookstore. The amazing thing about it is how well it can predict your behavior and the behavior of others. The shocking thing about it is that, although the people you know use the same words and gestures as you do, what they mean is vastly different for each general type. About the only "good" thing about the enneagram is that it puts everyone on the same level so that terms like "neurotic" or "well-adjusted" become meaningless -- a feature completely lacking in common psychology. Finally, I must say that the enneagram is only one idea used in the creation of Schwa, but it is very useful in guessing what the general reaction will probably be.SPIROS: Do you use the enneagram only for classifying people's reactions to the ubiquitous Schwa image, or do you have images for each of the nine personalities, i.e. images that symbolize/typify/evoke them?BILL: While I was creating the drawings, I kept in mind certain of the classifications and ensured that the books would contain a range of different images that pushed hot buttons for the personality types. The unity of the work itself is designed with them in mind, as well. Although the differences among the types naturally creates a fragmented opinion regarding my work, the imagery was tuned to elicit the desired range of reactions.SPIROS: I have a friend who doesn't like any Schwa paraphernalia near her home because, "it attracts them." Where would she fit in the enneagram model?BILL: Well, fear does seem to be a factor in her decision. You could probably put those anxieties to rest by letting her know that harassment of any Schwa client is covered under our extended six-year warranty, which we are coincidentally offering at a special discount, without any purchase necessary. Simply mail us a check for $39.95 and write "Extended Warranty" in the memo field. We are empowered to give her the choice of any enneagram-type she desires, including the more aggressive and foolhardy ones.SPIROS: In some sense, this works like sigils, and in some ways your work seems to resonate with Austin O. Spare's work -- that we're dealing with basic images which slip through the fabric of rational thought and infect our psyche at another, "deeper" more unnerving level.BILL: Yeah. Subtle ruses are frequently the best way to impart certain kinds of information, as per your description. By now, the alien head is a basic image pregnant with such messages.KYLE: From some letters that you've printed in your newsletter, there are obviously true believers who take Schwa to be a serious statement... and there are also those who appreciate it as a weird parody of a more terrestrial alienation. Either way, you are working at propagating a meme that already has quite a bit of forward momentum. How do you perceive your role as a distributor of UFO mythology?BILL: Well, to be honest, I was hoping I wouldn't have to deal with questions like that until I was retired and possessed the luxury of hindsight. At the moment, I'm too wrapped up in work to see the forest for the trees. In fact, I'm planting them right now. I would like to say that I'm not a huckster, no matter how jovial I may appear.Contact: (SASE for free stuff) SCHWA at Box 6064, Reno, NV, 89513; (e-mail) schwa@well.sf.ca.us; (ftp) ftp.unr.edu:/pub/images/schwa; (WWW) http://www.theschwacorporation.com/

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