Faking Death: Performance Art or Heartless Hoax?

Feel free to not believe me. I’ve done little to earn your trust, and I can’t blame you for your doubt.

Zombie Rystefn

On Saturday, October 11, 2008, I had just gotten out of bed and, for whatever reason that I can’t recall now, started talking to Elyse of The Skepchick Empire on Skype. Anyway, in the middle of our conversation about how inferior Sam Ogden makes me feel with his hotness and his superb writing, Elyse said “oh, Rystefn passed away”.

Rystefn was one of the readers and commenters on Skepchick, Teen Skepchick, and this blog. Oh, how much laughter he used to bring to me when I read through the comments of our posts. What wit, what eloquence, what genius.

I never talked to him on IM, much less met him in person, but he seemed far from a stranger. He might as well have been a part of Skepchick, so constant a name to appear in the blog comments.

Elyse linked me to Rystefn’s blog, The Last Road, and I poked through the posts, reading the story of his last days.

Damn it, I never told him that I loved his commentry, and damn it, I never followed the link in that ever-so constant name to his blog to find out that he was dying. What an arse I felt like!

Given that I hadn’t known that he’d been dying it all came as a shock to me.

Mum came in to my room, and looked upon my saddened facial expression. “One of my mostest favouritest commenters in the world just died,” I said.

I made a post, a clever interweaving of some of the comments I had scavenged for on my blog and on Teen Skepchick with my own words of mourning. But I didn’t post it (a post that wasn’t posted, aha!). I waited for more word from his girlfriend, “Sabrina” who had been the bearer of bad news on the blog, because she seemed to have hinted at writing something else in rememberance of Rystefn. I waited, not wanting to take away her moment of rememberance from her.

As I waited, doubts began to grow. Doubt had already been there, knowing that people on the Internet do create hoaxes, having heard many stories. But, not wanting to be an arse I decided to continue on the assumption that Rystefn was indeed dead, even without evidence.

I was faced with a nasty thought, I would rather Rystefn be dead than for him to be hoaxing us.

I waited, with each passing day thinking that if it were a hoax he would have revealed it. And if it weren’t a hoax Sabrina would surely have posted.

It was a hoax.

By now I had begun feeling pretty apathetic about the whole thing, and more and more doubtful, but I still couldn’t help but feel a strong, powerful disgust as I watched Rystefn’s video. I chose to ignore the urge to vomit, and decided to simply forget Rystefn ever graced even the outer layers of the blogosphere.

What seemed to be most upsetting to people was that in calling it “performance art” they thought that Rystefn might be trying to justify it as being art. He says he doesn’t think it’s justified as art but…

I began thinking… As despicable an act as it was, could it really be called “art”? And if so, could it still be justified?

The most useful thing I was ever taught about art was that art is hard to define. I can make some generalisations about it though, a few of which I’ll summarize here.

  1. Art is often aesthetically pleasing.
  2. Art usually provokes emotion, makes people think, bothers them.
  3. Art tends to have lessons.
  4. Great art is often controversial.

Can writing be aesthetic? I’ve been told that some of my posts are “beautiful” and while I admittedly am not entirely sure I know what that means, I’d argue that there are beautiful pieces of writing and that that could be considered aesthetics. I found The Golden Compass to be strangely aesthetically pleasing although I don’t know what that means even though I’ve just said it was.

The Last Road provoked emotion. It examined the human condition in the face of death. And I suppose this post might be evidence that it provoked thought.

Rystefn seemed to be saying he had the intent of teaching a lesson had he followed through with the rest of the story of The Last Road, but we shall never know what it was, it seems.

And was this contoversial? Controversial in whether or not it’s art? Yes.

But, the major difference between the catharsis of a great play, or a moment at which a great work of literature has played your heart-strings is that you know it’s fiction. Fooling people, while it may give you a good laugh, makes you a bit of a jerk. People tend to have no respect for you.

Lonelygirl15 was an actress on YouTube, though her videos were of less substance.

But maybe that is part of the art. Artists try to make things seem realistic, but making somebody actually believe it’s real… Is that perhaps a new and radical form of art? Isn’t that just controversial, a part of being great art?

And perhaps Rystefn, or whatever his real name is, is simply mentally ill. A plausible enough idea.

Van Gogh once cut off his own ear.

I think that The Last Road could get away with being called art. I will say with weak conviction that I am willing to go along with saying that it was art. Whether it can be justified… While I find the means of provoking emotion in what I suppose Rystefn thought was an artistic manner were definitely deceptive and vile, he did provoke emotion. Whether or not you liked the art, well, that’s all subjective.

Maybe I was enchanted with The Last Road before my disillusionment, but I am certainly now disenchanted with its artist.

Yesterday as David Grinspoon was giving his lecture at Auraria, I couldn’t help but noticing a man in the audience with a pair of glasses, a cowboy hat, blonde hair, and a beard much like Rystefn’s. Having only seen a few pictures, that video, and never having met him in person, I couldn’t say for sure. Perhaps it was the cold fury spilling over into paranoia making me see Rystefn where he was not there.

One question I think we will never have answered and that I am, admittedly, still curious about is how The Last Road would have ended, and what would have happened in between had Rystefn continued with his “art”. But, most curious to me… why would he give up all his friends for this? He certainly must have known that he would be stripped of all his respect and dignity, left with only the pity from a few of our hearts (including my own).

Throughout this post I’ve merely tried to make people look beyond our anger or apathy or whatever (and hell, maybe the story is not even about him dying, maybe it’s about how we react when we know it’s faked) at Rystefn’s distasteful actions and see if, perhaps, there was some taste to it after all. I don’t know the answer to this question, and now more than ever, I’d like to hear from you, the readers, especially if you’ve never commented before.

As much as I think Rystefn deserves a swift, forceful kick in the balls, can we still have appreciation for his “art”? Again, I’m calling it “art” with weak conviction.

However, perhaps the most telling thing he ever said was on his YouTube channel, and I think I shall end with it…

I am not a nice person. Do not mistake me for one.

17 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Lady Fu on October 25, 2008 at 4:07 am

    Very nice of you to think this out so carefully Elles, I’d expect no less from a great girl like you… however, this guy is obviously an ass of epic proportions and does not deserve further attention especially if it is gained by a link on your excellent blog.

  2. Posted by SteveT on October 25, 2008 at 7:06 am

    Nice post, Elles. I haven’t thought this through, so it may be a total load of rubbish, but I’ll take a stab at this anyway since I was one of the ones Rystefn tricked.

    I think that all art can be looked at as lies. It is a distortion of the truth designed to evoke an emotion or idea on the part of the audience. In that way what Rystefn did could be considered art, except for one VERY important distinction. Art also involves an implied contract between the artist and the audience. The basis of that contract is that the artist acknowledges to the audience that he or she is going to be lying to them via their art. That’s one of the things that makes art so interesting. Can the artist still evoke the emotion even when the audience knows beforehand that they will be lied to?

    Rystefn’s “project” fails that test utterly and completely. His audience had no way of knowing for sure that they were being lied to. Sure, many probably guessed or had some doubts, but that doesn’t fulfill his contractual obligation in any way.

    He’s not an artist, he’s a sociopath.

  3. I’m very lenient when it comes to definitions of art – I’ve always been artsy, for lack of a better word, and there are many things I consider art that others wouldn’t.


    This was a horrible thing to do that can’t be redeemed by crying, “But it’s art!” No one deserves to have his or her trust and good will manipulated to serve someone else’s whim or ego. There’s nothing particularly unique or thought-provoking in that. People do it all the time, every day, and just aren’t messed-up enough to try to justify it with some bullshit excuse instead of taking responsibility for it.

    “Not a nice person?” No kidding. And, as far as I’m concerned, he’ll be treated accordingly. Very simple.

  4. Something I read recently… at Evolving Thoughts, if I remember correctly… said that art works by hijacking the way we think in ways more intense than nature can manage, as do religion and several other emergent properties of our consciousness…

    So maybe this is art. But hurting people like that is hard to justify.

  5. Posted by phlebas on October 25, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    Maybe I’m just too provincial, but I have a hard time expanding my personal definition of art to include rystefn’s nonsense. I could go as far as calling it an “experiment,” although I’m at a loss on what it was trying to show. (And rystefn’s current “I can’t talk about it now because I’m too close to it” sounds a lot like code for “I need time to come up with something good so some of you will like me again.”)

    At first, I was curious about some real disclosure too, but my interest has waned. I’m just going to assume he stole the idea from the episode of “Friends” where Ross thows himself a fake wake to see how many people come.

    I suppose we’ll see the rystefn sock puppet on Skepchick soon, if we haven’t already.

  6. I suppose that in the future it’s only going to get more difficult to tell the difference between what is real and what isn’t. So maybe there is something to be learned from Rystefn’s fake death. But unfortunately all I’ve really learned is that this dude had people (including myself) believing he was terminally ill for the last two months. He dragged this thing along far beyond the point where he should have known that people were being strongly effected by it, and he went so far as to convince a presumably reluctant person to help him. I don’t appreciate being lied to, or experimented on, so forgive me if I take anything he has to say with the world’s largest grain of salt.

    I am reluctantly forced to call this “art”, but I’m also starting to think that “egotistical waste of everyone’s time” describes it more accurately.

  7. When people show you who they are, believe them.

    Can there be any doubt?

    Not art. No.

  8. I just can’t figure something out here. The whole death part was one thing, but revealing it was something else. I can’t decide if it would have been more hurtful to continue pretending to be dead or to reveal the truth. There are other ways to cut yourself off from people — like just not talking to them anymore. His way was to make sure they were dicked around good and proper first. And he’s still doing it with that “I’d tell you why but I don’t feel like it” garbage.

    I don’t know why I bothered, but I mentioned how every participant in this is responsible for what has happened. Pretty fair, IMO. His response was illuminating. Paranoia, delusions of persecution, flowery poeticism, narcissistic martyrdom, aggression, emotional transference… None of which had anything at all to do with what I said. I was just fodder for his “I’m an angry asshole and because I admit that’s supposed to make it ok and it’s you’re problem if you dare talk to me” bullshit.

    His behaviour towards people before and in the aftermath of this shows at best a pathological egotism that surpasses anything I’ve ever seen and at worst a sociopath who is one skin lampshade away from being on an episode of Biography in 10 years time.

    We shouldn’t be thinking or talking about this so much. He doesn’t deserve it.

  9. IIRC, the man in the cowboy hat at Grinspoon’s talk was ‘Stu’ from the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society, a group that has been at loggerheads with Jeff Peckman and Stan Romanek over the Denver ET commission imbroglio.

  10. IIRC, the man in the cowboy hat at Grinspoon’s talk was ‘Stu’ from the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society

    D’oh! I hope he didn’t see me staring/glaring at him trying to figure out who he was. Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research is awesome.

  11. Posted by Dysentery on October 27, 2008 at 10:35 pm

    I wonder if this has less to do with art and more than he was pissed-off that he got banned from Skepchick for a week for some really tasteless death threats? When you been around the web a bit, every site you go to has it’s cadre of regular commentors. After a while sometimes I think they feel like they own the site. Add some serious ego and a spanking from the admins and BAM! The timing is a little too pat for me. Of course I don’t know the man and never been to his site, but I’ve seen many of his comments and heard of this kind of thing before.

  12. Eh… I checked. He started the blog way before that.

  13. Posted by Dysentery on October 28, 2008 at 9:52 pm

    OK, well I stand corrected. That’s what you get for lazy (read:no) research.

  14. You will never find me on the internet or in person using a name other than Rystefn. If it’s me, you’ll know.

    I appreciate your candor, Elles. It could have been art, perhaps, but in the end, it was nothing. I think I would prefer to have it stay that way, but if people really want to know, I’ll fill everyone in. Expect a fuinal post on The Last Road sometime in the next week. I apologize for the delay, but I’m still dealing with a lot of crap from my family over my father’s death.

  15. yeah… don’t know much about it, didn’t really care… but honestly – faking one’s death, among friends… is a very narcissistic thing to do. honestly, reading back his entries, it’s hard to swallow. it’s ego-stroking at it’s worst.

  16. by the way kimbo, if there’s one thing i’ve taken from this all, it’s that you are an incredibly intelligent person, and i am definitely going to be reading your blog on a regular basis. i haven’t disagreed with one thing you’ve said yet.

  17. ohh, and by the way, Elles… you’ve got a new fan of your blog as well. 🙂

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