Before it premiered last Sunday, months of promotional teasers for the AMC series Dispatches From Elsewhere intrigued viewers with scintillating visuals emerging from mundane settings, while only hinting at the show's quixotic premise. AMC describes its 10-hour series as the story of four people "brought together by chance — or perhaps it's by design — when they stumble onto a puzzle hiding just behind the veil of everyday life." The puzzle is a series of riddles and excursions that all coalesce into "The Games of Nonchalance," which may or may not be a war of secret societies in a battle for world domination. "Is it a game?" one of the teasers asked, "A government operation? A psychological imbalance?"
What makes this premise more intriguing is that it's based on a real series of events that took place in The Bay Area.
The series' origins stem from Jeff Hull's Nonchalance, an Oakland artistic concept that pre-dated the iconic retail brand for which Hull is better-known, Oaklandish. "It was an art project, a street art campaign that turned into a collective, and eventually into a brand," Hull said. "We just started out with a slideshow on the back of the Grand Lake Theater, which was 130 saints and sinners of The Town. And it was a historical retrospective of Oakland, trying to bring people together in public space to appreciate and dialogue around the culture."
Hull's excursions into using public space to celebrate Oakland emerged at the same time that hip-hop culture was infusing the worlds of street and public art.
"We'd placed posters and the guerilla drive-ins and then 'zines and stickers and pirate radio broadcasts and parties on Lake Merritt," he recalled in a recent interview. "It was really activating public space. There was a lot more under-utilized space or what I call "negative urban space" at that time. I was trying to just fill it with content and bring people together around that content."
As Hull's activations grew in scope and scale, so did his desire to connect with larger and larger segments of the Bay Area. This first culminated into The Oaklandish Art Gallery, located in Jack London Square, in the early 2000s. The gallery stayed open until 2006, when it was shut down amid accusations of violating local ordinances. After the gallery closed, Hull put much of his energy into building Oaklandish as a representative brand of Oakland. He acquired an old taco-truck, refurbished it into a traveling merch kiosk, and began working with local businesses, which eventually led to his own production company, which created, among other things, the iconic "I Fly OAK" logo. But all the while, he had a larger scheme in mind.
"I imagined these events where you never really knew who was a performer, and who wasn't, while bringing people into spaces," he said. "Today they have a word for it, immersive theater, but they didn't have a word then. I wondered what if that event bled out into the rest of your life? Where you start getting letters or phone calls from these characters that you met, and some of them were fiction, but obviously, you're a player as well. So that was the initial concept of the Games of Nonchalance and then it manifested in its own way. From the Games of Nonchalance, The Jejune Institute started with these fliers, and at first, that was all it was going to be: A flyer of one fringe lunatic over here, and a flyer from another fringe lunatic over there. And if you pulled the tab and dialed the number, you'd discover that they were mortal enemies against each other in a metaphysical struggle, and they're asking you to do things. They want to activate you in their metaphysical street fight. That was the whole concept. And then it developed into the automated room that was the induction center for The Jejune Institute. By the end, we counted 10,000 people through the induction center. They'd pulled the fliers and were guided toward this place in San Francisco. They became the characters in the narrative of their own making. They became the hero in their own hero's journey."
From Oaklandish to outlandish, Hull managed to pull this off for years without being detected.
"The Jejune Institute worked well as a bridge moving from street art, which is public space, and then trying to blur the line between doing it in public space and then doing it in private spaces as well," he said. "I'm inspired by street art. So, when you're walking around the street and you see a tag or throw up a burner, there is a story behind that. I'd always wished that I could just pull on that thread or, like, follow those breadcrumbs and, lead to a kind of cultural initiation. Urban iconography as glyphs, encoded with information. Rammellzee embodied this concept like no other. The idea that there's something on the street: A sticker or a tag, a stencil or a flyer. And if you pull on that thread, you can be initiated into sacred knowledge and cohesion. We're all alone in this world, but people are leaving clues for you. If you follow the clues, can it lead towards a meaningful gathering? Can it lead to a place of departure? Can it lead toward transformation?"
In 2013, Argot Pictures released a documentary, The Institute, that covered Hull's massive installation, and interviewed participants in the games, though it remained difficult to tell who, in fact, participated and who was just an actor claiming that they did.
"I was very blessed that Spencer McCall made The Institute, which is a mind-fuck itself," Hull mused. "By the third act, you didn't know what was real and what was fiction, and you've got to wrestle with that. For some people that's a disorienting experience, and for others, it's a glorious one. It's like the dark maze, going into that dark and unknown place. Some people are really stimulated by it and some people are terrified by it. One of the kinds of unintended consequences of the work is it freaked some people out or it's too much for some people. The film did pretty good for an independent documentary and ended up on Netflix and iTunes and all that. The actor-producer Jason Segel watched it, he's a writer as well, and he reached out saying, "I'm really inspired by this and I'd love to do a show,' which was totally out of the blue. Dispatches from Elsewhere came out of nowhere for me."
Hull now has a production credit for Dispatches From Elsewhere, which in addition to Segel, best known for his role in How I Met Your Mother; stars Sally Field, Richard E. Grant, Eve Lindley, and André Benjamin of the legendary hip-hop group OutKast.
But Hull has one disappointment. While his experiments took place in Oakland and San Francisco, Dispatches is set in Philadelphia. According to Wikipedia, "Segel said that he chose to shoot in Philadelphia because during location scouting he was surprised to learn that despite its dingy reputation, the city is actually full of colorful public art; he said seeing the Magic Gardens for the first time was the moment he knew Philly was the right location for the show."
"A lot of that subtext about the counter cultures of The Bay will be lost in the show," Hull lamented. "The whole thing about The Jejune Institute is that it was this pseudo-scientific, new age, personal-growth organization for the betterment of your consciousness, but it had some sinister underpinnings, a dark side or a shadow to it. And that is inspired directly from the kinds of things like Esalen Institute seminar trainings or the Breatharians, real movements that have real impacts. Our whole society is informed by that stuff. The whole tech industry was inspired by people taking LSD out on the coast. It's meant to be an homage to the end of the rainbow, the frontier of The Golden State. That includes the Free Speech Movement and The Black Panthers and The Hell's Angels. This was out here. It was lawless and it was a frontier of not only of geography, like the different gold rushes, but our consciousness."
Of course, one of the hazards of collaboration is the possibility of losing creative control of your work. The venue change of Dispatches seems to be one of those cases, with Hull's love of Oakland and its underground culture excised from the series. As street art has gone mainstream, Hull reflects on the culture that made him and how it's changed.
"One of the things that you'll notice is all this sanctioned public art everywhere," he said. "There are these massive murals. I'm a huge fan of Joshua Mays. I like that people want to see public art, and all the electrical boxes are painted. I think that's a result of the street artists, and my work helped to legitimize it when it used to be illicit. The other side of that is that is the culture in the Bay area has changed. There's not as much space to do these fly-by-night guerilla events downtown. The topics of the conversations and the ways to engage in conversations have changed in a way that I don't really see a lot. I don't want to harp on social media about it, but I do think it is one of the greatest causes of misunderstanding that we have.
"And if there was one thing that I could preserve about Oakland or kind of champion about Oakland, it would be to acknowledge each other. Just acknowledge each other in the street and we're going to feel a lot better."