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May 24, 1999
Young Indian American Dreams Up 'Unamerican' Shock Therapy
He is a rebel with a cause, an Indian with an Unamerican dream. Srini Kumar, 26, took a road not taken in April 1994, creating Unamerican Activities, an outfit based in San Francisco that propagates a counter culture which "f**ks work" and where "decaf sucks."
His mission is to get people to question the conventional, mainstream ways in society and thus form a force of like-minded people. And he does this by selling wacky, thought-provoking slogans to his audience through what he calls "media objects" -- stickers, coffee mugs, buttons and T-shirts.
The company sells its merchandise online and through tattoo and clothing boutiques. Its website was nominated in the weird category in the recently-concluded Webby Awards
"I am pushing the envelope of what it means to be Indian," Kumar said in a telephone interview recently.
In his own words, neatly posted on the website www.unamerican.com, 'Unamerican Activities creates 'provoking' art. We manufacture "tools to help you f**king matter." The whole thing is that this is a country with a lot of tedium in it, a lot of boring people and objects and institutions.
'Together, these form a system which, I believe, constitutes a huge obstacle to joy. The struggle of all provocateurs is to challenge this obstacle, and ultimately create counter-objects that help others overcome it.'
A graduate in sociology from Stanford University, Kumar started Unamerican Activities as his experiment in memetics, the theoretical and empirical science that studies the replication, spread and evolution of memes.
Memes is an information pattern, held in an individual's memory, which is capable of being copied to another individual's memory. "What I am doing is throwing memes at the public that run counter to mainstream," he said.
Little did he expect his experiment to end up as a virtual religion. "I am constantly surprised by the positive response this gets and the diversity of the audience," he said.
It all began in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he had taken up a job as a computer software seller. "I traveled a lot in that job but it was hard," Kumar said. While in Fort Wayne, he began spending a lot of time in a punk rock record store there started by two 18 year olds. "I was paging through [one of the owner's] sticker collection and I was like, 'All of these are just ads for bands. You know, there are no politics here at all. Maybe other than 'Mean People Suck’ there's nothing. So that made me think, 'OK. I love slogans. So let's make some slogans.' "
And that was the day at the job he clicked out the letters "F**k Work." and got the stickers made.
'I took click tape and photocopied the sticker larger and larger. So I actually made it at work. It was like, $ 40 for 250 stickers. And um, $ 30 started my company. Basically I took those 250 stickers to Gilman Street [a punk club in Berkeley] and soon had $ 250. Slowly things started going from there,' he told a magazine recently.
Kumar strongly believes in stickers having the potential of starting really enriching dialogue among people. "When you give a 'F**k Work' sticker away you end up really just creating contact without even trying. And so, that is the nature of Unamerican Activities. It's really just me motivating people to dialogue amongst themselves," he said.
Besides his media objects, the Internet has been the key to opening up his world to a larger audience. "We entered the business at an exciting point in Internet technology and were able to strike a cool space. It connects people globally and can be accessed anytime," he said.
Unamerican Activities is currently run by three individuals, Kumar, his fiancée Robynn Takayama and James Reling. The company is soon to be incorporated and the merchandise expanded. Kumar declined to disclose the financial worth of his venture, saying that negotiations with investors were on.
"Companies did try to buy us out a few years ago, but it is Srini's art project and he would never do that," Takayama said. "I strongly believe in this culturally and it has potential politically," she added. In fact, Kumar proposes to grow and nurture his movement to a political party which will look at national issues that are largely overlooked by politicians today.
One of them is the concept of work itself. "Yes, jobs are increasing and unemployment is decreasing, but what about the quality of work? There are people who are stuck with not so great jobs. I want to focus on using one's potential correctly," he said.
Kumar has not got enough feedback from the Indian community in the United States. "Most of the Indians here are young, students from affluent backgrounds who would definitely embrace radical ideas. But I have not got too much feedback from adult Indians here," he said.
"We have not really penetrated into India because of accessibility problems. Being a fringe website, not many find it. It is like a secret that some discover while surfing," Takayama said.
So how is the word on the movement getting out into the world? "We do guerilla marketing, rely on word of mouth basically," she said.
Kumar has in place a "conspiracy list of 5,000 kids" who get the information about the ideas out. "They are the company's information army," he said. "But we depend on the very idea behind memetics -- a friend of yours telling it to you," he added. Unamerican Activities has a 50,000-strong email list that comprises people from all over the world, predominantly the United States, Germany, Japan, Canada and England.
Kumar has huge plans for his movement. He is proposing a book on micro business which deals with entrepreneurship. Besides, books and music associated with his philosophy is being added to his merchandise list. "As a kid I read a lot of science fiction and listened to punk rock," he said.
"When I look at myself, I am a portrait of somebody who will not be happy with simple answers. I look for complexity and shake things up," he said. And sure he is. May the force be with him!
Madona Devasahayam is a Washington-based writer.
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