The Swellco & Swellco Video Circus 2009-2012

What is Swellco & Swellco?

It’s a question that punctuates the strangest period of the Grand Follies. We used to get a regular stream of emails asking the question, people would corner me demanding an answer. The best I can say in retrospect is that Swellco & Swellco was a creative Rorschach test for everyone who encountered it. It was a performance art piece, video art project, a satire on consumerism and corporate culture, a Gnostic based cult, an occult themed secret society, a schlocky shock value dance party, a burlesque troupe, a fringe culture magazine, a social experiment, a giant inside joke… it was all of those things but not really.

I guess still don’t have an answer.

It wasn't about breaking new ground, it was about wallowing in creative self indulgence

After we shelved Sideshow Nation, it wasn’t long before the post letdown finger pointing began between Peter, Ryan and myself. Ryan wanted to launch a blog magazine and use leftover footage from Sideshow Nation to make promotional loops. Peter wanted no part of it, but I was sold. Coming from a billion dollar financial legacy, Ryan talked the talk and claimed he was ready to walk the walk in backing this new dot com endeavor.

We got the old footage from Peter and I locked myself in my office with an online class and learned Final Cut pro in five days with almost no sleep. Ryan was on the road, he was meeting with this publisher, that investor, this production house, and it was all was going to be huge. It sounded like total bullshit, I mean, it really sounded like bullshit, but I knew from the money he put towards Sideshow Nation, and my amazing ability to type his last name into Google, that he did have the money and potentially the contacts.

Then, right as I was finishing the business plan, he disappeared off the planet. His phone was disconnected and his Facebook page disappeared. I was not pleased. I threw the plan in the trash and started producing video clips for the fuck of it.

Those early shorts, with no narrative, no explanation, flashing subliminal images and unnerving audio tracks were legitimately disturbing and extremely hard to watch. I created the early site as a menacing and mysterious promotional self-help site. Swellco & Swellco was an openly malevolent corporately structured cult that was running a violent subliminal video testing program on “consumer assets” called “The Video Circus”

I blatantly barrowed concepts from Videodrome and art ascetics from Richard Kern’s Death Trip short films. To my utter suprise, we started to get traffic and I ran out of video footage almost immediately.

Getting press isn't hard

With Beth, our friends John Weir, Meagan Rumburger, and handful of others, we began to produce new shorts. We would film actual skits, I would edit them together properly, then just chop them to shit- reverse them, scramble the audio, embed more horrible sounds. We still tried to go with a circus theme, but more of a satanic snuff film circus, if you will. It always felt strangely back room pornographic and definitely shock value gratuitous. I didn’t give a fuck, I was having fun.

But these productions were still too elaborate and not cost effective for our broke asses. So I reverted to my old playbook. Swellco & Swellco entered the real world and started throwing “Community Outreach Mixers.” We made recruitment pamphlets and PSA flyers for events like “Necrophilia is Wrong” and “Bestiality is Not a Victimless Crime.” Of course, we recorded everything.

We started developing plans to start filming a podcast with John and Meagan as the hosts. Our press releases were like chum for local writers and within the first year, we were on the front page of the City Paper. On the eve of that issue coming out, John scrawled, “don’t be mad” in lipstick on his bedroom wall and hung himself with a belt.

Right as John checked out, (literally) Meagan’s new boyfriend, Jim Black, was stepping to the plate and aggressively positioning himself as my new partner. He and Meagan shacked up fast and converted their Berks St. loft into a bizarre sound stage and inner sanctorum for us.

I was devastated and in a strange mad hatter state over John’s suicide and literally handed my id over to Jim. The next year became a blur of debauchery and unchecked, perverse loony tune creative folly. Jim was even more fascinated by the social experiment aspect of what we were doing than I was, and really pushed for creating an environment where people felt they didn’t have inhibitions and anything was acceptable.

The highlights would include the Dead Hooker Parade, the Glenn Beck Piñata, the Enema Artist, The Bloody Reign of Jessie & Shlak, and of course Needles Jones all the time. I would say, when a zealot got on stage and had someone carve “Swellco” into his back with a bowie knife, things had gone too far, but no one really got nervous until the night of the Shit Taco.

This fucking idiot

I always just sat in the back, numb to it all. I remember that night our cameraman came bounding up to me with his liberty spiked Mohawk, all dressed up in the staff dress code mandated suit & tie, looking pale and nervous.

He said, “Robert, I think we’re going to end up in jail.”

Crossing those lines didn’t sour me on the social experiment, the tourists did. Eventually we started getting a rep as the “gross out people.” How fucking contrived. At one of our public events, a couple of bros asked me at the door, “is this where the naked chicks do freaky shit?” I wouldn’t have another event for months while we tried to puzzle out a reset.

One of our regular MC’s saw an opening in the lull and launched what he openly promoted as the next Swellco style party, and he was telling people he had started his own cult. After a few weeks I went to check it out. I was fucking mortified, it was a bunch of gross dudes waving dildos around and doing body shots off of a couple topless punk rock girls on the bar. Wow. We’re talking Howard Stern circa 1990 kinda dog shit. That night, Jim had to convince me not to delete the site.

Then Ryan showed back up.

Awww, so adorable

The people who remember Swellco & Swellco will most likely speak of the bio hazard stage and the furies and the strange naked mystery dudes in leather masks when they think of Swellco & Swellco. But everything described above only took up half of the projects timeline.

When Ryan reappeared, I was ready to quit. I still didn’t know what it was, but I knew it sure as fuck wasn’t a wet tee shirt contest for middle-aged drunks. Ryan said he had been busy working as a media consultant, he needed the last 18 months to get situated and now he was back to launch the blog magazine concept we had first started working on. With the success of the Swellco site, he was ready to take this to a VC group for funding.

Now, this sounds utterly stupid, but the Swellco site had slowly morphed from its inception. As we started to build traffic, we had slowly begun to add content, at first the site mirrored the dark and spooky vibe, but I had been slowly softening the posts as the traffic stats grew. By the time Ryan reappeared, we had hit over a million hits for that year and the site was really just a slightly NSFW urban click bait magazine doing features on drag queens and porn stars.

Jim Black openly called out Ryan. He found it highly unlikely that anyone would be financing a company that regularly featured the Bukkake Mime Experimental Dancers. I found Ryan’s story dubious too, but I was desperately broke and had painted myself into a corner that did not easily lead me back into a normal job in the real world. Ryan insisted that they wouldn’t even look at the site; it was all about the numbers, the plan and of course, his involvement.

How the fuck did this lead here?

The day Ryan was to return from pitching to the group, (he insisted on going alone) he ghosted me again. Poof.

I had made my peace with all of this. It was time to move on and… an old associate of my fathers called me. My pop told him about how we had almost gotten a VC deal. He was living in Las Vegas and the founder of Zappos was launching a massive city based VC fund and if we were willing to relocate to Las Vegas, he wanted to broker a pitch. He had never seen the site.

So for the next six months, I made repeated trips to the “Vegas Jelly” meetings to hob knob with tech people and tout the “psychographically aligned city based online art & culture network” that Ryan and I had originally envisioned. What did this have to with the death cult videos of Swellco & Swellco? Not a god damned thing. The launch of the Vegas Tech Fund was horrifically unorganized and I spent months waiting for my final pitch.

To Jim and Meagan’s horror, I brought in a whole new team of volunteer writers and started gutting out huge swaths of the early content for fear that someone would actually look at the site. Jim was barely speaking to me, but he wouldn’t fully put his foot down, just in case. I organized one more event, it was awesome, it was packed, and it had none of the inappropriate elements that make Swellco & Swellco popular. I had intentionally jumped the shark.

By the day I pitched my deck, I had attracted a full team of consultants and web developers and found myself having drinks with the president of SAIC’s venture capital division afterwards. I pictured myself grabbing him by the collar and screaming, “bestiality is not a victimless crime,” but I didn’t.

I spent another three months waiting for their final answer as I continued to sanitize the site. Then, finally, they requested a second pitch by Skype to reevaluate the pitch and unceremoniously dropped us. I frantically hopped a red eye to try and salvage something and Jim quit while I was getting on the plane. Thus ended, the grand experiment, not with a bang but with a sell out whimper.

Early recruitment pamphlet

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