re-skinning & re-writing the pet rock: protest pet & white guilt pet

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This hack centered on ideas of “critical play.” Mary Flanagan defined several different types of critical play, but for this project I chose to focus on rewriting and subversion. She defines rewriting as revising “the narratives surrounding [toys]” (Critical Play: Radical Game Design33), and subversion as “an action, plan, or activity intended to undermine an institution, event, or object.” (Critical Play, 10).

Gary Ross Dahl introduced the “pet rock” in August 1975. It came packaged in a bright orange box, complete with “breathing” holes. A booklet accompanied the new pet, which contained details about its life – where it had come from, how to “teach” it commands, etc. Dahl sold 1.5 million of the pet rocks and became a millionaire as a result of the sales. (Dahl’s original pet rock can be seen above in the featured image for this post).

While the booklet and packaging did provide an element of humorous irony, the pet rock still represent a fantastic feat of capitalist commodification: can you really sell a rock to people if you package right? Dahl actively demonstrated that the answer is “yes.”

In response to this, I wanted to attempt to think of ways to rewrite the narrative of the pet rock in order to subvert its “useless” commodity undertones. If packaged in a different way – with a different narrative – could the pet rock offer something beyond that fleeting moment of humor when you read in the original handbook that it “likes to play dead”?

In thinking of some things that rocks are actually used for (for free), I quickly remembered how Baltimore protests for the death of Freddie Grey resulted in broken windows. The rock is literally and figuratively a tool for destruction – but specifically, in this case and other #BlackLivesMatter protests, a literal and figurative tool for beginning to chip away at racist total institutions like the American police system and justice system.

I re-skinned the packaging in order to prepare the pet rock for its new, subversive role in the struggle for race equality in America. The pet rock now comes in a tiny carton collaged with black and white photos ranging from MLK’s march on Washington, the powerful women of the Black Panthers, to modern day #BlackLivesMatter protesters.

I crafted the new instructions to deliberately speak to the experience of racism that many Americans face on a daily basis (the rock is meant to always be in your pocket, as a reminder) while also speaking to the nature of protests. Protest can be destructive, dangerous, scary – but also rewarding, uplifting, and offering a chance to pass down generational knowledge about systematic oppression and the will to fight it. The rock in the carton is small, smooth, but also cracked and with a large portion that obviously broke off – this was specifically to reinforce the notion this rock has had a long, long life of representing generational protest.

Through the re-skinned packaging and re-written narrative of the rock, it becomes a symbol that embodies the experience of both oppression and protest. It elevates into a concept that points beyond “pet rock” and beyond the process of extreme commodification that the original displayed. Instead, it becomes a reminder, a talking point, and a symbol of withstanding oppression that gets passed through generations. It becomes a powerful tool of protest.

The Care and Training of Your Pet Rock
Your new pet rock is going to be the best pet you ever had! Here are some instructions on how to care for your rock and fulfill its life goals.
  1. Your rock should remain in your pocket at all times. You never know when you’ll need it during you daytime and nighttime activities as a source of protection or as something to comfort you if you are scared.
  1. Inevitably, when protests do come to your small town, your pet rock will be at the peak of its life. This is what this rock’s whole life was building to. Take to the streets. Bring your rock.
  1. Keep one hand in your pocket clutching your pet rock. Hope they don’t think it’s a gun. This is your grounding.
  2. There are many different ways to fulfill your rock at this point. Maybe you keep it with you and imbue it with the memories of that day, the memories of seeing a militarized institution quake in fear of the unarmed black bodies demanding their dignity and equality. Maybe shatter a window because you can. Maybe throw it at police — not to hurt them, per say, this rock isn’t that big — but to remind them you are here. Maybe pass it down to the kids washing tear gas out of the eyes and hope they can live long enough to pass it down too.

The second rock in the series is the “White Guilt Rock,” which represents the opposite of the knowledge sharing and awareness that the “Protest Rock” attempts to bring about. Another literal things that rocks do – they make us uncomfortable. Getting a pebble in your shoe is literally uncomfortable. Having to sit or stand or even sleep on a hard surface/rock is literally uncomfortable. How can the pet rock be applied to this idea of discomfort? By extending the idea of discomfort, by re-writing the pet rock as a symbol of guilt.

The re-skinned packaging for this rock is shiny – it is made of foil and rhinestones. It looks really pretty and cool and interesting but it lacks substance. The care instructions that come with this rock direct new pet owners to put the rock in their bed: as long as they are experience the inconvenience and discomfort of sleeping with the rock in their bed, they can absolve their guilt over not understanding systematic racism or the experiences of racial minorities in America. It follows the backwards “reverse racism” line of thinking that says, if I (white person) am victimized by reverse racism, I don’t need to actively pursue an understanding of the victimization of others. If I am uncomfortable, that absolves me from having to engage with the discomfort of others.

The white guilt rocks takes a step further though, by inducing the owners to donate to the RedCross, go on mission trips, visit Kenyan orphanages, etc. This is a satire on people who seem to care about “poor Africans” in order to post pictures to Facebook but do not actually take the time to learn about how systematic racism is affecting those in the communities closest to home.

The pet rock in this scenario acts as both as an enabler of white guilt and as a false absolver of it – “annoying, but not enough to actually wake you up.” The rock becomes a symbol of systematic indifference; when the Protest Rock comes shattering through a window, the White Guilt rock is annoyed and confused, but ultimately just rolls over and goes back to sleep.

Together, these 2 rocks create a subversive “play” experience that prompts “pet owners” to think more about the nature of protest, the nature of guilt, and how the two interplay.


The Care and Training of Your Pet Rock
Your new pet rock is going to be the best pet you ever had! Here are some instructions on how to care for your rock and fulfill its life goals.
  1. Your rock lives in your bed. Put it someplace where it will really crunch your back every time you roll over. Inside your favorite pillow is also a great place for your pet rock to live!
  1. As you go to sleep and block out confusing questions and scenarios you encountered during the day — like, why is it rude to want to touch black people’s hair? Why don’t black people like the police? Why are they acting like savages in the streets? — rest assured that the discomfort experienced by sleeping with your pet rock in the bed will clear you of all guilt associated with not having the answers to these questions. You don’t need to know! You sleep easy on a rock.
  1. When you wake up, pat your lil guy on the head and thank him for inspiring you to text a code to the RedCross to donate $1 to poor people in Haiti. Don’t think about your neighbors, though, and definitely don’t engage when your black neighbors are sent to prison and/or shot by police. It’s not your problem and your cousin Jerry is a totally awesome police officer, after all!
  1. Repeat. As long as your pet rock continues to live in your bed, the little twinge you get when you roll over on him — annoying, but not strong enough to actually wake you up — keeps you in the clear.

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