Oobah Butler: Virtual Worlds


story by AMBER HURWITZ / photography by EVGENY POPOV

“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.”

― Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation


Shirt by Yohji Yamamoto. Pants by Todd Snyder

In our hyper-mediated world, virtual reality and an excess of data have all but subsumed day-to-day experience. Our lives are orchestrated by online communities. We decide what to eat, where to go, and what to do based on curated imagery online. Slowly, but surely, we are becoming a culture teetering on the threshold between fantasy and materiality — where careers are made on Instagram and a poor Yelp review could mean the end. It is from within this fissure that journalist Oobah Butler has turned social experiments into a unique art form. His best-selling book, How to Bullsh*t Your Way to Number 1: a testament to falsehood and manufactured authenticity.

Butler is a Vice journalist known for experimenting with false narratives, their dissemination online, and, of course, the art of bullshit. At Paris Fashion Week, he pretended to be a flamboyantly-dressed jeans designer named “Georgio Peviani” and gained front-row access to exclusive fashion shows. Before that, he masqueraded on social media as the good (if not best) friend of English comedian Russel Brand (by stitching a photo of them together in Photoshop). Later, Butler pulled off perhaps his best-known project, “The Shed at Dulwich” – a fake restaurant (quite literally a dilapidated shed with no food), which fast became TripAdvisor’s top-rated eatery in London thanks to a series of fake reviews combined with expert posturing. For months, Butler maintained the charade, insisting the restaurant was “booked through the year” if anyone deigned to call. Butler explains that part of the inspiration for the Shed at Dulwich project was to take on the challenge of “making something fun and insane that took place in this false reality that everybody completely trusts.” He goes on to say that the success of the stunt taught him that, “you can quite literally build a very real, high-performing restaurant and potential franchise on an absolute fiction.”

“We really want to trust the internet as much as we do our own flesh,” says Butler. “But it’s not ready yet.”

When asked about the future of manufactured authenticity and virtual reality online, Butler takes a moment to consider his response. “If virtual reality feels as real as they say it’s going to be, then I would call it a kind of mind-altering experience. Something that could shape you and change who you are. In that case, I’d have the same attitude to VR as I do to mind-altering drugs. If I’m doing it, I want to be in a position where I’m secure enough to know it’s a borrowed experience. You need your feet grounded in reality before you can fuck with it too much.”

In a world where “fake news” abounds, everything is “bullshit,” and the banner of authenticity waves high over the heads of self-congratulating corporations and influencers, Butler’s project — for all its absurdity – is strangely yet undeniably important. But his message goes far beyond exposing falsehoods. As media theorist and philosopher, Jean Baudrillard once wrote in his book Fragments, The secret of theory is that truth does not exist.” Put another way, in the words of Oobah Butler, “Nobody is above bullshit.”

Shirt by Junya Watanabe. Jacket by Comme Des Garcons. Sweater by MR Turk.

Photographer: Evgeny Popov
Grooming: Sasha Nesterchuk
Stylist: Emma Sousa
Prop stylist: Alice Martinelli