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New York, New York

Designer Kidnappings

New York has a service for every customer, even those who want to be kidnapped. Our writer talks to Brock Enright, kidnapping artist with a degree from Columbia, whose company will force you to face your worst fears, gag in place.

It begins with a list of your greatest fears. For a few thousand dollars, Brock Enright’s personalized kidnapping service will make them come true. Your devoted captors might stuff you into a duffel bag and lug your duct-taped limbs to the tarred plateau of a roof or a no-man’s land of warehouses, far from the gloss of Manhattan. In the smeary darkness, they would develop features: a mask with the loose and leathery skin of an old man. Maybe a dirt-encrusted panda suit that stinks like a stale refrigerator. Enright would have consulted your questionnaire, the one where you cited ‘bananas’ as a top-ten terror. He might rub the anxiety-inducing fruit into your skin or toss in some impromptu touches—maple syrup, depilatories, and electric shoe polishers. No two abductions are staged the same way. Your custom-created torture could stop at a code word or drag on for days. Enright and his team of hijackers might strike when you’re zipping to work on the subway or showering in your apartment. After the trauma, which some clients compare to meditation, you may feel relief, exhilaration, or nothing at all. You can always pay Enright for a repeat performance.

The twenty-six-year-old New York artist began his successful kidnapping business for his thrill-seeking buddies, but has since opened to the public. In the past decade, he has pulled off almost forty abductions. Enright videotapes and edits his encounters with obsessive precision, sometimes exhibiting them in small galleries like the Dealership in Brooklyn. All sessions are recorded for legal purposes, though some are kept confidential and locked inside a vault.

Enright, who earned an MFA in ‘new genres’ from Columbia University, is no limelighting illusionist. His designer kidnappings bear a close resemblance to Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty in the 1930s. Artaud, a surrealist, believed that his sensory overload of brutal words, gestures, and rituals could protect society from its violent appetites. He called his nightmarish performances an antidote to the ‘terrible lack of imagination’ in Realist Theater.

Now that New York’s unconventional stage productions, from bald-headed Blue Men to trapeze-flying De La Guardians, have made nonlinear theater a tourist favorite, could the next step be virtual reality? Many off-Broadway shows have already broken the proverbial fourth wall by encouraging audience participation. In Enright’s case, the audience is not simply aiding in a personal performance. They are the performance.

‘There’s a lot of perceptions—the role of the player, the voyeur, and then the person who has it done to them,’ says Enright. He talks like an everyday kid in his mid-twenties, peppering his hesitant speech with ‘you knows’ and ‘yeahs.’ His soft, clean-shaven face is handsome and stoical. Enright’s young, mostly male, clientele fits the profile of a professional deep-thinker who requires the role-playing services of a dominatrix to cut loose. Consider Enright’s website, semagoediv.com, which takes its name from the word ‘videogames’ spelled backward.

‘You will work side by side with our team of Designers to customize your Adventure, or allow us to create an Adventure for you. We excel in creating the most realistic scenarios possible, tailored specifically to your needs.’ The phrase, ‘Find’m, Blind’m, and Bind’m,’ floats in curly cursive at the bottom of the screen. Another page insists that safety ‘is always first’ and Enright’s team must operate within the parameters of the law. ‘Beyond that, anything is possible.’

Among the standard packages, a client who chooses the role of ‘voyeur’ could participate in surveillance prior to a ‘hit.’ The witness will observe, with a victim’s permission, the high-octane moments of abduction, ending with a delivery of the human target a holding place, such as a hotel room. Choose the ‘client statue’ option and you could pose as a living decoration, a bound figure at a birthday party. Gift certificates are also available to ‘create an experience for a loved one that they will not soon forget.’

Enright requires at least two preliminary interviews with potential victims to agree on the kidnapping’s basic ingredients and give him a sense of their psychological fears. His best client totals four visits, a claustrophobic who begged the Semagoediv team to cram him under couches and desks each time. Another client suffered from an intense fear of bridges. Kidnappers forced the trembling and tear-streaked woman to march across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Does this degree of personal attention seem a little self-obsessive? Enright compares his service as an alternative form of psychotherapy, a passive-aggressive approach to overcoming phobias. Since September 11, New York has been overwhelmed with emotional static. As his clients pickle themselves in adrenaline, they find a level of controlling their fear.

‘I don’t believe it would be effective,’ says Joan Thompson, a therapist based in Manhattan. ‘The point is to demonstrate the level of actual danger and help the person learn a realistic view of it…To put someone into a situation that is very dangerous is cruel. And who knows how traumatized the person will become.’

What if a client turned the tables on the Semagoediv ‘designers’ and pretended to enjoy what they actually feared? Enright says, ‘I would tweak them and perhaps make them see that they didn’t enjoy it. Or that they enjoyed it in a different manner.’

The kidnappings often take place on Manhattan’s streets in broad daylight, yet nobody has bothered to intervene on a victim’s behalf. Because Enright and his masked conspirators are videotaping the performance, many people mistake the organized chaos for a reality TV show. Enright says, ‘We’ve done things very close to police and they have no clue it’s even happening.’

The Semagoediv team, close childhood friends of Enright, have also kidnapped each other. ‘Recently, I’ve been more behind-the scenes, more directing and making sure each piece goes together correctly,’ says Enright. ‘I edit all the pieces so many times, I have maybe thirty variations of one scene…Sometimes we’ll play close attention to the narrative and sometimes we’ll just be very surreal and make things not connect.’

When asked if people get a sexual kick from the experience, which includes elements of bondage, he pauses. ‘Some say they do. Some say they don’t…I think in retrospect, they’ll all be able to answer that later.’ Enright is more concerned with the narrative aspects of his performance, what postmodern literary theorists would label as intertexuality. ‘We have reoccurring characters,’ he says. ‘But we develop a new character out of each person’s fear. So it becomes this ultimate monster.’

By introducing the victim as a character, Enright’s theory is that his kidnappings involve two kinds of action: the scenes that happen while the narrator watches them and the scenes that the victim remembers or imagines. The videotape adds a third dimension, where the victim may swap roles and study the event from an objective perspective.

Jon Kessler, the chair of Columbia University’s visual arts division, says, ‘It all sounds like the movie Fight Club to me…feeling like everyone’s sort of wanting an experience that’s real. And yet the real is sort of mediated and recut and re-edited and part of an art piece…bringing art into real life. Yet it seems much more honest than doing something in a Chelsea gallery.’

As Enright’s kidnapping service gains more exposure, it could grow too self-conscious to continue. So will its creator, who still has a few tricks up his sleeve. ‘I think I’ll bring it to the level of a really, really good climax. And I don’t know what that means. I’m looking forward to destroying it.’ Until then, he still has a few videotapes left in the vault.

Crissa-Jean Chappell teaches creative writing and film classes at Miami International University of Art and Design. Her debut novel, Total Constant Order, was published by HarperCollins in 2007. More by Crissa-Jean Chappell