Schwa – the underground artwork hit in the 1990’s, consisted of simple black and white stick figurish alien drawings. Invented by Bill Barker , the aliens rather symbolized a metaphor for unknown and strange ideas than extraterrestrial lifeforms.
In linguistics, a schwa is an unstressed and toneless neutral vowel sound in any language, often but not necessarily a mid-central vowel (rounded or unrounded). Such vowels are often transcribed with the symbol ə, regardless of their actual phonetic value. An example in English is the i in levitate.
Barker however, used Schwa as a psyeudonym, a fictitious omnipresent corporation, a religion, or if you want a resistance movement against corporate conspiracies and aliens. Often it’s a combination of all four at once.
It all began in 1992. Barker, a former advertising art director, was looking for a simple yet powerful and remarkable way to express himself.
He was given a copy of ‘The Secret Government’ , a conspiracy book that tells of aliens controlling the government.
Barker started selling stickers, necklaces and his first book, ə, directly to consumers by mail order. Schwa cartoons also appeared in various magazines and newspapers.
Although Barker might not have been the first person to conceive of the ovoid alien face, his version quickly became the best-known. His book was an underground hit, and received praise from Terry Gilliam, Ivan Stang, and Noam Chomsky. He bundled the book along with several trinkets as the Complete Schwa Kit, put out another book with trinkets as Complete Counter-Schwa Kit. Eventually his popularity led to a book deal with Chronicle Books, and in 1997 he published Schwa: World Operations Manual a reference manual for world control that included postcards, stickers, warranties, contracts, and charts.
Barker also created and ran a (now defunct) labyrinthine website early in the days of the browser-based internet. He described it as “an experiment in building an online science fiction environment in HTML.” Instead of simply showcasing his printed artwork, the website became another medium for Schwa fans to explore.
Barker teamed up with AOL to create an odd online game exclusively for AOL members. He worked with the now defunct Orbital Studios to create a game about conspiracies, corporations, and aliens. The initial instructions set the tone of the game:
“Don’t follow instructions. Suspect instructions. They are something to be wary of.”
The player was a stick figure right in the middle of the darkened and conspiratorial world of Schwa. The player worked their way up the pyramid by collecting power through media, corporations, government, and labor, to eventually dominate the world.
The game launched on March 9, 1998. A follow-up game called Schwa Conspiracy was announced for later that year, but was never finished.
Although a growing hit, Bill Barker disappeared from the public (and underground) eye sometime in late September of 2001. His long-running website is dead and the post office box he had used for years now returns his mail unread.
The website appears to have come back online around April 2005, but in a severely limited capacity.
The game’s rules: “Don’t follow instructions. Suspect instructions. They are something to be wary of.”
The spirit of Schwa lives on. Schwa Fan websites can still be found online, his books can still be bought and conspiracy theories are never out of date.