‘Dispatches From Elsewhere’ Began as a Magical Mystery Tour Through San Francisco

How Oaklandish creator Jeff Hull's 'Jejune Institute' inspired the new AMC show starring Jason Segel and Sally Field.

I first became aware of The Jejune Institute and The Elsewhere Public Works Agency while working as an intern at Wired magazine in early 2010. My interest was piqued after observing a number of strange flyers and signs in San Francisco’s SoMa District. One flyer advertised a “time camera,” a sticker on a utility box warned of “microwave harassment,” and an official-looking metal sign on a chain-link fence had a striking message.

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At the bottom of the Giants-orange placard there was an 800 number and a signature: “Elsewhere Public Works Agency.” It was punctuated with a small silhouette of a brontosaurus.

I don’t remember whether I called the number or did some Googling, but I ultimately determined that the signs I had seen were part of something much larger than a whimsical and artsy flyering campaign. They were, in fact, entry points into a strange and fantastical game, which unfolded in San Francisco and the East Bay from 2008 to 2011.

A sign placed on a chain link fence by The Elsewhere Public Works Agency.

Those who dove deeper than me discovered much more. Often referred to as “The Jejune Institute” — the name of the fictional, new age organization at its center — this game drew players in using planted actors, cryptic puzzles, dadaist flash mobs, and surreal scavenger hunts. Wittingly or unwittingly, participants worked together with the game’s puppeteers to spin a wild and labyrinthine yarn, solving riddles and uncovering clues on a quest to attain “Divine Nonchalance” and find a mysterious missing woman named Eva.

Masterminded by Jeff Hull — co-founder of the Oaklandish brand — The Jejune Institute was so immaculately orchestrated that many participants had trouble telling whether they were playing make-believe or were actually tangled up in a cult-like cabal of shadowy telepaths… at least that’s what the 2013 documentary, The Institute, would have viewers believe.

As I said I never got truly pulled in, but Spencer McCall, director of The Institute, did. As he details in his film, many who called the number listed on the flyers and signs ended up visiting The Jejune Institute’s induction room, a physical space located in the Financial District. There, they were shown an induction video, narrated by a charismatic man named Octavio Coleman.

“You now sit in a satellite induction office of The Jejune Institute, located in the deep forests of San Francisco,” the video began, before launching into an explanation The Jejune Institute and its aims.

After the induction, clues proliferated. Participants were invited to dance in the streets, tune into pirate radio stations, and visit obscure works of public art. One mission even took daring players down into the sewers beneath Oakland.

“Everybody had their own experience,” McCall says. “It was about learning more about the shared story and in turn learning more about other people in the real world.”

ART IMITATING LIFE
Now, those who were unable to experience Hull’s original project — and those who were unaware of it to begin with — can experience their own version of The Jejune Institute.

A new television show, produced by and starring Jason Segel, has been running on AMC and streaming on multiple platforms since the beginning of March. 

Dispatches from Elsewhere expands upon the original Jejune Institute and McCall’s film. Set in Philadelphia, the series follows a quartet of characters, played by Segal, Sally Field, André “3000” Benjamin, and Eve Lindley, as they work to unravel a mystery much like the one at the center of Hull’s project.

Dispatches revolves around The Jejune Institute and its rival organization, known as The Elsewhere Society — both of which take their names directly from the original game. The mysterious girl at the center of the AMC series is called Clara.

The series opens with four episodes dedicated to exploring the backstory of each main character. As the mystery broadens, we discover that Peter (Segal) lives a mundane and unfulfilled life; he works for a music streaming company, even though, as he later reveals, he has very little interest in music. Janice (Field) is in the midst of her golden years and trying to reclaim some of the spunk she had in her youth. Fredwynn (Benjamin) is a rich, obsessive, and lonely data savant. Simone (Lindley) is a young trans woman, who despite exuding confidence, struggles internally with her broader life path.

All four are drawn together by a collection of intriguing flyers that have been posted around the city (just like the original participants in Hull’s game). The flyers advertise fantastical products and studies, including a “time camera” and an exploration of dolphin-human communication. While Peter, Janice, Fredwynn, and Simone all concede that the efforts of The Jejune Institute and The Elsewhere Society are likely a part of an elaborate game, they are all given reason to believe that there might be something far stranger going on. Peter wants to believe that what he is seeing is real — magical even — while Fredwynn insists it’s all part of a sinister plot to harvest the data of  the players. Octavio Coleman also appears in Dispatches; he is played by the excellent Richard E. Grant.

For his part, Hull never liked people referring to The Jejune Institute as a game, and McCall agrees that it is inaccurate to describe it as such.

“A game has win-lose stakes,” McCall says “There was nothing like that. This was kind of a guided tour and a glimpse into a world that exists.”

STRANGER THAN FICTION
San Franciscans of a certain age will remember the city as it was before Web 2.0 ushered in the second great tech rush.

Back then — in the decade between the decline of theGlobe.com and the meteoric rise of Facebook — San Francisco had yet to be overrun with mobile wizards, insufferable content marketing gurus, and well-coiffed, polyamorous Burning Man artists. Instead, we had actual wizards, insufferable self-help gurus, and… well… mostly unkempt, polyamorous Burning Man artists.

The city was, as it has been for the bulk of its history, the final destination for nonconformists — the lefternmost edge of the left coast.

McCall certainly pines for a time when San Francisco was weirder — when the tech industry was truly a redoubt for alternative thinkers, rather than the new Wall Street.

It’s not that McCall is casting aspersions upon the tech industry. After all, he wouldn’t have been able to launch his filmmaking career if he hadn’t had the income and stability that his former tech job afforded him.

Still he says, The Institute — based upon the sprawling Jejune Institute project — captures a time that seems quite distant to him now.

“There was kind of a spirit or energy to it that over time started to kind of dry up a little bit,” says McCall, who was born in San Francisco in 1986, raised in Truckee, and returned to the city for college in 2004. He stayed here until 2015, but ultimately moved to Los Angeles in search of a lower cost of living.

McCall points to characters like Emperor Norton, the pop-psychologists and Esalen Institute founders Michael Murphy and Richard Price, the beats and the hippies as exemplars of our region’s “continuously fascinating” history

“It’s always been this breeding ground of eccentrics,” he says of San Francisco and the broader Bay Area.

DO YOU BELIEVE IN MAGIC?
Back in 2008, when Hull’s project began, smartphones were nascent, everyone was still in love with Facebook, and while Democrats and Republicans disagreed, they at least seemed to live in the same universe.

Considering the time in which The Jejune Institute unfolded, Hull seems especially prescient. Even in an age before the ubiquity of portable, internet-connected, high-definition streaming devices and Airpods had turned so many of this city’s denizens into zombies — he recognized that people needed to be pushed to escape the comfort of their solitary bubbles.

“I think a lot of people choose to live their lives at home,” McCall says. “That sense of isolation is what The Jejune Institute was there to remedy.”

It is perhaps ironic that Dispatches from Elsewhere is a television show — a spectator’s medium, which promotes passive engagement. That irony is only multiplied by the current coronavirus pandemic, which has so many of us staying indoors and watching more TV than ever, even as March gives way to April and the importance of moving around outside our own homes is thrown into sharp relief.

“The show being out there right now is kind of this reminder of how lucky we are to have the life that we have,” McCall says.

Whatever irony may be found in the format of Dispatches, or in the timing of its release, Segel says his aim in producing the show has always been to evoke a sense of sincere wonder and give people license to entertain fantastical ideas without shame.

“What if I present this to you — discomfort-slash-magic — with no sense of irony?” Segal said, explaining his philosophy for the show on a recent episode of the WNYC podcast Bullseye. “What if there was magic [in the world] and it required us to make it? … I mean it and I’m not making fun of it.”

For his part, McCall has a similar take on The Jejune Institute.

“I think that Jejune was a testament to the beauty, vitality, and history of the Bay Area,” he says.

And while the coronavirus pandemic has him as stressed as any of us, he is hopeful that we’ll all come out of this chapter in our lives with a renewed sense of curiosity for the world around us.

“One day we’ll get to go back out there, explore, and meet new people,” he says. “In some ways, maybe this horrible thing that’s happening right now is going to inspire greater engagement in society among strangers.”

Judging by how excited he has been to spend just a few minutes speaking with the brave souls who have been delivering food and other goods to his home, McCall is really looking forward to talking with his fellow passengers on public transit or chatting with his next Lyft driver.

“God,” he exclaims. “I miss talking with the driver.”

 

‘Dispatches from Elsewhere’ airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on AMC.

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