A new generation of ‘net artists anticipates its inevitable co-option by brands hungry to cash in on the Next Big Thing.
These days it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between Us and Them—between the underground radicals and The Man. To some degree, there was probably always some overlap. No lifestyle can consistently embody a political ideal at odds with capitalism: it’s near impossible to go entirely off the grid, and crusty freegans are better at conning their non-crusty friends to give them free drinks than they are at absorbing the excess production of corporate America.
It’s not that everyone is too lazy to do good, or that people don’t recognize the problems of the free market. The real issue is that there are simply too many machines to rage against all of them at the same time. Eventually you need to eat some McDonalds before you go back to Zuccotti Park, or purchase shoes made by child laborers so you can march for Walmart workers’ rights. Some can afford to pay for a more conscientious lifestyle, buying local or handmade, while others avoid the evils of global capitalism through their own patient volition. But no one can absolve herself of the fact that her buying power contributes to the misery of those less fortunate. Even the wooden beads on that drum-circle participant’s dreadlocks could come from an old-growth forest. This is not an endorsement of nihilism. It’s good to be good and it’s better to be better, but it’s impossible to be perfect. Just going about our daily lives, we each endorse—to some extent—the things we despise.
In art history since World War II, the differences between establishmentarians and subversive outsiders have become harder and harder to distinguish. Galleries and museums all seem to share some variation of the same goal: to locate, placate, and integrate the most transgressive contemporary work into popular discourse. From the west side of Manhattan, these white cubes beckon: Give me your tired, your images of poor Spanish junkies susceptible to being tattooed for a pathetically small fee, your huddled masses of paintings yearning to shock baby boomers with their formal use of elephant dung. As the saying goes, if you build it, they will cum—all over the place! On their canvases, on their installations, in their pants while watching each other perform sexually alluring acts under the guise of performance. It’s hard to pull apart one milky, protein-drenched face from another, let alone distinguish between the fashionably permeable political ideologies that separate one party of art producers from another party of art owners, publishers, and buyers. When a market eager to prove its acceptance of dissent actively seeks the depraved, the title of “outsider” more accurately describes the artists whose works don’t sell than those who transgress. And so white cube after white cube is granted permission to stick it to The Man by The Man himself—not unlike rack after rack of Sex Pistols t-shirts at any Hot Topic.
Nowhere is the dissolution of the Us vs. Them dichotomy more clear than among the young creative types who thrive on the internet, and who have wholeheartedly embraced their own corporately fueled lifestyles in a way that would make the ’90s cyber-punks and ’80s hardcore-zine-reading punks and ’70s punk-punks and ’60s hippie-proto-punks and ’50s beatnik-bohemian-proto-punks want to throw up. Vajazzled, spritzed head to toe with Axe body spray, and wearing Under Armour athletic wear while posting neon Nike logos to Facebook from their iPhones, this is a group who uses their blogs as prosthetic limbs to be adorned with yet more brand-name products.
What’s important here is that this hyper-corporate posturing is a trend among the group as a whole. The internet is decent at making individuals famous, but it’s much better at creating a widespread syntax of production: memetic formats that can be versioned ad infinitum; open-ended frameworks that structure the language of online humor; indistinct notions of fashionableness that make certain aesthetics go viral on Tumblr. The notion of “occupying” a given public space and the catchphrase #YOLO are recent examples of these formulas.
The cultural context that has influenced so many young artists, bloggers, and fashion enthusiasts to cover their online presences in corporate imagery is not unlike the moment in history when art institutions began supporting artists whose work was critical of those same institutions. Each case constitutes an effort to preemptively appropriate the work of the cultural aggressor—to be one step ahead of the entity who threatens the legitimacy of the one being aggressed. By recouping institutionally critical art, museums and galleries were able to sidestep artists’ more radical aims, as well as provide a controlled framework for a dialogue about visibility, power, and money that would’ve inevitably happened without their endorsement. The key word here is inevitability: if it’s going to happen anyway, you might as well get a head start on it. (See ‘net artist Ryder Ripps’ manifesto on art and athletic wear.)
One thing we now firmly understand as inevitable is the way subcultures are routinely appropriated by mass culture. Murphy’s Law dictates that if a subculture can be named and is visually recognizable, it can and will be used by whatever source stands to gain even the smallest bit of capital from appropriating it. By creating visual associations with athletic sportswear or other corporate entities, Tumblr kids have begun to anticipate their inevitable cooption by brands looking to cash in on the Next Big Thing. If or when Nike decides to cash in on the coolness of these fashionistas, the company can now only do so by cannibalizing a queered or vulgarized vision of itself.
Lurking in the background of this fashion-stance-as-cannibal-bait is another relationship now common between young people and companies: the unpaid internship. It’s a form of consensual exploitation that takes many shapes and flavors, ranging from the internships that fill practically every listing on the New York Foundation of the Arts’ “job” classifieds, to more subtle efforts to supplant in-house paid labor—like the football photo albums Dove Men+Care encourages you to upload to its website, so you can become part of the social network that is Dove’s sweepstake community. The Tumblr practice of voluntarily identifying with certain brands over others is one that closely resembles unpaid internship’s reversed labor relationship: you go out of your way to do work for a company, and in return they give themselves money.
Under Armour advocate and ‘net artist Ryder Ripps
The intern relationship is primarily a way for companies to take advantage of student debt and a lack of job opportunities. But since an increasing number of companies are actually becoming dependent on their unpaid laborers, there could be some wiggle room to use the internship as a form of subversion. The despair so many young people feel because of the time they have spent working without compensation or respect could popularize the view that revenge is a more attainable or satisfying option than eventual employment (if it ever comes at all). If a living wage and benefits are incentives not to sabotage the company that employs you, what are the incentives for unpaid interns? Desperation is a double-edged sword.
Perhaps the most prolific unpaid “intern” of all is Youtube’s Shoenice22, a Gulf War veteran who has amassed 50,000,000 views for his ability to consume seemingly inedible products—such as a stick of Old Spice deodorant—in astonishingly short spans of time. Shoenice’s on-camera demeanor is a damaged form of machismo, with a Joker-esque delivery of invented catchphrases and bold promises to feed the starving children in Africa once he gets enough followers. Nearly all of his videos feature a brand-name product, held up to the camera during a couple minutes of banter before being consumed with an aggression and disregard for health that can trigger a gag reflex even from the safe viewing distance of a laptop screen.
Though charming and witty, Shoenice is ultimately a tragic and self-sacrificial figure, a court jester performing to appease his own conception of fame: a person who is willing to commit not only his time in the present moment, but his future body and health to the pursuit of attention. He is fully dedicated to the life of a social media avatar and over-the-counter products are his chosen weapons of martyrdom. Despite all the free promotion Shoenice provides for the companies who manufacture the products he chokes down, one gets the sense that this is not the type of unpaid labor companies would like to encourage. Shoenice’s violent consumption stands as a hyperbolic vision of what we each do to our own bodies as we spend our lives munching Doritos and sipping Absolut mixed drinks. We empathize with Shoenice because we understand the grotesque nature of his consumption as an extension of our own gluttony and complicity. As alpha consumer, Shoenice brings shame to the act of consumption and the products consumed. He vulgarizes the names of those products in a spectacular, if unintentional, act of present-day subversion. If the underground and The Man were once pitted against each other, now both eat off the same menu. The question is who can eat the other first.
Images courtesy of Brad Troemel.
Second image features ‘net artists Teen Witch, Ultrademon, Molly Soda, and friends.
Illuminazioni is a film by Chinonyeelu Uchechi Amobi.