SXSW 2015: The End of Techno-Joy

 

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Art by: Sue Zola

 

I used to be pretty excited about technology. I’ve worked in social media since before the term existed; I co-created an app, I wrote pretty rah-rah-tech essays that people liked, like “Why Iron Man is the First 21st Century Superhero” (hint: his relationship to tech). I, like you, side-eyed wet blankets like Evgeny Morozov and Sherry Turkle and Jaron Lanier, like, sucks to be them; glad I don’t have their problem. Until, one day, I did. It started when I was writing Objectionable, and it never really went away. But perhaps nothing has made it feel quite as immersive as going to South By Southwest Interactive 2015.

The first time I went to SXSW was 8 years ago. The social web was a wild west where new and interesting things were emerging, and, unless you worked in music at the time, you probably didn’t give a shit. (Myspace was still the social network running everything, so don’t even). Twitter didn’t take off until, in fact, SXSW that year, and Facebook wouldn’t do anything at all even remotely relevant to brands until a few months later. At the time this was all a ghetto called “new media;” I had a title with the words “electronic marketing.” Since then, the tech startup industry has become a major, entrenched, cultural establishment, disrupting and colonizing other culture industries like entertainment and music. The SXSW festival, because it spans Music, Film, and Interactive technology, has come to occupy a unique position on the venn diagram of these 3 main influences of contemporary culture. So here’s a few snapshots from where we are in 2015.

 

MUSIC.

Pretty much all the highlights of my third SXSW trip that are fit to print, involve music, so we might as well just get the fun out of the way first.

Before I even got to Austin, the coolest flight I’ve ever had happened to me. I was seated next to an awesome, come up rapper from Miami, called Enoch da Prophet, whom you should listen to immediately:

We talked for a bit about how the new generation of hiphop (J Cole, Kendrick, etc.), is rebelling against the violence, materialism, and other stereotypical “bullshit” of what’s become the established hiphop mainstream in order to define themselves and their own, new sound and vibe. If this is what the future of hiphop sounds like, I am soooo into it.

The moment I landed in Austin, my major evaluative criteria for which otherwise indistinguishable tech-sponsored parties to attend quickly turned out to be based entirely on music. There were parties with performances and / or DJ sets by Sir Mix-a-Lot, Busta Rhymes, Nas, The Flaming Lips, and more — all as part of Interactive. You could tell the difference between Interactive parties and Music parties because the former all had nostalgia-wave acts with name recognition among middle-aged marketing executives. By contrast, if the people on-stage and mostly everyone else are in their 20s and more interested in dancing than networking and the majority of the visible badges people are wearing around their necks have the word “STAFF” on them and the air smells like Swisher Sweets and hash, you can easily tell you’re at Music.

Mostly, the event that lived up to and exceeded the anticipation I had for it was Odesza at the Spotify House. It was their first time playing SXSW, and they were super adorable and excited and totally rocked the shit out of everything and got everyone goin’ up at 5 pm on a Tuesday.

Also fun was the party at the W with The Jane Doze, where my best friend, Jason, was managing a bunch of mermaids. Jason lives in Austin and co-runs Sirenalia, which creates custom, high-end silicone mermaid tails. The startup-sponsored party had hired a few of the mermaid performers to hang out in the pool and be generally Instagrammable.

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Jason and I spent a lot of time talking about parenting in the age of social media, since Jason had just become a father 8 days prior. There’s a lot to consider now, like what your general philosophy is going to be about how you treat technology and content sharing, when the subject of said content is your progeny. Kids don’t get to “choose to be online now,” Jason says, “any more than they got to choose to have a mailing address.”

In retrospect, Music (and also music) turned out to be a welcome, transportive reprieve from the relentless grind of Interactive.

 

INTERACTIVE.

On the plus side of what I got to see as part of the official Interactive programming was a talk by Martin Harrison, Planning Director at Huge, entitled,  “The Empathy Gap: Why Stalin Nailed Big Data.”

“One death,” Harrison quoted Stalin, “is a tragedy; one million is just statistics.” Basically, at a certain point the scope of violation becomes so massive that our minds kind of break at trying to comprehend it or calculate a just recourse. We literally can’t even. For example, in an experiment, people gave shorter jail sentences to food company executives who knowingly poisoned 20 people (4.2 years), than 2 people (5.8 years):

One of the most notable things about this talk was that it was so good even the questions asked by the audience at the end were legitimately interesting and extended the conversation (a phenomenon as unheard of as sitting next to someone relevant on an airplane). One of the questions was how can we institutionalize empathy within risk-averse organizations reliant on the dehumanizing safety-blanket of data? Harrison had some interesting thoughts about this, namely to do with having diversity among the decision-makers.

On the other side of the spectrum, I also went to a panel called Culture Clash: When Marketing and Product Converge, which I had actually been really interested in, not only personally, as this is the exact intersection of disciplines I’ve found myself straddling since launching Mirrorgram / SparkMode, but also from a macro, inter and intra-industry perspective. For marketing, this is the next big step in the evolution of the agency model — as Deutsch’s VP, Invention Director, Christine Outram says, “from ads that are designed to die, to ads that are designed to live” as products that people use every day. And for the product side, marketing is a critical capability to understand and embrace. What the ad world (at its best) has done for the length of its existence is seek to understand and leverage insights about human behavior. (Happiness is a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing… it’s okay. You are okay.“) This human competency is necessary to surf the culture currents and capture lifestyle opportunities in a way that just features alone don’t.

Spoiler alert, the above paragraph is not what the panel was about at all. At least not the first 20 minutes of it, after which my friend, Rachel Rutherford, the Co-CEO of fashion startup, Pose, said we had to go. It was hard, she said, to listen to what marketing considered to be product successes.

 

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A photo posted by babiejenks (@babiejenks) on

 

“Welcome to how the other half lives,” I told her.

But that’s kind of how the whole premise of SXSW is flawed, though, isn’t it? Because so few things really are the kind of marketing or product successes we’re all claiming they are — in one day I managed to attend two different presentations that both referenced the now half a decade old, Old Spice Guy campaign. But you can’t sell a $1200 festival pass on the reality that most of what attendees are going to hear is aggrandized to sound amazing, to look epic, to seem important, to be Instagram-worthy. SXSW Interactive has a mass hallucination to uphold. And you’ve got an expense report to justify. One talk for real included a slide titled, “So what do I need to tell my boss I learned from your presentation so my expense report gets approved?” —

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Ppl photo’d the shit out of that.

 

CULTURE.

One of the most jarring things that happened at SXSW was at the start of the Flaming Lips show sponsored by Spreadfast, which was super cool-looking and also had the feel of being deliberately reverse-engineered for Instagram. At one point, Wayne Coyne literally stopped a song and restarted it because the audience participation on the lyrics call-and-response wasn’t up to par for the optics “for YouTube.” Later, when I relayed this story to my friends they insisted that Coyne’s way too punk rock for the whole thing not to have been a joke, and maybe they’re right, but here’s the thing…. no one in the audience got it. This is 2015. We do as many takes as it takes to get something share-worthy. It’s not a joke; it’s where we are now as a culture.

Everything feels inescapably more cynical now. One night at a party at the Handlebar, I was talking to a couple of guys from San Francisco. I mentioned that I’d used to live there, and they asked me the standard followup, “Where?” But I shook my head and said, “The question isn’t ‘where,’ it’s ‘when?'”

I lived in San Francisco in 2000. It was a totally different city then than it is now, 15 years later. One of the guys from San Francisco was working at a new mobile search app, or whatever. (The goal being to take away even just .5% of Google’s market share. #Innovation!) He was describing the environment in San Francisco now. “You go out to cafes or anywhere, and it’s just” — he hunched over, smushing his arms against his chest like a Tyrannosaurus, fingers manically typing from flaccid wrists. “Meep, meep, meep,” he said in a robotic voice, completing the pantomime. Then he lowered his hands and confessed, “I’m shitting on the situation, but at the same time, I work in this industry.” He shook his head, sighed into his drink, “I’m part of the problem.”

Earlier, at the W party with the mermaids, Jason was wearing a sailor hat to complement the aquatic motif. A guy walked up to him, his eyes darting back and forth shiftily, his voice so conspiratorially low I could barely make out what he was saying; a question that seemed too absurd and sketchy to be real. Jason smiled carefully, and shook his head.

“Did he just ask to buy your hat off of you,” I said as we walked away.

“Yes.”

“Jesus. I thought he was looking for drugs.”

“I know.”

There was a relentless, transactional quality to SXSW Interactive interactions. You could imagine people picturing price tags floating above everyone’s heads like Sims character diamonds. Is that for sale? Is he for sale? Are they for sale?

I remembered an article I’d read a few months ago in Fortune, The Age of Unicorns, that began, “Stewart Butterfield had one objective when he set out to raise money for his startup last fall: a billion dollars or nothing. If he couldn’t reach a $1 billion valuation for Slack, his San Francisco business software company, he wouldn’t bother. It wasn’t long ago that the idea of a pre-IPO tech startup with a $1 billion market value was a fantasy. Google was never worth $1 billion as a private company. Neither was Amazon nor any other alumnus of the original dotcom class. Today the technology industry is crowded with billion-dollar startups. When Cowboy Ventures founder Aileen Lee coined the term unicorn as a label for such corporate creatures in a November 2013 TechCrunch blog post, just 39 of the past decade’s VC-backed U.S. software startups had topped the $1 billion valuation mark. Now, casting a wider net, Fortune counts more than 80 startups that have been valued at $1 billion or more by venture capitalists. And given that these companies are privately held, a few are sure to have escaped our detection. The rise of the unicorn has occurred rapidly and without much warning, and it’s starting to freak some people out.”

On my last day in Austin I heard about Jumpolin, a local piñata and bouncy house store, that was torn down to make space for parking for a South by Southwest tech party:

The morning of February 12, 2015, Austinite Sergio Lejarazu was driving past his small business, Jumpolin at 1401 E. Cesar Chavez Street, on his way to drop his daughter off at school. That’s when he noticed something strange. Jumpolin wasn’t there anymore. He pulled over and quickly learned that his new landlords, Jordan French and Darius Fisher, operating as F&F Real Estate Ventures, had demolished the building that Jumpolin occupied for eight years. The building still had all the inventory, cash registers and some personal property inside. Sergio and his wife Monica say they were given no prior warning and were up-to-date on their rent with a lease good until 2017.

In the end, the sponsor wound up moving the party to a different venue anyway due to the controversy. (Although not before one of the landlords managed to make an analogy to cockroaches in regards to his tenants.)

Reading about this happening — for a festival, for a party for all of the entitled, out-of-towner assholes like me and you and everyone we know in our badge-holder echo chamber — I felt gross. We are all sighing into our free drinks now; we’re all part of the problem.

Beyond the impact of its output, undoubtedly the most pathological impact technology has already had on our culture is economic. The increasingly stratified division between the people who make a living in some technology-adjacent field, and everyone else. And worse — the way people in technology treat “everyone else.”

When you ask people if they’re from Austin, the real locals consistently add the phrase “born ‘n raised.” My best friend is one of these people. He moved back to Austin after a stint in San Francisco came to an end when he was no longer able to afford to live there. Now he sees “the Google glass people” moving to his hometown, “and they have nothing to contribute to the culture except money.”

It’s beyond a cliche now to talk about how San Francisco has changed. Living in LA (where we don’t have a non-exploitable culture anyway, ha ha ha), I’ve heard the conversation about San Francisco turning into Monaco humming away up north in the distance. But in Austin, it felt very real and present and metastatic — it felt like everywhere else would be next.

If he couldn’t reach a $1 billion valuation, he wouldn’t bother… How much for your hat?…  Is he for sale?…  20 people… 4.2 years….

One city gone is a tragedy. The rest is just statistics.

    



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The Possibly Real Trend of Possibly Real Trends

What’s current when nothing is certain.

 

Health Goth.

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“Somewhere in between normcore, cyberpunk, goth, and sportswear chic exists the possibly real trend known as “Health Goth,” wrote Allison P Davis in New York Magazine’s The Cut blog back in October. “It’s been kicking around since spring, actually, but it seems to have entered the mainstream this week.”

The source for this possibly-real trend’s possibly real tipping point was an article in Marie Claire the week prior, titled, likewise dubiously, “Health Goth: The Latest Trend You’ve Never Heard Of.”

After which “came the inevitable cavalcade of follow-on articles,” wrote Jay Owens in the Hautepop post, The Week That Health Goth Broke. “Rather poetically,” Owens added, “many trend pieces are declaring it stillborn, dead before it arrived”:

Meanwhile, Health Goth may or may not be the new “Street Goth.” Which itself is not to be confused with “Goth Ninja.” And there are also the lesser-known, possibly-real trends, dubbed, Pastel Goth, and Beach Goth. Because goth, apparently, never dies:

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Lumbersexual.

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Ushered in by appropriately uncertain headlines like, “Are you a Lumbersexual?” (Gawker); “Are you dating a Lumbersexual?” (Cosmopolitan); “Who Is the Lumbersexual and Is Anything About Him Real?” (Jezebel), another possibly-real trend arrived in November. As Tom Puzak explained in Gear Junkie:

Today, the metrosexual is a disappearing breed being quickly replaced by men more concerned with existing in the outdoors, or the pseudo-outdoors, than meticulous grooming habits.

He is bar-hopping, but he looks like he could fell a Norway Pine.

Seen in New York, LA and everywhere in between, the Lumbersexual is bringing the outdoor industry’s clothing and accessories into the mainstream.

Whether the roots of the lumbersexual are a cultural shift toward environmentalism, rebellion against the grind of 9-5 office jobs, or simply recognition that outdoor gear is just more comfortable, functional and durable, the Lumbersexual is on the rise.

Possibly.

“20 years ago, Mark Simpson coined the term ‘metrosexual,'” reads the Telegraph headline from June 2014. “But now a new, more extreme, sex- and body-obsessed version has emerged.” Simpson calls it the “Spornosexual.”

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The term is a portmanteau to describe “these pumped-up offspring of those Ronaldo and Beckham lunch-box ads, where sport got into bed with porn while Mr Armani took pictures,” Simpson explains. “But unlike Beckham’s metrosexual ads of old, in which his attributes were possibly artificially enhanced, today’s spornosexuals have photoshopped themselves in real life. Glossy magazines cultivated early metrosexuality. Celebrity culture then sent it into orbit. But for today’s generation, social media, selfies and porn are the major vectors of the male desire to be desired. They want to be wanted for their bodies, not their wardrobe. And certainly not their minds.”

“Spornosexual” didn’t take off in the zeitgeist quite the way Lumbersexual has. Perhaps for being a little bit too foreign-sounding. And perhaps for being a little bit way too real to be possibly-real.

While I was writing this post, “Highsexual” happened. “What spawned the new psuedo-identity,” Michael D’Alimonte writes on MTL Blog, “was a slightly scandalous question posed to the reddit community, which basically can be summed up by a guy asking: I’m straight when I’m sober, but when I’m super high, I wanna bang guys, is this normal? And that is the crux of “highsexual,” a guy (or girl) that only ponders/enacts in gay sexual activity when stoned.”

While it’s true, as D’Alimonte notes, “You can apparently tack on -sexual to any word and create a new stratum of society,” (Goth too, evidently), in this particular case, the term pertains to sexuality directly rather than a fashion or aesthetic trend. Nevertheless, it’s still worth asking, as D’Alimonte does, “Is being a highsexual a real thing?” The answer? “Well, now that it’s an internet-used term, it kind of is.”

 

Normcore. 

Perhaps the most notorious of 2014’s possibly-real trends, and no longer an anomaly so much as a harbinger, is Normcore. I wrote about it at the beginning of last year. The jury never really came back on whether Normcore is a real fashion movement or an Internet meme that the mass media fell for and self-fulfilled into becoming real. As Alex Williams put it in The New York Times:

A style revolution? A giant in-joke? At this point, it hardly seems to matter. After a month-plus blizzard of commentary, normcore may be a hypothetical movement that turns into a real movement through the power of sheer momentum.

Even so, the fundamental question — is normcore real? — remains a matter of debate, even among the people who foisted the term upon the world.

The catchy neologism was coined by K-Hole, a New York-based group of theoretically minded brand consultants in their 20s, as part of a recent trend-forecasting report, “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom.” Written in the academic language of an art manifesto, the report was conceived in part as a work of conceptual art produced for a London gallery, not a corporate client.

As envisioned by its creators, “normcore” was not a fashion trend, but a broader sociological attitude. The basic idea is that young alternative types had devoted so much energy to trying to define themselves as individuals, through ever-quirkier style flourishes like handlebar mustaches or esoteric pursuits like artisanal pickling, that they had lost the joy of belonging that comes with being part of the group. Normcore was about dropping the pretense and learning to throw themselves into, without detachment, whatever subcultures or activities they stumbled into, even if they were mainstream. “You might not understand the rules of football, but you can still get a thrill from the roar of the crowd at the World Cup,” the report read. The term remained little more than a conversation starter for art-world cocktail parties until New York magazine published a splashy trend story on Feb. 24 titled “Normcore: Fashion for Those Who Realize They’re One in 7 Billion.” The writer, Fiona Duncan, chronicled the emergence of “the kind of dad-brand non-style you might have once associated with Jerry Seinfeld, but transposed on a Cooper Union student with William Gibson glasses.” An accompanying fashion spread dug up real-life L-train denizens rocking mall-ready Nike baseball caps and stonewashed boyfriend jeans without apparent shame.

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Even so, it was difficult to tell if anyone actually believed the hype. For one thing, the normcore brain trust started to circle the wagons. Christopher Glazek, a journalist and friend of the K-Hole founders took to Facebook to blow holes in the “trend.” “It doesn’t really make sense to identify normcore as a fashion trend,” he wrote. “The point of normcore is that you could dress like a Nascar mascot for a big race and then switch to raver ware for a long druggie night at the club.”

 

 

The Trends They Are A-changin’.

Last year, some friends of mine accidentally became health goths. They didn’t mean to. It just happened. They were goths who grew up and got too old to keep going out to clubs the way they once had, so they got into crossfit, and that was that. Unbeknownst to them, they’d become classified into a whole new, possibly-real style.

This is something that didn’t used to happen. You didn’t just accidentally become hiphop. You didn’t one day trip over yourself to discover you were unwittingly wearing 30-inch bottom raver pants. Your clothes weren’t punked out and ripped to shreds for no particular reason that you were aware of until you read a New York Magazine trend piece about it. Now, a lifestyle neologism goes viral and you discover you’ve contracted a trend.

Alternative fashion trends used to be representative of a larger lifestyle or subculture emergence. The fashion brands that defined these aesthetics were often overtly and inextricably linked to these cultures.

“I was messianic about punk,” Vivienne Westwood, the High Priestess of Punk fashion said, in 2002.

The Kikwear brand’s history reads: In 1993, one of our key accounts in San Francisco asked us to make them a 23″ bottom for their store because the Rave scene was beginning to emerge in Northern California and the kids were walking into the store with their homemade “wide leg” pants. We moved on this tip and sure enough those denim pant sold out immediately! We quickly realized that this Rave Movement was starting to come on strong throughout Southern California and we started launching wider leg pants known today as “phatties.”

The late designer, Tiffa Novoa, was one of the founders of the seminal, circus subculture performance troupe, El Circo. In designing the troupe’s costumes she also created the postapocalyptic fashions that became associated with the Burning Man style, and carried over into an aesthetic that spanned west coast underground dance culture of the mid aughts. In a 2005 SF-Bay Guardian article, Steven T. Jones describes the personally transformative effect the fashion aesthetic Novoa defined had on its adherents, changing the way they conceived of themselves. “At first, this was all costuming,” The article quoted, Matty Dowlen, El Circo’s head of operations. “But now it’s who I am.”

Meanwhile, aggregating the de riguer health goth brands for the requisite The New York Times article on the subject, Meirav Devash listed: “Mainstream brands like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, or gothic streetwear from Hood by Air, Cottweiler, Whatever 21, Nvrmnd Clothing, Adyn and Skingraft.”

When I asked Jonny Cota, the owner of Skingraft, about health goth, last year, his response was skeptical amusement. Like everyone else’s.

Perhaps that is what makes possibly-real trends so dubious: the lack of intentionality. Fashion choices used to have specific and unironic meanings. Hippies, punks, ravers, goths — these were cultural philosophies that spread through adoption, not (solely) aesthetic replication. Now, we don’t claim participation, we are simply colonized by memes, unwitting bystanders, just sort of swept up in cultural trend redistricting.

In the days of slow-moving, 20th century media, emergent cultural expressions had time to incubate below the radar before they tipped into mass awareness. Pre-Tumblr, the only way to find out about a new cultural emergence was through the unassailably real channel of one of its actual practitioners. There was no need to wonder about veracity. Now, a nascent trend doesn’t really have the time to mature into something legitimate before the trendhunting hyenas descend upon it, exposing it to a sudden burst of scrutiny. What remains becomes neither niche enough to be authentic nor mass enough to be indisputable. Maybe no new trend seems quite real because it hasn’t had the chance to become real before we’re looking it up on urban dictionary and just as swiftly are click-baited on to the next dubious dopamine hit of meme culture.

Or perhaps, this is what happens now that subculture doesn’t exist. Back in analog days, you wore the clothes you did to express your identity as a participant in the lifestyle they represented. Now that there’s simply no unimpeachable way to really know what is or isn’t “real” at all anymore, possibly-real trends are the reflection of this new, post-certainty reality.

Then again, maybe it’s all just Pizza.

 

Pizza.

The Chicest New Trend Is Pizza” (New York Magazine, September, 2014):

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Much like any other “It” girl, pizza’s popularity was ignited by internet fascination and possibly endorsed by the Illuminati.

Tumblr and Twitter memes dedicated to pizza’s power appeared, among them the Twitter account Pizzaminati.

Loyal followers still carry on the work via usage of #Pizzaminati on Twitter and Instagram. As such, “pizza” quickly took on new meaning — for example, pizza as a substitute in romantic relationship. The phrase “touch her butt and give her pizza” became a widely accepted way to keep your bae happy and “Pizza Is My Boyfriend” the new “Single Ladies” rally cry.

Then came the various pithy pizza message tees at clothing retailers like Forever 21 and Asos and Urban Outfitters.

However, almost as quickly as the Pizzaminati emerged, it disappeared. This, a screenshot of a funny tweet — “shots fired in the club over the last slice of pizza” — is all that remains. Where did you go, Pizzaminati? Were you really a sect of the Illuminati, destroyed once the pizza takeover was initiated? Yes, probably.

 

Or, you know… possibly.

 

    



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Modern Millennial

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If you live in LA, you should go to the Modern Millennial exhibit. As soon as you possibly can, too, cuz it’s over in 6 days. I’ll explain where and how to find it in a minute, but first I want to tell you what it is.

Modern Millennial is an art installation / existential performance art piece / media experiment in the spirt of Exit Through The Gift Shop / I’m Still Here, except the theme is about being a person going through the modern experience.

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Modern Millennial began with a Kickstarter.

Obviously.

The project was funded, and the exhibit installed, so now what’s happening is during the month of September a dude named Moses Storm is living inside an art exhibit in an industrial loft in #DTLA. The loft is filled throughout with installations that comprise the Modern Millennial exhibit, and Storm, the eponymous modern millennial, living life in said loft, is himself an interactive installation as well. It’s funny and weird and smart and awesome.

Modern Millennial seems, at first, like it will be a lampoon of millennial clichés — and it is definitely that — but it’s also something so much more interesting and introspective and sincere in the process.

“The Modern Millennial,” proclaims the Kickstarer, “Is a game-changing form of immersive performance art in which roaming audiences experience epic insights into a generation.”

But, of course, Millennials are already the most poked, prodded, packaged, positioned, market-tested, focus grouped, classified, and stereotyped generation in history. And of course, the buying and selling of ourselves to ourselves is already part of our Millennial experience, and each of us in the attendee target audience is a full-time object in our own, modern media experiment.

Of course, that’s part of the point. The art and the artist are both keenly aware they are the results of the same generational forces they are ridiculing.

Or maybe not ridiculing at all.

There are, in a sense, three phases to the Modern Millennial exhibit. First, there is the digital precursor that you encounter before  the physical space of the show. Then there is the in-person experience of the exhibit itself. And finally there is the digital afterlife of the exhibit, living on through shared photo content and hashtag feeds. Each of these three aspects comes with its own distinct tone and role in the narrative arc of the Modern Millennial experience, and likewise, the modern millennial experience.

 

Phase 1.

Google “Modern Millennial” and the first thing you’ll find is the Kickstarter.

 

A typical cocktail of narcissism, hype, and jargon, it’s also unmistakably meta: taking its absurd premise seriously while also mocking itself, Millennials, (Kickstarer campaigns), everything:

Our goal with this piece is to show a different side of Millennials. And prove that not all of us are lazy narcissist who are just looking for a handout.

Some cool stuff happens if we hit our stretch goals.

If reached, we will tour with the exhibit. I am thinking Paris!

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Phase 2.

But in the physical space of the exhibit, the the mood is notably different. It’s exposed, honest, intimate. The way things look online is not how they feel in person.

Obviously.

nimblewill
@nimblewill

 

morganisethnic
@morganisthenic

 

The cynicism and detachment of digital distance break down into vulnerability and sincerity in physical space. So many of the pieces are an exploration of existential yearning for meaning and connection.

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@iamstevienelson

 

actressamanda
@actressamanda

 

shelbyfero
@shelbyfero

 

radojcich
@radojcich

 

The Wall of Activism, for example, is a usual suspects lineup of viral sincerity eruptions.

snowcone88
@snowcone88

 

It’s impossible not to view a LiveStrong Bracelet, a Stop Kony poster, a bucket full of ice water (among others), with a cynical side-eye. But when you see them displayed this way, all cataloged together, they are also inescapably earnest. These recurring, massive social hysterias of optimism and the dream of collective empowerment; this ceaseless desire to care.

The most popular piece in the show (based on frequency of Instagram appearances) is also the most inscrutable.

 

skiparnold
@skiparnold

 

Is it a comment about being unafraid to come out as an artist?  To claim a sincere artist identity in the midst of a storm of irony?

 

hoorayjen
@hoorayjen

 

Or is it a jab at the pretentiousness of the concept? An ironic joke about such an analog anachronism?

 

kmahair
@kmahair

 

Does such a thing as a “serious artist” still even exist, or is the popularity of the piece akin to that of an endangered animal on display at the zoo?

 

peterhinz
@peterhinz

Is it for real, or is it a joke?

 

taysprizzle
@taysprizzle

 

Does it matter?

 

 alimerlina
@alimerlina

 

Phase 3.

For an exhibit titled, #ModernMillennial, the show itself is remarkably, unremarkably lo-fi. The Modern Millennial is less infatuated with technology than with humanity. And yet the experience is inherently hybridized with digital DNA.

Obviously.

babiejenks1
@babiejenks

 

In 2014, our digital technology is increasingly hurtling towards pervasive invisibility, insinuating itself into our every waking moment with the banal inevitability of electricity. And yet, it’s the human interactions with the art pieces, through the lens of digital media, that turn them on like a switch. Without Instagram, or at the very least the vernacular of Instagram, much of Modern Millennial wouldn’t really make any sense.

“Stand Here Do Nothing” is built to basically only really work once it’s in a photo you’ve posted up somewhere:

lucifergoosifer
@lucifergoosifer

 

gardenofart_
@gardenofart_

 

Likewise, “Like This So I know You Still Exist.”

erikaheidewald
@erikaheidewald

 

danielcarberry
@danielcarberry

 

Taking and posting these photos is at once  a cliché and an act of participating in a piece of art about a cliché.

emilyfaye2
@emilyfaye2

But it’s ok. Don’t worry. You can’t help it. This stereotypical experience — it’s universal.

 


@cassydbadiiiiiiiie
 

Modern Millennial sincerely delivers on what its ironic (or not) Kickstarter promised: it captures the truths our contemporary condition. And it does so with humor and humanity. There’s certainly plenty to mock about the times we live in, but we’ve got to have compassion for our predicament, too.

Obviously.

babiejenks2@babiejenks

 

 

How to get to the Modern Millennial Exhibit.

In a time where basically everything is accessible online, the show is almost stringently unfindable. You stumble into it like a niche forum from the ’90s. We used to discover things online. Now the only way to access a real sense of discovery is through things hidden offline. So go:

 

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Music & Mirrorgrams: Lessons Learned From Working in Apps

musicandmirrorgramsMirrorgram by: bobdoran

 

This weekend I was invited to a salon-style dinner organized by Tim Chang and Les Borsai, hosted at the home of Steve Rennie. The event turned out to be a fascinating gathering at the intersection of digital media, technology, and music.

I have an art app called Mirrorgram. We launched it last October, and just this past month we crossed a million users! But I ended up in apps kind of by accident. I come, as did nearly everyone at the dinner, from music. For a long time, I used to produce music festivals. I’ve worked with Live Nation and House of Blues, and for years I was the marketing director for the Do Lab on the Lightning in a Bottle Festival. That’s actually how I met my Mirrorgram co-founder, Justin Boreta, who’s part of a band called the Glitch Mob. In fact, he came up with the concept for Mirrorgram while on tour, during the hours spent bored on the bus between shows, nerding out with iPhone photo apps. And it was built by the team at StageBloc, whose platform is designed to specifically support the unique  content and community needs of musicians and performers. So when Tim asked me to come to the salon with a few minutes worth of lessons learned from working in apps, the first thing that came to mind for me was how much we draw on what we’ve internalized from our experiences in the music world to shape the way we approach what we do in the app world:

1. Fans vs. Users.
Before we ever started thinking about “users” our reference point was always “fans.” Of course, now we’re incredibly concerned with usability, and how people actually engage with our product, but beyond the app itself, we have a deep understanding and respect  for the importance of nurturing the kinds extended social narratives and interactions that get created around it. Like what happens with a band people love, or an annual music festival that they revisit every year. We’ve seen so many Mirrorgrammers create connections and forge friendships and even artistic collaborations with one another through this shared love that they have for the app, and the art they create with it. And we’ve always understood that drive through the lens of fandom.

2. Choose your own adventure.
Coming from a world of creating real-life experiences we have a natural inclination to approach what we’re doing in the digital space with that same sensibility. It’s about creating a platform with a certain amount of structure — a concert set list, a festival lineup, an app feature-set — but then also leaving a ton of room open people to create their own experiences within that structure. When we look at the kind of art that people create with Mirrorgram, it consistently blows us away. Half the time we don’t even know HOW people are creating the images they are with it. We’re just watching the feed, mesmerized. It’s pretty unbelievable. Coming from music, that experience of creating something and putting it out into the world and then seeing people take it into directions you could have never imagined or expected is very familiar.

3. More than the sum of its parts.
There’s something really interesting in approaching the evolution of an app, or any product, the way a band thinks about the new music it releases, or the way a music festival builds on what came before, year after year. A band doesn’t think about its next album like an “update.” It’s about a journey that we want to take our fans or our attendees or our users on with us. The day we went live with Mirrorgram, we referred to it (kinda jokingly, but kinda not) like the start of “The Symmetry Revolution.”

We still reference it in a tongue in cheek kind of way, but people in the iPhoneography world have really gravitated to that idea of it being about something bigger, of the app as an entry-point into a larger creative movement or community. To us, Mirrorgram has always been much more than just the sum of its features — it’s part of an ongoing, shared, cultural and aesthetic experience we’re creating and evolving together with the people who use it.

It’s still fairly early days for Mirrorgram, but hopefully you might want to come on that trip with us.

And thanks again to Tim, Les, and Steve, for hosting such a wonderful evening!

 

    



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Why You’re Wearing Feathers Right Now


Jocelyn Marsh wearing headdress by Tiffa Novoa. Image: Brion Topolski, 2005

Right now all across America there is a feather shortage. In April, The Billings Gazette reported:

Jewelry-makers and hairstylists have been snatching up the premium chicken feathers used in standby trout-fly patterns, creating a sudden run on a market that’s ill-prepared for significant fluctuations of demand.

“Supplies are just decimated,” said Jim Cox, co-owner of the Kingfisher fly shop in Missoula, [Montana]. “We just can’t get the premium feathers. Even the (sales) reps for the suppliers can’t get them for themselves.”

What began a couple of years ago as a scattered interest in feather jewelry has erupted into a full-on fad for hair extensions made out of long, slender feathers — the exact same feathers used in the vast majority of traditional dry-fly patterns.

The feathers most valued both by fly-tiers and, lately, fashion mavens come from specific types of roosters that are selectively bred to produce long, slender feathers. Such chickens typically take almost a full year to raise before slaughter. What’s more, they’re rare: Only a few dozen commercial breeders exist in America, and most are small operations.

The situation’s getting so dire, American Public Radio’s Marketplace reports, the American Fly Fishing Trade Association is lobbying lawmakers about conservation. Tom Whiting, owner of Whiting Farms in western Colorado, one of the world’s largest producers of fly tying feathers, a third of whose sales now go to fashion, says, “We have orders far in excess of what we have in our system.” With the demand, the prices are skyrocketing. Last week the Oregonian reported a rooster neck of feathers that would have normally cost $29.95, is now selling for $360. A 300% – 700% jump in rooster saddle feather price is now typical.

In fashion parlance, feathers are in. Steven Tyler has been wearing the avian accessories as he judges American Idol contestants. Pop singer, Kesha, rocks feathers, too, even sticking one in Conan Obrien’s hair during a recent appearance on his show. Between Los Angeles’s mercantile meccas of Melrose Ave. and the Beverly Center you can get feather hair extensions, earrings, necklaces; feathers on boots, shoes, tops, skirts, hats, bras, anything. In the summer of 2011, feathers have become a staple of every sartorial and tonsorial aspect imaginable.

The other day I was asked my opinion as to where this current ubiquity of feathers has come from. But as it turns out, I happen to have something better than an opinion: I have an explanation.

Our story begins almost 12 years ago, in a little town in Oregon, by the name of Ashland, where a group of kids came together to start a circus performance troupe called, El Circo. The group would gain recognition within the Burning Man culture for the extravagant parties they threw at the festival, featuring lavish fire performances, a large, geodesic dome venue, and a top-notch sound system that attracted world-renowned music acts to perform there. In a 2005 San Francisco Bay Guardian article on the effect that the various groups within the Burning Man community have had on San Francisco nightlife — an impact which now extends to the entire west coast’s, and arguably global, dance culture — the writer paid particular attention to the influence of El Circo:

El Circo has fused a musical style and a fashion sense that are major departures from the old rave scene. [They are credited] with creating the postapocalyptic fashions that many now associate with Burning Man. Most of the original El Circo fashions, which convey both tribalism and a sense of whimsy, were designed by member Tiffa Novoa.”

Here are some of the El Circo costumes from their 2005 shows:

That same year, just two years out of college, I stumbled into the role of production manager for a newly-formed, L.A.-based vaudeville cirque troupe called, Lucent Dossier. Through that initial involvement with Lucent I would meet many other circus groups, including El Circo, who were by then based in San Francisco along with The Yard Dogs Road Show and Vau De Vire Society. There was also March Fourth Marching Band in Portland, Clan Destino in Santa Barbara, and Cirque Berzerk, and Mutaytor in L.A. As these acts grew, the I-5 Freeway became a central artery of culture, pumping a distinct combination of art, music, fashion, and performance up and down the west coast. A social scene evolved around these circus troupes the same way the punk subculture sprang up around the bands that defined it. For lack of another term, I’ve referred to this subculture over the years simply as “circus.”

In Freaks and Fire: The Underground Reinvention of the Circus, J. Dee Hill delves into the history and sociology underpinning the alternative culture circus resurgence:

Traditional forms of the tribe, like the village, have almost completely disappeared. Fewer and fewer people live in small communities where their daily interactions bring them in contact with the people they are deeply connected to, either spiritually or economically. Workers in modern corporations are replaceable and no longer bound to each other by the experience of a shared interdependence. The modern individual is preoccupied simultaneously by isolating, immediate concerns of personal survival and the larger, often intangible concerns of war, terror and economic change as transmitted by a now-seamless global media network. The intermediate space of community is not easily reached.

Not by accident, many of the newer, emergent forms of culture include a specifically tribal aspect. A return to tattooing, sacrification, fire performance and drumming, as well as a renewed interest in ritual, has occurred side-by-side with the formation of intentional (if temporary) communities such as the Rainbow Family gatherings and Burning Man festival.

It was at these kinds of festivals, in clubs and at underground raves, that alternative circus acts began appearing in the early 90′s. The performers were young, crazy “freaks” without any formal training who used circus costumes, skills or themes as performative means for expressing their own exaggerated personalities. Many went on to gain formal training or to study the history of the genre, but essentially their relationship to conventional circuses resembled that of outsider art to mainstream art circles. They didn’t really relate to the modern-day circus. They took their cues from something much, much older: the caravan-pulling gypsies.

The phenomenon of alternative circus performance can be seen as the theatrical dimension to one generation’s wholesale rediscovery of the concept of tribe.

And the inexorable feather trend is inextricably linked with this trajectory.

Novoa co-founded El Circo along with Marisa Youlden, a jewelry designer whose pieces accompanied Novoa’s costumes from the beginning. Youlden first used feathers in her pieces in 2000 and recalls this was when Novoa began creating elaborate feather headdresses for the performers. “At first, this was all costuming,” The 2005 Bay Guardian article quoted Matty Dowlen, El Circo’s operations manager, and performer, “but now it’s who I am.” The aesthetic Novoa first envisioned for the El Circo performers evolved into the prêt-à-porter of the circus subculture and became its signature style. Feathers, which had come to define El Circo costumes, became an integral component of the subculture’s street fashion:

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Yup, that last one is me. You can’t see the feather in this shot, but trust me, it was there. In the early to mid-aughts (when the photos above were taken) the feather was as de rigueur a cultural signifier within the circus scene as the safety pin was for punks in the late 1970s and early 80s. In fact, back before it was so commonplace as to lose meaning (or induce a national feather shortage), condescending terms for those sporting the look sprang up within the subculture: “Feather mafia,” was one I heard thrown around; “Trustafarian peacock” even made it into UrbanDictionary.com. And then, something else began to happen.

In 2005, Mötley Crüe picked circus as the concept for their comeback tour:

The next year, Panic! At the Disco won an MTV Video Music Award for their circus-themed, “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” video:

A theme they then extended into their “Nothing Rhymes With Circus” tour:

And in 2008, the reigning queen of pop herself at the time, Britney Spears, came out with an album titled, Circus, and ensuing tour of the same theme:

Throughout pop culture, traces of circus’s influence would keep surfacing. The same year as Britney’s Circus album, this was the ad for that season’s America’s Next Top Model:

Or take this ad for the launch of Microsoft’s short-lived Kin mobile device from last year:

The proliferation of circus within pop culture has been directly tied to its growth in underground culture, and being in an underground circus troupe during the height of this infiltration offered backstage access to the proceedings. For example: The circus featured in the Kin ad is March Fourth Marching Band. The circus performers in the Panic! At the Disco music video and tour were members of the troupe I managed. The performers who went on tour with Mötley Crüe would become Lucent Dossier members, as well. Last year, Miley Cyrus’s “Can’t be Tamed” music video featured a winged Cyrus alongside a troupe of be-feathered backup dancers inside a giant birdcage:

Which bears a distinct resemblance to the birdcage (not to mention the aesthetic) Lucent Dossier used prominently in aerial performances during their 2008 residency at the Edison nightclub in Downtown LA.

Especially in Los Angeles, where the Downtown underground and the Hollywood pop culture industry coexist within such proximity of one another, their crossover was inevitable.

Which brings us back to fashion. In 2002, designers Cassidy Haley and Evan Sugerman, who’d met at Burning Man the year before, founded a fashion label called, Ernte. Two years later, Novoa joined Ernte Fashion Systems, parlaying the aesthetic vision she’d first developed for the circus stage into high fashion. Tragically, in October, 2007, at 32-years-old, Novoa suffered a fatal drug reaction while working in Bali, Indonesia. By then, Ernte had become a globally-renowned haute couture label, retailing in high-end boutiques like Maxfield in Los Angeles, Collete in Paris, and Loveless in Tokyo. Below are some shots of Novoa’s work:



In 2005, Haley went on to form a new label, Skingraft Designs, with Jonny Cota, and later Katie Kay, who was a partner from 2007 – 2010. All three had circus pedigree. Cota and Haley had performed with El Circo, and Kay was one of the original members in Lucent Dossier, for which Haley and Cota would occasionally moonlight. Some of Skingraft’s early work is pictured below.


Since opening their flagship store in Downtown L.A., in 2009, Skingraft’s “post-apocalyptic couture” has graced the celebrity skins of Adam Lambert and The Black Eyed Peas. Rhianna wore a custom Skingraft headdress in her “Rockstar 101″ music video:

And both Britney Spears’ and Beyoncé’s most recent videos are dripping in Skingraft designs. As Skingraft has evolved into an established name within the vocabulary of Los Angeles fashion, countless other apparel designers with circus origins have sprung up in the wings, as it were.

Over the years since Tiffa first put feathers on the bodies of circus performers, inspiring others to follow suit, hundreds of thousands, if not millions have been exposed to the style at Burning Man, and the E3 gaming convention where El Circo would perform; at Coachella, and the Grammy’s afterparty, where Lucent Dossier performed; at countless night clubs stretching from the depths of Downtown L.A. up the length of the Pacific coast. Hollywood stylists partying on Saturday night woke up on Monday with new inspiration. And circus costumers became famed fashion designers. In the end, this cross-pollination laid the foundation for the exact kind of tipping point Malcolm Gladwell describes in his seminal, 2000 book exploring the social mechanics that lead trends to “tip” into mass, cultural phenomena. The Tipping Point begins with the words:

For Hush Puppies — the classic American brushed-suede shoes with the lightweight crepe sole — the Tipping Point came somewhere between late 1994 and early 1995. The brand had been all but dead until that point. Sales were down to 30,000 pairs a year, mostly to backwoods outlets and small-town family stores. Wolverine, the company that makes Hush Puppies, was thinking of phasing out the shoes that made them famous. But then something strange happened. At a fashion shoot, two Hush Puppies executives — Owen Baxter and Geoffrey Lewis — ran into a stylist from New York who told them that the classic Hush Puppies had suddenly become hip in the clubs and bars of downtown Manhattan. “We were being told,” Baxter recalls, “that there were resale shops in the Village, in Soho, where the shoes were being sold. People were going to the Ma and Pa stores, the little stores that still carried them, and buying them up.” Baxter and Lewis were baffled at first. It made no sense to them that shoes that were so obviously out of fashion could make a comeback. “We were told that Isaac Mizrahi was wearing the shoes himself,” Lewis says. “I think it’s fair to say that at the time we had no idea who Isaac Mizrahi was.”

By the fall of 1995, things began to happen in a rush. First the designer John Bartlett called. He wanted to use Hush Puppies in his spring collection. Then another Manhattan deisgner, Anna Sui called, wanting shoes for her show as well. In Los Angeles, the designer Joel Fitzgerald put a twenty-five-foot inflatable basset hound — the symbol of the Hush Puppies brand — on the roof of his Hollywood store and gutted an adjoining art gallery to turn it into a Hush Puppies boutique. While he was still painting and putting up shelves, the actor Pee-wee Herman walked in and asked for a couple pairs. “It was total word of mouth,” Fitzgerald remembers.

In 1995, the company sold 430,000 pairs of the classic Hush Puppies, and the next year it sold four times that, and the year after that, still more, until Hush Puppies were once again a staple of the wardrobe of the young American male. In 1996, Hush Puppies won the prize for best accessory at the Council of Fashion Designers awards dinner at Lincoln Center, and the president of the firm stood up on the stage with Calvin Klein and Donna Karan and accepted an award for an achievement that — as he would be the first to admit — his company had almost nothing to do with. Hush Puppies had suddenly exploded, and it all started with a handful of kids in the East Village and Soho.

How did this happen? Those first few kids, whoever they were, weren’t deliberately trying to promote Hush Puppies. They were wearing them precisely because no one else would wear them. Then the fad spread to two fashion designers who used to shoes to peddle something else — haute couture. The shoes were an incidental touch. No one was trying to make Hush Puppies a trend. Yet, somehow, that’s exactly what happened. The shoes passed a certain point in popularity and they tipped. How does a thirty-dollar pair of shoes go from a handful of downtown Manhattan hipsters to every mall in America in the space of two years?

Right now, the roosters know, but they’re not telling.

__________________________________

Special thanks for helping fill in the details and history for this post go to: Arin Ingraham, Siouxzen Kang, Marisa Youlden, and Cassidy Haley.

    



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