Gemma de Cruz: Mandy, the title of your essay is “Living In The Mess”. Do you feel that this is a terminal mess, or that the ‘mess’ could be organised into something beautiful, uplifting and challenging?
There are artists like Christian Marclay and Dexter Dalwood who use the physical idea of collage but whose work is not strictly ‘about’ collage. Just last year Christian Marclay’s The Clock demonstrated how taking countless existing, film clips spanning five decades and fitting them together to one end could create a seminal work of art. What do you think about the idea of connoisseurship—that the right people can put the ‘mess’ into order and that it is how the ‘mess’ is organized that will begin an evolution?
Mandy Kahn: I don’t think it’s a terminal mess at all. We’re moving in a messier direction— the world is getting more complicated, we’re barraged with more images than ever before flashing before our eyes every minute of the day—but organizing the mess is a job that belongs to each of us as individuals, and we can do it if we make an attempt to do it.We spend our lives getting our critical faculties, the faculties that help us process information, up to speed, so we can absorb information and then process it and, more importantly, make something of it. And if we aren’t interacting with the world, if we don’t have those faculties or if we have them but aren’t using them, the world grows messier. Our ability, desire and energy to interact with the information thrown at us and to organize it—those are the things that make the mess manageable, livable, and most importantly, meaningful.
It’s also a time when our attention spans are being challenged more than they ever have been. So it’s a tough time. The mind tunes out when there’s too much information thrown its way, more than it can process—but we should fight that.
Can the mess be organized by art? Absolutely—and what could be a higher calling for an artist than to take that challenge on? Diving into something that’s so overwhelming and cutting it up into smaller pieces, small enough that we can wrap our heads around them—that’s the ultimate project. That’s a very good challenge, and has the potential to produce works of great poignancy, and of great, inherent, necessary worth. There is nothing more beautiful than a work of art that crystalizes the mess—that captures it in time or brings it to our attention in some resonant way.
Brian Roettinger: My interpretation is that people are becoming more aware and understanding of design through PCs and smart phones, and that those devices are organising our lives. In a way, the Internet is a massive mess and google is responsible for cleaning it up.
GdC: Mandy’s essay also talks about the Ironic Moustache; do you think this is any different from the ‘gesture’ that art-elite/avant-garde youth types have long favoured (the entry code to the speakeasy, as Mandy puts it); like the short haircuts of 1977 punk fans (who were reacting to prog rock’s long hair by getting a short-back-and sides, a style still sported by many of their dads). Is it a badge symbolizing gang membership and a tendency of anti- branding? The realisation that that gang has no clubhouse is, as Mandy observes, where we become aware of the postmodern malaise. That malaise could be squarely attributed to the all- pervading commodification of western culture; to the long reach of free-market capitalism which leaves no stone unturned in transforming every facet of culture into a sellable brand (including every shade of what was once called ‘rebellion’). Could the ironic moustache also be seen not as a symptom of the malaise but, rather, a brave, if doomed, stab at free-spirited, youthful autonomy?
MK: Well, you got the free-spirited part right. Nothing is quite as free-spirited as the ironic moustache. And, sure—maybe it was a stab at autonomy; it certainly set that community apart and made it impenetrable. The notable thing about the moustache is that it carries this insider-y tone—it creates an in-group and an out-group—and if an onlooker doesn’t understand its tone, then it’s meaningless, or confusing, or misinterpreted. And in that way, the moustache is a good example of a larger trend prevalent in that era, which was wearing something or doing something in a smirk-y way, that, yes, made the group you were in autonomous, mostly because others couldn’t quite read your symbols. It put you and your friends on an island. And I suppose it was fun to be on an island. But from the outside, it read as gibberish. And honestly, having been on the inside—it was gibberish on the inside, too.
GdC: What do you think was the point of the moustache?
MK: I don’t think there was a point—it was simply part of a time that was very mocking. The early- to mid-2000s was a time that was mocking of the past and worshipful of the past to different degrees, and you really had to be an insider to determine to what degree each was happening. I would go out on a limb and say, regarding the moustache, there was no idea there past a playful mocking. Aaron talks about this too: how we had visual statements like the ironic moustache in the 2000s, but those statements weren’t attached to a doctrine or a set of political aims. If the ironic moustache was the 2000’s visual statement, it was one entirely devoid of diatribe, or the kind of meaning that, historically, subcultural signifiers carried.
Aaron Rose: The ironic moustache is a symptom of a larger hipster language that relies completely on ironic innuendo. Being a hipster means choosing the worst thing and wearing it as a badge to be cool. Hipsterism is rooted in finding the most tasteless thing you can find—it’s a joke. There’s no substance behind it; it’s all style, there’s no ethos or reason backing it—it’s just ironic recycling. Even people like Seth Rogen are still playing off the ‘look how ugly this is, isn’t it funny?’. But it doesn’t stand for anything.
MK: It wasn’t a time of backing things up with meaning, past making casual jokes. It was an exciting time to be out at parties because it felt like there wasn’t a larger idea that people were working towards—it just felt like a party that had been going forever and would go on forever. It felt like everything was available to us at once, without the hindrance of meaning. But after a while, a world without meaning becomes worrisome.
GdC: There is also an interesting point in Mandy’s essay about nostalgia—how the need we once had to search for an out-of- print edition has been eliminated now that everything is available online.
“Maybe we tired of having everything. Maybe it stopped presenting a challenge. Hunting for the out-of-print loses its luster if everything’s online. And maybe all this access became exhausting, or stifling”.
In many ways computers encourage nostalgia, no matter how trivial. Facebook, blogs, apps—everyone is constantly documenting their own existence. But is this more or less realistic? How far do you think nostalgia is linked to documenting, over, say the tometic value of physical objects?
BR: I think that the computer is a cultural machine and in the end it’s gonna become ‘the object’, and objects will be mimicked digitally. Aaron talks about how ‘you can google anything, but you can’t google an experience— yet’; he follows it up with ‘yet’ because as the computer evolves as a cultural machine, it’s going to be able to replace those experiences, whatever the object might be—the book, the record, whatever format. That happens a lot with design—you know, they have software now where the image is a record player where you click the button to put the needle on the record and it’s mimicking the experience you have of playing the record. And when that side of the record is done, it stops and you have to lift the needle and so on. It’s become a ubiquitous thing that I think is going to replace everything that we have: books, records, DVDs…
AR: I don’t know if I necessarily agree with what Brian’s saying. Since the beginning of time human beings have looked at physical objects as the indicators of their existence— they’ve sculpted things in their own images, they hold physical objects as totems, things of value that mean something to them. I don’t think a computer will completely replace that because there is a deeply based human need to hold things, to create things, to craft things that represent our existence.
The computer can assist in that in terms of documentation—for example, film is dead, it’s been dead a long time and everything has become digital—but I don’t see a death of the physical object. I believe it’s something people need that goes beyond convenience. People will continue to place value on things that in turn will create genuine nostalgia.
GdC: We’re that bit older so we will have experienced the reality first and the digital version later. But now, in the same way that Brian talks about the record player software, likewise, someone who’s never used a Polaroid camera can take a photo on an iPhone that not only looks like a Polaroid photograph but also replicates how you would operate it.
BR: I was teaching a class of design students recently, and half of them didn’t know what the symbols were that represented the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. There’s a television one and a film one, etc. They’ve grown up in a time when they didn’t know why a television had an antennae on it or why a film camera had two reels. They weren’t sure what that was.
I don’t think the physical object will become obsolete completely but I think the computer is becoming more and more this machine to replace the experience that those objects give us.
GdC: Do you think that it’s a diluted experience?
BR: It’s maybe more about immediacy and cost.
GdC: Before we had Facebook and blogs, our books, records and physical appearance summed up our lives, and now it seems to be more about an online persona but it’s not real because it’s edited; even the photographs we choose to put online can be doctored. I wonder if the obsession with documenting our existence is stopping people living it?
MK: Going back to the idea of whether it’s more or less realistic, this hyper-nostalgic life that we lead where we’re documenting everything—I don’t think it’s more or less realistic, I think it’s zero-istic. If you’re constantly documenting your life while it’s happening you’re not living it, so there’s a big hole in the middle of what you’re doing. So, I don’t think it becomes more real, I think it goes missing.
GdC: We can, as you say,read a book from the 50s, watch a black and white film, followed by a new release, listen to the latest news on the radio and then cook an Italian meal all in one afternoon. Is modern life not simply one collage?
MK: Absolutely—everything we do is a collage, not just the art we make, or the music that we listen to or the literature that we read or the stuff we see on the internet—of course, it’s all a collage. That’s what was so fascinating for me about spending a period of time just reading books written in the 50s—the pace of a day was so different back then—there was no mention in any of these books about other eras, no nostalgia for other decades, and there was a certain amount of empty time built into how people spent the day. There was far, far less input, there were far fewer images cloying for one’s attention—so there was more room in the mind for people to ponder things, and it felt like folks were living in their time. This struck me as an incredibly strong contrast to our current era, in which part of our time is spent living vicariously in all these other times.
We’re so barraged by information that our brains are overwhelmed. It’s the moment in history when we most need our critical faculties to process what’s going on, but it’s also the moment in history when those faculties are most stressed, and therefore least available.
For me, visiting the 1950s through its literature was a way to touch down and observe the pace of life as it was lived before the incredible technological ramp-up that happened in the past two decades. It was useful to have that touchstone. Now I can judge how far we’ve come and how much the world has changed. I think the contemporary world requires of each of us a certain amount of active critical processing all the time, to keep our bearings—we really have to be considering things actively to process them—but I’m not sure whether or not that’s happening; I’m not sure whether people are participating or letting it all wash over them. That’s what worries me. I’m worried that the easiest way to handle a complicated time is to go out with our friends and tweet photos, so that’s what we do—we do the simplest thing because the other thing— the project of making sense of a complicated time—is so daunting. We’re obsessed with documenting the now and proving to others that we look good and we’re having fun because the surface is something we can manage.
GD: If in ten to twenty years’ time you wanted to write a follow-up to this book, what would be your ideal situation?
MK: In the book, I talk about the 20th century and the way each generation reacted against the era that came just before theirs. That’s what we do: we react against what happened most recently, what we grew up with. So it makes sense to me that we’ll soon tire of what we’ve been doing for a decade, which is digging and extracting and cutting and pasting. We’ve spent so much time digging through, and in the beginning that can feel exciting, but at a certain point it’s not going to feel exciting anymore. You hit a point at which people say, ‘We’ve done this. What’s next?’ And I think that’s starting. It was exciting when the internet was new—incredibly exciting—but now we’re starting to feel deluged by information and generally detached. We’re primed for a sea change, and I think what comes next will be a return to something that feels more unique to each creator and less borrowed. That would be my best guess.
AR: We’ve never proposed to name the next movement or create a new culture—we’re just examining, we’re just looking at it. I don’t think any of us has the goal to redefine what the next movement is—culture does that on its own, so to do that would be asinine because we’d be totally wrong. Collage Culture is a conversation starter—to get people thinking and talking and from that hopefully we’ll spark a change that helps to create what’s next. It was never our point to propose what that will be.