Entering London’s narrative projects feels like stumbling into an online echo chamber. Gadgets from the recent past – including a PS3 controller, iPod Nano and CD wallet – sprawl over a mattress among hoodies emblazoned with manga fanart, lo-fi graphics and oversized logos. Collages of screengrabs from the depths of the web are Xeroxed onto nylon carpets hanging from the walls. Spray-painted with occult symbols and pierced with hexagrams, they bear physical traces of an individual browser history.
A collaboration between artists Bora Akinciturk and Iain Ball, ‘Skee’, curated by Cem Hamlacıbaşı, vaunts the emo, magpie aesthetics of an early Myspace era. But the show isn’t entirely rooted in the past. Playing from a MacBook Pro at the head of the mattress, a compilation by memesforkids drags up videos of generations responding to each other. A spectacled dad theatrically recoils in front of a keyed-out clip of The Backpack Kid’s ‘Flossin’ (2018), exclaiming: ‘This is torture!’ A cackling man squeals, ‘It is no longer possible to “Try for Baby” with the Grim Reaper’, as a camera scans the patch notes to Sims 3. And the rolling horn jams and double-rapping of Chris Brown’s 2011 single ‘Look at Me Now’ jabbers over pixelated visuals that zoom out to reveal an image of a portly Bugs Bunny, known on Reddit as the Big Chungus.
I met the artists in Zealand Road Coffee Shop to discuss the show.
Mimi Chu: Do you think online subcultures still exist?
Iain Ball: I do, but aesthetically they’ve changed. Social and cultural transformations have become so compressed that there’s this end-of-history feeling. Now you have kids who didn’t experience Myspace in real time but are making YouTube videos about it. You have rappers like Bladee and Yung Lean who have taken underground hip hop and punk, big baggy clothes, hoodies, chains, tagging, graffiti boards, web graphics and Myspace profiles from 2002. Trap music incorporates all these different aesthetics.
In the back room of the gallery, gnarly beats and high-pitched synths play over a video of a man vaping into his phone. Other videos pop up in windows on either side of him. A guy in a Clueless T-shirt donning a fox animoji ticks and warps to snares and kicks. Helium heart balloons billow forlornly down the aisles of a Waitrose. Made using TikTok, the video is an imagined social-media portrait of the artists’ friend Jimmy, a rapper in his early 20s affiliated with the Manchester-based, trap-Britpop-indie fusion group, Badgirl$. A shot of Jimmy dopily kicking over a recycling box and drifting down the street is superimposed with logos for Vice, Punk IPA, Diabolo, Voodoo Ray’s and Boots.
Mimi Chu: Do you believe Generation Z is nihilistic?
Bora Akinciturk: Not entirely. I think the younger generation, those in their 20s, are extremely career-oriented. They’re more on top of their shit than I ever was at that age.
IB: They’re really entrepreneurial, so they’re not completely nihilistic. While they’re seeing a lack of upward social mobility, they’re also seeing people achieving money and fame on social media in the space of an instant. You don’t need to work for years: you just need to find the right context. They’re aspirational but they also realize that we’re in a kind of apocalypse of capitalism.
Jimmy languidly announces, ‘I wanna be worldwide, that’s my goal,’ as a Shutterstock globe with a red thermometer coming out its mouth flashes on the screen.
MC: Would you say that Jimmy’s aspirational?
IB: I’m speaking for him, so be aware of that, but he seems to embody that generation. He wants anything that gives him visibility across the mediascape.
MC: Yet, he also seems apathetic.
IB: We knew we were in ambiguous territory when we were filming him. It was always unclear whether he was acting or just being himself. His position was unclear.
BA: Our position was unclear. That’s why it worked.
‘Have we stepped through the mirror and found ourselves in contact with a world so energetic, so chaotic, that it barely knows its own name?’ Jimmy mumble-chants the lines of an apocalyptic zeitgeist blog poem from 2012 that the artists exchanged, his voice vacillating between disengaged ennui and preacherly elation.
BA: We liked the ambiguity of the text we got Jimmy to read. It doesn’t directly relate to him, but, in some parts, he’s really feeling it.
MC: It makes me think of a k-punk blog post by Mark Fisher, which described a time some pranksters distributed J.G. Ballard’s pamphlet ‘Why I want to fuck Ronald Reagan’ (1968) at a 1980 Republican convention in San Francisco with the title removed and adorned with the Republican Party seal. Apparently, it was accepted as a legitimate psychological paper on Reagan’s subliminal appeal. I guess it doesn’t matter that Jimmy is reading a text which is alien to his generation. What matters is that, in this current moment, the text speaks to his cult sensibility and to his followers.
BA: Exactly! I remember when the Manchester crew came to the opening: they were doing so many social-media posts that day. They kept saying: ‘Oh my god, you’ve created the inside of Jimmy’s mind!’ That was the biggest compliment we could ever get.
IB: We were just subjecting Jimmy to the same treatment as all the other content we work with. It’s been really good for me to collaborate with Bora. He’s helped me shut off that side of my brain that keeps asking, ‘What does it mean; what are we doing?’, and just go straight into making stuff. That’s enabled the work to take the form it has.
Developed primarily through the artists’ screengrab and video exchanges, ‘Skee’ channels the lightness and fluidity of the online experience into a physical context. Conflating different generational sensibilities, it forms an inclusive loop between on and offstage, now and then, Z and Y. Inclusive, up to a point.
IB: We were aware that there was going to be this latency or mistranslation by our making work about a younger generation and then bringing it into a gallery context.
To someone unfamiliar with the reference points, ‘Skee’ may come across like white noise. But to anyone who knows their cloud rap from their soundcloud rap, their scoop-diddy-whoop from their YouTube poop (or is willing to learn), it murmurs with the hubbub of online subcultures, rallying you to keep hoarding and throwing, clowning and drifting, and, in the words of pearlsofwar.blogspot.com, ‘stay comfortably dumb’.
Bora Akinciturk and Iain Ball, ‘Skee’, runs until 16 February 2019 at narrative projects, London, UK, and was commissioned as part of ER, a new series of collaborative projects curated by Cem Hamlacıbaşı.