ESSAYS Mousse 41

Mass Effect

by Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter



From Hannah Hoch’s newspaper collages, to Warhol’s movie-star screenprints, to Ai Weiwei’s blog, art and popular culture have enjoyed a long, complex and mutually dependent relationship. What has happened to this relationship as mass media has evolved over the past few decades? Lauren Cornell, New Museum curator, and Ed Halter, critic and director of Light Industry, confront the question with a discussion on spectacle, celebrity, DIS Magazine, Rihanna’s appropriation of seapunk and art on the verge of dissolving into mass culture.


LAUREN CORNELL: We’re living in a moment when contemporary art has unprecedented popularity. The expanded art market has lured celebrity interest into its VIP echelons; rappers are reflecting on the canon; pop singers self-identify as individual avant-garde movements. Swarms of attention surround these spectacular events and yet, at the same time, the future of mass culture is in question due to media’s dispersion and personalization. Art is getting more popular, as artists are grappling with how to mobilize a deeply changed popular culture.

ED HALTER: I think the somewhat surprising rise of Marina Abramovi? is telling, here, in the ways that both the art world and popular culture have changed. Her work doesn’t at first seem to be made for mass appeal; she doesn’t play with the codes of popular culture, like artists along the lines of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst. But remember how photos of people crying at her MoMA show circulated on Tumblr and Facebook? Then there were those images of people waiting in long lines, a phenomenon which had a kind of recursive allure of its own. These close-up and candid moments have now become the currency of a new economy of images that’s very different from the spectacularity of earlier generations, which operated more along the lines of a studio-to-broadcast model. Images people took on their own phones were reblogged along with stuff from the New York Times or MoMA’s own press photos. Abramovi? and Lady Gaga rose to prominence around the same time, with the same logic, in that regard at least. It’s like Pop Art in reverse: Warhol took the content of mass culture and brought it into art, while they’re using “art” as content and spreading it through contemporary forms of mass media—but really they’re only producing a new form of kitsch, complete with mawkish sentimentality.

LC: In this case, what is “spread” is the public reaction to her spectacularized physical presence, the condition of individuals self-compelled to be present with someone else, in an intimate sense, while simultaneously on camera. When these images went viral, they took on additional meaning, coming to argue for art’s emotional power enacted on dozens of anonymous individuals, and seen by countless more. The new visual economy in which these images circulate is being conceptualized by many artists, among them Hito Steyerl, Oliver Laric, and Seth Price, who are looking at what propels an image through people, across devices, and how this velocity can alter or supplement meaning. What seems relevant for an examination of how pop culture has changed (or not) is that, amidst this more mobile, decentralized information environment, attention is still sparked by sensational events, trends, or individuals, who function like lightning rods or, alternately, empty vessels for shifting desires. Celebrity’s power as a driving cultural force has intensified; and the state of celebrity, where one’s talents merge with the marketing of one’s life, has been broadly adapted—a psychic situation Warhol foretold1. Today, pop culture demands a higher degree of performativity; one doesn’t just view anymore (though this is also a visible activity): one has to be seen to participate.

EH: Well, Abramović is someone who has definitely embraced this system, and profited from it, but I’m wondering if we can’t think of artists who have resisted, offered a counterpoint or critique. If we want to discuss performance, maybe we could think about Petra Cortright, for example? Long before Abramovi? had a substantial presence online, Cortright was uploading performances to YouTube, using the vernacular language of nascent social media in unexpected ways. Not only does networked media remain her primary site of exhibition (as with HELL_TREE [2012], her ebook for Badlands Unlimited), but she’s always used the “homemade” graphic sensibility of the Internet as the basis of her work.


Rihanna at Saturday Night LiveRihanna at Saturday Night Live


LC: Cortright was one of the first to utilize behaviors emerging from YouTube, specifically the uploading of diaristic first-person videos to an anonymous public. And the persona she created, one that amplifies and plays with the narcissism of social media, remains subversive and confounding today, even as this “way of being” has become totally widespread (see obsession with selfies). This is important, because a challenge artists always face in engaging pop culture is the temporality of media tools: critical gestures get absorbed much more easily if they are in “the wild,”2 i.e. staged on cable TV, online, or within social media as these formats evolve quickly. Cortright’s management of her performative persona has made her videos endure.

EH: This familiar historical cycle—artists appropriate popular culture, then popular culture appropriates the work of artists—has accelerated to the point that we should ask if it’s become something else. Cortright contributed to Nasty Nets, a surf club that began in 2006 when blogging was just taking off, along with John Michael Boling, Kari Altmann, Joel Holmburg, Marisa Olson and so many others. It was exciting to read it as it happened, but now it’s all archives, and so it’s lost some of that live-ness. Not only has the material posted to Nasty Nets—like a lot of that generation of online art—become less decipherable as Internet culture has changed and the social context they worked in has shifted, but its participants weren’t always readable as artists in the first place, because the line between “art” and just “weird stuff” on the Internet was never that clean-cut. Internet artists didn’t announce themselves as artists in the obvious way that Abramovi? does. She’s now positioned as an artist-celebrity, someone who is coming to stand in for the whole category of “artist” in the popular imagination, which ups the monetary value and cultural reach of her work, I guess, but in the end just makes contemporary art look foolish and vapid when the work itself becomes such a caricature. Instead, net artists existed in this vague borderland that was always somewhat hard to pin down. Reading Nasty Nets as an “artists’ project” always involved a bit of squinting, much more so when it was new.

LC: At the same time, they were operating within tight artist communities that were acknowledging their activities as art. That association—with other artists or an institution—provides a context, and an art-historical lens to prevent squinting. I suppose the term post-Internet is related here, as it has come to denote this strategy of reinscribing popular forms (images, approaches) within the gallery, taking a conversation, at least partly, out of the “wild” where it could get lost, or have its status as art threatened.


3K-HOLE, YOUTH MODE diagram. Courtesy: K-HOLE, Box1824


EH: This is an important point raised by Bettina Funcke’s book Pop or Populus?—that the so-called collapse of high and low originally precipitated by Pop didn’t really destroy the border between the art world and mass culture. Rather, it led to the art world policing its boundaries all the more thoroughly, so that the value of the art object and the special identity of the artist didn’t simply dissolve into mass culture itself.

LC: And yet, that possibility of dissolve has always been one of the most incredibly exciting and terrifying.

EH: It’s true, it is. But I always ask myself: why do we value that liminal state so much? I thought the incredible Gretchen Bender exhibition, which came to the Kitchen this year, addressed this issue through its inclusion of what otherwise might be seen as her work-for-hire—that is, music videos she directed and edited for bands like REM, Megadeth and Babes in Toyland, as well as the opening title sequence for America’s Most Wanted, which she created, alongside her installation and video performance work, all from the 1980s and early 1990s. It mixed things that were clearly made as part of the art world with material that was clearly not, but in doing so argued for a strong continuity of practice by Bender across these realms. Yet, unlike today, when we can search on an artist’s name or whatever and find all these different things they’ve done, this continuity would have been almost completely invisible in its own time. Nobody viewing America’s Most Wanted in the 1980s would have seen its opening sequence as the work of an artist.


4Petra Cortright, VVEBCAM, 2007. Courtesy: the artist and Steve Turner Contemporary, Loas Angeles


LC: I think a crossover into mass media was more unique or notable in Bender’s time. Now, artists working with media or appropriation regularly disappear into a fractured, if public, media system and re-emerge in art. Whether they are tweeting jokes at each other or being seduced in chat rooms (Frances Stark), they are charged with upkeeping a performance, amidst highly commercial, rule-ridden, and surveilled spaces. In this context, attitudes between an artistic or private “me” and a corporate or public “them” have broken down. This is evident in the recent shift in accepted attitudes towards branding; Mark Leckey, for instance, isn’t interested in deconstructing the ideology within a corporate brand, but seeing it as part of the emotional ecology around him. DIS Magazine inflect and amplify the logic of desire built into the most subtle, nuanced details of products, the way we absorb them and wear them with complicity and idiosyncratic interpretation.

EH: But the dual collapse of inside/outside and creator/brand in contemporary art doesn’t differ in any significant respect from what’s happened in other fields. Comedy, poetry, music, filmmaking, design and so many other forms of cultural production have been transformed in similar ways, and self-consciousness about this transformation has become part of the current discourse in all of them. Couldn’t you argue that this line of work—seeing culture as the new nature—not only acknowledges the logic of the market, but basically endorses it, refuses to offer any idea beyond it? I personally can’t see any important difference between DIS and so many other fashion publications; to me, any distinctions between DIS, something like Nylon and then Vogue are simply matters of style and scene. They’re all winking at consumerism while celebrating its emotional effects and the pleasure of its surfaces, and they all give their own kind of shout-outs to the art world. And because of this, DIS doesn’t particularly capture my interest, despite the fact that there are individual writers and artists I really like and admire who have been brought into their fold. I felt the same way about Bernadette Corporation. I understand that this line of commentary might be interesting to others, but to me, it’s like conceptual insider trading.

LC: DIS are responding to the biopolitical dimension of neoliberalism: they are blowing up the ways it invades our personal lives through consumer decisions, exploring how we are surrounded by products that address all our traits and idiosyncrasies, like our eye color, our body shape, all the nuances of our bodies and our identities.

EH: Well, maybe DIS is just appealing to people more fashion-conscious than me. I’m highly skeptical of engaging with fashion as means of critiquing consumer culture, though I feel K8 Hardy has been able to do this in ways I’m not able to articulate. To me, Hardy’s work feels like it throws more of a wrench into the system as it exists at this point. But talking about Bernadette Corporation makes me think of parallel work being done in the late 1990s and early 2000s addressing corporate structures, like the Yes Men, who did things like create fake press releases for companies that subsequently forced them to address certain issues in response, or Christopher Wilcha’s documentary The Target Shoots First (1999), which was made from video he shot in the offices of Columbia House, that huge mail-order CD business, while working there in the 1990s as grunge went mainstream. When Target premiered, it was seen, like the work of the Yes Men, as something subversive, about infiltrating the glass-curtained fortress to fight from within. It was interesting that when we screened Target at Light Industry in 2013, it felt very different. Sasha Frere-Jones, who appears in the film as one of Wilcha’s co-workers at the time, noted in his introduction that Target had instead become an archive of a corporate culture that no longer existed.


5Chris Wilca, The Target Shoot First, 1999. Courtesy: the artist


LC: Part of what has changed is that corporate culture has gotten really “creative.” I’m sure a corporation, today, would be thrilled if a young angst-ridden artist like Wilcha wanted to film them; they’d probably pay him to do it. That hunger on the part of corporations for difference, and to capitalize off of self-criticism, is reflected in the relationships between celebrities and artists or subcultures, where the former have a parallel desire for the latter’s authenticity. Responding to Rihanna’s alleged appropriation of the short-lived Tumblr pseudo-movement “seapunk,” the artist Jacob Ciocci wrote:

“Reactions online seem to be using words or phrases that do not make sense in 2012. Words like ‘stealing’, ‘ripped off,’ or ‘commodified.’ This may seem like an obvious fact but I guess it needs to be said again: it is an impossibility for a subcultural style to be ‘owned.’ Subculture exists when gazed at by mass culture. The only way to ensure that your aesthetic is not going to become used by others is to never share it with anyone. Another approach is to protect your aesthetic with physical violence (see: gang colors). Otherwise, once you allow your presence to be seen, it can be consumed.”

I’m not an advocate for seapunk’s cultural value, but his points do mark a shift. Collectives like Gulf Coast Coalition respond to this “hybridize or die” environment by reverse-consuming it, keeping apace with and responding to commodified national and political iconography. And, of course, activists like Mosireen, or artists like A.L. Steiner, among countless others, are still creating original, iconic images and holding onto them. Still, Ciocci’s points make me wonder: how is emerging culture changed or affected when everything is able to be seen so quickly? It is a condition that offers so much possibility for those who want or need to be seen, but can also thin things before they have time to develop. Related to this, recently the collective K-HOLE coined the term “normcore” to refer to a departure from a difference-based model of identity3. Is keeping your “difference” (read: beliefs, ideas) invisible a way to stave off appropriation?

EH: It’s an intriguing idea, but invisible to whom? I think this move could revive an insider/outsider distinction, but not to any good effect: insiders would know some sort of critique is going on, outsiders wouldn’t notice it. That kind of knowledge would then be used as yet another currency within the closed system of the art world. At the same time, I’m very sympathetic to the idea that we need to look at new ways to communicate and socialize, outside of corporate interests. Last year I taught a seminar on mass media and it was really hard to see any horizon point past Adorno and Horkheimer, despite the fact that they wrote The Dialectic of Enlightenment more than half a century ago, before even television had fully emerged. “Something is provided for all so that none may escape,” they wrote. “Consumers appear as statistics on research organization charts, and are divided by income groups into red, green, and blue areas; the technique is that used for any type of propaganda.” Today’s media has advanced this imperative right down to the level of the individual user. Maybe we’re all able to participate in ways we never could before, but power in the 21st century isn’t about being seen or not being seen: it’s about who is crunching those numbers, who is directing those eyeballs, and toward what gain.


[1] See Isabelle Graw, “High Price” (Sternberg 2010)
[2] Referring to Darren Wershler’s notion of “conceptualism in the wild,”
[3] K-HOLE & Box 1824, “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom,”


Originally published on Mousse 41 (December 2013-January 2014)


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