The Nerds May Save Us All

There’s nerds and then there’s nerds.  The above ‘PSA’ from Portlandia makes the distinction well.  It’s a distinction that I suspect may be the savior of culture both popular and critical.  The preceding statement might sound a bit inflated, but I’ll explain.

Post Modernism has been around for a long time – long enough for us to hate using the word and for it to mostly remind us of horrible interior decorating.  And though we’ve largely moved beyond many of Post Modernism’s tenants (arguably), one aspect notably remains as a sort of white elephant legacy: not saying what we mean or saying a lot to say nothing at all.  Maybe its due to Post-Structuralism and Derrida, or a hyper-sensitivity to hierarchy and imposition.  Regardless, at times it feels as if critical discourse avoids saying anything definite in order to steer clear of becoming part of some meta-narrative.  Other times it seems to eschew saying anything especially sincere to avoid being pegged as sentimental or romantic.

As can be predicted this practice flowed from theory to praxis, discourse to artwork.  If you remain skeptical, read a recent artist statement.  This typical collection of 200 or so words is like money laundering for ideas.  By the time you reach the last word its unclear where any concept came from or if there were even any actual ideas at all.  For many artists, it seems, saying anything definite about your own work is akin to “imposing your ideas and values”.  Arguably, Structuralist and Post-Strucuralist ideas that initially empowered viewers now disenfranchise artists.  This practice of saying a lot to say very little has moved from critical theory to art praxis, and now from art praxis to popular culture.

Hipster Trap in New York by Jeff Greenspan and Hunter Fine

Hipster Trap in New York by Jeff Greenspan and Hunter Fine

Thus, the rise of the hipster.  Of course the term hipster has been around since the beat generation.  However, we’re speaking about the term’s most recent bearer: the Brooklyn-dwelling, beard growing, bike-peddling, vintage-retro-everything, lumberjack lookalikes.  This is an unfair stereotype but it is helpful.  What ultimately characterizes the definition-elusive hipster is a tongue-in-cheek eclecticism.

A hipster’s taste in music and clothing, for example, can be a bit difficult to pin down – it spans time, styles, cultures.  A common thread in hipster preferences, however, is a shade of irony.  At times, it seems, a hipster doesn’t like a particular book or album, but instead likes liking it.  Even hipster humor is often colored with such deflection, sarcasm a prominent trait.  For example, during the 2012 election I saw a pro-Obama shirt made for hipsters.  It read: “I Love Mitt Romney”.  Also consider the recently popularized terms Hipster Racism and Hipster Sexism.  They are techniques to parade one’s open-mindedness and tolerance by acting racist or sexist…ironically, of course.

Early on, the hipster preoccupation with pop-culture present and past associated the bunch with nerds who shared a similar preoccupation.  Beyond this similarity, though, (and the appropriation of “nerd fashion”) the two are especially disparate groups.  Indeed, their respective approaches to and relationships with popular culture are diametrically opposed.

Hipsters are eclectic in their taste but it cannot be described as pastiche – the various sources aren’t celebrated but the eclecticism itself is.  Hipster preoccupation and reworking of pop-culture is little more than a superficial affectation.  Nerds, on the other hand, unabashedly love their pop-culture object of attention.  Yes, it may be a nerd’s defining characteristic – sincere obsession.

Nerds, hipsters, or Waylon Jennings and Buddy Holly?

Nerds, hipsters, or Waylon Jennings and Buddy Holly?

Consider the related Japanese group and term otaku.  In Japan otaku are occasionally collectively defined by a certain social awkwardness.  Predominantly, however, otaku are characterized by their obsessive interests.  While otaku originally referred to intense fans of manga and anime, the term’s scope has since widened to include various interests.

Nerds and otaku share some similarities, two of which can be especially important to the future of art theory.

(1) Both are social groups marginalized because of their intense unguarded affection for their respective pop-cultural obsessions.  The otaku/nerd way of interacting with pop-culture and culture in general stands in direct opposition with much of contemporary art.  The otaku/nerd attributes of sincere affection, obsession, and even a certain disconnect from social reality stands in stark contrast to the cynicism, sarcasm, and reticence to make statements that are categorical and/or heartfelt.  Despite their glaring differences certain attributes of nerd and otaku culture are increasingly pervading contemporary art through a certain ‘trickle-up’ effect.

(2) Both terms – “nerd” and “otaku” – had pejorative beginnings that are steadily changing.  It may be no coincidence that both terms were perhaps most disparaging in the early to mid-1980’s – Postmodernism’s zenith.  Regardless, both terms are being progressively seen as positive, people more often self-identifying as one or both.  This is important because it may be pointing to a trend and shift.  Just as Postmodernism’s cynicism traveled from critical theory to art praxis and finally to pop culture, Nerd/Otaku Earnestness is already traveling from pop culture to art praxis, and may eventually make its way into critical theory – trickle-up.

Digital and net art may serve as the mediator between pop culture and critical theory for this Nerd/Otaku type earnestness.  Rather than rejecting or resisting the spectacle many such artists embrace it.  Given, pop artists embraced pop culture in their own way.  However, a new generation of artists embrace pop culture until it says “okay, I can’t breathe, you’re squeezing too hard”, then embrace it further.  The medium’s obsession with pop and net culture seems to simultaneously be an affectation and sincere.  The existence is paradoxical, confusing and exciting.

Perhaps digital art may eventually move beyond its initial obsessions and onto more prescient issues.  Many would say that it already has.  Regardless, my personal hope is that soon it may move beyond digital art into other media and finally into the way we think about art and art making.  I am pleased that we’ve left sentimentality behind with the Romantics and left grandiosity behind with the Modernists.  I think it’s now time to leave cynicism behind with the Post Modernists.


New Media is a Problem We Need

Never failing to catch me unawares, there are instances in my marriage when the trivial quickly becomes profound – when an argument about wiping the ketchup bottle top transforms into a token of my fundamental nature as a person.  While at times these may be unfair extrapolations, admittedly, they often can be dead on.

Artie Vierkant, Image Objects, 2011

Artie Vierkant, Image Objects, 2011

Art World: I’m giving you the forewarning I would like to be given.  The conversation on New Media is about much more than just New Media.

Said conversation gained some volume with Claire Bishop’s article Digital Divide in last September’s Artforum.  The article along with its resulting firestorm (or as much of one that art bloggers can muster) revealed a lot about the state of New Media in relation to the larger art world.  Regardless if you think Digital Divide betrayed a Bishop’s personal ignorance or a collective one, it’s clear New Media has some challenges yet to work through.

The difficulties and questions surrounding the medium are easy to infer:  (1) How is New Media best exhibited and (2) how is it best ‘collected’ and/or ensured artists are paid for their work?

Bring Your Own Beamer events and exclusively New Media galleries such as Fach & Asendorf are definitely a start at addressing those two challenges.  Perhaps even more promising, though, is New Media artists’ near hyper-awareness of the challenges they face.  Though from from being resolved, the way issues such as gender inequality are being addressed, for example, give reason to be optimistic.  Art F City recently reported on Charlie Sofo, an artist that withdrew from an Australian BYOB show due to a “lack of gender diversity”.  I like to think that it illustrates a tempered progress toward larger art world recognition.

Petra Cortright, Sickhair & Sickhands, 2011, Video Stills from

Petra Cortright, Sickhair & Sickhands, 2011, Video Stills from

This all may seem like the unremarkable rites of a young medium – similar growing pains perhaps last endured by performance or video art.  However, reconsider those two challenges mentioned above: contemporary art as a whole has never entirely met them.  Rather than being peculiar to New Media, they’ve really been some of contemporary art’s primary concerns for the past several decades.

Conceptual Art, the surge of alternative spaces in the 1970’s and 80’s, groups such as Occupy Museums and W.A.G.E., the current backlash against mega-art-fairs (and the art market in general) – these are only small samples of contemporary art working through the challenges of how best to exhibit art and ensure artists are paid fairly.  What does make New Media peculiar, though, is that it actually seems poised to meet those challenges.

I don’t want to presume exactly how this will happen (or that it will at all).  However, there seems to be a general feeling of inevitability within the New Media community to resolving the challenges of exhibiting and compensation.

The basic thought is this: The content of New Media’s dialogue and the way it works through these issues is relevant to more than just the artists and curators working in the medium.  For instance, if New Media can find a way to fairly compensate artists independent of physical art objects it would be wise for the general art community to take note.  The way this new(ish) medium works through its peculiar set of challenges may lead the way for the contemporary art to face some of its unresolved issues.  The smaller scope and fresh eyes of net art and digital art may uncover sought after solutions that have other wise eluded the art world.

More than a medium, it is an experiment  in building a responsible, ethical, and progressive art community.