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Falling Down The K-Hole: Art And Virality At The Frieze Art Fair
Robert Barry , October 17th, 2015 07:41

A discussion between Generation X author Douglas Coupland and artist-trend forecaster Emily Segal sends tQ writer Robert Barry deep into the art fair sublime

Kurimanzutto, by Frieze photographer

“About a year and a half ago, we stepped inside the future,” claims Douglas Coupland. “It feels like the present tense and the future tense have melted together.” I’m sitting in the audience to a panel discussion at the Frieze art fair between the Canadian author Douglas Coupland and Emily Segal from the art group-slash-trend forecaster, K-Hole. We’re talking about the future because, as Segal puts it, the future is “the ultimate clickbait.” Mention of the future, she claims, has simply become “a way of talking about the present with more credibility.” Even better – “you also get to make some shit up.”

The title of the panel is ‘Energy as Clickbait’ and there’s not an empty seat in the house. Which is appropriate because we’re here to talk about why – or at least how – things become popular. Then again, it might have been just as appropriate if the room had been almost empty but everyone who was there had tweeted and Vined and Instagrammed the crap out of it before watching their likes, shares, and favourites hit the roof. As Segal understands well, an internet craze does not necessarily equal real world sales.

Coupland and Segal both know a thing or two about virality, that “anxiety about language”, as the latter puts it, that transports innocuous words, images, and phrases into the realm of inexplicable temporary celebrity. In 1991, Coupland wrote a novel called Generation X in an attempt to describe the little freewheeling, “declassified” utopia that the Canadian author felt he and his friends inhabited. The phrase became “a monster that in the end kicked me out of my own utopia.” I guess it’s hard to be disaffected when you’ve got a bestseller on your hands and half the world is calling you spokesperson for a generation.

In May 2011, Segal and some friends, mostly ex-art students who had wound up working in the ‘creative’ industries, got their hands on a real life trend forecasting report by some think tank or other. They found it so bizarre, yet so funny, that they decided to come up with their own. K-Hole was founded as an art project more than a real attempt to consult on cool and broach the Next Big Thing. But it was also about drawing attention to an already “existing porousness between artists and marketing” exemplified by their own hitherto career paths.

In 2013, K-Hole were in attendance for curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s 89+ Marathon, a day-and-night-long discussion forum, drawing in artists and intellectuals to talk about the youth. Segal noticed that everything people were saying about Millennials had already been said by Coupland more than twenty years earlier, about an entirely different generation. Except, that is, for one thing: “that tension between being in or out of a group.” Coupland’s Gen-Xers inhabited a paradox: they were identifiable as a group by virtue of their refusal to be seen as part of any group. 2013’s under-25s, apparently, had few such qualms.

Between them, the K-Hole gang developed this “fantasy of a new type of coolness,” one that would somehow remain “slippery and vague and inconspicuous.” After a casual remark dropped by a friend, it was christened “normcore”. The following year, the Oxford English Dictionary would declare it runner-up word of the year (“we tied with ‘bae’ but lost to ‘vape’”) and Gap were running ads saying “Dress Normal” (though Segal is quick to point out that the clothing brand lost 30 million dollars that quarter).

For Coupland, the whole normcore phenomenon is evidence of “the psychic vacuum that freedom can generate.” “The novel made us into individuals;” he dourly intones, “the internet made us into units.”

But Segal thinks that one of the reasons normcore struck such a chord is because it embodies what Alex Shakar calls ‘paradessence’ (a compound of paradox and essence, first coined in Shakar’s debut novel, The Savage Girl). The very word seethes from the oxymoronic tension between its two syllables. All really successful marketing, Segal explains, plays on this paradoxical essence of desirable things. Cars are always dangerous but safe. Coffee is always stimulating but relaxing. Ice cream is simultaneously innocent and sexy.

The discussion comes to an end with the two speakers rhapsodising over the “hyper-portmanteaus” employed by pharmaceuticals corporations to name their products. Segal and Coupland skip off to get matching tattoos in Bethnal Green and I am left to stumble out into the strip light glare of the art fair itself. The whole thing is dizzying, and totally overwhelming. Not the crowds, the lights, the bright colours everywhere (or not just that). It’s the sheer quantity of stuff. There are thousands of smart, deeply thought-through ideas here, realised with care and attention and conceptual rigour – and we swan through, glancing here and there, like it’s a supermarket.

Douglas Coupland and Emily Segal by Frieze photographer

Which, of course, it is – albeit one where neither I, nor anyone I know, could ever afford anything. A bit like Waitrose then, I suppose, or Planet Organic. Few events evoke the paradessence of the art world better: hundreds of identical little pre-fab booths, each one promising unique treasures; a financier’s trolley dash through aisles bearing commodities that we still like to think of existing somehow ‘outside’ the incentives of finance.

I bump into a friend, another writer, similarly overwhelmed and struggling to find words to fill his copy. He tells me his aim is to focus on the things that stand out of the usual fair format, that break free of their allotted pitches, like Mark Leckey’s enormous inflatable Felix the Cat, looming over the concourse from a great height like some benign acid-fried deity, or Jeremy Herbert’s shed-like crawlspace that inevitably became just a quiet spot to sit and make a call.

Inspired by Segal and Coupland’s discussion, I gamely declare I will do the opposite and focus only on the things that don’t stand out, that refuse to be unique, and that openly pledge their affinity with the trappings of the fair itself. If need be, I will write my report solely on the fixtures and fittings, hymning the poetry of bleached walls and oblong plinths. What’s that you say? You have grey carpets and white spotlights? Tell me more.

But no sooner have I so decided than I overhear someone say, “great floors, great light. This is a very inspired space.” I start noticing people posing for selfies by the entrance ways and lunch stands, Instagramming temporary signage. A video work by Tracey Rose simply takes eight live feeds from different points in the fair’s own restaurant, colourising them with red, gold, green, and blue filters. Brazilian artist João Modé presents pictures of walls, door jambs, and cornices. Paul Chan has draped a tangle of red and black chords plugged into wall sockets, as if offering a peek between the dividers separating each gallery’s stand. Suddenly everyone’s at it.

I see paintings of paintings and crowds of people standing in front of paintings that depict crowds of people standing in front of paintings. People love taking pictures of mirrored works – like Olafur Eliasson’s Planetary Lovers or Liu Wei’s Puzzle – because then they get to photograph the work, themselves, and the mundane appurtenances of the fair itself, all in one fell swoop. The mirror and the photograph, Coupland had said earlier, are processed by different parts of the brain. With all these selfies we are rewiring our brains to work like the brains of actors.

I see two small girls, twins, with long blond wigs tied together at the end, walking, somewhat eerily, through the corridors. Presumably it’s someone’s project, but it has the curious effect of making me look twice at all the well-dressed young men and women interminably pushing lint rollers back and forth across the endless miles of carpet. Could this, too, be a ‘work’? They do look oddly balletic. Surely there can’t really be that much lint to be removed. I’d be surprised if there was that much lint in the world.

By Frieze photographer

Before I can help it, the whole situation flips and it’s like the moment when you suddenly stop seeing the vase and instead see two faces. The left facing-rabbit has metamorphosed into a right-facing duck. Now it strikes me that it’s all these artworks that are acting as the support structure for the MDF walls and glass vitrines that surround them. The sculpture is not held aloft by the plinth; that asymmetrically-composed bundle of copper and crêpe paper is merely there to enhance the effect of the plinth, to weigh it down lest it shoot for the ceilings from its own irrepressible energy. Paintings pale before their nondescript frames. Such carpets, I think, enraptured, so smooth and endless and free of lint.

Earlier, Emily Segal had talked about the “sweatshop sublime” – the moment when, observing a mundane object like a fork or a pair of shoes, your perception might suddenly flip and present the immense web of global capitalism in all its baroque machinations revealed in the tine and the stitching around the sole. For her and the other members of K-Hole, the explosion of normcore, produced a kind of “virality sublime”. But I may have stumbled into something quite other: the art fair sublime – staggered by the minutiae of marquee construction, set adrift by the prospect of miles upon miles of unseen power cabling extending into infinity.