K-HOLE is like the Bernadette Corporation of the twenty-teens—a young, New York-based collective working in direct response to the cultural climate of their time with a seriousness of mind outgoing enough for an after-party. Like BC, the self-described “trend forecasting group” of K-HOLE straddles the fields of art and commerce, but their interest in business is not just a pose. Most of K-HOLE’s five members—Greg Fong, Sean Monahan, Chris Sherron, Emily Segal, and Dena Yago—have held jobs in marketing. The PDF trend reports they create coyly employ the semiotics of corporate culture (coining synergistic terms like ProLASTination and FragMOREtation) in order to discuss Being in the world today, and are as relevant as philosophy, as they are applicable to branding.“This is not just a performance of business,” K-HOLE member Emily Segal repeated to me. In openly working between art and market, she explained, “K-HOLE hopes to demonstrate that neither is an invalidation of the other.”
K-HOLE are most visible in the art world. They are interested in art but their art context has more to do with the—trending now!—ongoing integration of the thinking creative class into the art world, which has made itself into a hospitable environment and market for experimental thought of all forms, from poetry to PDFs. (As our culture becomes increasingly visual, it makes sense that visual/art theory has become a more dominant mode of critical theory.) Though they have a home in the art world, K-HOLE is invested in culture at large. One of their slogans is “culture is all of our problem.”
On Saturday October 19th, K-HOLE presented their latest trend report, Youth Mode: A Report On Freedom, at the 89plus marathon event hosted by London’s Serpentine Gallery in London. The brief was made in collaboration with the São Paulo based research organization Box 1824 and addresses issues of generational branding as they were brought up by 89plus’s petri-dish exposition of the “digital natives” cohort. Youth Mode introduces the problem of Mass Indie culture—“where everyone is so special that no one is special”—and proposes a new aspirational model in #Normcore, “a way of being that prioritizes self-identification over self-differentiation.” Normcore is like the smiley face emoticon, which K-HOLE uses so affectively: inclusive, basic, and human; an invitation to engage.
Reading Youth Mode, which is available for download at khole.net, I was overwhelmed by its prescient declarations, such as, “Once upon a time people were born into communities and had to find their individuality. Today people are born individuals and have to find their communities.” And so I engaged.
The following conversation, with four of K-HOLE’s five members—Greg Fong, Sean Monahan, Emily Segal, and Dena Yago—was cobbled together from a few days of correspondence via Skype, Facebook messaging, and e-mail. It’s best read after the report.
The first chapter in this report is titled “The Death of Age.” There you posit that “demography is dead” and “generational linearity is gone.” What timeline are we talking about? Because the teenager, for instance, is a relatively new concept, dating from the 1950s.
Yago: Generational branding is a 20th century concept. What we’re seeing now is an opening up of the social limits that used to delineate age and generation, scripts like, “you stop being a teenager when you’re financially independent,” or “you enter into later life when you go onto your pension.”
Segal: The “death of age” is a response to the breakdown of those cultural scripts. People are no longer finishing college, then getting married, having kids, and buying refrigerators, Cadillacs, and homes. We noticed that, instead of acknowledging that there has been this script breakdown and that that’s hard, people are just pointing fingers and scapegoating different groups. We’re in a trans moment in culture right now and we need to actually acknowledge that there are these dated scripts that need to be rewritten or discarded.
The emergent modes we’re proposing, like Normcore, are about moving away from a 20th century version of adolescence that was all about being misunderstood: the binary where you had your real truth and then there was society or “mom and dad” who misunderstood you, where that misunderstanding was a trauma that you had to overcome by speaking your truth in a better way, by holding onto your authenticity. That’s the 20th century story of adolescence, that’s Rebel Without a Cause. That’s not an adaptable model. What we are seeing as an emergent model is one that’s willing to play with what’s real and what’s fake in any given situation.
Freedom is a big word in this report. Could you elaborate on K-HOLE’s definition of freedom? When I hear freedom in America, I hear Tea Party freedom, a freedom to make money.
Segal: I don’t think we have one definition of freedom because we’re good but we’re not that good. If we could really define freedom perfectly, we’d be famous philosophers. I see freedom, in this context, as being about a freedom to define your relationship with the world around you—which includes the people, industries, and economies around you—in an experimental way but within limits. Freedom is also an openness to the potentiality of the future.
Fong: I agree with Emily’s definition. Even money has a social aspect that requires negotiation with others. The freedom we’re talking about in Youth Mode accepts the sometimes or often sucky condition of sharing your existence with a couple billion people. It’s also hopefully fun.
Monahan: There’s a conversation happening in the United States where we have two different operative meanings of freedom. I think saying that Tea Party freedom is about the freedom to make money is a little reductive. It’s really about the freedom to exert power over another person. In a neoliberal capitalist society a lot of that discussion ends up intersecting with making money, but that’s not really the tradition we’re trying to channel. On the other hand there is an emancipatory understanding of freedom in the United States that goes back to Feminism, the Civil Rights Movement, the Abolitionists, etc, that doesn’t think of freedom as just a zero sum game of rights granted by the state. This is the vein of freedom that we’re tapping into. K-HOLE doesn’t believe in zero-sum politics.
The new mode of being you’re proposing in Normcore reminds me of the maturing of an individual mind. Normcore qualities like adaptability, empathy, and post-aspiration are things I’ve started to appreciate in myself as I’ve gotten older. The Mass Indie desire for differentiation you present as of our time was something I definitely exercised through my teens and early-twenties. My “cool parents” would laugh at me and say I’d “grow out of.” And I am. Would you agree that this arc from wanting to be special (Mass Indie) to wanting to be free (Normcore) is a natural shift that occurs in an individual’s lifetime? If so, do you see culture as maturing?
Yago: These are elements of this conversation that are obviously static through history. But I also think that we’re inarguably dealing with, largely because of the Internet, a complete paradigm shift in humans relationship to tools, information, and one another.
Segal: It may be that certain parts of this argument have to do with a certain type of growing up, but it’s also in response to real technological, economic, physical, and social realities that have really changed. Some of these are universal issues but they take on new inflections now.
Fong: Like Emily and Dena said, it’s tied to the conditions of the present as much as age. For a little while it seemed like leading a highly personalized online existence was essential to survival. But with a growing number of people who are just kind of famous, I think that it’s getting easier to recognize the drawbacks of Internet popularity and the often temporary and highly specialized nature of success.
Monahan: We’re talking about cultural paradigms as much as we’re talking about individual choices. It’s important to point out that we live in both a country and a world that is “older” (in terms of median age) than any before it. The causality here is fuzzy, but I think the chilling out of youth is in some way connected to growing up in an older world.
Normcore seems to promote, as a look, blankness, maybe even camouflage (fitting into any situation, thus the cargo shorts). Is this a reaction to our culture’s valuing of individual hyper-visibility? Modern technology (Twitter, Facebook, selfie culture) has enabled us to easily achieve hyper-visibility: to see ourselves outside of ourselves, to be like celebrities. But being so visible, at least for me (being retweeted x100 times, my face is sooo “liked”), hasn’t calmed any existential anxiety I might feel. One existential soother that modern technology has gifted upon me, though, are real, felt connections with other people. The friends I have made via writing, via the mobility of the net, are my best. Those connections are my life’s happinesses right now. Because, through them, I feel part of something.
Monahan: There’s an old Paul Krugman prediction from 1998 where he says that the Internet’s growth will slow down by 2005 because “most people have nothing to say to each other!” Obviously, he was totally wrong. I think what we’re discovering is that people have a lot to say to each other and also that people have a deep desire to develop novel ways of communicating with one another. Visibility in a lot of ways is just a very simplistic way of communicating your presence in the world. The shift toward a more neutral mode of communicating is less about not communicating and more about deploying nuance and subtlety in how you communicate.
Fong: As social media has become ubiquitous, we’ve learned a lot about how we represent and project ourselves online. The knowledge makes us anxious and it forces us to be strategic—stuff gets posted for likes, not necessarily to get the message within the content across. Obviously self-image has always been a more distant, maneuverable extension of the self, but the Internet gives us total freedom to disengage the two. At the end of the day, we’re still ourselves. The blankness of Normcore deemphasizes self-image to promote a more fluid sense of self. It allows you to experience more things, both on and offline.
Yago: I think one of the most important takeaways from Normcore, beyond adaptability, is empathy. The whole basis of our practice is about being able to address more than one community. We aim to be legible in art, market, and individual terms; that’s to form relationships. We are producing content that we want people to understand.