Is This Total Unreality?

When the fun of the surreal becomes dangerous.

I learned the word Unreality while reading three books by expert on Authoritarianism Timothy Snyder and I think the word speaks perfectly to this moment we are living in. When it was announced a couple of weeks ago that Donald Trump had tested positive “meaning positive in a bad way” for Covid-19 the initial celebration of the sheer irony of it all was short lived. People within my circles and family were then speculating on whether it was a deceitful political strategy, wondering if he was just faking it so he could emerge triumphantly after defeating the virus. I posed the question to everyone I spoke to - isn’t this in itself the bigger problem? That we are so disconnected from any real objective truth that we even have to wonder what is real and what isn’t? I’m currently a few chapters into the book Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation written by Andrew Marantz. I also recently watched the documentary Feels Good Man about the adoption of the character Pepe The Frog created by Matt Furie and it’s evolution into ‘the’ far-right meme. At the heart of both the early chapters of the book and the documentary’s dive into the world of 4Chan and it’s subsequent permutations you can see a lot of interrelated threads. 

It sounds really simplistic to say it because what has manifested is dangerous on so many levels but much of this all seems to have stemmed from some terrible joke gone wrong. Disaffected or socially isolated Millenials and Gen-Z found their others on the aforementioned forums. They created a culture where constantly upping the ante, shit posting and nihilism created a shield of plausible deniability whereby you could say the very worst things and just deflect, gaslighting anyone that called you on it. Seriously, what is more shocking than being a Nazi apologist? Becoming so radicalised by these platforms that you feel the need to run into two seperate mosques and murder 51 people, injure 40 more while live streaming from your GoPro. There were people watching that stream and cheering it on and I often wonder how completely untethered from reality they were to view that as entertainment like an action movie or a shooter game. When people wonder why my politics are the way they are and why I’m so concerned in the age of Trump, mega-conspiracy Qanon, Covid-19 denialism, surging authoritarianism, civil and environmental collapse (all of which intersect). The mechanism for keeping any cohesion at all is finding some consensus on what is true or even more important what is real.

Photos I took at the March to Trump Tower, NY on November 9, 2016 the day after Trump was elected.

I am from Aotearoa (New Zealand) and I have been very much shaped culturally by growing up there. I have lived in the US more or less full-time since 2016 but prior to that I spent an average of 3 months a year here since 2008. While Aotearoa can be a quirky and eccentric place I feel like a lot of people are really grounded almost even to a fault. The United States on the other hand has always projected this larger than life, hyper-real if not surreal energy. The American dream has always been one where all dreams are possible if you embrace total magical thinking and unbridled self-belief you can exceed past all limitations. You will meet a lot of huge personalities in a city like Los Angeles that will gas you up and talk about amazing projects you can do together (which may or may not ever happen depending on how much cocaine they’ve had). New York was a little different, they definitely practise a kind of tough love philosophy out there - they want to see what you can do first before they invest their time or energy. In New York you have to be a little extra to stand out and that’s tied in many ways to surviving in a country with few safety nets. In both places I met my share of really hedonistic and self-indulgent people. I met loads of totally decent people too and those two groups definitely aren't mutually exclusive might I add. As an artist the allure of the United States has always been pretty strong. When I relocated to the US it was in August of 2016 and in the final lead up to the elections. I had actually been in the US around the same time in 2008 during the lead up to Barack Obama’s victory. It’s stunning to compare these two contrasting moments in time and to reflect on the way culture has shifted. Obviously life is a continuum and politics just reflect that but seeing the way technology has altered and exacerbated tension and division within the last 12 years is overwhelming at times. Travelling back and forth between New York and Auckland is always jarring. The differences in pace and intensity are stark. The thing that never allowed me to totally transition into a US perspective and way of life is the normalisation of things that just aren’t nor should ever be normal. Four years of a Trump presidency truly speaks to this. The societal, political and media feedback loop is on steroids and careening away from any formerly presumed trajectory. It’s literally like the 4Chan culture of constantly upping the ante with shock after shock has permeated it’s way concretely into the mainstream. Sadly the majority of the world aren’t aware of the source of it all and how reality is constantly being subverted.

Detail of a new Unreal portrait for an upcoming release for 1XRun’s 10th Birthday.

After taking a break from making portraiture-focused work I’ve recently started to explore it again but using this notion of unreality as my basis. In a time where finding the context amongst the emotive blipverts bombarding us from all directions and when technology to create deep fakes exists we are expected to parse so much information while trying to hang onto any shred of objectivity. When my wife’s cousin showed me this website that uses AI to generate portraits of people that do not exist I found myself automatically making assumptions about these people based on what I guess are my own biases and social conditioning. I was actually constructing entire narratives for people that don’t exist based on a quick assumption. Occasionally you can spot a glitch or something slightly off about these composites but for the most part they’re really good. It started me thinking about creating Unreal portraits - People that don’t and possibly could never exist. One of the interesting things about the AI generated portraits is how they utilise features from people of various ethnicities and genders and arrange them in a way that conforms to some defined concept in the viewers mind. I haven’t come to any conclusion yet about what this all means other than it relates deeply to the discussions of the here and now. I’m clearly not trying to fool anyone because the portraits I’m making a kind of ridiculous but also hyper real in their texture and treatment. Perhaps the ambiguity and subjectivity of art can remain a totally healthy thing even in the age of Unreality but it has to be left open ended and without malicious intent. Punking and gaslighting the world can be funny for a minute until it’s not. 

Good faith and trust are still essential in holding this all together. While there are people adamant on the idea of burning it all down and starting over I don’t think they’re really ready for how bad that will be.