James Borda Writer, Game and Interaction Designer

Three Kinds of “Whatever”

There was an interesting question from Sarah Hallacher at the end of last night’s first session with Vito Acconci, which spawned some interesting comments by Ben Turner on Facebook that were taken up by Sarah and Matt London.

Acconci had said that his performance art was inspired partly by the music and the ‘question’ of the time he was creating it. Sarah asked what he thought the music and question of this generation is.

I’ve been thinking about this all day, and I want to suggest a lens through which to view the question: the idea of counterculture. Acconci himself used this word, though I think it has lost its luster since the late sixties, the time he was speaking of. Today it sounds almost quaint. But first of all, I’d like to argue that countercultures exist in (and are vital to) any culture, whatever form they may take. All cultural change comes through the activities of a counterculture; by definition, those who are generally pleased with a culture are going to do little to change it.

In the time which Acconci was describing (the late 60s), the counterculture was active, vital and visible. Then it lost its mojo. Why? Because it was co-opted by commerce.

There was a lot of commercial consolidation in the seventies and eighties, in the media and all other industries. Small presses, independent bookstores, record stores* and labels, local newspapers and broadcasters were swallowed up by ever-larger media conglomerates. These conglomerates had huge amounts of capital to market their products, and they gravitated toward whatever they believed would reach the broadest audience – usually products that were not culturally challenging. Whatever cultural products originated outside these organizations had a harder time reaching the public.

At first the conglomerates just pushed aside the counterculture, but as the seventies and eighties progressed, they began to recognize that inevitably a lot of good art (usually the best) was being created by people outside their system and developing an audience independent of them. And where there’s an audience there’s money. So they got clever – they started actively scouting for these countercultural movements just as they were developing an audience, and whenever they found one they bought it or copied it. So now you have a situation where a visible counterculture is effectively impossible, because as soon as it gains any traction it is immediately folded into the commercial mainstream.

This was the situation with my generation (Gen X). Since every counterculture was commercialized, the only way to stand against the prevailing commercial culture was to take what was already there and imbue it with an unintended meaning: irony. So we have grunge rockers wearing plaid flannel and nerd glasses, educated middle-class kids wearing “wife-beater” T-shirts and sporting handlebar mustaches. This evolved to became (and still remains) wickedly multi-layered – Pabst Blue Ribbon, once a cheap, rural working-class brand, conducted a successful stealth campaign to get middle-class kids to drink it “ironically.” And I remember a fairly recent commercial for Sprite featuring a couple of NBA stars, with a voiceover at the end saying “Don’t drink this because NBA stars drink it. Drink it because it tastes good.” The “whatever” of the sixties (which was a push-back against the repressive social conditions of the post-war years, as in “everybody should do whatever they like”) became the “whatever” of the eighties and nineties (as in, “whatever you create to critique the prevailing culture, if it’s successful, will inevitably be gobbled up by that culture, so you’re doomed from the start”).

And that problem has never really been solved. But in the mean time, a wonderful new technology appeared which many of us are here at ITP to explore. And what the Internet has allowed is the creation of a nearly infinite number of microcultures. Now instead of trying to change the mainstream culture by creating a forceful and visible counterculture, people with countercultural ideas can dive deep into the net and find other people who share those ideas. And because there are so many there is no way (and in many cases no commercial incentive) for the mainstream culture to co-opt them all.

But this leaves an enormous gap, because we still all have to live in a single geopolitical and socioeconomic reality. So here is my suggestion for Gen Y’s Question: “How will the myriad microcultures that have formed via the Internet coalesce into a mainstream culture that everyone can live with?”

(Incidentally, this is where I thought Mr. Acconci’s work got very interesting. His efforts to envision a new kind of public space, where instead of gathering in our thousands to receive a dose of culture from on high, Nuremburg-style, we gather in ever-changing, small, intimate groups where culture can be weighed and discussed and created anew, perfectly mimics the process that I see emerging on the Internet.)

Our attitude toward the world is partially shaped by our belief in our ability (or lack thereof) to change the world. I think we Gen Xers got our reputation as the slacker generation because of a kind of learned helplessness – we could not see any way to counteract the genius of commercial co-optation. But now there is a tool which gives us a chance. Gen Y’s “whatever,” I think, is “whatever you are interested in, or whatever you believe, there’s someone else out there you can share it with.” It remains for us to figure out how the best of these beliefs will be ushered into the mainstream.

* “Record Stores” were physical locations where one could buy units of analogue musical storage media and bring them home to play on a compatible playback device. Just in case you’re wondering.

 

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Posted: September 7, 2011

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