Bearded ladiesHARNAAM KAUR
I want to
break the mold.
This is a selection from Humanly, Issue 03, which highlights the unexpected artists moving culture forward today.
Mainstream America has long celebrated the young, rich, powerful, and perfect elite—these were our wolves of Wall Street, our Hollywood royalty, our celebrity athletes, and our American sweethearts. For younger generations, this fantastical American ideal is dead and gone. After a long period in which culture felt safe and staid, there’s a growing desire among today’s youth to be shocked out of complacency. Fashionistas are celebrating models with acne; photographers are taking grainy shots of trash piles; foodies are eating mutant two-headed eggplants. Welcome to Americana gone rogue.
Issue 03 • 2017 Get Issue 03
Right to be Wrong
A cultural sea change has been a long time in the making. Just a year ago, conformity had reached an all-time high: Social media was awash in hypercurated Pinterest-perfect aesthetics. We wondered when we’d see an end to the monotony of “It” girls, succulent gardens, and avocado toast (see Stepford Lives, Humanly, Issue 01). Be careful what you wish for. While culture seemed to be stagnating, social media was lifting the veil on increasingly grim and disturbing realities: Suicide bombers, hate crimes, the immigrant crisis, genocide in Aleppo, “pussy grabbing,” and more.
Fast-forward to 2017, and three-quarters (78%) of millennials and Gen Zs say “brokenness” is the new normal. Today we’re bombarded by disturbing events, hatred, and ugliness—and that’s just our Twitter streams before we get out of bed. The term Dumpster fire, a metaphor used to describe “an exceedingly disastrous or chaotic situation,” was named the 2016 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society, beating out woke, post-truth, and the fire emoji. Sure, people still post pretty pictures of clogs online, but now they increasingly feel like welcome distractions from heavier material.
Of course, when we talk about the dark side of this country, the elephant in the room is politics. If there’s ever been an example of something going horribly, terribly wrong, it’s the shit show that was last year’s presidential election. From Donald Trump’s low-down tactics and infamous orange hair to Hillary Clinton’s e-mails to fake news—everything was a mess. Underscoring this, 88% of millennials and Gen Zs agree—and 51% strongly agree—that the 2016 presidential election brought out the worst in American culture. And this messiness remains front and center in the White House, with continuous cabinet reorganizations, ongoing investigations into alleged ties to Russia, and the president’s erratic late-night Twitter rants. Some pundits even argue that chaos is Trump’s calculated political strategy, an effort to keep the public on its toes. The question is, where do we go from here?
Chaos is not necessarily bad. It is a natural part of life.
79% of millennials and Gen Zs say America’s in a cultural meltdown right now.
Bless this Mess
While it may seem natural to give in to panic, young people are embracing the messiness. Many millennials and Gen Zs we spoke with are incorporating—and almost celebrating—the aspects of culture that are unpleasant, sinister, nasty, and gross. Their argument is that these horrible, ugly, no good, and very bad things ring truer than that which is perfect, precious, and, frankly, phony. Lizzie, 31, a wedding photographer in New Orleans, told us: “I am caught between having to make these pristine images all the time, and then in my creative life being like, ‘I don’t want to be pristine. I want to be disgusting…I want it to not look like an Instagram, for once, you know?’” Seth, 34, a NOLA illustrator with bright pink hair and a wardrobe consisting largely of vintage dresses, agreed. “Within my own sphere, there’s a marginal rebellion against the notion of things being perfect. We embrace the dirtier, darker, and more disorganized nature of reality.” He aims to make “ugly” artwork, a sentiment reflected in his sketchbook, which includes multiple images of anthropomorphic hot dogs and a rat pope. “I want to convey the messy details of life,” he told us, “but while trying to represent the messiness of the world, I actually start to abstract it and make it beautiful.”
For older generations, it may be disquieting to see artists actively making things that aren’t attractive. But the most astonishing thing about the rise of rogue culture is just how incredibly fresh it feels. After years of conformity, the rogue revolution is a welcome cultural progression: 70% of young people we spoke with say the chaos of today is exactly what’s needed to create change. Forget six-foot-tall, perfectly proportioned supermodels—the most interesting fashion runways feature bearded ladies, albinism, and amputees—and that’s just the beginning. The radical performance artist boychild walks runways sans hair on her head or eyebrows (she’s a Hood By Air regular). And in a bid to upend the traditional definition of ugly, the Malaysian-based fashion designer Moto Guo recently styled models with conspicuous inflamed acne breakouts. Topman’s 2017 show presented oily-haired models covered in fake dirt. The albino model Shaun Ross, who not only has a light, pigment-lacking skin tone but also a noticeably asymmetrical face, explains his appeal simply: “I challenge photographers.”
The art world, always reflective of pop culture trends, is fully indulging repellent visuals. The street photography genre has evolved from candids in public spaces to images of urban trash heaps with broken TV sets and dirty mattresses (Peter Sutherland, for example). Marilyn Minter’s recent retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, titled Pretty/Dirty, challenged traditional notions of beauty through repulsive close-ups of toes, tongues, and zits.
tops millennials’ and
Gen Zs’ list’s of words that
best reflect current times.
FlucT, the collaborative performance-artist duo of Monica Mirabile and Sigrid Lauren, is getting a ton of buzz right now for reinventing dance and movement in a way that’s raw, abrasive, and—even they admit—not visually pleasing. In their signature move, “the freak-out,” a dancer throws herself to the floor and quivers uncontrollably. “Part of the activism we do is to fuck things up, to fuck with a system that is learned,” says Mirabile. “It’s not beautiful.”
The food world has also embraced “ugly” in a massive departure from the minimalist artful-plating trend and as a much-needed commentary on food waste. Deformed, wonky, and weird vegetables—once considered aesthetically unacceptable by any respectable grocer or restaurateur—are now on prominent display. The Ugly Vegetable Snack appetizer put the chef Sean Telo, now at restaurant 21 Greenpoint, in Brooklyn, on the map; the “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” campaign by Intermarché, France’s third-largest supermarket chain, extolled the Unfortunate Clementine, the Failed Lemon, and the Hideous Orange; Whole Foods started selling unaesthetic produce for the first time; and “ugly” vegetables made the cover of National Geographic.
Even digital is exploring its noncurated side. Web brutalism—a design theory in which web posts and pages are made with intentionally hideous colors and text blocks—is a response to the overly polished aesthetic that pervades the digital space.
50% of young people say recent
times have left America in a state of
shock. an equal 50% say America
has toughened up and has become
In NOLA, we visited the Music Box Village, a shantytown of architectural house-size musical instruments by the art collective New Orleans Airlift. Although it’s whimsical and family friendly, Disney World it ain’t—this “magical kingdom” with dirt floors is built from scrap wood and trash. A dozen volunteers wearing a hodgepodge of safety and glam-punk apparel were welding corrugated metal in and around a grungy warehouse. Still, this isn’t a fringe outsider art project: The Music Box Village has collaborated with big-name musicians including Wilco, Solange Knowles, and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, among others. According to the New Orleans Airlift cofounder Jay Pennington, the project arose out of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina—when there was no audience for local musicians—and its aesthetics reflect those tough times: “Here, music is about dealing with death, loss, and all the pressures, like finding food. Music is there to elevate all those things in a very specific and dedicated way.”
It was this desire to embrace the grit of real America that drew us to New Orleans in the first place, rather than to, say, classically hip Brooklyn. It felt utterly magical to be swept up in the chaos of a New Orleans street parade, replete with a Treme brass band, feathered dancers, and urban equestrians. The carnival atmosphere of NOLA creates a cultural combustion chamber that the glossy boutiques and bistros of nu Brooklyn, quite frankly, can’t.
I don’t wantLizzie, 31, New Orleans
to be pristine,
I want to be
The Invisible Class
While the rise of rogue culture lends itself well to aesthetics, it has deeper and more profound cultural implications: It’s a wake-up call to address social issues that—like this trend—aren’t palatable.
Take, for instance, Heron Preston’s capsule collection for the New York City Department of Sanitation, featuring redesigned uniforms and upcycled work wear. After making a name for himself with Nike and Kanye West collaborations, Preston made the unconventional move of turning to sanitation workers as his muses. The presentation was held in an industrial salt shed—complete with mountains of the substance, ready for winter storms. Set in stark contrast to the highly produced New York Fashion Week shows, fashion insiders raved. “In almost every sense, it felt progressive,” enthused Dazed magazine. Says Preston of finding fashion inspiration in literal garbage: “We’re fucking poisoning and killing the very world we live in. This industry needs to be checked. Nobody is really checking it.”
Fashion isn’t the only industry spotlighting people and issues too often ignored. FlucT’s gyrating dance moves serve as commentary on the commodification of women’s bodies. The trendy San Francisco restaurant Cala is staffed almost entirely by ex-convicts, bringing to the fore issues of racism and mass incarceration. And Conflict Kitchen, in Pittsburgh, serves food native to countries with which the United States is in conflict; menu items are augmented by educational lectures and documentary films (see Scratch Activism, Humanly Issue 3). While it may seem gimmicky to attach political meaning to ethnic meals, society evolves by embracing the most marginalized among us: immigrants, refugees, the elderly, disabled people, and others. An entire design philosophy has emerged around “empathic design,” with tech giants like Microsoft studying underserved communities—from the handicapped to senior citizens—as a way of fueling innovation. To sum up: While rogue culture certainly has an aesthetic, its social purpose is what makes it essential.
Christina, 20, Los AngelesWithin my own sphere, there’s
a marginal rebellion against the notion
of things being perfectwe embrace the dirtier, darker, more
disorganized nature of reality.
Part of activism is to fuck with a system that isMonica Mirabile, cofounder of dance troupe FlucT
learned. It’s not beautiful.
The rise of “rogue vogue” is especially resonant among Gen Z. This generation is coming of age while contemporary culture is undergoing a massive overhaul, and it will profoundly transform them. The rogue culture of today is comparable to that of New York City in the 1970s, when the city had filed for bankruptcy and become infested with porn theaters, street prostitution, burned-out squats, and hard drugs. Remarkably, out of the dirt, mess, and crime of that period sprouted profound cultural advancement: new wave and punk rock, the birth of hip-hop, and cultural radicals such as Patti Smith.
Just as Smith and her 1970s Chelsea Hotel clique did, Gen Zs are using the grit and grime of our times to tackle weighty issues. Rogue culture is emerging as the language of rebellion. While millennials are often characterized as shiny, happy, and generally passive (this is the generation that did good by wearing Livestrong bracelets and championing “clicktivism”), Zs are breaking the cultural loop to tackle challenging topics. For example, the Gen Z model-actress India Menuez, 23, (Transparent, I Love Dick) has amassed nearly 60,000 Instagram followers by posting jarring photos with deep messages that confront political, gender, sexuality, and class issues. While she does post the occasional selfie, they almost always include a political missive scribbled across her face. In Portland, Oregon, we met Helday, an undocumented immigrant who says he’s turning to art as a form of activism: “I have never been very involved in the act of protest, but I can no longer afford not to be,” he explained. “I found myself making art for auction. I wanted to show what a Trump target looks like, and I’m only one of the groups that are affected.”
Gen Zs have a lot to fight for these days. Many Zs see society as extraordinarily oppressive: Three-quarters worry that Big Brother watches their every move on social media, and half say they know someone who was deported without notice. Furthermore, politicians want to take away our health insurance, and we’re labeled terrorists based on our religion. It sometimes feels like the only way to be free is to proceed with complete abandon—and rogue culture facilitates this. The Women’s Marches on January 21, 2017—the largest demonstration in U.S. history—embraced the most racist, misogynistic, and hateful rhetoric of the recent election, turning Nasty Woman, Bad Hombre, and Pussy Grabs Back into rallying cries for equality. And this is Gen Z’s first foray into national politics.
On the other hand, we sometimes wonder if young people fully register their embrace of ugly and nasty rogue culture. After all, they’ve been hyperexposed to horrific news and shocking images since birth: 88% of Zs say they’ve seen almost everything possible because of the Internet; 78% say nothing shocks them anymore. While it’s hard to say whether Zs are truly shockproof or just shell-shocked, we found ourselves asking: Once you’ve watched a livestreamed homicide via Facebook, what could possibly shock you?
70% of millennials
and Gen Zs agree,
The chaos of today
is a welcome
what’s needed to
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