Cultural Codes In The Age Of Visibility
Steven Mark Klein is kind of hard to describe. You might call him a conceptual artist, some say he’s more of a cultural critic. For the the last several years, SMK has been practicing the art of remaining invisible. Taking cues from 1960’s conceptual artist Seth Siegelaub, he uses these techniques to examine how large societal structures control people’s lives.
This concept, embodied first by Walt Disney, was to create cultural codes. As Disney himself imagineered Mickey Mouse into existence back in the 1950’s, engineers and computer scientists on opposite coasts were creating the seeds of the computer codes which eventually lead to the structures on which the modern day internet was built. Disney’s imagineering arm was founded in 1952 to oversee the prodction of Disneyland in Anaheim, California, while at the same time in nearby Santa Monica, the Rand Corporation was busy building the first programmable computer, the Johniac, named for Princeton University scientist/mathemetician John von Neumann.
The parallels are chilling and undeniable. Cultural codes and computer codes are unambiguosly interconnected. And with codes come viruses; this extremely exportable American idea that if you draw a smiling face on a monster, everything will feel okay. That is, as long as you exit through the gift shop.
What we are left with, all these years in the future, is a societal structure of emotional control and surveillance. Forced consumerism, complete with worship of empty symbols and un-reality, has enveloped both our visual and emotional landscapes, which have already become more virtual than anyone would like to admit.
Culture has been subverted by these codes. In fact, we have reached a point where sneakers are discussed as a contemporary art activity, and fashion acts like art to young adults, but with no intellectual reward.
Working secretely under the name Steve Oklyn [or s/O as he signs his work], Klein’s writings and conceptual art pieces have been covered and explored by various art and fashion magazines. SMK, as s/O, has engaged in dialogues with very well known journalists, curators, creatives and executives in both the fashion and art worlds. He talks deeply about our current predicament, that of living in what he calls the age of visibility.
Along with a character he named Mark Even, a fictional young artistic genius imprisoned for cyber crimes, SMK has been influencing the influencers and working towards exposing the dark side of the fashion-art-entertainment machine, infecting thought leaders with his anarchic ideas.
We couldn’t resist being part of the subversion, so with both of our teams, we made a Culture Crush short documentary, casting actors to finally embody these personalities, bringing to life these two characters who were previously no more than signatures on a digital page. We sat down with SMK in the studio just as we finished the film. Trust us, its a must see.
Steven Mark Klein: My schooling was directed by a number of the founders of the conceptual art movement. I went from the lowly life of a working class teenager in Brooklyn, to the highest orders of questioning the western art world in the late 1960’s.
I can’t pinpoint any moment where I would just be sitting somewhere thinking I’m going to live my life this way, but it took me approximately 40 years to really figure out how I wanted to communicate. During those decades, I was always on the lines of the experimental communities – fine arts, film, theater, even the dance community.
There was kind of a take-no-prisoners attitude in the art world at the time. Since we weren’t taking care of ourselves and the tragedy of AIDS began, just surviving was an issue. I’ve always been more comfortable in the shadows as an observer than being out front and center, being perceived as a form of oracle.
Debra Scherer: Which leads us to where we came in, which is the story of your characters that you created online to tell your stories and represent your writings and ideas. Most people don’t realize these are made up characters that you’re behind. So this is kind of a big deal!
SMK: This is a reveal!
DS: This is something that’s so important to me. That you’re coming in as yourself. It’s part of our mission to talk about real world things. It’s really key. That’s why it was such a big deal to get you personally, not just your characters, though s/O did sign the Disney text, which was great!
SMK: I’ve interacted with a few thousand people all over the world in the past 50 years. I have a curious capacity to be both hyper aware and to also be in a conceptual state. I only trust a scenario or other people when I absolutely know from the moment I meet them that they’re truthful of themselves and that they’re telling me the truth. Truth is cheap.
Brandon Sutton: I feel like engaging with your work, I know you have a very high pedigree of training in the art world and your ran in circles with some of the most famous people in the art world. So why shift your gaze from hanging out with big name artists at the MET to “I’m going to essentially go after the owners of Louis Vuitton.”
DS: My guess would be you could see this whole thing was so fake. You eventually saw it was so empty. Your characters have stated that there’s no intellectual basis behind the industry. So it was almost like this was your way of getting in to the game. Almost like jumping in a game of jump rope. You feel the rythym and see the patterns, then you can jump in.
SMK: It was the fall when I was entering my 60th birthday, I was sitting in my studio, and I kind of had the name Not Vogue and the beginnings of the person I would be, Steve Oklyn, in my mind. It was simple. No huge build up. I was born in Brooklyn, so I used that spelling for my last name. I’ve never been Steve, always Steven. There was no agenda at the beginning.
DS: Well, you picked “Vogue” for Not Vogue!
SMK: It came about online. It was the Fall of 2010 and Carine Roitfeld was at Paris Vogue. It was a magnificent spectacle. In one of her interviews, a young journalist asked, “How do you decide from the editorial perspective, who gets into Vogue?” And her answer was, “Either you’re Vogue or you’re not Vogue.” We live in an era where your visibility defines both your cultural relevance and how much you can earn. It’s a formula at this point. We moved from fans to followers. It’s an algorithm. And I just went, you know what “Vogue is Jurassic. They’re dinosaurs.” They have x amount of 21st century followers. But not Vogue? That’s probably 99% of the planet.
DS: I would say all of us in this room are not Vogue. I should be the most Vogue, but I’m on the other side. So you created Not Vogue and you created this character Steve Oklyn to be the voice. But with no face.
SMK: Again, that goes back to the early ‘80’s. You’ve got Madonna coming on the scene and hip hop. There’s a lot of coverage, excitement, and money coming into the community. I made a conscious decision to stay in the shadows. Which I did until this conversation.
DS: Until the Culture Crush dragged you out of the shadows! So what became the purpose of Not Vogue?
SMK: The original logo is that of the Libyan Dictator. I had an image of Anna Wintour with her sunglasses on and Muammar Gaddafi with his sunglasses on. In Chanel shirts. It started very simply. For the first year I was experimental with how I set it up. I used quotes and slowly I got more confident about it so I would email people. A few I knew, a few I didn’t. The traffic started building.
There was never any interactive aspect – no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram. No commenting. I set it up like it was a piece of fiction or non-fiction and the person who wrote it was dead. So, there’s no way to question it. It took only about a year or so, at its height, around 2015, I stopped. About 100,000 people were aware of it. I started giving interviews only through email. I gave one video interview and I wore a face mask with a voice distorter. I was told at one point that if any employee at Condé Nast in NYC got caught with Not Vogue up on their computer then they’d be immediately fired.
DS: My background is Vogue. No one was more Vogue. The Culture Crush is not about fashion, because to me, fashion is just a smaller part of the larger world of entertainment. So culturally, it’s not something we really focus on. But I thought your take on it was interesting, because we’re both looking at society. You’re using the fashion propaganda machine to criticize society. In the same way we criticize society. So I feel like there’s an overlap.
These things all sound like crazy conspiracy theories, but the fact is if you think about all of these ideas, they are plainly true. You could say that about a lot of our society right now, even in our government. Now we need to move into a post theory world where we just say the truth from the beginning. We all know what the facts are so why are we wasting our time? Most of media has become a co-opted machine. They won’t say someone is lying. Every piece is an opinion piece, which is why I again feel so strongly about you taking off your mask.
SMK: Your film is very much a part of this. Me speaking to you as myself is very much a part of this. I’ll be 68 next winter. I feel between all the characters and platforms that I speak through, that you so beautifully brought to life in your film, it’s almost like maybe now it is Steven Mark Klein’s time.
DS: We’re also very interested in these propaganda machines. And you use the characters Steve Oklyn and Mark Even to make the invisible visible. You’re exposing these machines and mechanisms.
SMK: If we had the ability to be exactly who we are right now 100 years in the future, I think everyone will understand that starting after World War II you needed a lot of technology in place, and you needed a global consumer societal network in place. The two main words in the 21st century are control and surveillance. The largest players in the digital 21st century online economies are Facebook, Google, and Apple.
In the beginning, they didn’t know how to make money! But then they realized that by taking all this data they collect and monetizing it without our permission, they’ve become digital Pharaohs. The original Egypyian Pharaohs, we refer to the architectural relics of their empires, and we call it Valley of the Kings. And now I refer to Silicon Valley as Valley of the Kings. They have Pharaohnic powers. In essence, they’ve enslaved the whole earth. It’s been kind of hidden behind entertainment platforms, news; for all communication purposes.
BS: The thing is to me, with the history of the government and the security state, there is a visceral pushback to the idea that the government is collecting information from us. When Eric Snowden came out with his big whistle blowing of the spying tools–nothing actually really came of it.
DS: It was the tip of the iceberg.
BS: Yeah, it was the tip of the iceberg. Now that we know, especially since the revelations of Facebook, they’re releasing information from not just their users, but everyone. And they get away with it, in my opinion, because they sold the world on using it. We were manipulated into thinking Facebook was an essential part of our lives. If we didn’t have it we wouldn’t know what was going on.
DS: Everyone still thinks that! If you say to people, “What do you think about Facebook? Should they shut it down?” People are like, “Well, come on, that’d be impossible!” but my answer is, “Why?” I don’t get why we can’t just shut it off ? Nobody would miss it tomorrow. Like what, no one is ever going to remember your kid had a third birthday party if the pictures aren’t on Facebook? No one ever showed a picture of their baby to a friend before Facebook? That’s ridiculous!
SMK: The scale of this, I don’t think any one person knew how deep it’d be. We’d need volumes and volumes to describe it. I think we set up a very large intelligence system during WWII. I think many of those men and women came from the best homes and universities, the best and the brightest, and when the war ended, they were all out of service.
DS: And they all moved to Madison Avenue. All the top intelligence people.
SMK: Yup! That’s it! They all went into advertising and publishing. They all built this empire and the tools of surveillance were rudimentary. But the tools of control were pretty much already in place: The New York Times, The New Yorker, you had TV and movies, and The Saturday Evening Post.
They all came from the state department, the guys who went into Madison Avenue. Think of the overwhelming joy that that old system felt, when the new guys in the middle of the ‘90’s explained. When they explained the control they could have with all the new codes. I’m sure they lost their minds with excitement.
DS: Right now, all your commentary, you’re looking at the fashion business.
SMK: They’re governments! They make money by gathering data. It’s their strength, but kind of their weakness. The publicly traded companies, the big boys, LVMH and Kering, you can just see what they’ve done in the 21st century. They control the art world, which is how they control fashion brands. They might put a huge investment into Jeff Koons and then immediately do a huge exhibit at their own private museums in Paris or Venice. It just goes on and on. It’s very complex. It’s systems and interlinks and you understand why most young people don’t grasp it.
DS: Then they think they’re just getting cool sneakers.
SMK: Again, I’ll be very honest here. Hypebeast is one of the platforms that has made Condé Nast less influential. It was started by a Chinese student in his dorm room to blog about sneakers. Now it’s a publicly traded company on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. And I’m going out on a limb here, but I think the real ownership of Hypebeast, now that it went public, is like most things in China, it’s the party.
DS: You can say that about everything in China.
SMK: But the younger people aren’t as educated about it. Most of it is sneakers. Where are they manufactured? China. So, this idea that you don’t own two or three pairs of sneakers, but three hundred pairs, and then you turn it into a form of stock market. It’s such an enormous data flow that you have to take it seriously.
DS: For the Culture Crush, I think it is important to talk about these things and lift these veils, not just for us in this office, but a whole generation of people coming along that need to know that everything is one way because the powers that be are making it that way, not because it HAS to be that way. Every Culture Crush story asks one big question: Why Are Things The Way They Are?
BS: I think smart people know that traditional politics, like who is the president, who is your senator, is much less important than controlling the hegemony. Controlling the boundaries about what you can do in society. Not so much I think x should be legal and x should be illegal. It’s way more x is moral and x is immoral. Look at Silicon Valley, there is no concept for illegality in startup culture. They don’t care, it’s more of a smashing ground.
It’s much more like we will go in, we will disrupt an industry with a bunch of high tech ideas. We’ll have a growth hacker to increase our market share every quarter until we go bust, but hopefully by the time we go bust we will have another idea to transition into.
I mean that’s how it is right? These people have a Juicero company that also produce sneakers for some reason and then the exec will leave and go to Google, where they essentially have a job doing nothing, because Google has become it’s own little fiefdom. They don’t even produce anything. It’s all about being part of the class, that aristocracy (the technorati).
SMK: Again, the fashion part of it, the art part of it, the Silicon Valley part of it, it all links. I’ve spent thousands and thousands of hours working to show the various players and what their roles are. It’s all down to one thing, the most lucrative culture in the world is the continuous collection of data and the packaging and reselling of that data.
The largest corporations that own the most visible, wealthiest brands in the world recognize that and they are a part of it. Most people still think “oh it’s the fashion show and the products I can own and it’s the celebrities that are paid to be in the advertising campaigns!” That’s the con! That’s the con.
BS: But it’s not just data though, right? If Facebook was solely just collecting data on what people clicked on, that’d be sort of passive. But it’s the control.
SMK: Once they have your data they can do anything! I can now search one letter and all my stuff aligns to how my algorithm, that they own, that I can’t control, has organized me. And I have to spend a lot of time trying to change it by logging on to random things to see if it will screw up that algorithm that now tracks me forever.
BS: That’s another really upsetting part. Not only are they running these algorithms for advertisers, but they’re running these complex social experiments on people now.
SMK: Mark Zuckerberg could be the Antichrist. When you’re religious you’re always looking for these characters, and in the last 100 years, there are antichrists. He’s blank. He has zero empathy. He’s the perfect antichrist. He wants to control the whole earth. He went before congress and lied. He doesn’t care.
BS: I think there’s a new shift. We’ve had technology since we’ve existed. We’ve had tools, sticks, rocks, and smelting. But this new way in which we conceptualize technology, it’s become this new religion. It’s this thing that people worship.
This morality, inherent morality, that we ascribe to technology and technologists. Or the new generation of “futurists” but let’s be honest, it’s incredibly dumb. Jeff Bezos is no MIT scientist, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates aren’t scientific minds. They’re good business people, they’re good branding people, and they’re very intelligent. They’re inherently good because they progress our society.
SMK: Progress is only perceived as good. We’re told since grade school that progress and the future and moving forward is going to be good. I just accept that the combination, globalization, the systems that are all in place, Silicon Valley’s agenda, they all are more powerful than the government.
They don’t need borders or flags or national anthems. You have to open your mind to super-computer intelligence. And we’re done. We’re not going back. We’re not going to have a month where everyone gives up their smart phones or closes down their social media accounts. I think the best we can do is be aware, navigate it intelligently, and occasionally talk about it with people who think everything is great.
DS: One thing we haven’t talked about specifically is the film. We met and you explained the characters.
SMK: Again, to repeat, Steve Oklyn is the author of Not Vogue and various charts and diagrams. Mark Even is my young voice that is of the 21st century, instead of the 20th.
DS: And people accept these characters as real people. They accept real criticisms from them and essays and artworks. People do lengthy interviews with them. There are even pictures of art installations and the world totally bought into it. You always hear that people don’t look past the first Google search page.
SMK: Yes, everyone thinks these are real people.
DS: So we decided to do something together and make a Culture Crush short documentary where I interview the characters and we really went all the way with it. We cast actors to play Steve and Mark. Brandon was my co-producer on the project.
We had certain characters in our mind. Especially with the guy who played Steve Oklyn, he had the same background. It was important to find a guy who was really from Brooklyn, who went to public school in Brooklyn. Because the greatest lie always comes from the truth. The accent and mannerisms were so spot on, slight Brooklyn accent that you can’t really fake.
SMK: He was wearing my clothing.
DS: He was wearing your clothes and sitting in your studio. He really got your mannerisms. He was just great at playing Steve Oklyn to the camera. Brandon also had a cameo as the FBI agent.
SMK: That hallway scene was amazing. Personifying the characters was really amazing. I never dared thinking about what the characters looked like. Mark Even was supposed to be 18, in prison, from Mountainview, California. So when I opened the door I was shocked. All of the sudden there he was!
DS: The actor that played Mark Even, he is from Portland, Oregon, so the West Coast accent was already there.
SMK: It was perfect. I just watched it with my popcorn. I just hope my work and characters are taken as antidotes to the algorithms. I want to decode and take away some of the influence and power.
DS: May we be the antidote!
BS: Patient zero!