Sunday, 13 November 2011

Grotesque Futures

Increasingly, when new forms of youth culture survive, its because they are things the media wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole […] its only in the outer limits of acceptability in society that grassroots movements can find meaning. And pushing people to the limits of acceptability isn’t always a great idea.[1]

This analysis by a digital generation marketeer almost reaches the provocative conclusion that the Happy Slapping  scourge, circa 2004, was as much about producing social cohesion – among uploaders and downloaders – as it was paradigmatically ‘anti-social’ behaviour.[2] The last sentence is ventured as a kind of fig leaf but the rest of the analysis is on point:

The reason happy slaps were a hit was because they were off limits […] Happy slap TV was one thing left that kids could own without fear of corporate takeover […] New youth cultures can’t be safe as those of days gone by, because if they stay within socially acceptable limits, marketers pounce, and before long they are just another spectacle.[3]

Organic youth cultures, he continues, are covered with ‘branded pesticide’ before they can develop and ‘only social weeds’ are left alone.[4] Leaving aside the issue of youth, briefly, we observe that the same process conditioned the flash mob trend. In fact, we suspect that the apparent bad taste of the riots, like the horror of happy slaps, was as much a conscious attempt to avoid the recuperative poison of marketeers as it was ‘senseless’. In the case of the former, the politics of the grotesque seems to have emerged as an end game in what is now, quite openly, a war for public space and the practical definitions of community. [5]
Bauman observes that even fear is eminently commodifiable – brought to market in the form of CCTV cameras, security services, armored cars and a plethora of alternatives. Like liquid cash ready for any kind of investment, he states, ‘the capital of fear can be turned into any kind of profit’.[6] By the same token, and contrary to some of the rioters’ intentions, even the political grotesque of looting and chaos finds use in the work of Recreational Data, a group that – depending on who is asking or what reward is at stake – is either a trend forecasting agency offering brand optimization for the digital era or an art project staging ironic criticism of such initiatives. The fact that the group’s identificatory position is unclear is perfectly suited to the moment, making them both good trend forecasters and good artists.[7] Whichever way, they are exemplars of entrepreneurial capitalistic practice, asking all the right questions:

When currency collapses, what will take its place? How do you build brand equity when the markets are freewheeling? How do you turn the vague evidence of a meme into solid wealth creation? How can you make mass civil disobedience work for your brand? And how do you even begin to assess your cultural equity when fear and uncertainty are the order of the day?[8]

Addressing such urgent concerns in the promotional document Currency Zones of the Future – distributed via USB – the group proposes to recuperate the riots as consumer data-generation, replacing the pejorative designation ‘feral youth’ with the shoplifter as market indicator.[9] Despite the proposed domestication of wild behavior the document’s rhetoric is unsurprisingly centred around the issue of power play:

Dominating the market means dominating the psychological landscape of the crisis. The State may be forced to interact with the looter and rioter as ‘criminal’, but we may see the looter in terms of potential: as market-modifier and as trend broadcaster.[10]

This advice can’t be reduced to the status of mere provocation, as comments by at least one corporate boss confirm. Rioters stole £700,000 worth of stock from JD Sports Fashion outlets during the unrest and yet this news was welcomed by the company’s director who stated that it indicated ‘a strong demand for our products on the high street’.[11]

Relational Data also discerns commodifiable authenticity in the political grotesque, outlining ever more radical marketing opportunities:

The looter holds a golden opportunity for any brand, an uncommodified, unsculpted form of ‘realness’ that fills the credibility deficit of the saturated market. The young looter offers a human form for pushing a brand on a level of reach and depth unseen since the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and blue jeans. It will take a daring marketeer to ride the wave, but taking advantage of this “rupture of the real” in the total social conscience will touch a nerve to a real-world social identity thatp.49 is both neglected and far more vital than constructed social identities favoured by marketeers.[12]

As suggested, the cooption of an ‘unsculpted’ form of real world identity in the guise of street disorder by the purveyors of yesterday’s youth culture – ‘rock ‘n’ roll and blue jeans’ – should amount to a daring future strategy. However, this apparently novel prescription it is not so far from being realized. Levi Strauss’s Legacy commercial, part of its Go Forth series, was being aired across the UK while parts of London, Manchester and Birmingham went up in flames. The clip features scenes of couples kissing and live rock bands, beach sunsets and city streets thick with tear gas and riot police facing down good looking youths clad in skinny jeans.[13] The collision of marketing fiction and protest, in all of its grotesque permutations, is the new rule. Levi’s pulled the ad but if Relational Data is correct next time they won’t.

[1]    Matt Mason, The Pirate’s Dilemma, Allen Lane, London, 2008, p.223-224
[2] “Happy slap TV” videos started to appear in numbers in 2004, filmed on camera phones and transmitted virally to other phones and over the Net […] The frightening fad became a national nightmare. Commuters worried for their safety as more and more people were slapped, punched, or kicked on the way home. In January 2005 more than ten people were charged with serious assault for happy slapping in London’. Ibid. p.224.
[3] Ibid. pp.224-225.
[4] Ibid. p.227.
[5] Of course, any social structure – however fleeting – whose founding conditions are violent viral videos or flash mob civil disorder is a pretty poor form of community or ‘culture’. Nevertheless, such brutal reductions are symptomatic of the ongoing privatization of public space and the consequent fall of ‘public man’.Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man, Knopf, New York, 1977.
[6] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times, Polity, London, 2007, p.12.
[7] As Groys would have it, there is ‘a new ambiguity between critique and advertisement that is charicteristic of our time. In our media-driven culture, the fact that a certain political attitude or religious belief is publically mentioned is of greater relevance that the way in which it is mentioned – be it positive or negative, affirmative or critical’Boris Groys, History Becomes Form, MIT Press, London, p.70.
[8] Recreational Data, Currency Zones of the Future, LuckyPDF, London, 2011. (USB stick/PDF).
[9] Ibid. p.45.
[10] Ibid. pp.47-48.
[12] Recreational Data, Currency Zones of The Future, pp.49-51.